Joe Griston has always had two key skills on his side, the strength to embrace the unknown, and the ability to recognise great opportunities.
In the year 2000, after coming to the realisation that he would never scale the dizzying heights of software engineering, Joe recognised that companies keen to avoid another Y2K scare would be itching for software testers, and jumped on board to sell their services. Finding that the mindset that had been unsuitable for programming was perfect for the world of people, he found success in recruiting and selling the services of the engineers around him. Unfulfilled by this success, he embraced the unknown, packed his bags and travelled the world for a year. When his money ran out, but his desire for the new challenges and adventure remained, he left London to embark on a new life in Sydney.
After fortuitous meeting at a dinner party, early in his Sydney life, he was captivated by a guest who had an ambitious plan to change freelancing and how work was done. The company was Freelancer.com and since then, he’s never looked back.
Now the Director of People and Talent at the online freelancing and crowd-sourcing platform, Joe leads people operations globally for the site that boasts over 16 million registered users, and has finally found his place.
This week we talked to Joe about his journey of finding work that’s more than a job, the freelancer NASA partnership, how recruiters can take advantage of the platform, and how freelancer is building their workforce of 2020.
As the Director of People and Talent at Freelancer.com my role in the company is to look after our talent globally, I’m responsible for all recruitment, culture & talent (HR) matters across 420 staff globally in 5 locations, Sydney, Manila, London, Vancouver and Buenos Aires.
I’m tasked with recruitment worldwide, as well as culture and a lot of HR type activities. The interesting thing about Freelancer.com is that we are predominately a group of software engineers and data scientists. There are no middle managers who don’t do much, or simply manage a process. Everyone has a very specific role within the organisation and everyone has a massive influence on what we do and what the product is. Because of this it’s key that we have all our people thinking in the same way.
The dinner party that changed his life
I’d been in Sydney for three months and found myself at a dinner party. I’m a talkative chap but there was someone at the dinner party that made me completely shut up and listen to what he was saying and listen because he was the most intelligent man I’d ever met in my life.
Here was someone [Matt Barrie, Freelancer CEO] who was an Australian software engineer who went to Stanford, graduated as an expert in cryptography and had set up this company in Sydney called Freelancer.com. There were only maybe 10 people at the organisation at the time, but what the product was, and what I saw it becoming in the future was just phenomenal. I was in awe at what he was saying and what his knowledge base was. I got more into pure technical recruitment, into HR issues, advising others on up-skilling staff, learnt how to set up a good culture.
The stars align
After I came on board, I quickly came to the realisation that what I had done in my career so far was nothing compared to what I was being tasked to here. I was the only recruiter, only HR member of staff, the only culture person – and was tasked with building an organisation in Sydney of the world’s best people. Sydney is a relatively small place compared to other locations in the world as far as tech people are concerned, and it proved a hard task.
Early days at freelancer.com
So the early days was just building the company, putting down different ways of interviewing; different ways of on-boarding; different ways of looking after staff; different ways of managing them and reviewing them, improving a number of initiatives. The attitude was that I was the expert at this, so it was up to me to make it work
I spent the initial few months building up some amazing quality individuals in this team, and then was relatively involved with taking the company through the IPO, again I’d never done that before. It was a lot of fun and it turned out to be immensely successful. Our market capitalisation is around $700 million today and has grown x3 since the IPO. Its been a thrilling journey.
I’ve grown the company in the Sydney office to 103 people who are full time, we have a few interns as well. I opened up the Vancouver office, once again I’d never opened up an office for a company, along side this I’ve grown the total number of staff to 420 globally. But what sets us apart from the rest here is that we have made sure we only hire employees who are as good as, if not better than the existing workforce. I could easily double the size of the company tomorrow however we will not dilute the internal expertise in return for accelerated growth, something I’ve not seen any other tech company do.
Growing the people team
At this point of time I’ve hired some more people to work with me, they’re the talent team who are the main recruiters of the company based in Sydney. I also have 6 people in our office in Manila and we’re looking after things worldwide.
From software engineering to recruitment
I’m basically a software engineer, it’s what I studied, It’s what I got my degree in, but I came to the conclusion quite early that I wasn’t quite good enough to work in a world class tech company which was where my passion lay. I came to the realisation that I couldn’t reach the dizzying heights of the world’s best companies as a software engineer. One of the reasons Matt hired me was because I did have a software engineering degree, so I can hold my own (but it did take me awhile to get to a level of communicating effectively with the worlds best engineers). So I’ve gone from this average engineer to running the talent division within a company that has an amazing product, is successful and has such a passionate group of users.
When you see the user feedback of how we’ve affected their lives, for people in rural locations in various parts of the globe who have housed their families for the first time because of our product, it’s phenomenal. When we see individuals who supplement their income and do very well from it, and see businesses that have struggled or have been failing and they’ve turned themselves around purely because of what we do its really good to see.
On finding work that’s more than a job
I will fully admit that before I was in this role I was someone who was working in order to live -hopefully a nice quality of life outside of the office. I was a commissioned based recruiter, and it was good and I liked doing it, but it was all about getting the job done and having fun, finding success outside the office. Whereas at Freelancer.com I’m part of something, that is changing the world in a massively positive way.
The freelancer structure
This a meritocracy, where everyone has equal value and equal say in the company. The direction of the company comes from us in this office, building these products. You’re fully involved in that, and that has kept everyone here – me especially- so committed to the cause.
It’s not the easiest job in the world. I say to many people, this in my mind is the hardest thing, the most challenging thing I will ever do in my life. But, it is by far the best thing and the most rewarding thing I’m ever going to do in my life as well.
For me to say that considering my attitude before joining the company is a huge thing for me, and I absolutely love the position I’m in today.
What the company is doing to build their future workforce
The way we’ve approached this has tended to work incredibly well. We have an office, and it took as quite awhile to find a space, where everyone is on one floor. We wanted this because we want everyone in the same work space, there are no cubicles and it’s all open. What we’ve done is group desks together in what we call product teams.
The product teams are basically a little mini company within the larger organization. We go by the age old analogy about not having teams you can’t feed on one takeout pizza, otherwise it’s too big. Essentially when you keep team sizes small, communication is much easier; Management much easier; up skilling employees needs is much easier. When your team is small you can understand what each person’s needs are, and can give people what they want and what they need to do their job in the best way possible.
The product team
Our product teams comprise of a product manager, and that person is the CEO of that product, and they’ll sit and work daily with an engineer or two, a data scientist or two and a designer – and that’s their company. They build together, they release together. We’re able to release and upgrade software far quicker than anywhere else I’ve seen (around 30 times daily), because there’s not a lot of roadblocks to the process.
They’re given the responsible to do a task, and they do it.
Then we have other people who oversee product areas, who make sure that everyone knows what everyone is doing, and that communication is working well between the different groups. They all work and sit together.
From an HR perspective we have to make sure that our people are fulfilled. All people are different, their needs are different and as their situations change we have to be there to support them.
Commutation and Feedback
At freelancer we have a feedback and review system that is constant. Constant feedback and communication, so we as a company know what people are liking and disliking, what works well and what doesn’t. Without that constant feedback between each party, it’s hard to have control and manage. From our perspective, if we can give everyone the feedback they want, and not just the generic “you’re doing a great job” but “this is how you’re performing but what do you need to do something better?” – I think that is very important.
We give people feedback for the products that they’re building all the time. We have over 2 million fans on Facebook, and give that information straight to the product teams in order to let them know how they’re doing as both an individual and as a team.
Follow the data
Every employee in the company has access to our dashboard, so we have over 5000 graphs that record the millions of actions on the site a day. We have a growth team, which is a team responsible for growing both the user numbers of the company and the revenue of the products. These are a group of individuals who are mathematicians, statisticians, data scientists physicists, they’re doing a lot of machine learning and creating a lot of algorithms to tell us basically everything that’s happening in our site and in our company.
Data as a core value
One of the core values we have as an organisation is what does the data say and do what the data tells you. We literally to not make a decision unless it’s backed by data.
It’s the absolute core of our organisation, so we know what we should be doing. All of this is in real time so we know what’s working and not working, we’re running numerous AB tests daily so we know what products are and aren’t successful. We measure everything we do and then try and understand how we can grind out success.
Our head of communications, rather than being a creative marketeer, he’s a physicist and looking at the data and what it means. It’s a phenomenal way to understand a company and what is successful. We look at what is successful, what will think will be successful in the future and what we should be doing daily to work towards that.
Sharing the data
Apart from the dashboard that can be accessed any time, we send daily stats emails and we have a large town hall style meeting every week. We have this live video recording studio in the Sydney office, so at the end of each week that meeting is beamed live to our international offices who participate remotely.
We discuss all our new releases and functionally and issues of the day, so the whole company knows what is happening. It’s an open forum so you can’t ask questions and encourage all our people to present on different topics and participate.
It’s an interesting and fun way to work, and we definitely have some fun and interesting characters in the office in regards to the way their minds work. We have University medallists, people with multiple PhD’s, we’ve got some ex poker players because the way their minds work and they analyse figures is absolutely amazing- and all of this is what we need to make the best decisions possible.
The hiring process
This sharing process comes back to our very first interaction with a potential hire. Our interview process is as interactive as possible. I encourage everyone to interview us as much as we’re interviewing them. A lot of people we hire have great careers, so it’s up to us to offer them something that’s even better. From the very first interaction we want it to be a two way street. We tell candidates who we are, what we’re working on, what we want to achieve and how we think they can help us get there.
This model isn’t for everyone, but it works very well for us.
My advice for HR leaders trying to plan their future workforce
Listen to what your workforce is telling you. I think anyone who rules in a way where the director’s rules are final is not on the right path forward.
Make your workforce feel valued by giving them responsibility and letting them see that their feedback does affect change in the business.
Give everyone the information they want and need to do their job, but make sure the daily activities of employees is an interactive as possible where they can voice their opinion.
There’s a lot of great people in this world, and a lot of fantastic employees working for some amazing companies. These companies understand that it’s the people, by far, who are the most important element of the company. If their voices are heard, and they can affect change, then that’s key to keeping them happy, driven. This builds a successful culture and a successful company.
The NASA project
I think NASA have been so forward thinking here in what they’ve done. If you look at a typical large organisation, it may take a long time to get something signed off, to get awareness and the budget. If you look at the costs to send a spaceships into space with all the equipment, it’s millions upon millions of dollars. NASA looked at us and looked at what we were doing and thought it was pretty good.
They’re using our site to crowd source solutions. There’s a robot called the R2 and this robot will do various different tasks on the international space station. NASA are holding a number of contests on Freelancer.com which are initially crowd sourcing designs for what this robot will use at a fraction of the costs- from $75 dollars. For a company like NASA to have the trust in a marketplace like ours is fantastic. Already other organisations are following suite.
Products that are going to be used on the international space station will be designed through our site using the power of crowd-sourcing from our 16 million users. It really engages people from all over the world as well as they have a chance to do that, it’s very forward thinking from NASA when you say what’s their budget, what’s their headcount issues, can they get people to do this internally – you don’t have to necessarily work in this way, it can really reap benefits on so many levels.
How Joe uses freelancer.com
I personally use the platform to help me in my job, be that simple administrative tasks to things that are a little more complex. We work with something we call our preferred freelancer program where we vet Freelancers as well as a Client Success Team- which is a bit of a matchmaking service, and I use that team to help me find people to help me in my everyday tasks, and I would encourage others to do the same.
How recruiters can use freelancer.com
Looking back on my pure agency recruiting days, and indeed what I do at freelancer, a lot of it is very administrative, and a lot of that work can be completed on the site. Depending on your roles you’re recruiting for, you can also potentially find people on our site. If you’re a contract recruiter, a lot of that work can be done through the platform. I encourage people to give it a try and see what works.
For big corporate organisations, who have lots of levels bureaucracy and worry about IP and data there is still the potential to use the platform. There are organisations that don’t quite understand that a lot of these tasks can be crowdsourced like NASA is doing, or that they can find people on the platform, and it doesn’t have to be done by staff internally, nor someone in an office.
Using a freelancer type platform to resource projects
Obviously it all really depends on what kind of projects there are and what sorts of things you’re looking for.
We now have over 850 categorised job types on the site. Traditionally our site is anything that can be completed online, and people get very creative with what they do as well. If you have a task or project that needs to be completed by a contingent worker, you don’t have say “ok let me recruit someone, let me put job adverts out to find someone sit in our office and do this for us” you can do this all on our site.
Essentially if you can have something completed offsite and online you can work in various different ways within our marketplace. You can post a project, and people will bid for the job (most projects get their first bid in under 60 seconds). You then choose the right person who has the right background, the right skillset, who is committing themselves at the right price. You’re able to make a decision based on our rating system that works very effectively to see people who you’d have trust in completing this work, and read the reviews of people on the site. There’s also the added security of our milestone payments, where you only pay when a certain amount of work in a certain period of time has been completed.
The benefits of engaging contingent workers through a freelancer model
When you look at how contingent workers have traditionally worked in organisations, as far as coming in, filling timesheets, it is something that is very beneficial to leverage a platform of over 16 million. You’re able to look at people in various different situations all across the globe. There’s vast amount of choice, vast amounts of potential resources, you don’t potentially have the headcount limits or space issues that people might have in their offices as well. You’re able to reuse a lot of the contingent workers.
Communication with workers is so vital to success, so on the platform you’re able to communicate to them very effectively and clearly. We’ve recently launched a video chat feature as well as our standard chat software that are built in. Everything is tracked. Every single interaction you have with your contingent workers on our platform is tracked, so if there are any disputes that need resolutions it’s very easy for us to do that. Building trust in our users is a massive priority for us.
If you look at the way Uber works in comparison to traditional taxi drivers, I feel safer in an Uber because it’s tracked, my journey is tracked, every interaction with the driver is tracked, that provides me with the safety and security that my journey is go well.
This is a very similar thing to what we have, that we control this as much as possible and I think there’s far more control when you look at people’s work, with the tracking application and the milestone payments, than if you have a contingent worker who may be sitting in the office and it may be quite hard to see what they’re doing, and trusting that they’ll deliver an outcome – whether it be a piece of work, or a large scale IT project. These things are always incredibly hard to manage and I think that you can do it on a platform where you can see people’s reactions and reviews for that person’s work, you can contact the people who have said that, and the fact that you can have a milstone payment system is something that seems to us being dramatically improving the way that contingent workers are able to engage with organisations, and the trust these organisations can have with these workers as well
The skills that are in high demand on the platform
That’s an interesting question we release our fast 50, which are the top skills in the site. If you look at what’s happening in the world now and online my perspective it’s pretty easy to guess what is trending. Mobile is huge, a lot of people want to be entrepreneurs so app development is always very popular as is the standard build me a website. a lot of design work, that is really taking off.
There are millions and millions of interactions on the site daily so it’s interesting to see how these things are changing. We can know where the work is coming from and going to, and we can see it changing according to the economic situation of countries or events.
On Kevin Wheeler 2020 prediction of a 50% contingent workforce
If you look at what’s happening in the world, it’s much more beneficial to have a strong contingent workforce. If you look at companies that might struggle with a lot of their costs, having a contingent workforce allows them flexibility and ability to get work done.
I feel that we are a product that is really around at the right time and place. We’re an affordable product to use in comparison to the other ways you can get work done.
There’s lots of discussion right now about how to manage Gen Y workers in the right way, and a lot of the average tenures for organisations are dramatically coming down now. People don’t necessarily want to stay in the one workplace, they want to learn from one place and then take that experience somewhere else. They’re starting to work in a more contingent way.
If organisations are able to structure themselves that allows for contingent work, they will reap the benefits.
Freelancing/Contingent working driving self learning
The freelancer way of working makes people learn more. When you’re constantly working on different things, you’re constantly surrounded by different people
Adding to life experience
An interesting fact of working life is if you’re a full time worker, you spend more time with the people you work with than anyone else in your life, and they’ll usually the one group of people you don’t choose to spend your time with. By working with different people all the time i think it can really add to people’s life experiences, and how they feel about what they do. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for every company, but when it can work it can be brilliant.
I love that some of the big corporates are now opening digital innovation labs or their own internal incubators to come up with ideas and promote changes internally in terms of how they could better succeed.
I think people and organisations are looking up and taking notice of change in the way that people work, and the contingent workforce is one of the biggest issues and aspects that will be tackled by organisations.
What the platform is doing to build the future workforce
We want Australia to be one of the most attractive places to work and live, so we put a lot of effort to make sure that our headquarters are here and will always be here. We do a lot with education, we sponsor Universities, our CEO is an acting adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney and we take as many interns as we can because we can see that future workforce and they are able and wanting to explore new ways of working. If you look at how business are established right now, whether they’re small or medium sized- they can bring people in, get work done, release them again and reuse them when needed. It can really help them out. A lot of projects undertaken by larger corporates are already benefiting from this now, but there are further opportunities for them in this space.