Matt Berrie, CEO of freelancer.comSunday, September 18, 2016
‘Latin America is growing like crazy’
Born: 1973, Adelaide, Australia
Previous Employment: Ex-Professor of Cryptography at at the University of Sydney.
Latest Work: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained. Collected Essays
Matt Berrie is the CEO of freelancer.com, the so-called “eBay for jobs” crowdsourcing website that recently reached 20 million users, most of whom either bid for freelance work contracts or crowdsource their own projects and businesses. While on a whistlestop visit to Argentina to oversee the launch of the company’s new office in Buenos Aires City, he spoke to the Herald about working with NASA and how his site is fostering a new generation of digital “nomads.”
What brings you to Argentina?
I’m here to deliver the keynote speech for an e-commerce day and various other talks about freelancer.com. One of the key reasons I’m here is to give a talk that I’ve given in various countries around the world, called “How to not get screwed by venture capital” — catchy title right? ... We’re also announcing the launch of the office here in Buenos Aires, which is happening right now ... there’s six of us in the office at present and we’re hoping to expand to around 30 in total.
What influenced the decision to open an office in Argentina?
Several things. First of all, Latin America is growing like crazy. Twenty million people use the site and around two million of those are from Latin America including Brazil as a whole. Three-and-a-half years ago it was virtually zero. The team here have made a huge effort in building it up through language, currencies and so on. It’s growing a lot faster than the core, in the northern hemisphere between the US and India ... it’s in a fantastic time zone with the east coast of the US right through to Spain. We’ve got several offices around the world and this is one of the crucial ones for us.
So the sun never sets for your site?
We’re 24/7 for sure. We have users from every country in the world, including Vatican City and even Antarctica. So we have to be alert and on “mission critical” all the time. A lot of people rely on the world we facilitate to feed their families from their earnings on the site. And if it goes down, I get 20 million emails or tweets or Facebook requests.
In terms of balance, do more users look for jobs online or more tend to offer work?
Well we’ve had 9.6 million jobs posted and 20 million users. So we have an oversupply of people looking for work, which is broadly representative of the world as a whole. Seven billion people on the planet, five billion people live on US$10 a day or less.
Among the users, who has stood out for you?
A lot of our freelancers are digital nomads — so they travel fulltime and work remotely with their laptop. NASA has conducted about 60 contests on the site, where they ask for a task or project to be completed and then users submit their solutions. The latest one is the 3D modelling of handrail — it’s now a handrail on the ISS — selected from 125 entries. The space agency began by posting projects and then eventually emailed and asked if we could help them out. The amazing thing is that this cost them US$50 to work with us ... on the other end of the spectrum, it’s also entrepeneurs, whether you’re talking India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippenes wherever you are in the world, you’re helping job creation.
How did freelancer.com begin?
Well, it was 2009. I needed to get some data entry done while I was working on other websites, and I was filling a spreadsheet with all the details of users and I initially tried to find help from contacts who would get paid a few dollars per row of data entry ... eventually I went online and searched for “data entry” or something similar, found this website called “getafreelancer,” which looked pretty terrible to be honest. I posted a job, went to lunch, forgot about it. Came back from lunch and my inbox had exploded. 74 people in a few minutes saying they would do the whole job for US$2,000, US$5,000, US$300 dollars. I was blown away ... eventually I started a new website.
And there are now 20 million users?
The numbers get pretty mind-boggling when you think about it for sure. What is the potential long-term impact of this? It’s a global marketplace as a product. An eBay for services or jobs I suppose I would classify it as.
Freelancer.com seems very much connected to social media. Is it more popular with the so-called millenial generation for that reason?
We have people of all ages on the site, but of course the bulk of users are in their 20s and 30s. And that’s also somewhat representative of what the working-class looks like in the emerging markets. So people who are looking for a job for the first time and are hungry for work, that’s the main age-group. India, for example, has a lifetime boom of 14 million people added to their workforce every year, at present. While on the other side you have somewhere like Japan and they’re short of half a million engineers according to their Labour Ministry, and so we can help solve those sorts of problems. So the market place is fantastic for analyzing all these demographics.
Do you assign any place to ideas of public service or altruism?
Absolutely. If you think about it, the whole purpose of creating a market that would enable millions of people from all around the world to be independent and manage their work life and salaries, is improving their quality of life. All around the world, there are people who earn less than US$10 a day. With freelancer.com we are helping them earn US$5, US$10, or even more, per hour ... we also enable people who can’t work full time, for several reasons, to have a salary. From disabled people, to women who have to take care of their family, to people who have already retired, you name it ... for example, we are currently working with an Argentine movement called Chicas Poderosas, and in Australia, Girls Who Code, both encouraging women to take a bigger role in tech.
Many in the private sector inside and outside of Argentina have expressed positivity about the election of a more “pro-business” president in Mauricio Macri. What do you think about his tenure so far?
Argentina is an amazing country, with a very appealing culture, and with outstanding talent. I love it! And what truly drew me to invest in this country was the talent. I strongly believe that you should create a company around people, and Argentina is a country filled with incredible professionals. Aside from that, every businessman in any country finds very important that the rules are clear and stable. Being in a country that has a stable set of laws, that stay the same in the long term is great for business.
What did you make of the current economic situation here and the government’s response?
I think Argentina is on the right path. There is still a lot to do, but it is an incredibly talented country, with lots of potential. Argentina has one of the highest connectivity rates in Latin America, comparable to Europe. It has an incredible creative economy, the quality of their products in terms of design, software development, marketing, among others, is really high. The professionals are great as well, especially in translation, software development and design. I can also see that the entrepreneurial movement is growing quite rapidly. Back in 2012, I attended the Buenos Aires ecommerceday event, and I went again last week — I was amazed by the amount of people that attended, I can tell you that it grew a lot since the last time.
How do wider political-economic crises in the region affect your site?
Unlike what people often think, crises are not good for freelancer.com. It is true that some people turn to freelancing as a way to find some extra money, or to have a job while job hunting. But, if we don’t get people willing to hire, we don’t get new projects ... we don’t really focus on specific countries but on regions. But, like I said before, (this) is a very interesting and appealing place to invest. When we arrived in Argentina, back in 2012, we had 12,000 users, which is very little, and now we have 200,000. Latin America represents 10 percent of our whole market.
With regards to people who get work on the site, presumably many of those who find jobs would prefer full time work. What’s your take?
Most people working on freelancer.com use it as a full time job. We have freelancers who started alone, but got so many jobs that the workload was too much to handle and hired a team, and now use our platform as a source of new clients ... being a freelancer is not about working part-time, it’s a way of working, a lifestyle. There are many who do take some jobs and treat it as something on the side. For many millennials ... being a freelancer will be the new normal, their full-time.