Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Freelance Revolution Is Rising In Dubai - Forbes

The Freelance Revolution Is Rising In Dubai - Forbes


The Freelance Revolution Is Rising In Dubai - Forbes

Posted: 07 Oct 2019 04:39 AM PDT

In earlier articles I've described the emerging freelance revolution in parts of the Mideast, and some of the new startups helping to make the revolution a truly region wide innovation.  I've written about Handiss, a Lebanese startup providing freelance experts in the engineering and construction industries.  And, I've described Expertera, a fast growing platform expanding from Turkey; in their most recent client conference, several thousand people attended (note: I was a conference speaker).  And, of course, I've written about global online talent marketplaces like Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer that were early and active participants in the region.

Recently we have also seen the growth of locally established online talent marketplaces in Dubai.  A new one coming up strong is named Bawabba ("portal" in Arabic) started by young entrepreneurs Hakim and Tasneem Boriawala.  The site was previously named "Rookie Ninja" reflecting the mix of both independent professionals working in tech or other business or technical fields and craftspeople whom Steve King of Emergent Research would call "passionistas" working part-time, usually from home.  The total population on the platform is approaching 5,000 local freelancers.

I found Bawabba a great example of the growth of the freelance revolution in Dubai, but also the challenge.  Business and government have only recently begun to become comfortable with employing freelancers rather than full-time staff.  The result:  the range of services offered by Bawabba and other local platforms is typically a mix of retail and commercial clients, combining the feel of an online talent marketplace, a job board, and Etsy the crafts marketplace. In many parts of the world, and certainly here in the US, online talent platforms emphasize remote-able tech skills like software development, design, AI/Machine Learning and SEO services.  But the Dubai freelance scene is different, more inclusive, and focused on both retail and commercial clients.  Much of the talent is unique to the region, and delivered in person rather than remotely.  For example, henna artists are prominent on the platform as are calligraphers.

Hakim Boriawala, CEO of Bawabba, and I talked about the readiness of Dubai for the freelance revolution.  Here's what he said, "It's the very early stages for freelancing in Dubai.  A few years back, neither traditional or modern businesses here believed in freelancing.  But, the UAE government has become more of a sponsor for freelancing, giving out part-time visas that allow people to work part-time as freelancers on the side.  Making it legal was an important move by the government to encourage more people to participate."

Nevertheless, he points out some real challenges to the growth of the freelance revolution in Dubai and more generally in the UAE.  (Spoiler alert: these brakes on freelancing are found elsewhere).  Two, in particular, are cultural:

First it's still difficult convincing employers that freelancers are as "safe" as full-time employees.  This is changing as companies experience the benefit of on demand expertise from a cost and productivity perspective.  Moreover, more and more full-time staff in Dubai and elsewhere are effectively choosing a freelance-lite career, spending limited time in a given job and moving on when a more attractive gig is offered.  For example, the average tenure of Millennials is just two years and is decreasing for younger employees.  Deloitte points out that Gen-Z tenure workers plan to change jobs in less than two years.

Boriawala describes a second cultural challenge:  convincing corporate and commercial clients that freelancers have equivalent (or better) technical skills and are not lesser professionals.  For example, "is this someone who can't get or keep a "real" job?  Also debunked.  As with the first cultural obstacle, with experience the biases fade.  But, it will take time.

Bawabba has an interesting business model, and as a relatively new company, I wonder how it will change over time.  Currently, 60% of the talent on the platform are full-time freelancers; 40% are part timers (or "side hustlers") working on a part time basis.  Clients are encouraged to contact freelancers on the site directly and negotiate time and cost.  The plan for Bawabba is a subscription model where freelancers fund the platform by paying an annual fee for representation on the site.

Boriawala opines that it is early days for Bawabba and the freelance revolution in Dubai.  He explains, "Just a few years back, business in Dubai didn't accept freelancing.  But times are changing,  marketplaces like Bawabba are educating the market, and the government is making it easier and more acceptable to freelance."

Interestingly, a demographic group that has particularly benefited from rising access to freelancing in Dubai are housewives providing services like graphic design, interior design, and even catering, while working from home.  For many married women who were previously culturally pressured to stay at home but who wanted or needed to work, the freelance revolution has provided economic and professional opportunity and is slowly impacting both the culture and the relationships and roles within families.  According to Boriawala, of 5000 current individuals on the platform, almost 1000 are "housewives."

There's no doubt that Dubai is evolving in its embrace of things modern like the freelance revolution.  The changing skyline says it all.  The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, is a strong message of Dubai's ambition to become a modern culture, and a diversified economy.  The UAE Vision 2021 calls for the development of a competitive knowledge-based economy, and the announcement of 10-year visas for scientists, and investors and professionals in the medical, scientific, research and technical fields is an important step in attracting the human capital necessary to achieve this. Part of this effort is recognizing the potential of the freelance revolution.

Bawabba isn't the only freelance marketplace in Dubai, but it is certainly part of the crest of the wave.  The global leaders are operating there, including Trulancer, Upwork, and Fiverr.  And, beyond Bawabba, there is a growing community of other recently "home grown" online talent platforms including Commitbiz, Dubizzle, Nabbesh, Go Freelance, and People Per Hour.  I look forward to learning more about these startups and sharing what I've learned with my readers.

Viva la Dubai freelance revolution.

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