A disclaimer — I'm still learning lots about this space. Excuse any ideas presented as innovative which are already plain, i.e., I may find out the adjacent possible is actually just the already possible.
Skill marketplaces are redefining the future of work.
Not talent marketplaces, skill marketplaces. Talent is innate ability, a natural gift. One is born with talent, but skill is earned — skill is proficiency acquired through practice and experience.
Web3, the creator economy, and the gig economy are converging to shape the future of work in the digital age. Recently I had a series of three realizations about this future, viewed through increasingly higher levels of abstraction.
In this essay, I explore the concept of skill marketplaces and (1) supply and demand, (2) creators vs. builders, and (3) the primacy of collaboration.
But first — some 2-sided marketplace dynamics
Let's start with a brief level-set on 2-sided marketplaces, using Uber, Airbnb, and Instacart as canonical examples. These marketplaces build supply of a given service or capability, in order to fulfill demand on the other side of the marketplace. Typically, supply side is the hard side to build, and only as a network becomes denser and fills in with sufficient liquidity is the demand met.
Uber — drivers is supply, riders is demand, i.e., "As a rider, I need to get from point A to B," and drivers fulfill this need.
Airbnb — hosts is supply, guests is demand, i.e., "As a guest, I need to find lodging in a city," and hosts fulfill this need.
Instacart — pickers is supply, grocery shoppers is demand, i.e., "As a grocery shopper, I need to order groceries," and pickers fulfill this need.
There is also typically a constraint on the demand use case — with Uber, the rider has an unmet need to get from point A to B, but without using their own vehicle or public transportation. With Airbnb, the guest has an unmet need to find lodging, but typically while visiting a city other than their own and without using hotels. With Instacart, the grocery shopper has an unmet need to order groceries, but typically doesn't want to leave their house or hire a personal assistant.
What makes digital marketplaces so disruptive to their respective industries, beyond their often 10x better user experiences? The answer is network effects — not just simple virality, network effects describe the phenomenon where participants on both sides of the market benefit from increased breadth, depth, and liquidity on the opposing side. (1)
Much more to be said here, but this exposition will suffice for our discussion.
Existing Skill Marketplaces
Now let's examine a few typical skill marketplaces. On one side, you have people with skills, and on the other side, you have people with funds.
Some skill marketplaces help users with skills fulfill a demand for funds, e.g., Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. If I am a creator or builder that wants to create or build something with my skillset, I can open a Call for funds (i.e., a crowdfunding campaign) and offer various rewards in exchange for funding my project at different contribution amounts.
In these marketplaces, funds are supply-side and skills are demand-side.
Other skill marketplaces help users with funds fulfill a demand for skills, e.g., Gig Economy platforms like Fiverr and Upwork. If I am a creator or builder that wants to create or build something and need to augment my skillset with others' skillsets, I can open a Call for skills (i.e., a job/task) and offer one-off or recurring payment in exchange for helping create or build my project.
In these marketplaces, skills are supply-side and funds are demand-side.
Realization #1 – Matching Skills with Funds
Realization #1 is that there is not much difference here! While crowdfunding and gig economy might often be thought of as different verticals/market segments, both are solving the same meta-problem — matching people with skills with people with funds.
Ultimately, a skills marketplace fulfills a matchmaking role between supply and demand of skills and funds.
This resolves a mini-Gordian knot I faced recently while designing a creator skills marketplace for the ETHDenver 2022 hackathon (2) — which side is supply and which side is demand? It depends from which perspective you are viewing the marketplace!
Creator vs. Builder Terminology
With this conceptual framework in place, let's examine similarities and differences between hypothetical skill marketplaces for artistic/creator projects and technical/builder projects.
In the artistic fields, a Call for funds might be termed a Crowdfunding campaign or Grant. A Call for skills might be termed a Call for works or Open call.
In the technical fields, a Call for funds might be termed a Fundraising round or Grant. A Call for skills might be termed a Bounty or RFP (Request for proposal).
Who are the user personas we'd find using our skill marketplace? Artistic users with skills might be Artists, Musicians, or Creators, while their technical counterparts might be Developers, Entrepreneurs, or Builders.
Users with funds on an artistic marketplace might be referred to as Patrons of the arts, Impresarios, or Commissioners, while on a technical marketplace they might be Angel investors, Venture capitalists, or Private equity investors.
How about typical deliverables? Artistic creators might complete Pieces, Artwork, or Manuscripts, while technical builders might ship Software, Features, or Code.
Generalizing broadly, the typical mindset of an artistic creator might be more Left-brained, Process-oriented, and Intuition-driven/intellect-regulated, while that of a technical builder might be more Right-brained, Outcome-oriented, and Intellect-driven/intuition-regulated.
Certainly much (most?) of the terminology that an oil painter uses day-to-day will differ from that of a UX designer, or that of a ballet patron of the arts compared with a tech venture capitalist. But as someone who straddles both fields with my vocation (tech product management) and avocation (classical music composition), I sometimes wonder if we could tell who is who in a game of Madlibs before the blanks are filled in.
Realization #2 – Creators are Builders by a different name
Realization #2 is that creators are just builders by a different name, in a different field/domain, and there is much overlap that holds true with the marketplace dynamics of matching skills with funds. Whether it be a a Crowdfunding campaign/Fundraising round that seeks funds to leverage skills to achieve a desired outcome, or a Call for works/Bug bounty that seeks skills to leverage funds to achieve a desired outcome, again it all depends on one's perspective.
The terminology, personas, deliverables, and mindsets may differ, but I submit the core framework of skill marketplace = matching skills with funds still holds.
Collaboration as a First-Class Citizen
The final lens through which we'll view skill marketplaces relates to teamwork and collaboration. There are plenty of relevant aphorisms stating the importance of collaboration and cooperation, from "It takes a village" to "There's no such thing as a self-made person."
Let's get specific and look at examples of typical creators and builders.
Creators are often teams – it takes a village
Whether charismatic YouTube personality, larger-than-life musician, or reclusive novelist, the creators that entertain us are rarely one-person shows. More typically they are the tip of the iceberg, the public-facing persona that is the result of a team effort which combines skills, roles, looks, and vibe into a cohesive exterior package fit for consumption.
A music composer may do most of their work solo, but certainly they could not succeed without a team of sorts. From the musicians that ultimately perform their compositions (and often collaborate), to the engraver that helps transmit the composer's musical ideas to polished, notated scores for the musicians, to the engineer that helps solidify the music in a consumable format through recording, mixing, and mastering (to say nothing of the business roles which include manager, agent, publisher, and social media manager) — it's a team effort.
Watching popular YouTube personalities may lead us to believe they are a one-person show, and often they truly are, but there are also plenty of larger-scale productions being released on YouTube. From videographer to location scout to personal assistant, many YouTubers employ a team of skilled collaborators that help execute their vision in an efficient and effective manner (sometimes full-time team members, sometimes virtual assistants).
There are certainly plenty of creators who work mostly or completely solo, but in many domains/fields there is far too much to accomplish, requiring a much-too-broad skill set, for a single person to do well or even know how to do well.
Teams of builders – non-fungible skills
With technology builders, we can see even more clearly that teams are the atomic unit of productivity.
Do you really just want a ReactJS developer, or do you actually want to ship a working software increment to address a customer need and drive an outcome for your business?
Builder is a popular catch-all term at present (2022) for those who build software products, but the reality is builders come in all shapes and sizes. Most often their skills are non-fungible (3), and even technology generalists typically have one or more areas of specialty (i.e., T-shaped skills, more this another time).
A typical modern software team has a core "product trio" of Product Manager, Product Design, and Tech Lead, augmented by additional Developers that support the software engineering work. Often the product trio spearheads much of the "discovery" effort, reducing risk and understanding the customer needs, pain points, and desires, while the full cross-functional team of trio + devs handle the "delivery" effort, actually designing, developing, testing, shipping, and supporting production-quality code.
But of course software teams come in many shapes and configurations. Here we see a hypothetical startup team of seven teammates, each possessing distinct, complementary skills while also (I'm sure) wearing many hats in service of getting stuff done and growing a successful business.
We can conceptualize "builder" as short for "team of builders," the supply of skill which is the outward-facing interface to the market demand for skill. Often it is critical to have defined point(s) of contact with the market — the best teams all interact with customers and users regularly, but they also have a clear and agreed-upon way of handling new opportunities, feedback, and support requests.
Realization #3 – Teams are the atomic unit of productivity
Realization #3 is that more often than not, skilled teams are the atomic unit of productivity. Teams of creators/builders are what fulfill the demand for skills. We need skill marketplaces which are built from first principles with this insight into the primacy of collaboration.
Ultimately both art and technology are about changing the world for the better. About finding a new way forward, a new possibility — for us, and for future generations.
- Art is about exploration and creation, offering a new and unique yet timeless and familiar way to see the world — and it doesn't count if it doesn't ship (4)
- Technology is about discovering unmet needs, pain points, and desires, solving for these opportunities in ways just now becoming possible — and it doesn't count if you can't measure an improved outcome (5)
Where to from here?
Marketplace-enabling mechanics like crypto-credentialing, quadratic funding, streaming money, and learn2earn are exciting areas of development and can apply to both creator and builder skill marketplaces.
- Crypto-credentialing brings reputation on-chain, so that users don't have to rely on someone's honesty, but can instead look to the blockchain as the distributed ledger of record that immutably and universally records previous work and accomplishments
- Quadratic funding is a cryptoeconomic primitive for public goods funding, using matching subsidy pools to augment funds in a manner that maximizes public benefit (6)
- Streaming money is another web3 primitive that enables real-time financial transactions and reward distribution (7)
- Learn 2 Earn mechanics help uplevel one's skills in a given domain while also offering financial rewards and incentives for participation
All of these mechanics will require different interaction patterns and sensitive explanatory copy that feels native to the given field/domain. The same is true for all aspects of a skill marketplace — how might we craft an experience that feels comfortable and "just right" to its users (whether those with skills or those with funds), while at the same time leveraging the core functionality of skills/funds matchmaking without reinventing the wheel?
In all cases, skill marketplaces are the digital manifestation of the labor market, the future of work for the 3rd millennium.
A skill marketplace matches skilled teams with funds to create/build a better future with art/technology.
(1) — For more on network effects, check out The Cold Start Problem by Andrew Chen and the network chapters in The 80/20 Principle, 3rd ed. by Richard Koch
(2) — Our skill marketplace project LOUDVΞRSΞ was a winner at ETHDenver 2022 in both the in-person and virtual hackathons (https://dorahacks.io/buidl/2040)
(3) — My first encounter with the term "non-fungible" was actually in technology staffing and communicating with executives: "No, our currently-not-so-busy iOS developer can't fill in as a ReactJS developer. They are non-fungible skillsets. This would be like asking a basketball center to fill in as a hockey goalie."
(4) — For more on shipping creative work, check out The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and The Practice by Seth Godin
(5) — For more on building software products, check out Inspired by Marty Cagan and Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres
(6) — For more on quadratic funding, check out:
(7) — For more on streaming money, check out:
This is essay 6 of 6 for 1729 Writers Cohort #1. Apply to 1729 today at 1729.com.