Recently our co-founder David joined the Sliding Doors podcast with hosts Eric and Naomi. He talked about the inspiration for founding LifeWork, and the mission to make remote freelancing a sustainable career choice. Hear about David’s family history of freelance work, and the difficulties he faced managing clients, projects and payment when he was starting out. You can listen to the episode here, or read through the transcript below.
Eric: Hello and welcome to Sliding Doors, the podcast where we talk to business school entrepreneurs about the risks and rewards of choosing the startup life. Today, we are talking with David Corfield, the founder of LifeWork, which is an online platform aiming to make work more sustainable and inclusive for freelance professionals.
David: I'm David Corfield. I am an MBA student here at Haas at UC Berkeley. I am 25. I am originally from Chelmsford, England, which is just outside of London. I started my business, LifeWork, just over a year ago now. I was working for McKinsey in London as a strategy consultant for about two and a half years out of undergrad. From there, about two years ago I decided that I needed a change of scene and came out to California for business school.
LifeWork is freelance work platform that puts freelancers first. We have a mission to make remote freelance work a sustainable and inclusive career path, and we're going to do that by employing freelancers to give them what we call flexicurity. It's the flexibility of remote freelance work with the security of a monthly paycheck, healthcare, benefits, everything you would get from that typical job. If you're a freelancer, you don't know next month whether you're going to have two clients or 10 clients. We're trying to build a structure through LifeWork that enables people to have that confidence in their future income.
Originally, way back, maybe almost 20 years ago now my mother was an independent dressmaker. She did this at a particularly hard time in my family. My dad had just left. It was her dream. She was incredible at it. I've seen some of the dresses she made. She made wedding dresses. They were phenomenal, but she did not know how to operate the business side of things. She didn't know how to market herself, didn't know how to price her dresses, all these different things that she was never trained in. She was trained in dress making, but she eventually had to give it up and find part-time retail jobs to put food on the table.
That's always stuck with me as a deep problem, why are we as a society holding people back from doing the work that they have to do and providing society with the skills that they have just because we're putting this unnecessary burden on them? That's always been on the back of my mind. With my work in McKinsey, I was working there for a couple of months, and I got really unwell. There was very little flexibility that I could incorporate into my working life to help me get around my health needs, so I struggled with the travel, I struggled with the late nights, with having to eat whatever food was on offer at those client offices I was working out of. It made life really tough, and this being my first job out of university I stuck with it. I did everything I could to get by, but it was working for me until the last six months that I was working there I had a project where I had complete autonomy.
I didn't really have a manager that I was working with. It was me, my client and senior leadership from McKinsey. As long as I did the work that we agreed on, and I communicated well, and I met my deadlines, then everybody would be happy. I hadn't got much better in my job. I was just given this flexibility to work how I wanted to, and it led to much better outcomes on all sides and a much higher quality of life for me. That was probably the light bulb moment. That was when I started jotting down thoughts and ideas that there's something here. This is what the future of work should look like.
Eric: It sounds like that led you to see the value and being a freelancer yourself. Is that right?
David: Exactly. I had timed things that I was moving straight from McKinsey to business school, so I didn't have as much of a chance to explore that personally, but then while being a student, I explored some freelance opportunities. Actually, over my summer I didn't get a traditional internship. I was working at LifeWork and building the business but also working as a freelance consultant on the side to really understand what that life was like and take on first-hand the problems that freelancers have.
Eric: It sounds like you started LifeWork kind of just bring the best parts about having security and working at a place like McKinsey.
David: It's a really good way of putting it. It's not how I intended to start out with the business model. It's fair to say we've pivoted a fair few times over the last year, but you could almost describe the vision now as applying that management consulting model of being employed but moving from client to client and project work, applying that model to different types of work. Still, knowledge work can be done remotely, so think graphic design, software development, legal advice. It's still a lot of different things but applying that management consulting framework to these other types of work.
I don't believe in the hustle culture especially prevalent around Silicon Valley and founders these days. There's numerous studies that show that people are most productive between 45 and 50 hours a week. That beyond that you are not at your peak in mental capabilities. Really, that work you'll be making mistakes, and you have to spend more time correcting them. I guess it's a passion of mine to not be in a world where we do that. A big thing in the freelance community is pretty much working the minimum amount of hours you need to provide you with the life you want to live. We're trying to translate that into our culture.
Obviously, it's a different story being a founder. I'm more than happy spending 60 plus hours a week on this because it's my passion. It's what I want to be doing in my free time. I might be described as crazy, and I probably am, but that's the path that I want to take. But we never want to be pressuring people to work more hours than they want to. As we build the business out through freelancers, then everybody is going to be given that autonomy.
We've built almost a taxonomy of freelancer problems at LifeWork. Our mission is almost to check all of those problems off. If you hack away at all of the problems surrounding that core freelance work, then we kind of see a world where people are left just doing the things that they want to do. A graphic designer just spending 15 hours a week designing awesome logos, or branding, or whatever it might be. They don't have to anything else because all that stuff is done. That stuff sucks. The things that I particularly noticed, like finding clients when you are just starting out, is near impossible. What kind of freelancer do you want to be?
Naomi: I'm into let's say website design.
David: Okay. You're a website designer. How many hours a week do you want to work?
Naomi: I only want to work 30 hours a week.
David: Awesome. How much do you want to be paid per hour?
Naomi: As much as I can.
David: As much as you can. Okay. Great answer. I as LifeWork have got all this data on the entire market, and I say for someone with your level of experience and in this world you can basically charge $80 an hour. Does that sound good to you?
Naomi: That sounds great.
David: Okay. We would take that information plus a whole bunch of parameters that you decide and the exact hours that you want to be working. If you want to block time out because that's when you work your dog, then that's absolutely fine. What timezones are you going to be on? How much do you want to communicate with the client versus just be behind closed doors? How you like communicating. All of these different things that you're in control I would take that in as LifeWork and would find work that fits those parameters.
If were to give you that contract, say 15 hours a week. If I were to give you a project that fits your parameters, then you would have to do that project, but because you've selected all these different things to begin with, 99.9% of the time you're going to be happy to do that anyway. That's going to match the work that you want to do which, as you say, it's the complete opposite of how these market places work because you're feeling obliged to bid for projects that you don't really want to do at a rate that is way below what you want to do, and therefore you end up working 10 times as many hours per week as you want to just try and make ends meet.
The problem underlying all of this is oversupply of freelancers on these platforms. Some of these marketplaces could work if the balance of freelancers with the amount of projects that are posted on there were more balanced, but because there's huge oversupply and therefore the power all ends up with the organizations asking for this work, which is the key thing that we have to try and address in our platform. We have to really carefully manage the supply and demand, so obvious try and bring in as much work as possible but only commit work to freelancers that we know is actually going to be available to them and certainly over that time span in the future. That's something no other platforms are doing right now.
I remember I had a meeting with the startup advisor here at Haas, a guy called Deepak. I wanted to sit down and talk through internships and small startups because that's kind of why I came to business school. I wanted to learn about entrepreneurship rather than be an entrepreneur. I love that advisory part of consulting. I thought, "Okay, if I just consult for startups, that sounds more of what I can do." I talked to him about internship opportunities, and I happened to mention that I had an idea or something for business.
He pushed all of my notes off of the table, like put them away. He's like, "Tell me about your idea." I was like, "Well, I haven't really thought it through that much." This meeting went over by about 20 or 30 minutes with me telling him all these various different things that I had thought up. He told me, "You need to go and talk to 100 customers, 100 freelancers, figure out what their problems are, and hire a bunch of undergrads to go and call and get very basic service, and then come back to me in a months time, and we'll see what's happened."
I'm like, "Wait, what?" I left there with no idea what internship I could find at a startup, and this guy has given me 50 hours a week of workload on top of what I had already thought was a pretty strenuous academic schedule. So, I didn't do any of that. It was way too much. It was pretty intimidating at that moment, but it got me thinking. I kind of call it the startup bug out here in California. Every time an entrepreneur would come to campus and speak in our classes, or I would speak to second years or other students around here that were starting their own thing, that voice in my brain that I should just try this was just getting louder and louder.
It took me until winter break, so at the end of the first semester. I took time off. I traveled a bit. It was then I committed. I said, "Okay, I've got a year and a half left to go. If I'm ever going to start something of any scale, it should be now. I'm in the safest place for it." Yeah, I decided to go for it. I would absolutely recommend it to anybody else that has that startup bug, that idea in their brain. It really is the ideal place to start a business.