All Things oDesk
November 15, 2010 by Brian McDonough

For its November issue, Inc. Magazine focuses on the “demand economy” and profiled seven businesses that are succeeding by adapting to changing times. When they had to choose the cover, they went with our very own CEO, Gary Swart. Read Inc.’s story here—it’s a good look at the changing landscape. With the issue sitting on almost every newsstand in North America, we asked Gary to discuss how small and medium-sized businesses can adapt to take advantage of the demand economy.

Q: What’s the biggest shift, in terms of perspective, that managers are going to have to make to embrace an “on-demand” model for talent?

Gary: The difference comes in how they value their workers and the work performed. Much like overstocked warehouses, people don’t thrive when put on a shelf. A worker who sits in a cube every day is not necessarily more productive than one who works from her home office. Employers need to recognize which skills they should keep on-demand, what roles have full-time responsibilities, and how to effectively establish context for a workforce with varied roles.

Q: The Inc. article talks a lot about “demand” in terms of selling to consumers, and it points out a growing global middle class, and a growing number of households led by single women, as the key markets to sell to. Since oDesk is about the global labor pool, how do these growing demographics affect the talent supply?

Gary: The global talent supply is going to keep growing. The flexibility of the online contracting model spreads the available talent pool to a wider demographic than is available in a local area—and with a larger pool of applicants to choose from, employers are more likely to be able to locate the right person to get their work done quickly and reliably.

Q: In oDesk’s early years, remote contractors were a fairly novel idea for medium and small businesses.  These days, where does contract work fall on a spectrum from “novelty” to “necessity”?

Gary: For SMBs, it’s definitely far to the “necessity” side. Businesses of all sizes are trying to do more with less and mitigate extra costs. Contractors are becoming a core part of the business model — the combination of a scalable, customizable workforce, then access to worldwide talent, and the decreased costs of maintaining office space and HR overhead keeps businesses of all sizes nimble, fast and competitive.

Q: What would you say is the key for employers to get comfortable with remote work — to take it from “we do this in rare cases, with a few specific functions” to “this is an ongoing part of our overall business model”?

Gary: I’d begin by encouraging them to think of a contract worker as a valuable, on-demand team member. This is how we, at oDesk, are able to run a business affecting over a million users with only 38 employees — we have over 150 contractors who are valuable additions to our team.

We use three main criteria to think through our hiring process:

1. Do we need work done fast? The recruiting, hiring and ramp up for a contractor can take hours or days, not weeks or months. This is valuable time to a small business.

2. Do we need flexibility? This is important if you have an idea of what you want to accomplish, but little understanding of what is required to get it done. Contractors allow you to keep your business nimble and flexible, and you can scale your team up and down based on how much work needs to be done.

3. Can we use different expertise? As a small business, you may not need a person to fill every seat at your table every single day. Getting ready to launch a new product? Consult a PR pro. Need a logo and basic website design? Grab a graphic designer. As your business needs grow and change, you’ll find plenty of examples of problems that need specific expertise that is beyond your in-house team’s abilities. Contractors fit the bill to have an expert handy only when you need one.

Q: Lastly, how’s it feel to be the literal poster boy for the demand economy and the remote workplace?

Gary: For me, it really is the culmination of work done by so many people over the years. Not just oDesk’s incredible employees, but also the hundreds of thousands of contractors and employers who come to work through oDesk every single day. While it’s my face on the cover, I’m just a representative of something so much bigger — a movement of career contractors and employers who are connecting, innovating and creating an economy that is borderless and where the opportunities are boundless.

Brian McDonough

Freelance Writer

Brian McDonough has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and has managed teams of in-house and freelance writers for newspapers, magazines and web sites.