Gig economy assumptions debunked. Or not really?

The role of platforms can no longer be excluded from debates on the future of organizing work. I predict that labor of every sector will –at least partially– be organized by platforms over the years to come. Not only by external platforms, but also internal (white label) platforms catering for the organization of both the flexible and the fixed shell of organizations. The gig economy is a bright mix of flavors and more are to be added soon.

My personal unease with discussions on the gig economy’s future is in the way the current circumstances are projected on the future and mostly expressed in extreme scenarios. Harvard Business Review published this blog post debunking some mythes about the gig economy. These are the statements, which are reportedly untrue:

  1. Millennials love to gig;
  2. We’re all going to be giggers;
  3. Gig is better;
  4. Gig work is unfulfilling.

All in all, it sounds like an interesting list of statements and maybe you do experience it as a major setback we’re not all going to be giggers in the end. But, to say the least, this didn’t take me by surprise. Why? Because the listed items aren’t very substantial. I started to write an article on the individual points, but soon I realized that such wouldn’t contribute to a constructive and informative analysis. Therefore I would rather point out why these kind of generic researches do not contribute to the public debate.

1 . Labor and platforms are too manifold to be wrapped in one-liners

There is much talk about the ‘the’ gig economy, but it is hard to make any statement on the gig economy in general. Why? Because every industry and each kind of platform has its own dynamics, including its individual opportunities and challenges. Still we fall into the trap of generalizing. The very same thing happened during a meetup regarding a Dutch documentary on the gig economy (to be seen here) last Thursday in Amsterdam. Initially the conversation wisely started by mentioning these broad dynamics, just to throw all caution overboard and keep on generalizing. The way things happen to be.

A few random variables determining the dynamics of a platform:

  • Is the gig done online or offline?;
  • Are new employment opportunities created or is the platform eating off of the other’s part of the pie?;
  • Were gigs usually done on the black or the white market?;
  • Does the worker posses unique or commodity skills?;
  • Are the skills scarce or abundantly available (there could even be a scarcity in commodity skills)?;
  • Is someone’s income from the gig economy supplemental or main income?;
  • Is the platform willing to cooperate with established institutions or not?

2 . ‘The’ platform worker is nonexistent. Neither is there a platform generation.

At the meetup, a cleaner formerly working with cleaning platform Helpling (now suing the very platform) and a cook actively working with gig platform Temper joined the table. These two platform workers wonderfully illustrated the dynamics of the platform workers’ world. On the one hand the domestic cleaning lady feeling dependent and controlled by the platform, moreover carrying the feeling that she is unable to do anything else, and disappointment over the platform not hiring her. On the other, the cook possessing unique skills, exactly knowing how to squeeze out every little bit of what the platform has to offer, skillfully profiling himself and enjoying the optimal freedom and flexibility of working via a platform. Measuring both platform workers with the same yard stick would be pure nonsense.

Just like the enormous diversity within the platform economy, also ‘the’ platform worker is a very broad concept. Furthermore, it is very important to understand how this ‘worker’ would have functioned outside of these platforms. In other words, is the platform a worsening or (at least) some enrichment to the opportunities of supplier?

Resulting from EY study, quoted several times in the HBR article by the EY author, among the respondents of the generation of millennials ‘only’ 24% earn money within the gig economy and that “the percentage of millennials with full-time careers is rising at a brisk clip from 45% in 2016 to 66% in 2018”, according to their collected data.

I am in the blue of the origins of the assumption that certain generations would be more or less ‘gig’ sensitive, but I do think –which surely is an assumption as well– that it is not advisable to project such far-going expectations on a complete generation. Even though this generation is digitally a lot more skillful than the previous and is raised more self-reliant in believing the sky to be the limit –which does influence their mindsets– it still does not imply that this generation would massively show forth a change in behavior. Besides, every individual processes through several phases of life while his or her priorities shift between different areas. I compare it with the assumption that the ‘new’ generation does not like to own a car and prefers access over property. Nothing wrong with that as long as you do have but a few obligations, yet when time comes –as is my personal case– that you settle to start a family, have children, etc. the priorities begin to shift and other topics become important. Those priorities will logically change per life stage. Similarly, one changes his mind when looking for either greater flexibility or more certainty, independent of being a millennial, or generation X, Y or Z.

3 . An increasing amount of gig work is invisible

Talking about the gig economy used to be clear and straightforward. Platforms like Uber, Deliveroo and Helpling were all there was. It couldn’t be more convenient. The trend nowadays is platforms mixing in with the ’traditional’ matchmakers. Dutch gig platforms Temper and YoungOnes platformize specific categories formerly organized by the employment agency industry. The next step being platforms organizing the flexible shell of organizations and consequently the full workforce of organizations, also because fixed personnel can be organized more efficiently by use of a platform. Parallel developments are found in the rising use of algorithms for selection procedures, as implemented by several publicly traded companies, and the use of artificial intelligence.

Whereas the gig economy used to be rather isolated about roughly one year ago, making it relatively easy to identify, I now predict platform thinking as a mindset and technique to play a rapidly growing role in every industry in the years to come, both behind the scenes and in the open. A movement not restricted to the platform start- and scale-ups currently using these techniques, but also within existing organizations. We should realize that there are great opportunities to a) redivide the market, b) increase the market and c) improve the opportunities and position of workers. I’m still disappointed about the measure of awareness within the entire sector, in strong contrast to the mobility industry.

It goes to show that the manifold gig economy is not to be wrapped up in a few one-liners and that it is high time to continue the debate on a different level.

Tegenlicht special: platformen verlagen drempels, maar ten koste van wat? | Basisinkomen als redding van de platformwerker? | Hebben we controle over de platformen waar we afhankelijk van zijn?

Afgelopen zondag zond de VPRO de Tegenlicht aflevering over de klus- en klikeconomie uit. Ik mocht als expert en onderzoeker bij de Universiteit Utrecht een bijdrage leveren. Het was een mooie en interessante uitzending waarin zowel de kluseconomie (met als voorbeeld het Nederlandse platform Temper) als de klikeconomie (met het Amerikaanse horror platform Amazon Mechanical Turk) aan bod kwamen. Heb je de aflevering nog niet gezien? Dan heb je deze week iets te doen.

In deze blog besteedt ik aandacht aan 4 vraagstukken die op social media veel aandacht kregen en blijkbaar leven onder de kijkers.

1. Platformen verlagen drempels, maar houden ze voldoende rekening met de individuele gebruiker?

Een van de meest gedeelde Tweets (@redactie: ik neem aan dat jullie niet stiekum een gig hebben ingekocht via Fiverr om meer bereik te krijgen? ;-)) luidde: “De platformeconomie zet de arbeidsmarkt op zijn kop. Zonder sollicitatiegesprek, pensioen, verzekering of baas kan je via je mobieltje aan de slag voor online platformen als Uber of Deliveroo. Maar hoe vrij is de klik- en klusfreelancer?”
Hoewel je, zeker na deze uitzending, veel over platformen kunt zeggen, is het intussen wel duidelijk dat platformen drempels verlagen voor mensen om te participeren in de arbeidsmarkt. Bij de meeste platformen kun je zonder enige ervaring of diploma direct aan de slag. Collega onderzoeker Andrea Herrmann deed onlangs onderzoek naar de vraag of diploma’s er toe in de online kluseconomie. Het antwoord na uitgebreid onderzoek gedaan te hebben op een van de grootste klusplatformen in de wereld is duidelijk: nee. Het aantal jaren ervaring op een platform en de reputatiescore doen er, en die laatste is niet geheel verrassend, wel toe. Geslacht helaas ook: ook in de online kluseconomie verdienen mannen meer dan vrouwen voor soortgelijk werk.
In dat opzicht zou je kunnen zeggen, en dan ga ik voor het gemak niet in op de discussie rondom arbeidsvoorwaarden, dat platformen bijdragen aan een meer inclusieve arbeidsmarkt. Het kan dan ook de andere kant op werken: zo starten de social services in Zweden een experiment waar de ervaring (o.a. reputatiescore) van klusplatformen wordt omgezet in een traditioneel CV. En dan kan het zomaar zijn dat ervaring in de kluseconomie ook weer voor een betere positie op de niet-platform-arbeidsmarkt kan zorgen.
De meeste drempels die een gebruiker belemmeren om op een platform aan de slag te gaan zijn belemmeringen die door de overheid zijn bepaald. Zo moet je om bij Uber te mogen rijden o.a. een taxivergunning hebben en is een VOG bij sommige platformen verplicht. Beide voorbeelden zijn natuurlijk hartstikke legitiem.
De andere kant van het verhaal, dat ook in deze tweet naar voren komt, is dat er ook een prijskaartje aan deze flexibiliteit hangt. Bij veel platformen ga je als freelancer aan de slag en mag je je administratie en verzekering zelf regelen. Vooral dat laatste is een heikel punt: die verzekering komt er in de meeste gevallen niet. En dat is iets waar we als maatschappij een duidelijker standpunt over moeten innemen. Waarom? Omdat wanneer het mis gaat de maatschappij de rekening betaalt. De uitdaging in ons huidige arbeid systeem is dat er twee smaken zijn: zekerheid óf flexibiliteit. Hoewel het uitzendmodel daar een beetje tussenin hangt, hebben veel platformen toch de mening dat het uitzendmodel niet flexibel genoeg is. Hier ligt nog een duidelijke opdracht voor beleidsmakers om hier een oplossing voor te vinden. Maar ook voor platformen: het gegeven dat je vindt dat wetgeving verouderd is en niet aansluit bij jouw model mag natuurlijk nooit er toe leiden dat je de wetgeving dan maar aan je laars lapt. Uber en Deliveroo hebben hierin overigens de handschoen opgepakt en hun freelancers verzekerd. Niet ideaal en een risico voor het platform straks in de rechtszaal, maar ze pakken hier wel een stuk verantwoordelijkheid.
Laatste kanttekening bij de claim van flexibiliteit en vrijheid is dat je je misschien als aanbieder altijd bij een platform aan kunt melden, maar er niet altijd werk is. Zo weet je dat bij UberEats en Deliveroo en vooral werk is tijdens de zogenaamde ‘hungry hours’. Log je om 10:00uur ’s ochtends in, dan zul je weinig te doen hebben. En omdat je per uur betaald wordt, zul je er ook weinig aan overhouden. Dus: ja vrijheid, maar nee: niet de ultieme vrijheid.

2. Is het niet tijd voor een basis inkomen?

Niet zozeer trending, maar wel interessant was de tweet van@BartLankester: “Die klik- en kluseconomie eerst maar eens combineren met een basisinkomen. Krijg je betere beloning en kun je kloteklussen weigeren.”
Interessant, omdat het mij deed denken aan een onderzoek van professor Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, waar ik twee weken geleden over schreef. Juliet deed onderzoek naar tevredenheid, autonomie en inkomsten van workers in de (offline) kluseconomie.
Uit haar onderzoeken bleek dat wie het platform gebruikt voor extra (supplemental) inkomen zonder daar afhankelijk van te zijn over het algemeen heel tevreden is, een groot gevoel van autonomie heeft en over het algemeen goed verdient. Waarom? Omdat deze groep de luxe heeft om alleen voor de goedbetaalde ‘gigs’ te gaan en omdat zij niet bang is om een lage score te halen: het deactiveren heeft weinig invloed op hun leven. Zijn zij ook goed in het negeren van sturingsmechanismen van de algoritmes.
Heel anders is het voor diegenen die afhankelijk van het platform zijn. Zij moeten iedere beschikbare klus aannemen en kiezen dus ook voor de slecht betaalde opdrachten. Daarnaast heerst er onder deze groep de angst voor de gevolgen van een slechte beoordeling, wat een negatief effect heeft op hoe zij hun werk en autonomie ervaren.
Conclusie: op het moment dat je een basis inkomen hebt en dus niet afhankelijk bent van een platform voor je levensonderhoud, verdien je meer. Juist ook omdat je die ‘kloteklussen’ kunt weigeren. Wat dat betreft heeft Bart dus helemaal gelijk.

3. Kunnen we dit soort bedrijven makkelijk een halt toeroepen?

De meest gedeelde tweet kwam van Tegenlicht zelf. “Waarom betalen we tol aan platform-monopolies als Uber en Airbnb, die enkel het contact leggen tussen klant en leverancier? Financieel journalist Paul Mason: ‘We kunnen dit soort bedrijven makkelijk een halt toeroepen’.”
De vragen die wordt gesteld zijn: 1) waarom betalen we tol aan een platform die ‘slechts’ contact legt tussen vraag en aanbod en 2) kunnen we dit soort bedrijven een halt toe roepen? Het korte antwoord is: ja. De vraag ‘maar hoe dan’ is helaas wat complexer.
Het zijn voornamelijk belangenorganisaties als Horeca Nederland (in het geval van Thuisbezorgd en en vakbonden (in het geval van Uber) die roepen dat de percentages die gebruikers aan platformen moeten afdragen exorbitant hoog zijn. Waarom moet een restaurant 13 procent afdragen aan een website? Het antwoord is simpel: omdat Thuisbezorgd meer is dan alleen een website. Platformen verlagen drempels en bieden gemak (veelal door technologie en algoritmes) waardoor de markt groeit. Dit doen zij door veel te investeren in technologie, maar ook in marketing (reclame) en sales. En dat kost geld. Bij Thuisbezorgd op kantoor werken meer dan 1.000 mensen. Bij Uber op kantoor meer dan 16.000 mensen. Die zitten niet stil.
De aanname dat een platform dus ‘slechts’ contact legt is dan dus ook niet juist. Het neerzetten van een succesvol platform, waarbij ik succes nu beperk tot het ‘laten werken van het systeem’ is echt niet zo makkelijk en kost geld. Uiteindelijk is het aan de ondernemer ook de keuze (er van uit gaand dat er een keuze is) om te bepalen of de toegevoegde waarde van een platform de investering van x-procent commissie waard is. Zeker in de restaurant en hotel sector besteden ondernemers en ondernemingen hun marketing en sales uit aan een platform. Daar hoeven zij zelf nagenoeg niets meer aan te doen. Dat is een keuze. Dat spaart geld en dat kost geld: je betaalt alleen voor de werkelijke resultaten. Het misschien ongewenste bij-effect is dat je je klantcontact en onafhankelijkheid verliest. Maar ook dat is, in essentie, een keuze.
Het gegeven dat het niet makkelijk is om een eigen platform neer te zetten, betekent natuurlijk niet dat het onmogelijk is. Op steeds meer plekken wordt geëxperimenteerd met zogenaamde ’platform coöperaties’. Dit zijn platformen waarbij de aanbieders (zoals taxi chauffeurs) zich verenigen, een coöperatie opzetten en gezamenlijk investeren in een eigen app. Zie ook de slides van een presentatie die ik onlangs gaf naar aanleiding van een onderzoek dat ik naar deze ontwikkeling heb gedaan.
Het organiseren van gebruikers, en dan vooral de aanbieders, is dus een mogelijkheid om platformen een halt toe te roepen. Dit kan door zelf een eigen (lokale) variant te starten, maar ook door je als gebruikers te verenigen en samen een vuist te maken. Platform macht is namelijk alleen macht bij de gratie van de gebruikers. Zonder gebruikers is een platform niets waard. Hier ligt dus ook een kans voor vakbonden: door te organiseren en te activeren creëer je een tegenmacht. En dan heb je echt wel iets te zeggen.
Als laatst ligt hier natuurlijk ook een belangrijke en in mijn ogen zwaar onderbelichte rol van de overheid. Uiteindelijk is het aan ons als samenleving, met de overheid voorop, om te bepalen onder welke regels wij willen dat bedrijven en platformen zich in onze maatschappij gedragen. Dat besef ontbreekt nogal eens in de discussie. En dat is op zijn zachtst gezegd een gemiste kans.

4. Kunnen (publieke) waarden geborgd worden, ook bij een overname?

Op het eind van de aflevering werd Paul Eggink, de oprichter van Temper, gevraagd of zijn idealen zouden blijven staan op het moment dat er een partij zou komen die voor veel geld het platform over zou nemen. Paul reageerde in de trend van ‘nee, dan ben ik de controle kwijt en kan ik geen garanties afgeven’.
Hoewel ik geloof in zijn intenties is dat antwoord natuurlijk onjuist. Op het moment dat je kiest voor de belangen van de investeerders, dan richt je je model zo in dat zij verschillende opties hebben om hun investering (en genomen risico) te kapitaliseren. Op zich niets mis mee, maar helaas gebeurt het regelmatig dat dit kapitaliseren niet ten goede komt van de toekomst van het bedrijf en de andere stakeholders. Dat is een keuze, maar er zijn meer smaken.
Een voorbeeld is door het gebruik maken van het ‘Steward Ownership’ model. Dit model gaat uit van de filosofie dat niet het bedrijf dienend is aan de eigenaar/investeerder, maar de eigenaar/investeerder aan het bedrijf. Vorige week was ik toevallig in Berlijn op een conferentie die alleen hier over ging. Hier sprak ik een van de oprichters van Sharetribe, een bedrijf dat (open source) software maakt waarmee iedereen laagdrempelig zijn eigen platform kan beginnen. Zij hebben vorig jaar een transitie doorgemaakt naar dit model, waarmee de rendementen van investeerders worden beperkt (maar alsnog netjes zijn) en er een constructie is neergezet waarmee het bedrijf nooit verkocht kan worden. Lees meer over dit model en check de video van een kort interview dat ik deed via deze link.
Bottom line: natuurlijk is het mogelijk om de belangen van het bedrijf, haar gebruikers en de goede intenties van de oprichters te borgen en te beschermen voor de lange termijn.


Al met al vindt ik het een interessante aflevering geworden waar de voor- en nadelen van de opkomst van de platformeconomie goed naar voren zijn gekomen. Uiteraard daag ik de redactie uit om een vervolg te overwegen met de vraag ‘hoe kunnen platformen bijdragen aan een meer inclusieve samenleving en arbeidsmarkt’. Om vanuit de huidige situatie echt vooruit te kijken naar waar het heen kan gaan. En welke keuzes wij (ook als maatschappij) daarvoor moeten maken. Ik zie er naar uit.

Gebouwd voor de toekomst: Hoe Sharetribe het ‘steward ownership’ model omarmde

Afgelopen week was ik in Berlijn voor de ‘Ownership Conference‘, een congres waar de vraag centraal stond hoe de aandeelhouders dienend kunnen zijn voor het bedrijf in plaats van dat het bedrijf dienend is aan de aandeelhouders. Het model waar dit congres om draaide heette dan ook het ‘steward ownership model’.

Ik verken dit model, omdat in de platformeconomie veel discussie is over het extractieve karakter van geld. Venture Capital durfinvesteerders en ondernemers zitten er in flink wat gevallen (laten we niet iedereen over één kam scheren) in voor een korte termijn en maximaal rendement. Iets dat perverse prikkels kan opleveren mbt het maken van keuzes voor de lange termijn. Daarnaast: in veel gevallen dat een bedrijf wordt verkocht en de oprichters en deze weg gaan (samen ook vaak met wat werknemers van het eerste uur), is het daarna ook snel gedaan met het bedrijf.

In onderstaande video interview ik Juho Makkonen, oprichter van Sharetribe. Sharetribe levert (open source) software waarmee iedereen zijn eigen deeleconomie marktplaats kan bouwen, zonder enige technische kennis. Sharetribe heeft vorig jaar een transformatie doorgemaakt naar een Steward Ownership company. Dit houdt in dat

  • het stemrecht niet bij investeerders, maar bij teamleden die voor het bedrijf werken ligt;
  • het bedrijf nooit verkocht kan worden;
  • salarissen een max hebben;
  • investeerders maximaal hun investering factor 5 kunnen terugkrijgen en er per jaar maximaal 40% van de winst mag worden gebruikt voor het terugkopen van aandelen.

Hoewel dit model niet voor alle ondernemers is weggelegd, is het wel een interessante manier om bepaalde zekerheden ‘by design’ in het eigenaarschap model vast te leggen. Nieuw is het model overigens niet, het 130 jaar oude Bosch heeft ook een (deels) steward ownership structuur.

Reshaping Work: 5 insights into the gig economy‘s most urgent issues

The early gig economy discussion has majorly been focussing on commodity skilled labor like taxi driving, household cleaning, and click working, but recently there is shift towards a more encompassing approach. A beneficial trend, as I’m convinced that platforms will soon be organizing work in all kinds of industries.

ING published a paper titled ‘Algorithms versus the temporary employment sector Is there a future for temporary employment agencies?’. Their prediction is that about 20-70 percent flex work market share is to be redistributed by the rise of online platforms. In this context it isn’t surprising at all to see a growing number of stakeholders joining the discussion.

October 25th and 26th, 2018, the second edition of the ‘Reshaping Work in the Platform Economy’ congress took place in Amsterdam. Although many congresses on this topic focus on one specific stakeholder only (e.g. academics, start-ups, unions, or the deployment agencies), this congress exhibits a unique multi-disciplinary approach. An approach worth copying.

This blog is devoted to the tweets I put out during the congress, highlighting and elaborating on the congress’ most remarkable insights into the gig economy’s most urgent issues.

1. What is the size of the gig economy?

Depending on definition and the duration of a gig, researchers find sizes for the gig economy from 0.4% up to 22% of the total labor market. You see: there isn’t any meaningful statement to be made. Does that matter? It actually doesn’t, as long as each and every research clearly states which variables are and which are not accounted for in the used definition for the gig economy, something apparently difficult in practice. It wouldn’t be a superfluous luxury to see a bit more unity established among researches.

One of the most important, yet still underemphasized, variables is whether a transaction is processed by an online or offline platform. When talking about the challenges and opportunities arising from a online platform processed transactions, it would by definition be perfect to include those transactions only. But when the size of the full gig economy is to be considered, and something is to be said about working conditions, it would surely be beneficial to have an accurate measure of the size of the entire gig market. No valid statement can be made about cleaners working through helpling in comparison to other unknown cleaners working through other intermediators (working without a platform or even by classifieds, etc.). A second example can be found in the food delivery sector. has its own hired deliverers, for whom it has orchestrated all social securities and insurances, but they deliver only 1.4 percent of the total number of deliveries executed by the platform. The other 98.6 percent is being carried out by couriers hired by the restaurants themselves. Until we start gathering knowledge about the working conditions of this group, we can’t say anything useful concerning the market as a whole and whether a platform is a blessing or a curse compared to the status quo.

Another outstanding point of the opening keynote by my colleague Koen Frenken is the fact that many gig workers use these gigs as ‘supplemental income’. Lauren Sepoetro, public policy advisor at Uber, confirmed this later on in the congress. UberEats isn’t meant to be the main source of income. Which is virtually impossible, given the fact that work hours are generally around lunch and dinner times. It still is a plus to hear such facts confirmed by a leading platform.

2. Platforms, the new generation employment agencies?

The ING paper ‘Algorithms versus the temporary employment sector Is there a future for temporary employment agencies?’ predicts, as stated before, that about 20-70 percent flex work market share is to be redistributed by the rising online platforms. Shocking figures. Existing deployment agencies surely aren’t passive, yet the message is clear: Their work is cut out for them.

Last week, I shared a blog on the Danish platform Meploy organizing both their own and the external flexible shell of organizations through one platform. And also the employment agency industry has published quite a few statements and editorials about their role within the platform and freelance discussion.

During the presentation of Oxford Internet Institute researchers, working on a fabulous research on online work within the gig economy, the presentation slide below was shown. Platform Sourcing (check their report ‘Platform Sourcing: How Fortune 500 Firms Are Adopting Online Freelancing Platforms’) is a term I had not yet come across, but it sounds good. The more I think about it, the more I talk about it with others, and the more I start to be convinced that the link between platforms within the gig economy and the employment agency industry is merely logical. I think that the answers to questions on social securities for platform workers could be found in this direction.

I assume all of us are convinced that the full labor system needs to be redefined. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the UK based RSA (check this club!), shared his vision that no fiscal differences should exist for clients and workers between fixed and flexible forms of work. However, it is clear for such a shift to happen, we will have to wait a couple of years. And, for the time being, we will have to find our solutions…

3. Are official degrees still valid in the gig economy?

Platforms lower the threshold to enter the labor market. The majority of the gig platforms are open for use to anyone without any prior experience. No degree required. During your first gigs on the platform you’ll establish your reputation score, which will help you in receiving your next assignments.

The question at hand is: are degrees still valid in the online gig economy? The answer by colleague Andrea Herrmann of Utrecht University is clear: “No”, as she concludes after extensive research on data from one of the world’s biggest gig platforms. Moreover, the number of years of experience on a platform and the reputation score are important, the latter to no surprise. Gender, on the other hand, is sadly also of importance; men do earn more than women for the same kind of work in the online gig economy like elsewhere.

It is, on the other hand, interesting to experiment with these things. Swedish social services experimented in drawing up traditional resumes from the experiences and reputation scores of gig platforms CV. A very interesting experiment.

4. How satisfied are workers in the gig economy?

Juliet Schor, Professor Sociology at Boston College, has been researching the platform economy with her team over the last year. I met (and interviewed) her in Utrecht before, about three years ago during the first International Workshop on the Sharing Economy. Juliet shared her keynote results from the research on satisfaction, autonomy and income of workers in the (offline) gig economy.

Interestingly, those who use the platform for supplemental income, without developing a dependence, are usually very satisfied and have a great sense of autonomy and earn a decent amount. Why? Because they profit from their position to only choose the well-paid gigs and don’t fear getting lesser scores; even deactivation of their account would not have a much of an impact on their lives. They are skillfully ignoring the control mechanisms of the algorithms. Likewise, a deliverer working for Postmates who lets the client come to her car to collect the delivery. She finds it too dangerous to go up to the door herself at such a time of the day. She doesn’t mind ignoring the rules of the platform, because she isn’t dependent on the platform for her income.

The situation for those that are dependent on the platform. They have to take every available job and will choose for the lower paid gigs as well. Additionally, this group suffers from the fear of the negative consequences of a bad review and how it influences their feeling of working autonomously.

5. The gig economy from a worker’s perspective

Special to the Reshaping Work congress is the fact that all stakeholders are present and involved in the development, host round tables –of course I joined the table with the Dutch Trade Union FNV after writing my last week’s blog about them– and on the second day I shared the stage for the debate called ‘meet the gig worker’. (Watch last year’s video).

In this edition, representatives of Deliveroo and UberEats shared the stage with 6 of their ‘own’ gig workers. Some of the findings:

Scheduled or really on demand?

Deliveroo works with scheduled services. Three variables can give the deliverer an advantage in his application for a gig:

  1. Does the deliverer act on the agreements and did he work for earlier reserved sessions;
  2. Last minute cancellations (if anyone cancels a session more than 24 hours in advance it does not effect their score);
  3. Does the deliverer work during peak hours (Friday, Saturday, and on Sunday between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.).

Of course you can sign up spontaneously, but when the maximum number of deliverers within a region is reached, newly logged in workers won’t be scheduled. UberEats doesn’t work with scheduled services and is purely on demand. You may expect the Deliveroo model to lead to better income for the couriers; because the supply is regulated, it will never be possible to have too many couriers working simultaneously in comparison with the number of assignments. At UberEats there is less grip on the supply side of the platform. It would be interesting to research which of these models shows to be most profitable to the deliverer.

To be or not to be a freelancer, that’s the question.

The foremost discussion of the moment and the years to come is on whether the platform worker will be a considered a freelancer or is to be hired by the platform? The Attorneys I spoke to about the Dutch context predict this issue to remain unclear for the coming years.

Although there is much talk about the worker, there is but little place for them to express themselves. Inviting them to speak up, may lead to interesting results. Their response on the question if they prefer to be a freelancer or to be hired, their unanimous answer is: “Freelancer.” Especially interesting as the very same workers asked for more clarity on income and tariffs earlier in the conversation. Their motives:

  • The results of your efforts show forth immediately. Cycling faster, earns more. The competitive element is experienced positively;
  • The flexibility: work when as long as you want;
  • Autonomy: be your own boss, make your own choices.

Although the choice is clear, it remains questionable if the individual deliverers are able to understand the risks concerning insurances, work disability and pension first of all, and secondly, if we would ultimately like to pay the price for the uninsured worker as a society. A number of platform representatives I talked to during the congress were open to compulsory insurances for workers. As long as it would not be considered as them becoming the employer. Bottom line, the choice is between flexibility and security. Which is no desirable case.

What is the bottleneck?

Right in the middle of this discussion, a to me unexpected and rather underexposed  stakeholder with an enormous influence on the bicycle deliverer’s fortune showed up: the restaurant. Platforms like Deliveroo and UberEats give restaurants not yet active in food delivering the opportunity to tap into their network of couriers on the platform. However, this does not prepare their processes to having their food delivered. A few points of consideration:

  • • Long waiting times: commonly other clients take precedence over the bicycle deliverers and their waiting is at their own expense;
  • • Restaurants aren’t yet accustomed to packing meals for transport. The result: flooded, mixed, neither very attractive nor tasty meals in lousy paper bags. Something the couriers will be judged on in their evaluations on the platform.

Deliveroo indicates to help restaurants with advice, but there is still much to improve for both platforms. I’m, however, interested whether these negative experiences also hold for restaurants with their own hired deliverers. I assume not to the same extent as a result of an increased feeling of ownership.

Wrapping up

Over six years ago, I decided to start working on the platform economy full time. All based on the conviction this development would be influencing every industry over a span of the next decade. First crowdfunding, secondly the sharing economy and consecutively the gig economy. I also predicted, reasoning by pure logic, the last of these to be the most interesting and to offer the most relevant issues. For, surely, the heavier someone depends on a platform, the clearer the pain of a suboptimal model.

It was wonderful to see so many different stakeholders become visible on a personal level during the debates and to noticed how they opened up for each other’s opinions and challenges. This way of communication is much more pleasant than the one in court cases. The stakeholders’ next step is to take a more constructive attitude towards the outside world on an institutional level, as that is the road to success for all who are involved.

I recognize myself taking on the task of bridging gaps by bringing several parties within stakeholder groups together and by connecting stakeholders with one another. I am excited to do so from an independent position and honored to play this part.

Meploy is showing businesses the future of organizing flexible work.

Many discussions within the gig economy focus on platforms connecting the individual demander with an individual supplier. The one-on-one transaction. A taxi driver and a traveller, a cleaning lady with a private citizen, and the babysitter with a family with children. Platforms lower the threshold for these kind of activities and pave the way for markets to grow. It has caught my eye that recently such discussions mainly focus on the individual client. There is hardly any word on the opportunities such platform developments could offer to business clients.

Slightly over a year ago, I travelled to Copenhagen to meet up with the founder of gig platform Meploy. Initially founded as a platform to connect freelancers to businesses for short term gigs, it soon they made an interesting switch. By converting to a staffing model, they hired the ones who would execute the gigs and became a completely digital first employment agency.

I kept following Michael, Meploy’s founder, and met him several times throughout Europe, just like last Thursday in Brussels. He told me they now facilitate fixed clients with their complete flexible hiring. And during last year only they have grown by a factor of 10.

Meploy is a platform that more or less shows how I expect the gig economy —though I rather call it the platforms facilitating the organization of work— to develop over the next couple of years. Beginning with the facilitation of gigs for (and between) consumers, slowly evolving to a means of organizing the flexible shell of organizations, whether or not white label. This is highly interesting to organizations, because the benefits of those platforms in lowering their transaction costs can now also be applied to a business HR environment.

Besides taking the flexible shell into their own system, another extra interesting plus for the organization is that it can additionally benefit from the platform’s talent pool. In doing so, the platform takes over the whole organization flow of the flexible shell. This development may have an considerable impact on the temporary work agency sector. Whether this impact will turn out to be an opportunity or threat is to be determined by the industry itself. This area of the gig economy has not yet been part of the discussion, but will, in my opinion, have great impact in the near future.

P.s. A couple days ahead of my conversation with Michael, I read his latest blog in which he announced to yearly share 10% of the companies profit among those that worked through the platform over that year. He has given thought to a cooperative model, but with the impermanent relation to workers on the platform, it would not provide any added value in his opinion. With this, I believe he has created a finely unique solution.

FNV begint rechtszaak tegen schoonmaakplatform Helpling – en snijdt zichzelf uiteindelijk in de vingers

Het zat er al even aan te komen. Op de dag dat platform voor schoonmakers bij huishoudens Helpling een nieuwe investering en de uitbreiding naar Zwitserland bekend wilde maken, verstoorde FNV het feestgevoel. De vakbond daagt het platform voor de rechter.

De boodschap in het persbericht is helder: FNV vindt dat Helpling de schoonmakers die van het platform gebruik maken in dienst moet nemen.

Feitelijke onjuistheden

Wat mij verbaast is dat er wel een aantal flinke feitelijke onjuistheden in het bericht stonden. Zo onjuist, dat dit echt geen toeval kan zijn. Zo spreekt FNV in het bericht over zzp’ers. Dit is onjuist, schoonmaakhulpen vallen onder de regeling dienstverlening aan huis.

“Dit is een uitzonderingsregeling op de verplichte lasten die een werkgever normaal gesproken wel heeft als het gaat om kleinschalige diensten en klusjes van particulieren onderling.“

Daarnaast staat in het bericht dat een hulp 11,50 per uur verdient, terwijl op het platform de aanbieder zelf zijn prijs mag bepalen. Er is wel een adviestarief en een ondergrens, maar geen maximumprijs.

Als voormalig marketeer weet ik dat je af en toe wat zaken moet aandikken, maar toch snap ik niet waarom FNV deze onjuistheden in het bericht heeft geplaatst. De boodschap was met de feiten echt niet minder duidelijk en overtuigend geworden.

Is de keuze om Helpling te dagvaarden willekeur?

Helpling is niet het enige platform dat bemiddelt tussen particuliere vragers en aanbieders volgens de regeling dienstverlening aan huis en commissie rekent. Ook schoonmaakplatformen, en oppasplatform Charley Cares maken gebruik van deze combinatie. Wat dat betreft had FNV het voor het kiezen.

Is Helpling dan echt nieuw?

Platform Helpling stelt huishoudens in staat via een online marktplaats een schoonmaakhulp te vinden. Daarnaast ondersteunt het platform met kwaliteitscontrole (telefonische intake, ID-check en reputatiesysteem), backoffice (klachten, vragen, vervangende hulp bij vakantie) en betaalmodule. Het bedrijf verdient geld door een marge van iedere transactie af te romen. Een veelgebruikt model.

Helpling is zeker niet uniek, dit soort dienstverlening bestaat al jaren. Neem het bedrijf HomeWorks. Een bedrijf dat al 25 jaar lang exact hetzelfde doet als Helping. Het enige verschil is dat dit geen online marktplaats is, maar dat het bedrijf handmatig de match tussen vraag en aanbod maakt. Daarnaast heeft het servicecoördinatoren die toezien op kwaliteit en zelfs met de eerste schoonmaak meegaan. Dit alles maakt het een duur model: de commissie die het bedrijf rekent is dan ook zo’n 39% (t.o.v. 23% bij Helpling).

Als de FNV het belangrijk vindt om voor deze doelgroep op te komen, waarom hebben zij een organisatie als HomeWorks dan niet al veel eerder aangepakt?

Wat gebeurt er als FNV zijn gelijk haalt?

Ik ben geen jurist, heb de aanklacht niet gelezen en kan dus geen voorspellingen in deze zaak doen. Maar als FNV wint en Helpling de huishoudhulpen in dienst moet nemen, dan gaat de prijs van de hulp voor de klant omhoog naar een bedrag van minimaal 20 euro. Nagenoeg geen enkele particulier is bereid dit bedrag per uur te betalen. Er zal niemand meer boeken via het platform en Helpling is binnen de kortste keren failliet. Is daarmee het probleem opgelost? Nee. Die schoonmaak wordt ook daarna nog wel gedaan. Maar dan via de zwarte markt.

Verbrand FNV met deze aanvliegroute haar schepen?

Iedere vakbondsvrouw of -man die ik spreek is overtuigd dat de opkomst van platformen die bemiddelen (in welke vorm dan ook) in arbeid niet meer te stoppen is. Ik zie ook veel kansen in samenwerkingen tussen platformen en vakbonden, zoals het borgen van collectieve afspraken in algoritmes.

Dit is wel een wat onaangename start van de relatie. FNV snijdt zichzelf hiermee flink in de vingers. FNV heeft al een interessant trackrecord in de relatie tot platformen:

  1. Aanklacht Deliveroo (binnenkort uitspraak);
  2. Samenwerking Temper tussen FNV Horeca en het platform waar de top van FNV en publique zijn ongenoegen uitsprak over de samenwerking;
  3. Nu de Helpling case.

Ik kan mij niet voorstellen dat er nu nog een platform is dat met een gerust hart een samenwerking of experiment met FNV aandurft. Een gemiste kans.


Ook al wint FNV de rechtszaak, de schoonmaakhulp wordt er niet beter van. Daarnaast is het duidelijk dat het aanklagen van alleen Helpling over komt als willekeur: het voorbeeld van HomeWorks laat zien dat deze manier van bemiddelen al heel oud is.

Het ziet er dan ook naar uit dat het doel van deze zaak voornamelijk ligt bij het ‘aankaarten van de problematiek achter de platformeconomie’. Een niet onbekende route, maar dit is niet de manier die ik zou hebben gekozen. Voor nu is het afwachten of er ruimte komt voor constructiever debat.

Is the discussion on the gig economy still on-topic?

The greatest frustration for policy makers and researchers on the platform industry is the lack of access to platform information, such as user data and more general data, like transaction numbers and gross revenue. Luckily, there is an interesting exception in the Amsterdam based platform company

As this platform is publicly traded, it is obliged to publish their (officially audited) results. Moreover, the investor calls, the question time by phone in which investors can ask all their questions which are to be answered directly by the board, is public. These calls are extremely interesting and educational.

The takeaway —how appropriate— of the call regarding the yearly figures of 2017 is that the platform doesn’t see the rather purely logistic platforms, like Deliveroo and UberEats, as their competitors and doesn’t really believe that these models will ever be viable.

TakeAway got involved in the discussion by announcing that they will hire and insure their own deliverers and give them an honest salary. In such, they openly distance themselves from the freelance solutions exploited by Deliveroo and UberEats. Delving a bit deeper into the numbers, one sees the beauty of this thought, yet that it is of little or no effect practically.

Out of the total number of executed orders in 2017, grossing around 68,3M, only 1.4% has been dealt with by the platforms own deliverers. In 2016, it accounted for only 0.5%. The end goal is to grow to a maximum of 5%. Why? Well, according to TakeAway, organizing the logistics of this activity will always be a loss-making business. TakeAway uses their own deliverers as an acquisition tool for new clients and restaurants and as a branding tool; they want their own deliverers to be visible to the outside world and to contribute to their ‘brand awareness’. Something of greater importance since the appearance of Deliveroo and UberEats, I assume.

We have no clue about the working conditions of the other 98,6% of the executed orders. Are they hired? Have they been paid under the table? Are they insured? Etc. Etc. In the case of TakeAway, you can’t say anything relevant regarding the working conditions of couriers in the food delivery sector as long as you don’t know the first thing about the situation of the majority. Especially when taking into account that the company considers direct phone-ordered meals at the restaurant as their largest rival. Their estimate presumes that 70% of the total take away orders at restaurants (so, ordered by phone to be taken home by the individuals themselves or the courier hired by the restaurant) are made without the interference of any platform. With this being clear, you may conclude that the number of deliverers working for the platform of a dominant market player is almost negligible.

Bottom line: 

In discussions on the gig economy, the complete picture is hardly ever taken into account. We notice, for example, that bicycle couriers working through an app are just a fraction of the whole market. Trying to have an informed discussion about food delivery couriers while forgetting to include the market’s majority, makes the conversation completely useless. The food delivery sector is not an exception; I see more sectors with the same massive bias in the discussion.

Looking at the market from this perspective, it is of interest to see how platforms could centralize a fragmented market in order to do something beneficial for the sector as a whole.

Staying on point regarding TakeAway: the platform has a respectable number of 32,929 affiliated restaurants. Assume that about 30,000 restaurants have their own (hired) deliverers. TakeAway, as a platform, could easily offer these restaurants extra services in order to take better care of the protection and rights of these couriers. This centralization (through a platform) of a fragmented and uncontrollable existing market could first provide for possibilities to enable automated enforcement by means of reviews or obligatory security videos at profile creation, and secondly for the potential of making certain existing legislation superfluous, since the centralized character of the platform and the technical possibilities have made them superfluous (providing the platform can be audited by, e.g., a trusted third party).

All of this might be far-fetched, but with foregoing example I would like to stretch that one should have a broad perspective on things and consider all variables of a market. The gig economy isn’t a separate market, but part of THE economy. Work provided via platforms is in many cases not new. Platforms centralizing a fragmented and uncontrollable market in one way or another, can contribute to the benefit of the market as a whole in making it meet social needs and desires.

Airbnb as a cooperative: a viable scenario?

In the midst of the tidal wave of discussions about the holiday rental website Airbnb, a highly remarkable message appeared on September 21st. In a letter addressed to the US Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), co-founder Brian Chesky shared his vision that Airbnb believes “that twenty-first century companies are most successful when the interests of all stakeholders are aligned.” Consecutively, he revealed the ambition to reward the platforms’ hosts with shareholdership. Such would allow them to profit from a successful IPO. Irrespective of the question whether this is part of a spin-doctored marketing initiative or Chesky & Co showing sincere intentions, he surely opened the door for a discussion on a new generation of sharing and gig economy platforms.

Taking a free ride

Platforms like Airbnb,, Uber and Facebook are marketplaces which in principle don’t own anything themselves. They make use of resources provided by the users of their platform. Although these users are indispensable for the creation of value of the platform, the profits of the platforms disappear in the pockets of the shareholders. Which, in most cases, are not the users. Moreover, the focus on maximizing shareholders’ profit forms an incentive to impair the users of the platform.

Platform cooperatives

Chesky’s plan is in line with a internationally growing desire for more equal models. His ideas aren’t completely new. In recent years, several experiments have been executed with so-called platform cooperatives. On such platforms users, mostly suppliers, unite themselves as a cooperative. They collaboratively invest in the technology on which they depend. Likewise, a group photographers owns and manages the stock photo website Stocksy, about 800 Denver-based taxi drivers started a local Uber-competitor under the name Green Taxi, and cooperative experiments of counterparts to Deliveroo and UberEats are rolling out in France. Although there are only a few successful platform cooperatives at hand, it is a soothing thought that platforms are faced with alternative possibilities.

Not new, but unique

Chesky’s idea turns out not to be new, yet it is unique. Where many platform cooperatives start out as cooperative and are having a hard time to sufficiently scale up, Airbnb would finds itself in a reversed situation: the platform started as a commercially and centrally managed platform to be handed over into the hands of the users. Where many experts expect these kind of developments from start-ups using complicated blockchain technology, it is interesting –and disillusioning– that a two hundred year old model can also be found to be the solution.

Alternative scenario: May it be a bit more ambitious?

The ambition of Chesky, given that he would proceed, is groundbreaking. But is his plan as ambitious as it could be? The redistribution of ownership is new, but it still has focusses on the same old goal of Airbnb going for an IPO in 2019, to in turn be consumed by the day-to-day affairs of the stock exchange. Why not a bit more ambitious with a transformation to a cooperative with voting rights? ‘Because investors with an IPO want to have a solid return on the risks they were willing to take,’ could be an answer. Although most ‘alternative’ thinkers despise the making of great profit, I am of the opinion that an entrepreneur or businessman should be rewarded for his effort and the risks he has taken. =

What if a hosts would receive the option to automatically exchange, say, 25 percent of his profit into stocks? Effectively, hosts could slowly acquire a growing share in the cooperative. With an average of 500.000 overnight stays per day for an average price of 80 dollar hosts could, calculating for the expected growth, pay up to 32 billion dollar over the next 10 years. The gross value of Airbnb nowadays. This would make the cooperative the sole owner of the platform. At the time the hosts become co-owner and co-manager of the platform by means of a cooperation, a better equilibrium in making decisions about the future and its place in society can be achieved.

First step

However, this is a first step, and also this model wouldn’t be perfect. The current focus on hosts and not on neighborhoods and cities has shown its dangerous sides when not all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making processes. Alternative platforms like FairBnB do try to involve all stakeholders, but they have a hard time getting established. All in all, we have to experiment with new ways of ownership and management models of platforms. On the other hand, cities like Amsterdam, The Netherlands, figured out that they don’t have to blindly expect the (voluntary) support of a platform like Airbnb. It is time for them to take matters in their own hands.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Airbnb has surely started an interesting discussion.

The New Uber Model: Best or Most Foolish Choice Ever?

Last week, the ‘new’ Uber CEO published their new model in which the company will start focussing on transportation methods other than cars only.

“During rush hour, it is very inefficient for a one-tonne hulk of metal to take one person 10 blocks,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. “We’re able to shape behaviour in a way that’s a win for the user. It’s a win for the city. Short-term financially, maybe it’s not a win for us, but strategically long term we think that is exactly where we want to head.” An important step and confession is made regarding Uber’s future as an “urban mobility platform”.

Across media outlets the news was received as the ‘turn’ of the Uber model. In my opinion exceptional statements, given the fact that this ambition didn’t appear out of thin air. (As was also covered in an interview with me in one of the major Dutch news outlets.)

This blog will be dedicated to a thought experiment (as I used to do in my weekly Dutch newsletter with a commercial move Deliveroo made) in which I summed up several points why this step would be the best or the most foolish choice ever. Not so in order to judge, but in order to make one or two things clear.

Why this would be the smartest choice ever for Uber:

  • The growth of taxi’s is very limited in every city: As we noticed in New York last week, it is only a matter of time until cities will limit the growth in number of cabs. In other words: The growth model has its boundaries;
  • Within cities roads are generally very busy, moving by car is in many cases not the best option;
  • Therefore it is much more interesting to offer several forms of mobility. Cars for the longer rides –in being more profitable for drivers as well– and other forms of mobility for the shorter ‘last mile’;
  • Whereas Uber is strongly dependent on (freelance) drivers in the current model, the company will have a much tighter control over supply side of the platform with shared bikes, scooters and walking bikes. (Except when everyone will trash the bikes in canalsand other waterways. ;-))
  • Currently, the Uber model is, regardless of their dominant position in many areas, particularly vulnerable. The network effect is weak (check video below). For both demand and supply, the switching costs of changing platform are extremely low. US based drivers usually rely on several at simultaneously. Altogether not the most reliable model make the step onto the stock exchange;
  • The one owning the leading app (the ‘urban mobility platform’), has a strong market position. It makes you less sensitive for competition (like Google being the platform almost everyone uses to start their searches) and with all data gathered, you should be able to create many benefits for both your client as your own organization.

Why this step could be Uber’s most foolish choice ever:

  • Despite weak network effects, Uber has built a unique brand. They control –up to a certain degree– the rides, have a launched a wonderful app, and even their turbulent past is slowly fading away. They also were the first on the market. So, why would they sacrifice their strong market position?;
  • Although Uber was the frontrunner on the taxi market, we notice many active strong players in other parts of the mobility market. Large platforms for bike sharing, shared scooters and walking bikes have some years of advantage. On top of that, these platforms have invested billions into this market. Where Uber entered a enormously fragmented and dropped off market, we now have a very different situation at hand. Which unique value can Uber offer in comparison with these platforms, which most probably have plans to expand their supply as well?;
  • The Uber taxi model is fueled by the capacity of others, which is managed by others and in which others cary the risks. The Uber driver will have to arrange for a car, make sure it is insured, tidy, well maintained, etc. That is the model which made Uber great. With this new step, the model is rigorously changed (maybe this is the biggest news about this step) to a model in which Uber will buy and manage the assets themselves. Will Uber be able to do so? Surely they have made the necessary investments in similar start-ups, but will they be able to roll out such a model globally?;
  • Although Uber’s arrival has lead to resistance in many cities, the company entered an already existing taxi market. People already ordered taxis, rules for taxis already existed (even though Uber didn’t always agree on them). To put it shortly: Uber entered an existing and reasonably stable market. The market of shared bikes, walking bikes and scooters is a entirely new market. Many cities don’t have any policy regarding these new forms of mobility and will have to start forming it in the years to come. On the other hand, users will also have to get used to it and adopt it into their ‘system’. This really is a long term project. Does Uber (and its investors) have the endurance to pull this off?;
  • This model is simply less scalable. It requires more time, human effort, adaptability and money to become successful in your own strength in a new city. Moreover, you are dependent on the legislation which still has to be written. They seem to be crazy….

When adding things up, I think Uber doesn’t have much to choose from. As the platform seemed to be the first app to combine all self-driving cars, it has meanwhile become clear that this is a too long-term scenario as well. On top of that, it has shown that this method won’t provide a solution for the growing mobility problems in our inner cities. They will have to come up with something different. Of course, there is an options for them not to invest in shared bikes, walking bikes and scooters themselves, but it is questionable if the larger parties that have joined the market are willing to offer their supply through a different platform. As this includes that they would provide a third party with their client contact and all their data. They will never do so. Actually, a model which makes participants offer their capacity to others on a central platform only works when the supply is fragmented. Something that isn’t the case in these market segments.

Will Uber be able to realize their ambitions? I don’t know. With Softbank as investor (which is taking part in almost all forms of ‘on demand urban transportation’) they might stand a chance, albeit with a heavy and interesting task to accomplish.

What we can state at this point is that almost all platforms had an overly ‘asset light’ start, but are investing more and more in owned material. Which indeed is a very interesting trend…

An Uber-app of the people? Success criteria of platform cooperatives highlighted

Following the sharing economy, now the gig economy, the ‘Airbnb of labor’ with platforms like Deliveroo, Helpling, and Uber, is on the rise. In the United States, the growth of the gig economy, with jobs like taxi drives, bicycle couriers, online translation services and ‘local home services’ for cleaning, babysitting, and dog walking tasks, outnumbers the growth in Europe. Platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, and Helpling lower the thresholds for consumers with smart technology, so they can buy services conveniently and cheaply. Ideal for the end user, but how about the labor providing worker?


Although everyone agrees on the fact that these platforms are a strategic and technical masterpiece (as well as in their marketing effort), there also is an ever growing amount of critique. Parallel to the well-known debate about power concentration, privacy, and data, more and more questions are asked about the fact that users, who add value to the system, build up a dependency relationship with the platform, but don’t get any profit of this return. Combine this with the billions of dollars in venture capital invested in these platforms, and logically some of them go looking for alternatives.

The urgency is the strongest within the gig economy. At the moment you, as laborer, are strongly dependent on a platform, the impact is the greatest.

Platforms with cooperative ownership and management

In recent years there have been discussions and experiments with an alternative decentralized model in the United States, in which the ones adding value to the platform will indeed be rewarded with the ownership and management of the platform. Trebor Scholz, ‘scholar activist’ and associate professor at New School in New York, christened this philosophy ‘platform cooperativism’.

The philosophy behind this idea sounds simple an pleasant: What if the Uber drivers would be the owners and management of the platform? With the diminishing costs of technology and growing international interest of users, discussion about and experiments with cooperative platform models are taking place in several industries.

Highlighted examples

1. Green Taxi

Back in 2016, 800 Denver taxi drivers gathered to invest a 2.000 dollar each for the development of the Green Taxi cooperative. This is about one-third of all cab drivers in Denver linked up to this organization. Regardless of the total investment being overover a million dollar, Green Taxi hasn’t invested in their own technology. This is being bought from Autocab, a SaaS provider of central taxi systems.

Besides ‘honest’ ownership and control over their own central unit, the unification in a cooperative also provides a strong united voice in debates around, for example the allotment of taxi stands at the airport.

2. Up&Go

Whereas the majority of platform cooperatives invests in technology and the management of the system themselves, Up&Go from New York changes tack. Up&Go facilitates existing cleaning cooperatives in New York with an app to better help their customers. The cleaners keep the control of the contact with their customers and determine also the price, without being bothered by the (further) development and maintenance of the technology.

Up&Go is a initiative of several ‘do good’ organizations; the company who built the app is a cooperative itself. However often Up&Go has been mentioned as an example, it still isn’t a cooperative itself. The developers, I communicated with, told me that the cleaning cooperatives using the app will in turn become the owners of the platform by a cooperative model over time. In the end a similar result, albeit with a different approach.

3. Stocksy

The market with stock photo websites grows rapidly and suffers from a lot of dissatisfaction about the power and the margins on these kinds of websites. This inspired two photographers, previously owning a traditional stock photo website themselves, to take the leap to a new model in 2013.

At Stocksy photographers who are affiliated with the platform, with a maximum of 100 at the time of writing, also became co-owner and manager of the platform via a cooperative. Stocksy tries to profile itself as an exclusive stock photo website: there is a strong selection at the door and every picture that is published is judged by an in- house committee. This is the way photographers build a high-end brand not only distinguishing itself in the market by its model, but also by quality and exclusiveness.

Prerequisites for success

The promise of a platform managed and owned by its users sounds attractive, yet isn’t as easy as it sounds and is definitely not a fit for every industry. Following a in-depth analysis of several cases I’ve composed the next 6 considerations that could lead to a successful cooperative platform model:

1. Market

Platforms are successful due to network effects. The more people join, the better a platform functions. The fact all of your friends are on facebook, makes it the best platform for you to join to connect with them. Breaking the network effect is generally speaking extremely difficult, as you have to convince everyone to switch to an alternative platform.

Although a monopoly position in a growingly internationalizing world is the best way to optimally create added value for its users, part of the playing field of the gig economy looks differently: the gig platforms facilitating labor in physical ‘offline’ places. The taxi driver has to meet the customer in order to complete the transaction and the cleaning lady has to come to your home in order to clean it. As supply and demand are physically located close to one another, there is no leading national or international effect, but only a local network effect. This differs completely from platforms like Airbnb (sharing homes) and Upwork (online labor) where supply and demand are usually situated in different parts of the earth.

The fact that in many segments of the gig economy the meeting has to take place in an offline environment determines that these segments only need a (hyper) local network effect. This offers opportunities for new players and existing local organizations like taxi companies and cleaning cooperatives. Green Taxi is a wonderful illustration of this point.

Platforms lacking a requirement for a physical meeting between supply and demand, oftentimes even being located on different continents, it is much harder to make a decentralized initiative work. As for now, it only seems possible when the workers offer a unique and exclusive product, as is the case with Stocksy.

2. Technology

The platform cooperatives I’ve researched thus far have shown me three variants of dealing with technology:

  1.    Individual development (Stocksy)
  2.    Joining a cooperative providing the technology (SaaS) and support (Up&Go clients)
  3.    Using existing technology within your industry (Green Taxi)

To develop and successfully launch your platform (multisided marketplace) is an art in itself. It is questionable if a group of cleaners or drivers –the same counts for lawyers or accountants– possess the needed qualities to develop successful technology that is able to compete with the current generation of apps on the market. I doubt it and consider it a risk to have about 100 taxi platform cooperatives with 100 poorly functioning and hideous apps or mobile website.

Personally, I find the Up&Go model the most interesting of them all. Existing, and in times to come maybe also occurring, labor cooperatives being empowered with a platform model, which in turn continues as a SaaS-solution. Following the saying of ‘let a cobbler stick to it’s last’, laborers should rather focus on what they’re good at and developers behind Up&Go at what they do best.

An additional advantage is found in that investment can be shared among several cooperative clients, which will greatly influence the quality provided to the customers benefitting of it while using the platform. Important note on the side is that this entity should have a cooperative approach itself, or the story would start all over again.

3. Government

In order to realize a more democratic playing field, there are plenty of opportunities to seize for governments. Governments can lower thresholds by behaving like a platform themselves and facilitate local platform cooperatives with APIs with a link to their identity checks, a ‘certificate of good conduct’ database, and so on. On top of this, governments can use means to break data monopolies of larger players.

The government could, e.g., change the taxi meter by an app in which drivers have to log in and which by means of camera continuously checks if the driver behind the wheel is the one with the linked registration. In the background, data used by companies like Uber to feed their algorithms can be released publicly enabling each and everyone building a taxi app to use such.

4. Cooperation exceeding the Cooperative

If you want to make impact as (platform) entrepreneur, you may choose by making impact with the growth of one organization, or by putting up a replicable model. As for the local impact of platform cooperatives a replicable model looks most viable.

But how to offer a spoiled Uber customer who got used to use only one app in every city in the world for ordering a taxi? By cooperating. This is the reason it will be necessary to make agreements exceeding the platform itself, e.g. about data standards, reputation systems and the more. In that case a customer form city A will be able to book a taxi in city B. Hence a dozen Davids may be an alternative to a Goliath.

5. Support

The power of a platform falls or stands with the grace of its users. When the supply or demand group unites, it can be done in no time. Existing associations, sector organizations, or trade unions can play an important role in supporting or setting up platform cooperatives. Look for support your platform cooperative can obtain from partnering with such organizations — and also what your company can offer them in return.

6. No handicap

The fact that an enterprise is owned and managed by a local group of workers should not compromise the quality and convenience of the app, the service, or even the price levels. Before starting a platform cooperative, take a deep look and decide whether your platform cooperative would actually be able to offer an honest alternative to the larger, venture-backed platforms before starting it.

Tricky, but never impossible

Although there are many opportunities for successful platform cooperatives, of which the interests of the user are leading, it has become clear that the model is harder to realize than initially indicated. Trickier doesn’t mean impossible, and hence it encouraged me to see a diverse group intrinsically motivated professionals taking up the challenge during my visit at the  ‘Platform Cooperativism’ congres in New York last November. Because real entrepreneurs and do-gooders avoid challenges.