The economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has caused businesses of all sizes to layoff valuable employees.
And many of those businesses still need to get things done in order to survive the current state of affairs. Especially things related to maintaining relationships with current customers, on top of finding ways to bring on new ones. Which is why I was really interested in talking with Susan Marshall, founder and CEO of freelance marketplace Torchlite.
Torchlite specializes in placing CRM professionals certified in Salesforce products and services. Salesforce is also Torchlite’s biggest investor.
Interview with Susan Marshall of Torchlite
During our LinkedIn Live conversation, Susan talks about how Torchlite differs from general freelancer marketplaces, what’s driving the growth of their marketplace, how the Torchlite model works from both freelancer and hiring business sides, how SMBs are tapping into the community of “flexperts”, and why they are so selective of who becomes a Torchlite freelancer.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full discussion.
Susan Marshall: So Torchlite is exactly what you said it is. It’s a marketplace. It’s a place focused specifically on Salesforce products. So if you are a certified Salesforce administrator, technical architect, app developer, you’re looking for some additional ways to supplement your income. We’ve found an increase in the number of people looking for additional work with approval of their employers and Salesforce has a great training program and certification. So a lot of people are getting skilled up there to make themselves more marketable. You can come to our site and you can create a profile, let us know what your hourly rate is, your availability and then if you’re a business marketer, somebody who needs a project done really quickly, who even needs ongoing managed services, you can come and you can find one of these people. Then our system connects you, we handle all the payment, we handle … just think of it as Uber for Salesforce services. So our technology sits in between the driver and the writer, and we handle everything else, including the payment and reviews and all of that.
Small Business Trends: What’s the state of things? What are you seeing in terms of the demand for folks that have these Salesforce skills currently and how has the pandemic impacted things?
Susan Marshall: I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Just like all of us, if it was going to have a negative or positive impact on the business, but overall positive. We did lose some clients who just either went out of business or just budgets were slashed. So that had some impact on us. But for the most part, we’re seeing an increase in demand for freelancers and I think it’s largely because there’s a hiring freeze, so companies can’t hire people like they were, but they still need to get work done, and so they can take usually what’s called program dollars that they would spend on advertising or something else, and they can move that over to hire contractors to help them. So increasing demand and it’s less risky to hire a contractor because you don’t have to necessarily commit to two or three years of their services.
And then we’re also seeing an increase in demand on the supply side, more freelancers coming to the platform because they’re trying to, again, supplement their income because they don’t know what might happen to their positions so they want to be smart about that and also diversify their skills and their capabilities. So we have one freelancer who is a director of marketing, but decided to go and get their technical certification on marketing cloud so that not only can they … They understand the strategy and the messaging and maybe even how to manage teams, but now have more technical skills and they’re trying that on as independent contractors. So overall a lift on both sides. It’s been good, and I think that we’re looking at the world differently now. We’re not all going to be in the office, the way we work with and manage people is going to be different going forward. And so these online platforms like ours that connect people and allow them to collaborate online are really important right now.
Small Business Trends: How do you go about certifying the “flexperts”?
Susan Marshall: We have several different products that we support. So if you’re looking for an expert on Salesforce Essentials, which is their small business product, you’ll log on and you’ll likely get matched with somebody who is handpicked by Salesforce. Salesforce is the largest investor in our company and so the advisors that are on this marketplace and who are certified specifically on Essentials have been handpicked by them. So that means that their certification has been verified. They know for a fact that they’re technically certified, but they also interview them for their soft skills. So if you’re going to be interacting with a customer, do you follow up? Do you ask the right questions? Are you reliable? Those kinds of things. So those are just as important as their technical capabilities.
Small Business Trends: And you also have a way to track their actual experience … They’ve got great certs because, there was a term back in the day when I was a developer, it’s called a paper certified, paper MCSEs. So they’d take all the tests but had zero hands on experience. How do you make sure that those flexperts, they got the credential, but do they have the experience to go along with it?
Susan Marshall: We do that just like you would interview a full time employee. So they give us references, we follow up on those. We make sure that who they are is who they say they are, and 9.9% of the time, everyone’s being honest. It’s so easy now to be able to check to see if people are actually who they say they are and if the work is as good as they say it is. So we do that follow up. We also have reviews and ratings within the system on both sides. So after a project is done, or even during a project, a customer can rate the freelancer’s work and vice versa, which I think is good too.
Then we also have some governance over the project. We have customer success representatives who log in regularly, they check to see how the status of the project’s going and if something goes sideways, they can swap experts in and out to make sure that everything goes well for everybody. People are human though and just to be completely transparent, sometimes things do go sideways and people don’t work out well together because of different personalities or expectations. So that’s part of the service that we offer too, is just try to mitigate that as best we can.
Small Business Trends: What are the things that are driving the market right now?
Susan Marshall: My background is in marketing and on the marketing cloud. So we have a lot of those types of experts and we need more and more and more of those. So that means creating customer journeys. Those are personalized emails or cross-channel communication based on your past browsing behavior or your past purchase behavior or data about you and your company. So we need a lot of marketing cloud experts. Salesforce is selling a lot of a product called Datorama which is an analytics tool and a lot of requests for that. I just got off the phone with a freelancer who just got his third certification on Datorama and I will be able to put him to work right away because there’s such a demand for that. Again, Salesforce and Datorama have these great certifications so if you’re at home and you have extra time and you’re climbing up against the wall because you can’t go to your concert or go to a restaurant, maybe go get your Datorama certification and learn something new and make some extra money.
Small Business Trends: How are actual SMBs leveraging Torchlite in this particular time?
Susan Marshall: Salesforce has been great and they’ve been very sensitive to what’s happening in the SMB market and some of the real losses that people have experienced. So they put together a program that we are managing which allows a small business owner to go to Torchlite and to get two hours of free consulting on essentials. So they just use a coupon code and they go in and they can get $500,000 worth of work for free that Salesforce is supplementing. So they realize that a small business owner wears multiple hats, they’re trying to run their business, manage teams, create the product, service customers, handle back office things. So they can’t be a CRM expert, and that’s okay. I think small businesses try to do everything and they need to be a little bit more opportunistic, especially now.
What are they good at? What should they outsource? And in this case, Salesforce has made it either free or affordable for them to go and get a Salesforce essential certified expert to help them migrate their data. I hate to think of a small business owner up at 2:00AM struggling and stressed out and trying to enter in all their data into their CRM and figure out what the dashboard should be and just pulling their hair out when there’s somebody there that they can do that either for free or less than a thousand dollars, help them get it going. It’s money well spent.
Small Business Trends: Hiring a flexpert, how would they go about getting started? What would their first steps be?
Susan Marshall: They can go to torchlite.com and can go hire a flexpert and you can see it on our website. They can select what’s called a playbook. So really those playbooks are just pre-packaged services. One playbook is getting all your data into the system. One playbook is configuring your reporting and dashboards. So they can select one of those and then we’ll match them with that expert or they can just say, “I just need help. I don’t know what I need exactly, but just give me somebody to help me for a couple hours.” And so we’ll match them to somebody just by them filling out the little wizard of what they’re looking for.
Small Business Trends: Is it like a pay as you go or pay after the task is complete? How does that work?
Susan Marshall: For the playbooks, we design those so that it’d be very clear and transparent what you’re paying for and what you get. There’s a price in the playbook. They range between $345 and $500. So really affordable. You put down a down payment before the project gets started to show you’re committed and for the expert to take the time to actually connect with you. That down payment is as $100 and then once the project is complete, then those funds are released to the freelancer.
Small Business Trends: Is there anything unique or different that they should know when it comes to what you guys do compared to the general freelancer marketplaces?
Susan Marshall: We are very niche. We are very focused on Salesforce products and also content creation related to that. So if you need a writer or designers who can write or design an email for example, we have those kinds of people. The fact that we’re very focused on Salesforce is one. The fact that we have a close partnership with them means you’re going to get the best experts and they’re highly accountable. There’s not 57 million of them. We have less than a thousand of them. It’s a community and we take care of each other. So it’s small, it’s niche and then we also have the playbook concept. One of my goals in starting the company was to make sure as best as possible, the freelancers knew how much money they were getting and the business knew exactly how much it was going to cost and how long it was going to take and what they were going to get at the end of it.
So a lot of these are open ended. You’re connecting with somebody who’s maybe not as closely vetted. We only accept 4% of the people who apply to the marketplace. So it’s more controlled and transparent and very focused on sales and marketing technology.
Small Business Trends: You say it really is a community of folks because it’s such a niche area that you’re focused on. I guess it becomes a community. When I think of these more general marketplaces for freelancers, I think it’s more cut throat. It’s me versus the world. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. If I was a freelancer, how would I be able to become a part of a community like this?
Susan Marshall: Cutthroat is the right word. And I think when you have massive marketplaces like that, there’s a natural race to the bottom. Sort of like, “Okay, you’ll do it for a hundred, I’ll do it for 85. “You’ll do for 85, I’ll do it for 75.” And then next thing you know, they’re unable to really fulfill their commitment because they’ve got too many projects going on or it doesn’t work out. So we want to protect the freelancers and make sure they get paid what they deserve to get paid. They come in and they set their hourly rate, we mark that up 15%. So just like other marketplaces, our platform does make a commission on top of that, but we start with what their rate is and there’s no bidding process or anything like that. So this is the rate, this is what it’s going to cost.
We’re very, very focused on protecting our freelancers and making sure that they get what they deserve. But then we also make sure that we only get the best ones as well and we cultivate those. So we have things outside of the actual marketplace where we’re educating one another and we’re sharing ideas and that kind of thing too, and you can do that when you’re smaller. Upwork can’t do that when it’s 57 million people all over the world in different languages and they’re awesome, but that’s just not who we are.
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This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.