Jyoti Rambhai speaks to founder of freelancer.com, Matt Barrie, on why he chose to go down the self-employed route
The labour market is shifting, and on a global scale. More and more people are now rejecting the traditional nine to five job and opting for the flexibility that freelancing offers.
In the UK alone, of the 4.8 million self-employed people, two million are what you call freelancers – people who work in highly skilled managerial professions – and 4.4 million work on their own, without any employees.
The rise of the internet has largely fuelled this growth, giving a new generation of people access to the global market at their fingertips, says Matt Barrie, founder of freelancer.com.
The Australian-born technology entrepreneur is not only familiar with the freelancing industry on a global level, he also has personal experience in setting up numerous businesses.
Matt, who studied electrical engineering at Stanford University, California, set up freelancer. com nine years ago after selling his first company, Sensory Networks, to an intel corporation. Modern Work spoke with Matt about why he chose to become self-employed.
What made you want to start your own company and work for yourself?
I realised from an early age that I was fundamentally unemployable. I questioned too many things and often wanted to do things in my own way, so I just thought I needed to create my own job rather than working for someone else. I like being my own boss. I have been self-employed since 2001. I set up Sensory Networks with three other people and ran that until 2006.
What are the benefits of being your own boss?
You get to forge your own destiny, come up with innovative ideas and execute them. The good thing about that is you can be really flexible. You can do various types of jobs, take a job while travelling and set your own rates.
It’s tough though too, you’ve got to have a lot of drive to get up in the morning and go and do something. No-one is going to tell you on a daily basis what you should be doing.
The journey of an entrepreneur running their own business is like a rollercoaster… some days are great, some are terrible. You start off and it is like, wow, we’re starting a new company and then you’re like oh wow, there’s a lot of work.
Why did you set up freelancer.com?
After I left my last business, I was working on some side projects at home – I was building a website for someone and needed help to do some data entering. I initially thought a little brother or sister of a friend of mine might be interested in doing the work – I said I would pay $2 per row and as there were 1,000 rows, that was around $2,000 worth of work.
I just thought, that when I was a kid, I would have loved to have been given a job like that where I could work on a computer in my own time and be paid a fair bit of money.
But it was just the most frustrating experience ever. I would have people say they would do it and a few months later they’d be saying sorry, ‘I had exams’ or ‘soccer practice’. And after about four months of trying to get this done, it wasn’t going anywhere.
So at that point I went online and typed in something like ‘cheap data entry online’ and I found a website called Get a Freelancer (getafreelancer. com). I posted a project on that site, which looked terrible by the way, and then just walked away – went and got some lunch.
When I came back I had 70 emails from people saying they want to do the job. There was no way 70 people wanted to do the job I thought, I couldn’t even find one person. Initially I said I was going to pay $2,000, but then people were bidding down to do it for $100.
I hired a team afterwards and they did the job in three days and it was perfect. I didn’t have to pay them until the job was done and just thought this was game changing, it was just an incredible resource to start a company with.
I really liked this site, so I started my own site called Bid it out (biditout.com). I did the programming for that and hired freelancers to do the design. I did that for a few weeks and realised, wow, there’s quite a lot of competition and this was back in 2007/08. That’s when I wondered if one of them would sell to me.
There were about a dozen that had some traction and I asked about half of them if they wanted to sell. And a few said yes, including Get a Freelancer , which actually was the best one, as it had the most traffic and the best SEO.
As I fixed each problem with the sites, I found the revenue went up and eventually I got enough money to hire another person. Then as time went on, I was able to hire more and more people and bootstrapped it altogether.
Why do you think there has been a surge in the number of people going freelance?
There’s a lot of opportunities now. There is a lot of choice that the internet has brought us. If you think back 50 years ago, if you were in a town and there was a lumbermill in that town, then many of the jobs that were available would’ve been in that lumbermill.
But now you have all jobs available through the internet and not just through freelancing platforms, you can start your own business and use the internet to sell.
The flexibility and the choice now is huge, that’s why the freelance economy has really risen. And it’s thanks to faster and efficient communication methods, which allow you to work with anyone, anywhere in the world.
And many young people are going straight into self-employment now as a result. I taught entrepreneurship and mentored students at the University of Sydney for many years.
There would be a team of students, one person would be the CEO, another CTO, CFO, marketing and in sales. Over the course of the semester I would get them to write a business plan and at the end, they would pitch it to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, who would give them a mark. Many of those students then went on to set up companies for real.
What would be your advice to someone starting out?
For freelancers, the main thing is you have got to figure out what the something extra is you bring to the role. As Tom Friedman said: ‘the days of being average are over’ – it is a very competitive market, so you need to have a niche skillset in a certain area.