Elance-oDesk Relaunches as Upwork, Unveils New Freelance Talent Platform

By Peter Bernstein May 05, 2015

One of the things we in the technology industries are keenly aware of and focused on goes under the generic appellation, “the changing nature of work.” From a technology perspective, this tends to mean both the virtualization of business processes along with heavier reliance on the cloud and providing superior tools to remote workers so they can communicate and collaborate any time and anywhere as if they were sitting together in a state-of-the-art facility.  However, who is doing the work is also worthy of evaluation. Increasingly work, particularly by so-called “knowledge workers,” is not done by permanent employees but by freelancers.

In fact, as freelance talent marketplace solutions providers Mountain View, CA (News - Alert)-based Upwork, formerly known as Elance-oDesk, notes in announcing a rebranding and new freelance talent platform (also going by the name Upwork), in the U.S. alone 53 million professionals freelanced last year. Plus, independent professionals globally are earning more than $1 trillion.  In short, this is a huge market and one ready to leverage technology to make it easier to match talent with projects.

“There is literally an earth-sized talent pool of freelance professionals out there, and yet most businesses still limit their thinking to rigid local hiring models,” said Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel.  “Upwork’s launch signals a new chapter of work in which people are able to hire quality talent –regardless of where the professional happens to be – in minutes. Freelancers were already earning $1 billion annually via Elance-oDesk – I predict they will earn $10 billion annually via Upwork within six years.”

Speeding a match

With so many knowledge worker positions now available and companies struggling to find qualified candidates along with the challenges of providing benefits and keeping them, the rise of the freelancer has been going on for years even during the tough times.  It has only become exacerbated in places like the U.S. where the economy is recovering and the competitive need to get things done quickly and correctly has lent a sense of urgency to tapping the freelance talent pool. 

Image via Shutterstock

As Hayden Brown, VP of Product Management at Upwork explains: “Hiring is one of the most important things a business does, and yet it’s also the hardest and most time-consuming. Upwork’s new platform will radically disrupt hiring norms, making it much easier to hire a proven, high-quality freelancer quickly as well as to collaborate with them after the hire.”

This need for speed is what should attract interest in the new Upwork platform. The company says its innovations include:

Faster hiring - Traditionally it took around three weeks to hire, but with Upwork’s it can take minutes.  To do this the platform utilizes:

  • Enhanced matching algorithms: developed by Upwork’s team of PhD’s.
  • New work status: allowing freelancers to set their availability (“Right away,” “Later” or “Not looking”).
  • A new mobile app:  enabling easy job posting, proposal submissions, and the ability to review applicants and contract on the fly.
  • Real-time group collaboration:  similar to Slack but completely free and available to anyone on the web with no limitations (users don’t have to be an Upwork customer otherwise). These new features enable immediate collaboration after a hire, allowing clients to file share and communicate with their new workers instantaneously. Support for video and integrations with popular tools such as GitHub, Google Drive and Jira are also expected later in 2015.

While the branding may be new, Upwork’s expertise in the area is not.  In fact, businesses currently post more than 3 million freelance jobs and conduct 100 million searches annually on the existing Elance and oDesk platforms. “Though we are already the largest freelance talent marketplace – with $1B in freelancer earnings annually and the first online marketplace large enough to qualify for a ranking of top U.S. staffing and talent engagement firms – enormous market opportunity remains, and we decided it’s time to up the ante. This new platform will make hiring near-instant, which is a radical reimagination of work,” said Kasriel.

“This has implications not only for the way people work, but for the job market itself. Reduce the friction in a job market and you open up more opportunity," said John Horton, Assistant Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences at NYU Stern School of Business and former Staff Economist at oDesk.

A history level as we move to the next phase of freelance hiring

In making the rebranding and platform announcement Upwork provided a nice timeline on the phases/chapters the freelance hiring market has undergone in the past 15 years. They are as follows:

Chapter 1 (2000). Resumes and job classifieds move online

  • Sites moved job-related content online. Job boards (such as Monster.com and Craigslist) and professional profile sites (such as LinkedIn (News - Alert) made information more readily available, but didn’t provide clear indication of whether professionals were currently motivated to find work. They also focused on traditional hiring of full time, on-premise employees.

Chapter 2 (2005 - 2015). Online workplaces launch

  • Sites such as Elance.com and oDesk.com launched and – in addition to providing job listings, profiles and other context needed for hiring – enabled the actual work to happen online, thereby reducing dependencies on physical location and opening up a broader talent pool. These sites disrupted traditional hiring models and empowered flexible work by enabling clients to connect with motivated independent professionals actively looking for freelance work.

Chapter 3 (2015 - future). Online work goes real-time

  • Upwork represents a new chapter in which real-time hiring will be realistic for businesses. Traditionally it took around three weeks to hire; now, Upwork is at an average of three days to hire, and within the year it will be possible to hire in minutes or less. With a clear indication of the best professional actively available across a global talent pool, the biggest barriers to hiring – bandwidth and availability of specific skills – will disappear.

While it is customary for companies to surround new name and product launches with a bit of marketing hyperbole, speaking from my own experience as a freelancer several years ago, having this type of capability available to find what was available that fit my own skills and being able to interact speedily with a project manager would have been invaluable on many scores. 

The flip side is also noteworthy. Finding the right/best talent for a project and getting them to work ASAP in a dynamic environment where being fast-to-market and fast in the fact are competitive necessities, have never been more important.  The two old phrases that “time is of the essence” and “time is money” have never been more relevant.  And, with younger generations being increasingly comfortable with digital tools and with freelancing, for life style as well as financial reasons, leveraging technology to accommodate and drive the changing nature of work is a great use of technology for making a cumbersome and time-consuming task less of an ordeal for all parties concerned.  

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