ExpertBids: Online labor platforms go niche

A few years ago, attorney Nick Cronin was working in-house at a large, publicly traded corporation, sourcing additional legal help for the company. “What we needed to do was find lawyers on different issues across the United States,” he explains. “You had to call them up. You had to try and pin them down on a price, which you know with lawyers is not an easy thing to do. It was just a really inefficient process.”

Cronin decided there must be a better way to match businesses in need of professional services with those able to help and ExpertBids was born. An online labor platform that aims to connect small- and medium-sized businesses looking for help with accountants, lawyers and consultants hoping to build independent practices, Chicago-based ExpertBids launched in November 2010.

A standard post on the site is free for companies (though a premium post which guarantees three bids within a week costs $50), while professionals pay small amounts to bid for work depending on the size of the project’s budget – larger projects have slightly higher fees. Quotes can be either a flat fee or hourly rate and the once the parties agree to a price, monitoring and billing for the work is entirely their responsibility. The site now has over 10,000 users, about 80 percent of which are US-based experts looking to sell their services and 20 percent are businesses hoping to hire.

Of course, ExpertBids is far from the only labor platform out there, with space leaders Elance and oDesk, reporting impressive growth. But Cronin feels his little site serves a need the big boys don’t by focusing specifically on professional services. “Some legal needs, you need to be able to go into the lawyer’s office and discuss with them, so we focus a little more on location than some of the other platforms,” Cronin says. But even in this relatively specialized niche, Cronin has company — oddly named Shpoonkle restricts itself to lawyers but aims to do basically the same thing.

Cronin acknowledges that there are hurdles for his fledgling business to overcome, including trust issues when clients are shopping for higher-end services. “For some people that’s their first hesitation with using the site,” Cronin concedes, but he notes, “the alternative is that you go through your phone book and you make a bunch of calls and you have less information.” ExpertBids also verifies the identity of the professionals who use it, checking bar numbers or CPA license numbers, as well as encouraging users to do their own research through relevant professional associations.

Perhaps a more troublesome objection is that sites like ExpertBids drive prices down for professionals. Cronin notes that pros on his site can’t see competing offers to discourage a race to the bottom. “We’re telling the experts to give whatever price makes sense for them, and if it’s not good for them then they shouldn’t be bidding that amount,” he says, though he also understands that, “if I was a professional, I would not like how cost conscious some of these companies are, but that’s a reality.”

Cronin sees the online labor platform model not as undermining professionals economically, but as empowering small operators to reach larger markets and give huge firms a run for their money.

Over the years, the legal industry and especially big firms just started to get so fat, inefficient and expensive, so there’s really an opportunity for solo and small firm lawyers to undercut these people without the high overhead of these humungous firms who have offices in all the downtown areas. If you can cut your overhead as a small firm, you’re going to be able to lower your prices significantly and still make a very decent profit.

Rather than view ExpertBids and the like as only a tool for businesses to drive down costs, Cronin paints a picture of platforms like his as arming professional David’s to take on complacent Goliaths. If he’s right, we should be seeing more of them popping up.

Do you think we’ll be seeing more niche online labor platforms as other industries embrace the model?

Image courtesy of ExpertBids.