The Covid-19 pandemic upended traditional working models, with companies around the world increasingly moving to the gig economy to save on costs and drive efficiency.
It is this demand for skilled freelancers that talent-on-demand platform Outsized seeks to address.
The company matches enterprise clients with independent consultants and freelancers.
“The pain points that we solve are on both ends: clients get access to pre-vetted, high-quality talent very quickly, while skilled independents can find projects with blue-chip corporates and consulting companies in one platform,” says Azeem Zainulbhai, co-founder and chief product officer at Outsized.
“Enterprises are looking for high quality, agility, quick execution and flexible cost bases. The problem is that companies don’t always have the right skills and expertise within their organisations to execute the projects.”
However, companies do not always want specific skills on a permanent basis. This is when they look for on-demand subject matter experts to join their internal teams for a limited duration, according to Mr Zainulbhai, who also leads the South Asia business for Outsized and the consulting client business in the Middle East and North Africa.
However, the process of finding and on-boarding independent consultants is tricky for companies, which, for years, have been set up only for permanent employees, he says. They don’t know where and how to find the right people.
About 52 per cent of financial institutions expect to employ more gig-based employees over the next three to five years, according to a 2021 report by global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Gig-economy talent currently accounts for 5 per cent of the financial services workforce, the research found.
Gig economy workers are non-full-time employees who are sourced for specific projects and skills, and are not exclusive to any employer. They may be working on several projects for different companies, with no defined period of time.
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In the next five years, gig workers will perform 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the work in a typical institution, driven by cost pressures and the need to access digitally skilled talent, the PwC report said.
Outsized offers consultants access to fully scoped projects from enterprises, consistent long-term income at market-validated rates, on-time pay, a community of like-minded professional groups to network and upskilling resources, according to Mr Zainulbhai, who has 18 years’ experience in investment banking and private equity in South Asia.
“On the talent side, we see that an individual’s identity is no longer connected to an organisation, but to their skill, knowledge or area of expertise,” he says.
“Skilled professionals now want more flexible hours, a wider variety of work, the chance to gain richer experience, earn more money and gain greater control of their own destiny. However, it’s not always easy for skilled professionals to have constant and easy access to long-term, full-time projects with big brand names. That’s where Outsized comes in.”
The platform was established in 2016 to help big financial services companies in developing markets find boutique consulting firms to execute large projects in growth markets.
Soon after, the company pivoted away from boutique consulting firms to a more scalable marketplace of independent consultants.
Other co-founders of Outsized include Niclas Thelander (also chief marketing officer), Anurag Bhalla (chief revenue officer and managing director for South-East Asia) and Johann van Niekerk (chief executive and managing director for South Africa).
The company’s first market was India, followed by South Africa, South-East Asia and Mena.
Outsized has a presence in Bahrain, where a dedicated team services the Mena region. It also plans to open a headquarters in the UAE early next year.
“In the early days of the business, we only had a headcount of four,” Mr Zainulbhai says.
“We now have around 40 team members across our four regions. About 25 per cent of our team members are independent consultants.”
Outsized offers free services to freelance talent, while enterprises pay a mark-up on the freelancer’s consulting fees.
Companies usually pay on a project-by-project basis, but are increasingly opting for annual contracts, which come with additional services, such as bespoke talent pools and analytics tools, the co-founder says.
The platform’s two biggest client sectors are strategy and management consulting companies and financial services institutions, such as banks, insurers and payments companies, according to Mr Zainulbhai.
The freelance talent on Outsized are mainly project and programme managers, digital transformation professionals, agile coaches, data scientists, actuaries and payment experts.
The large majority of opportunities available on the platform are for full-time contracts lasting between three and 12 months.
“In the Gulf and Mena region, we have already secured large clients across consulting and financial services and growing quickly quarter on quarter,” he says.
“As the region continues to move away from oil dependence, digital transformation and automation are taking centre stage. Governments are investing significantly in skills development to support this move. This, combined with the fact that there is a skills shortage, means great expansion opportunities for us.”
Highly skilled independent consultants and professional freelancers in emerging markets are set to collectively earn more than $425 billion in 2023 alone, according to Outsized estimates.
In the regions targeted by Outsized, the platform estimates the market size to be $45bn, with a growth of 600 per cent over the next five years.
Fast-growing economies in the Mena region and Asia will drive the next phase of growth in the global independent talent market, Mr Zainulbhai forecasts.
The Covid-19 pandemic helped accelerate growth at Outsized, which recorded a 3.5-times increase in turnover.
“The pandemic quickly grew the acceptance of remote/hybrid working models. At first, it was out of necessity and companies later realised that it was a tool to improve efficiency and access global talent pools,” Mr Zainulbhai says.
“Also, there was immense pressure on companies to adopt an agile working model without having high overhead costs. The answer to this was having a blended workforce, which was a mix of permanent employees and on-demand skilled professionals.”
Companies are looking to move to anywhere between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of their talent to project-based and other non-permanent type of models, Outsized estimates.
Another growth driver for the platform is the skills gap in certain regions.
Certain markets do not always have the access to skills that are needed, and companies can easily access local, regional and global talent pools through on-demand talent platforms, Mr Zainulbhai says.
Identifying challenges to their business model, the entrepreneur cites competition for highly skilled talent.
Top talent can afford to be picky, and they have specific demands in terms of the type of projects they take on and the kind of enterprises they want to work with, he says.
Companies need to act quickly when selecting and contracting independent consultants. Those with long internal processes not adapted to the fast-moving independent talent market will lose out, he adds.
Outsized raised $1 million from a group of seed and angel investors. They include senior leaders in the consulting, investment and platform industries.
The company is currently raising its first institutional round, which will help accelerate growth further, Mr Zainulbhai says.
“The world of work is changing rapidly and companies are moving to more flexible and adaptable models,” according to Peter Sayburn, angel investor in Outsized and the founder of Market Gravity (part of Deloitte).
“Outsized understands this shift and is one of the most exciting tech players driving this change right now,” Mr Sayburn adds.
Q&A with Azeem Zainulbhai, co-founder and chief product officer at Outsized
What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?
Oculus, the virtual reality headset and gaming company. What an amazing new way of computing and computational interaction.
What is your next big dream to make happen?
Be the first port of call for all professional freelancers and independent consultants in the region.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?
The agile and scrum methodology and how to run a successful sprint. Especially important is the ability to use these tools to ruthlessly prioritise while on a budget.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
We would have launched our product in the GCC far earlier then before and would have built our Talent Pool product as part of the first iteration of our product.
Who is your role model?
My father, a man who worked hard for years and was able to send me and my four brothers to the best schools and universities. He instilled a sense of hard work, drive and responsibility in us.
Where do you see yourself after 10 years?
Running the largest independent freelance marketplace globally.