oDesk enables employers and contractors of technical, business and creative services to build work relationships across the globe.
I interviewed Gary Swart, oDesk CEO to find out more. This interview is the seventy third in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Gary for the interview!
How would you describe oDesk in under 50 words?
oDesk is the world’s largest and fastest-growing online workplace, allowing businesses and contractors to work together without geographic limits. We enable businesses to hire, manage and pay a flexible, online workforce, and we enable contractors to work whenever, wherever and however they want.
Who founded the company and how did you become CEO?
oDesk was co-founded by Odysseas Tsatalos and Stratis Karamanlakis; I joined them and a few others about a year later to help build and scale the company. I came to oDesk by way of Sigma Partners while trying to raise money (unsuccessfully) for my previous company. I was attracted to oDesk because of the sound business model and massive market opportunity, as well as by the chance to contribute something meaningful to the world of work.
What kind of growth has oDesk had since launch?
When we first launched in 2003, we were a SaaS company, with technology that enabled people working remotely to collaborate and monitor progress. But when we realized that this technology could have a significant, global impact on the way companies operate and the way people work, we pivoted in 2005 to become an online workplace, with the original technology as the backbone.
The marketplace quickly took off, and since 2007, oDesk has experienced an annual growth rate of more than 100%. Currently, contractors are earning more than $300 million per year through oDesk, and the demand is still incredibly high — we project the online work market will reach $1 billion this year, so we don’t expect our growth to slow anytime soon.
Who vets the contractors available on oDesk?
The contractors are vetted by the clients on oDesk. As a marketplace, oDesk operates as a meritocracy — contractors receive feedback after every project, both quantitatively (with stars) and qualitatively (with reviews). We also offer contractors hundreds of free skills tests, in addition to self-provided quality indicators such as the work history and portfolio sections.
Do users mind the ‘big brother’ aspect of the service?
When you mention “big brother,” I assume you are referring to our patent-pending Work Diary technology that allows us to guarantee payment to the contractor and guarantee work to the client. The opt-in Work Diary functionality takes screen shots of a working contractor’s desktop six times per hour at random intervals, enabling clients to “manage by walking around” online, just like on site. Clients have real-time visibility into the work as it happens and can validate that an hour billed is an hour worked (part of the oDesk Guarantee). Contractors don’t mind providing this visibility into their work because they appreciate guaranteed payment for all hours worked, without ever having to submit a time sheet or status report, justify their hours billed, or call their customer requesting to be paid. We pay contractors each week based on the sum of the hours logged in the system, for all hours worked — guaranteed.
Is there a secret to effectively managing work remotely?
oDesk’s work management tools, of course!
In all seriousness, I would say the most important factor is communication. Frequent, open communication (through emails, instant message, video chats… whatever works for you) is critical to establishing a healthy, trusting work relationship, and for identifying issues before they become problems. When we look at long-standing client-contractor relationships (many last several years or more), it’s usually because both parties have invested in communication.
How do you ensure a fair price for non-US based freelancers?
Rates for all workers in oDesk’s network are determined by the contractors, not oDesk. Workers set their rates based on their skills, knowledge, personal characteristics, motivation and any other factors that are important to them. We believe that people should be able to command the rates they are worth in a global economy, and with a platform like oDesk, the transparency and visibility into previous work history and rates is unprecedented.
Let me give you an example. A contractor in Russia is making $5 when he starts. He quickly stair-steps his way to more than $30 per hour in one year, based on his stellar reputation from previous assignments on our platform. Today, he has more work than he can handle and has invited his friends onto oDesk to work with him for his clients all over the world. Platforms like oDesk are a great equalizer for enabling everyone to make the wage they are worth in a global economy.
Who should and shouldn’t be using oDesk?
We like to think that everyone should be using oDesk! It has huge benefits for startups and small businesses, because it allows them to punch above their weight in the competition for talent. It can be great for medium-size businesses and even larger companies too, helping them scale their teams cost-effectively.
For contractors, there is demand for such a wide variety of skills and price points, that really I would recommend it to anyone — from the legal counsel to the virtual assistant.
All work types, all company sizes, globally!
What advantages does oDesk have over its competitors?
oDesk is the world’s largest and fastest-growing online work company — we are actually larger than all other online work sites combined. We have achieved these results by being the most innovative company in the space, with the best business model and the right team to execute. In addition, our proprietary work management technology allows us to guarantee payment to contractors and work to employers, which no other competitor can offer.
Does oDesk have any new features in the pipeline?
Absolutely — this interview is not long enough to highlight all of the features and functionality we are adding for our users! Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of things we can do to improve the experience for our users. Currently we are prioritizing our usability and the scalability of our service, so we can earn the right and respect to continue to serve our users and their friends.
What does a typical day as CEO consist of?
It is my responsibility to make sure that I am creating an environment at oDesk where everyone can do their best. This means that we have the right strategy; clarity as to how we will execute on our priorities; and clear roles, responsibilities and standards. With this in mind, I am focused on continuing to strengthen our already stellar team by recruiting and hiring new team members, as well as developing our current team. I also spend a lot of my time externally speaking with customers, journalists and influencers to help share the oDesk story.
With more than 17 years of experience in the enterprise software market, what do you wish you’d have known 20 years ago that you know now?
Just about everything I have learned in the last 20 years! If I had to narrow it down I wish I had known that the internet would be playing such a major part in our lives. I am constantly in awe of how core the internet and technology is to the way we work, shop, travel, and live.
Where do you see oDesk in 5 years time?
The online work industry seems to be quite parallel to the ecommerce industry. Ecommerce revolutionized what most people considered the standard way of living or doing business, and now we can’t imagine a world without it.
Online work is already firmly on that trajectory, having shifted the way millions of businesses operate. In the future, as the technology behind online work improves, it will become an increasingly standard and intuitive way of working.
As oDesk is the largest and fastest-growing player in the online work market, I am very excited about the opportunities this evolution will bring.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
The biggest hurdle we faced when we entered the online work space was the issue of trust — for people accustomed to working in the same office, sending work to someone on the other side of the country (or even the world) could seem unfathomable. How would you know the work would be done well, or that the person was actually working on the project during the times they were billing you for it? How would you ensure your information was going to stay safe?
We have addressed this anxiety in a number of ways. First, we created a very transparent and meritocratic marketplace, so you could select exactly who was working on your project, according to their qualifications and reviews. We also rely on our proprietary time-tracking and team-room software to give businesses more visibility into the work that’s being done. Finally, we built non-disclosure agreements into our Terms of Service, so clients’ intellectual property is automatically protected.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
I’m excited about oDesk’s tremendous growth, and the huge opportunities that are still ahead of us. We really have the chance to change how the world works — to help businesses operate more efficiently and effectively, and to help people around the world work whenever, wherever and however they want, on the projects they choose and at the rate they set. I am proud to be helping to bring boundless opportunity and incredible freedom to people around the world through this kind of employment model.
Can you convince the reader to start using oDesk in under 50 words?
Businesses: Hire, manage and pay experts from around the world with just a few clicks, giving you a global, specialized, on-demand superworkforce.
Workers: Choose when to work, what you want to work on, what to charge, and where to work. All you need is your talent an Internet connection.