Thriving in the Gig Economy

Thriving in the Gig Economy is the working title of my new book.  I was inspired to write it after a three different inquiries came to me because of my experience building and running M Squared. (for more on that, check out “About Me”) M Squared was an innovator in its day, being one of the first companies in the nation to match independent expertise to client project needs.  We were in the gig economy before anyone called it that. Having been out of the company for two years, I was intrigued when I received this series of calls in the space of 2 months.

One overture came from a venture capitalist interested in building a marketplace platform for professional women who had left the workforce for family reasons. The platform would find them gigs, train them in the newest workplace tools and provide a working mother forum.  Another was from a private equity firm that wanted to create a marketplace platform for on-demand energy industry workers in sun Saharan Africa.  Staffing the oil fields was tough, so creating a qualified buffer of potential workers could smooth production issues. The final notion was from a pair of successful entrepreneurs in the technology space who were developing a marketplace platform for entry-level professional hires that would eliminate the need for human oversight in the recruiting process. Like the common app in the college application process, this artificially intelligent front end would identify the best applicant for junior management level hires.

All three of these ventures shared the “marketplace platform” element.  At least one, the recruiting site, was being viewed as a major disruption to the current environment. The other two were viewed as an opportunity to target an underserved segment of a large marketplace.  Perhaps most importantly, all three were technology plays being launched by technologists.  The fact that these platforms were being created for human capital was not relevant to the enterprise. Even more simply, the services being developed were being built by guys who had never operated – or funded – a service business, not even software as a service.

Given that a hallmark of our company was the high touch service we provided our clients in the structuring of virtual consulting engagements, my focus in each of these discussions was around the human element of the process.  I brought up questions about the nature of the interactions with the female consultants, oil field workers and recruits, challenging why they would affiliate with the sites.  I wondered why companies would patronize the service and discovered that sales models for the demand side hadn’t really been considered.  We discussed revenue models, intellectual property issues, contractual considerations and privacy implications.  The brainstorming was incredibly fun and made me appreciate that the gig economy world I had once known was evolving even further.

Those discussions prompted me to reconsider this on demand consulting marketplace in which I had operated for so long.  Marketplace platforms were being built at a rapid pace, but could their algorithms really displace strategic judgment?  In my experience, one reason clients used an intermediary was to eliminate the noise that was coming from so many automated feeds and on-line resumes.  Having M Squared say, “you should really talk to Mary, Harry and Chris and this is why” was a relief for so many overworked and stressed managers.  Could a great algorithm really provide a similar level of comfort and thereby eliminate the humans in HR?  If we really drive all business innovation through our people, isn’t there some value to people in the process? The very notion raises other questions, like as marketplaces proliferate, what would the consultants do, join them all or hedge their bets with the few that they like the best?

Additionally, I live in San Francisco , the home of the Uber mothership and its feisty competitor Lyft. (Early on Lyft used furry pick mustasches to identify its drivers. I could never get past that, so must confess, I am a loyal  Uber customer and not a Lyft one.) A consequence of this is that there are constantly stories about the drive sharing marketplace platforms and the ways that these firms chose to treat its human partners, its drivers.  All the discussions about whether Uber drivers should be employees or contractors, seemed to drown out other segments of the gig economy.  Stories about my old world, the high end consultants and their experiences in the gig economy, seemed to be getting lost.

With that in mind, I decided to revisit the book I had written in 2001, A New Brand of Expertise.  It focused on high-end independent consultants and the marketplace for their services.  Beyond explaining what was then a new phenomenon, it offered guidance for companies who wanted to avail themselves of these services and best practices for the consultants pursuing the independent path.  Although many of the business reasons for deploying on demand expertise have not changed, the landscape has. Due to this, the ways high end gig workers need to establish their competency, market and contract for services has changed.  Similarly, companies can now access this expertise through many channels, so the internal vetting process becomes all the more important.

Moreover, companies must organize differently now to effectively deploy these gig workers.  More importantly, they must empower their workforce in new ways, since not only are they engaging gig workers, they are preparing their own employees to become the gig workers of the future.

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