Changes in social networks are allowing new platforms to flourish whilst supporting traditional industries, says Richard Harris from Okappy.

At the start of 2017, the ‘Work and Pensions Committee’ launched an inquiry to examine how the UK welfare system supports the growing number of self-employed and gig economy workers. In the height of the digital age where society's demands of immediacy are becoming faster, this “gig economy” has seen massive expansion over the last few years.

These changes are not only affecting the ‘users’ of services but also employees. The politics of the gig economy has seen much media coverage in recent years. High profile issues such as hours, reliability of work and work conditions have been pushed into the limelight within companies such as Deliveroo, Uber, Hermes and Amazon. The latter e-commerce giant has even forged new means with it’s platform Amazon Now which focuses on one hour deliveries to your door. Businesses are also developing to be more interactive for the user and also shaping to the customer’s needs - often through the medium of a smartphone screen. By removing duplication, cutting costs, improving customer services and the customer relationship, online services and platforms are disrupting traditional industries in a new way. This is not necessarily about forcing employees to work for low wages and unstable hours and contracts; it is about forging a new means of business for the future.

Market Network” is a term coined by Silicon Valley venture capitalist James Currier. The phrase describes an idea which is coming to prominence, the idea of combining the huge benefits of an online social network with an electronic marketplace and cloud based software as a customer service. This brings together developing elements of our current business landscape to create a unique approach that is placing importance on flexibility, speed and ease of use. Businesses that are utilising these techniques include Angel List for entrepreneurs, Honeybook for event organisers and the London based Okappy, which is currently revolutionising the trades industries such as electrical contracting, plumbing and drainage.

Although these industries have often been viewed as traditional and potentially slow to adopt digital technologies, there has been a huge take up. Okappy was launched in June 2015, and in this short time we’ve seen the number of companies and tradespeople using the platform expand hugely. Okappy now has over 17,5000 connections, 850,000 jobs have been managed on the platform in the last year alone and over £10m worth of invoices has been raised. Angel List and Honeybook are seeing similar growth.

So what does a market network do?

Using Okappy as an example, the platform allows companies such as electrical contractors to join a network. This network includes their customers and subcontractors; which they can then connect. This also enables them to send and receive jobs, managing and tracking the jobs in real time. The jobs can also be updated on a mobile app by their employees and subcontractors who are out at work. The aim of Okappy is to make “businesses better” says Gerry So, co-founder of the Okappy platform. She continues that by “managing work on one unified platform, companies can get rid of paperwork and improve customer service.”

Why do trade industries need to change?

In the past, if you had a flood in your apartment, then the process to resolve the issue would take many steps. First, you would need to tell your insurance company, they would then create a job on their systems and email the details through to their subcontractors. This would most likely be a plumber or an electrician who would then input the details into a spreadsheet. They would have then printed out a job sheet and given this to another subcontractor, who would then have done the work and filled out the job sheet. After completing the work, they would have then brought this job sheet back to the contractor so that they could have raised an invoice to the insurance company.

This is a long and lengthy process which usually leads to a lot of paperwork and duplication between companies. There is very little transparency over what is happening. If the electrician doesn't arrive on time, then you will be left to call the insurance company, who will then need to call the electrician who will then need to call his engineer.

How are market networks revolutionising the way this works?

The biggest problem is in the last stage of the process - when the tradesperson wants to raise an invoice to the insurance company. If, like in many cases the subcontractor does not return a job sheet back on time - the electrician or plumber cannot raise an invoice. Further complicating these issues if that if there is any missing or incorrect information, it is hard to dispute afterwards. This can often lead to an invoice simply being written off.

Networks may not be a new phenomenon, for example the development of the railways heralded industrial expansion at the turn of the 20th Century, this was followed by telephone, and then the digitisation of social interactions with email and instant messaging. With each of these steps, the world has shrunk and communication has become more instantaneous.

However, market networks are now a new and growing phenomenon and are impacting hugely and positively on how millions of companies are ran daily. The traditional trades industries are welcoming these changes, as we’ve seen at Okappy. One thing is for sure, we are just seeing the beginning of a wave of change which will impact many different industries.