This Startup Is Fixing One of the Worst Parts of Life as a Freelancer
With ever more people earning their living as independent contracts, Qwil is solving a widespread problem.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Freelancers have a persistent problem with getting paid. It's not uncommon for there to be a month-plus delay in between completing the work and receiving funds from the client. Frequently, the person who handles dispensing payments is not the person who commissions the work. Meanwhile, accounting processes tend toward the archaic. (Do you love filling out PDF forms? Become a freelancer.) Less commonly, but certainly not never, a client will simply refuse to pay up.
Qwil founder Johnny Reinsch experienced these hassles himself as an independent contractor. Talking to Inc. in his downtown San Francisco office, he recalled frantically phoning a client's accounting department about late payments. His mortgage was going to auto-debit from his checking account, and the cash wasn't there. It was frustrating: Reinsch had earned the money, and he knew this client wasn't planning to stiff him, but he was still on the brink of a personal financial crisis.
Out of those moments of needless panic, Qwil was born. The fintech startup sits between freelancers and their clients, ready to assume the risk of waiting for a payment whenever a given freelancer asks, in which case that risk goes on Qwil's balance sheet. Regardless of whether an advance is taken, Qwil promises to pursue delinquent clients. To underscore his commitment to helping its users, Reinsch founded it as a public benefit corporation, which is legally mandated to further a social mission.
Unfortunately, there's a big caveat: Qwil only serves the freelancers who work for companies that have signed up. ("For now," Reinsch said.) Currently, a freelancer can't start using Qwil independently and work with a bunch of different clients. Instead, companies elect to join Qwil and onboard their network of freelancers.
"The best fit is a company that has a large freelancer workforce they are set on keeping happy," Reinsch said. "The advance feature is a massive retention perk," reducing freelancer churn at no extra cost to the client. Companies are charged $1 for each disbursement to an American freelancer, and $5 internationally, whereas the freelancers only pay when they take an advance.
Still, if you're a freelance Drone Base pilot, to name one early client, Qwil offers a significant value proposition. You can withdraw the funds that you've earned but not yet been paid, and the fee is small. The exact amount varies, because it's based on Qwil's underwriting process. Reinsch explained that "the fee associated with a startup that has a poor payment history will be higher than an established company with good payment history."
In the rare-but-not-rare-enough case that a client doesn't pay, Qwil will handle the legal enforcement. Reinsch said the company isn't forced to do this often, but it definitely happens, and even a startup like Qwil has more legal resources than the average freelancer. Having Qwil handle any billing problems that may arise is a step up from options like an automated demand letter.
Qwil stands to benefit from job trends, at least in the United States. In 2015, analysts at the Mercatus Center called the rise of contingent labor (as various types of contract gigs are called) "a real and dramatic change in the labor market," using data from the IRS and other sources. The exact rate of meaningful growth is difficult to nail down, but it could be as high as 22 percent.
Like DailyPay, a startup that supplants payday loans, Qwil gives the workers who use it more financial flexibility. It charges very little in exchange for assuming risks that could substantially impact an individual. That's a good thing, because it makes people's lives easier. But it's a bittersweet realization that Qwil's market opportunity coincides with the rise of a more precarious form of employment.