In this article, Naman Sarawagi shares his journey to building ReFrens and transforming it into one of the top freelancer hiring platforms.
- Q: What was the key need for starting ReFrens, a freelancer hiring platform? What inspired you?
- Q: When did you realize the need for the freelance platform? Were you on a hike or at a conference somewhere?
- Q: How long has Refrens been around?
- Q: What was the before and after experience for your users?
- Q: What is the difference between your platform and other famous freelancing platforms?
- Q: What kind of freelancers and businesses would be benefiting from using your service?
Q: What was the key need for starting ReFrens, a freelancer hiring platform? What inspired you?
Freelancing, in general, has been a little misunderstood. People who’ve created platforms for freelancers, they’ve generally created marketplaces the way that you order a product from Amazon or the way you order your cab from Uber.
People have looked at B2B freelancing from that point of view, saying I can order a logo online or I can order a piece of content. When you look at it from the freelancer’s point of view, that is not how they think about their work.
Freelancers want to work for a certain kind of client because they think that associating with these clients will help them go up in their careers. So when you are ordering on general platforms, if you’re ordering for a small stint, you end up getting an agency that further outsources your work to an intern, which is the final delivery you get.
What we’ve been looking at is freelancers are like your regular team. It’s just that they are not full-time with you, and they can go in and out of the organization when required. However, the relationship between the company and the freelancer is just as important as the relationship between a full-time employer and an employee.
Certain professions can be only done or traditionally have been done only with freelancers or without sourcing a lot of stuff around. For example, in marketing, if you are creating a new ad campaign, you would get a lot of freelancers or agencies on board.
So those kinds of teams are well versed in dealing with such individuals and agencies. But, other teams, for example, product teams or digital marketing teams, generally do not have a culture of outsourcing a lot of stuff.
Engineering teams do not have a culture of outsourcing, and they do not hire freelancers, and that is where problems come in of how do you integrate an external or a part-time person into your team and get more work done.
Now how did I land upon this idea? I started consulting a lot of startups, so, in a way, I was a freelancer myself and for a lot of startup founders. So basically, this is my second venture after my previous venture, which was in 2016.
I was acting as a middleman, trying to help them find freelancers or trying to help them shortlist agencies for PR for marketing software development, etc., and that is where we found a disconnect between what a founder wants to hear versus what a freelancer is saying.
Now, assuming you are talking to a freelance web designer, this person might be good at designing, but this person might not be good at selling. However, that does not make them a lesser designers person.
What we are trying to do is try to fill the gap. As a freelance platform, we nudge you, saying, you know these are the kind of information pieces that you shouldn’t be showcasing about yourself’ and we look at it from the client’s view saying if a client gets to see all these things? Is there a higher chance that that client would convert?
To give you an example, a freelancer would want to showcase the nuance of his skills on a freelancer site. If I’m a designer, I’ll say I did a great transition here. My color combination here was great, my font selection was great, etc.
A client does not understand the nuances of the skill unless he is an expert himself or is like an agency that is trying to subcontract a part of their assignment for you.
If the client is end-business, what they want to hear in the initial days is who have you worked with? How many projects have you successfully completed? What happened to that project? What was the cost of that project? How fast can you deliver? What other projects do you have in hand? Can I rely on you?
So the client is looking for all social signals in the initial days but not nuances of that particular skill. Once you’ve got across that threshold is when you can get into the details of your crafts.
This is how I do it, or you know this is what you should expect, but before that, you still have to be in that selling mode and typically how products are sold? or how large agencies sell to you saying you know I have all these famous clients so you should become my client too!.
That is like putting your best foot forward, and this is the gap we found between 2016 and 2018. I did a lot of consultancy work, and I invested in a couple of software services firms, and that is how I learned how they are winning clients, how I am winning clients, and what the gap is there.
What I could learn from them and we are slowly trying to productize that, and again, when we are productizing it, we are looking at how to find you more clients and how to help you manage your work better.
Q: When did you realize the need for the freelance platform? Were you on a hike or at a conference somewhere?
Honestly, there was no single “aha moment.” The idea, I think, has evolved over time, talking to more people. This obviously came out of my own experience of the realization of the pain points, but can this be like a really big product? Can this be like a really big platform? I would be lying if I said I had that realization very early.
Once we started digging deep into the problem, we started talking to more freelancers and agencies. That is where we realized this problem is very common. I also invested in a few startups, and that gave me a more inside perspective into how they operate.
Some of these companies were more like 100 people teams, so I was not only talking to a founder, but I was talking to 10 years 15-year experienced product managers who were facing problems in hiring freelancers. They didn’t even know that for a certain skill.
They should have only hired a freelancer. I mean not looking for an internal employee or waiting for an internal employee to learn those skills, and that is where we realized that large companies have all the resources and the know-how of the internet. If they are facing this problem, then the problem is very, very real.
Q: How long has Refrens been around?
Referens.com is a two years old freelance website, and we’ve been working for about three years on this. We had to scrap out a couple of versions completely, and now things look more stable, and we’re providing freelance jobs and making revenue on it.
Q: What was the before and after experience for your users?
Two parts of it; one is the client-side, a large e-commerce company in the US. That’s the client-side, and then there is the freelancer side of things. So if you look at the client-side of things, there are still not enough processes built around hiring a freelancer.
We’ve had really large companies onboard freelancers, and we’ve realized because they don’t have a process. They fail to pay on time, or they fail to understand what the contract is like, or in some cases, they don’t even understand that they’re still talking to a human, and that amount of dignity and respect has to be given to that freelancer.
I mean, the timelines must adhere to both ends, not just from the vendors but also the clients. So just to give you an example, we were working for and helped a large edutech company in India find a graphic designer. This product manager had a certain mandate for his particular product.
He wanted a design work and needed a graphic designer to engage with hundreds of teachers to help them create various stuff for their YouTube channels, and none of their internal designers would agree to do this. Because internal designers are working more on the internal branding, this requires a lot of coordination, etc.
Now, when we got this requirement, we gave it to a designer in a tier-three town in India, and he was very happy to work for that big edited brand. So we are bringing work from large companies and large cities to smaller towns where the costs are low; hence the pricing of the freelancer will also be lower.
Second, the turnaround time was very fast from the time of requirement to actually getting the freelancer on board was less than three hours.
If our freelancing platform did not exist and assumed the current market platforms were there in the market, this product manager would have been sorting across various proposals, looking at the lowest bidder who would be willing to do this work, and there wouldn’t be enough flexibility with terms of work.
While the freelancer that we got them was flexible with his timings, with his work, a certain thing needed to happen over a messenger or WhatsApp, etc., and not really over email, so all those things were flexible. If this had been like a standard marketplace, this would have been very difficult.
From the freelancer’s perspective, we do two things; help you manage your work and collect payments, and second, we help you get more work. Now for this freelancer, it would have been impossible to get this big edutech brand.
So anything and everything that a large agency or product company was already doing, we are bringing those kinds of capabilities to these single-man businesses, small agencies, or freelancers. It saves them time, helps them get more work, and helps them collect payments faster, so all the three aspects we are taking care of.
Q: What is the difference between your platform and other famous freelancing platforms?
I think the most important thing is transparency and the ability to build a relationship. The way we look at it is if you have worked with a freelancer, you would want to work with them again or refer them to your friends.
Other platforms don’t want the client and freelancer to talk to each other directly because, in that case, their commission is lost, and their fees are lost. So they have a certain model to follow, which helps in a certain way, but it is also limiting in the sense that you cannot build long-term relations with freelancers. The platform believes that it’s not a win for them because they want to monetize every time you talk to clients.
If you’ve given them one assignment, say worth 100, and two months later, if you come back giving them another assignment for 200, they want to monetize that again, which is right. I mean, given their business model, it is right. But this is too much of a behavioral change for you, the vendor, and the freelancer.
This is why many businesses shy away from these platforms because they do not expect an email. They are delayed in replying to that email; they think you know all my employees and all my contractors are, you know, communicating with me on WhatsApp; why can’t this happen.
Or they’ve been communicating with me on slack; for example, a lot of product teams do that because of that one limitation, you do not create a very long-lasting relationship, and there’s no empathy in that relation.
The platform should be acting like an enabler; they are acting as a gatekeeper. That’s a very subtle difference between the two freelancer websites. Once somebody starts acting like a gatekeeper, they are actually limiting your growth. We don’t want to be doing that the way.
We look at it like a dating platform, a matrimonial platform, or a hiring platform. We don’t look at it as a marketplace per se, and as soon as you look at it from a dating platform point of view, you realize the relationship from both ends is equally important.
It’s important that both the parties sell to each other with the same effort, and they take equal efforts in trying to be together. So freelancing is more like that where the client has to give enough effort to marry the freelancer, and the freelancer also has to give enough effort to make sure that they win the client and retain the client.
But if you look at it from a marketplace point of view, the client will always have the upper hand over the freelancer, and then the output is very dull. Then the freelance work is dull, and there is no soul to that output.
If I may say, this guy is no longer a partner in your success because you know it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to talk about the person I met on this platform, and that platform is very transactional. We are thinking of it. If you talk to the client and need a secure payment system, you use our system.
If you don’t need it, you think, you can directly go collect payment from the client. You can do it. All we want to do is make sure you get more work, and if there are ways to make it more secure, we’ll do that, but we don’t want to get into your freelancer-client relationship just to make an extra buck because we think that won’t be sustainable in the long run that will not be sustainable.
There are companies that look very large today, but you have to realize this market is huge, and these companies are not even 1000 of that market. The market is actually very, very huge, and there will be multiple models that will exist, but I think the platform that is most transparent will be the largest eventually.
Q: What kind of freelancers and businesses would be benefiting from using your service?
How we look at it, freelancers are new to the market and have medium-term experience. If you are very established in the market, we may not be very helpful for you today, but if you look at professions again, we are only talking about beating these freelancers; we’re not talking about consumer services here.
Only B2B freelancers, and irrespective of what size of business you want to get or what profession you are into, we think we are making a more uniform platform for all kinds of professions.
So there is not one particular profession that we are focusing on. With respect to geography, it is global. Freelancers are coming and joining us from multiple countries, including Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and many others. One freelancer recommended it to others, so the platform is getting viral itself.
From the client’s point of view, I think we are currently not suited for very large enterprises because they have certain processes to follow, and we will be building that in another two to three years. Right now, we are best suited for businesses that are more digitally savvy.
I mean, some kind of English expertise would help, and where you are okay accessing email and checking your WhatsApp regularly. We are not okay right now with agencies that want to subcontract a part of their work and have a complex hiring process.
Although that is a very, very large business, as a freelance site, we think we still have a lot of things to build like other job sites in the freelance industry before we can invite agencies to actually hire for their own projects on our platform.
So again, on the buyer side and on the seller side, we are more starting to mid-term experts, and on the buyer’s side, we are more SME or startup focus, less enterprise, and less agency subcontracting focus.