There’s no need to retrace the full story of Uber’s legal disputes with its drivers – they continue to be covered in many other publications – but suffice to say the gig economy has not always lived up to what it once promised: to liberate workers from the confines of conventional employment and allow them to deal directly with consumers on terms that suited them. And at a time in which almost everyone’s work is feeling insecure, the precarious nature of that kind of life perhaps looks less appealing than ever.
So why has Keith Weed (pictured, top) – the former Unilever marketing supremo now living the portfolio life as a WPP board director, charity non-exec and angel investor – decided to back Limitless, a company aiming to bring the gig economy to customer experience in major companies?
His arguments, though already well-grounded, have been given a surprising boost by one of the indirect consequences of the coronavirus pandemic: the surge in online shopping. Speaking to Campaign on a call with Roger Beadle, co-founder and chief executive of Limitless, Weed said: "The biggest impact this is going to have is [it will lead consumers] to expect brands to have a bigger ecommerce platform."
The crucial behaviour change caused by the lockdown was to prompt huge numbers of people to try online shopping for the first time, Weed said: "We’ve basically probably got the next 15 years of people [set to come] online [to] have come online in the last 15 days." In other words, the size of the consumer base has, almost overnight, reached a level observers wouldn’t have expected for another 15 years.
"That’s the reason you’re seeing all these problems in online grocery," Weed said, adding that two of the giants of ecommerce, Amazon and eBay, were also experiencing problems due to overwhelming demand.
That, in turn, leads to a far greater demand for online customer service – which is where Limitless comes in. The company offers freelance customer service workers, dubbed "experts", who work on a gig basis, meaning clients can bring them on for exactly the amount of work they need doing, helping them deal with sudden peaks in demand.
"Post-this [pandemic], the amount of online shopping will go down, but the amount of people who have now had an online experience will never go back," Weed said. "So there will be a step change in the amount of ecommerce used – brands are going to have to think about how they engage with that."
Beadle founded Limitless with Megan Neale in 2016, after a 25-year career in the contact centre industry, including founding and selling a successful company. Blue-chip clients of Limitless have included Microsoft and Unilever, where Weed first became involved as a customer.
One of Beadle's deep regrets about the call-centre business was its low rates of pay. "The reason we founded the company [Limitless] is we were ashamed our industry pays people the minimum wage the world over," he said. "It’s virtually impossible to break that economic model in the world of call centres, so we wanted to find a model that could strip a lot of the wasted cost away and pay people more."
As a result, it pledges that its experts earn an amount equivalent to considerably above the living wage (the UK real living wage is currently £9.30 an hour or £10.75 in London). Beadle and Weed both set Limitless apart from the likes of Uber by stressing that it is not meant to provide full-time work to any of its experts – and that the work can be done during gaps in the day, such as while a parent is waiting to pick up their kids.
The idea is that the experts are worth paying more than call-centre employees, because unlike full-timers, they are chosen for their use and knowledge of the brand in question. Brands are able to invite their own customers (or even employees) to become experts – something that Beadle calls the "special sauce" of the operation, or perhaps one sauce of several.
"It’s not just a free for all," Beadle said. "The very people that are helping you have native knowledge, use of the brands and the products, and are fans and advocates. You get a much richer, empathetic level of service." The experts are provided with training and resources to support their existing knowledge.
There’s also another factor Beadle credited with ensuring high standards, and it’s a classic hit of the gig economy: a marketplace dynamic. "You’re only on the platform if you have a great rating and are helping consumers," he said. With luck, the fact that both the brand and the consumer need to be happy with the expert’s work will protect this system from being manipulated.
There’s an obvious overlap between Limitless’ experts and the style of influencers offered by another company Weed has invested in, Tribe. It’s an interesting direction for a man who, while at Unilever, took a stand against bad practices in the influencer industry. "One thing I’ve learned is that authenticity is everything" when it comes to influencers, he said.
"The [influencers] that are less interesting are the big names that have clearly been bought to talk about brands," Weed explained. "Consumers are very forgiving around stars in ads talking about brands – the difference [with influencers] is that people are looking for something more personal and real." People were "genuinely interested in other people’s opinions", he said, but "after that, what’s important" when it comes to influencers is: "Are these people real users of the products and are they really knowledgeable?"
On the broader impact on brands of the coronavirus crisis, Weed said: "I believe and hope we’ll see more brands thinking about society, and the roles of serving society, than we had before. Already, a lot of brands have had to rethink what sort of brand they are in a moment of crisis. Post-this, most brands will say we’ve got to think about a multi-stakeholder approach, how we influence the environment and society, and not just think about our P&L."
And what role is Limitless trying to play in society? "We’re trying to think about how work is done in the future," Weed said, echoing wording used by Beadle. "The exercise the world is going through right now in working remotely will change the way people think about how they work. We need to think through new models around how people are going to work to ensure brands don’t find themselves becoming irrelevant and left behind."
The argument that great change is coming to the way we work is unanswerable. Whether or not Beadle and Weed have the right answers, they seem to be asking the right questions.