The Future of Work - one way to get the gig economy organised

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks February 8, 2021 Audio mode
Having the necessary talents is one thing, but much of the gig economy is a sea of solo operators trying to sell themselves. There is a new opportunity here for talent brokers like California-based Braintrust, that can help pull together the big opportunity for those solo gigsters.


There is a natural complement to the development of the gig economy that is neither the classic ‘body-shop’ job agency, or the ‘big ticket’ consultancy services operation. The former, if anecdotal stories are to be believed, often rely on simply having a body available, of indeterminate skills, to put into a temporary job of indeterminate requirement. The latter do have skills available, often in abundance, but often want to claim full credit for whatever results, while charging top dollar for the privilege.

Neither seems entirely to fit the needs of the gig economy. With one, being qualified is to run the risk of being over-qualified, while the other is a staff job with secondment as its primary role. At a time when the potential need for access to talent, rather than permanent staff, is growing rapidly and the availability of talent looking for opportunities has every potential of matching that growth, there is an opportunity growing for a new type of service, which for want of a better definition, let’s call a `talent broker’.

One of these recently popped up on my radar in the form of Braintrust, a small California-based operation claiming a global reach and a client list that includes such blue chip names as NASA, Porsche, Deloitte, Blue Cross and Nestle from its first year of operation. Its goal is provide the bridge between talent that is, or wants to be, working in the gig economy and client businesses that need that talent, but have either had trouble getting it in-house or have decided that they no longer want them to be permanent employees.

For now that target is refined even more down to what Co-Founder and CEO Adam Jackson calls the low-hanging fruit of IT engineering. IT is his background so it is an obvious place to start, but he is aware that Braintrust has a model that can be applied to all areas of knowledge working:

We connect these talent with usually Fortune 1000 companies that have a high demand for these folks, but traditionally have had trouble hiring them full time. I refer to it as ‘the unbundling of Corporate America’. Traditionally, over the last forty to fifty years, firms have just been warehousing talent. That talent is often under-utilised and certainly isn't very specialised. The COVID lockdown has been a massive accelerant to this creeping trend of folks leaving the corporate warehouse environment and going out on their own to specialise and provide just the services they want to provide wherever they choose.

That COVID kicker

By aiding and abetting this desire, he claims that the world is better for both the talent, because it's more flexible and they generally earn more money, and the client companies, because they don't have to ‘warehouse’ all of these employees. It makes it possible for them to spin up specialist teams for specific projects, then spin them down again once the project is completed. And the talent does not have to sit around waiting for the next interesting project to start - they can go and find it somewhere else. 

Corporate America seems to be liking it and losing its fears about their secrets going walkabout when temps leave the building. COVID has started teaching people that if they practice good intellectual property and IT hygiene this becomes less important, says Jackson:

You know, ownership of somebody is really relative, right? I mean, we live in a state [California] where non-compete [laws] are unenforceable. So this has always been in California less of an issue. Because offices have been locked down here, and probably will continue to be for quite some time, our clients have pivoted hard - distributed teams are the new normal and that's what's provided the tailwind we've seen here.

Jackson acknowledges that his current evidence is largely anecdotal, but it appears to indicate that client businesses are responding positively, getting things built faster and that their money and budgets go further. Braintrust provides a talent marketplace that allows project teams to be spun up very quickly, often within days, and because the marketplace is owned by its talent members, there is far less incentive to charge clients big fees to cover big overheads. 

The traditional source of talent like this has been the large consulting firms which, he observes, can mark up talent direct costs by upwards of 200x. So client budgets go further, and while none of the talent is likely to become a millionaire, they can do better than if actually being employed. They can also avoid all the running costs of getting to an office that they are obliged to show their face in.

How it works

The Braintrust business model is surprisingly simple. Finding clients involves a small sales team, which is as much about getting the operation embedded into the client procurement system properly as it is about persuading them of the advantages. Once that is established, it becomes much easier for project leaders within those companies to build, maintain and finally shut down the teams they require in a straightforward manner. They simply post details and job specifications onto the Braintrust website. The talent interested in the position then bids for it, explains Jackson:

It is basically an open marketplace. We're not selling as some big kind of company in the middle that's trying to extract the highest fee possible like most marketplace operators are. We are owned by our talent - we call ourselves a user owned network. Because of that, we have very little incentive to charge fees at all. We have a 0% network fee. A flat 10% fee to the client basically covers costs so, say the talent’s market rate is $100 an hour, we'll charge the client $110.

Only talent that has been vetted – usually by the existing community of vetted talent - can bid on jobs. This vetting is based a combination of live interviews and asynchronous skills assessment such as live coding and live reviews:

When we started out a year and a half ago, I recruited the first 50 talent myself out of my own network. And then we asked them to refer one or two good people they know. Some of them start as moonlighters and then others are looking to freelance full time. There's now two types of talent for us. We have the vetted and approved talent, and then the waitlist. Right now we have over 1,000 fully vetted talent, and around 52,000 on the waitlist. 

These numbers do make it sound as the vetting process is a bottleneck, but Jackson doesn’t see it that way:

The numbers can be a little deceiving because not everybody on the 52,000 waitlist is qualified. A good chunk of those folks will probably never get through the bottleneck. When you build a two-sided marketplace, you have to build both sides. At the same time, you don't want demand to dramatically outstrip supply or vice-versa.

The company has also now built a matching engine that will contact talent with work possibilities for which they are well suited. It will also allow clients to directly invite talent to submit proposals. 

Though most of both the talent and the clients has come from the USA in this first year, Braintrust is already finding that clients with global operations are looking for talent on a worldwide basis, especially where the need for talent matches the 24-hour clock cycle of business operations. As a result, the global side of the talent acquisition operation is starting to build up organically.

This is a model that maps well on to the gig economy, especially as it emerges out of the strictures imposed by the pandemic. It does, however, have one downside as a long term model and that is its inability, acknowledged by Jackson, to provide a development and training path for young people looking to learn the necessary skills, the type of learning that comes from spending time as the Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief to an ‘old hand’ talent: 

I am not going to sugar coat it; the people who are just entering the workforce have it rough. They don't have the benefit of pulling up a chair to a colleague's desk or getting exposure to senior people in the corridors. My best advice is to always be learning. Read books, articles, and take courses on things that make you think and spark curiosity. And, find a mentor (or mentors) who can help you on your career journey. No one is going to do the work for you, but getting the advice of smart, accomplished people will go a long way to helping you achieve success.

My take

The more people work remotely – which will now normally mean 'from home' - the more the notion of getting in on the gig economy will  grow - and for many of them it will make both operational and business sense. What’s more, that sense will be matched by a very similar operational and business rationale for the client organization. 

So is it a marriage made in heaven? In the short term it certainly looks like the honeymoon period. But over the longer haul, is it an approach that will drain the tank by not ‘paying its dues’ to bringing on and training up the young starters needed to fill up the tank of future talent? Maybe talent will have to start thinking of its own responsibility to the future, perhaps having one or two ‘apprentices’ hanging on to their coat-tails like the famous artists of old. They could do worse for their young charges, their customers and even themselves.

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