Fueling the Gig Economy: A Case
Study Evaluation of Upwork.com
Green et al.
Management and Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, Iss. 2018, 104–112
104 Case Study
Fueling the Gig Economy: A Case Study Evaluation of Upwork.com
Daryl D. Green*, Craig Walker, Abdulrahman Alabulththim, Daniel Smith, Michele Phillips
College of Business, Oklahoma Baptist University, 500 W. University Drive, Shawnee, OK 74804, USA.
Received: Nov 20, 2017; Accepted: Feb 5, 2018
With recent downsizing of talented professionals and the power of globalization to provide opportunities for more
underdeveloped countries, the gig economy is a source of influence in today’s generation of professionals. Online
outsourcing media have shown to be valuable resources for companies who need a specific set of skills for a limited
period. This case study evaluates Upwork.com, one of the leading freelance websites in the gig economy; this article
provides insights on how others should evaluate the power of this new economy in terms of opportunities for small
businesses, entrepreneurs, and freelancers. Upwork has led the pack by providing a flexible platform for freelancers
worldwide, including coders, writers, and web developers, putting businesses in touch with reasonably priced workers.
The study begins by exploring the attributes of the gig economy. Data collection is achieved through qualitative analy-
sis. The application of these conclusions could increase the survival rate of new freelancers on Upwork.com and in the
gig economy. The study is significant because this research widens contemporary assumptions about strategic thinking
for individuals engaged in e-commerce.
Keywords: Upwork.com; Business case study; Freelancer; Gig economy; Global labor market.
With the large number of struggling artists who seek to advertise their skills in the open market, Upwork
provides a direct connection to customers in need of specic services. The company promotes that one in
ve Fortune 500 companies hire freelancers through its website (Upwork.com, 2017). This type of freelance
business is ideal in that it limits liability in business transactions through being an intermediary between two
parties. In fact, today’s economy has opened a global marketplace for independent contractors to expand
their customer base nationally and internationally. Online outsourcing has proven to be a transformative
medium in this global economy (Burtch, Carnahan, and Greenwood, 2016). Businesses can tap into a global
market to obtain the necessary professional services beyond their own local markets. In fact, this global
marketplace has allowed freelancers, often called contractors, to cast a broader net in hopes of nding more
work. Companies such as Upwork enable these freelancers to do just that. Certainly, this type of business
brings with it a long list of advantages and disadvantages (Carr et al. 2017). However, good professional
reputations are created when companies or individuals take their time in looking for the proper contractor
and make their needs explicitly clear; the contractor then meets their specications within the specied
period. In these cases, everyone involved feels as though value exists in the transactions. Soriano (2017)
proposed that these companies do not intentionally recruit subpar freelancers. However, when a market-
place is driven by price, instead of value, quality of service often goes down. People, both companies and
individuals, crave value in any professional interaction (De Stefano, 2016). When you create a forum that
benets everyone involved and set certain standards within that forum, there is real potential for growth.
1.1. Review of Literature—Gig Economy
Gig economies are those economies where individuals market their skills, whether in unskilled labor mar-
kets, such as Uber drivers, or as skilled professionals, such as coders who bid out their services on sites
such as Upwork. Between 2005 and 2013, 85% of employment growth emerged from the gig economy.
However, many workers are forced into this gig economy and not by choice (Friedman, 2014). Using gig
economy companies, freelancers “[piece] together a livelihood from a range of activities” (Huws and Joyce,
Management and Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, Iss. 2018, 104–112 105
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2016). Thus, freelancing allows companies to ll a specic need while cutting out costly hiring processes—
this allows companies to retain monies for use on additional projects (Ricker, 2017). Additionally, this gig
economy provides freelancers the opportunity to make lifestyle choices that a conventional job would not
allow them. Gig economy workers may be able to choose when and where they want to work as well as how
much they charge for their services.
Although gig economies have many benets, freelancers should ensure that they are aware of the
risks. Not all freelancing companies conduct business in the same way. Some companies, such as Upwork,
allow the freelancer to choose their jobs, taking a percentage of the revenue earned for each job, while oth-
ers charge a at fee that is added to the nal cost of the project (Kallenburg and Dunn, 2016). In addition,
Upwork has a “noncircumvention clause that prohibits [workers] for twenty-four months from working with
any client that identied the worker through the Upwork website” (Kallenburg and Dunn, 2016). Although
the gig economy may represent a short-term stimulus in the global environment, only time will tell if this
business model can achieve sustainable success in the future.
This research uses qualitative content analysis for developing this specic case study involving UpWork.
com, a freelancing website. In the case study analysis, individuals analyze a business case by focusing on
the critical facts and using this information to determine the opportunities and problems facing that orga-
nization; this process helps students to learn by providing them real-world business scenarios where they
act as problem solvers (Laudon and Laudon, 2017). In fact, students and instructors can move beyond theo-
retical concepts to practical ones (May, 2013). Case study analysis can be broken down into the following
stages: (a) identify the critical facts in the case, (b) identify the key issue(s), (c) specify alternative courses
of action(s), (d) evaluate each possible action(s), and (e) make the preferred recommendations. Laudon and
Laudon (2017) suggested that the most critical item in case study analysis is identifying the most important
facts surrounding the case. Through this methodology, researchers were able to gain new insight related to
organizations operating in the gig economy.
2.1. Organizational Background
If an individual was looking for one of the most popular platforms to connect with a remote employee or a
freelance job, then look no further than Upwork. Upwork is truly the surviving member of a triumvirate of
freelance platforms (San Francisco Chronicle, 2015). At one time, on the freelance frontier, there was oDesk,
Elance, and Upwork. In 2013, Elance and oDesk merged to form Elance-oDesk. In 2015, the company was
re-branded to Upwork. This website is a global freelancing platform where businesses and independent
professionals can connect and collaborate remotely (San Francisco Chronicle, 2015). Today, Upwork is the
world’s largest online freelancer marketplace with over 10 million freelancers and 4 million clients; these
freelancers perform a variety of activities including web and software development, graphic design, creative
content, advertising, digital marketing, translation, writing, and administrative and customer support (San
Francisco Chronicle, 2015). One of the greatest advantages of using a company such as Upwork is the abil-
ity to interview, hire, and work with freelancers or contractors from around the world using the company’s
platform. The company has also added a real-time chat feature. Upwork is a great place for quality contrac-
tors to make money. In this gig environment, businesses and individuals can save money while acquiring
the services they need. However, Carr et al. (2017) suggested that buyers still need to move cautiously with
global freelancing owing to the varying risk. Thus, Upwork provides a tremendous opportunity to freelanc-
ers, businesses, and individuals in the gig economy, yet these virtues of using the website are not without
Strategic analysis is an important tool for analyzing Upwork.com. Effective analysis reviews the competitive
environment, denes key issues, and recognizes critical assumptions on which organizational strategies
106 Case Study
are built (Harris and Lennox, 2013). These management tools “provide a structured method for organizing
and understanding the complex trends and developments” that are occurring across this business sector
(Palmer, Dunford, and Buchanan, 2017). This research probes deeper into the infrastructure of Upwork by
evaluating the company’s strategy, structure, and organizational culture. A comprehensive strategic analy-
sis includes (a) an identication of the organization’s current competitive environment, (b) a consideration of
the pros and cons of its actions, and (c) the advancement of a set of recommendations based on its strategic
analyses (Harris and Lennox, 2013). Laudon and Laudon (2017) maintained that, in case study analysis, it is
critical to identify key issues surrounding the case. Thus, researchers should identify the problem and deter-
mine why it is occurring. In reviewing the freelance website, the rst evaluation utilized is the PESTLE Analy-
sis. PESTLE is an environmental analysis of several critical factors, including political, economic, social,
technological, legal, and ecological (Palmer et al., 2017). Upwork was reviewed not only in relation to other
professional freelancing sites such as Freelancer.com and Clickworker.com, but the company’s business
practices were also assessed in context to other well-known freelancing sites such as Uber (see Table 1).
Political: From the political perspective, there is a lack of government laws to protect freelance work-
ers. In fact, gig economies are exempt from certain governmental taxes (Wells and Chemi, 2016). Owing to
their status as self-employed entities, many workers do not enjoy the assurances and rights that unions and
laborers’ developments have spent over a century battling to accomplish (Marx, 2016). Furthermore, most
laborers in the gig economy are not protected by a “no lowest pay permitted by law” clause, they do not
have job loss benets or paid sick time; they are not afforded the benets of retirement annuities; they are
also not protected by laws that regulate working hours. Freelancers make their way in this new segment,
yet they have no protection and are at the impulse of the platform(s) with which they have associated them-
selves (Marx, 2016). This reality may cause changes in regulations in the future for gig economies.
Economical: Using PESTLE analysis, individuals can see that there are dramatic changes that emerge
from gig economies; this economy is a new way of working compared to traditional jobs. Gig economies
have grown dramatically over the past ve years, despite reporting lower wage earnings when compared
to equally educated traditional workers. Rapid growth in this sector has caused gig economies to quickly
become a large part of the global economy. A current report uncovered that 20-30% of the U.S. workforce
comprises temporary workers and independently employed specialists (Marx, 2016).
Social: Today’s customers are empowered with unlimited sources of services. With a global market,
buyers can enjoy cheaper prices for services. Individuals working in the gig economy are also empowered
with maximum exibility of working hours and wages. In today’s environment, there is a multigenerational
workforce (Green and Roberts, 2012). Workers can create their own hours and their own workload. Many
Table 1. Pestle Analysis of Upwork.
laws to protect
Creation of one’s
own work hours.
of one’s own
to a worldwide
a worldwide job
Lack of benefits
Lack of laws
are owned by
Limited need for
resources such as
or real estate.
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younger workers enjoy this exibility. In fact, many millennials are not interested in permanent full-time
jobs; this may be because they feel that they were pushed into the independent workforce during the recent
economic downturns and had remained in this area of work owing to the residual soft economy. This causes
concern that millennials may not be learning key skills such as communication, leadership, and teamwork
that are essential to survive in a corporate culture, thus causing them not to understand the time that it takes
to truly master a skill or earn a promotion (Brown, 2017).
Technological: From the technology perspective, Upwork, as part of a gig economy, displays tremen-
dous innovation in the work process when compared with the traditional work elds. Simultaneously, the
gig economy also has benets for companies that use these freelance employees—companies can cut costs
and funnel those savings into materials, products, and services. Gig economies, such as Upwork, as an
industry do not consume considerable raw resources, such as paper, in their work. They do not need large
ofce spaces for employees or prestige. They also save employees’ time by communicating with clients
through the company website, phone, or other online methods. Owing to innovation playing such a large
part in gig economies, companies such as Upwork must keep up with the developments in innovation if they
want to stay current.
Legal: Legal issues abound in the gig economy. Owing to the success of companies such as Uber and
Airbnb, many government regulators have started paying attention to these types of internet-based busi-
nesses and the United States’ outdated labor laws. In the gig economy, there is no union and no clear laws
to protect workers. Kennedy (2016) maintained that these labor laws have not kept up with the fast pace of
the gig economy. In general, labor laws regulate the relationship between an employer and its employees.
Yet, freelancers in the gig economy often operate independently, negotiating with different clients (Kennedy,
2016). These labor laws provide additional cost to a business and create uncertainty in the marketplace with
unclear guidelines about working relationships as it relates to online-based businesses. Kennedy (2016)
outlined the following possible solutions in reforming labor laws for the gig economy: (a) The government
could create a new category of worker, between full employee and independent contractor; (b) Congress
can reevaluate the country’s major labor laws so that they can achieve specic goals; and (c) Government
ofcials can develop a well-written statute to ensure that all workers, customers, and other stakeholders
benet from the gig economy. As traditional companies continue to utilize freelance workers, legal ramica-
tions will continue to exist.
Environmental: Environmental factors have minimal impact. With freelancing, there is no need to com-
mute to work, reducing environmental concerns such as pollutant emissions. Furthermore, Palmer et al.
(2017) argued that physical factors, such as environmental concerns, can create external forces that garner
management attention. Freelancers utilize computers and software. They operate paperlessly and do not
contribute signicantly to the continued amount of waste going to a nation’s landlls.
In conclusion, several factors inuence the gig economy and the emergence of freelance websites such
as Upwork. Utilizing the PESTLE analysis for Upwork can assist the strategists in forging the right decisions
and taking advantage of other opportunities in the market.
Competitive analysis: Additionally, understanding the competitive environment is critical to Upwork’s
future success. Conducting a competitive analysis is very helpful, because the results can strengthen an
organization’s strategic approach. In a competitive analysis, strategists evaluate the business’ competitors
in order to assess and predict the durability of any competitive advantage. In fact, a successful strategy
requires some barriers to competition that prevent others from entering the business’ market and duplicat-
ing its core competencies (Harris and Lennox, 2013).
In the competitive analysis conducted for this case study, Upwork was compared to two other competi-
tors, Fiverr.com and Freelancer.com (see Table 2). Nevogt (2016) argued that Upwork is popular because of
its size, boasting of millions of freelancers on its platform. However, the site’s strength is also a major weak-
ness that competitors are they using this to leverage their organizations or are they leveraging against their
organizations? Opportunities and threats emerge when strategists examine customers, competition, and
external forces (Perreault, Cannon, and McCarthy, 2014).
Upwork: Upwork has one of the highest positions in the market. Using Strengths, Weaknesses, Oppor-
tunities, & Threats (SWOT) analysis, Upwork’s strengths and weakness as well as what has helped them
thrive and what risks they could be experiencing from their competitors, and more importantly, possible
changes in laws and governmental restrictions for companies that work with freelancers were identied
108 Case Study
(Kennedy, 2016). One major opportunity for Upwork is expanding into other services. Yet, one clear threat is
that more new competitors are entering the market with the same services or better services. For buyers,
posting a job on Upwork can be a hassle owing to the size of the website and the number of freelancers.
Even with a rating system available for buyers, it is difcult to locate the right freelancer (Nevogt, 2016).
Upwork can provide many opportunities to freelancers. However, there still exist risks to those who contract
Table 2. Competitor Analysis of Upwork.
Critical elements Upwork.com Fiverr.com
The company promotes
itself as always finding a
way to deliver an easy and
The company showcases
some of the cheapest services
among freelance competitors
The company positions
itself as having the simplest
process for customers to
Customers get professional
Customers have many ways to
fulfill their needs
Customers have multiple
options to meet unique
The company helps to hire
managers, and it provides
consulting to businesses
looking for services
The company specializes in
The company has
approximately 11 categories
(i.e., top, middle,
Top Top Middle
Price—Depends on the
Promotion—Ads and by
Product—Variety of services
Price—Depends on freelancer
Promotion—Ads and by
Product—Variety of services
Promotion—Ads and by
Online, easy to use,
specialize in hiring
managers and consulting
Online, a lot of freelancers and
Online, many services,
Weakness Too niche Mixed set of freelancers—
some good and some bad
Inaccurate budgets on
Opportunity Expanding into other
Making the website more
accurate on service quality
Making the prices more
accurate on services
Threats New competitor offering
the same service or better
Other competitors offering
New competitor offering the
same service or better
in the market
The company is considered
an industry leader in the
freelance arena. It provides
very professional services
The company is considered
an industry leader in the
freelance arena owing to its
low-cost strategy. It provides
many services, but there is no
accurate measure for quality
The company is considered
one of the industry leaders.
However, it has sometimes
budgets on projects. Yet,
this business is a strong
competitor to any other
freelance website in this
Management and Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, Iss. 2018, 104–112 109
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through these sites that do not exist in direct employment positions. Additionally, a difference of opinion
makes it difcult to assess the value of jobs on Upwork, because job satisfaction highly depends on the
type of job a person is seeking. Some freelancers are looking for small quick tasks; whereas, others prefer
long-term projects (Kallenberg and Dunn, 2016). In general, Upwork is a good value for most buyers. The
company provides very professional services, including well-dened specic services.
Fiverr.com: Fiverr.com is a prime competitor to Upwork primarily owing to its inexpensive pricing
structure. The company has a high position in the marketplace owing to its low-cost strategy. Fiverr claims
to be the world’s largest freelance services marketplace for lean entrepreneurs who want to focus on growth
offering services starting at $5 (Fiverr.com, 2017). In fact, buyers can purchase a variety of services equiva-
lent to those on Upwork. The purchasing process is different from Upwork—sellers post these services, not
buyers/employers. Buyers can search for services or browse the Fiverr platform. However, it is the sellers
who post what they are willing to do and for how much, not the buyers (Nevogt, 2016). Sellers and buyers
can access the site easily. In fact, starting a freelance business is simple with few barriers to entry. With that
said, buyers are subject to an onslaught of low-quality products owing to the lack of adequate quality con-
trol. As an individual might expect, Fiverr is not a great place for freelancers to earn a substantial income.
Based on the company model, customers’ options are limited. Sellers are clearly in control (Nevogt, 2016).
In general, Fiverr is a good buy for customers who desire freelance services at cheaper prices than Upwork.
The company provides many services. However, there is no accurate measure for quality.
Freelancer.com: Freelancer represents another viable alternative freelance website to Upwork. The web-
site boasts of more than 9 million projects posted and more than 17 million users (Nevogt, 2016). Similar to
Upwork, the business model is massive, offering similar benets and similar weaknesses. The company’s
platform is set up where customers drive the process. A customer posts a project to get started, complete
project details (including skills needs, pricing options), and waits for freelancers to bid on the work (Free-
lancer.com, 2017). Posting a project is free for customers. However, employers can also skip this process
entirely by hiring freelancers directly. However, there are some noticeable weaknesses in Freelancer.com.
Although Freelancer offers time-tracking tools, these services are not free. Nevogt (2016) suggested that
this process might incentivize freelancers to bill as many hours as possible if projects are being paid by the
hour. Additionally, payment processing has been noted to be very slow with lackluster customer support.
Freelancer is an adequate replacement for Upwork. Yet, the company has sometimes offered inaccurate bud-
gets on projects. However, this business is a strong competitor to any other freelance website in the market.
4. STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS
If individuals and organizations desire sustainable success in the gig economy, they must think strategically.
Strategy sets the tone and direction for an organization, prioritizes tasks, and helps to guide the myriad of
decisions that must take place in an organization (Harris and Lennox, 2013). On a global front, organiza-
tions must be able to navigate a very competitive landscape. Thus, organizations must have the capacity to
address today’s needs while looking far into the future at new market opportunities and new competitors.
After conducting analyses, researchers should provide the proper course of action. Laudon and Laudon
(2017) argued in the case study analysis that this process involved selecting the best course of action and
providing a detailed explanation for the recommended solutions. This research produced several strategic
A. The gig economy is here to stay, offering unlimited opportunities to workers worldwide: Owing
to the widespread adoption of the internet, millions of people worldwide are now able to com-
pete for the same jobs. As this trend continues, this could cause an oversupply of labor in certain
gig economy markets, such as Upwork, which would then cause the market price for work to
plummet. This market is also strongly driven by ranking and reputation scores, thus allowing the
creation of intermediaries—highly ranked individuals who then bid work out to lower ranked indi-
viduals at lower pay. One way that workers could try to guard against this is to create cooperatives
or unions, which would allow for the creation of rules or laws to protect workers (Graham and
110 Case Study
B. Freelancers will continue to struggle with insignicant income on Upwork owing to global com-
petition: Most on-demand companies classify their workforce as independent contractors and not
employees. However, many of these workers are not allowed to accept jobs from clients outside
of the company platform, thus limiting one’s ability to create a client base. Another downside is
that once these workers are classied as independent contractors, they are no longer covered by
the Fair Labor Standards Act or National Labor Relations Act, and most are not eligible for sick
leave, health insurance, or retirement benets. If Congress chooses to change this situation, they
should create portable benets programs or risk-pooling programs to allow some protection for
these workers (Donovan, Bradley, and Shimabukuro, 2016).
C. Upwork should further differentiate itself from the competition: With that being said, Upwork
must work to implement this strategic approach. The analysis is clear that the services provided
are uncomplicated, which opens the door for replacements. One unique factor that makes the
company the market leader is the global network of freelancers. By upholding this factor, Upwork
is able to identify a need in the market to connect talented freelancers with businesses in need.
The company has a strong understanding of how to leverage their online platform to make those
connections happen. This has eliminated the restrictions that companies once faced in hiring a
local rm with a few freelancers to create their brand identity. The company uniquely offers end-
less options for clients, allowing it to gain new clientele. The Upwork team will need to remain
vigilant in the knowledge of their competition to maintain their unique offerings and may consider
diversifying their business model to include goods in addition to their current services.
Global forces will continue to make the gig economy relevant. If individuals and organizations want to
consider proactive strategies to beat the global competition, they cannot afford to ignore the freelance
workforce. In fact, the gig economy has sufciently gained momentum internationally to be a critical factor
in the very near future. Today, Upwork is the industry leader in the freelance arena. However, the organiza-
tion cannot be complacent. The analysis demonstrated that the current service offerings are uncomplicated,
which opens the door for replacement and duplication by other competitors. In general, Upwork has been
successful in driving their brand as well as the ideas of gig economies forward. The main strength of Upwork
is their strong technological presence—not only in its own business platform, but also in many of the ser-
vices that they provide to their customers. The company has also lled a void for those individuals who
wish to work, but under their current circumstances were unable to obtain or did not desire a traditional
nine-to-ve job. In addition, Upwork has caused a disruption to traditional hiring and management strate-
gies. Similarly, Uber has caused a disruption to taxi services. This level of disruption is something that has
not been observed in the human resources arena previously (Ricker, 2017). For Upwork to maintain their
lead in the freelance gig economy sector, they should carefully monitor the changes that may be coming in
government and employment policies. Although there are challenges that Upwork and other gig economy
businesses will experience in the future, it appears from this research that freelancing is here to stay. The
application of these conclusions could increase the survival rate of new freelancers on Upwork.com and in
the gig economy in general. The study is signicant because this research widens contemporary assump-
tions about strategic thinking for individuals engaged in e-commerce. As technology advances, buyers will
be able to hire freelancers to perform any task with a click of a button.
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Citation: Green DD, Walker C, Alabulththim A, Smith D, Phillips M. 2018. Fueling the gig economy: a case study evaluation of Upwork.
com. Management and Economics Research Journal 4: 104-112.
Dr. Daryl D. Green is an Assistant Professor in the College of Business at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is a former U.S. Department
of Energy program manager with over 25 years of professional management experience. He is a nationally syndicated columnist,
where he writes in the areas of leadership, decision making, and culture. He has earned a doctoral degree in Strategic Leadership from
112 Case Study
Dr. Craig Walker is a Professor of Economics at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has earned an MBA from Baylor University and a
Ph.D. in Economics from Southern Methodist University. He has professional experience in the defense industry and local economic
Abdulrahman Alabulththim came to the United States almost 8 years ago. He worked hard at his studies and recently graduated from
the University of Central Oklahoma with an undergraduate degree in Finance. He is pursuing a master’s degree at Oklahoma Baptist
University in International Business and is looking forward to pursuing his Ph.D.
Michele Phillips, CLS (ASCP), MB, is the supervisor of the Biochemical and Molecular Genetics Laboratories at the Detroit Medical Cen-
ter and is currently an Oklahoma Baptist University MBA—Leadership student. Her 15 years in management drives her to learn about
what best motivates people and sets them on their path to success.
Daniel Smith is a clergyman, college educator, and guidance counselor. He works with students to navigate the complexities of col-
lege life and achieve a quality education. He has supported thousands of students in their pursuit of a college degree and assisted in
building the business program on the Sequoyah County campus of Carl Albert State College. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree
in Business from Northeastern State University and will complete an MBA in International Business from Oklahoma Baptist University
in May 2018.