"Bold." | Transforming Freelancing with Vincent Huguet, CEO at Malt

They created a new way of working at the scale of a continent in less than 10 years. Vincent Huguet tells how Malt managed to transform talent management in the whole of Europe.

"Bold." | Transforming Freelancing with Vincent Huguet, CEO at MALT

Some people manage to shape the world we live in. Yet we all only have 24 hours in the day.  How do they do it? What are their methods? What are their strategies? "Bold." explores the DNA and strategies of the individuals who are transforming their sector. Today, we meet Vincent Huguet, CEO and co-founder of Malt, Europe's leading freelancing platform.  

The French “auto-entrepreneur” status was not even 4 years old when Vincent and his partners defined a new vision for work. How do we enable individuals to express their talent wherever they wish, without being forced to work for a single employer? How do you give companies access to the best talent on the market, with just a few clicks? 

Malt transformed talent sourcing and management at the scale of a continent, in under 10 years. Launched in 2013, Malt now has 650k freelancers across Europe offering their services to 70k companies, has raised 160 million euros - and should reach 1 billion euros in GMV by the end of the year.

Today, we explore the methods and strategies that established freelancing across Europe.

Vincent, let's start from the beginning. How does one embark on a project of this magnitude?

I think the word that best describes it is serendipity. By this I mean that opportunities emerge if you let yourself see and seize them.

Everything started with a need that I experienced myself. In the early 2010s, I was managing Ooprint and Dromadaire, two companies I had founded that specialized in the creation of digital cards. So I often called on creative people for one-off engagements, but finding qualified talent was always an issue. 

But in 2012, I meet someone having launched a freelance collective. That person was Hugo, my future partner. Remember, the auto-entrepreneur status was barely 4 years old. Freelancing was still a matter for outsiders and marginals. Imagine hyper-performing, highly educated people choosing a "precarious" lifestyle, as they used to call it back then... It was nothing short of madness!

But we felt we were onto something. I had a corporate prism and Hugo, the freelance perspective. We started working on it

Airbnb ended up being the last piece of the puzzle. As an early adopter and big fan of the platform even back then, I drew a lot of inspiration from it to build the model. That's how we launched Hopwork, which became Malt: the marketplace that brings freelancers and companies together.

So to answer your question, I find that great projects are often rooted in experience. A cold analysis of the market will never give you the same empathy and resilience as a need you've experienced yourself. It then becomes a matter of seizing opportunities that come by and staying on course.

In the mid-2010s, Malt was not alone in the talent marketplace. What strategic choices allowed you to stand out?

Yes, there have (almost) always been gig platforms. At the time, there were already global American matchmaking platforms (e.g. Fiverr, Amazon Mechanical Turk, etc.). But they all had the same angle: offshore and cheap. But that wasn't our vision at all.

Our ambition was to focus on the new artisans, the new creatives; those we considered to be the stars. People who had honed their expertise to such an extent that they were now free to choose where to deploy it. It was this conviction that led us to reverse the model.

At the time, freelancers had to go to company websites to apply for jobs. So we created a platform where companies themselves would go and find the best freelancers. Targeting hyper-qualified profiles was a big part of Malt's success. 

It's been very edifying for us. It’s also what lies at the root of our second trademark: the importance given to the supply-side, i.e. the freelancers. This is crucial for any marketplace, but we made it an obsession. We became obsessed with providing freelancers with the best UX, training with Malt Academy, networking events, socials, free insurance covering all their engagements, and so on. In a penurious market like the talent market, the only way to make the business viable is by providing freelancers the best experience on the market. This doesn't mean that we disregarded the demand side (companies). But freelancers were always our main focus.

Finally, I believe that our speed was crucial. We were able to raise 160 million euros for reaching that critical scale first. This gave us a head start on the product side, which we’ve kept eversince. It also enabled us to be the first to expand internationally. If there's a European tender today, we're almost certain to win it.

All clear on the strategy front. In terms of execution now, how do you go from an idea to 100k customers in 10 years? What are your secrets?

Well, this is going to sound counter-intuitive, but I'm a fervent ambassador of the Airbnb philosophy of "Do Things that Don't Scale".

I’ll use an example I got to experience first-hand. As I was saying, I was one among Airbnb’s early-adopters in France. A few weeks after welcoming my first guests in 2009, I was visited by Airbnb employees. They were there to meet the platform's users, to understand our issues, our experiences and pains. It seemed so extreme to invest so much in understanding our customers that it had a profound impact on me.

In fact, it remains one of the pillars of our strategy to this day. 

Nowadays, Malt has 650k freelancers. Dedicating time to each and every one of them is simply impossible. Yet we've never stopped organizing events with our community. These can be socials with groups of around thirty people, or an "Advisory Board" made up of 17 freelancers from different countries, whom we consult every 6 months to brainstorm.

Investing so much in a handful of users seems absurd from a financial point of view. And yet, it's one of the pillars of our development. Not only is it our most qualitative source of customer feedback, it's also what enables us to federate cohorts of ambassadors. It's a formidable acquisition channel,far less costly than advertising.

Salesforce has the same approach with its community of 20,000 trailblazers. Imagine people from outside Salesforce promoting the company in their respective companies. They have T-shirts, events and so on. They've managed to create a real community among their customers, and that's extremely powerful.

Generally speaking, I find that the best tech companies are those that venture out into the physical world. In the early days, Uber used to send its employees out to hand out leaflets in the street. Stripe used to send its employees to their customers’ offices to install the Stripe code for online payments on their e-commerce platforms. In terms of ROI, this was a disaster in the short term. But in the long term, it federates employees and customers around the project in a much stronger way than any online campaign could.

If I have to sum up, the real challenge is to make this customer obsession and bias for field action a part of your culture. This means accepting that not everything can be measured. But if it's well executed, you'll see that it will be one of your most valuable assets. And that repetition of these actions will eventually lead to scale.

And if I were to mention a second principle of execution, I'd mention the importance of protecting the culture of innovation. 

We once went to visit Dropbox’s offices. The Product Manager giving us the tour told us, "Dropbox isn't one company. It's 70 companies." You need to preserve the entrepreneurial spirit regardless of the number of employees. How do you do that? By breaking up your company into lots of companies. A certain level of internal competition is healthy for innovation. At the end of the day, a project will emerge that will provide value to the customer. This is true for tech subjects, but also for sales, products, etc. 

To create these innovation dynamics, you’ll need at least 2 types of profile:

  • the Mavericks: rebellious entrepreneurs always going for it.
  • the Army Generals: profiles who relentlessly press on, stabilize and optimize.

I'm not just saying this; I firmly believe that diversity feeds business and creativity enormously. For breakthrough innovations, you need breakthrough teams. 

But be careful to create the right working environment for this type of project. That involves protecting your innovative teams. Square, the payment service, went so far as to physically isolate teams working on innovation projects. If everyone takes an interest and becomes peaky, you’ll notice things slowing down. You need to accept that innovation takes time and failures. Ideas need to blossom without consensus. Only once you’ve reached the stabilization of the project, can it be reintegrated into the mothership.

Creating a culture of innovation requires the processes you mentioned then.  But above all it requires people. How did you go about recruiting 600+ Malters with this mentality of making Malt thrive every day?

First of all, you have to accept that when you launch a company, recruiting is one of the biggest challenges. You need to accept that it will take up a lot of your time and effort. And it's going to work in cycles. At certain times, you'll be well-staffed, and things will run smoothly. But there will be phases where recruiting will eat up half your week. It's one of the most complicated tasks, but I've forged myself a few convictions over the years. 

Firstly, recruitment is sales. You have to consider each of your candidates as a potential ambassador. So it's crucial to maintain a good image in every conversation. 

Secondly, you're hiring humans. So you need to understand who you're dealing with. To do this, I systematically dig into the extra-curricular or extra-professional. You want radically different people, but all with the same optimistic approach. People who want to change the world and who believe that it can be changed.

The third principle is to always recruit better than you. Bob Metcalfe used to say: "B people hire, C people. But A people recruit A+ people." 

I've interviewed the first 130 Malters, right down to the trainees. But will come a point where you'll have to let go. And to do that with confidence, you'll need to have instilled your high standards in your teams. This takes time.

Finally, all hires are contextual. If you're opening a country and need to recruit a 401st employee, you're not recruiting a 401st employee. You’re looking for a first employee. You need entrepreneurs at heart. People who strive to go beyond the job description.

Any interview questions or tips to share?

It’s not an exact science, but there are a few indicators I find useful ... :

  • If you had to spend 5 hours stuck at the airport with this person, would you have a good time? If there's the shadow of a doubt, then there's no doubt.

  • It's almost a superstition, but over the years we've become increasingly wary of people who don't smile at all during the interview. We systematically reject candidates who don't crack a smile. Bear in mind that interviewing can be difficult for introverts, but you want positive people.

  • Ask your candidate to explain Google's business model. This helps gauge his or her level of curiosity for everyday services.

Crystal clear. You seem to attribute a lot of your success to the organization and the collective. But on a more personal level now, who do you need around you to succeed?

I think my "talent", or at least what I like to do, is to connect people. I do it naturally in my everyday life. This is not the case with data crunching, for example. I can understand them and spot anomalies, but I don't enjoy it. That's why I quickly teamed up with people who were wired for finance and data.

And at the end of the day, that's what drives me most: the synergies that occur when people start working together. In our case, the founding team was very tech-oriented. As for me, I was more focused on user experience. And it’s when we combined the two passions that the magic happened. Developers solve extremely complex problems. Whereas I'm all about making the experience as simple and intuitive as possible, and so on.

Whether in business, in the novels I read or the films I watch, it's this alchemy that fascinates me. In fact, Malt is simply the technological expression of my latent quest to build bridges between people.

Creating a European leader almost sounds intuitive when you talk about it. Having said that, I imagine you must have gone through rough patches. How did you manage them? Where do you draw your resilience from? 

I understood what resilience meant the day I had twins, along with their older brother (laughs...). 

When you have to deal with this level of attention, and you're also an entrepreneur, you have to "scale" yourself. And that means recruiting the right people and learning how to delegate. 

Otherwise, I'm a great believer in the importance of movement. Stress is like a bubble that you have to get out of. Physically, I mean. So I exercise and walk a lot. I particularly enjoy "walking meetings". That's often where the best ideas come from, because movement helps you to get out of the "face-to-face" dynamic and take a step back.

Finally, there's something about the physical that technology can't replace. Seeing people in real life can be very useful. If we have a subject in a market, I'll often choose to go and see the team on site. You get a better feel for the people and the subjects than through a screen.

So resilience is all about movement! And if we look into productivity now: do you have any methods or routines you could share with us?

You're betting on the wrong horse, I’m afraid. I hate routine. Also, I don't consider myself a very "methodical" person…

Perhaps the only routine I like is the one I have with my children; waking them up and making them breakfast before school. It's a regularity that brings me structure and purpose at the start of the day. 

Other than that, I think my only "particularity" is that I attach great importance to moments of calm. But nature abhors a vacuum. If you don't block them in your diary, these slots will fill up. And yet, these are important moments to regain energy, reflect or deal with emergencies.

I think our society places too much value on hyperactivity. So we need to provoke emptiness. You have to proactively create "deep-work" periods, when you can work without distraction or interruption. We've actually turned it into a process at Malt: the 1st Wednesday of every month is a day without internal meetings. It helped some Malters realise the productivity gains that can be made by keeping uninterrupted work slots.

Thank you Vincent for all these actionable tips. I'd like to conclude with the next projects that are close to your heart. What comes after Malt? Any unconquered fantasies left?

Malt is merely getting started! We should reach sales of 1 billion this year. But we’ve estimated the European market to be worth 500 billion euros. So we've still got a long way to go... On a more serious note, providing our customers and freelancers with ever more possibilities remains a major motivation for me. That was true 10 years ago, and it's still true today.

Lastly, I think we need to invent a European tech model. Europe needs to have great companies, not just for the financial aspect, but also to impose our way of doing things on the world, like Data issues for example. This is a very important to me.


About Vincent

In addition to his responsibilities at Malt, Vincent is a board member of the France Digital collective. He also recently launched Pollen, a training organization enabling professionals to learn from working experts. 

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