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Skype chairman eyes contracting sector as next high-growth opportunity

Skype chairman Michael van Swaaij was so impressed with the support of UK contractors and freelancers when he launched eBay Europe, that he decided to invest his own money into a business to support them! So van Swaaij has recognised the long-term strategic value of the UK’s contracting sector by choosing contractor services start-up Crunch.co.uk accounting as well as PeoplePerHour.com as some of his next high growth projects.

As the man responsible for catapulting eBay Europe into the number one slot for ecommerce business in Europe, with annual revenues in excess of €10 billion, van Swaaij says his hugely positive personal experience of UK contractors and freelancers influenced his decision to invest.

“The unique package of skills and flexibility that contractors and freelancers can offer can result in the productivity gains required to make Europe a global competitor,” explains van Swaaij. “Plus, individuals are now demanding the work-life balance that the freelance lifestyle can support.”

Growing pains for the contractor and freelancer sector

According to van Swaaij, despite its clear benefits to end-user clients and to the economy as a whole, the contractor and freelance sector has suffered from misconceptions and the entrenched attitudes of governments and societies.

The unique package of skills and flexibility that contractors and freelancers can offer can result in the productivity gains required to make Europe a global competitor

Michael van Swaaij, Skype

“In many European countries, such as Germany and Italy, being employed is still the ‘gold standard’, so all the financial and societal infrastructure revolves around employees,” continues van Swaaij. “These entrenched attitudes impact negatively on contractors, often restricting access to basic financial products, such as loans and mortgages, and creating problems of status.”

However, since his first new media role with media empire Bertelsmann in the mid-nineties, van Swaaij has seen gradual improvements in the perception of contractors and freelancers, particularly in the UK.

Team building for uncertainty

As van Swaaij explains, when he was tasked to build eBay’s European operations from scratch in July 1999, because of the huge number of uncertainties, IT contractors and freelancers provided a much lower risk and flexible solution.

“I did not know what the revenues would be in the next five months, let alone five years, and I also recognised that the skills required to start a business are very different to those required to run one,” he continues. “IT contractors and marketing freelancers were a core component of the team from the start, and I only recruited permanent employees in those roles likely to be long term.”

The results of using such a team speak for themselves, as under van Swaaij’s leadership eBay Europe rapidly grew to become the largest ecommerce site in Europe, operating in nine countries from a standing start.

From Skype to Crunch

Van Swaaij’s role as chairman was originally planned as an interim CEO post, and he is now planning to leave the firm once the deal to sell Skype to a private equity group closes. So online accountancy services specialist Crunch is one of the new projects he plans to focus on.

“For any new investment, it’s more important for me to have confidence in the entrepreneur behind the business, although of course the business model must be sound, too,” explains van Swaaij. “Darren Fell, the entrepreneur behind Crunch, has that strong track record, and Crunch presents a unique opportunity to create and exploit new opportunities in what many consider to be a mature UK accountancy market.”

On a final note, van Swaaij believes that contracting and freelancing are important elements in how Europe will compete in the global economy.

“It’s only through productivity gains that we will be able to compete, and significant gains can be realised by tapping into an ever growing workforce of professional contractors and freelancers,” concludes Swaaij. “This presents many challenges, but also many exciting opportunities!”

Published: 26 October 2009

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