The best business is one your existing customers beg you to start. If you staff insurance adjusters, and your cornerstone client reaches out and asks you to start supplying pharmacists, there are few better impetuses to start a new line or division. For San Francisco-based Bonsai, their foray into building a contractor management platform followed just such a trajectory.
“We originally started Bonsai because we have freelancing backgrounds ourselves, and realized there’s not a lot of standard back-office support for freelancers to help them invoice and write contracts,” says Matt Brown, co-founder and CEO. “We wanted to give freelancers a solid technology- based back office, with more or less everything they’d need in one place to run their business. But then their clients started reaching out to us because they were getting our invoices, and really liked how we dealt with writing contracts, and all of a sudden we had these huge companies asking if we could build them a software solution to manage the contractor lifecycle in one place.”
Bonsai, founded in 2015, started as an online back office for high-end freelancers. The company makes money by collecting a fee from each invoice processed through its system. Sensing the interest and opportunity from corporate clients, however, the firm has built a full-fledged independent contractor management system, currently in beta with its largest clients.
“Our legacy business is still growing 50% month over month with very little marketing, which I think speaks to the value we provide freelancers,” says Brown. “But 95% of our development resources are now focused on the enterprise product.”
The new offering puts the company in competition with the likes of Upwork Enterprise, Work Market and Onforce, each of which have a software solution for managing the end-to-end contractor lifecycle. According to Brown, what makes Bonsai different is that its platform is “portable” and “agnostic,” meaning unlike other online staffing marketplaces — which typically require both client and freelancer to register to the site — freelancers and clients can use the site without requiring the other party to do so. The firm also focuses on the details and processes of engagement, rather than on being a sourcing mechanism, and charges a SaaS fee based on number of active contractors at a company.
“We’re not a marketplace, and we probably never will be,” Brown says. “Sourcing may be an issue for some firms, but we think there’s enough trouble just managing existing freelancers and that’s what we’re tackling. Things like ‘Did the freelancer sign the NDA or complete their W9?’ A hiring manager might not care as much about these details, but HR and legal do.”
The firm’s backdoor approach seems to be paying dividends. It now has more than 20,000 registered freelancers, with 4,000 to 5,000 working each month, and is backed by Y Combinator.
While technology has provided new and innovative ways to engage workers, large organizations have been slow to adopt, and pain points are far from solved. Bonsai shows that if you offer the right solution, your clients will come to you.