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How New Parental Leave Policies Birthed A Startup

Emissaries is a marketplace for companies to find freelancers to fill in for new parents who are out on paid leave.

How New Parental Leave Policies Birthed A Startup

Michelle Meyer spent seven years being one of the first people to hear about a pregnancy, and it wasn’t because she has an unusual amount of close friends or relatives. It’s because she was a freelancer.

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Over the course of seven years as an independent contractor, Meyer built up a network of clients from NBC Entertainment to Condé Nast, Sony Music to 20th Century Fox. Filling in for someone who was on maternity leave became a big part of her project base. It wasn’t long before Meyer was getting a call from a soon-to-be parent asking about her upcoming availability. “The first call would be to their doctor and then to me,” she tells Fast Company.

Michelle MeyerPhoto: via Emissaries

When Meyer started getting more requests than she could actually handle, she began to think she was on to something. Then Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, and a slew of other tech companies started extending their paid parental leave benefits meaning that potentially more men and women would be taking time to be with their new babies. Meyer sat down with her entrepreneur fiance. “He literally wrote out the business plan on a cocktail napkin,” she recalls. Her company Emissaries launched on November 19.

Meyer says that the overarching reason for starting Emissaries was that her own experience was so rewarding. “Not only were the expectant/new moms incredibly appreciative,” she explains, but so were their colleagues who didn’t have to shoulder additional responsibilities. “I’ve never felt more valued in my career,” she adds.

Tapping An Unofficial Talent Pool

The other reason to launch the Emissaries platform is that Meyer says nothing like it currently exists to her knowledge. “There are a lot of staffing agencies,” that traffic in temporary workers, she clarifies. “But they always took a cut,” she says. And in her experience, the best freelance talent doesn’t come through a staffing agency.

In Meyer’s experience, she and other freelancers like her never had an official agent brokering deals. “There was a group of predominately women, most of them were moms, and we would always share jobs,” she explains. In the seven years she operated this way, she always had work.

To start, Emissaries is going to tap into this unofficial pool of talent. Meyer says that over the course of her working for various organizations, she’s amassed a network of 40 companies and about 3,000 people. She’s confident that social media will provide a further boost because she’s already been contacted by people who aren’t connected to her network in any way, who are looking for placements.

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Companies who retain temporary workers will pay Emissaries a percentage of the salary of the person who is taking leave. Costs will range based on how long the person stays out of work. Meyer says 50% of the fee will be due upfront, which she says is in line with headhunters’ standard practices.

A freelancer can charge their own hourly or day rates on Emissaries, but when they sign an agreement they lock in that rate for a year. Rates range from $50 to $150 per hour in major markets, says Meyer. “That’s heavily dependent on skill level, experience, and expertise,” she explains. Emissaries fills manager, director, and vice president roles, Meyer says, with the intent to expand the offering to include employees at other levels. “Our service is somewhat specialized,” she points out, “There’s a real need for that talent.”

A Win- Win

During her gigs, Meyer insists that she’s never encountered any negative attitudes from a team, even when she’s filled in a lead role for someone else. Staffers were grateful to have a go-to while their direct supervisor wasn’t there and colleagues were happy not to have to do additional work, she says.

Did she ever encounter push-back from the person who was out in fear that Meyer would take over their job? “Most freelancers want to stay freelance, they are not there to climb the ladder,” she argues. So long as the freelancer has the attitude that they are there to help the team and the company succeed and prove they are not there for their own benefit, Meyer says they have nothing to worry about. “I was always welcomed and celebrated than [I would have been] in more traditional roles,” she underscores.

That said, Meyer emphasizes that companies using freelance staff need to be mindful of some best practices. Based on her and others’ experience, Meyer recommends including the team when the freelance candidate is interviewed, so there is some synergy and expectations can be clearly defined. Then, she says, the employer should set up a two-week overlap prior to starting the fill-in time and at the end of the project, to ease the transition. While the new parent is on leave, Meyer says it is important that the interim person communicate with them, especially on big wins. “It lets them stay connected,” she says.

Now that Mark Zuckerberg is about to take advantage of Facebook’s paid parental leave policy, Meyer is confident that even more fathers will feel comfortable about taking time away from the office to be with their new child. And in doing so, more opportunities will open for freelance fill-ins at the management level. If a company follows best practices, Meyer says it can be a win-win for retaining talented full-time staff. She maintains, “The mother or father can come back and say ‘wow, I was able to spend time with my child and everything is lined up, I’m looking forward to coming back.’”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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