Erik Huberman Embraces Gig Economy With A Twist
Erik Huberman, Founder and CEO of Hawke Media, is a bit of an anomaly. He has built a fast-growing marketing firm that specializes in offering “fractional” (part-time) marketing executives and specialists. What makes this unusual is that while clients can take advantage of Hawke’s personnel on a short-term basis, those workers remain permanent, full-time employees at Hawke; they’re not contractors.
Freelancers have been a significant part of the marketing industry landscape for decades — long before they were commonplace in other business categories. Consulting firms have also traditionally relied on contingency workers. As a marketing consultancy, Hawke Media straddles both categories but has embraced a different business model.
For context, businesses across the board are relying more heavily on an “alternative workforce” and the gig economy. Deloitte Insights says that practice is now mainstream: “At the beginning of 2020, for instance, the number of self-employed workers in the United States is projected to triple to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest-growing labor group in the European Union, with their number doubling between 2000 and 2014; growth in freelancing has been faster than overall employment growth in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands.” Deloitte defines alternative as “work performed by outsourced teams, contractors, freelancers, gig workers (paid for tasks), and the crowd (outsourced networks).”
We asked Huberman why and how Hawke is bucking employment trends.
You are often called to speak about the gig economy or the future of work. Why is this topic important to you?
The gig economy has been all about accessibility: getting a driver, a delivery. That access, ease of use and flexibility is super important. We aim to provide that same value proposition (in marketing services), but we decided not to go freelance or contractor because that creates a lack of consistency and control. We want guaranteed quality control.
We’ve also seen the problems that companies like Uber have created for their workers. Most people don’t want an ebb and flow in their income — especially when it’s not their job to generate business.
That said, getting rid of the whole gig economy is a dangerous idea, too. There are incredible benefits for people who want to jump into Uber and drive whenever they want and make side money. The intention was never for it to be a full-time job, but it has become that for a lot of people, so they need some protections.
That puts a burden on businesses, but let’s be real: that cost just gets passed through to customers. If that’s what it takes to make sure employees are protected, that’s OK. To me, health care is not a privilege.
There is a reason to have gig workers when it truly is a gig. But if it’s an ongoing job, especially if people are working full time, you need to offer some benefits.
This is why I’m asked to speak on this topic. Everything our business does is month-to-month, a la carte, on demand. Clients can have gig-like workers through us, but we employ those workers fulltime so they don’t have to deal with the volatility. We’re able to retain great people and pay them well.
How did Hawke Media get started? Did you set out to create the type of business that it is now?
My background is in e-commerce. I built and sold two e-commerce fashion companies over the last decade, then I started consulting with other companies about how to drive growth with modern marketing. I kept running into the same challenge. When it was time to execute, there were two options: hire an in-house team or engage an agency.
Hiring an entire team isn’t cost effective for a lot of companies. Even if they can attract talent, they miss out by not having an outside perspective. Agencies are generally expensive. They have high minimums and they want long-term contracts.
I decided to solve that problem. I hired my own small team of people, each with their own area of expertise. I went back to my clients and said, “everything is a la carte, month-to-month.” Clients can spin up what they need, when they need it.
Fast-forward five-and-half years: we’ve grown to about 170 people. We have offices in Los Angeles and New York City, and we have an early-stage venture fund to invest in software-as-a-service companies as a complement to what we do.
Our original model was the one we stuck with. We’ve tweaked it over time, but there was never a pivot.
What should executives consider when deciding between employees and alternative workers?
It depends on what you want to build. We wanted to build something big, consistent and scalable. You can’t do that with people who aren’t dedicated to your business.
I haven’t seen big companies use a contingency workforce for their core competencies. If you want to be a big business you don’t get there through freelancers because they’re not dedicated. With freelancers, you get transactional relationships. They’re non-committal.
Don’t get me wrong, it happens with employees sometimes too, and it goes both ways. You don’t commit to them; they don’t commit to you.
How did you grow Hawke Media? Has your involvement with YPO been helpful?
Our growth has been a function of doing good work, doing right by people and understanding that reputation is everything. Word-of-mouth drives more business than anything. There is no silver bullet.
I joined YPO for forum — to have a bunch of smart people to bounce things off of. Talking with other executives when they have no horse in the race is really helpful. I’ve learned more from YPO in the past two years than I’ve learned from most other aspects of my career. Plus, I don’t know if there’s a better organization from a networking perspective! The content is great, and the events are awesome.
I’m about to become the communications chair of the YPO U.S. Pacific Region. I’m currently the communications chair and soon-to-be assistant learning chair of the Digital Media and Marketing Network. I’ve gone full active! You get out of it what you put into it. I’ve put a lot into YPO, and it’s turned out to be worth that time.