It’s 2025. You and a friend are sitting in a coffee shop, discussing an entrepreneurial idea you’ve been hatching. It’s a service for recovering excavated asphalt from crumbling roadways, shipping the material to refineries in undisclosed locations, and converting the whole mess into oil. Green Fracking. It became a thing in 2024, and you’re at the vanguard of the movement, ready to pounce on the hefty pot of gold that awaits. Oh, I’ll mention that crude now sells for over $800 per barrel, and the average price for a gallon of regular gas in the US just topped $12.46.
VC’s have been calling you day and night. You’ve muted your ringtone. Over lattes, you share details about your plan, and your friend is so excited that she convinces you ramp up sales right now. “With an idea this hot, we need to press on the accelerator – hard!” she tells you. She touches a few buttons on a mobile computing device attached to her wrist, waits a minute, and says “Launch sales,” loudly and slowly. She stares at the tiny display for about 15 seconds, turns to you and says, “Done! I have a global team of 38 business developers in place right now. Ready to start.”
Then, on an electronic tabletop screen, she deftly swipes her fingers in a wavy pattern known only to her, instantaneously gathering live video feeds of 38 different faces. Mostly young, but a few clearly over 40. Every race and ethnicity. An even distribution of men and women, along with several who appear androgynous. “Everyone’s here. Let’s go over the rollout,” she declares.
You haven’t yet named your company, but you remain calm. Back in 2015, her request would have put you on the spot. Now, you’re prepared. When you first sat down to talk with your friend, another app listened to your conversation, and mined it for key ideas, facts, and figures. It pumped that content into a template collaboration session, translated it into eleven languages, and created a nifty custom logo. Each newly-minted team member now has the rollout plan in front of them. From concept to coin in less than 20 minutes. Let’s go team! It’s showtime!
With ubiquitous IT connectivity, social networks, and streaming video, this vignette seems pleasingly within our grasp. Ten years from now, we’ll look back on today’s labyrinthine, un-agile biz-dev staffing process as a strategy killer. “All that recruiting, hiring, training, onboarding, developing, administering, and firing. What a quagmire! It’s a wonder any company ever got launched!” Thank goodness software applications have matured so we can bypass the miserable headaches associated with that getting the right people on the bus. But there’s one more component that contributes to this vision. A voluminous and mighty repository, without which, there would be no story, and no storytelling: freelancers.
Freelancing has permeated almost every type of business – from the prosaic to the sophisticated. From basic construction to biotech. Freelancers do most anything that needs doing – including marketing and sales. One freelance sales group on LinkedIn describes their purpose as “to develop network between Business Development Managers and Freelance Sales professionals. Sales professional can publish their sales opportunity as a Job where Business Development Managers can start discussing about the opportunity. Once scope is clear, both parties can talk to each other and Business Development Manager can buy the opportunity from the Sales professional on agreed price. Payment can be made once contract is signed for the opportunity [sic].”
Who needs a mercurial, difficult-to-manage sales force when you can just go to an exchange and buy a golden lead that another person has thoughtfully chucked over the fence? And if you’re a freelance salesperson, I’m sure you can earn a nice commission – assuming the deal closes, and you can wait long enough. Oh, I nearly forgot: the checks have to clear, too. The LinkedIn group, Freelance IT Sales Professional and Business Development Manager, began in 2009, now has almost 36,000 members. I contacted the group’s manager, Dinesh Singh, and asked if he had a handle on how much revenue was flowing through this exchange. He replied that he does not track it.
But other exchanges do. Tongal, a site for creative freelancers, has developed a network of 40,000 video makers. “Limitless creativity for businesses and people who need it. For our clients, the Tongal platform and community offer a constantly renewed and re-energized creative resource,” the company’s website tells us. Talent, just one mouse click away. Through Tongal, Colgate-Palmolive offered to pay any person who created the best 30-second advertisement for the Internet. The spot they selected was so good that Colgate-Palmolive decided to air it on the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl! Their cost for producing the ad? $17,000 – the amount awarded in the contest. (“The average Super Bowl spot has a production cost that’s north of $1 million and, based on how extravagant the concept is, some can easily double or triple this price,” according to Forbes.)
“Perhaps the most striking of all the on-demand [freelance] services is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which allows customers to post any ‘human intelligence task,’ from flagging objectionable content on websites to composing text messages; workers on the site choose what to do according to task and price. The set-up uses to the full most of the capabilities and advantages that make on-demand business models attractive: no need for offices; no full-time contract employees; the clever use of computers to re-package one set of people’s needs into another set of people’s tasks; and an ability to access spare time and spare cognitive capacity all across the world,” according to an article in The Economist, There’s an App for That (January 3, 2015).
Amazon’s sales pitch for Mechanical Turk makes an appeal directed to our innate sense of debits and credits: “For businesses and entrepreneurs who want tasks completed, the Amazon Mechanical Turk service solves the problem of accessing a vast network of human intelligence with the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness of computers. Oftentimes people do not move forward with certain projects because the cost to establish a network of skilled workers to do the work outweighs the value of completing it. By turning the fixed costs into variable costs that scale with their needs, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service eliminates this barrier and allows projects to be completed that before were not economical.”
Another freelance exchange, Elance-oDesk, touts over 2 million businesses seeking 2,500 different skills from over 8 million freelancers, including 344,900 programmers, 43,600 mobile developers, 261,500 designers, 391,300 writers, and 83,900 marketers, from over 180 countries. The service recorded over $750 million generated in 2013. Eight million freelancers: just shy of the 2013 population estimate of the third-largest US metropolitan statistical area, Chicago-Naperville-Elgin Illinois.
Freelance workers will fundamentally change how business is conducted. Those changes will be reflected in corporate strategies, and will re-shape how people collaborate and interact. Monolithic infrastructures will melt away. So will fluffy corporate mottos like “our people are our greatest asset!” Which people? Your freelance team, which is to say, everyone you’re paying? “Our freelancers are our greatest asset!” . . . . Nah.
These anecdotes offer exciting glimpses into what makes freelancing so seductive for many companies. Now, anyone with a checking account has the ability to quickly obtain top talent at market rates without any long-term commitments. What’s not to love? Here, the most useful caution is to be very, very careful about what you wish for, because you just might get it.
With freelancing now gaining widespread use within many organizations, you can expect:
1. More automation. Freelancers and the people who seek their services will be matched up through sophisticated information technology and complex algorithms.
2. Hyper-specialization and further division of labor. Look for freelance workers who have honed one or two talents especially well. Blog writers who know little about PR. Graphics designers who know little about web development. Lead-generation specialists who have never “closed” a sale.
3. More routinized tasks. Freelancers who are paid by the hour, or who are paid for results, will eschew tackling projects work that requires them to vary from their profitable “core competencies.”
4. Decreased emphasis on understanding “the big picture.” A natural consequence of hyper-specialization and more routinized tasks, freelancers will have little interest – or need – to grasp how the output of their work fits into the larger context.
5. Capacity sharing and more outsourcing. As freelance projects become more specialized, they will have shorter durations. Consequently, freelancers will increasingly distribute their time among larger portfolios of clients.
6. Lower transaction costs for acquiring talent. “Now that most people carry computers in their pockets which can keep them connected with each other, know where they are, understand their social network and so on, the transaction costs involved in finding people to do things can be pushed a long way down,” according to The Economist.
7. Lower billable rates for freelancers, too. “Alfred, a subscription concierge service, is already aggregating the work of specific on-demand companies such as Instacart and Handy to offer its Boston members a one-stop shop; such aggregation could drive down prices for the basic on-demand providers yet further,” The Economist reported.
8. Increased reliance on trust. As corporate strategies increasingly depend on agility and shorter project lifecycles, they will seek greater certainties in the results that people produce. Conversely, freelancers don’t want hassles when collecting their fees. Expediency will require both parties to develop more reliable, less time-consuming ways to develop trust.
9. Smaller, more manageable infrastructure. Companies that engage freelance workers will depend on a well-oiled payables system versus a bevy of tech recruiters, middle managers, and human talent administrators.
10. Decreased loyalty from those performing the work. Your father’s gold pin, awarded after thirty years of service to his company, has become an anachronism. Now, it’s “I’m doing this task for whoever pays me the highest rate.”
11. Increased self-reliance among contractors and employees. In-house training and development? Kiss it goodbye. Freelancers won’t expect it, and they will pick up the tab as overhead for having greater control over their destinies. And employers will be more than happy to oblige.
12. Buyers will value consistency in experiences, not in fostering relationships. As more business functions are outsourced to freelancers, buyers will value having the same high-quality result, and they will care little about who is providing the service.
13. Companies that provide ancillary B2B services such as executive staffing, skills training, and compensation consulting, will experience less demand for their services.
Freelancing will continue to expand, and these developments will substantially change how businesses sell products and services. As you and your friend wrap up your sales launch meeting, you realize that in less than one hour, you just achieved what used to take companies months, even years, of aggravating trial and error. “Back in 2015, companies used to burn through so much cash doing this,” you exclaim as you close out your collaborative session. Your newly-assembled biz-dev team has hardly gotten to know one another. But that doesn’t matter – they’ve already started contacting prospects. No surprise that they’re not wasting one precious minute on anything not pre-qualified. The right results – it’s what they provide, and what you’re paying for.
Hiring freelancers will undoubtedly help companies acquire talent more quickly. But whether freelance workers will enable companies to execute strategies more effectively remains to be seen. Still, speedy and effective action provide powerful competitive advantages, The Economist tells us. “The knowledge economy is subject to the same forces as the industrial and service economies: routinisation, division of labour, and contracting out. A striking proportion of professional knowledge can be turned into routine action, and the division of labour can bring big efficiencies to the knowledge economy.”