SINGAPORE -- When Tomas O'Farrell brought his startup from Argentina to Malaysia last year, little did he know that a pandemic on the scale of the coronavirus health crisis would be a factor in helping the business sink its roots into Southeast Asia.
Drawn by the rise of startups in the region, the 41-year-old co-founder and chief executive of freelancing portal Workana saw an opportunity to offer his startup's jobs-matchmaking services to technology companies hiring talent to fuel growth.
Many small to mid-size companies only think of having a workforce within the geographical location of their operations, which severely limits their ability to net a wider pool of skilled crew, O'Farrell said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.
"Most tech companies are looking for the best available talent surrounding their headquarters -- so surrounding the office with a five-kilometer limit," he said. "Whenever that happens, everybody is competing for the same talent."
The solution, then, is to open up positions to freelancers, or remote workers based elsewhere who can do the job just as well by fulfilling roles across physical distances, the entrepreneur told Nikkei.
Workana's proposition as an exchange for talent and job vacancies in Southeast Asia has taken on greater prominence with calls across the region for people to work from home to limit physical contact so as to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
By tapping the platform to fill positions for jobs or projects, Workana charges companies a service fee based on their needs, although posting openings and chatting with freelancers on the portal is free of charge.
From his Southeast Asia base in Kuala Lumpur, O'Farrell has seen adoption of the platform's services increase as the pandemic lays waste to normal operating conditions for scores of businesses, forcing them to be flexible in staffing various work roles.
About 50% of the projects listed on Workana are tech-related, from coding and programming to development of mobile applications, O'Farrell said. Around 25% are in the design field and roughly 15% fall within the digital marketing domain, he added.
O'Farrell said he has also seen a 50% spike in freelancers joining the platform to earn additional income during the global health crisis, with many having experienced layoffs as companies in the region cut jobs due to the coronavirus wrecking economies and company cash flows.
In particular, increasing numbers of senior professionals with experience in e-commerce, data science and content marketing -- skill sets that serve the needs of the pandemic-induced digital economy surge -- have joined his jobs-matchmaking platform, O'Farrell said.
The native of Argentina said there were some 100,000 gig workers in Southeast Asia registered with Workana as of March, though the number has since increased to about 150,000. He declined to reveal how many companies Workana had on board.
Armed with about $13 million from early-stage rounds of fundraising, O'Farrell said the startup's focus was on developing its business in English-speaking markets in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore, before expanding in other countries including Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia for future growth.
In a poll of 150 executives by Singapore-owned tech investor SGInnovate published early this year, a total of 41.3% of those surveyed were concerned about retaining skilled labor, highlighting it as a key challenge. Executives also viewed countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam as competitors to Singapore in attracting tech talent.
Clarence Quek, senior client solutions director for recruitment agency Randstad Singapore stresses that demand for skilled crew came from outside Southeast Asia as well.
"We have seen global Western organizations who are looking to set up -- who want to engage the Asia-Pacific, the Southeast Asian markets to set up their headquarters for this region," Quek said.
As a result, Workana's O'Farrell said tech upstarts in Southeast Asia find themselves unable to compete with big names in securing top talent for themselves. "It's very hard, I'd say impossible, for a tech company to compete with Google, Facebook, Stripe," he said.
"They will pay way higher prices than you (for talent) -- it's very hard," O'Farrell added. "So, this is part of the problem. And also, all these companies are targeting the exact same talent pool, but this talent pool is not only not growing, it's getting smaller."
To supplement their workforce needs, O'Farrell said tech companies can make full use of gig workers in the region to fill gaps in staffing where those arise and also if they typically find themselves unable to keep pace with more well-resourced companies that snap up the available talent pool.
"When companies require experts for certain projects or when their current staffing does not have the bandwidth to take on additional tasks, the freelancers are tapped because of their specialized skills," he said.