The gig economy has had a profound impact on the world of professional services. There is now a thriving global community of freelance and independent consultants, and clients are looking for services that can help them engage with this community. Clients are increasingly appreciative of the benefits that come from working with freelancers—and are becoming more sophisticated in how they use them.
In response to this, a new generation of talent-on-demand platforms has started to emerge; instead of asking a consulting firm or recruitment agency to find resources for them, clients can now enter the skills they’re looking for and find suitable freelancers at the touch of a button. Berlin-based COMATCH is one of the companies at the vanguard of this trend, and has created an online marketplace for freelance talent. We spoke to the company’s Co-founder and Managing Director, Dr. Christoph Hardt, to learn more.
What is COMATCH, and what type of services do you offer your clients?
I describe COMATCH as a player that puts the whole world of independent consultants into a professional package. Normally, if you're a client who wants to bring in independent consultants, you're faced with a lot of question marks: You don't know how to find them, you don't know what they charge, and you don't know who's good and who isn't. We help clients answer those questions, by giving them a clearer view into a market that naturally lacks transparency.
We see ourselves as disrupting the process of how consultants are identified and how teams are constructed, not the day-to-day operations of a project. We don't have some secret tools that no one's ever heard of that make the day-to-day work of a consultant easier; our focus is on transforming the ability of clients to access external talent.
What are the benefits to a client of finding consultants through COMATCH instead of working with one of the big firms?
With COMATCH, we're not trying to replicate what the big consulting firms do; it's much more about getting ‘spiky’ expertise into the client organisation at the right points. The traditional model where you send in 15 to 20 consultants from a big firm to work on a problem is becoming less and less relevant. Clients don't want to be overburdened—they want to be able to move much more quickly. And that means creating blended teams, where you have external subject matter experts augmenting your own internal resources.
The blended team model has a lot of advantages compared to the traditional model. For one thing, it's much easier to transfer knowledge and skills from the consultant to the full-time employees; if you're working with someone on a day-to-day basis, it's much easier to learn from their approach. But it also gives the client much more control over the end product. Sometimes, when clients work with the big consulting firms, it feels like they're setting off a loose missile—but if you bring in independent consultants to augment your own teams, then you get to observe project processes on a regular basis, instead of having to wait for your monthly steering meetings.
When you hire a team from a big firm, you have an expectation that the firm will bring with it its own culture. That's one of the big changes that clients have to adapt to when they start buying from marketplaces like COMATCH: Because you're contracting with lots of different people who don't know each other, they're not going to be used to working with each other and they're not going to have their own shared culture. So instead you have to actively work to bring those people into your own corporate culture. But that is an opportunity as well!
To what extent is appetite for services like COMATCH a result of clients wanting more control over the type of consultants they work with?
Even the established consulting firms are finding that clients are demanding more and more control over the resources that get staffed onto a project. It used to be that the firm could just put together a team and send them to the client. But now, clients want to be selective: A firm will suggest people, and then the client will want to meet them, assess their skills and cultural fit, and make the final decision about whether or not to work with them.
The whole consultant selection process is being called into question. Clients have always known that the people selling a project to them won't necessarily be the same people actually delivering it, but now they're pushing back against that. I think we're heading towards a world where clients see their role at the onset of a project as not just deciding on the approach, but also deciding what the CVs need to look like of the people who will deliver it.
By finding independent consultants through a platform like COMATCH, the client can have much more control over the backgrounds of the people working on their project. There will still be some projects where it makes sense to go through a more traditional ‘beauty contest’ process, but for others the client will want to make sure that the consultants they work with have a very specific knowledge base. They know that if they ask a consultancy for help with a specific type of project, even if the firm has done that type of project a lot, they might end up working with people who've only done it once, if that. But if they assemble their own team from networks of independent consultants, then they can make sure they find people who've done it five or six times at least. Brand trust is established not by a big name like McKinsey or Accenture, but by the CVs of the consultants.
Isn’t brand strength one of the big reasons many people stick with the big firms? Lots of clients tell us that they work with those firms specifically because they know the firm’s brand insulates them from fallout if the project doesn’t work out.
There are clients who'll say, ‘I have the budget, I can spend a million euros on a project and even if, at the end, I'm not sure it really worked, at least I'll be able to say I hired one of the top firms. Or I could spend €500,000 to get the same results with independent consultants—but if it goes wrong, no one's going to give me credit for saving half a million.’ But in Germany at least clients are starting to realise that being innovative sometimes means being allowed to make mistakes. You see this particularly with family businesses, where the key decision makers aren't bound by the same risk-reward environment. They're much less likely to work with the big names and much more likely to use boutique firms or independent consultants; they're not going to spend a million euros if they can spend half that much and get a better service.
Freelance networks like COMATCH have grown significantly over the last few years. What do you think has been the key driver of client interest in these platforms?
One of the reasons why platforms like COMATCH have become so popular is that clients now understand that the problems they need to solve are much more complex than they used to be. Ten or 15 years ago, if you had an issue within the controlling department, you could solve it in the controlling department, and if there was a marketing issue, the marketing team could solve it, maybe working with a consulting firm if necessary. But now, everything has an IT or a digital component. In that world, collaboration becomes much more important. The old ways of working don't really make sense; instead, clients need to be able to create cross-disciplinary teams. And that often leads them to turn to outside experts who can help fill in the gaps that link, for example, marketing with IT.
When you're creating a team that spans multiple departments, it's not economically smart to hire people full-time who you might only need for a few months. But the role that you're looking to fill isn't really a consulting role either—at least, not in the traditional sense of the word. I think in some ways, the boundaries between consulting roles and contractor roles are starting to break down a bit.