agency growth in 2022
proposal win rate
$5 million
saved by client
“I’m not aware of any other platform that’s as customizable as Upwork.”
Michael Contreras
Founder & President, Ensemble Consultancy

As surprising as it may sound, Michael Contreras was first introduced to the idea of flexible, independent talent while working with the U.S. government.

Despite having a reputation for high levels of inflexible bureaucracy, some government agencies—such as NASA and the Department of Energy—have long relied on crowdsourced, challenge-based approaches to developing solutions and connecting with subject-matter experts.

The structure—and success—of these projects stuck with Contreras long after he departed his last government job for the private-sector advertising world.

And after several years working in traditional agency structures, he decided he’d had enough. He knew there was a better way to work.

“I realized that starting my own shop would allow me to bake independent talent, crowdsourcing, and challenges into the company’s DNA,” Contreras said. “It wouldn’t be a total culture change, like it would be when trying to introduce it to existing agencies. Instead, it would just be how we operate. We’d be a ‘future of work’ company from day one.”

Contreras made his vision into reality in 2017, when he formed Ensemble Consultancy.

Maintaining a competitive edge through flexibility

Based in Washington DC, Ensemble Consultancy works with clients like NASA, the CDC, Health and Human Services, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

At its start, the company relied on independent contractors sourced through a variety of channels.

“We’d find contractors directly,” Contreras said. “We tried to maintain a specific ‘core-to-flex’ ratio, such as three employees to one contractor.”

But then he found Upwork.

Upwork Enterprise really eases the cash flow pressure and gives us more predictability,” Contreras said. “We can set up milestones but we’re receiving an aggregated bill at the end of the month. That’s huge for us—it consolidates the billing, and we’re not constantly releasing funds.”

This ease has led Ensemble to further expand how it uses independent talent. Today, the company leverages these professionals to help with both client projects and the firm’s own internal work.

“We’ve pushed our core-to-flex ratio to be more flexible, because we can find so much talent through Upwork,” Contreras said. “We can build benches of talent from Upwork. I’m not aware of any other platform that’s able to be so customizable. It’s a big productivity boost for us.”

One notable boost for Contreras is the ability to streamline the proposal writing process for government contracts.

“The big contractors have entire floors of staff that focus on writing technical proposals,” Contreras said. “But we have a proposal bank. We do 60-plus proposals per year, and we’ve developed this body of work that we can pull from for our first drafts. So we can pull from our bank, or even use generative AI, and then work with a more senior proposal writer we found on Upwork—the folks charging more than $100 per hour—to have them review it and prepare the document for submission.”

Such use of independent talent has also helped Ensemble Consultancy position themselves as an appealing alternative to traditional government contracting firms.

“Because we have our Upwork talent bench, we can say in our proposals that talent on Upwork is a key part of our last mile build strategy. I can be confident that we’ll have all the needs for a project filled in under two weeks. That pretty much beats out 98% of the other vendors,” Contreras said.

“And the real silver bullet is that the specialists we connect with on Upwork have so much more experience than the usual talent in the beltway that these agencies would pull from.”

Committing to honest strategy

Halfway across the country in Austin, Texas, Andrew Drach and his wife, Monika Jociunaite, run another company that relies on Upwork as a core part of its business strategy.

Solwey Consulting is a fully remote technology strategy and development firm. And from day one, they’ve turned to Upwork for business development.

“For the first four years of operations, all of our leads and contracts were through Upwork,” Drach said.

“We had so much momentum on the platform that we never had to do any marketing.”

Drach has a lifelong history of successful entrepreneurship. He started offering consulting services as a teenager in Ukraine, and by age 18 he’d built a company with more than 20 employees.

After attending Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, Drach decided to close down his business operations in Ukraine and continue pursuing work in academia. This switch brought him to the University of New Hampshire in the U.S., where he earned his PhD.

Despite his love for learning, Drach found that the pace of life in academia was a bit too slow for his taste.

“In academia, everything is a three or five year project, and we’re looking at a 10-year horizon,” he said. “I came into academia having a different perspective on things from my business. I always wanted to know why it was taking so long. Why were we spending six months planning something? To be honest, from the beginning, I felt a little bit out of place.”

Ultimately, Drach decided to step out of full-time academia and become a business owner once again. Solwey Consulting was born as part of this pivot.

“I still publish in academic journals—I actually just celebrated 1,000 citations to my work—and I’m still part of several national committees,” he said. “But it was natural to go back to consulting. And this time, I was able to bring key principles of academia into the consulting world.”

His two guiding principles are simple: mentorship should be free, and strategy should be honest.

“We never charge for strategy, and I never take a stake in clients’ companies,” Drach explained. “I’ve done a lot of advising, I’ve been an investor, and I was Chief Technology Officer for four different startup companies. I provide my services and advice because it’s what I believe in.”

It’s an approach that’s resonated with other founders, including Contreras.

Creating a collaborative workflow

The two men met when Contreras was looking for a design agency to build an educational app for NASA.

“Upwork walked us through a competitive bidding process to engage with the top 1% of talent on the platform,” Contreras said. “And that’s how we connected with Solwey Consulting.”

For Drach, taking on the project was a no-brainer.

“As soon as I heard they were working with NASA to build an app that helps people spot the International Space Station in the sky, I was like, ‘say no more!’ I immediately submitted a proposal,” he said.

As it turned out, Solwey and Ensemble were a natural fit.

“They’re extremely organized,” Drach said. “We have a standard onboarding checklist we take our clients through and Ensemble completed their portion within a day. Everything we needed was delivered and the next week, we were off to the races.”

And, because both companies embraced flexible and remote talent, they were able to offer a full-featured app to NASA at a considerably lower price than other, more traditionally structured firms.

NASA Spot Station App Screenshot

“Large firms could have easily charged NASA four to six million dollars to create this app,” Contreras said. “We’re doing it for $175,000—and that includes the Solwey team providing maintenance for the first year after launch.”

Embracing the future of remote, flexible work

But it wasn't just the savings that made it easy for NASA to decide to contract with Ensemble. It was the way Contreras and Drach work, too.

Since Contreras left his role at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2013, others in the agency continued to champion the use of flexible, crowdsourced, and independent talent. NASA even formed an entire Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI).

“There’s folks at CoECI that are really changing hearts and minds at the government level,” Contreras said. “They’re working to modify government procurement practices.”

Given this focus, it's no surprise that Solwey and Ensemble were a great fit to help NASA's team with their app development work.

When the three groups work together on NASA’s app, they're all committed to—and excited about—not only their project, but also the entire way in which they're collaborating.

It's the type of collaboration that both Drach and Contreras see continuing to be a big part of their work going forward.

"This is a great way to work—and build an app," Drach said.

Contreras concurs, and notes that flexible talent will continue to be a massive part of his agency's workflow.

“I see Upwork continuing to be a key part of our company strategy,” Contreras said. “I see talent on Upwork helping us develop new intellectual property and helping us grow.”

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