Blockchain and creativity might at first glance seem like mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact, you might have already switched off at the B-word, since blockchain technology is not typically the stuff of creative dreams. Yet using technology – specifically blockchain – to solve both the financial friction of freelancing and unlock a diverse talent pool lies at the heart of start-up Nodal Labs.
The company, which appointed M&C Saatchi to handle its advertising earlier this year, is utilising the power of blockchain to create a new financial model for freelancers – one that not only frees individuals from the administrative tyranny of invoices but guarantees that they will get paid on time.
Nodal is a freelancing platform that enables individuals to get paid as if they were on a company payroll, providing they put the hours in. The company says that blockchain enables it to create a totally fair and trustworthy system for storing and handling data for both freelancers and companies. The technology in effect takes out the need for lengthy and costly verification processes, or for referees to validate employment or project history, thus removing many mundane day-to-day tasks undertaken by HR professionals to manage payroll and freelancers.
"No-one enjoys chasing payments," Garreth Gaydon (pictured), director of talent engagement at Nodal, explains. "When we did our research about what people want to see done differently, every single freelancer said getting paid – in some cases, getting paid at all – was a key challenge. This is a real challenge; it affects people’s lives, it impacts their credit rating."
It is a state of play that Gaydon thinks leaves many creatives stagnating in full-time jobs they don’t want simply because they can’t handle the perceived risk of freelancing.
Expanding the talent pool
Nodal will initially serve the creative, visual effects, construction, property and engineering sectors, where the challenges of skills verification and late payment are most severe. Minstrell is among the first businesses to sign up to the platform after Nodal secured a £250m deal with the specialist recruiter. Nodal has been working to develop the platform alongside architectural group Foster & Partners, Access:VFX and VFX facility Union.
Simon Devereux, group head of learning and development at The Mill and founder of Access:VFX, says Nodal is solving a real problem in the industry in that artists often secure work based on friendships and networks rather than merit and talent. Devereux adds that the platform is "working to address this imbalance, level the playing field and introduce studios to a wider pool of diverse talent and fresh, exciting perspectives".
Gaydon began his creative career as a computer animator, specialising in 3D design. This experience provided the launchpad for his own freelancer agency that worked with more than 100 visual artists. It was here that Gaydon identified the friction points in the burgeoning gig economy.
Top of the pinch points he identified was the administrative burden of chasing payment and invoicing: "When we spoke to freelancers and permanent employees who wanted to go freelance, one of the biggest percieved barriers was the horror stories surrounding late payment."
Nodal is initially concentrating on building its freelance database and its launch is in partnership with 20 agencies. The company believes it is well-positioned to capitalise on a new approach to creative work, as Gaydon explains: "It isn’t about job titles or hierarchy any more. It is about getting the right skills." This is why Nodal allows people to verify each other’s skillsets.
In an era when freelancing has become a plan A for many creative employees, recognising and understanding the shifting attitudes to work and status is vital to the future success of creative businesses. "We see the challenge companies face in trying to attract new people into their companies," Gaydon says. "People want more control over where they work and they want to work on their passion projects. Increasingly, they use paid work as a vehicle to achieve that."
According to Gaydon, at the heart of this shift is a desire for more freedom. "They don’t like the idea of 25 days' holiday a year; they want more control over their lives," he notes. "The challenge for creative organisations is: how do you bring these people on a journey with you as a company? There is a genuine war for talent, so you need to think more critically about the variety and development of your staff, particularly when so many want to go freelance."
For those employees who harbour dreams of a freelance career, the notion of job security is still leaving them wedded to roles that have long passed their sell-by date in terms of career development and learning. "The whole concept of job security is being turned on its head," Gaydon points out. "People are thinking more critically about what constitites job security in a full-time job."
A new kind of contract
The need for a new value exchange between employer and employee is particularly acute in London, where the cost of living has priced many out of the property market. This means commuting is becoming more commonplace at the start of the career and, according to Gaydon, it's driving a shift towards remote working.
"In the creative industries, you want to be working on interesting projects, and we see less creative talent coming to London because they can connect to interesting projects elsewhere – and the creative industries need to wake up to that," Gaydon suggests. He points to the growing popularity of other countries including France, Germany and Canada as evidence of that growing competition.
"The gig economy has become a plan A for many employees and it is solving the challenge for smaller studios, who don’t have a dedicated talent team," he continues. "They have access to this incredible pool of talent."
For Gaydon, continuing to grow this talent pool demands listening to both studios and freelancers alike: "We are a community-driven brand and we recognise that what makes a real difference is everyone having a say."
Leadership has long been predicated on the notion of creating an environment in which everyone feels they have a voice. When the future of that employee base is increasingly freelance, technology platforms such as Nodal will become key to bridging that divide and, of course, getting paid on time.