Crew helps clients pick from a world of design experts on demand

This Montreal-based talent network is helping match up designers and clients faster and with more cost transparency


Crew co-founders Mikael Cho and Stephanie Liverani

Crew co-founders Mikael Cho and Stephanie Liverani. (Crew)

With more companies relying on freelancers, one Montreal startup wants to make sure the new labour market is operating efficiently.

Crew is a virtual staffing platform for web developers and designers founded in 2013 by Mikael Cho, an American transplant. The concept for Crew, Cho says, evolved out of a desire to help his fellow freelance web developer friends locate clients interested in commissioning well-paid, interesting work.

Even though their skills are in hot demand, you’d be surprised by the number of people who approach freelancers to build “Instagram-meets-Facebook-meets-Uber, but for dogs,” Cho jokes. “And they’ll want it done for $500. It’s pretty prevalent.”

Crew aims to harness the growing gig economy through an online marketplace that connects serious clients to talented freelancers. In urban centres across Canada, it’s becoming increasingly common for professionals to work as freelancers, hopping from one short-term contract to the next. In a different economy, these same people may have held permanent staff positions.

As a result, urban centres across Canada are teeming with freelance labour. Many of them are graduates from nine-week coding bootcamps, flooding the market, and it’s taking longer for prospective clients to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, says Cho. Crew’s mission to be a hub where clients know that they are going to get good results—and where great designers know they are going to get recognition—is becoming increasingly important.

“It’s not about ‘I got this thing made and it kinda works,’ no,” says Cho. “We want to be known for making great products.”

It’s not terribly different from the aims of a creative staffing agency, but there are a few key changes to the format. For one, everything happens online through Crew’s software. Most of Crew’s talent isn’t scouted in Canada. Most of their freelancers are based in the U.S., followed by London and then Montreal. (They’ve even scouted talent as far away as Bali.) Their platform has also enabled Crew to amass wide-ranging data about project costs, injecting a new layer of transparency into the quoting process.

“One agency might tell you it costs $200,000 because they have to pay rent. Another agency might tell you it costs $50,000. No one knows what something really costs,” says co-founder Stephanie Liverani. “That’s a huge advantage—the fact that we operate online. We don’t have the same costs that a formal staffing agency.” (So far Crew has raised $11-million total in venture capital financing.)

Clients can get an instant quote, instead of going through an agency rep, saving them the hassle of comparison-shopping. Since most of the process takes place through the site (each client is assigned a “Crew liaison,” however), they can usually find talent within a few days. Crew tries to maintain a ratio of three freelancers to one project for that reason.

The company is betting that demand for its services will grow as more traditional companies have their business models disrupted by technology. Especially in creative industries, where margins are quickly shrinking, companies increasingly need to be agile enough to scale up or down in response to market conditions.

Freelancers, however, cannot simply apply to be on Crew’s roster. To be considered, you must have first received an invite. The company now has 450 freelancers and over 10,000 developers and designers on a waiting list to join the roster. They’re picky about clients, too: potential customers have submitted 30,000 projects in the last two years and Cho says the company turns down 70% of the projects pitched to it.

Liverani  says that they’re not willing to sacrifice quality of the output in search of growth and higher revenues.

“We do invite only because it’s a tough market. You need to be careful that both sides are happy. By attracting really good projects and then really good professionals, you create a good high-quality network,” says Liverani. It’s a tricky balance but it has to be maintained. Slack off on one side of the equation, she says, “and you lose everything you’ve worked for.”

So, if the strategy is to be selective, how can Crew grow? Liverani says the company intends to grow demand by expanding into other niche markets like industrial design, marketing and copywriting.