The Gig Life

Sscott bylineBack in 2004, Mark Steiner ran a Springfield-based talent booking agency. He made a living finding gigs for big national artists and other well-known performers.

But this work came with a constant distraction. Each day his inbox would fill with messages from locals wanting help booking entertainment for weddings, birthday parties and small corporate events.

“That was not what I was doing,” he said. “I was booking established performers, celebrities, national touring acts.”

What started as an annoyance eventually became an inspiration for a new business. Steiner called up his friend Steve Tetrault, a web designer, and together they developed a site to serve as a digital marketplace where any performer — whether well- known or unknown — could make a listing and book gigs.

“That site is what took off, and here we are today,” said Steiner, who is now CEO of the booming GigSalad website. “I folded my talent agency into GigSalad back in 2011 and have been making my living ever since doing this.”

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GigSalad Cofounder/CEO Mark Steiner

Like other digital marketplaces — Uber, Airbnb, Upwork, Fiverr — GigSalad needs few tangible assets and has a small core staff. Without geographical limits, the company has expanded rapidly.

GigSalad appeals to users because it offers a large supply of talent that is easily accessed and organized. Simple and secure payment systems keep things safe, while ratings and reviews help ensure quality.

While some startups face significant direct competition (Uber’s ride-sharing versus the traditional taxi service, for example), there wasn’t much filling the vacuum of GigSalad’s niche market. After its official launch in January of 2007, the site quickly took on a life of its own.

“We primed the pump by going to friends, local people that I knew, artists I thought were maybe looking for a little ‘oomph’ in their career. I told them what I was doing and offered to give them placement on there,” Steiner recalled.

After a successful launch, GigSalad’s rapid expansion was mainly fueled by two things: search engine optimization and word-of-mouth.

“We don’t have a sales team. We’ve never made an outbound call. We’ve never sent an email to say, ‘Hey, come consider GigSalad,’” said Steiner.

Initially, the site profited by charging fees for its services. Eventually GigSalad switched to a “freemium model” with tiered pricing. Today, basic access is free but paid levels unlock additional features. The switch boosted the company’s membership, as did adding more event-related categories such as photographers, florists and cake decorators.

Every month, 2,000 to 3,000 new people join the platform and 30,000 to 40,000 new event planners use it. In 2017, GigSalad won a Missouri Chamber Fast Track Award, which is presented to the fastest-growing businesses in the state.

Early on, the company grew from the two founders to a handful of people working around Steiner’s kitchen table. Today, the GigSalad staff includes 27 employees spread across its headquarters in Springfield and a tech development office in Wilmington, North Carolina.

dsc_0612.jpgThe company is thriving as more people across the country are trading structured payroll jobs for various streams of short-term contract income. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute showed that there are now 54 million to 68 million independent workers in the U.S. and that one out of every six traditional-job workers said they want to switch to becoming independent earners.

Living on independent work doesn’t necessarily provide the highest or steadiest income, but many are willing to make some sacrifices in exchange for the flexibility and autonomy.

“I see a lot of people that have left the safety of their survival job and said: ‘I’m going to go and do this; I’m going to figure it out. I’ll live on rice and beans and mac and cheese and live in a one-room apartment if I have to. I’m going to do what I love,’” Steiner said.

Of course, the full-time gig life isn’t for everyone. GigSalad is also for people who want to pursue their interests part time for supplemental income — or, as Steiner calls them, “weekend warriors.” In fact, he said several of GigSalad’s own employees book their talents through the site on the side.

The booking platform and database of listings aren’t the only content the GigSalad website offers. There is a “party ideas” feature for event planners, and the company’s blog is packed with tips of the trade and relevant articles for artists and vendors who want to maximize the benefits of the site.

“Helping them to figure out how to make a living, how to do health insurance these days and put food on the table and do all that within a budget is where I think we can educate a little bit more,” said Steiner. “Our blog is an important component of what we do.”

Despite the growth in the gig-centric workforce, research shows that only a small portion of these individuals are using digital marketplaces like GigSalad. Steiner views it as untapped potential for expansion.

DSC_0625“We have 600 different categories on GigSalad, and it’s all within the event industry, so we’re not even talking about some of those other employee-related sites,” said Steiner. “They may have a personal website, but SEO is so important. How an individual stays on top of that, economically, it’s a lot more cost- effective to join somebody like us,

to book one date and get a return on your investment. I look at those statistics and get very, very excited because there is so much scale to go.”

As for forthcoming plans, GigSalad is in the process of developing a mobile app. The company would also like to expand beyond its current markets in the U.S. and Canada.

“We’ve grown every quarter, we’ve always been profitable, and I don’t think that’s going to change in the foreseeable future,” Steiner said. “I happen to be having the time of my life.”

Ultimately, Steiner attributes much of GigSalad’s success to the community the company has built.

“I wanted to make sure I was coming to a place every day that I enjoyed. That starts with the people you surround yourself with,” said Steiner. “Let’s have fun; let’s be passionate about what you do, work within your strengths.

“I felt that if I took care of people and they felt valued, then they would make the business grow. That’s probably why we’re here, frankly,” Steiner continued. “We love people. We really try to do that every day. You’ll see it here internally, and we try to communicate that the best we can. We’re helping people do what they love.”

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