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Small Businesses Your Unfilled Job Openings Don’t Need to Stay that Way feature

It’s not a mystery these days what small businesses are worried about.

Consider that 35 percent of small business owners reported having job openings they could not fill, according to a survey conducted in March by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, or the NFIB.

That’s not usual. Tying July and October, March’s job openings figure was the highest in 18 years.

Of course, this isn’t new news to small business owners. Last fall Wells Fargo found that “hiring remains the top challenge” among them.

The Future Workforce Report documented similar anxieties and, also, something else. Workers themselves are demanding flexibility and this is forcing companies to change, with 58 percent of small businesses embracing agile workforces due greater interest among workers in flexible work.

In other words, the war for talent is putting workers in the driver’s seat. Small businesses are finding that there are fewer full-time workers around to hire these days and the jobs they need to fill require more skilled workers. The confluence of those two factors could easily be a recipe for stagnation.

However, amid this increasingly difficult business environment, small businesses continue to grow. Sixty-seven percent of small businesses plan to increase their headcount in 2018 and expect to grow it by 15 percent.

Building a business with $300

Back in 2009, Xan Hood had a vision: he wanted to sell men’s rugged clothing and leather goods. He just had a very limited budget to execute it: $300 and a credit card.

But he didn’t let that stop him. Unable to hire full-time employees to develop his products, build an online presence, and provide customer service, Hood turned to freelancers to fill in those critical pieces.

With $4,000 on a credit card, Hood did with a freelance force what he says could’ve easily cost him half a million dollars.

It paid off.

Since 2009, Hood’s business, Buffalo Jackson Trading Company, has grown exponentially. This year, Hood expects his company will gross $6.5 million. In fact, business has been so good Hood reversed the usual bricks-to-clicks story and opened a brick and mortar retail store in Matthews, North Carolina.

Today, Hood employs 10 full-time staffers, but he attributes his company’s growth, in large part, to the network of skilled freelance talent he has leveraged—attorneys, developers, SEO experts, customer service reps and a graphic artist.

“In the past, the gatekeepers of industry experts were corporations,” Hood says, “But today you can build a team of the best and brightest with freelancers.”

To understand how convenient this is for small business owners, consider that when I started my first company Fireclick in 1999, none of these options was available. In fact, my partners and I had to raise $1 million to produce a pilot and another $10 million just to build the first version of our product.

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Fortunately, my story is becoming less common, and Hood’s story is becoming more common because today what took me a long time and more than $11 million to achieve would be possible within a few weeks on a credit card.

After all, half of U.S. companies are using freelancers this year. That’s up 16 percentage points from the same time in 2017, according to the 2018 Future Workforce Report.

Exploring new talent possibilities

500 LEVEL, a Austin-based sports apparel e-commerce startup, made a similar play of turning to freelancers for specific projects they don’t have in-house skills to tackle. The company saw a unique opportunity to capitalize on the digital age to deliver custom, officially-licensed NFLPA, NBPA, MLBPA and NHLPA sports apparel with speed.

The company saw immediate demands the first two years and knew they had to scale quickly.

With growing interest among consumers in its designs, 500 LEVEL focused on expanding their offering. The nimble team of fifteen sought to secure the rights to feature more players, create more designs and increase their marketing to connect with fans. What they didn’t anticipate was the need for a developer to create a backend system to automate orders. As new orders came pouring in, they struggled to fulfill the orders on the back-end which resulted in wasted manpower and costly errors.

Jonathan Ulmes, 500 LEVEL’s Chief Strategic Officer and partial owner, knew they needed to find a developer who could help design and build an automated, yet dynamic and agile a database system to fit their business needs, but he couldn’t justify a full-time hire.

Ulmes looked online and found Preston Hunter, a freelance database designer based in Arizona with over 20 years experience. Within a little over a month, Preston delivered a full working system.

“500 LEVEL would not have been able to scale so smoothly without being able to work with expert professionals like Preston that we can hire as we need help,” said Jonathan. “Whenever we have a concentrated need for skills our team does not have, we look for freelancers.”

Six years later, 500 LEVEL again is seeing triple-digit growth and has expanded its use of freelancers to include copywriters, website developers and application support professionals. Having a team of freelancers available on the ready means Jonathan can find the help he needs quickly.

For Connecticut-based Medpricer, using freelancers allows them to transcend geography to find the talent they need. As the company continues to grow, balancing new initiatives with increasingly tight deadlines has proven to be a challenge. Nearly three-quarters of the team’s marketing projects require turnaround times of 48 hours or less.

In order to keep up, they needed to look beyond their traditional talent sources which were riddled in processes that created unnecessary delays. The team replaced its traditional PR agency with a high-performing freelancer in Colorado who delivers work faster and with better results. They also engaged a freelance video editor in Virginia to help with mounting video projects. In doing so, they were able to get the job done in less than half the time it would have taken previously.

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“Having the flexibility to invite someone to a job and get a response within minutes or hours is really important,” says Lindsay Wise, Director of Marketing and Growth at Medpricer. “If I don’t like how a project was completed, I close it out and that’s it. I don’t run the risk of time delays or budget blowouts. The ones that work out, we add to our go-to bench of talent for future projects.”

Embracing the new normal

There are two reasons to believe that small businesses will increasingly depend on freelancers to get the job done.

First off, companies say so. Among small business hiring managers, 65 percent say they plan to increase their use of freelancers, per the 2018 Future Workforce Report.

Second, it’s where the talent is moving.

Between 2014 and 2017, the U.S. freelance workforce grew 3x faster than the overall U.S. workforce, increasing from 53 million to 57.3 million last year, according to the 2017 Freelancing in America report.

One of those freelancers is Jonathan Patrick. Among many other full-time former roles, Patrick was the Senior Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at a Tennessee-based credit union, where he also ran its marketing department. His expertise as a freelancer offering funding and marketing expertise has already proven very valuable to small businesses. In a recent freelance project, Patrick helped a client secure a $350,000 Small Business Administration loan.

“My client had been told by established lenders that they couldn’t help him,” Jonathan says. “To be able to point him in the right direction—in fact, to one specific lender that I knew could help him—was such a joy. Knowing that I was making a difference in helping this entrepreneur realize his dreams is deeply rewarding.”

The good news for other small businesses looking for help?

There’s no shortage of great talent just like Jonathan out there. You just have to know where to look—and listen to what the talent wants.

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