In response to the impacts of the pandemic on the labor force, Upwork, the world’s work marketplace, and Business Talent Group, the leading marketplace for high-end independent talent, joined forces in June 2020 to offer independent talent more project-based opportunities. The collaboration also served to provide clients access to a variety of specialized skills and expertise powered by the global community of proven professionals from Upwork and Business Talent Group.
More than a year later, much has changed—with the independent talent market booming as workers seek flexibility, the full-time market thinning with a looming Great Resignation, and large enterprises increasingly turning to the independent talent market to fill skills gaps and lead transformations as growth opportunities abound amidst economic recovery.
Eric Gilpin, Upwork’s Senior Vice President of Sales, and Jody Greenstone Miller, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Business Talent Group, have unparalleled visibility into the trends driving both the accelerating Talent Revolution and on-demand talent usage at top companies.
In this episode of BTG Insights on Demand, Eric and Jody join Adam Zellner, BTG’s Vice President of Enterprise and Corporate Development, to discuss trends they're seeing in the current independent talent market, their insights on how companies can address their biggest opportunities and challenges by using on-demand talent platforms, and some predictions for how they see the landscape evolving in the coming years. Listen to the episode or read our lightly edited transcript of the chat below.
Eric, Jody, it's great to talk to both of you today. Let's dive right in. We're sitting here in summer 2021. What are some themes or trends that you're focused on in the on-demand talent market right now? Whether they be related to independent talent, client use of on-demand talent, or the on-demand talent industry at large, what are you focused on? Eric, maybe you can start us off.
Thank you, Adam, and great to be here—Jody as well. I don't think it's a surprise that the whole work space is just incredibly hot right now. You're seeing just massive structural changes in how work is being constructed, how work is being done, and really how people want to work in the future. In a lot of ways, this recent pandemic has accelerated a lot of the changes that we were already talking about a few years before.
So we're really sitting in this unique space where companies are still looking to grow, but are more interested in and driven by flexibility, access to skills, and trying to build more project-based teams as a part of their growth strategies. Coupled with the fact that millions of workers are looking at what is their next career path? How do we continue to grow our career in a one-to-many versus one-to-one relationship? It's just a really exciting time for the whole work ecosystem, which presents a lot of challenges and opportunities, especially as companies want to work differently.
Jody Greenstone Miller
I couldn't agree more. First of all, it's great to be here with Eric, one of my favorite people to talk to about all of the things going on in the world of work. Look, I'd say talent right now is arguably the single most important commodity in the world. It is in short supply in many places. Talent has enormous leverage. And as a part of that leverage, I think talent are taking the lessons of the pandemic—where they were able to work remotely and more flexibly—and looking at their professional future differently.
It's almost a perfect, positive storm for talent. They're in enormous demand, and at the same time, the demand for both full-time work—as well as the whole project-based world that Upwork and BTG focus on—is just booming. So they can choose.
When you think about the choice to become an independent professional, our experience has been that the biggest obstacle is certainty of demand. Am I going to get enough project work that I can actually make this independent lifestyle work for me? And I think in the market we're in right now, it's probably the best market for independent talent demand that any of us have ever seen, and it's across the board.
If you look at any company in this space, they're all doing really, really well. I would say the biggest trend that I would look at is talent making choices that were, maybe even three or four years ago, not possible because of the strength of the independent talent market—and the work marketplace that Upwork is building, the marketplace that BTG is building—to give people confidence that they can actually make this choice work.
That's great. The focus on talent and choice, how have you seen that impact availability of on-demand talent within your marketplaces and as clients are in need? How has that shifted over the first half of 2021 in particular?
I think probably very similar to BTG, we already had a lot of attraction from high-end talent and all of the communities that we serve. Everyone had built really good viral loops and were really building relationships with in-demand talent, even prior to COVID, clearly that accelerated.
For context, Upwork has close to 25,000 new independent contractors join our platform every single day—and that is a big uptick from what we saw prior to 2020. To Jody's point, I think it is the amount of demand in the marketplace for businesses of all sizes that are less pickled with this remote thing. Meaning, everyone has figured out that remote is a capability versus an obstacle.
Skills are very much in demand, as Jody mentioned. We still graduate fewer computer science degrees today in the US than we did in 1986. So there's just a massive war for talent that we've been talking about for decades. If you think about books like Impending Crisis or The Coming Jobs War, that's on our front doorstep. So the power has definitely shifted and talent are going to have more options than they ever have. And we see that as high-end designers and software development, sales, and marketing experts continue to flock to platforms like Upwork or BTG, because they want to work differently.
Jody Greenstone Miller
Look, I think hot areas like AI and machine learning, there are always going to be places where you probably have more demand than you've got talent. And what that does is just, again, increase the leverage of talent. I think it will also drive people into certain areas of skills upgrade and training so that you start to create more supply.
That's what's exciting about the marketplaces. Think about us as leading indicators of where the demand is going to be and what the supply is going to look like. For me, I've always thought one of the real contributions that we could make is things like our recent Skills Index, where we can say, "Here's what's in demand." Which then is information to a highly skilled population about where they might tweak their experience or their training so that they can take advantage.
It can happen really rapidly, because the people who are on Upwork's or BTG’s platforms, they're highly skilled people. They may need just a tweak to be able to take their analytical skills and become big data experts or take their computer skills and learn machine learning. The trends that I would look at going forward are not just what we do today, but what we can enable in the future, which is driving refreshed supply based on knowledge and data about where the market needs are—in a much more rapid way than you could ever do without us. I think we're data for the new labor economy.
The one thing I would add too is that it's global. Both of our platforms serve communities all around the world, both on the talent side and the client side. We often use the frame of the “skills gap,” and one part of that equation was the right person in the right place.
If you think about a global talent community, I would argue there is no skills gap. It's a lot easier to find the right person with the right skills, right now, leveraging technology and platforms like BTG or Upwork to really open up that talent pool and just unlock competitive advantages—businesses and talent. The global nature of this is also a big game changer.
Eric, you talked about a skills gap and about how—when you remove the geographic constraint and consider on-demand talent as a resource—it doesn't need to be a skills gap. Yet, the vice chair of Prudential in a recent quote said that post pandemic, he believes there'll be a “skills canyon” for companies that they “cannot hire their way out of.” The idea being that if they're only focused on bringing in permanent talent, they will not be able to address the need.
I think there are a lot of folks out there in the world, even business leaders in large organizations, who don't fully understand what capabilities do exist within the on-demand talent market and frankly, when and how they should think about deploying on-demand talent. So it would be really great if you both could share some interesting, innovative examples to help illustrate what on-demand talent can do to unlock opportunity or address challenges.
Jody Greenstone Miller
The way I think about both Upwork’s and BTG’s capabilities is that it’s just another way to get work done. Every organization has a list of things that need to happen, and all of a sudden now there's a new way to think about attacking it. And I think it is important for companies to have confidence that in fact, this is a reliable way to get work done in order to plan appropriately. Because if you don't, for us, when we first started the best clients were the ones who tried you, said, "Oh, you can really do that?" And then said, "Well, if you do that consistently, then I can actually change the way I think about organizing work."
A great example was during the pandemic, a major grocery chain had not developed its e-commerce capabilities. Boom, COVID hit, all of a sudden they had to, and obviously didn't have the bench sitting there that had the capability to rapidly deploy all the different skills they needed. So, BTG was able to come in and, within a week, bring really skilled people—people who had built e-commerce capabilities for a Fortune 50 drug store chain, people who had been very high in e-commerce on a retail company—and for six months they built the framework to get them accelerated into e-commerce.
I think it's thinking about work differently. It's thinking about work in projects. It's not unlike what Henry Ford did quite frankly. But way back when, when he realized that you could have more efficiency, if you broke the manufacturing process down into consistent work streams. It's the same thing with knowledge workers. I think that for companies to start to understand this and then understand how rich the talent vein is that's available and that they can rely on it—to me, that's the key thing.
That's why a company that already has the breadth and scale of Upwork is critical to the market because it shows that it's not going away. And by the way, BTG’s acquisition by Heidrick, same thing. We are seeing this become normalized.
Yeah, I love the e-commerce example. We saw all different flavors of e-commerce, as well as digital customer support, all rapidly expand as shelter-in-place took off across the globe and organizations were still trying to figure out how to grow their businesses. So I love that example.
To echo some of the things that you shared, we're constantly having this conversation with our clients around the power of “And.” What I mean by that is, it's not this or that. It really is the combination of your core full-time employees’ high productivity and strategic work complemented with a flexible bench of experts across broad skill sets that allow you to have that speed. Contracting in the economy isn't necessarily new, but this delivery model of on-demand high-end skills with burst capacity is something companies really haven't been able to see and are really trying to figure out how to adopt and operationalize.
I'll give you an Upwork example. We work with a leading telecom company, Digicel, that is the leader in the Caribbean and Oceana regions. Similar to your point, we moved from the tactical relationships to more strategic as we entered the COVID process when they were forced to work differently.
So we started our relationship in marketing with helping them redesign one of their holiday campaigns at the end of 2019. Great work, exciting, but very tactical, helping them do asset creation and distribution. And as COVID hit, in Q2 of 2020, they saw a massive opportunity to rethink their digital transformation strategy. And we actually ended up partnering with them on a full rebrand in 32 markets around the world that went all the way from storyboarding down to what does that experience look like not only in store, but also from a digital standpoint?
We had hundreds of workers that were helping deploy that with their marketing team. And one of their big takeaways was, they never would've got it done without having access to this bench of talent that they could just spin up and spin down, versus going the traditional route and working with expensive and slower agencies. That would have reduced the time to market. So I think it's interesting to see how much it's moved from a nice-to-have to a corporate capability for organizations.
Those are really interesting examples that complement one another in terms of the way in which the talent were deployed. There's a partnership between Upwork and BTG, and that collaboration—from what's been talked to in the press—was born out of the recognition that your marketplaces complement one another.
The talent and projects that you do for your clients don't heavily overlap. And frankly, it's the reason why you're both clients of one another—Upwork uses BTG, BTG uses Upwork frequently. Can you shed light and maybe share some examples of ways business leaders are able to use Upwork and BTG on the same initiatives?
Jody Greenstone Miller
BTG and Upwork are both dealing with highly skilled workers and working with companies across the spectrum, but BTG focuses quite a bit on the Fortune 1000 and equivalents. And what I think was happening is, Eric and I would just kind of bump into each other in the halls theoretically, talking to the same people about some of the same themes. So there's a real consistency in terms of the messaging and the value that we're bringing to these organizations. That was the first thing I saw and I think Upwork saw.
We then saw that BTG does a lot of projects where we're coming in at the strategy level and trying to advise, for example, on a multichannel go-to-market strategy, but once you do that, there's a whole lot of work that BTG’s talent needs Upwork talent to execute.
We can give you some specific examples about that, but just think about how many times we saw our talent going in and then passing the ball to another firm, where if we could pass the ball to Upwork, the client gets an even bigger benefit from on-demand talent. The more we saw that, the more we thought we would help our clients—and help both of us serve our clients better—if we could bring them an end-to-end on-demand solution.
To your point, it's totally one of those “1 + 1 = 3” partnerships. And if you think about Upwork, we're the largest work marketplace of doers and high-demand skills from software development to creative marketing design and customer support. And we have customers all the time that ask us for, I would say, that higher order, strategic layer of talent, and that just hasn't been a market that we've served. So in a lot of ways, we were working downstream with clients and not really helping on some of that stuff—and frankly, not being a real solution in that area.
And then obviously through our partnership, as we got to know each other, it just made total sense. How do we bring in experts from BTG to help companies design and rethink and strategize and formalize? That creates a ton of work that goes more into the production and execution of those things.
So it's been just an awesome partnership, because it really is a total solution for clients when you combine both teams. I'll give a great example. We work with a leading software company that recently went public, and post-IPO, they had big aspirations on really upleveling their brand identity and wanted to make a really massive change as they elevated to more of a B2B-type of marketing execution program.
They really needed that high-end strategic marketing expertise, and they did partner with BTG. It’s an Upwork customer, and we were able to bring in BTG and make an introduction. They were able to hire a very senior creative director and program manager to help them think about that brand transformation, and really partner with them as they work through design and execution.
As you can imagine as a result, there was a full powerhouse of Upworkers behind that to help them bring that to life digitally, in their event strategies, throughout their sales assets, and their IR and PR campaigns. I think those examples exist in a number of different areas of work we're already doing, but I know those challenges exist across companies of all sizes. So it really shows the power of us working together to help customers execute the goals.
Jody Greenstone Miller
If you think about it, life sciences, for example, is one of BTG strongest verticals. A lot of the work we do in life sciences is the front-end market access and product launch, and all of those projects have really significant execution. To the extent that we can introduce our clients to this new capability, I think it changes the way clients think about getting work done. The more they can see, “Oh, this is not just a little point solution. This is something I can actually integrate into my thinking, into my workforce planning,” I think the better it is for both companies—and quite frankly, the whole industry.
Jody, you use life science as an example, but in that situation, those organizations have done this work for decades or longer without on-demand talent. So you introduce, in this situation, BTG at the front-end and Upwork potentially to follow, how do those organizations understand where to employ on-demand talent versus the traditional methods they use? And also, what can they do to prepare? What have you both seen work for some organizations or not work for others?
Jody Greenstone Miller
That's the biggest question in the evolution of this industry, but when you're dealing with these massive companies who have infrastructure that is set up for a world that didn't contemplate on-demand talent, it is difficult. There's not a natural owner, there's not an easy way to plug in. A lot of the work that Eric's done and that I think BTG has done is to try to help organizations understand what's possible. Help them figure out the best way for them to integrate this into their world.
Another interesting observation is both the Upwork platform and BTG’s model are really geared to direct interaction with the ultimate user. We're not really set up, either of us, for a middle person. And so much of what is traditional HR or procurement quite frankly, goes through a middle person. Part of our value proposition is speed. Part of our value proposition is accuracy, and that accuracy comes from direct interaction with the ultimate user.
So I think changing the mindsets of organizations to understand and not be afraid to give more power to the ultimate user while knowing that there are safe guards for fair pricing, for compliance, for contracting, and for transparency so they really see who was using what—I think that has been the key, less sexy story of the evolution of on-demand talent. And only if you finally say, "Okay, in order to make this wonderful idea work, I have to deal with these pretty mundane tasks," do you have the opportunity to really see this flourish.
A lot of what we have done, and I know a lot of what Upwork has done, is try to help organizations understand the potential, understand the use cases, and then get themselves set up for success—not just for them, but for us. If it's only set up for them and we're going through a bunch of hoops that weren't designed for us, it's not going to work, and we've both seen that happen.
You're totally right, Jody. We're constantly telling our customers that, one, they're not alone. 50% of the Fortune 500 already leverage Upwork. This is your sweet spot of where you play in the market today. So they're not alone. Organizations are trying to figure this out, and I I liken it to the analogy of a movie that we've already seen in the cloud adoption space.
If you asked Chief Technology Officers, 10 years ago: at scale, how comfortable are you with moving all your localized data to the cloud? A lot of people thought everyone was crazy. Why would we do that? I think if you fast forward to today, especially with the rapid acceleration of digital transformation with the pandemic, the response is more that you're crazy if you didn't.
I think we see that with on-demand flexible talent programs as well. It's really about just getting started. The keys to success that we've seen are that it can't be a top-down only approach and it can't be a bottom-up only approach. Executives need to sponsor this on and understand how to provide support, air cover, and goal frameworks, so their companies can test this. And employees need to not keep it a secret. They need to bring these capabilities to their organization.
As you can imagine, we have a ton of organizations that use Upwork, but they haven't necessarily told their broader teams about it. So we really have to bring those audiences together and show the value creation on both sides, because the companies that don't figure it out, they're going to lose the war for talent. This is a great hedge against some of those “Great Resignation” things we're reading about every single day, and it just seems to accelerate.
So how do we keep coaching organizations on this “And” philosophy? Build your core teams and have this highly skilled professional, flexible bench of talent that allows you to adapt and grow and work differently. It's been exciting to see obviously all of the demand, and we’re locked arms with our clients, trying to help them understand that we haven't nailed it either. The next 10 years are going to be just incredible as all of these new models emerge and just all of the different drivers for talent continue to emerge. So it's a really inspiring space for organizations to play and really test and grow.
What advice do you have for talent? Jody, you talked about data on how they can upscale and focus, but how can they best enter the market? How can they strive to be successful at the onset, and how does that change as they pursue an independent career?
Jody Greenstone Miller
I think companies like BTG and Upwork have a lot of resources for talent to help them understand how to be effective. Being effective independently is slightly different than going into a job where you've got a long time to prove yourself. You've got to go in and on day one, you have to instill confidence. You have to provide value quite frankly, because if not, your project doesn't have to go on like a permanent job might for a while.
There are best practices. We've learned a lot over the years. Not everybody is suited for it. I do think you have to know that you're someone who likes to be independent and that you like the variety of projects. You like the control of what you get to work on and who you get to work with.
As more and more people do this, the support that companies like Upwork and BTG can provide is really important. Whether it's tools to do your work, whether it’s research or subscriptions that you couldn't get on your own. I think there's an ecosystem that's also building up around independent work that will support community. A lot of the independent workers want a community, which is something both Upwork and BTG are in a position to help supply. So I think from a talent perspective, it's never been a better time to become independent because there is so much knowledge and support.
The one thing I would add, and you said this earlier in the show, Jody, is that one of the hardest parts of being independent is the client acquisition part of that. Because if you think about it, you're choosing to be a small business owner, and a big part of that is client acquisition. How do I find new customers? Without platforms like BTG or Upwork, it's incredibly hard to do that.
One of the first steps is joining platforms like BTG or Upwork that have hundreds of thousands of customers around the world that have demand piled up—so that we can use our technology and all the things that we know about our customers and the skills that are in-demand to match you up.
Think of us as your business development team, working with you in partnership to help you find clients. That's just a game changer that wouldn’t have existed 10 to 15 years ago for folks that wanted to work this way. To Jody's point, it's not for everyone. It is incredibly hard, but there is more enablement than there's ever been for people that want to work independently.
As enterprises are choosing the level of investment to make in on-demand talent, how can they expect to see the value or the return on that investment—immediately versus over time—as they evolve from using on-demand talent on an ad hoc, one-off basis versus making the investments you talked about earlier of not just top-down or bottom-up, but both, and having eyes focused on this within their organization to drive forward some on-demand talent initiative or program?
We think about value for customers in a couple of horizons. I know Jody talked about this earlier. Cost savings for organizations are immediate value attributions, meaning that we do allow you to go direct to the worker. We're not necessarily dealing with all of the middle players that, unfortunately, charge entirely too much for their services to our customers. We believe that we can get all the money to the right people—charge customers less and pay talent more by leveraging technology in this marketplace. Those are actual instant savings for customers. We see on average, anywhere from 30–50% in savings with high-demand talent, just cause you're not paying the middleman, if you will, in those scenarios.
But it quickly evolves, even within their first year of adoption to speed-to-market capabilities, that have more intrinsic value to the organization because they can enter new markets where they didn't necessarily have talent before. They can reduce their time-to-fill on all of the FT burden. It doesn't mean that they don't hire full-time employees, but they can have access to talent as they continue to build both benches, which allows them to obviously get more speed in their process.
The other thing is that there's this disbelief or misperception on the quality of talent on these platforms. We've seen—all the way from customer support agents that we might work with organizations on to high-end developers—that retention rates of this talent are really high. NPS scores for the internal teams that they support and the customer teams they support are really high compared to traditional vendors. So I think it moves from cost savings for sure, but really into this whole speed and capability play that really just provides a ton of value both for growth and leverage for organizations.
Jody Greenstone Miller
I totally agree. And I would actually argue that some of the very best talent is in this market, because if you're really great in a skill like AI or blockchain or something very of the moment, you really can control what you're doing and demand market rates that are maybe above what you might get if you just went to one person.
I also think there is talent in this market that you cannot find elsewhere. I'll give you one really good example. When we first started BTG, we had a big media company that was looking for gaming talent, and none of the great gaming talent wanted to work for a big media company. They wanted to create their own startups.
They want to do their own thing. Finally, we said to the client, "We can get you some of these people, but they’re only going to work three days a week because they're doing other stuff." They ended up trying it because they had no other choice, and first, they got talent they could not have hired in a million years. Second, they ended up realizing they got what they needed in this flexible, remote, three-days-per-week model. So I think that in addition to cost savings, in addition to speed and agility, I think there are just some talent in this market you can't get otherwise. I think the more that happens, again, the more companies will feel an imperative to figure it out and to use it.
You talk about “And,” and with the trends you discussed earlier, both of you around talent choosing to go independent, clients obviously needing to address skills gaps, or a skills canyon now. There has been significant acceleration in the market, in the adoption of on-demand talent, and in folks going independent—a lot of that fueled by the pandemic and massive shift to remote work.
As you look ahead 12 or 24 months out, what is a prediction you would make about the market? Where do you see on-demand talent heading that before the pandemic you would have thought would take much longer, or perhaps didn't even envision happening in the on-demand talent market? Jody, maybe you could kick us off with your prediction.
Jody Greenstone Miller
I do think that you will see increasing normalization of the use of on-demand talent, and it will not be some exotic thing that we only use if we absolutely have to. It'll be part of planning. Eric's analogy on the cloud is really spot on.
As I said, I think Heidrick's acquisition of BTG is a significant moment where someone who's in the traditional world is saying, "You know what? I believe that we need this to serve our clients." The other analogy is GM saying, "We're going to move to all electronic vehicles by 2035." You just hit a moment in time where for a variety of reasons, often that's called the tipping point, things have come together. I think that's where we really are.
It's like a star. It's looks like they've made it overnight, but they've been working for 20 years. Upwork's been working for 20 years. BTG has been working for 13 or 14 years. But the forces have now come together, the acceptance of remote work. I think the demographic changes which no one's really talking about—in addition to the talent shortage that’s just coming from growth—you have baby boomers who may decide they want to go independent. You have young people, Millennials and Gen Zers, they want to work differently. So at the end of the day, what's going to really drive this is talent choosing to work differently and companies having to adapt.
The companies who are cutting-edge and think about it will have huge advantages. So my biggest prediction is that it really will be as normal as calling Heidrick when you need a new CEO, to know that you call and look at Upwork for a set of on-demand capabilities and BTG for a different set, and it will be normalized and it will not be the struggle that it has been. It'll be a virtuous cycle, as they say. Because as the more talent goes in, the more clients are going to have to figure this out, which means more projects, which means more talent.
I think you're going to see a pretty significant percentage of the high end—and I want to just say one word. I do think it's important that we're talking about high-end talent. High-end talent benefits ultimately, just like a free agent. A great basketball player is going to do better as a free agent. So I think we're going to see a world where this is normalized and people will have real options and companies will have different capabilities.
I think Jody is 100% correct. Things are always slow until they're not. And I have been beating my head against the desk too for the last six years, trying to figure out how we can adopt this even faster. I think over the next two years as companies experiment with a lot of different things, all of this adoption will normalize. Even if you look at other third-party research firms like Staffing Industry Analysts, they've seen an increase from 5% to 47% of buyers that are looking at adopting these online platforms in the next two years, which is just a leading indicator that demand will continue.
I think the whole debate of remote versus not remote—the future will be flexible. Definitely more so than Q1 of 2020. Companies that lean into that as a capability versus an obstacle, they're just going to have significant competitive advantage. So I think the next two years, as companies test and learn, and as they're challenged, as everyone is unplugging and plugging into new companies, it's going to force people to work differently—which bodes really well for the talent that we serve. These high-end professionals that are in-demand, they're going to have really meaningful career opportunities moving forward.
For companies that want to work differently, we're going to provide a skill set and capability that allows them to accelerate in all new ways possible. So I think the future is flexible, and all of the things are coming together at once. Obviously we would have loved to have gotten here a different way, but this crisis has forced companies and people to think differently, and I think that there are more pros than cons for both sides of the exit.
Well, it's been a pleasure to talk to you today, Eric and Jody. Thank you so much for your time and insights on the on-demand talent marketplace. As a reminder, our guests today have been Eric Gilpin, SVP of Sales at Upwork, and Jody Greenstone Miller, Co-founder and co-CEO of Business Talent Group. I'm Adam Zellner, BTG's Vice President of Enterprise and Corporate Development.
In upcoming episodes, we'll be talking with other experts about how independent on-demand talent can help companies resource critical initiatives in this time of economic recovery and ongoing uncertainty. Subscribe for these insights and more wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much for listening.