Why companies like Porsche and Nestle are turning to worker-owned talent site Braintrust for new hires

June 24, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

There’s a new player in the world of freelance marketplaces. It’s called Braintrust and, like incumbents TaskRabbit and Upwork, it provides a website to connect contract workers and firms looking to hire them. But Braintrust stands out for a number of reasons—including its high profile clients.

Since launching in 2018, the San Francisco startup has attracted blue chip companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Porsche and Nestle to its platform, as well as the space agency NASA. Until now, Braintrust has chosen to operate in what Silicon Valley types call “stealth mode,” relying on word-of-mouth and eschewing media publicity.

According to founder Adam Jackson, Braintrust has attracted major firms because its fees—typically 10% of a successful hire’s starting salary—are much lower than the 50% or more some headhunters and talent agencies charge. Meanwhile, Braintrust has attracted a high skilled pool of talent to its platform, including veterans from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Airbnb and other high profile tech firms.

“We aim to bring in folks who don’t want to be employees—people who don’t want to sit on the 101 [freeway] and drag themselves into a cubicle every day,” Jackson tells Fortune.

Such workers include project managers, coders and designers, and are vetted by Braintrust before they can join the platform.

Jackson, who made his name in Silicon Valley by founding the service Doctor on Demand, says high skilled workers have an extra incentive to join Braintrust. Namely, unlike other labor marketplaces, the startup doesn’t take a cut of the pay workers receive from companies that hire them. Meanwhile, Braintrust is also using the novel technology known as blockchain to provide talent with an ownership stake in the platform.

All of this represents a potentially disruptive model for not just the high end labor market, but many other services as well. According to Jackson, his broader goal is to one day “kill the middlemen,” including the companies that facilitate ride-hailing and food delivery. He describes such industries as a “shitty business” in need of reform.

The notion of disrupting giants like Uber and DoorDash seems far-fetched but the early success Jackson has achieved with Braintrust suggest its model could catch on more broadly. But that will require people to understand how Braintrust works in the first place.

A gig economy controlled by workers

Services like TaskRabbit and Uber have flourished because they act as online intermediaries between those who supply labor—drivers, handymen and so on—and those looking to purchase it. They have been a boon for consumer and also created the millions-strong labor market known as the “gig economy.”

Critics, however, claim these services are exploitive, pointing to controversial practices such as Doordash’s attempts to pocket workers’ tips. According to Jackson, such practices arise because the interests of online middlemen are not aligned with the workers they help supply.

In launching Braintrust, Jackson believes he’s found a way for the bulk of the money that would be collected by middlemen to flow to workers instead.

His solution relies on the use of blockchain, which is the technology underlying virtual currencies like Bitcoin. Blockchain creates a permanent. tamper-proof ledger run across multiple computers, and the use of digital tokens that—similar to shares of stock—can serve as both money and a voting mechanism.

In the case of Braintrust, the startup plans to give out tokens to the skilled workers who sign up for the platform, as well as to those who refer others or assist the company with coding tasks. The tokens can be used to vote on choices like product road maps, or new lines of business.

This means, says Jackson, that there’s no possibility of Braintrust one day imposing measures harmful to workers, such as a 15% levy on their income—for the simple reason that the majority of token owners would never vote in favor of such an arrangement.

Meanwhile, for the companies that use Braintrust to hire talent, the blockchain part of the platform is invisible.

“We don’t even mention it to Porsche. All we say is we are killing the middleman, and saving most of the 50% fee the company would pay to an agency,” says Jackson, explaining that all of the parties on Braintrust use cash to arrange their transactions.

It remains to be seen, however, how many workers on Braintrust will want to bother with blockchain tokens in the first place. Gig workers, after all, are primarily concerned with getting paid rather than participating in esoteric online governance schemes. There’s also no successful precedent for what Braintrust is trying to do, which is essentially to build a giant online workers’ co-op.

Jackson acknowledges that schemes for large worker-owned industries have historically failed, and devolved into chaos or tyranny. But he says the distinct governance tools offered by blockchain means there is an unprecedented opportunity to make it work.

And in the case of Braintrust, Jackson says, the talent who join the platform are sophisticated when it comes to technology, and open to embracing blockchain. In the future, he adds, blockchain voting will become so user friendly than anyone, including the average Uber driver, will be comfortable using it.

Jackson is so bullish on his blockchain-based business model that he says he intends to start a fund and support any startup that employs it. Other areas he believes are ripe for disruption include consulting and the legal field.

A sign that Jackson’s dreams might not be far-fetched comes in the form of an endorsement from the CEO of a company he is looking to disrupt. In a statement on Braintrust’s website, TaskRabbit’s CEO praises the startup for finding a new way to align the incentives of workers and the companies that employ them.

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