The freelancing economy has been growing in leaps and bounds over the past decade, and contrary to what some may think, it’s not just a young person’s industry, as more and more older professionals are leaving the 9 to 5 life for greener pastures.
Argentinian startup Workana is an online marketplace based in Buenos Aires that connects freelancers with companies looking for temporary staff to execute remote projects. Established in 2012 and having found success in Latin America, the company recently expanded to Southeast Asia, establishing a base in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia early this year.
UNRESERVED spoke to company heads Tomas O’Farrell and Alejandro Kikuchi recently about the freelancing industry, and why it has been gaining more appeal not only among Millennial digital natives but also older professionals from Generation X and above.
What is Workana?
Tomas: Workana is a freelancer marketplace. What we do is connect clients that are looking for the best freelance talent available. The freelancers on our platform are on all sorts of digital jobs, but mainly they are focused on developer jobs, graphic design, and digital marketing. Development jobs would look for somebody to program your website or create an app for you. Design would involve anything from creating a logo, brand image, videos, that sort of thing. Digital marketing would involve community management, social postings, paid or organic marketing and SEO (search engine optimisation).
We started in 2012 in Latin America, where we’re from. We started in Argentina, then we rapidly expanded to Brazil, and now the rest of the market. And after a few years, the business started growing very well. We became regional leaders there. Last year, we started looking at how the market was evolving and trends worldwide. We saw that we were at the beginning of this big trend that’s happening where people are changing from working full-time to working remotely. We saw the potential was very big and decided to expand internationally. We chose Southeast Asia for the first destination, with Malaysia as our headquarters early this year.
Why are people choosing to freelance?
Alejandro: It has to do with challenges that have been growing around how technology has enabled new kinds of jobs and how those jobs can be done. Challenges regarding traffic in cities, finding talent… all of these are addressed by freelancing. You have people not needing to move to the big cities to work, for example; not needing to commute during rush hour. It’s popular because these challenges are only getting bigger year after year. It makes sense to find new ways to work.
Tomas: There’s a very big shift in preference happening. The model that most people preferred before was full-time employment. In the beginning – this was maybe 100, 200 years ago – people used to work at the same company their entire lives. This sort of thing has gone away, but most people still work for employers full-time. This model is very good because it gives you a little provision for your security. You always know how much your paycheck is going to be. But what it doesn’t give you is flexibility and any independence at all.
The new generation values this independence, autonomy and ability to choose way more than previous generations. They value that over climbing the corporate ladder and making a career within a company or industry. You see freelancers now that are choosing which types of skills they want to focus on and clients they want to work with. (They choose) how many hours a week they want to work, if they want to work early in the morning or late at night, if they want work to revolve around their family schedules, all those sorts of things. Even which country they want to live in. All these things are widely available now with freelancing.
How many people are choosing to freelance over the 9 to 5 life?
Tomas: Go to the United States, which is a country leading this trend. The forecast is that it’ll cross 50% in a few years. We’re already reaching the 50%. 50% of all the workforce in the US is independent. Malaysia is a little behind, I think it’s about 25%, but eventually, it will get there. You see this trend happening everywhere. How big will it get? Hard to say at this point. But 50% is a big number, and you know it’ll only grow.
Alejandro: And has been growing.
What are the demographics of Workana’s freelancers?
Alejandro: It varies. For the trendier, latest technologies, they tend to be younger. But graphic design, not necessarily so. We have even some retirees – it varies a lot. We definitely have some fresh graduates building a career; middle-aged people who start valuing their family time more, and find the flexibility of freelancing attractive…
Tomas: Recent moms, people that are retiring from their companies and careers and don’t really want to keep on working full-time, but don’t want to actually retire and still want to keep some sort of work and employment. For all these people, freelancing is a great option. It tends to skew towards the younger generation.
The older ones, are they all graphic designers? What other industries could they possibly be working in?
Alejandro: Copywriting, for example. Translation. Accounting.
Tomas: As Kiku (Alejandro) said, people that have reached a point in their careers where they value something else. I’ll give you an example: one of the top freelancers we have in IT is someone who worked in a big company all his life until his son turned a year old. He realised then that he never saw him because he was working and travelling all the time. He realised that he had been there very little in the first year of his son’s life.
He said that he had this internal crisis and that he had to change something, but he really liked working and didn’t want to give up on that. He realised that this path that he was on, the corporate ladder, he said – nah, I don’t want to do that anymore. “I want to find something that will suit both of my needs. My family needs and personal needs.” So he started freelancing and quickly became one of our top freelancers. That kind of thing happens all the time.
That sounds like a decision you make after you have some experience in the 9 to 5 world. How about graduates?
Tomas: Well, you get a lot of graduates. There are two sorts: graduates that say they want corporate careers and to climb the ladder, and graduates just fresh off university who say “I don’t really want to go 9 to 5 with anybody, it’s not a matter of paycheck or salary, I want to have this independence and keep working with two or three clients at the same time all the time”. You have both. What’s happening now is that the second group is growing. Before, it was maybe 5%, now it’s a way bigger share of everything.
Alejandro: And freelancing being flexible, we’ve seen people getting some jobs while still studying, like in the summer…
Tomas: Working on little projects.
Alejandro: So by the time they graduate, they already have some experience under their belts, maybe even a client or two. The decision is then even easier. “I already have a few clients, now I have more time and some experience, I can definitely go full-time with freelancing.”
Tomas: The benefits of doing that are amazing. You compare somebody just out of university that has only studied and has all this theoretical or abstract knowledge, with somebody that did university and also freelanced on the side and has practical knowledge. The difference in skills between those two is amazing. The way you learn by working with other clients and going out and selling yourself and keeping relationships…
Alejandro: Or managing a project.
Tomas: Or managing a project, yeah. Something as simple as that. You learn a lot.
Are Malaysian companies open to employing freelancers?
Alejandro: They are. We’ve been seeing a very warm reception to it. There are some questions always arising, of course. But they are in general very open.
Do they pay starting graduates a fair amount?
Tomas: That’s a good question. There are companies that say “no, no, this freelancing thing is a phase and will never work, it will go away and I’ll keep on doing my own thing”. But then they go and check to see what is actually happening and realise that they are finding it very hard to recruit people. Their job positions are open for months and months and they may be wanting to hire 15 developers, but can only find five. The main reason for that is that the way the company is structured doesn’t really suit the way that most developers now want to work. Most developers are now going away from this rigidity and inflexibility. They realise they have a hiring problem. So that’s a very big driver in trying something new.
When they try freelancing, in the beginning they say, “Oh, okay, if it’s freelancing I’ll pay very little and use it to save money”, but they soon realise it’s not the right approach. The right approach is to use freelancing to find the best talent available, regardless of where it is. It doesn’t really have to be somebody that lives close to your company, it could be somebody far away but is the best candidate for your job. Once they make the switch, they go right towards paying a fair amount.
Alejandro: It’s about finding the right talent, and about speed. Trying to hire full-time takes weeks at best..
Alejandro: Yes, sometimes months. Whereas if you’re open to hiring a freelancer, you can find the right freelancer in just a few days and get the project going very quickly.
Tomas: And we help companies a lot in making sure they find the right profile.