Cooperatives aren’t a new or exotic concept. Agricultural and dairy cooperatives have been around for hundreds of years. For example, the first agricultural cooperative in the US kicked off its operations three centuries ago.
Also in the US, and beyond agriculture, Benjamin Franklin was among the co-founders of the first recognized cooperative business, a mutual insurance company, in 1752. Nowadays, cooperatives just in the form of “credit unions” in the US have 126 million members and total assets above two trillion dollars.
Anybody who’s been to Brussels has at least a visual appreciation for Guilds. After all, the city’s Grand-Place is an architectural love letter to Belgian Guilds. And guilds weren’t only in Benelux. They were in place throughout early Europe. History teaches us that Guilds of merchants and craft workers were formed in medieval Europe to provide mutual aid to their members. Over time, guilds played an increasing role in protecting standards. Of equal or perhaps greater importance, acting collectively, they offered guild members the opportunity to gain political influence.
Guilds weren’t limited to Europe. It’s been known for some time that guilds and like institutions existed in other societies too – in China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, India, and elsewhere. In Japan, for example, early guilds were called “Za”and operated from the 8th century on. Ottoman guilds rose in the 17th century.
We also have a range of modern-day guild-like institutions and communities. Large diversified corporations like Amazon, JP Morgan, or GE. Large portfolio organizations in the VC and private equity space like KKR, Andreesen-Horowitz and General Atlantic. All show the potential for the whole to be greater than the mere sum of its parts, and all reflect the ancient wisdom of guild participants who understood the importance of an active and engaged community.
The value and importance of cooperative thinking isn’t lost on the freelance revolution. Several of the first generation freelance pioneers, like Matt Barrie of Freelancer.com or Stephane Kasriel who led Upwork through its IPO, attended Stanford. And, many of the makers and shakers from those early days knew one another from startups they had worked at, or invested in, and were members of the same informal networks and entrepreneurial communities.
It’s time for freelance revolution leaders to double down on that early experience and the importance of cooperative growth. A great deal more work is needed to accelerate the growth of the freelance revolution, and to take full advantage of the openness of enterprise leaders to a more flexible, blended workforce.
But to what specific ends? Ben Franklin, that iconic American mentioned earlier provides the best possible advice: “We must hang together, or we will certainly hang separately.”
So it is with freelancing, still not much more than a rounding error in the global trillion-dollar staffing industry. For freelancing to achieve its potential, and provide organizations of every size with the option of independent professional expertise available on a factional or contingent basis, cooperation must deliver real value in three areas:
Grow the market. Without continued acceptance of freelancing as a legitimate source of professional expertise, the full potential of the freelance revolution will not reach breakthrough at the enterprise level. More than 90% of enterprises accept freelancing as a means of supplementing or augmenting the fulltime workforce, but are not yet ready to embrace an alternative workforce architecture: the flexible, blended workforce. Continued acceptance requires the cooperation of freelance platforms working together to demonstrate the benefits of open talent.
Recent examples show the potential of collaboration. Open-Assembly is working closely with platforms like Freelancermap and Torc to create greater enterprise client opportunity through an innovative aggregation approach. NerdApp is collaborating with MSPs to ensure their clients have the tech expertise they need. In Freelancer First Study Groups, an innovation of Humancloud.work, platform CEOs benchmark their strengths and weaknesses in several areas, and through the process have identified opportunities for mutual benefit. For example, Nashville based Uncompany and Germany’s Uplink developed an important new joint client through their working relationship. Similarly, Brazil’s Ollo found a ready partner in Indielist.ie, a Dublin based, platform. Bubty, a maker of talent clouds for private corporate and agency talent platforms, is now advising several of the 15 companies that were members of the first Study Group.
Share best practice. Some platforms are better than others. Some more rigorously assess and certify freelancers who apply to their platform. Others provide services that improve the contribution of freelancers to clients. Finally, some ensure that their clients appropriately work freelancers, create a safe work environment, and treat these individuals with the respect and fairness any freelancer should expect. In a world where almost 50% of freelancers complain that they have been badly treated or pressured to do extra, unpaid, work, freelance platforms must work together to ensure they are delivering the best possible service or product to their clients, and that their clients offer a workplace that makes their best work possible.
There are several relatively new initiatives that helpfully describe how sharing best practice is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Open-Assembly recently kicked off the Trusted Talent Partner project, providing platforms with objective feedback from their clients on 13 key service dimensions. Freelancebusiness.eu continues to provide its annual freelancer education month, offering literally hundreds of short training programs of practical value to freelancers. For example, Proteams in Denmark recently brought thought- and practice leaders from Malt, Toptal, YunoJuno, and Open-Assembly together with corporate leaders from Novo Nordisk, Maersk, and other enterprises in a one-day Copenhagen based conference to share new developments. And, in the Mideast, Khibraty is leading an effort to improve cooperation among regional freelance marketplaces.
Increase collective influence. Freelance platforms have raised the alarm that governments in many countries are creating troublesome bureaucratic obstacles to the growth of freelancing, and policy often confuses gig and independent professional work. Spanish freelance platforms, led by Outvise, continue to meet and work together to increase their voice as a force for change. In the UK, Underpinned.com’s Association for the Future of Work is bringing together industry leaders and policy makers to address key UK freelance challenges like pay equity and taxation.
An informal association of freelance platform leaders is now starting to make waves at a regional level in Latam. Led by Ollo’s Karina Rehavia, the group which includes Mavity, Wokiconsulting, The Flock, Andela, Freelancer.com, and Seeds, is planning a fall summit in Miami to showcase Latam freelance talent. This is a big step in regional cooperation and has encouraged similar initiatives in Africa and the Mideast.
These steps are an important start, but likely just the beginning. To grow, improve, and establish itself as an important industry the freelance economy has begun to experience a wave of commercial realism. Venture funding is way down, and many startups proved better at spending money than making it. Many platforms will close up shop or sell. Others will combine through acquisition, merger, or partnership. But many will prosper. Those that prosper most will almost certainly be strong collaborators.
Cooperative growth was a persuasive MVP in the earliest days of freelance platform: freelancers working together, helping one another. It continues to be an essential theme of the freelance story and will be for the foreseeable future.
Viva la Revolution!
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