It’s Just Like Renting a Room: Building a High-Level Flexible Workforce with Bridget Loudon
When I found out that Expert360 CEO/co-founder Bridget Loudon was 26, it bummed me out. I’m just about the same age and, if I compare my own resumé to hers, I come out looking like a total slacker.
“I’ve been starting businesses since I was 10 years old,” the Australian-born Loudon says. “I sold paper baskets outside of my parents’ house [in Ireland], which was fantastic because I didn’t have to actually pay for the paper. I just took it straight out of the printer.”
From there, Loudon started all kinds of ventures, including a tutoring business (with employees) and challenging the university book store by selling textbooks at a third of their prices — all before she was a legal adult.
At 18, Loudon had the chance to shadow a group of Australian businesswomen who were starting a wholesale apparel distribution company in Hong Kong. “From those 8 weeks that I spent in Hong Kong, I knew that what I would be doing would be something like that,” she says. “I didn’t know it was called entrepreneurship at the time, but I knew that was what I was going to be doing [with my life]. I was going to be creating businesses.”
Loudon returned to Ireland and brought the apparel distribution business with her, selling clothes out of her parents’ house before the business grew large enough that she had to buy a separate workspace. (Loudon jokes that her parents kicked her out because she was extracting “slave labor” from her brother). When the recession hit in 2008, Loudon sold the business and decided to move to Australia.
In Australia, Loudon worked as a management consultant with Bain and Company for three years, focusing on corporate strategy and private equity. It was during her time at Bain that Loudon noticed the problem that would spur the creation of Expert360. “I noticed that we [at Bain] could work with the big companies, but it was really difficult for the smaller companies to get access to talent,” she says.
At the same time, Loudon also noticed the increasing necessity of building more flexible talent pipelines. “I saw the flexibility of the workforce — companies not only wanting but needing to have that flexibility to be agile, to move quickly, particularly if you’re a bigger player,” she says. “The Internet and digitization are changing the playing field. If you can’t keep up with smaller players and their innovation, you’ll just be lost. I think being able to morph your talent profile around that is super important.”
Loudon interviewed professionals at about 100 companies, and found that most of them were looking for ways to get flexible high-level talent. Meanwhile, Loudon saw platforms like oDesk and Elance “absolutely killing it” in providing flexible labor for lower-level jobs. “For me, the next logical step in the game was the higher-end talent,” she says.
With that, Loudon quit her job with Bain and started Expert360.
Buying Consultants in a Marketplace
In a nutshell, “Expert360 is a global online marketplace that allows businesses to find and engage experts and consultants on a flexible basis,” Loudon says. It is the higher-level extension of oDesk and Elance that Loudon mentioned above.
Companies send in briefs describing their objectives and the kind of consultant they’re looking for. Expert360 helps companies connect with vetted experts who may be a good fit for the job. The company decides which expert is right for them, and, voila —an organization just bought a consultant on a marketplace in the same way someone might buy a handyman from TaskRabbit.
“We see [companies] using Expert360 when they have a piece of work that needs to be done, but they don’t necessarily have the in-house expertise or the resources,” Loudon says. “They just lack the people, and they just need them on an ad hoc basis.”
Loudon sees companies of all sizes using Expert360: “People from startups all the way through to large businesses have those occasions.” However, she notes that the “sweet-spot” is “small to medium businesses who — they were a small business or a family owned business —are pushing the boundaries and making that next step.”
These businesses can’t hire consulting firms or bring in full-time employees, but they do need some external help. Loudon says that Expert360 is where “they can get one person in for twelve weeks to really help them push it to that next level: drive the growth, make decisions, launch that new product, expand into that new market. What it means is that they can grow their business without taking on the overhead of a full-time headcount.”
Buying Consultants: It’s a Lot Like Renting a Room
“I honestly think that we are only at the beginning of [the move toward flexible talent],” Loudon says, echoing Deloitte’s predictions about the coming open talent economy. She points out that work is “no longer a place.” “Before the industrial revolution, people didn’t come into work. It’s only in the last 100, 150 years that work is a place [that you come to],” she says. “We come in because our tools are here — our computers, our colleagues.”
Our tools are now increasingly available online, obviating the need for a centralized, traditional work experience. “Meeting rooms are online. Our meeting room is online right now,” she says, referring to the Google Hangout session we’re having to conduct this interview. “Our computers are portable. Everything is portable. Work is no longer a place.”
Now that work is no longer a place, companies are increasingly able to rely on independent contractors — even for high-level projects — rather than hiring large, full-time workforces. “Companies are better off if they can assemble and disband teams quickly,” Loudon notes.
Loudon chose to use a marketplace model to build a pool of flexible high-level talent because, well, finding flexible talent is a lot like renting a room. “The internet is just wonderfully efficient at matching excess supply with excess demand,” she says. “You can think about it as: executives and consultants have spare time on their hands in the same way that people have a spare room. Companies are willing to get that person in on a flexible basis. I think the fundamentals of expertise and consulting work are exactly the same as renting out a spare room, or hiring a developer on Elance. I think the fundamentals perfectly match the marketplace model.”