Thoughts On The Future Of Work – Part 3

The emergence of flexiwork, and why Blume invested in Tapchief

In 1989, Charles Handy, a then-popular management philosopher who has since drifted out of our consciousness, wrote a book titled The Age of Unreason, in which he described the organisation of the future. He called it a Shamrock Organisation, after the 3-leaved Irish flower.

As you can see above, one leaf represented the core members of the organisation – full time employees, typically senior management, whose rewards are linked to the performance of the org. The second leaf were contractual workers – typically those who deliver well-defined products and services, often middle management, and may well include those who worked for the org previously. They could be remote employees as well too. The last leaf was peripheral workers – those doing routine or by the hour work, such as office cleaning staff, where there is very little learning curve, and employees can be paid per task or per hour.

Per Handy, organisations would increasingly shrink the core, moving existing employees to contract role. Handy didn’t see this as a dark nefarious pattern. Many employees, he felt would be happy to move to contract roles, moving back and forth between paid, fee and free work in their ‘portfolio careers’ given their personal and professional objectives. These were fairly radical thoughts for the late ‘80s. And it is fascinating how prescient Handy was, for he is possibly describing organisation structures and patterns in today’s age.

The shrinking of the core

Almost every large company in India today has a cryptically named project, under which senior management meet to plan how to reduce employee headcount. Almost every one of us knows a middle-aged friend or two who is now a consultant, having suddenly resigned from what was a well-paying job. Sometimes we are that consultant.

A contracting full time work force is a reality today, as organisations feel the pressure to reduce payroll costs as the market tightens. In addition, there is greater competition or even disruption, often from quarters they didn’t expect before. Who could have imagined that car companies would worry about losing sales, not to a competitor, but to a ridesharing app? As new competitors rise up from unexpected quarters, companies are feeling the need to up their tech quotient, especially by attracting younger technical talent.

When it comes to hiring, we find that younger technical talent is wary of joining these organisations full time, either because of fears about culture or because they may feel that such a setting wont give them continuous cutting-edge exposure that a startup setting offers. Increasingly we find that there is a cohort of young, tech-savvy new economy talent that larger established businesses cannot access without relaxing employment / workplace rules.  However they are happy to explore short-term projects and microjobs, typically one where they deliver a defined product or time-bound service. Thus the second trend – the rise of flexiwork. (The first trend was the emergence of a task or gig-based economy, explored here.)

The rise of flexiwork

As organisations expand or look to reengineer themselves for this new challenging age, increasingly they are choosing to work with freelancers with relevant skillsets than onboard full-time employees. We also now have a large mass of freelancers, or even fulltime employees willing to take on part time projects and are happy to embrace the non-linear rhythms of flexible working.

Unlike the employees who entered the workforce in the ‘80s / ‘90s, and were happy to embrace a linear career, the millennials and Gen Z employees see their career as a non-linear punctuated progression. They are happy to quit a well-paying job, take a six-month sabbatical and go to Bali, as someone I know has done, and then come back and search for a job.

In parallel, superior technology + tools, better management practices and attitudes to work make it easy to slice a dice a role or requirement into pieces that can be parceled out to freelancers, and then assembled back.

Where is all this leading to? What do these trends portend?

Enter Tapchief, the first company built for the flexiwork economy

As large businesses begin to look for more and more freelancers to take on roles, and in parallel, more and more fulltime employees exit full-time employment and look for assignments to earn income, there emerges a natural case for a player who can bridge these two needs, helping businesses access freelancers, and in turn helping freelancers access businesses.

Tapchief is that player. Only instead of the traditional services or staffing model whereby they provide resources on contract, they have created a near complete ‘productized’ play, where businesses can login to put up a request for resources for specific projects, and freelancers can then apply for the same. The Tapchief team vets these profiles and makes sure that businesses see only the most relevant profiles. This is done via a combination of machine + human intelligence, and with the goal of reducing human involvement over time by introducing more and more machine learning into the process.

In addition to helping the business navigate evaluation, Tapchief also helps define scope of work of the project, oversee contracts and intermediate the payments (Tapchief bills the business and then pays the freelancer).  This is a form of marketplace or platform that has come to be termed as a managed marketplace.

Today, Tapchief serves 100,000+ freelancers helping them find projects in fields across programming, product management, design and content (~25,000 projects thus far). It aims to create a million solopreneurs eventually, becoming a platform where the freelancer can earn income commensurate with what he or she would earn as a full time employee without working full time.

Over 100+ businesses including several Fortune 500 companies and high growth startups use the services of Tapchief’s freelancers to execute projects across tech, marketing, design and content creation. These projects are sometimes a couple of days long, but usually spread across weeks. Let us look at a couple of these projects

  • An experienced data visualization expert helped a leading FMCG MNC generate insights from from a data set of 1 trillion points, leading to improved business outcomes of 60% in half the time and cost.
  • A leading upskilling firm needed 250+ blogs per month. No agency could offer this level of content expertise and scale of output. The firm successfully outsourced this to expert creators on the Tapchief platform

The Tapchief thesis

At Blume, the unbundling of the corporation and the emergence of platforms that enable and support a distributed workforce has been a pet theme. It was this theme that guided our investments such as Infollion which helps corporates access experts, Squad which helps real estate agents use a combination of machine learning smarts and a distributed sales force to deliver stellar outcomes and Frapp which uses students to do tasks for corporates across sales, marketing, research functions. And now Tapchief. Each investment has seen a move up the value stack, as corporates get more aggressive, and freelancer quality gets better.

Tapchief is the second of our BITS campus startups. The first was GreyOrange, India’s largest robotics player specializing in warehouse automation. The Tapchief trio of founders – Shashank, Binay & Arjun – came together in the second year of BITS to build Edvice, their first startup which connected students to tutors. Edvice which began as a fun hobby project did well enough to be acquired by an edtech player. The trio began to look to their next opportunity – they started out in the expert consultation space, but over time led by the dictates of the market, moved to a more fuller stack avatar.

Binay, Shashank and Arjun, the Tapchief founders

Tapchief’s ambition today is to build a large business that builds and supports the changing aspirations and expectations of the emerging Indian professional – for better work-life balance, freedom to choose where, when and who to deploy his skills with, etc., and in parallel, supporting Indian businesses tap these emerging solopreneurs.

In evaluating a startup for venture investment, every VC broadly considers three aspects or even questions – the quality of the founders or team, the market size of the opportunity and finally the quality of the product or solution through which they are chasing the opportunity. It is rare for a startup to even deliver on two of these but very occasionally we come upon a startup that ticks all three boxes. That to us was Tapchief.

We are excited by the ambitions of the Tapchief founders to rethink how Indian businesses (and one day global ones) staff and get work done. We are excited by how Tapchief is rethinking career paths for talented freelancers who are unshackling themselves from corporate bonds. Most of all, we are excited to welcome Tapchief to the Blume family.

Welcome aboard, Shashank, Binay, Arjun and the rest of the chiefs from Tapchief!