Kevin Sandhu’s mission to democratize freelancing
The serial entrepreneur is back with ControlHQ, a tool that gives freelancers financial peace of mind.
by Samir Javer
Kevin Sandhu has never been the 9-to-5 type.
“I think the way we work is far too restrictive,” he says. “I don’t want to have to ask my boss for a vacation, and work under those kinds of constraints.”
The pandemic, Sandhu argues, upended a lot of people’s career plans–whether that was how they want to work or their plans for retirement.
For example, a lot of his relatives decided to retire early during the pandemic, but they got bored quickly.
He echoes their sentiment. “If I’m 64 years old, mentally and physically as healthy as I’ve ever been and cognitively engaged, I don’t want to go sit on a beach and read novels all day.”
After a few months, Sandhu noticed those retired relatives of his began taking up short-term contracting roles, just to stay engaged. At that age, he argues, people aren’t as financially motivated. “People genuinely want to care about their business, or their craft.”
At the same time, his wife Andrea was preparing to re-enter the workforce after years of taking care of their children. During that time, she worked some part-time jobs just to stay busy. For her next gig, she still wanted to maintain some degree of flexibility, but was finding it hard to fit into the constraints of a traditional job.
“We started noodling on this as a chance for her to reinvent herself, so she didn’t have to go back to the career she had before.”
Sandhu and his wife then started to brainstorm ways they could work together.
Remote work was taking off due to the pandemic—knowledge workers were escaping the 9-to-5, choosing to work where, how and when they wanted.
“We saw that the way that people work was changing, and for the better,” Sandhu says. “Flexible forms of work, including freelancing and independent work, provide unprecedented levels of flexibility and freedom while opening up compelling employment opportunities for a wider range of skilled workers.”
Sandhu quickly realized that, while flexible work was here to stay, it needed to be reimagined to level the playing field with traditional work.
It was then that he and his wife, Andrea, came up with the idea for ControlHQ.
ControlHQ is a SaaS product that provides income smoothing to freelancers, and helps them manage their finances. It’s designed for knowledge workers of all kinds—parents with young kids, recent graduates who are upskilling or semi-retired professionals. They’ve got digital skills in fields like design, marketing and software development.
Many of these folks recently left their traditional jobs in pursuit of a more flexible and fulfilling form of work—no doubt fueled by the pandemic. The thing they all have in common? They don’t subscribe to the traditional 9-5 model, but still want to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
Sandhu then joined the local venture capital firm Rhino Ventures as an entrepreneur in residence. There, he spent time with the Rhino team and its portfolio companies, learning about new verticals from best-in-class operators. “It taught me a lot about how to build a resilient business, and how to invest like the best,” he says.
While at Rhino, he began incubating his new company.
Finding product-market fit
Initially, ControlHQ focused on providing administrative and back-office tools, such as budgeting, taxes, and analytics. But along the way, the team discovered that the number one pain point for independent workers was access to credit and banking solutions.
Traditional banks and lenders require consistent earnings and cash flows in order to provide credit, such as credit cards, mortgages, or loans. Plus, they charge compounding interest.
“The banks think of these individuals as regular 9-to-5 workers, but they’re not,” Sandhu says.
That’s why he argues traditional financial institutions don’t align with the freelancing model: “If I’m a freelancer, I don’t want to stack up a bunch of debt, and then accumulate interest, and now suddenly I've got $1000 a month payments coming at me.”
While freelancers can earn a good income, they deal with lots of income fluctuations month-to-month, due to the irregular timelines of clients or project work. This causes undue stress and anxiety for these workers, who also have to plan and budget for their own vacations, sick leave, and other forms of PTO.
In light of these findings, ControlHQ expanded its product to offer income smoothing (the act of levelling out income fluctuations), by providing monthly income top-ups, as well as dedicated business bank accounts.
Sandhu says that while the financial tools for freelancers are not a new concept, ControlHQ’s biggest differentiator is its novel approach to supplying credit, which relieves the financial anxiety freelancers get from traditional banks.
The way it works is freelancers are eligible for monthly top-ups of up to $2,000. So if a freelancer needs to borrow money during a period of downtime, ControlHQ lends them the money on-demand, and as soon as they get paid by their clients, they pay back the funds to ControlHQ.
What differentiates ControlHQ from competitors is that it doesn’t charge interest, do fixed loan replacements or charge any other fees.
The added bonus is that customers are building their credit profiles along the way—even if they have a temporary outstanding balance. The automatic income smoothing means there’s predictable cash flow coming into their account, regardless of fluctuations in their income.
“Even if your income is lumpy, if you believe in yourself, the cash flow is going to be solved for. The income lumpiness is a feature, not a bug.”
“It’s the exact thing you enjoy—you want flexibility. But sometimes it rains, sometimes it’s dry. But that doesn’t mean your cash flow has to be dry. And that’s ultimately what we’re addressing.”
This brings peace of mind for freelancers, who constantly have to chase down unpaid invoices while stressing out over upcoming vacation periods and dry spells in revenue.
Income smoothing has become a popular problem for startups to tackle, with major players such as Oakland-based Even entering the fray. That company raised over $52 million in funding to provide income stability for hourly workers. After scaling to millions of users and partnerships with large employers, it was acquired last month by WalMart’s fintech venture Hazel.
In addition to supplanting their income, ControlHQ automates freelancers’ accounting and taxes, provides expense management tools, and offers exclusive discounts on software tools they can use for their business (e.g. Squarespace, Canva, Loom).
A massive opportunity
There are an estimated 1.2 billion freelancers worldwide, including 59 million Americans. That’s over a third of the total workforce. For ControlHQ, that means a massive, growing market—and it’s expected to keep growing at a 15 percent annual pace over the next five years.
The company’s business model is transparent; it charges a $25/month flat subscription for full access to ControlHQ’s suite of tools and financial products.
The company is developing the core product right now, and says it’s preparing for a launch in Q2 of this year. Currently, the tool is only available for freelancers in the U.S.
Despite performing minimal marketing, it has already received interest from thousands of customers, with a waitlist available on the website.
And it’s clear the company is in this for the long haul: it wants to make an enduring impact on an underserved market. “We believe strongly in diversity, equity and inclusion, and I’m more excited by the positive social impact of our mission than anything else about this business,” says Sandhu.
Sandhu points to his previous entrepreneurial ventures as his fuel for building mission-oriented companies like ControlHQ.
“When I decided to return to entrepreneurship, I knew that I had to tackle a problem that I care deeply about. If you believe in your company’s mission, and truly care about your customers, you can tackle just about any obstacle and keep fighting. But if you stop caring about your customers, or lose interest in the mission, you lose your north star altogether.”
Samir Javer is a Vancouver-based product manager and freelance writer. You can check out his newsletter here.