Gig economy takes on Idaho’s technology needs

photo of partner hero office
Partner Hero provides services to startups in a vintage Boise building. Photo courtesy of Partner Hero.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series on the gig economy.

While the gig economy has been spawned by technology such as Uber apps, the technology sector itself is a beneficiary as well.

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Shervin Talieh

“The tech sector has been one of the earliest adopters of any form of disruptive or nontraditional workforce model,” said Shervin Talieh, CEO of Partner Hero, which hires employees to provide temporary services to startups.

In the tech industry, gig work has two perspectives. First, there’s the hiring company itself, which could be anything from an established enterprise company to a startup, said Nick Crabbs, a partner with Vynyl, a seven-year-old Boise-based company with offices in several other locations, including Southern California. His company gets hired by other companies to work on specific projects.

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Nick Crabbs

“When you have something very specific you need to get done, sometimes it’s easier to pay the extra bucks and pay an expert, who isn’t an employee, to get it done the right way,” Crabbs said. “We’re seeing that a lot more, especially from big companies.”

It’s the same story with startups, Crabbs said. “If you have to hire an employee and have them on payroll, that’s a problem if you only need them to do one thing,” he said. “Startups have always been using freelancers or subject matter experts as consultants to solve specific projects.”

On the other side are the workers themselves, who may prefer the freedom and security of gig work, or who have a day job as well as side gigs. And as with the Uber and Lyft apps, technology platforms such as Upwork paved the way, Talieh said. Not only did that make it easier for companies and workers to find each other, but it legitimized the contracting profession, he said.

Gig work can also be more secure.

“Those people can sit in their house and make thousands of dollars without ever leaving their couch,” Crabbs said.

“A very good designer is more likely to strike out on their own and have multiple clients,” Talieh agreed. “Most startups are going to fail.”

Instead of earning a $100,000 salary, that designer could earn $150,000 in total from two or three clients, who save money because they don’t have to provide benefits or office space, he said. “You’re optimizing for de-risking outcomes.”

What is a technology gig employee?

A problem, both nationally and in Idaho, is figuring out the size of that component of the gig tech economy. While a plethora of statistics have been released in recent years, they encompass everything from contract programmers to Uber drivers, from people who have been full-time contractors for years to people who do it occasionally on the weekend.

For example, the size of the gig economy workforce ranges from 4%, according to the JPMorgan Chase Institute, to almost 40%, according to the Freelancers Union — and everywhere in between.

In Idaho, the number of gig workers depends on how you define the term, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. A 2018 study noted that 26% of workers between 16 and 64 worked part-time, about 8% of workers were independent contractors (compared with 6% nationwide) and about 4% of workers were small business owners. In particular, of those independent contractors, the share working in professional services grew from 15.8% in 2006 to 21.1% in 2016, the department noted.

Another way to categorize gig workers is as “nonemployers”: self-employed individuals with a business that has no paid employees. The department noted that they make up 73% of all businesses in Idaho, and 18% of paid employment. In addition, they grew 15% between 2005 and 2015. And as with independent contractors, professional services were the biggest growth area, with 3,400 new businesses in that 10-year period.

According to some surveys, participation in the gig economy has actually gone down because the market was inflated by workers who had to find jobs during the recession.

One caveat about the gig economy is employers can’t treat contract workers like employees without running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service.

“If I’m a freelancer, I should have multiple clients,” Talieh said. “If I have one client, and they’re deeply involved in telling me what I need to do and how and setting my schedule, I’m actually acting more like an employee.”

Catching up with Partner Hero

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Partner Hero provides services to startups in a vintage Boise building. Photo courtesy of Partner Hero.

Shervin Talieh knew he wanted to set up a new office for his company in Boise during breakfast at Goldy’s in a 48-hour whirlwind visit.

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Shervin Talieh

“At the end of the day, it’s chemical,” said Talieh, CEO of Partner Hero, which opened in Boise in January. “I can’t teach it, I don’t know how I learned it, but I had that feeling at Goldy’s.” He moved to Boise himself in May.

Partner Hero is kind of a meta-startup. It’s an outsourcing company that specializes in working with tech startups, such as Khan Academy, to provide services they don’t have, Talieh said.

“Everything from customer experience to sales, customer support, software design, software development, graphic design, accounts payable and recruiting,” he said.

Talieh, a partner at the consulting firm Accenture before founding startups, was looking at Boise along with Bend, Oregon; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Boulder, Colorado, as places to expand his company, which he had founded in Honduras while living in San Clemente, California, in 2014. Why them? “I like to ski, I wanted to be within a one- to two-hour flight from Southern California, with a good college and four seasons,” he said.

Talieh tried Bend, but soon found that, with its population of 95,000, it was too small. “The airport was a challenge,” he said.

His first Boise hire was Julia Hodges, now in “people operations.”

“Our first two people weren’t just employees – they were helping us build a business here,” he said. “You need a local to tell you what time it is,” as well as to learn the customs and traditions of the area. “You don’t honk your horn when the light turns green; here’s where you go for the best sandwiches and produce,” he explained.

While other companies provide the services Partner Hero does, Talieh hopes to be more successful by limiting turnover, which in most similar companies is at least 50 percent – 75 percent in large companies, he said.

“You can’t invest in your people if you know they’ll all be gone in 14 or 15 months,” he said. “We believe in a very simple proposition: How do we do everything we can so turnover is under 10 percent. If we get that right, everything takes care of itself.” Currently, turnover worldwide is about 6 percent, he said.

As part of that effort, Talieh eschews managers.

“What are managers? What are you managing?” he asked, scoffing at companies that say, “Our greatest asset is our people.” “Really?” he said. “Let’s examine how you’re treating them, and how much decision-making you push to the edge. Not the power the C-suite has, the power someone who has been here for three years has.”

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Everyone in Partner Hero has the same kind of office space. Photo courtesy of Partner Hero.

Similarly, the Boise office doesn’t have cubicles, private offices or assigned parking spots, though the company did provide parking for employees when Talieh learned that parking was an issue for them. Everyone has tall desks and tall chairs so employees can choose to stand.

“You come into an office, you should not be able to tell who has more ‘power,’” Talieh said. He chose the vintage brick building south of Myrtle after working out of Trailhead, the downtown Boise co-working space, for a while.

“What is this magical place here?” he asked the real estate agent, who had been showing him standard office spaces with cubicles – a layout that is “the opposite of who we are.”

The Boise office has 18 or 19 people, with 30 or so expected by the end of the year, Talieh said. The company has expanded so quickly that it risks outgrowing its new office. “In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think we’d outgrow the office in a year,” Talieh said.

Where would a new office be? That’s not up to him, but to his employees, plus he’ll consider locations convenient to where employees and applicants live.

“I’ll talk to our people,” he said. “What’s important to them? Parking? Childcare? Do they go to school? Access to public transit? It starts by listening.”