All Things Upwork
June 6, 2012 by Matt Cooper

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh for the second time in six months. My first trip was in December, when oDesk was invited to present at the eAsia conference. I gave a presentation at a special freelancer segment of the conference, and was completely blown away by the reception, hospitality and level of excitement around oDesk and online work. oDesk had achieved rockstar status. Luckily I had 26 hours of return travel in a coach seat to bring me back down to reality.

This most recent trip was part of our new Contractor Appreciation Day event series. When you manage a marketplace business, it’s very easy to be fixated on the demand side of the equation — the clients that are spending money on your platform. We want to be sure that we similarly recognize the impact of the supply side — the hundreds of thousands of talented professionals that have made oDesk the largest and fastest-growing online workplace in the world. When planning the Contractor Appreciation Day series, we launched a Facebook poll to determine which cities we would visit, and Dhaka — the capital of Bangladesh — was the runaway winner.

Bangladesh has a fascinating story on oDesk. In 2009, Bangladesh accounted for only 2% of the total hours worked on oDesk. Today, it accounts for 10%, making Bangladesh the #3 country for contractors, behind only the Philippines and India. I did some digging around to see what was driving Bangladesh’s tremendous success, and my guess is a combination of three factors.

The first factor is the demographics. Bangladesh has a young, educated and rapidly grouping population. Of the country’s 150 million people in 2010, almost 56 million were under the age of 18. In 2010, 46% of Bangladeshis used mobile phones. While the unemployment rate is officially estimated to be around 5%, almost 40% of the country is underemployed, working only a few hours a week at very low wages. Net: Bangladesh has a young, educated workforce that is eager for more economic opportunity.

The second factor is population density. Bangladesh is the most densely populated large country in the world, and the city of Dhaka has 16 million people, with almost 60,000 residents per square mile. Net: Things spread quickly in this type of environment.  

And finally, you have an enormous potential for significant earnings growth. The per-capita gross national income in Bangladesh was $700 in 2010. Assuming the average contractor earns $10 an hour, a Bangladeshi contractor can earn the average annual income in less than 2 weeks of work on oDesk. Net: There’s a huge financial upside to working online — for both individuals and the country’s overall economy — compared to local opportunities.

So my assessment is that when you combine…

  • A young, educated population eager for opportunity, and then
  • Pack them all into a small geographic area, and introduce
  • Compelling economics…

… you get a country that grows from 2% to 10% of oDesk’s total hours worked in only 3 years.

In my discussions with people in Bangladesh, there’s a clear sense of lost opportunity when it comes to traditional BPO and IT outsourcing. They’ve seen countries like India and Philippines gain tremendous resources and economic growth, and then evolve from doing someone else’s production work to becoming their own centers of innovation. Traditional outsourcing is still relatively small in Bangladesh, and many people I talked with shared feelings that they’ve missed the boat.

The analogy I drew for them was telephone communications in Africa. The developed world went from telegrams to traditional wireline communications, stringing phone lines all over the country. Over the last 20 years, we have moved from wireline to wireless. Africa never had a widespread wireline infrastructure — they are going straight to wireless. I like to think that Bangladesh is going to skip the BPO/IT outsourcing phase and evolve straight to independent professionals working online in a global marketplace. So far, it seems like they are on the right track.

While the macroeconomic analysis is fun to think about, what makes any working relationship successful is the people involved. The individuals I met and their personal stories are what impressed me the most. The economics, demographics and geography may be drivers, but there’s an eagerness for opportunity that was unique. These professionals see the opportunity available on oDesk, and they are willing to put in the hard work to succeed. I wanted to share one particular story with you from a graphic designer I met:

From my early childhood I grew up loving colors and shapes. I had a dream to be an artist and to have appreciation from the world for my artwork! But there were obstacles between reality and my dreams. When I had just started my diploma course in fine arts, my father passed away. We suddenly had severe financial problems in our family. A job to run my family became crucially important to me. I was desperate trying to get a job anywhere – part-time art instructor, restaurant waiter, sales agent, part-time teacher in coaching center, customer support person in call center. Eventually, I got a job at a local customer care center as a customer manager. Over there I had to handle more than a thousand calls every week – along with sales targets and everything. It was a lot of pressure for me – I was not really a sales person. But I had no other choice.

Almost three years passed in that way. I became totally frustrated. I could neither concentrate on my study, nor manage time for any creative work like painting and drawing. I was becoming hopeless. On that time, I heard about oDesk. One of my friends (now my fiancé!) started working on oDesk and he told me that it could also be the perfect place for me to get work that I like. He suggested me to take a short graphic design course and start working through oDesk – because that way I can use my creative/painting skills in crafting digital arts. I listened to him and now I am an established freelance graphic designer on oDesk.

I have logged more than a thousand hours for my clients from several countries like USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia… My clients are happy with my work and I have much appreciation from them. I left my call center job a year ago. Now I work full-time on oDesk and run my family very smoothly. I can buy gifts for my mother on special occasions and even when there is no occasion at all! I love to see her smile when she is surprised and happy. Now there are many vacations in my life! Wherever I go, I go with my laptop and wireless internet connection. My office is everywhere. Now I am independent, confident and happy.

This is why I work for oDesk. This is why I can tell people to try online work — whether as a contractor or client — and not feel like I’m giving a sales pitch. It’s easy to give earnings and financial impact as the drivers of oDesk’s viral growth, but you can see from the story above that it’s much more than that. When your opportunities expand from what’s nearby to what’s anywhere in the world, magical things happen.

Success is what happens when 1) you are in the right place at the right time, 2) you’re smart enough to recognize the opportunity in front of you, and 3) skilled enough to execute on the opportunity. Watching the professionals in Bangladesh pull these three things together and hearing their personal stories has been an extraordinary experience.

Matt Cooper

Vice President of International & Enterprise

Matt Cooper, oDesk’s Vice President of International & Enterprise, has more than a decade of executive operating experience in both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. Previously, as a member of the executive team at Accolo, Inc., a recruiting services and technology firm, he grew the business from one employee into one of the top 50 companies on the Inc 500 list. He also co-founded a… read more