The Present and Future of On-Demand Work Platforms

How had I forgotten about Wonolo?

Stowe Boyd
Jun 22, 2019 · 6 min read
An hourly worker | source: taylor smith

A recent NPR/Marist poll suggests that 20% of US jobs are filled by contractors, workers that are hired on to a particular project, for a specific period of time, or on a discontinuous basis, and not as full-time, permanent employees. This ranges from Uber drivers to your cleaning lady, and also includes highly skilled-knowledge workers in tech companies. More than 120,000 of Google workers are contractors, compared with just over 100,000 full-time employees. This trend is growing, and not going to go away. Yes, there will have to be major social readjustments — since these contractors generally receive no benefits, and are skimping on saving for retirement — but the economic rationale for workforce agility and flexibility for employers currently holds sway.

In her annual Internet Trends presentation, venture capitalist Mary Meeker explored this trend and the emergence of on-demand work platforms that promise to take the friction out of companies finding contract workers. Before zooming into that, though, I thought I’d share one high-level slide from her deck, to set context.

Meeker borrowed this chart and quote from Astro Teller, who believes that technological change is happening at a pace faster than the human capacity to adapt.

Meeker’s deck is 333 slides long, but I am looking closely at only a few other slides. Meeker sets up the idea of on-demand work as creating internet-enabled opportunities and efficiencies.

Meeker shows the rapid growth of the on-demand workforce:

Almost 7 million of the US workforce is now on-demand platform workers. This is about 4.4% of the US workforce. The discrepancy with the NPR/Marist figure of 20% is explained easily: not all contractors are finding work through platforms, although that number is likely to rise, as we shall see.

Most of these companies and their stories were familiar to me, but if I had heard of Wonolo in the past, I had forgotten about them. Here’s that section of the slide above, enlarged:

Wonolo has grown exponentially since 2016. Meeker did not single out the company for commentary in her talk, so I decided to see if there is a general lesson to be learned in this example on-demand platform.

Yes, there is.

Wonolo was described by Noam Schieber in this way, back in 2014, soon after its founding by co-founders Yong Kim, CEO, and AJ Brustein:

Another way that Wonolo differs from other work platforms is that the employers state what their going rate is for the work being offered, which Wonoloers decide whether or not to accept. They don’t have to haggle, and each posted opportunity is not a race-to-the-bottom bidding war among Wonoloers.

Wonolo’s growth has led to strong investor interest. Indeed, the company raised its Series C of $32 million last fall, led by Bain Capital, only a few months after a Series B of $13 million.

The entire sector is hot:

Wonolo is an interesting player, because their goals seem to be grander than merely taking a slice from every transaction on their platform:

Interestingly, while it seems that contract employment is a model that is here to stay, Wonolo appears to be focused also on giving people the experience and connections to eventually try to catapult themselves into more full-time positions.

The character traits orientation shows in reviews of both companies and workers based on the ‘5 Ps’: prepared, professional, positive, polite and punctual.

Wonolo is demonstrating a non-exploitative, ecosystem-oriented set of principles that benefit all involved in the ecosystem they are growing on their platform. They explicitly seek to help the hourly workers deal with the unpredictability of hourly work (see Continuously Discontinuous, for thoughts on that).

Perhaps that philosophical grounding represents the future for on-demand work platforms, where the on-demand platform establishes a foundation of principles that benefit all involved, not just the platform owner and the employers. By working to make the platform fair for the on-demand workers — as well as providing the employers with prepared, professional, positive, polite and punctual workers — everyone’s interests can be balanced. And that is likely to be a better situation for all involved than direct employer-to-contractor negotiations. Because Wonolo — and other on-demand platform companies — have access to lots of data, they can weed out less-than-wonderful workers and block exploitative employers.

In that way, the on-demand platforms are playing a role more like a regulatory agency of government than simply a marketplace. We should expect to see a continued expansion of this sort of governance in other platform ecosystems, just as we have found it in Wonolo. And countering the problems that on-demand workers have may explain why so many on-demand workers are streaming onto the platform.

Sign up for On The Horizon’s free weekly newsletter to keep informed on new writing, related thinking, events, and other activities.

Originally published at on June 22, 2019.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store