Staffing Industry Spotlight: Dustin Talley, Founder of Direct Collective and Talent Simplified

In this interview on Ascen's Staffing Industry Spotlight Series, we spoke with Dustin Talley, a seasoned professional in the contingent labor industry and founder of Direct Collective and Talent Simplified, uncovering his journey from traditional finance aspirations to becoming an independent consultant. Dustin recalls how a chance encounter during a job interview shifted his career trajectory, leading him into the world of staffing and contingent workforce management. He shares the pivotal moments that prompted him to venture out on his own, launching Talent Simplified and later founding Direct Collective, a community platform for contingent labor professionals. Throughout the conversation, Dustin emphasizes the importance of direct-to-talent models, the evolving landscape of talent pools, and the necessity for organizations to adapt to new workforce engagement strategies. He offers valuable insights for individuals considering entrepreneurship in the industry, emphasizing the need for preparation, resilience, and a supportive network. Dustin dives into the changing dynamics of the contingent labor space, reflecting on the shift towards niche players and the growing significance of strategic talent management. Dustin's candid reflections and practical advice make this interview a compelling read for anyone interested in the future of work and the staffing industry's evolution.
June 30, 2024

Mickey Pelletier Dustin, thanks for taking the time to sit with me and do this interview. We want to start out getting to know you, so let’s get into it: who are you and what do you do?

Dustin Talley

I am a contingent labor professional. I think that's the category we would put most of us in, and I've been doing that for the last 17 years. I got my early start in an MSP working on-site in a couple of different programs and then went on to spend a decade in the independent worker payroll category before launching out and going independent myself about three years ago.

Mickey Let's go back in time, how did you get into the staffing / contingent workforce industry? Was that an active decision that you made or how did you fall into it?

Dustin Mine started with an interview. I was interviewing at Merrill Lynch for a contract role at the time, through a contractor firm. I thought I wanted to go into finance. And the lady that was interviewing me flipped the script.  She said something to the effect of

“You don't want to work here. Why don't you come work with me?” And I thought it was one of the recruiting tricks where you need to now sell them on why you want to work in that company. So, I started, you know, I doubled down, right? I really loved finance and this and that.

And she's like, “No, seriously, stop it. You should work with me.”

I was kind of confused a little bit, but it's like, what do you do? I know she's interviewing me, but so she goes through this spiel of what it's like to be an onsite MSP and pretty much convinced me that I should join what she was doing. So I joined Randstad back in the early 2000s through that interview.


Wow, so the position you were originally going to interview for had nothing to do with contingent workforce or staffing, is that right?

Dustin Yeah, it was a one of the Series 63 licensed professionals where you're advising clients on their portfolio, and she flipped the script. And here I am.

Mickey (Laughs) So who knows what the world would have been with you working in finance? You may have had to wear a tie every day after all, right?

Dustin Possibly. (Laughs) Yeah. But thank goodness we don't have to do that.

Mickey You talked about a little bit earlier about after being in the staffing and contingent workforce industry for a while and working for others that you went independent about three years ago. What led you to go independent and make that switch?

Dustin So for me, I didn't realize it at the time, but the company I worked for, was a big advocate for independent professionals. While they were in the payroll category, the talent type that we worked with were these independents – who had set up their own shop and created consulting businesses.

And so I spent a decade around that, and somewhere along the way it got into my own thinking that I would go independent next. You know, it's always “one day I'll go independent, one day” and shortly after the pandemic, something gave me the courage to just launch out and do it.

It was a keynote that I was sitting through at an industry conference where the right things we said to motivate me into action. So, within a couple of weeks of hearing that talk, I'd launched Talent Simplified and started consulting and advising in the contingent workforce space.

Mickey It's kind of interesting talking with people about going independent and what drove them to it. I mean, personally for me, you were a big push, you know, a big influence for me to do that and it's nice to have a sounding board a little of, “I'm not crazy for going out on my own.”

Did you have any type of mentor or person that you sort of looked to as you went out to go independent? Maybe an example of not necessarily what you want to emulate, but someone to sort of help you figure out what to do?

Dustin Yeah, it's a really good question. Ray Culver, is the first name that comes to mind…  I think a lot of independents in the space know him. So I said, “Ray, how did you do it?” Because he was one of the few I knew doing the consulting thing at the time. And so he shared a little bit about his journey and how he got into it and gave me a few tips. And I thought, well, if he can do it, I can try it. And then the rest of it was more so through like a peer group I am a part of called Solo Labs spending time working out the details over my first few months. It was a regular thought to think, “Am I crazy?” What I've come to realize is that it's just a different way of working. I still do a lot of the same work I used to do when I was an employee of an organization. I'm just working on different terms.

I'm essentially a 1099 worker these days and a lot of the work that I do, it's just a different way of working and I think we see a lot more of the world choosing that path. So I would like to think that we're not crazy.

Mickey It's good to have those people to talk to; that sounding board to validate our thoughts because it's a little scary, a little crazy going out on our own, but it can definitely be good if you're tired of that corporate life, you know, I guess there's still exposure to it. Because, you still have to work with clients on that side, but it could be a refreshing change, and a lot goes into it. So you mentioned Talent Simplified earlier, and I know there's something else you work on called Direct Collective. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about Talent Simplified and Direct Collective – what those are and what they do.

Dustin Yeah. And there's some relation between the two. Talent Simplified, the name itself I actually came up with just as I left my last company. It was really the notion of making what we do simpler, I think often solutions in the space seem to overly complicate or make it complex for sake of selling what they do and it's not as difficult as we make it.

Talent Simplified, was born out of that. “Direct-to-talent” was how I framed up what I help companies do… I believe that organizations do want to go more directly to talent and all the layers that we put in place do not need to exist in their current state. And so, it just needs to be simplified.

Direct Collective came about in year 2. I'm wired for building communities, be that online or in person, or what I do here locally. I had this idea to launch a community for the contingent workforce space called Direct Collective.

It started with nine program leaders. All people who lead contingent labor programs on the client side. From this group, we were able to generate some ideas about what doesn't exist in the space and what should. And from there, the industry has created it’s own community. I just happened to be the facilitator of it, and so Direct Collective was born in March of 2022.

We're now in year three, and it probably is what brings me the most joy. It's just being able to serve that community and help other contingent labor programs elevate what it is they're doing for their companies.

Mickey There's something there I want to go back on: why is community and connection in our industry so important to you?

Dustin I’d have to say it’s because we're in a people industry. And while there are plenty of events and conferences that exist in the space, we wanted to focus on the community aspect and offer something beyond the events.

You can go to a conference and get some surface-level information, and some conferences are better than others, and start those connections. But really, community is about going deeper, and I’ll use a cheesy term, but “doing life together” and allowing people to get better connected. From there, they can begin to discuss in detail what others are doing, compare best practices – what is working, what's not working and really cut through the noise and figure out how to elevate their program.

Notice we don’t refer to anyone as “buyers” either that’s because it’s not a marketplace and we want to get away from his buyer/seller lingo.  So, that’s what we're doing for the program side – creating community.

Mickey I also want to touch on a term that you used earlier when you were talking about Talent Simplified, you said, “direct-to-talent,” models. What are those and why are you passionate about those?  You touched on that a little bit, but I wanted you to expand on that.

Dustin So I think everybody's heard the term, “direct sourcing” at this point in our industry. It's very much a buzzword. I have kind of rolled that up into what I think is happening in this space, and so direct-to-talent was derived from direct-to-consumer. With direct-to-consumer, I think everybody's very familiar with that at this point. A lot of these brands go more directly to the person that is purchasing, whatever it is they sell. So the layers and the world are kind of getting flatter, slimmer or going away. And in many cases, I think that's happening with talent.

You can go directly to individuals who want to work on a contract basis. You can even go to those that want to work in a temporary basis, right? Maybe they're not contract all the time, but they're looking for their next role. It does not have to be through all the layers that we put in place. So I think, again, the world is going direct.

The notion of direct-to talent includes things like direct sourcing, digital talent marketplaces, online staffing, some might call it, as well as freelance management. The aim behind all of those is to help organizations either build a pool of talent or reach an existing pool of talent that's ready to go, and to that level of directness. Again, it's just it's more direct. I think that's what we're seeing take place and I've dubbed it, “direct-to-talent”. And I think maybe that term is taking off at this point.

Mickey I use it sometimes I think it's brilliant. I love it. With the whole direct-to-talent and direct sourcing space, do you feel the industry needs these models? And then the second question to that is, are they actually ready for them? I wanted your opinion on that.

Dustin Do they need them? Absolutely. We talk about organizations that are dying these days are those that fail to innovate. And if your cost is very high and your innovation is very low, odds are your organization is not in a place of thriving. For organizations that expect that to thrive, yes, I absolutely think they need to be exploring these new models, these new ways of working with engaging and engaging talent.

Are they ready? Absolutely not. There's a huge education gap in front of us to get organizations ready for this. We need to get organizations educated to the point where they start seeing talent as an asset for their organization and not an afterthought. This goes for full-time and contract workers.

Once all talent becomes strategic to an organization, that's when they're ready to start implementing these models. Some can and will do it ahead of that and they might find some success, but when it comes from the top down and the whole company getting behind the approach, then you’ll see a much different result. So, I think education is the next thing that all of us need to be focused on.

Mickey There has to be that prioritization, a focus, that they see the value in it. I love that, I could have this conversation with you all day because that's something I share that same passion. I feel that something that's lacking in the industry is C-suites: understanding of the value of contingent workforce and then being able to push this from the top down, with it being a core focus of an organization because there's so much there for them to achieve through this.

On a similar topic, should more companies be leveraging talent pools?

Dustin Absolutely, it should be finding ways to engage more directly with talent. It could be as simple as helping their managers understand that they can go find talent directly. Sometimes we don't need to go to the supermarket, we just need to check in our own pantry and see if we have the item. And so, teaching managers that kind of behavior.

Now, I know there are other challenges behind that, but teaching managers that and then putting the tools and resources in place to ensure we're not overpaying for these resources and that everything's fair and equitable is going to be a thought that needs to go into this.

But every organization needs to start somewhere. I don't know that it's direct sourcing for every company either. For many companies, they might benefit from engaging the “on-demand” workforce through some of these existing private or public talent pools, right? They've already been built. They're ready to go. The cost might be similar to staffing. It could even be more in some places, but the driver there is not going to be cost. The driver will be quality and speed of talent, and if you've got strategic roles that need to be filled quickly, those are often the best channels to do that because the talent is ready to go. The talent is the quality talent seeking out more direct relationships with companies.


So, those direct relationships, you think that is done through the talent pools?

Dustin I mean, it's probably covering direct-to-talent as a theme, but on the talent pool specifically, you have public, and you have private public and those that are prebuilt ready to go, you kind of plug them into your program.

Most companies have not figured out how to work with that type of setup, and so they have got to figure out it's because it doesn't fit cleanly into your traditional contingent labor program, right? It's a new solution trying to fit into an old model, and so we've got to figure out a way to turn those public talent polls on and into what we've already built. In some cases, that's retrofitting and sometimes that's working around and other cases it might be blowing the whole thing up and starting over to have a model that works with some of the things that are being built today. I'd also say on this note, don't be deceived. There are plenty of companies out there that say they have a ready-to-go talent pool for you, but it's truly just staffing behind a website. So when you go in, you want to make sure that there's a true “on-demand” nature to it. Otherwise, you're not really getting any benefit from that organization other than they're getting your request because they convinced you that it was a more digitized version of staffing. So, dig in and understand is it truly digital and what does that mean? And then figure out how to plug it in.

But yeah, absolutely, there's public talent polls, there's private talent pools, and companies should start somewhere.

Mickey Love that and I think that's some sage advice to be aware of what you're buying and that the product that you're getting is actually what it is, and it’s not just a pig with lipstick on it. So you've always obviously been in the industry for a while, how have you seen the industry change since you've joined?

Dustin So I'm going to talk to US specificly for just a moment. I think around the time we joined this space, there was a heavy on-site presence. MSP was still fairly new concept as was VMS and the model looked a lot more like preferred vendor. That’s how my first program looked.  Then we started to migrate toward vendor neutral, and that has evolved over the last 15 years.

If you want to think about it that way, you're also seeing companies now try to figure out how to find the balance between vendor-neutral and vendor-preferred. And I think that's going to be interesting. It's going to be different for every organization. For some organizations, vendor-neutral and sourcing requests out to all suppliers in a category is absolutely going to be the right model, and in other cases, more of a preferred vendor status is going to make a lot more sense.

So you're kind of seeing the tides change again right now and some of that's because of direct sourcing and the talk and stuff that's going on. Some of it's because MSPs maybe haven't evolved enough, or their innovation isn't hitting the market soon enough, because I know there is some innovation happening there. So you just got a little bit of change happening around the actual model in the space.

The other thing just to add one other note, if we want to include it here, is you're seeing a lot of companies get way more niche. I think back years ago when I was on programs, companies used to just have IT and it was the category. Now you see this broken down in the so many other verticals are specialties like cybersecurity. As an example, they're companies that just solely focus on cybersecurity talent and I think that's really cool and that niche type player is definitely needed.

I'd love to see programs figuring out how to incorporate these niche players in versus just going to the national companies that they think can fill it, because a lot of your quality lives within these niche companies. And so I'm seeing that happen. It’s happening slowly, but I like the niching down. That's happening in our space.

Mickey Agreed, definitely seeing the niche players started to come out and have a place in the market. Alright, last question for you. We've talked about some good stuff around direct-to-talent, talent pools and what's going on there. I want to go back to your going independent. We're seeing more people in our industry considering going out on their own, whether that's just due to layoffs or their own entrepreneurial spirit. What advice would you give to them? Any lessons that you've learned that you'd like to pass on to others considering going independent?

Dustin Absolutely. So the first thing I would say is if you have a job today and you have an idea of what you would do when you go out on your own, start building the framework and testing that idea. Have something set up. Have the company name set up Just start working on it as a gig job. While you're full-time, obviously don't take away from your employer, but start finding ways to slowly move the needle and set something up.

Then for making the actual leap, I think the best question you can ask yourself is would I regret not trying? And if the answer for you to that question is “yes”, you should absolutely live life with no regrets and go try to do it. Is it hard? It's absolutely hard and it's not for everyone, and most people will probably fail at it, but I would never want someone to regret not trying. But if you do go into that path and you think you can make it, put people in your corner, that's going to help make you successful because it is going to be a hard and difficult journey.

I joke with people that it's like a penny stock. You know, one day you're on top of the world. The next day, you're worth 1 cent, and so you have to be ready for that because it's not the same familiarity that we have with full-time employment, though the work itself is very similar.

Mickey Thanks, Dustin. I think you've shared so much good wisdom today on a variety of topics. So thank you for taking the time to sit with me and do this interview. I really appreciate it.

Dustin Thanks for having me.


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