Talent fishing

Hiring creative talent on an ad hoc project basis has been made easier by savvy firms, which provide the sought-for talent pool as well as handle the tedious admin work through the Web.

FreeAgent.com blazed a specialty trail a year and a half ago when it focused on finding jobs for the "contingent" work force - free-lancers hired to work on specific projects.

Now, FreeAgent and newcomer Bullhorn, which caters to creative services professionals, are branching out beyond just providing job listings. Their new features and services run all the way from handling billing for project workers to selling software that runs the job search board itself.

At first, FreeAgent thought its users would be interested in community features and lifestyle information. But it soon found that people ranked those below additional job-related services, says Wendy Reveri, FreeAgent's senior vice president of commerce services. "What our users really wanted was to find work and low-cost benefits online," she says.

So FreeAgent, which is owned by New York-based Opus360, started a more refined service that matches free-lancers and their technical skills with projects at client companies. Then, it added features to help clients better handle their project work force needs, including resolving questions about employee status for contingent workers. Under its e.Office program, FreeAgent officially hired free-lancers, relieving client companies of having to process pounds of paperwork, while making it possible to offer group benefits to their free-lance employees.

Early next year, FreeAgent plans to roll out corporate portals that will allow agents to decide who can see their résumés online. Companies will have access to the same software used by FreeAgent for their own job sites, allowing them to manage their project-based work force and find new employees.

FreeAgent has 172,000 free agents registered on the system. Of those, more than 60,000 have résumés on-site that they update regularly. However, only about 400 are enrolled in the e.Office program, taking advantage of the business services and insurance plans.

Boston-based Bullhorn follows a similar model, but lists only positions for creative professionals. Company co-founder Barry Hinckley insists he didn't copy FreeAgent's philosophy. "We watched creative material flying around the Net, and wanted to build a marketplace for that material," he says.

Art Papas, Hinckley's partner and Bullhorn co-founder, adds that creative services is the single best vertical category for Net adoption, especially when work is visually represented. "An image or animation on a Web page tells you about the quality of an artist," Papas says. "It's all about the creative portfolio."

To date, 1,500 business clients have registered with Bullhorn for access to the 7,500 creative free agents listed. Business company clients that want more control over procurement and management of free agent creative people sign up for BullhornPro software. Following an application service provider model, BullhornPro allows companies to view a personalized subset of the creative free agents database. These selected agents work through the BullhornPro.com system to provide customers more control and convenience, such as a single invoice per month.

Like FreeAgent, Bullhorn pushes its software services. Hinckley says BullhornPro.com generates most of its revenue; service fees range from $200 to $2,000 per month for a division within a company. Finding creative types remains difficult, he says - which is why being able to tap into Bullhorn's growing database of creative workers is so attractive to its corporate customers.

Although Bullhorn doesn't act as the hiring agent of record for their listed free agents, the company does act as an intermediary between the buyers and sellers of services. Companies pay Bullhorn after a project is finished, then Bullhorn sends the fee - minus a 10 percent commission - to the free agent. Hinckley says there has been only one case in which Bullhorn had to arbitrate a dispute, which resulted in a kill fee for a project that didn't work out.

Both FreeAgent and Bullhorn regard their pools of talented free agents - whether in the information technology industries or the creative world - as their primary resource and the major difference between them and other job boards that seek to place job hunters in full-time positions.

"Companies need all these skills," FreeAgent's Reveri says. "They just don't need them 100 percent of the time."

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