What’s in a name? For Lystable: everything. The startup that began as a tool to help businesses track their growing lists of freelance talent is now an online platform for simplifying onboarding, managing projects, and streamlining payment. Lystable wanted a new name that reflected its progress toward “work without boundaries.” And founder Peter Johnston knew that it was crucial that the freelancers at the heart of Lystable’s business help shape the next iteration of the company.
Through a “Future of Work” essay contest, Lystable recruited three freelancers — writer Maxwell Barna, photographer and art director Kate Berry, and brand strategist Katie Fitzgerald — to spend a week at the company’s San Francisco headquarters and help with the rebranding effort. For pay, of course.
Lystable’s mission needed to evolve because freelancers are becoming more and more vital to American business. In 2016, there were 55 million freelancers in the United States, and freelancers now represent 35% of the workforce. As salaried work goes the way of freelancing and freelance work becomes more geared toward micro-tasks, “there needs to be a new breed of products and tools that are much more generated around short-term, task-based work,” Johnston says. This is what drove Lystable’s founding, and it’s what continues to advance the company’s development of a full-featured freelance management platform.
The platform is also helping Johnston’s team learn more about how freelance work might be driving changes in the workforce. For example, Lystable’s data shows that in many major cities, women in editorial and other fields who use its platform are outearning men, while nationally, women who work full time earn 80% of what men are paid.
The cause of this is unclear, but Johnston has a theory: “When you’re in the physical presence of people in an office, there are often stigmas,” he says. “Particularly in more traditional companies, historically, women have been treated differently.” A more dispersed, independent workforce could, he believes, help slowly shift those dynamics.
Johnston says he’s also witnessing freelance experts attach their talents to the best opportunities instead of to organizations. While partnering with Lystable on its rebrand, Barna credited this trend to a change in priorities, a move away from life revolving around work. Johnston predicts a new norm developing. “Really, a seismic shift should be coming that work revolves around your life,” he says. “And freelancing is that.” Case in point: When Lystable notified Barna about his selection, he was in an agave field. He was working from Mexico simply because he felt like it.
What Johnston and his team learned during their rebranding meetings was that freelancers wanted a brand they could aspire to, “something that felt like much more than a literal tool to help them with admin and day-to-day,” he says. “It comes down to confidence.” Freelancers wanted a brand they could trust — and they wanted to know that they would be paid on time, so they could build their life around project-based income.
“They wanted to feel empowered, like they could freelance forever,” Johnston says. A too on-the-nose name, like the briefly considered “Air Team,” would not work.
So what name did Barna, Berry, and Fitzgerald help them choose? Kalo. As Johnston explains, “It was an empty vessel, it sounded awesome, it was something we felt like we could really attach our own meaning to.” Kalo, a Hawaiian flower, also evokes a sense of freedom, which supports the ultimate vision to create a “passport” that allows freelancers to move seamlessly between projects and clients within the same system.
This is critical because it seems as if every freelancer has a story about a lengthy onboarding process, not getting paid on time, or not getting paid at all. And during his time at Google, Johnston saw firsthand how most companies just aren’t structured to work efficiently with freelance talent. While the relationship between freelancers and corporations can sometimes feel like David vs. Goliath, Johnston believes the issue lies with legacy systems that simply weren’t designed to support a more transient workforce.
Take “Net 90 Days,” for example. Companies who force freelancers to wait three months for payment can be perceived as heartless. But it’s not a personal slight. Companies are used to receiving invoices from other companies, and in those cases a delay is not an issue. They don’t have a process for expediting payment and aren’t able to easily implement one.
Johnston predicts the workplace will be very different when there are one billion freelancers on earth. “And there will be,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.” Kalo spends a lot of time thinking about the impact this will have on companies and their equity structures, share options, and ownership of other companies and businesses. “Freelancers have the skills that businesses ultimately need,” he says. “So those businesses have to adapt.”