In addition to home-grown Indian companies, the last few years have seen an influx of multinational and South East Asian firms set up large design, product and technology operations in India. The demand for both full-time and freelance designers continues to grow. One would imagine that this presents a golden opportunity for a niche, matchmaking platform for creative talent.

But like any good movie, it’s a little more complicated than that.

The Rise of Platforms

As the Internet broke down borders between demand and supply in the early 2000s, a number of players tried to fill the gap. This included horizontal, ‘all-services’ platforms like Upwork, Freelancer and Fiverr, to design-specific ones like 99designs. The latter has 1.4m designers around the world and the company’s COO, Pamela Webber tells us that Indian freelancers have worked with brands and clients in more than 80 countries, earning $23m creating everything from brand identities to web and app design. Indian clients use the platform too, collaborating with creators in more than 60 other countries.

The biggest benefit of such platforms for creators is democratizing design work that typically happens in urban hubs.

“What we see on 99designs is that most of our designers live outside of the capital city or main metro areas in whatever country they’re in. So in India, for example, 96% of designers working on our platform live outside of New Delhi, and 75% live outside of the five biggest cities.” Pamela Webber, COO, 99designs

While platforms like 99 designs are used for gig work, portfolio showcase sites like Behance (bought by Adobe in 2012) and Dribbble (part of Tiny) are destinations to research and reach out to designers.While LinkedIn offers no way to showcase or evaluate creative work, its popularity with the HR and headhunter community is evident from the fact that a quick search reveals 12000+ job openings for designers across disciplines in India.

Closer home, IndieFolio Network has cast itself as the ‘Indian Dribbble’. Started in 2015 by Kavan Antani and Shashank Jogani, the company currently claims 60000+ creative professionals and 7000+ companies on its roster and has clients like BYJU’s and Reliance Jio.

TapChief is another player in this space that offers functions beyond design. Founded by Shashank Murali, Binay Krishna, and Arjun Krishna at BITS Pilani in 2016, the full-stack platform aims to bridge subject matter expertise for firms that require it on a short-term basis. The company, which raised funding from Blume Ventures in December 2019, has onboarded 100000+ vetted experts in design, marketing and technology, which Shashank tells The Hard Copy, are functions that all firms will always require.

“Companies are realising there’s a class of people who don’t want to work full-time, and we have to adapt our talent management acquisition. We have simplified this process for them greatly.” Shashank Murali, Co-founder, TapChief

There are some smaller initiatives around the design community like Openvy, run by Himanshu Khanna (Founder of design firm Sparklin) and Indians Who Design, maintained by by Ivy Mukherjee (Senior Product Designer at Grab), Zeeshan Hyder (Software Engineer at DoorDash) and Shashank Sahay (Product Designer at Flipkart). Both are non-commercial side-projects that aim to create a directory of ‘vetted’ design talent. Khanna says that he personally knows of seventeen designers who got full-time jobs and over fifty who have found freelance work through Openvy.

How Well Do the Platforms Work?

The Hard Copy spoke to freelance and full-time designers as well as a diverse set of clients who regularly hired design talent. This is what we learnt.

1. Algorithms have a way to go

Automated curation is far from perfect, currently. Nearly all clients complained of the mass of irrelevant profiles they had to sift through, if they just did a search using filters on any site.

2. Global platforms are ‘must-have’

“I don’t remember the last time I hired a designer who didn’t have a Behance profile”, says Abbas Mohamed, Co-founder, Mad About Digital, a digital creative and marketing agency. No surprise that all designers we spoke to had a profile on Behance. This wasn’t true of LinkedIn, which was seen as more suited “for those working in business”. However, Aastha Choudhury (senior designer, Times Group) says, HR teams at large enterprises are still habituated to searching the Microsoft-owned platform, which helped her land her job.

Instagram has, of course, become the defacto showcase for designers. Hardik Gandhi, freelance illustrator and graphic designer, says, “This has to do with psychology – artists look for validation and Instagram gives them a wider base than just the design community”. Interestingly, it has also ended up giving many designers a majority of their freelance jobs, despite not being optimized for ‘job search’. Hardik reckons clients “discover on Behance, but ping on Instagram” as the latter is seen as a more ‘live’ platform. “They expect I will reply immediately there”, he says.

3. The dynamics change depending on seniority

Experienced designers rely on word-of-mouth, referrals and (increasingly) Instagram to land freelance gigs. They tend to be selective about the other platforms they are on. Both Choudhury and Gandhi, for instance, say that Behance and Instagram are enough. They do not want the headache of unwanted enquiries or keeping multiple profiles updated. Junior designers tend to hedge their bets and put their profiles up everywhere.

4.The specialist human-driven platforms deliver the highest returns over a long relationship

Basically, the longer you stick with it, the better it gets. ““From an experience in working with several recruiting platforms, I believe IndieFolio Network is the best solution for design hiring”, says Arun Kumar, senior product designer at BYJU’s. “The team always keen on gathering constructive feedback with each batch provided. Which results a better curation over the period of time”.

Shashank from TapChief also uses the long-term promise ‘platform leakage’. “Clients work with us for multiple solutions and we know their organisations well, so we are able to recommend talent at multiple levels for multiple functions. There is not much risk for them striking a deal outside the platform” he says.

The Working Model

The success of any talent platform depends on these broad parameters, that feed off each other to a great extent.

  1. Cracking the classic chicken-and-egg or demand-and-supply conundrum, to get the flywheel moving and network effects kicking in. This usually means a combination of content creation as well as high-touch, community activities like events and workshops.
  2. The way the platform is positioned and perceived by the community. Fiverr is seen as a destination for low-cost gig work. 99designs has a large international designer community. Behance is a default portfolio destination, although updating it is another matter. Indiefolio Network is seen as a source for finding junior Indian design talent (though, mid-to-senior placements have happened via their assisted service). LinkedIn is the place with the most eyeballs but does not allow for ‘show and tell’.
  3. The success the platform has in actually addressing needs on both sides –matching talent with the requirement as closely and precisely as possible. Given the subjectivity in assessing creative talent, this is the trickiest one of all.

Practically all platforms follow a ‘freemium’ model, where talent-seekers can find talent for free using various filters. Only Dribbble requires the minimum package of $249 a month to be paid for even a first-level search.

The premium offerings include dedicated account management, additional filters and enhanced support. By and large, loosening your purse strings gives you curation – either access to premium talent or help narrowing down on profiles best suited to your requirements. On the supply side as well, human curators are responsible for handing out tiers like ‘top Level’ badges on 99designs, and vetting all talent that signs up on Tapchief.

Exhibit 1: A comparison of offerings between different platforms

Scaling the Secret Sauce

The future of talent matching platforms is clearly in finding ways to matchmake with as little human intervention as possible.

Not only is involving human teams expensive and slow, results are too dependent on the quality of the team.

Jade Magnet, founded in 2009 and one of India’s earliest platforms in this space, shut down in the mid 2010s primarily because of this reason. Founder Sitashwa Srivastava is candid about the platform’s decline, saying that while the demand and interest were there, constant servicing and managing payments became an issue. “We were being involved in client-talent interactions and that became unviable after a while” he says.

This points to the other big behavioural challenge that platforms will have to overcome – the expectation of human-led service from the platform team.

Ninad Ayare, a Mumbai-based designer who landed a job at Reliance Jio via Indiefolio Network, praised the company’s assistance, saying he received multiple calls and follow-ups from their team.

“Many brands are aggressively using technology for hiring. However, conversion is still an issue, especially in design. The real need is curation. Irrespective of tech advancements, I am confident clients will continue wanting an expert to help them curate” Kavan Antani, IndieFolio Network.

IndieFolio Network’s current curation approach uses a combination of portfolio (primarily), industry focus and expertise (product / service background), leadership / teamwork and formal design education.

Tapchief curates three or four profiles per job, using a combination of human and machine learning. It has graduated from using basic filters to NLP-based curation using richer data that includes skills, previous job roles, key problem statements, portfolio, industries, customers served, testimonials, etc. Shashank says this is supported by automated, deep data capture for client requirements. 99designs tells us that their ‘matching algorithm’ includes factors like platform activity, proven experience in specific categories/industries, tags and keywords, responsiveness, ongoing client relationships and proportion of repeat clients.

Technological advances in areas like payments and network management have made it much easier to jumpstart a specialist talent network today. How far and fast they will grow, however. will depend on their ability to automate the human decision-making and curation process. As we were going to press, we spotted this tweet from Jay Dutta, Senior Vice President, Design, Makemytrip – clearly there is some work to do before the platforms can claim matches made in heaven!

How can designers equip themselves for this change to an age of algorithms? We’ve put together a cheat-sheet right here.

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