Upwork announces new ‘agency experience’ at its Work Without Limits summit

Upwork, the global freelancer marketplace and enterprise solution for sourcing and engaging online freelancers and small-scale service providers, announced key enhancements to what it calls its “agency experience.” The announcement, made at the company’s third annual Work Without Limits Executive Summit, describes the new agency capabilities as addressing “the fragmented agency landscape as more companies move away from agency-of-record relationships.”

Upwork, which went public in October 2018, is considered the largest online freelancer marketplace in terms of gross services volume — currently at an annualized run-rate of approximately $2 billion, with a market cap of about $1.8 billion. Spend Matters has covered Upwork in considerable detail over the years, including its IPO last year. The company has participated and is represented in the Spend Matters Independent Contract Worker SolutionMap. And in Spend Matters’ 50/50 list this year, Upwork elevated from the 50-to-Watch list to the 50-to-Know list.

Agency Experience — Growing Up

As we understand it, the term “agency” refers to a relatively small, boutique service provider that employs or contracts with anywhere from a few to dozens of workers. Upwork told us that  its platform supports all types of agencies, but for agency experience the focus is on three categories to start: marketing, creative/design, and mobile, web and software development. But the broad Upwork platform already hosts agencies that support a wide variety of categories.

Though the Upwork platform has enabled businesses and agencies to engage with one another for some time, the “experience” was based on the transactional marketplace model of engaging individual freelancers (and there was plenty of room for improvement). At the 2018 Executive Summit, we were exposed to the roadmap and some prototypes for what is being introduced as the “agency experience.” Upwork seems to use the term “experience” to describe bundles of new capabilities designed to address specific business use cases (for example, the “program manager experience” introduced at last year’s summit).

According to the announcement, more than “14,000 agencies have earned money on Upwork, representing over $250 million in project work in 2018.” In an interview, we were told that 10 of Upwork Enterprise’s clients use agencies (collectively a pool of some 90 agencies at this time).

The announcement also stated that “Upwork’s newly enhanced agency experience underscores the company’s continued investments in new technology and services to support large, specialized project work with boutique agencies on the platform.”

Upwork sees a trend of companies “moving away from agency-of-record relationships with the traditional large consultancies or multinational firms” a corresponding “rise in boutique agencies that have emerged to support specialized project work.” Upwork says that “companies struggle to engage and manage their agency portfolio” in an increasingly fragmented agency landscape, while “boutique agency owners are challenged with gaining exposure to new potential clients outside of word-of-mouth referrals and their local networks.”

Bonnie Sherman, Upwork’s VP of Product, stated that the company is “addressing the fragmentation within the landscape by delivering a fully transparent agency solution that quickens the time-to-hire and the delivery of quality work on large, high-value projects,” with a goal of becoming “the platform destination for both freelancers and boutique agencies” by 2022.

According to the press release, “Upwork’s newly enhanced agency experience underscores the company’s continued investments in new technology and services to support large, specialized project work with boutique agencies on the platform.” Investments, we were told, were not only on building solution capabilities but also expanding the supply of carefully vetted agencies available on the Upwork platform.

The Experience Gets Even Better

At this time, agency experience provides client businesses with three categories of agency-provided services:

  1. IT, mobile and web development services
  2. Marketing services
  3. Creative services, but other categories could be addressed in the future

Upwork said that its “newly enhanced agency experience” makes it “easier for businesses to find, hire and engage specialized, boutique agencies on the platform with just a few clicks.” Among the new features being introduced are:

  • Discovery Dashboard — provides access to resources to support client businesses’ “large project needs” and enables them to evaluate projects by supplying “insight into common use cases, top categories of work, project scoping and talent sourcing.” The dashboard also helps agencies, by making them “more discoverable to potential clients.”
  • Curated Agency Listings — allows businesses to drill into each of the three categories of services (mentioned above) and browse the profiles and work portfolios of pre-curated agencies that have had proven success working with businesses. The curated listings help qualifying agencies by providing enhanced visibility into their services and completed projects.
  • Enhanced Agency Profiles — improves client companies’ review and evaluation of agency services in “one profile view.” Just as important, all agencies also benefit significantly. Agencies can enhance their marketability by setting out key information their firms and capabilities, feature clients and specify target types of projects.
  • Bring Your Own Agency — allows organizations to on-board their own known agencies into Upwork. That enables businesses “to centrally manage their overall agency portfolios” and gain “visibility into core processes, including engagement, project coordination and payments.”

Though not one of the new capabilities, the agency experience also addresses contracts/SOWs and project management. Upwork told us that “agencies’ contracts are handled in a similar manner to freelancer contracts. All contracts and documentation are saved and stored on the platform. Once a contract is initiated, ‘contract rooms’ are created to track milestones/contracts.” (see graphic)

“The contract room also tracks changes to the contract (i.e., adding or deleting milestones, redefining milestones, changing cost of milestones, end dates, etc). Agencies can also initiate milestone changes and submit them to a client for review and approval. Clients can manage all aspects of their contract, including messages/files, time-tracking, milestones, earnings, terms and settings.”

Upwork agency experience also includes services to help businesses, such as building their own curated agency pools, designing company-compliant on-boarding processes, etc. Some services and other optional capabilities are available only in specific Upwork client tiers (e.g., consolidated billing is available only for Upwork Business and Upwork Enterprise clients).

Upwork’s agency experience is available to all Upwork clients at no charge.

Closing Remarks

Upwork is not the only work/services platform that has opened up to agencies (small service providers) and not just freelancers. But Upwork might be leading the pack in this area, in terms of spend, number of agencies and S2P lifecycle capabilities and visibility. The company clearly views client business/agency engagement as a significant revenue opportunity, and it is putting its money where its mouth is (building up the supply side as a market maker and developing new capabilities that support engagement of this type).

The agency experience may also have some stimulus effect on the adoption of the Upwork platform by larger businesses, which may be reluctant about engaging freelancers, but could be more comfortable contracting with established service providers and consuming statement-of-work outcomes.

Upwork has a lot of rods in the fire as it works hard to maintain a 20% plus top-line growth rate. In the past year, the company announced its Microsoft “freelancer tool kit” partnership and introduced two new pricing tiers, Upwork Plus and Upwork Business, in between Upwork Basic and Upwork Enterprise.

Upwork agency experience looks like one more Upwork growth initiatives, leveraging the total platform and, potentially, capturing a new market segment. Upwork has said that it will continue enhancing the agency experience. And its seems like the agency experience could support other agency types in the future and expand its market range.

You can learn more about Upwork’s agency experience at: https://www.upwork.com/i/agency/.

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