The mechanisms that price, distribute, and analyze financial assets are being retooled for the softest and most important asset of all: your talent. As more and more people declare free agency, a genuine market - with brokers, exchanges, and an evolving set of rules - is emerging for their talent.
Market makers are connecting buyers with sellers. Talent underwriters and investment bankers specializing in human capital stand ready to take you public. A new breed of investment advisers is helping companies to manage their portfolios. On the market floor, the traders are talking about you. On the ticker tape, the numbers reflect your price. That price can soar one day - and crater the next.
There's a bull market for talent, and we're all in it.
If you think of yourself as talent and you're looking for an agent, you need to meet the people at MacTemps Inc. - they can help you manage your career.
If you think of yourself as a stock and you're looking for a broker, you need to meet the people at M2 Inc. - they can help you get a good price.
And if you think of yourself as an investor and you're looking to put some money into the human-capital market, you need to meet the people at IMCOR - they can help you devise an investment strategy.
The opening bell for another day of trading is about to sound, the ticker will soon be tracking the shifting prices for human capital - and on the big board of business, a raging, restless talent market is about to replace the quaint, quiet employment transactions that marked the old economy.
I. The Opening Bell Sounds
It's Monday morning, and the nation's newest market is about to sound the opening bell. In Dallas, six brokers have assembled around a conference table piled with blueberry muffins. It's time for their "unfilled-orders meeting." They each eye a sheet that lists who's buying, who's selling, and who'll be on the market next. Blazing through the list like cattle auctioneers, they bark out orders in a rapid-fire language that is barely comprehensible to an outsider.
"Just got a phone order from Ecco Design," reports one broker. "They want Stacey back."
"That'll be a quick fill," snaps a second broker.
"A great rollover," adds a third.
This is what it sounds like at MacTemps - perhaps the most robust and fully articulated example of a company that's reckoning with a world in which human capital functions like financial capital. What MacTemps does is relatively simple: It connects companies shopping for talent with free agents selling talent. If you need a Web developer to build a new site or a graphic artist to design a new brochure, MacTemps can help you find the right person at a fair price. In a sense, that is what the $50 billion temporary-staffing business has always done. But MacTemps, a global company headquartered in Boston, has become a $100-million-plus operation by morphing out of that creaky industry. Three things set it apart from the temp-agency pack.
First, unlike a typical temp agency, MacTemps doesn't take all comers. Forget Manpower Inc. Think NASDAQ. Individuals must qualify to be "listed" on the MacTemps exchange - a process that involves written tests, computer simulations, two intense interviews, a careful analysis of past work performance, and an assessment of likely future work performance.
Second, MacTemps is not just a temp agency; it's a talent agency. The company takes a keen interest in the free agents it welcomes into its fold. "Think Jerry Maguire," says Aimee Youngblood, 28, an assignment manager at MacTemps in Dallas. "I help them help me help them. I help them find assignments. I manage their careers." Like their sports and entertainment counterparts, MacTemps talent agents tend to specialize. Some represent free agents who are skilled in applications like Quark and PageMaker. Other agents - those at a unit of the company called Portfolio - represent free-agent art directors, copywriters, and graphic designers. The WebStaff team represents independent Web designers, HTML specialists, and Web-site managers. And at the company's 1-800-NETWORK division (soon to become part of WebStaff), the agents represent computer-networking experts. It is all very organized, very professional, and very well managed.
Third, MacTemps is the HR department for Free Agent Nation. It soothes many of the headaches that accompany free agency. If you work enough hours for the company, MacTemps offers you health insurance, a 401(k) plan, even vacation pay - benefits rarely available to workers who have untethered themselves from traditional jobs. If you get work through MacTemps, you don't have to worry about wresting your paycheck from a slow-paying client: MacTemps does that dirty work for you - and pays you on time. Nor do you have to keep track of your 1099s or pay quarterly estimated taxes: MacTemps gives you a W-2 - and withholds the taxes for you.
More than any other agency of its kind, MacTemps has sensed a shift in the rules of the workplace, and in response to that shift, it has oriented its business to the needs of its talent. At all times, the company orbits around a sun that it calls "the independent professional." "Our whole point in life is to help independent professionals build their careers," says John Chuang, the 33-year-old founder and president of MacTemps. "We put our talent completely at the center of our company."
The terms and conditions of employment are changing, Chuang argues. In a world of free agency, contracts are shorter. Feedback comes not in a yearly performance review but in a continuous cycle of bids and asks. So your price can vary widely, depending on market conditions and on your own performance. "It could go up, it could go down," says Chuang. "But it's a real market."
Chuang's mission is to help independent professionals play this new market to their advantage. He offers them what they need to manage their careers: the ability to find work, to get benefits, and to connect with others. What is MacTemps's distinctive marketplace advantage? "I think we price human capital much better than anyone else," he says, pausing for a moment. "Maybe we are an investment bank: We help bring people public."
Call it an IPO - an "independent professional offering."
II. The Security of Being a Security
Last year, an average of about 11 American companies went public every week - and by year's end, these 559 newly listed companies had raised a total of nearly $33 billion. In November, Curtis Garrison went public - and by midyear, he had raised his earnings by roughly 30%.
Back in 1996, when Garrison was a project manager at Nortel in Richardson, Texas, he got a plum assignment: to develop a Web site for the Dallas Cowboys. He couldn't do it alone. And he couldn't find the people he needed inside his company. So he turned to MacTemps, brought in a handful of designers and developers, and created a home in cyberspace for "America's Team."
But the experience left Garrison, now 29, feeling less at home at Nortel. "I was frustrated," he says. "I had to get approval for every little step. Then I looked at the people I had brought on from MacTemps, and I thought, 'They're not stuck. They're not frustrated.' " Being a buyer in the new talent market convinced Garrison that he ought to engineer his own IPO. So last November, he says, "I took my parachute and jumped out."
When he landed, he went straight to MacTemps. And he got the same reception that any other free agent would get: He had to vie for a spot on the roster. Garrison spent an entire morning being questioned about his experience and work philosophy by a half-dozen MacTemps talent agents. Then he spent an afternoon being run through his paces in the MacTemps computer lab. Then MacTemps talked to his former employers, customers, and colleagues. Just 10% of all applicants who go through the process end up meeting the agency standard; the rest lack either the know-how, the track record, or the personality to make it as a MacTemps free agent. Garrison made the cut.
Less than a year later, with eight assignments and two dozen Web-design and electronic-commerce projects under his belt, Garrison says that his market price is much closer to his real worth. Bureaucratic payroll policies no longer conceal his value. Instead, the market constantly reveals it. "At Nortel, to get a big salary increase, I would have had to leave the company and then be hired back on a different level," he says. "As a free agent, you just get on a new project, and the next week, you're making twice as much." Potential buyers, he says, "look at your stock report, your 52-week high. They say, 'This guy has performed well. He's a good investment.' "
Of course, if the economy tanks or the World Wide Web becomes the World Wide Waste, Garrison may not feel so bullish. Yet for Garrison, at least for the moment, there is security in being a security. His agent, Kent Mahan, provides much of that security. Mahan, 45, is a fourth-generation Californian with prematurely white hair. Earlier this year, he helped launch the WebStaff unit, and he now plays Jerry Maguire to about 30 Web designers and HTML coders. He says that he wants his people to understand that in a world of short-term contracts, relationships matter more than ever before. But he wants their most enduring relationship to be with him - rather than with the client they're working for at any given moment.
And Mahan works hard to make that point. He begins and ends every week by chatting up each member of his talent pool on the phone. He wants to know how things are going for them, what they're working on, what makes them tick. His office contains an emblem of his commitment to the talent's needs: One wall is covered with computer innards - circuit boards, motherboards, hard drives - all given to him by current and prospective talent. Just as he wants to be inside the talent's life, so he has stationed himself inside the talent's machine.
Unlike a stockbroker, Mahan does not earn a commission on each trade that he handles. Instead, he receives a salary based on a formula that takes into account things like teamwork and learning. "Commissions give people tunnel vision," explains Chuang, who designed the formula. MacTemps does make a tidy profit each time Mahan places Garrison in a new assignment. Garrison's gigs vary in length from a week to several months. MacTemps bills him out at $75 to $125 per hour and takes about one-third off the top, leaving him with roughly $50 to $80 per hour. Garrison says he thinks of the spread as the cost of outsourcing his back-office operations: health insurance, pension benefits, tax accounting, payroll. To some, this arrangement might seem like a form of corporate paternalism, re-created in a kinder, gentler guise. To Garrison, it's a way to carve out more time to manage a stock called Curtis.
"Let me put it this way," says Garrison. "The only way MacTemps could be better is if it put in some kind of dating service. If I went out on dates that were as successful as these projects, I'd be a pretty happy guy."
III. The New Economy's Mood Ring
Established in 1792, the New York Stock Exchange operated for its first 25 years under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street. Established in 1986, MacTemps operated for a time from a Cambridge, Massachusetts storefront that smelled like eggplant. John Chuang was a junior at Harvard in 1986, when he and two classmates took their Macintosh computers, bought a $5,000 laser printer on credit, and started a company called Laser Designs. The following year, upon graduating, they moved the venture into real office space - a space whose previous tenant had been Dominex the Eggplant King.
Today the company headquarters occupies four floors in a funky office building in Boston's Back Bay. From its vegetable-scented beginnings, MacTemps has become a global concern, with offices in nine countries and annual revenues in excess of $100 million.
But to see Chuang as merely a latter-day Horatio Alger and MacTemps as merely another inspiring dorm-to-destiny tale is to overlook a richer story. Chuang's company has changed so often in so short a time that it could be a mood ring for the American economy at the century's end. Consider: When desktop publishing was becoming the next big thing, Chuang launched Laser Designs. When computer prices began their inexorable slide, Chuang launched MacTemps to help staff corporate design shops. When DOS (followed by Windows) became the dominant computer standard, Chuang established a division called PC Temps. When "downsizing" and "outsourcing" became the new employment standards, in the early 1990s, Chuang set up offices across the country to meet corporate staffing needs. In 1993, when health insurance was dominating the national political debate, Chuang made MacTemps one of the first agencies of its kind to offer health-care benefits to its talent. When a presence on the World Wide Web became a must-have for every business, in the second half of the 1990s, Chuang started WebStaff. If you want to track the economy's recent past, just look at where MacTemps has been.
And if you want to chart the economy's future, look at where MacTemps is going. The future is about talent: the buying, selling, and nurturing of human capital. The job market has become precisely that - a massive, messy, moving market. And so the company is evolving again. The most powerful evidence: Within the next year, it will shed its name. Because the Macintosh has become a niche business machine, says Chuang, the first syllable of "MacTemps" has become too narrow. And because free agency makes temps of us all, the second syllable has become simply redundant.
Chuang has yet to decide on a new name but says that it will reflect the company's position at the front edge of an industry that is still being invented: "the career-building industry." His company is also exploring the possibility of becoming a one-stop financial-services shop for all free agents. He envisions solo workers coming to his company for mortgages, business loans, retirement plans, and other personal business services that free agents find it hard to secure. Imagine a merger between the William Morris Agency, Citibank, and the New York Stock Exchange, and you get an idea of both the genius and the audacity of his vision.
But Chuang has an even larger aspiration: "There's no reason why we shouldn't be the best place in the world to work."
IV. From Yahoo to Yahoo! in Three Days
Thursday: It's 6:30 on a balmy night in San Francisco's financial district. Around the corner, the Pacific Stock Exchange has shut down for the evening. But here, in a breezy seventh-floor conference room, another market is about to get under way.
"Welcome to M2," says cofounder Paula Reynolds, 43, to the 35 men and women sitting nervously in front of her. Although it's the end of the business day, they're freshly scrubbed and dressed in their business best.
They're here for the free-agent version of a road show: a chance to introduce themselves, to showcase their talent - and to take the first step toward being listed on M2's stock exchange. They get about one minute each to introduce themselves. The unstated goal is to sear an impression in the minds of the M2 talent agents who are gathered on the room's periphery.
Norma Castrillo, 41, wearing an elegant purple suit, doesn't bother to stand. She lives in Concord, 30 miles to the northeast, and she's a little tired from her trip to the city. Besides, as she'll tell you, she wasn't too eager to come to a meeting that isn't likely to produce results. So when it's her turn to talk, she's crisp and to the point. "I'm an HR administrator specializing in payroll benefits and HRIS [human-resources information systems]," she says. "I was a payroll-benefits administrator for 1,700 employees. Then my company closed its doors. Now I'm looking for new opportunities to do what I did before, but for different companies rather than just one."
There's nothing too memorable about her presentation, nothing that makes her stand out from the crowd. But when the session is over, Ann Fischer Hecht, 35, an M2 vice president, makes a beeline to Castrillo. "Norma," she says, "I need to talk to you."
Start the clock with that brief conversation. Over the next 24 hours, Castrillo will go from being just another unemployed yahoo to being the next hot IPO - the next Yahoo!
Friday: Hecht arrives at the office early in the morning. She looks over Castrillo's résumé, which she had made sure to snag the night before. Then she faxes it to a client of hers, Williams-Sonoma. In the new talent market, a résumé functions much as a red herring functions in the equities market - not as an official public offering but as a preliminary statement of what's to come. Williams-Sonoma's payroll-benefits administrator is leaving in a week. The company still hasn't found anyone to step in, and it's getting desperate.
"Norma's experience is not something that a lot of free agents can claim to have," Hecht says. When she heard Castrillo, "I had this shock of recognition that she could be perfect for the client."
A short while later, Myrna Benefiel, a manager of client services at M2, calls Castrillo. While Hecht lines up investors, Benefiel works on whipping the offering into shape. She talks to Castrillo for half an hour and discusses an hourly rate - that is, Castrillo's initial offering price. By 10 a.m., a stock called Norma is ready to go public. The transaction is happening faster than anyone at M2 can remember.
Williams-Sonoma receives Castrillo's targeted profile - in other words, her prospectus. The company is interested. Very interested. It wants to get on board before another buyer does.
At 1 p.m., Hecht calls Castrillo and asks her to come to M2's offices. Castrillo pleads for time - she's facing another journey from Concord - but two hours later, she's meeting with Hecht. And by 4 p.m., Castrillo is at Williams-Sonoma headquarters in downtown San Francisco, interviewing for a 13-week assignment. After an hour, the interviewer expresses strong interest in hiring her. In fact, would Castrillo like a full-time job? Surprise! Instead of taking part in her IPO, Williams-Sonoma is making a bid for a friendly takeover. Castrillo says no. She wants to be a free agent. But she's pumped. She starts the drive back to Concord.
When she arrives home a little before 7 p.m., she finds her husband on the phone. He's talking to Hecht - who has good news: Williams-Sonoma has agreed to her price. It's a done deal.
Monday: It's 9 a.m. Castrillo is sitting at her new desk. It's day one of her new assignment. Her IPO has been a huge success. "I knew a lot of people who were resentful after they were let go," Castrillo says. "I just didn't feel that way. I knew that other opportunities would come along. Something pushed me to M2's offices Thursday night." She laughs. "But I never thought that on Monday I'd wake up and have to go to work."
V. What's Yiddish for "Talent"?
M2 is giving new meaning to old terms by playing the talent game by new rules. Like MacTemps, it connects buyers of free-agent talent with sellers of free-agent talent. But unlike MacTemps, M2 works both sides of the street. It's not a talent agent. It wants the best deal for both sides - not just the best part for one particular actor. Its goal is to achieve a perfect match.
But what do you call such an outfit? In the new dictionary of work, what's the term for this new institution?
Don't call it a "middleman." It's more than that. Besides, there aren't many men in the M2 operation. The company's three principals are women, and so is 75% of its staff. Don't call this new kind of organization a temp agency either. Temp agencies deal in commodities - fungible items whose sellers compete primarily by offering a lower price. Talent is a stock, not a commodity.
The company bills itself as "the premier broker of independent consultants to companies in need of 'spot-market' expertise and just-in-time management staffing." Some people at M2 liken the company to Charles Schwab, the megabrokerage whose headquarters is nearby. Others compare it to NASDAQ. Cofounder and President Marion McGovern, 40, calls the company "an arbitrageur of talent." In other words, it profits from price discrepancies between different markets: It "purchases" talent at a price that sellers are willing to accept - and then "sells" the talent to buyers willing to pay a higher price. In M2's case, a 30% to 35% markup on its talent yielded revenues in 1997 of more than $8.2 million.
Claire McAuliffe, 40, one of M2's three principals, tries to cut through the naming confusion. "We are a hybrid," she says in her corner office at the company's no-nonsense headquarters. "We're not a search firm. We're not a consulting firm. We're not a temp agency. We're not a dating service. We're sort of a corporate yenta." Think of the new economy as a village - a shtetl - and M2 as a talent matchmaker: an honest broker who works to make the matches that make the talent market work.
"What we're seeing in the primordial soup of California is that there are willing workers and willing buyers," says McAuliffe. "We get the best person we can, for the best price, for the right amount of time. At the end of the day, the transaction is quite simple."
Still, not everybody gets it. In 1988, when McGovern launched the company with Reynolds, the terms "talent market" and "human capital" were not found in the conventional business vocabulary. But McGovern knew how to speak the language of the future - even if others didn't. "Early on, we were doing mostly evangelism," she says. The most common response to her early efforts: "You do what?"
Yet McGovern kept at it, slowly building a portfolio of talent stocks - and a roster of clients to buy them. Today she says that she's still evangelizing but that more people get it. Witness the company's growth: Last year, M2 opened a Los Angeles branch. More than 5,000 free-agent managers, marketers, and other business mavens have passed muster and are listed on the M2 exchange. The minimum requirements: You need at least 10 years of work experience; you must be committed to free agency and not on the lookout for a regular job; your experience must extend beyond the purely technical; and you must have demonstrated success in previous jobs and assignments. Even though M2 does very little advertising, about 50 new applicants approach the company each week. Most - like Norma Castrillo - discover the firm through word of mouth.
Ultimately, the goal of M2 is to redefine the meaning of "career." "We are trying to create a profession of consultants," says Reynolds, "a profession based on moving around and building your expertise." Toward that end, the company is focusing relentlessly on making the right match, one match at a time. Says McAuliffe: "Every single day, we remember that we can't be successful if we're not helping both sides of the match to be successful."
VI. Things Get Rocky for Bullwinkle
Garland, Texas is a long way from the leveraged deals and decaf lattes of San Francisco's financial hub. It's a brawny place - long on muscle, short on shimmer. And it's where Dick Bullwinkle, 60, runs a company called DAC Vision out of a one-story building in an industrial section of town. DAC Vision manufactures the machines used to make contact lenses, as well as supplies used in the manufacture of eyeglass lenses. And the company has done very well by that business: It has 180 employees and brings in $50 million in revenues. But the advent of computer-driven machines threatens to put a dent in the company's supply business. So Bullwinkle went looking for ways to compensate for that potential loss.
His solution: DAC Vision would develop its own state-of-the-art machinery for making eyeglass lenses. Engineers at the company's plant in Carpinteria, California had designed a machine that could turn a hockey-puck-sized piece of plastic into a finished lens - and do the job in half the time, at a lower cost, and with unheard-of quality. "It makes the shape of the lens exactly to the doctor's prescription," says Bullwinkle. "That's been the Holy Grail in the industry."
But the company needed help in translating that idea into action. "What we didn't have was someone whose only reason to live was to get this project off the ground," says Bullwinkle, a white-haired Texan. "I wanted someone who, if he was walking the dog and heard about this project, would stop someone on the street and say, 'Take my dog. I'm going to California.' " And the place to find that person, Bullwinkle reasoned, was on the talent market.
He picked up the phone.
VII. Why Own When You Can Rent?
Stamford, Connecticut calls itself "the city that works" - which is a bit ironic, because it was here that John Thompson, now 63, found himself bereft of meaningful work. For 35 years, Thompson had worked at the accounting firm KMG Main Hurdman, eventually becoming the company's chief executive. Then, in 1987, his firm merged with a much larger one. The combined operation became KPMG Peat Marwick, and Thompson's job disappeared.
He wasn't alone. In every region and in almost every industry, a combination of mergers and downsizing was hurling talented businesspeople out of their swivel chairs and onto the street. Amid the upheaval, Thompson saw opportunity. He knew that no matter how lean companies became, they'd always have a need for know-how. Thompson came up with an unlikely solution: portable executives. Why own a CEO, CFO, or COO when you can rent one?
In 1988, he stitched together a business plan and tested it with a focus group. Participants in the group told him that it would never work. Then he polled 100 senior executives. Most were lukewarm; the rest were downright frosty. But Thompson went ahead with his plan. He launched his company, called it IMCOR, and worked to make it the Hertz and Avis of talent.
Today IMCOR is a major player in a market that it helped to invent. With offices in Stamford, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York, the company draws on a network of more than 57,000 people who are proud to call themselves portable executives. These rent-a-talents hop from company to company, solving the toughest problems and then, after a few months, moving on to the next challenge. Their average work experience: 20 years. Their average most-recent salary: $120,000. Another sign that Thompson read the market right: Last year, the closely held company was purchased by Norrell Services Inc., a billion-dollar temporary-staffing and outsourcing firm.
Compared with MacTemps and M2, IMCOR takes a slightly different approach to the buying and selling of human capital. It helps companies rent the talent they need for a particular project and at a particular time. At IMCOR, the buyer is the chief client - the client that comes first. IMCOR staffers are like management consultants who help serious corporate investors decide where in this new market to sink some money. Over the last few years, IMCOR's blue-chip client list has included such companies as General Motors, Mobil, Xerox, Avon Products, and Lehman Brothers. "We spend a lot of time helping clients figure out what they really need," Thompson says. "It's the key strategic process that we go through."
Thompson makes an unlikely talent pioneer. He's somewhat soft-spoken, even a bit avuncular - the type of guy you can depend on to give you sound advice. Which is exactly what he did when he cowrote, with Catherine A. Henningsen, The Portable Executive: Building Your Own Job Security - from Corporate Dependency to Self-Direction (Simon and Schuster, 1995). It's an unusually personal business book that counsels freshly minted free-agent managers on how to navigate these new employment waters.
VIII. Swanson Makes It Great
In Dallas, the buildings stretch higher, the people stand taller, the sun burns brighter. Dallas is where Harvey Carter, 52, has worked for most of his adult life. And it's where, for more than a decade, he was the chief marketing officer of an insurance company. But last summer, a company shake-up tossed Carter out of his job and bounced him into uncertainty. He and his wife used their planned vacation to Park City, Utah as an occasion to think about their future. One afternoon, while browsing in a discount bookstore, Carter stumbled on a copy of The Portable Executive. He bought the book, read it, said to himself, "This guy knows what he's talking about," and glimpsed his future: Within about six months, he was back in Dallas, working at IMCOR as a managing director.
And when Dick Bullwinkle picked up the phone last December, Harvey Carter was the person he called. Bullwinkle needed an investment that would pay off big and pay off fast. He sought his solution on the talent market - and his salvation in Carter. After drawing up a two-page summary of the yearlong assignment at the plant in Carpinteria, Carter went searching for a hot stock. His goal: a project manager with experience in bringing high-tech equipment from concept to market.
IMCOR's database in Stamford churned out five prospects whose experience matched the assignment. Members of the company's eight-person research staff called each candidate. Two of the five seemed promising and expressed interest in the project. Another candidate came in through a posting on the IMCOR Web site.
Carter then grilled each candidate. He worked with each of them to develop "a supertargeted résumé" - in other words, an investment profile - that Bullwinkle could read and analyze. "They all looked perfect on paper," Bullwinkle says. He brought in all three for face-to-face interviews. Carter was present at each interview, assessing Bullwinkle's reactions and fine-tuning the recruitment process. Bullwinkle eventually went with an engineer and former company president named Keith Swanson - who happened to live in Santa Barbara, just 10 miles north of Carpinteria.
"He had a perfect résumé," says Bullwinkle. "It was like he was reading our mail." Since coming on board, Swanson has put the project on track, and the company's new machine will be unveiled at a make-or-break trade show in November. Bullwinkle relied on IMCOR to be his investment adviser. And the company did all of the things that a good financial adviser would do: assess long-term goals, probe tolerance for risk, run the numbers on prospective investments. The only difference was that the object of investment was human - rather than financial - capital.
Is this the future - smoothly operating yet sometimes volatile talent exchanges; individuals priced as efficiently as financial instruments; a new breed of agents, brokers, and advisers?
Ask the man in whose talented hands the future of DAC Vision now rests. "One robin does not make a spring," Keith Swanson says. But for people with the talent to produce results and the savvy to play a new game, "there's a real market."
Daniel H. Pink email@example.com , a Fast Company contributing editor, is writing a book about the free-agent economy. Visit the following companies on the Web: MacTemps http://www.mactemps.com , M2 http://www.m2net.com , and IMCOR http://www.imcor.com .
A version of this article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.