I hope the New Year got off to a good start for you all.
2013 was our busiest year at PPH with some significant operational challenges. Overall we fared well. The community almost doubled in size to 600,000 Freelancers. In December twice as many Freelancers won work than a year ago, and the total amount of completed Jobs and Hourlies was up 180% – almost threefold to last year.
I’d like to thank the team at PPH and our community for their hard work, support and commitment. It wasn’t easy. Particularly as throughout that we had to consolidate and make some tough cost cuts.
We’ve also had some low points and failures. Until mid-year the Customer Support team and the Product & Engineering teams were operating in two different locations (London and Athens respectively), making it increasingly difficult to react fast to customer problems. We had numerous changes of leadership and always struggled to cross the chasm and be truly customer-centric in the way we evolve the product.
So finally we took the decision mid-year to move the Customer Support team to where the platform is being built and maintained, so that the voice of the customer is baked into the development cycle.
On top of that we’ve done some reorganisation so that teams are not organised linearly by function (engineering, design & customer support), but concentrically across functions so that there is always a support agent being part of a team that drives an initiative.
So we start 2014 with one top priority: to develop the most customer-centric culture serving this space, and be one step ahead in pushing innovation and customer satisfaction.
During this transition we did drop a few balls while juggling both a growing volume of customer enquiries and moving the whole function to a different country. It was challenging but I don’t want to make excuses. At the end of the day it’s our job to serve customers and we are fully aware of that. I’d like to openly apologise to any customers we may have let down and not responded to fast enough.
I’m glad to say that we are now back on track and actually ahead of where we were before the move thanks to our new vibrant and energetic support team which I’d like to applaud and also introduce here. The team will be growing over time, and already we are seeing signs that the move – whilst painful – was the right move for the longer term.
(CS Ninjas left to right: Strat, Penny, Michael, Christos, Panos)
In terms of the development of the product: our main goal for 2014 is to make the discovery process easier, and more frictionless, putting quality first.
Our new ranking algorithm – CERT was a big move in that direction. We know it’s been met with some backlash and we’ve done our best to listen and implement changes as fast as we can. I thank the community for being vocal and reacting fast to give us feedback.
CERT is an on-going optimization job and we intend to enrich it and improve it over time. It’s understandable that when something so fundamental changes there will be some that are unhappy. By definition an end-to-end change cannot please everyone. However, the ethos of CERT is – we believe – the right one. That is, to put a quality, reliable and trusted experience at the core; help those who deliver consistently, and help the community grow to move up the ranks.
I ask for your patience while we optimize CERT further and solve any teething problems.
Finally I’d like to take this opportunity to personally address some of the comments and misperceptions that seem to linger in the community
1. That we favour Buyers over Sellers:
Any two-sided marketplace faces this challenge intrinsically as there are two sides with sometimes conflicting interests.
What Buyers consistently tell us is that their main motive is to be able to find quality Freelancers to get their job done fast and reliably. Most of the frustration we’ve seen from Buyers comes down to being let down – one way or the other – and ending up wasting time and money, and sometimes even with a refund they are still let down as they wasted a lot of time which is critical to them.
We have no interest to take sides as we need both in order to have a functioning marketplace. However, we do believe that the onus for reliable quality delivery does come down to the service provider much like in any client-provider relationship. Most Buyers are first time Buyers so by definition they are ‘uneducated’ about what they are buying. The balance of responsibility, we feel, must reflect the balance of knowledge and control. The person who controls the food in a restaurant is the chef and not the customer. This is why if a person complains (at least in a good restaurant) the attitude of the host will be that the customer is always right.
Secondly, much like in any service we consume – whether it’s a restaurant meal, stay over in a hotel, a purchase in a shop or online – when something goes wrong it’s an opportunity for the best to shine by going out of their way to fix the problem and have a happy customer who will keep coming back. In the example of the restaurant I’ve given – and I’m as demanding and difficult as any customer – the ones that impress me the most are the ones that look at every blip as an opportunity to go above and beyond. Even if it’s treating me to free desert or coffee, or just being very attentive, listening and doing something about me being an unhappy customer.
2. That we don’t pay fast enough and sit on Freelancers money deliberately
Speed of payment is consistently a pain point that keeps resurfacing. First of all I’d like to highlight that unlike our competitors we process payments daily. We started off with a weekly payment, went twice weekly, and now daily. Most other freelancer sites still pay weekly.
There are only two things and two things alone that can hold up a payment: either suspicion of a potentially fraudulent transaction, or the method of payment one chose has a clearance period that’s beyond our control. Banks in the UK for example take three working days to clear a BACS transfer.
Regarding fraud: Unfortunately fraudsters do exist and it is our duty to ensure that we have a service that’s clean of them. Unfortunately we will have some false positives, but that’s no different to one’s credit card being blocked by the bank because a transaction has flagged something (it happens to me all the time and I am contacted by a call centre to ask me to validate these transactions). Annoying as that may be it is better to have protection than not.
So what have we done about this and what more are we doing?
First, we invested much more in 2013 to develop smarter fraud detection tools that enabled us to automate some 95% of invoice processing versus 60% at the start of the year. The speed of invoice approval dropped drastically during the year from 20 hours on average at the start of 2013 to less than 9 hours at the end of the year.
Secondly we changed Gateway this month to one which will soon allow you to withdraw money in many more ways than what we were supporting to date, including Skrill and in many more countries.
Thirdly, we are now working on moving banks so that we can deliver same-day payments that don’t go through the BACS protocol which has a three day delay.
Lastly, I’d like to assure the community that we have no benefit in holding funds unnecessarily. Interest rates are at historic lows, and we need to keep the funds in liquid accounts so a day extra yields virtually nothing. In fact, the cost we incur to support and respond to large numbers of payment enquiries is far greater.
So we are aligned with our customers and making constant improvements to deliver faster payments to more payment methods and more countries.
3. That we are asking our freelancers for free marketing
This is something that’s been commented on numerous times and in particular with reference to CERT.
Firstly, we have aligned interest in growing the community. The more work that gets posted on the platform the more work the community wins and hence the more money that is made. We don’t make money unless you do first. We are one with the community and our relationship is symbiotic – we need each other to be able to succeed. We don’t make money at the expense of people; we make money upon your success first.
Further, as I say above with reference to CERT we do believe that an online community operates with certain social norms that reflect those of groups and communities in the ‘real’ world offline. ‘Good citizens’ per se rise up the social ranks in groups and their status reflects that often times they do good for the community and not just for themselves. Status should – if we are true to these social norms – reflect not just how well one does for themselves but also how much they care about the group they belong to.
Lastly – there is no shame in saying that PPH has come this far with almost zero marketing spend. We are driven almost exclusively by word of mouth and referral as well as some good PR that’s stemmed from stories from our community.
Although this means growing slightly slower it does mean we end up with a more tightly-knit community of quality Buyers and Sellers who care enough about the community to go out and tell their friends about it.
So yes we are thankful, as we all should be. These referrals have helped thousands of people to earn money on PPH every month, gain financial independence, and fulfil their dream of becoming entrepreneurs and their own boss. Without that initiative those dreams would not be a reality and this would not be possible without our users – YOU – who have gone out and told friends and family about this great new service.
As many of you know, I email all our new users every month and get feedback from them in person. It takes me at least a couple of days every month to go through and answer all the responses one by one. I always end by asking you – if you are happy with the service – to refer us as we need that to grow. If it wasn’t important I wouldn’t spend that much time on it.
Thanks for reading and as always I’m open to your feedback below.
Finally I’d like to wish you, your friends, peers and family a most prosperous, joyous and happy 2014.