How to use the gig economy to grow your small business

CNET@Work: The self-employed workforce can help you save on administrative and overhead costs while also meeting critical business needs.

Natalie Gagliordi Staff Writer, ZDNet
4 min read
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With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- from prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.

Building a business is tough, especially when you're operating with a lean team and a tight budget. Oftentimes, new businesses have to cherry-pick growth initiatives because there just isn't enough time, money or manpower to do it all.

That's where a freelancer marketplace comes into play.  

Modeled after traditional e-commerce websites, freelancer marketplaces allow specialized professionals such as graphic designers, app developers, SEO consultants and social media marketers to offer their services to small businesses for a fee.

These marketplaces have made it easier for small business owners to save on administrative and overhead costs while also meeting critical business needs that might otherwise have gone unfulfilled.

Read more: How to look like a big business  

Three major marketplaces


UpWork's Rich Pearson says small businesses use freelancers during the startup stage to help get things off the ground.


"When businesses find themselves in need of someone with a specialized skill set, hiring a freelancer through an online marketplace is oftentimes the best option," said Rich Pearson, SVP of marketing for freelance marketplace UpWork. "Marketplaces enable businesses to access specialized skill sets that may not be accessible or affordable locally."

UpWork and its rivals Fiverr and Freelancer.com are three of the more prominent freelance marketplaces available to small businesses. While the platforms tout different benefits, each one functions as a gateway between the small business owner and the gig economy.

A recent study from an organization called Freelancers Union estimates that 57.3 million Americans are currently freelancing, and within 10 years, freelancers are expected to make up the majority of the US workforce. Another report, from the McKinsey Global Institute, found that up to 162 million people in the US and EU participate in the independent workforce -- somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population.

In other words, the self-employed workforce is significant, and it has become instrumental in helping small businesses survive and grow.

"Even if a small business has a great idea, they often don't have the time or budget to get everything they need," said Brent Messenger, global head of community for Fiverr. "The truth is that SMBs these days need a website, and a social media presence, and video content -- things that were seen as luxury for SMBs are now table stakes."

Read more: Your next hire: Employee or independent contractor?

From product design to SEO

For both Fiverr and UpWork, the majority of users who buy freelance services are small businesses. Pearson said UpWork frequently sees small businesses use freelancers during the startup stage to help get things off the ground. Typically, they'll start with a smaller, one-off project, he said, but once they become familiar with the process, they'll start to build their bench of freelance talent to help support growth initiatives.

Tanner Dame, chief executive of Proof Eyewear, said his first experience with the Fiverr marketplace came during his senior year of college, when his small startup was first coming together. Since then, Dame said his company has used Fiverr for everything from product design to SEO.

"Being a small team of eight, we have been able to create a lot of content we wouldn't have been able to do on our own," Dame said. "It has been nice to be able to create the concepts and campaigns in-house and then have insanely talented people bring the vision and ideas to life for us. We have an endless list of things we want to accomplish so being able to outsource work to talented creatives in really any background is huge for us. Ultimately, we're able to pump out a good number of projects we wouldn't be able to do otherwise."

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When you find a freelancer who's a fit for your project, the next step is to outline a schedule with project deliverables and a deadline. 


When making the decision to hire a freelancer, it's important to have a clear set of business needs and goals in mind. This will help you find a freelancer with a skill set that lines up with your vision. Messenger recommends looking for a freelancer who has completed several successful projects in the past and has some sort of visible portfolio.

"Take time to read freelancer reviews like you would product reviews," Messenger said. "Make sure their portfolio matches the style and aesthetic that you like. And make sure you take the time to write a full description of the project you want."  

The cost factor

Cost is also an important factor in choosing a freelancer. On most marketplaces, freelancers will display their rates for various jobs, which allows you to whittle down candidates based on your budget. There's also a search functionality on marketplaces that will let you filter your search results based on things like the freelancer's hourly rate, skills and project feedback. If you end up finding several candidates who interest you, contact them and set up an interview, possibly through a video call.

When you find a freelancer who's a fit for your project, the next step is to outline a schedule with project deliverables and a deadline. This will help keep each side on the same page and in sync with project goals.

In the end, there's no right or wrong way to grow your small business. Whether it's investing in new technology or building out your team, the possibilities for progress are vast. Nonetheless, the burgeoning gig economy is poised to leave its mark on the future of small business development.

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