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Talent Search: Upwork Can Help With Your Startup's Staffing Needs Upwork, which bills itself as "the world's largest freelance talent marketplace," is an online platform that allows for businesses and freelancers to connect and collaborate.

By Aby Sam Thomas

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


If you thought setting up a company was hard work, wait till you try to find people to work for it after you've gotten it off the ground. While convincing people to work at a startup has never been an easy proposition, finding the right talent to work for your business can also be a rather tough endeavor- this is particularly true for the Middle East's entrepreneurial ecosystem, with 63% of the 254 MENA-based startups surveyed for an October 2014 report by Wamda Research Lab noting that they do face an uphill battle when staffing their respective enterprises. This can be attributed to a variety of factors- these can range from the expensive nature of the costs involved in hiring full-time personnel, to the sheer difficulty of finding people in the Middle East with the requisite skills that one needs. It is in such a scenario that the utility of Upwork –which bills itself as "the world's largest freelance talent marketplace"- makes its presence felt.

As an online platform that allows for businesses and freelancers to connect and collaborate, Upwork provides startups (or businesses of any size, for that matter) with access to a virtual database listing independent professionals from around the world, skilled in a variety of disciplines. Regardless of whether you're looking for a web developer to quickly whip up a website for your business, or an illustrator to create an eye-catching logo for your brand, Upwork can help you find the right person to do the job on its global platform. "There are many benefits of online work for businesses, but the most profound advantage is the boundary-less access it provides to the very best talent across a plethora of in-demand skills," says Muhammed Osman Khan, Upwork's Country Manager for the UAE . "Companies can quickly find team members with a particular qualification, specialization or prior experience that are missing in the company or regionally unavailable, [or] too expensive, or not available in the desired time period. Companies are able to expand their existing organizations to a hybrid network of globally distributed experts, as quickly and efficiently as possible."

Screenshot of the Upwork website.

And companies in the Middle East are indeed sitting up and taking note of the advantages that Upwork's pool of freelance talent provides for their respective businesses- Khan reveals that organizations in the UAE have been particularly active on the platform. "When it comes to Upwork, the UAE ranks fifth globally in terms of its online talent hiring spend, with companies spending AED89.9 million in 2014 on our workplaces," he says. "We've seen an increase in both client registrations and job posts by more than 15% in 2014, and I believe this is only the start. Cumulatively, we have over 35,000 clients registered, with 75% of their spend [being] on technology, which clearly highlights the talent gap they are facing." For startups, SMEs and other companies in the region's entrepreneurial space, the Upwork platform can be particularly alluring given how it is particularly advantageous on factors like speed and cost. "In the traditional labor market, it can take months to fill a job," Khan explains. "Yet on Upwork, the average time to hire a skilled professional is three days, with 25% of all jobs filled within 24 hours. Starting a project within days, not weeks, gives your company a clear competitive advantage." In addition, Khan notes that there are no barriers to entry to Upwork- this means that businesses can register and source talent on the marketplace for free.

Muhammed Osman Khan, Upwork's Country Manager for the UAE.

Emirati publishing house Sail Publishing is one such company that made use of Upwork's platform for its staffing needs. "Being a publishing house for a couple of online magazines, a print magazine, and ebooks, we have many requirements for different design expertise and sometimes technical expertise [as well]," says Iman Ben Chaibah, CEO, Sail Publishing. "And as a small business, hiring resources can become difficult with a low cash flow. So Upwork came to the rescue with so many design and technical requirements we had along the way, from designing business cards and roll-ups, to technical issues with the website, to designing print layout for the print magazine. Upwork provided a number of qualified candidates, and I got to review their portfolio of work and talk with them before I contract any of them. The average cost of those jobs was amazingly low that it didn't affect our budgets."

Iman Ben Chaibah, CEO, Sail Publishing.

But this is not to say that startups and SMEs should think of working with Upwork's freelancers as a freewheeling joy ride either- on the contrary, the required due diligence needs to be done as with any hiring process. Iraklis Alexopoulos, CTO, Souqalmal.com, who used Upwork to find technology specialists to help with his company's web development needs, says that one is assured of a good experience with Upwork provided one makes the effort to find the right freelancer for the job at hand. "The platform can't guarantee it will be easy to work with someone," Alexopoulos says. "But what it does succeed to deliver is to provide you with the right screening tools, to make sure you end up working with the right people. And also, it provides both parties –both employer and contractor- with tools to monitor the work progress efficiently and on time. So, eventually the working experience can be very seamless."

Iraklis Alexopoulos, CTO, souqalmal.com.

Kunal Kapoor, CEO, The Luxury Closet, agrees with Alexopoulos on this point. According to Kapoor, who utilized Upwork to find expertise not available locally, as well as to fill part-time roles at his enterprise quickly, employers making use of the platform's freelancers would be wise to brush up on their managerial skills before going down this road. "It really depends on your experience managing an outsourcing team, and the communication skills of the person you are working with," Kapoor says. "It is possible to be so well coordinated that there is further benefit to having the resource in-house. However, in reality, the freelancers come in a spectrum from [those who are] amazingly communicative and efficient, to those that require a lot of supervision and explanation. At the end of the day, it's like hiring a full-time team member- it really is your choice who to hire."

Kunal Kapoor, CEO, The Luxury Closet.

While the amount of freelance talent that Upwork has available for hire can seem daunting for prospective employers, it is also precisely this factor that makes the platform a valuable one for entrepreneurs looking to find the best professionals to do a job. "The growing appetite for hiring online freelancers boils down to a talent crunch," Osman says. "We are looking at a future where companies from the region will be innovating for consumer demands globally; one of the reasons for this will be access to the right talent at the right time. Since Upwork is a free freelance talent marketplace, talent from all over the world can register and apply for jobs. If you have a skill, you can find a job for it; however, you are competing in a talent pool comprising of 180+ countries. Increasing competition means freelancers have to continuously upgrade their skills, and produce quality work to keep succeeding."

According to Osman, this is a model that makes for a win-win situation, not just for Upwork's freelancers, but also for the businesses hiring them. This is especially true for entrepreneurial ventures in the Middle East, with Osman pointing to the UAE 's ecosystem as an example. "With 60% of the UAE economy made up of SMEs and with a rapidly expanding pool of entrepreneurs, tech and startup companies in the region, a growing number of businesses in the UAE have already started to benefit immensely from the access to global talent garnered by Upwork," he says. "We are empowering these organizations to adopt a hybrid work model that enables them to access globally distributed freelance talent, being able to scale their companies much faster, and often, more cost-effectively [as well]."

Screenshot of the Upwork website.

The Client Referral: Should You Use Upwork For Your Enterprise's Needs?

Would you encourage fellow startups or entrepreneurs in the Middle East looking to grow and/or develop their businesses to use Upwork ? What factors should enterprises take into consideration when making this decision?

Iraklis Alexopoulos, CTO, Souqalmal.com: "Yes, if you know exactly what you are looking for and you have the expertise to spot and review the right people, Upwork could be the answer in mainly two cases: lack of local talent, or need for talent on demand, what I like to call cloud talent. On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend companies to go out looking for people, just based on their advertised skills. Hiring is -and must be- always difficult and time consuming. It's a complicated process, it involves people, thus can't be completely systematically automated. What Upwork solves is not finding talent for you, but opening a gateway to a broader pool of talent, outside your local proximity. Like with any tool, if used well, it can be very efficient."

Kunal Kapoor, CEO, The Luxury Closet: "I will stress my point about the decision to hire and doing your due diligence. Though Upwork does provide a rating/feedback scale you can view, what may be an amazing experience for someone else, may not meet your standards. So interview multiple people, set up tests, milestone projects, and if you still don't find someone, look elsewhere."

Iman Ben Chaibah, CEO, Sail Publishing: "Definitely; I always recommend it! It takes out much of the burden from operational cost. You just need to make sure you do your due diligence in reviewing different freelancers before you choose one."

Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.

Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.  

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