Struggling to generate new leads for your business? You’re not alone. According to Ascend2 and its research partners, half of all professional marketers struggle with that aspect of marketing.
Or maybe your challenge is on the flip side — you don’t have the in-house services you need and engaging independent experts is causing you headaches.
These are some of the downsides to small business that many don’t appreciate. Finding leads is hard. And doing every single business task, from tax to maintaining a physical premise and/or online presence, is basically impossible for one person.
So, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have wondered whether some kind of online service marketplace might help. But even there you have problems. Are they financially feasible? Can you trust them? Are they fair for everyone involved?
The short answer is that there are good and bad options, and doing your homework is key to actually solving the challenges you’re facing.
I’ve tried a huge variety of service marketplaces — I started as a content writer, so I’ve used lots of marketplaces for writers (including content mills, which pay peanuts in order to pump out huge volumes of content), but I’ve also used a variety of broader service marketplaces — and I’d love to share my search for the best service marketplace with you, so you don’t have to spend months or years covering the same ground.
Note that everything I say here is an expression of my views only, based entirely on my experiences with each of the platforms I mention. (This is not stuff I’ve heard about or found when researching the platforms — this is my actual experience with the service marketplaces.)
By publishing this piece, CircleSource is not endorsing these views or saying that they share them.
What is a service marketplace?
Here I’m defining a service marketplace as any platform that enables buyers and sellers to exchange services for a fee. Most platforms enable sellers (service providers) to post a profile that showcases their unique selling points, and then either allows:
- Buyers to post jobs or projects they need expertise to complete and sellers can then pitch their services; or
- Sellers to post their services and buyers can then request those specific services
Some platforms deliver leads to sellers instead of actual work. I don’t consider those kinds of platforms to be service marketplaces.
Types of service marketplaces
Before I go into an analysis of specific platforms, it’s important you understand the various options in this space. There are three main kinds of service marketplaces:
- Provider-pays — where the service provider pays a fee in exchange for displaying their profile on the site or being able to pitch for listed jobs/projects, or a commission on every job they secure. CircleSource and Fiverr are both examples of service marketplaces that use a provider-pays model.
- Client-pays — where the client pays a fee to use the platform and/or a fee for posting jobs and projects. Many of the more traditional job platforms (which are broader than just a service marketplace) charge a fee for posting jobs. For example Indeed charges a fee once a supplier clicks on sponsored job ads as well as a fee to view resumes. LinkedIn allows buyers to post one free job and charges for additional simultaneous jobs as well as premium job posts. Expert360 is an example of a dedicated service marketplace that uses the client-pays model (though they also use the platform-takes-a-cut model as well).
- Platform-takes-a-cut — where neither party pays a fee directly, but the marketplace takes a percentage of the fee paid by the client before it’s sent to the service provider. (Although in some cases, the platform will charge a fee to both parties instead.) Freelancer is an example of a service marketplace that uses this model.
There are strong proponents for each model, but all three have pros and cons associated with them (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t all exist!).
Some people think charging providers a fee is poor form because it devalues their skills and expertise. Others think it’s logical because the client is creating a market opportunity and the supplier is the beneficiary. Of course, the client benefits too because they’re getting the expertise they need. (Things are far more complicated now than in the old days when a client would pay to put an add in the relevant newspaper!) But regardless of your views on this, the simple fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to get clients to use a platform if they have to pay to use the service when there are other options out there that are free for them to use. As a result, provider-pays and platform-takes-a-cut are the more common models for dedicated service marketplaces.
Having platforms take a cut from the middle of the transaction might be a fairer model in that it distributes the cost of the platform’s service between the buyer and seller, however, many platforms that use that method are very opaque about their pricing and are often unfairly lining their pockets. Such platforms usually have to offer additional value to clients in exchange for them having to pay more than they would if they were to engage the service provider directly.
The important thing to bear in mind when comparing service marketplaces is that the fees they charge are basically a fee for the service they provide you. If you’re a service provider, they’re saving you from having to research and reach out to prospects or they’re advertising your service directly to people who are actively shopping, so they’re reducing your inbound and outbound marketing and advertising costs. If you’re a client/customer, they’re bringing you a selection of service providers that meet your needs, saving you from having to find and reach out to them individually for quotes.
This is pretty fair for once-off jobs and for the first engagement in a series, provided the size of the fee makes sense given the value of the benefits the platform provides. If you’re looking for ongoing relationships, however, and the marketplace includes a non-compete clause in its terms and conditions, it becomes unreasonable. (A non-compete clause means you’re required to pay the platform for each subsequent engagement between the client and service provider — sometimes for a specified amount of time, sometimes indefinitely.) If you’re still working with the same expert/client in a year’s time or five year’s time, why should the marketplace still be taking a cut of the money that changes hands? Sometimes the platform offers other benefits that make the fees fair value. Some marketplaces don’t. Very few marketplaces allow you to continue the relationships they help build off-platform.
So, my advice to you is to choose good service marketplaces for once-off engagements. If you’re planning recurring engagements, I advise only working through really excellent ones (such as those that offer something in return for the cost of the recurring fee).
Service marketplaces to avoid
Content mills are top of my list of marketplaces for writers, and sometimes other creators, that most people should avoid. They’re attractive to clients because they’re fast, cheap and low-effort. They’re attractive for new service providers because there’s lots of work on there and you don’t have to worry about chasing payments etc. (Here I define a content mill as any service marketplace that prioritises pumping out huge volumes of content as fast as possible, regardless of the quality. Textbroker is a well-known example of a content mill.)
Content mills were the first place I went to find clients when I started as a freelance writer, mostly because I didn’t know there were better options out there.
I now recommend avoiding content mills because they:
- Don’t pay fair fees to the creators (some pay as low as 1c per word) — this is unfair, but it also means they rarely attract high-quality creators, so it means clients generally get very low-quality content
- Prioritise speed — this degrades the quality of the content even further and prevents newbies from having the time to actually improve their craft
- Commoditise the creative outputs (e.g. they charge and pay by the word for written content) — this takes the focus off the value of the work, and incentivises clients to aim for brevity (rather than conciseness in most cases) while incentivising creators to aim for quantity over quality, both of which again degrade quality because the focus of both the buyer and seller is on the length of the content rather than on how well it answers the audience’s questions and helps the buyer achieve their goals
- Make it harder to sell and buy good quality content elsewhere because too many clients expect low fees
Here are some examples of content mills I would avoid based on my own experience with them as a creator:
- Copify (though this one pays slightly better than some others)
- Constant Content
- Express Writers
There are many, many more content mills out there, so don’t take this as a comprehensive list. These are just the ones I have personal experience with (and I’m sure I’ve missed a couple).
Are there any other service marketplaces to avoid? Yes.
Service marketplaces with suboptimal T&Cs
Check the terms and conditions (T&Cs) of the platforms carefully. Even as a newbie, I refused to register on UpWork because of their T&Cs. For example, UpWork won’t pay suppliers if the client doesn’t pay — and because no one on the lower membership tiers is allowed to share contact details, there’s no way for a freelancer to pursue payment independently. (Many platforms avoid this situation by requiring clients to pay upfront.) Their non-compete clause includes working with clients indirectly — so, for example, if a client engages a service provider through UpWork and then later hires an agency to source more work for them, that service provider is prohibited from pitching for that work unless payment is going to be made through UpWork. And accepting the T&Cs requires UpWork members to waive certain legal rights (their rights under California Civil Code § 1542).
Unscrupulous service marketplaces, like Bark
I also strongly recommend avoiding service marketplaces that use unscrupulous tactics in an effort to get people to sign up to their platform. Bark is a perfect example of one such platform.
‘Find the perfect professional for you’, claims their website. But the first I heard of Bark was when I received an email from their team claiming someone had reached out wanting to work with me. The email made it seem like I’d expressed interest in the platform before (and because I’ve applied to so many marketplaces for writers in the past, I figured this could be true), so it sounded legitimate. When I followed the steps to see the job though, it turned out that all the team wanted was for me to sign up to their platform so they had more profiles to show off to prospective clients. They didn’t have a project lined up for me — that was a complete lie.
If that’s how Bark gets people onto their platform, what other unscrupulous practices do they use? How can I trust they’ll pay me as a service provider? And how can I, as a client, trust them to charge me fair rates and find me good quality providers? I can’t, and as a result of their unethical behaviour, I will never use that platform…
Mediocre to good service marketplaces
So, if you’re avoiding content mills and service marketplaces with questionable terms and conditions, what makes an ‘acceptable’ service marketplace? Good question. Here are my criteria:
- The marketplace’s fees are fair given the value the platform provides
- Clients are charged reasonable rates (read, roughly market value) and service providers are paid fair rates (again, roughly market value)
- The terms and conditions are reasonable
- There are plenty of service providers and clients using the platform (or it’s growing well if it’s a startup)
When I started my marketing business, I transitioned away from content mills, built my website and looked for more appropriate service marketplaces. Here I’m going to analyse some specific marketplaces in a little more detail.
This brand’s tagline is ‘Get more done faster. Hire pre-vetted freelancers.’ and clients pay anywhere from USD5-75+ an hour or per-project fees, though the brand heavily favours hourly rates (that’s about AUD6.40-95.75 per hour). The brand provides pricing guidance for entry-level, mid-level and expert-level services to help ensure freelancers are paid more fairly and takes a 15% cut. Pretty much any kind of service can be bought and sold there.
- Reasonable pay/fee range and both parties can negotiate the rate
- Platform cut is on-par with the rest of the industry
- Per hour fees commoditises work and doesn’t incentivise efficiency
- Users are not allowed to work together outside of the platform
I’m still a member of this platform, but I haven’t checked the job board in months because I wasn’t finding enough higher-paying jobs there.
This is another freelance marketplace where you can buy/sell pretty much any service. Their tagline is ‘Hire the best freelancers for any job, online.’ Freelancer has a jobs board and also has a contests option where clients can post a project and receive several deliverables and pay for the one they like best. If you’re a new service provider, you might find this useful as you can get your ideas in front of clients without a portfolio. But it means a lot of work for no pay if you’re not chosen as the winner. If you’re looking to hire talent, it means you don’t have to select a provider based on a portfolio and their sales skills and can instead pick a provider based on their actual deliverable. However, you may not get any entries that you actually like (but you don’t have to pay in this instance).
- Australian brand so the terms and conditions are aligned with Australian laws
- Clients are given reasonable suggested pay ranges with the flexibility to set their own custom range
- There’s a choice between per hour and per project fees
- Rates are in AUD
- Users are not allowed to work together outside of the platform — you’re not even allowed to talk to each other outside of the platform
- It can be difficult to find good projects, which also makes it difficult to find good freelancers sometimes
- The platform’s cut is high at 3.3% or $3.30 AUD for buyers and 11% or $5.50 AUD for sellers when it’s a fixed-price project or content, or 20% for services that are charged hourly
- The platform charges fees for things like non-disclosure agreements where there’s little value given in exchange for the fee
- While it’s an Australian brand, the platform attracts large numbers of overseas buyers and sellers, which tends to push the price down below Australian market rates and the quality below Australian standards
It’s been a while since I’ve used this platform, but I’d consider looking for projects on there if I found myself without enough work.
You might be surprised to find Fiverr on this list given its reputation. But it is actually possible to make decent money and access good talent on the platform, especially if you use Fiverr Pro. The platform’s tagline is ‘Find the perfect freelance services for your business’ and again it has categories for pretty much every kind of service you can imagine.
- The service provider sets the rates
- The platform encourages tips
- It’s a popular platform so there are lots of service providers to choose from and lots of clients using the platform to outsource projects
- Users are not allowed to work together outside of the platform — you’re not even allowed to talk to each other outside of the platform
- Excessive competition lowers the rates below market values in many niches
- The platform’s cut is on the high side (20%)
- The platform even takes a cut from tips!!!
I’m still active on Fiverr Pro for select types of services as there are plenty of clients using the platform. Certain types of services there pay for my monthly herbal tisane order (I can’t drink caffeine). I’d also consider paying for Gigs there if I couldn’t find experts on my preferred platforms.
Fabulate is primarily a marketplace for writers and their clients (it started as specifically for written content but at the time of writing, the platform is preparing to expand into graphic design and videography). Its tagline is ‘Quality content made easy’. The platform is very good for branded content as clients can pay for the content as well as for a place to publish it. Fabulate also offers distribution.
- High quality content at market rates
- Diverse projects and big-name brands
- Additional benefits like distribution and professional indemnity insurance
- Users are not allowed to work together outside of the platform
- The platform’s cut is large (it’s not published and there is some scope for clients to negotiate with the platform)
- The marketplace includes a content creation platform, but it’s very limited (Google Docs is far more useful and easier to use), however improvements to the platform are on the way — this might turn into a pro with the next update to the platform
I’m active on Fabulate as both a creator and client.
Expert360 claims to be ‘Australia’s #1 skilled talent marketplace’ where buyers can ‘hire elite consultants, project managers, data analysts and developers’ for their ‘most important local & remote work’.
- Bigger projects
- Additional benefits like professional indemnity and public and products liability insurance
- Users are not allowed to work together outside of the platform for 12 months
- The platform doesn’t clearly specify their fees upfront (they state they charge clients an agreed fee for their services and those of the expert or an agreed margin on the expert’s rates plus on-costs, but they don’t publicly state a value — I’ve only used the platform as an expert, so unfortunately I can’t give you an indication of the rates)
What makes a service marketplace excellent?
Based on the above pros and cons, you’ve probably got a sense of what I believe differentiates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to service marketplaces. But before I go through my list of excellent service marketplaces, it’s worthwhile examining exactly what makes an excellent marketplace.
- Free signups/memberships for buyers and sellers — there is certainly value in belonging to a service platform but the value is low until a transactional arrangement is created and the costs of maintaining profiles is also fairly low, so there’s no really good reason to charge a membership fee
- Good quality — service platforms are only worthwhile if they result in their users getting what they need, so an excellent service marketplace will attract providers that deliver good quality services that help you overcome your challenges and achieve your goals, as well as good buyers who’ll value your expertise, skills and experience and treat you well
- Fair, value-based pay/fees — service providers get paid a fair amount based on the value of the service they provide, and buyers pay close to market rates
- The platform’s cut is commensurate with the value of their service — the platform gets paid the equivalent of a finder’s fee plus an ongoing fee only where they provide ongoing value
- No lock-in contracts or non-compete clauses — the former rarely makes sense for smaller businesses and the latter just isn’t fair; an excellent service marketplace doesn’t need to tie people to its platform to make it viable
- Popularity or good growth — service marketplaces with few buyers and/or few sellers don’t provide many opportunities, however, if the platform is in its early stages, good membership growth is an indicator that it’ll have lots of buyers and sellers in the future, so it’s well worth signing up even in the early days
- Responsible, trustworthy platform managers — it doesn’t matter how good the platform is, if you can’t trust the people running a platform, it’s hard to believe that things won’t go sour
- Fair and reasonable terms and conditions — if T&Cs force you to waive your rights or create an arrangement that is unfairly favourable to one party at the expense of others, there are better places to get the services or clients you need (and T&Cs that are governed by local law are more reassuring)
- Flexible — ideally, service marketplaces will enable you to work the way you want
As a buyer, there’s always the temptation to choose a service platform that charges low fees. Such platforms are typically serviced by suppliers from countries where the cost of living is low. In some cases that’s not an issue. But often, the quality just isn’t on-par with what’s on offer locally.
On the flip side of the coin, platforms serviced by overseas suppliers can be hard to make a living from for Aussie service providers because buyers consistently choose the lower-priced services.
If you’re a supplier, a service marketplace that fulfils these criteria is pretty much a no-brainer. You have nothing to lose by signing up to any such platform.
If you’re a buyer, you may need to ask yourself whether cost or supporting local Australian businesses is more important to you.
Excellent service marketplaces
Now we’ve defined what an excellent service marketplace looks like, it’s time to get down to the juicy stuff you’ve been waiting for — explore which marketplaces meet those criteria.
Ok, I say marketplaces plural, but I’ve actually only ever found one that I really like and that’s CircleSource, which is one of the newer options. I’ve become active as a service provider on the platform relatively recently and it’s now my go-to place for posting projects.
That might sound biased, but I’m not being paid to say nice things about the brand and I’m writing this article precisely because I really like what they’re doing.
CircleSource helps ‘Australian communities thrive by connecting businesses looking for services (buyers) with quality local service providers looking for work (suppliers)’. As this suggests, the platform is targeted specifically at Australian businesses in terms of both suppliers and buyers, so there aren’t any issues associated with cheap overseas service providers.
Anyone registering on the platform needs to be attached to an organisation (that can be your legal business name if you’re a sole trader). However, there’s the option of having more than one member attached to any given organisation, which provides a handy level of governance and oversight of transactions if your business has multiple staff members using CircleSource.
You can post any job on there you like and you can create a profile for any service you like too. It’s pretty new (6 months old), so there aren’t that many people using it yet, but the team promotes all posted jobs externally to attract new service providers to the platform, and the platform is actively growing.
If you find a service provider you like and you want to hire their expertise on future projects, you can do so outside of the platform where there’s no fee. That’s not a mistake or an oversight in their terms and conditions — it’s intentional! The team behind CircleSource believe it’s fair for them to charge a fee for the service they provide (matching clients and service providers), and that it’s not fair to continue to charge a fee for ongoing arrangements when they’re not providing any ongoing value. Personally, I think that’s really awesome. I’m not aware of any other platform that takes that honest, fair approach to a service marketplace.
- Australian rates
- Rates are negotiated between both parties
- You’re free to communicate with each other however and where ever you like
- Future projects can be done outside of the platform
- The platform’s cut is low at only 7.5%, it’s capped at $1250, and the platform is completely transparent about its fees (the service provider pays the fee but can include that fee in the price the offer)
- There aren’t any hidden or surprise fees for ‘extra’ features
- Posted projects are advertised outside the platform for additional exposure
- You have the option of creating a ‘private’ job that’s only viewable by suppliers you nominate, or a ‘public’ job that’s viewable by all suppliers
- Regardless of whether you create a private or public job, you can directly invite specific suppliers from the platform to pitch for the project and you can even invite suppliers who aren’t yet on the platform to join up and pitch for a project
- Australian talent and expertise
- It’s really easy to post a project, create a profile, offer a service, and invite service providers to make an offer
- There’s a good integrated workflow and associated tools (if you’re a supplier you’ll get email notifications about projects that match your skills, the platform includes a tool for making and reviewing pitches, if you’re a buyer you can request amendments to supplier proposals, digital deliverables can be uploaded and tracked on the platform, you can create folders to archive your jobs and reporting will be provided by the platform, and you can leave written endorsements/testimonials)
- Service providers pay the 7.5% fee up front (but there’s also the option of splitting the payment in two if that fee is over $550)
- Service providers aren’t vetted, so clients have to do all the leg work in terms of ensuring the expert is really an expert (but having said that, the verification process on the other platforms isn’t very rigorous so you’re not missing much here)
- No escrow service — buyers and suppliers develop their own project terms and the seller invoices the buying organisation directly
This service marketplace doesn’t offer insurance or a content platform (yet), but that means you’re not paying extra for something you might not need or want. CircleSource offers chat functionality but no other communication functionality (like integrated Zoom calls). But that means you can communicate with providers and clients the way you want — you’re not tied to the CircleSource platform. And, while there’s no requirement to keep work on the platform, there are incentives to do so. For instance, if you’re a service provider, every project you’re awarded on the platform gives you a boost in the platform’s algorithm so your profile is shown more prominently (which is pretty good value for small projects). And it also means as a client, you’re first seeing profiles of providers who have successfully used the platform to deliver a service. So, that 7.5% fee buys you something no matter which side of the fence you’re on.
For service providers, there’s no downside to signing up for the platform. It’s free and easy to pop your profile on there, so if you never get any work out of it, all you’ve lost is a little time creating your profile (but you’ve probably got all the info handy, so it doesn’t take long to do anyway). And if you do get work out of it, you pay a low, capped fee (which is much less than other service marketplaces or forms of lead generation). There is some risk for service providers in that CircleSource doesn’t hold project fees in escrow (the brand doesn’t make clients pay up front and then transfer the fees to the service provide upon completion of the project). But that’s no more risk than for arrangements that are made directly when a client finds a service provider through their website or social media. (And if a project doesn’t go ahead, CircleSource can refund the platform fee.)
All in all, I’m very happy to have found CircleSource both as a service provider and as a client. I’ll continue using some of the other service marketplaces to get work while CircleSource builds momentum. But I’ve already started posting projects on CircleSource and will be using it as my primary means of outsourcing projects going forward.
The best service marketplace?
I haven’t tried every service marketplace out there, so I can’t truthfully say whether CircleSource is the best one. I can honestly say that CircleSource is the best general service marketplace I’ve ever found.
If you need to outsource a project, create your project brief and then why not pop it on CircleSource as well as anywhere else you were already planning on posting it? You don’t need to post briefs in a specific format, so it’ll only take a few seconds to copy and paste your existing project brief onto the platform (or you can just upload a brief in a Word/PDF document if you prefer) and the CircleSource team will promote it for you (something you have to pay extra for if you’re posting on LinkedIn). If you don’t find the perfect expert, it won’t have cost you anything. And if you do find a great service provider, well you’ll get your project completed!
If you’re looking for work, take a few minutes to create a profile, and take a look at the projects that are already in the system. If you see one that fits your skills, write a great pitch and away you go!
And if you have any questions about CircleSource, I encourage you to get in touch with the team. They’re lovely people and very approachable. And they really understand the challenges faced by smaller businesses when it comes to both lead generation and accessing specialist expertise. I’m also happy to answer any questions you might have based on my experiences with the platform.
About the author
Dr Kelly Wade
Full-funnel marketing specialist, K. M. Wade
Hi! My mission is to build a better tomorrow by helping organisations that solve crucial problems, efficiently generate sustainable growth with strategic marketing assets that attract, nurture, convert and retain the target market. I started as a content writer churning out thousands of words for a pittance via content mills, and now I work with everything from major brands down to sole traders to deliver content, copy and strategy for their entire sales funnel so they can win more sales and grow their businesses consistently and sustainably.