Five Startups In Four Countries Show How To Combine Freelance Expertise And Interim Management Gigs

I had an interesting conversation this week with Elina Liehu, founder of Ferovalo located just outside Helsinki, Finland. As many of my European readers know, Nordic and Northern European countries have had more challenges building a freelance economy. For both cultural and economic reasons, in these countries (and the EU generally) there is more emphasis on full-time work, and government, unions, and employer organizations collaborate in ensuring equitable pay, worker protections, and higher levels of regular employment. Ferovalo is a good example of an increasing trend in the freelance revolution. The 1000 members of Ferovalo’s platform are, for the most part, “C” level executives. And, according to Liehu, demand is currently focused on interim managerial roles in finance. The platform is young and most members are currently based in Finland; however, platform membership includes many international professionals living in Finland and an increasing number of professionals outside Finland. While tech freelancers are well established in Finland, other freelance professionals are just beginning their climb to career respectability. A typical run is six months.

Ferovalo is a great example of a trend within freelancing that I’ve written about earlier, offering  longer term freelancing posts as an interim executive. 

A second example is startup Vrootok in Macedonia. Founder Teodora Nikolovska began her company as a more traditional marketing agency providing services to US companies utilizing full-time professionals but client challenges forced the team to pivot and the startup shifted to a freelance platform model.  In working through potential MVP sources of opportunity, she noticed that SMB clients – both startups and small companies generally – often lacked the market savvy needed to build their business. Just as Torchlite noticed that SMB Salesforce clients needed help benefiting from Salesforce tools, Vrootok saw the chance to provide interim CMOs to SMB companies on a freelance basis. Vrootok has a smaller platform than Ferovalo, with approximately 300 professionals in their marketplace. 80% of their business is serving US companies, typically in categories like food production, SaaS, productivity software, coaching and fashion. And, like Ferovalo in Finland, a typical engagement is six months, although some partnerships have continued for years. Vrootok is also in the process of implementing a new model where it will provide a wider range of digital marketing services like paid advertising, email marketing and automation, SEO, and strategy development, providing a broader slate of digital marketing professional expertise linked to the platform’s CMO relationships.

NC Partners On Demand in Paris is a third example, created by Martin Videlaine. Videlaine is a long time management consultant with deep experience at Roland Berger, a major European based but global consulting shop. His firm, NC Partners On Demand, which he now leads with Ghita Lahlou, a former BCG consultant, has combined a freelance independent management consulting practice with a significant interim management offering. Both the consulting and interim executive communities offer a range of professional expertise, but the credentials of the two communities differ in an interesting and predictable way. For independent management consultants, the emphasis is on credentialing: these are individuals with significant experience and work experience in one of the big global firms. By contrast, the freelancers offering interim management require a strong track record of both accomplishment and experience in companies, and deep functional and operational responsibility. As Videlaine pointed out, “few of our freelancers have the skill, experience, and bona fides to operate as both freelance consultants and interim executives.  The profiles, at least for now, are such that only 5-10% fit both profiles.” While the interim management side of NC Partners On Demand business is only 25% of total business currently, he believes it will grow significantly and represents a much larger total market opportunity. However, as such, he also points out that it is a highly competitive category in France.

A fourth is Marteamo in the US. Marteamo is a bit different from these other three in strategy, but not in concept. Like other agency disrupters, the focus of Marteamo is marketing and related freelance professionals: SEO, copywriting, videography, PR. But unlike most freelance marketplaces, Marteamo’s focus is on providing interim (or longer term) freelance based marketing teams in their entirety. As co-founder Anna Yudin, put it, “We’ve learned that great startup leaders often don’t know how to set up marketing for success. They often don’t have the experience to see what’s needed, or feel they have the budget to create a strong team. And, they rarely have the time or experience to coordinate a successful, integrated, marketing and PR plan.  We do that for them, starting with a marketing lead that will bring together all the activities. And they can have as much or as little of these skills – strategy, SEO, writing, design – as they need.” Marteamo is just getting started but is already developing a strong reputation.

Finally, meet LifeSciHub, also in the US and focused on a very specific professional category: pharma human clinical trials management and safety. Although founder and CEO Sheila Mahoney doesn’t use the term “interim”, it fits for her small but impressive community of over 150 professionals. The category – pharma clinical trials expertise – would seem to offer all the elements of success: growing need, high cost of failure, limited supply of expertise, and a fairly long path to professional maturity. The challenge: despite recognition of the value of independent professionals by pharma organization leaders, HR and procurement teams are slow to embrace the strategic importance of freelance and interim expertise in this category. But Mahoney is optimistic, and the race for a Covid 19 vaccine is accelerating both need and openness to new resourcing models.

These five platforms are by no means alone in seeing the opportunity in interim management. Firms like Cerius and Tatum in the US, Adequancy in Paris, and Mandaat/Wil Group in the Netherlands, are also active and important participants. But, for freelance revolutionaries, what are the requirements for success. Although not the result of a systematic study, the many conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs and thought leaders, and watching many digital marketplaces, it seems as though successful platforms offering interim management freelance services do four things right. Think of it as a “success-in-a-box” where success depends on the quality of planning and execution in four areas:

Do you already have, or can you attract, the platform talent required for interim leadership roles? A more traditional platform interested in branching out into interim management roles would be smart to review the experts on the platform, identify potential interim candidates, and talk with them about the freelance opportunities in interim roles, but also the differences e.g, less flexibility in hours and location. However, it may be that the platform is robust enough, and candidates are plentiful enough, to contemplate an offering to selected customers as a test. If successful, expand.

Is your platform talent focused in the areas where interim management opportunities are most plentiful? According to a survey by mega-provider Senior Management Worldwide, “Marketing and sales are the most common interim assignments with 31 percent of respondents leading these initiatives followed by 22 percent acting as an interim CFO… The top four sectors using interim executives are manufacturing/engineering, banking/insurance/financial services and biotech/pharmaceutical/chemical and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG).” The UK Interim Management Institute’s 2020 survey noted that, in the UK, 32% of interim roles were either public sector or non-profit. Finance, IT and HR were the largest beneficiaries of interim management roles. Among corporates, the industries most utilizing interims were professional services, healthcare, manufacturing and engineering, and tech.

Are you building the required brand reputation? Interim management is without doubt a competitive marketplace. In addition to traditional recruitment firms moving adjacently into interim management, many consultancies are keen to throw their hat in, and of course other platforms are eager to take advantage. The choice of an interim executive or manager depends on the trust your platform has established with clients and partners. It is a different sale than on demand freelancing. Smart platforms who see the potential must also see and act on the requirements for success.

Have you thought through what it takes to be successful longer term? Building a business is, of course, different than taking temporary advantage of a short term opportunity or unexpected market disruption. It’s important for the platform leadership team to determine which path. If the choice is to build an interim management offering, its essential to put in place the systems and processes needed specifically for that business. Harley Lovegrove and Des Dearlove have both written about the unique requirements for a sustainable interim management initiative.  

These are challenging times for many startups in the freelance space, and interim management roles are an opportunity that many find attractive. The five startups profiled are making progress and experiencing growth, but all express the reality that building a company in the midst of a global pandemic is not easy. Andy Grove, the iconic leader and co-founder of Intel reminded us, “There is at least one point in the history of any company when you have to change dramatically to rise to the next level of performance.” If that point is where your startup is at, and interim management is part of the solution, viva la revolution!

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