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UNITED STATES
SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
Washington, D.C. 20549
_____________________________
FORM 10-K
_____________________________
(Mark One)
    ANNUAL REPORT PURSUANT TO SECTION 13 OR 15(d) OF THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE ACT OF 1934
For the fiscal year ended December 31, 2020
OR
    TRANSITION REPORT PURSUANT TO SECTION 13 OR 15(d) OF THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE ACT OF 1934
For the transition period from _______ to _______
Commission File Number 001-38678
_____________________________
UPWORK INC.
(Exact name of registrant as specified in its charter)
_____________________________
Delaware46-4337682
(State or other jurisdiction of incorporation or organization)(I.R.S. Employer Identification No.)
2625 Augustine Drive, Suite 601
Santa Clara,
California
95054
(Address of principal executive offices)(Zip Code)
(650) 316-7500
(Registrant’s telephone number, including area code)
_____________________________
Securities registered pursuant to Section 12(b) of the Act:
Title of Each Class
Trading Symbol
Name of Each Exchange on Which Registered
Common Stock, $0.0001 par value per share
UPWK
The Nasdaq Stock Market LLC
Securities registered pursuant to Section 12(g) of the Act:
None
_____________________________
Indicate by check mark if the registrant is a well-known seasoned issuer, as defined in Rule 405 of the Securities Act. Yes x No ¨
Indicate by check mark if the registrant is not required to file reports pursuant to Section 13 or Section 15(d) of the Act. Yes ¨ No x
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant (1) has filed all reports required to be filed by Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to file such reports), and (2) has been subject to such filing requirements for the past 90 days. Yes x No ¨
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has submitted electronically every Interactive Data File required to be submitted pursuant to Rule 405 of Regulation S-T (§232.405 of this chapter) during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to submit such files). Yes x No ¨
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a large accelerated filer, an accelerated filer, a non-accelerated filer, a smaller reporting company, or an emerging growth company. See the definitions of “large accelerated filer,” “accelerated filer,” “smaller reporting company,” and “emerging growth company” in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act.
Large accelerated filerxAccelerated filer
Non-accelerated filer
Smaller reporting company
Emerging growth company
If an emerging growth company, indicate by check mark if the registrant has elected not to use the extended transition period for complying with any new or revised financial accounting standards provided pursuant to Section 13(a) of the Exchange Act. ¨
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has filed a report on and attestation to its management’s assessment of the effectiveness of its internal control over financial reporting under Section 404(b) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (15 U.S.C. 7262(b)) by the registered public accounting firm that prepared or issued its audit report.
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a shell company (as defined in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act). Yes No x
The aggregate market value of voting stock held by non-affiliates of the registrant, as of June 30, 2020, the last business day of the registrant’s most recently completed second quarter, was $1,532,720,862 (based on the closing price for shares of the registrant’s common stock as reported by The Nasdaq Global Select Market on that date).
As of January 31, 2021, there were 124,962,279 shares of the registrant’s common stock outstanding.
DOCUMENTS INCORPORATED BY REFERENCE
Portions of the registrant’s definitive proxy statement for its 2021 Annual Meeting of Stockholders, or Proxy Statement, to be filed within 120 days after the end of the fiscal year covered by this Annual Report on Form 10-K, are incorporated by reference in Part III. Except with respect to information specifically incorporated by reference in this Annual Report, the Proxy Statement shall not be deemed to be filed as part hereof.



TABLE OF CONTENTS
Page
Special Note Regarding Forward-Looking Statements
PART I
Item 1.Business
Item 1A.Risk Factors
Item 1B.Unresolved Staff Comments
Item 2.Properties
Item 3.Legal Proceedings
Item 4.Mine Safety Disclosures
PART II
Item 5.Market for Registrant’s Common Equity, Related Stockholder Matters and Issuer Purchases of Equity Securities
Item 6.Selected Consolidated Financial Data
Item 7.Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations
Item 7A.Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosures About Market Risk
Item 8.Financial Statements and Supplementary Data
Item 9.Changes in and Disagreements With Accountants on Accounting and Financial Disclosure
Item 9A.Controls and Procedures
Item 9B.Other Information
PART III
Item 10.Directors, Executive Officers and Corporate Governance
Item 11.Executive Compensation
Item 12.Security Ownership of Certain Beneficial Owners and Management and Related Stockholder Matters
Item 13.Certain Relationships and Related Transactions, and Director Independence
Item 14.Principal Accountant Fees and Services
PART IV
Item 15.Exhibits and Financial Statement Schedules
Item 16.Form 10-K Summary
Signatures




Unless otherwise expressly stated or the context otherwise requires, references in this Annual Report on Form 10-K, which we refer to as this Annual Report or report, to “Upwork,” “Company,” “our,” “us,” and “we” and similar references refer to Upwork Inc. and its wholly-owned subsidiaries.



SPECIAL NOTE REGARDING FORWARD-LOOKING STATEMENTS
This Annual Report contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of the federal securities laws. All statements contained in this Annual Report, other than statements of historical fact, including statements regarding our future operating results and financial position, our business strategy and plans, potential growth or growth prospects, client spend retention, core clients, future research and development, sales and marketing and general and administrative expenses, provision for transaction losses, our objectives for future operations, and potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, or expectations regarding actions we may take in response to the pandemic, are forward-looking statements. Words such as “believes,” “may,” “will,” “estimates,” “potential,” “continues,” “anticipates,” “intends,” “expects,” “could,” “would,” “projects,” “plans,” “targets,” and variations of such words and similar expressions are intended to identify forward-looking statements.
We have based these forward-looking statements largely on our current expectations and projections as of the date of this filing about future events and trends that we believe may affect our financial condition, results of operations, business strategy, short-term and long-term business operations and objectives, and financial needs. These forward-looking statements are subject to a number of risks, uncertainties and assumptions, including those described in Part I, Item 1A, “Risk Factors” in this Annual Report. Readers are urged to carefully review and consider the various disclosures made in this Annual Report and in other documents we file from time to time with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which we refer to as the SEC, that disclose risks and uncertainties that may affect our business. Moreover, we operate in a very competitive and rapidly changing environment. New risks emerge from time to time. It is not possible for us to predict all risks, nor can we assess the impact of all factors on our business or the extent to which any factor, or combination of factors, may cause actual results to differ materially from those contained in any forward-looking statements we may make. In light of these risks, uncertainties, and assumptions, the future events and circumstances discussed in this Annual Report may not occur and actual results could differ materially and adversely from those anticipated or implied in the forward-looking statements.
You should not rely upon forward-looking statements as predictions of future events. The events and circumstances reflected in the forward-looking statements may not be achieved or occur. Although we believe that the expectations reflected in the forward-looking statements are reasonable, we cannot guarantee future results, performance, or achievements. In addition, the forward-looking statements in this Annual Report are made as of the date of this filing, and we do not undertake, and expressly disclaim any duty, to update such statements for any reason after the date of this Annual Report or to conform statements to actual results or revised expectations, except as required by law.
You should read this Annual Report and the documents that we reference herein and have filed with the SEC as exhibits to this Annual Report with the understanding that our actual future results, performance, and events and circumstances may be materially different from what we expect.
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PART I
Item 1. Business.
Overview
We are changing the way work gets done by placing independent talent at the heart of every business.
We operate the world’s largest work marketplace that connects businesses, which we refer to as clients, with independent talent, as measured by gross services volume, which we refer to as GSV1.
Independent talent on our work marketplace, which we refer to as freelancers, and, together with clients, as users, include independent professionals and agencies of varying sizes and are an increasingly sought-after, critical, and expanding segment of the global workforce. During the year ended December 31, 2020, our work marketplace enabled $2.5 billion of GSV. We define freelancers as users that advertise and provide services to clients through our work marketplace, and we define clients as users that work with freelancers through our work marketplace.
For freelancers, we serve as a powerful marketing channel to find rewarding, engaging, and flexible work. Freelancers benefit from access to quality clients and secure and timely payments while enjoying the freedom to run their own businesses, create their own schedules, and work from their preferred locations. Moreover, freelancers have real-time visibility into opportunities that are in high demand, so that they can invest their time and focus on developing sought-after skills.
For clients, our work marketplace provides fast, secure, and efficient access to high-quality talent with over 10,000 skills across over 90 categories, such as sales and marketing, customer service, data science and analytics, design and creative, and web, mobile, and software development. We offer a direct-to-talent approach as an alternative to traditional intermediaries such as staffing firms, recruiters, and agencies by providing high-quality independent talent and features that help build trusted relationships and instill trust in remote work, including the ability to engage freelancers as either independent contractors or as employees of third-party staffing providers. Our work marketplace also enables clients to streamline workflows, such as talent sourcing, outreach, and contracting. In addition, our work marketplace provides access to essential functionality for remote engagements with freelancers, including communication and collaboration, time tracking, invoicing, and payment. Our clients range in size from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies.
We believe that a key differentiator and driver of our growth is our track record of creating trust and enabling our users to successfully connect at scale. As the world’s largest work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent, as measured by GSV, we benefit from network effects that drive growth in both the number of clients posting jobs and the number of freelancers seeking work. Our growth is driven by long-term and recurring use of our work marketplace by our users.
We generate revenue from both freelancers and clients, with a majority of our revenue generated from service fees charged to freelancers. We also generate revenue from fees charged to both clients and freelancers for other services, such as for transacting payments through our work marketplace, premium offerings, purchases of “Connects” (virtual tokens that allow freelancers to bid on projects on our work marketplace), foreign currency exchange, and our Upwork Payroll offering. In addition, we provide a managed services offering where we engage freelancers to complete projects, directly invoice the client, and assume responsibility for work performed.
COVID-19 Impact on Our Business
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in governmental authorities implementing numerous measures to contain the virus, including travel bans and restrictions, shelter-in-place orders, and business limitations and shutdowns. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions intended to prevent its spread have accelerated the secular shift toward remote and independent work. In 2020, we continued to identify opportunities to prioritize our advertising and marketing efforts in order to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with independent talent due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as companies that have already embraced a remote work model. As a result of these efforts, coupled with our execution against strategic initiatives, our 2020 results were fueled by both existing and new clients, who used Upwork to address their changing business needs.
We are continuously evaluating the nature of and extent to which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will impact our business, operating results, and financial condition. For a more detailed discussion of the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic disruptions, and the actual operational and financial impacts that we have experienced to date, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.”
1 GSV represents the total amount that clients spend on both our marketplace offerings and our managed services offering as well as additional fees we charge to both clients and freelancers for other services. For additional information related to how we calculate GSV, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of OperationsOverviewBusiness” and “Key Financial and Operational Metrics.”
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Our Work Marketplace
We operate the world’s largest work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent, as measured by GSV. We believe the following core aspects of our work marketplace provide us with a competitive advantage:
Trusted Work Marketplace
Our work marketplace fosters trust and credibility among freelancers and clients, while reducing the friction associated with searching for, contracting and collaborating with, and paying highly-skilled independent talent for short-term and longer-term projects. We use a combination of the latest technology, data science, product features, and our skilled team to position our work marketplace as a trusted online marketplace to get work done. We build and use software to highlight relevant freelancers, facilitate security and identity verification for account ownership, and flag suspicious posts. We provide clients with tools to validate work performed by freelancers and to provide both public and private feedback once the work is completed. Our feedback system enables freelancers to build their business reputation by establishing long-term credibility with project review and verified client feedback. Freelancers’ profiles also include data from their work history on our work marketplace, including client feedback, number of hours billed, projects completed, and amount earned. This validated expertise is a critical factor to build trust and promote brand loyalty, giving clients confidence in hiring freelancers for their next project. Additionally, we provide escrow services to help ensure that clients on our work marketplace only pay for work that has been completed and freelancers are paid by their clients in full and on time.
Proprietary Data Drives Increasing Efficiencies
We have built an expansive and unique repository of data on our work marketplace. Our proprietary database maintains detailed and dynamic information, including skills provided by freelancers, feedback, and success indicators of freelancers and clients transacting on our work marketplace. Using this data in our machine learning algorithms enables us to provide a trusted, convenient, and effective experience for both new and existing users and enables clients to better connect with available independent talent for their projects. Moreover, our machine learning algorithms leverage our closed-loop transaction data on millions of completed projects. The large volume of transactions on our work marketplace positions us to improve the effectiveness of our search algorithms and product features.
Robust Functionality
Our work marketplace includes a proposal tracking system, search engine and collaboration functionality, artificial intelligence-driven talent matching and proposal ranking capabilities, time tracking and invoicing systems, and payments services. The robust functionality of our work marketplace is designed to enable freelancers to more easily run their businesses and clients to find and work with high-quality talent on a global scale.
Powerful Global Network Effects
We have heavily invested in building a robust work marketplace with features and functionalities to connect freelancers and clients at scale. We believe our work marketplace provides a strong value proposition for both clients and freelancers and our scale creates powerful network effects that strengthen our competitive position. In turn, as more clients use and post projects on our work marketplace, we are able to attract more freelancers. As a result, we have been able to scale our business and our global community of users efficiently and without the need for local physical presence.
Business Model with Strong Retention Metrics
The growth of our business is driven by long-term and recurring use of our work marketplace by freelancers and clients, which leads to increased revenue visibility. For example, for the year ended December 31, 2020, in addition to acquiring new clients, our client spend retention was 102%. For additional information related to how we calculate client spend retention, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations—Key Financial and Operational Metrics.” In addition, we believe the scale of our work marketplace incentivizes freelancers to build their business reputations and continue to use our work marketplace.
Our Products
We have marketplace offerings and a managed services offering. Our marketplace offerings include Upwork Basic, Upwork Plus, Upwork Enterprise, and Upwork Payroll.
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Upwork Basic
Our Upwork Basic offering provides clients with access to independent talent with verified work history on our work marketplace and client feedback, the ability to instantly match with the right freelancers, and built-in collaboration features.
Upwork Plus
Our Upwork Plus offering is designed for teams looking to stand out to quality talent and scale hiring quickly. In addition to receiving all the product features of Upwork Basic, Upwork Plus clients can access personalized assistance, whether strategic or job-specific. They also receive perks such as a verified client badge and highlighted job posts, which stand out to top freelancers and help clients achieve results.
Upwork Enterprise
Our Upwork Enterprise offering is designed for larger clients. Upwork Enterprise clients receive all the product features of Upwork Plus, in addition to consolidated billing and monthly invoicing, a dedicated team of advisors, detailed reporting with company insights and trends to enable clients to hire faster and more successfully, and the opportunity for clients to onboard pre-existing independent talent onto our work marketplace. Upwork Enterprise also offers access to additional product features, premium access to top freelancers, professional services, and payment terms flexibility. Additionally, through our enterprise compliance offering, clients can engage us to determine whether a freelancer should be classified as an employee or an independent contractor based on the scope of freelancer services agreed between the client and freelancer and other factors.
Upwork Payroll
Our Upwork Payroll service, one of our premium offerings, is available to clients when they choose to work with freelancers they engage through Upwork as employees. With Upwork Payroll, clients have access to third-party staffing providers to employ their workers so that they can meet their talent needs through our work marketplace.
Managed Services Offering
Through our managed services offering, we engage freelancers directly or as employees of third-party staffing providers to perform services for clients on our behalf, directly invoice the client, and assume responsibility for work performed.
Escrow Services
We are licensed as an internet escrow agent by the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, which we refer to as the DFPI. Pursuant to applicable regulations, funds that we hold on behalf of users are held in our escrow account and are released only according to escrow instructions that have been agreed upon by users. For fixed-price contracts, the client deposits funds that are held in escrow, in whole or by milestone, before the freelancer starts to work. The escrow funds are then released to the freelancer upon completion of a project or a milestone. For hourly contracts, the client receives a weekly invoice on Sunday, at which point the funds for the invoice are placed in escrow, and has several days to review the invoice. Funds are released to the freelancer after the review period, unless the client files a dispute. In the case of any dispute between freelancers and clients over funds held in escrow, we have a dedicated team focused on facilitating a resolution between them.
Our Team and Culture
Our mission—to create economic opportunities so people have better lives—is integral to our culture and how we build amazing teams and products to lead our industry. We enable remote work not only through our work marketplace but for our own team members, and are proud to do so, notably for its positive environmental contributions, among a host of other reasons. Our team consists of freelancers, corporate employees, and advisors. Our team members are distributed around the world, and while we have corporate offices, we do not rely on in-person collaboration. Our team works with a variety of tools and has adopted practices to ensure all voices are heard, innovation is fostered, and results are achieved. Our hybrid team, and its belief in our mission and values, is critical to our success. With the consistent investment in the development of our team and our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging, we cultivate an environment where people are able to be themselves at work and perform to the best of their abilities.
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Our company values are:
• Inspire a boundless future of work;
• Put our community first;
• Have a bias toward action; and
• Build amazing teams.
Our People. Our mission not only drives the creation and continuous development of our work marketplace, but it is also integral to how we engage our employees and our approach to creating and fostering an inclusive environment that promotes and encourages diversity, inclusion, belonging, career development, and wellness. As of December 31, 2020, we had approximately 540 employees, and in 2020, we engaged approximately 1,500 freelancers to provide services to us on a variety of internal projects. None of our team members are represented by a labor union or are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. We believe the positive relationship between us and our team members and our unique, strong culture differentiate us and are key drivers of our business success.
Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. We put our people and their experiences first. In 2020, we took a strong stance internally and externally to reinforce our commitment to being an antiracist company. We view belonging as a feeling, inclusion as a practice, and diversity as an outcome.
We foster belonging through our employee resource groups and listening sessions that build empathy and promote skill-building education. We cultivate inclusion by equipping managers with tools to effectively build and lead amazing and inclusive teams that amplify team members’ voices. Additionally, we practice multi-dimensional compensation and mobility reviews during our semi-annual employee performance evaluation process. This is led by a cross-functional team of human resource and legal leaders to help ensure we are fair in our rewards and recognition strategy. To bolster our diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts, we also utilize an internal transfer review board to help ensure equity in internal mobility practices throughout the company as an ongoing priority. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging is a journey, not a destination, and, as such, we will continue to explore ways to cultivate an inclusive culture where every team member belongs.
Training and Development. As an organization built on talent and skills development, we understand the value of providing our employees with ongoing professional development and leadership opportunities so that they can advance their careers. Led by our dedicated learning and development team, we offer our team members an array of learning and development opportunities, including a variety of in-person and online training sessions and workshops.
Benefits and Competitive Compensation. Beyond our training and development efforts, we take pride in offering competitive, market-based compensation and benefits. We engage compensation consultants to benchmark our employee compensation with external sources to ensure fair and equitable pay practices, and alignment of our executive compensation with stockholder interests. Merit increases and promotions are awarded based on an individual’s impact within the organization and an established business need, and in consideration with market data. Knowing our employees have diverse needs and life priorities, we also provide expanded benefits to those eligible, which include core benefits such as medical, dental, and vision insurance, in addition to benefits tailored to the specific needs of our employees, such as mental health, fertility, and adoption support. We also support and encourage our employees to give back to our communities by giving each employee two days a year of “Volunteer Time Off” to dedicate to the causes that matter most to them, as well as opportunities to engage in community volunteer efforts both in person and remotely throughout the year.
Team Member Feedback. We engage our workforce in meaningful ways and take timely action in response to their feedback. While our culture and engagement process starts during the new team member onboarding process, one way we sustain our feedback loop is via an industry-recognized team member engagement platform. Through the platform, we survey Upwork team members on a regular basis to gather feedback. In 2020, our average employee response rate was 86%, and our average employee satisfaction score was 79, which is 6 points above our industry benchmark. We received notably high scores with respect to our mission and purpose in these 2020 surveys, as many team members feel invested in our future and continue to regard Upwork as a workplace they would recommend to others. Team members also consistently recognize our efforts to cultivate an inclusive workplace as a positive theme in these surveys. Responses to these surveys and other employee feedback guide our team engagement efforts. We believe that ensuring that our people feel valued, supported, and heard helps us attract, retain, and develop the right talent to lead the company and successfully execute our corporate strategy.
Employee Wellness. Employee safety and well-being is of paramount importance to us in any year and was of particular focus in 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide productivity and collaboration tools and resources for employees working remotely, including training and toolkits to help leaders effectively lead and manage remote teams. In addition, we enhanced and promoted programs to support our employees’ physical, financial, and mental well-being. For example, we regularly conduct internal surveys to assess the well-being and needs of our employees, and we significantly expanded
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employee assistance and mindfulness programs to help employees and their families manage anxiety, stress, sleep, and overall well-being.
Board of Directors Oversight. Our board of directors recognizes the critical importance of our team and the necessity to ensure a diverse, inclusive, and creative work environment that is centered around a values-based culture. Our board of directors meets regularly with management to discuss issues impacting our team members, and to focus on ways to support our workforce. Our focus on culture comes from our board of directors and flows throughout our company. In evaluating our Chief Executive Officer and management team, significant emphasis is put on their contributions to our overall culture.
Sales and Marketing
Our sales and marketing organizations work closely together to increase awareness, generate client demand, build a strong sales pipeline, and grow account relationships across businesses of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies, to accelerate GSV and revenue growth.
Marketing
We have a holistic and integrated marketing strategy with the goal of attracting clients to our work marketplace and helping them select the right product offering based on their business needs. This starts with cost-effectively building awareness of our brand and the key benefits of hiring remote talent over using traditional staffing models, including talent quality, speed to hire, flexibility, and cost effectiveness, all built upon trusted relationships. We draw insights and trends from our work marketplace and primary research studies to drive broad public relations coverage. We also help shape influential conversations around the future of work and the immediate strategic opportunities provided by flexible talent solutions through major media outlets to further drive brand awareness and cement our position as a thought leader.
Building upon our brand positioning, we address key client needs in all our marketing efforts and help point our clients to the right Upwork product based on those needs. We also enjoy the benefits of high Net Promoter Scores, which we refer to as NPS, that generate significant word-of-mouth growth. While a majority of our new client registrations come through direct and non-paid channels, we also increase our new client pipeline with a variety of digital, direct mail, and event marketing programs. We deploy email and life cycle marketing initiatives to retain, cross-sell, and upsell existing clients. We also engage in offline advertising and radio advertising campaigns, as well as TV advertising campaigns. Beginning in the second half of 2019 and continuing in 2020, we began to evolve our offerings, products, brand positioning, and marketing to better address large enterprise, global account, and mid-market prospects and clients with larger, longer-term talent needs. And more recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions intended to prevent its spread, we have prioritized our advertising, marketing, and certain product development efforts to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with independent talent in multiple ways.
We have also increased our focus on enterprise organizations by adding account-based marketing programs that target clients to drive account growth. Once prospects are identified, our enterprise sales team works to broaden adoption of our work marketplace into wider-scale deployments.
Enterprise Sales
Our enterprise sales team consists of business development representatives and other quota-carrying account executives who are focused on acquiring new clients with more than 250 employees. Specifically, our business development representatives are focused on generating qualified opportunities within our target account profile, which include both inbound and self-service customer upgrades. These opportunities are delivered to account executives focused on selling our Upwork Enterprise offering. Additionally, our quota-carrying account management and success teams help new and existing clients scale usage of our work marketplace throughout their organizations. We achieve this by executing awareness campaigns, persona-based workshops, webinars, and account-based marketing campaigns that drive additional client spend through our work marketplace. We believe this land-and-expand strategy helps clients ramp their usage of our work marketplace and drives more value, awareness, and adoption over time.
Our Technology
We invest substantial resources in research and development to enhance our platform, develop new products and features, and improve our infrastructure. We utilize a flexible systems architecture to allow us to scale easily as our platform usage increases and to provide a consistent and robust user experience. We host our platform on Amazon Web Services, which we refer to as AWS. The core focus of our technology is on:
Reliability
Our infrastructure is designed to provide high reliability and robust platform performance. There are three components to our reliability strategy:
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1.Services-Oriented Architecture. We have focused on building a services-oriented architecture that is designed to independently scale, or failover, as needed, leveraging the AWS platform. As a result, we believe we are more resilient to unexpected surges in traffic or to new code changes that we may introduce.
2.Isolation as a Design Philosophy. Leveraging the philosophy of domain-driven design, we have divided our platform into multiple sections to reduce the likelihood that a failure in any one section would negatively impact other sections of our platform.
3.Intelligent Monitoring and Automated Remediation. Our platform is designed to continuously monitor its own health and act appropriately, particularly during our deployment of new code or in response to any single infrastructure or platform issue.
Security
Our platform is designed to help ensure the security of our data and systems, protect our users’ personal information, and to meet the rigorous privacy and security requirements of our enterprise clients. To that end, we have obtained the following security and privacy certifications: ISO 27001 and 27018, SOC 2 Type II certification, PCI-DSS certification, and U.S.-EU and U.S.-Swiss Privacy Shield certifications. We are also TrustArc certified.
Our information security controls operate at multiple levels and are designed to detect, prevent, and mitigate cybersecurity threats that could impact the privacy and security of our data and our users’ data. To operate at scale, we have automated several risk mitigation strategies. We have implemented comprehensive trust and safety processes to help prevent and detect suspicious behavior on our platform. Over the years of developing our work marketplace, we have developed and refined specific pattern-matching algorithms to detect unusual behavior on our work marketplace.
Another component of our security strategy is to leverage third parties who provide value-added user verification services. Augmenting user identity verification through these third-party services improves our ability to ensure users are accurately represented and minimize suspicious activity on our platform.
All access to our platform is encrypted using industry-standard transport layer security technology. When users enter sensitive information, such as tax identification numbers, we encrypt the transmission of that information using secure socket layer technology. We also use HTTP strict transport security to add an additional layer of protection for our users. For servers that store personally identifiable information, the data is encrypted. In order to make secure payments through our platform, we are Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard certified, which means we have demonstrated compliance with the Payment Card Industry security standards required for businesses that complete credit card or debit card transactions.
Our users may elect to further secure their account credentials through two-factor authentication that requires them to authenticate on a second device.
Machine Learning Predictive Capabilities
We leverage historical data to create a continuously improving experience for our users. Our platform contains a large repository of closed-loop data for the entire life cycle of work, starting from when clients post projects to when freelancers and clients match, how they communicate, how and when payment is transferred, and feedback.
Utilizing machine learning capabilities to predict future behavior based on many years of historical use cases, we are able to leverage this data analysis to create stronger user experiences.
During the search process, we leverage our proprietary data to help freelancers and clients efficiently connect. We leverage machine learning to balance supply and demand within the platform as well. Freelancers receive data on market rates based on similar jobs when submitting proposals. When clients post jobs, similar rate resources also appear within the system. Upon registration, our machine learning algorithms assess a freelancer’s potential to be successful on our work marketplace.
Scalability
Our cloud-based platform has been designed to be elastic, scaling automatically with increased usage, supporting sudden traffic spikes by dynamically bringing additional capacity online as required, then scaling back to ensure consistent and predictable cost-management.
The Upwork Foundation Initiative
In April 2018, we established The Upwork Foundation initiative. The objective of The Upwork Foundation initiative is to further our mission of creating economic opportunities to make people’s lives better by supporting:
those who may not otherwise fully benefit from the changing nature of work, including through organizations focused on skill development in underserved communities;
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non-profit organizations to increase their social impact by using our work marketplace; and
our employees in volunteering in their local communities.
The initiative includes a donor-advised fund created through the Tides Foundation. We believe that building a sustainable program for charitable donations fosters workforce morale, enhances our community presence, and strengthens our brand. In May 2018, we issued a warrant to purchase 500,000 shares of our common stock to the Tides Foundation at an exercise price of $0.01 per share. This warrant is exercisable for 1/10th of the shares on each anniversary of the effective date of our initial public offering, which we refer to as the IPO. Upon each exercise and sale of these shares, we instruct the Tides Foundation to donate the proceeds at our direction, the recipients of which are non-profit organizations with values that align with our mission to create economic opportunities so people have better lives.
In addition to the creation of The Upwork Foundation initiative, we have signed on to the Pledge 1% campaign, which publicly acknowledges our intent to give back and increase social impact. To fulfill our intent under this campaign, in addition to granting the warrant to the Tides Foundation, we have also implemented programs allowing our employees to donate their time to volunteer programs and have undertaken certain product initiatives designed to benefit nonprofit organizations. We believe this will further display to our employees and other stakeholders our commitment to further our mission across many communities. At this time, we do not plan to grant additional equity or donate cash in order to fulfill our intent under this campaign.
Competition
The market segment for freelancers and the clients that engage them is highly competitive, rapidly evolving, fragmented, and subject to changing technology, shifting needs, and frequent introductions of new competitors as well as new products and services. The level of competition within, and the frequency and likelihood of increased third-party investment and new competitors entering, such market segment may intensify further due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting increase in remote work, macroeconomic downturn, and increased unemployment rates. We compete with a number of online and offline platforms and services domestically and internationally to attract and retain users and expand our share of user spend.
We believe the principal competitive factors in our market segment include:
platform features and functionality, including efficient and accelerated time to hire;
verified freelancer work history and client payment history;
size and engagement of user base, including the ability to attract and retain clients with a need for independent talent services;
breadth of skill categories offered by a platform’s rated quality talent;
availability of high-quality projects from clients of all sizes, including Fortune 100 companies;
uniqueness, size, and scope of data assets;
ease of use;
brand awareness and reputation;
level of user satisfaction;
relationships with third-party partners;
strength of sales and marketing efforts;
ability to innovate and develop new or improved products and services; and
pricing.
We believe that we compete favorably with respect to these factors.
Intellectual Property
The protection of our technology and intellectual property is an important aspect of our business. We rely upon a combination of patents, trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights, confidentiality procedures, contractual commitments, and other legal rights to establish and protect our intellectual property. We generally enter into confidentiality agreements and invention or work product assignment agreements with our employees, freelancers, advisors, and consultants to control access to, and clarify ownership of, our software and other inventions and intellectual property, documentation, and other proprietary information.
As of December 31, 2020, we held 24 issued U.S. patents and had two U.S. patent applications pending. As of December 31, 2020, we held nine registered trademarks in the United States, including Upwork, Elance, and oDesk and also held 152
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registered trademarks in foreign jurisdictions. We continually review our development efforts to assess the existence and patentability of new intellectual property.
Government Regulation
We are subject to a number of U.S. federal and state and foreign laws and regulations that are applicable to internet companies and businesses that operate online marketplaces connecting businesses with freelancers. These laws and regulations may involve worker classification, employment, data protection, online payment services, content regulation, intellectual property, taxation, consumer protection, background checks, payment services, money transmitter regulations, anti-corruption, anti-money laundering and sanctions laws, or other subjects. Moreover, we provide escrow services to our users and are therefore licensed as an internet escrow agent by the DFPI. Many of the laws and regulations that are or may be applicable to our business are still evolving and being tested in courts and could be interpreted in ways that could adversely impact our business. In addition, the application and interpretation of these laws and regulations often are uncertain, particularly in the industry in which we operate. We believe we are in compliance with such laws and regulations and do not expect continued compliance to have a material impact on our capital expenditures, earnings, or competitive position. We continue to monitor existing and pending laws and regulations and while the impact of regulatory changes cannot be predicted with certainty, we do not expect compliance to have a material adverse effect.
Corporate Information
We were incorporated in the State of Delaware in December 2013 prior to and in connection with the combination of Elance, Inc., which we refer to as Elance, and oDesk Corporation, which we refer to as oDesk. In connection with the combination, we changed our name to Elance-oDesk, Inc. in March 2014, and then to Upwork Inc. in May 2015. In 2015, we commenced consolidation of the Elance platform and the oDesk platform and following the consolidation in 2016, began operating under a single work marketplace.
Our principal executive offices are located at 2625 Augustine Drive, Suite 601, Santa Clara, California 95054, and our mailing address is 655 Montgomery Street, Suite 490, Department 17022, San Francisco, California 94111. Our telephone number is (650) 316-7500. Our website address is www.upwork.com. The information contained on, or that can be accessed through, our website is not a part of this Annual Report. Investors should not rely on any such information in deciding whether to purchase our common stock. Unless otherwise expressly stated or the context otherwise requires, references in this Annual Report to “Upwork,” the “Company,” “our,” “us,” and “we” and similar references refer to Upwork Inc. and its wholly-owned subsidiaries.
Upwork, the Upwork logo, Upwork Enterprise, Elance, oDesk, Elance-oDesk, and other registered or common law trade names, trademarks, or service marks of Upwork appearing in this Annual Report are the property of Upwork. This Annual Report contains additional trade names, trademarks, and service marks of ours and of other companies. We do not intend our use or display of other companies’ trade names, trademarks, or service marks to imply a relationship with these other companies, or endorsement or sponsorship of us by these other companies. Other trademarks appearing in this Annual Report are the property of their respective holders. Solely for convenience, our trademarks and trade names referred to in this Annual Report appear without the ® and ™ symbols, but those references are not intended to indicate, in any way, that we will not assert, to the fullest extent under applicable law, our rights, or the right of the applicable licensor, to these trademarks and trade names.
Available Information
We file annual reports on Form 10-K, quarterly reports on Form 10-Q, current reports on Form 8-K, and amendments to reports filed or furnished pursuant to Sections 13(a) and 15(d) of the Exchange Act with the SEC. The SEC maintains a website at www.sec.gov that contains reports, proxy and information statements and other information that we file with the SEC electronically. Copies of our reports on Form 10-K, Forms 10-Q, and Forms 8-K, and amendments to those reports may also be obtained, free of charge, electronically through our investor relations website located at the web address appearing below as soon as reasonably practicable after we file such material with, or furnish it to, the SEC.
We use our investor relations website (investors.upwork.com/), our Twitter handle (twitter.com/Upwork), and Hayden Brown’s Twitter handle (twitter.com/hydnbrwn) and LinkedIn profile (linkedin.com/in/haydenlbrown) as a means of disseminating or providing notification of, among other things, news or announcements regarding our business or financial performance, investor events, press releases, and earnings releases and as a means of disclosing material non-public information and for complying with our disclosure obligations under Regulation FD. The content of our websites and information that we may post on or provide to online and social media channels, including those mentioned above, and information that can be accessed through our websites or these online and social media channels are not incorporated by reference into this Annual Report or in any other report or document we file with the SEC, and any references to our websites or these online and social media channels are intended to be inactive textual references only.
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Item 1A. Risk Factors.
A description of the risks and uncertainties associated with our business is set forth below. You should carefully consider the risks and uncertainties described below, as well as the other information in this Annual Report, including our consolidated financial statements and the related notes and “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.” The occurrence of any of the events or developments described below, or of additional risks and uncertainties not presently known to us or that we currently deem immaterial, could materially and adversely affect our business, results of operations, financial condition, and growth prospects. In such an event, the market price of our common stock could decline and you could lose all or part of your investment.
Summary of Risk Factors
Some of the more material risks that we face include:
Our growth depends on our ability to attract and retain a community of freelancers and clients, and the loss of our users, failure to maintain or grow spend of our current users, or failure to attract new users could adversely impact our business.
If we fail to attract new users, new users fail to transact at the rates we expect, or we fail to maintain or increase activity by existing users in a cost-effective manner or at all, our revenue will grow more slowly than expected or may decline and our business will be adversely impacted.
We have experienced growth in recent periods and expect to continue to invest in our growth for the foreseeable future. If we are unable to manage our growth effectively, our business, revenue and profits, and financial condition could be adversely affected.
We have a limited operating history under our current business strategy and pricing model, which makes it difficult to evaluate our business and future prospects.
Our business experienced, and may again experience, an adverse impact from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, users may reduce their use of our work marketplace as offices begin to reopen as the pandemic subsides.
We face payment and fraud risks that could adversely impact our business.
Changes to our pricing model have in the past and could in the future adversely affect our business.
If we are unable to maintain our payment partner relationships on favorable terms, or at all, or if our payment partners cease providing services to us, our business could be adversely affected.
Our revenue growth and ability to achieve and sustain profitability will depend in part on being able to increase the productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency of our sales force.
Because we derive the substantial majority of our revenue from our marketplace offerings, our inability to generate revenue from our marketplace offerings would adversely affect our business operations, financial results, and growth prospects.
We face intense competition and could lose market share to our competitors, including if we fail to continue to develop and enhance our existing products and services, which could adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial condition.
If we fail to develop, maintain, and enhance our brand and reputation cost-effectively, our business and financial condition may be adversely affected.
Because a substantial portion of the services offered by freelancers and sought by clients on our work marketplace is information technology services, a decline in freelancers offering information technology services or the market for information technology service providers on our work marketplace could adversely affect our business.
Users circumvent our work marketplace, which could adversely impact our business.
Our sales efforts are increasingly targeted at large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients, and as a result we may encounter greater pricing, implementation, and customization challenges, we may incur additional costs, and we may have to delay revenue recognition for more complicated transactions, each of which could adversely impact our business and operating results.
Errors, defects, or disruptions in our work marketplace, including any security breach, other hacking or phishing attack, or other privacy or security incident, could diminish demand, adversely impact our financial results, and subject us to liability.
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We and our users may be subject to new and existing laws and regulations, both in the United States and internationally.
There may be adverse tax, legal, and other consequences if the contractor classification or employment status of freelancers that use our work marketplace is challenged, and our business could be adversely affected by changes in laws regarding contractor classification.
The success of our business relies on demand for freelancers and any change that affects demand for freelancers, including regulatory or tax changes, or adverse perception regarding use of freelancers, would adversely affect our business.
Having an international community of users and engaging freelancers internationally exposes us to risks that could have an adverse effect on our business, operating results, and financial condition.
We have a history of net losses, anticipate increasing our operating expenses in the future, and may not achieve or sustain profitability.
Our operating results may fluctuate from quarter to quarter, which makes our future results difficult to predict.
The stock price of our common stock has been and may continue to be volatile, and you could lose all or part of your investment.
Adverse or changing economic and political conditions may negatively impact our business.
We may be adversely affected by natural disasters and other catastrophic events, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, by man-made problems such as terrorism, or failures of technology, that could disrupt our business operations and our business continuity and disaster recovery plans may not adequately protect us from a serious disaster.
Risks Related to our Business Operations, Execution, and Growth
Our growth depends on our ability to attract and retain a community of freelancers and clients, and the loss of our users, failure to maintain or grow spend of our current users, or failure to attract new users could adversely impact our business.
The size of our community of users, including both freelancers and clients, is critical to our success. Our ability to achieve significant growth in revenue in the future will depend, in large part, upon our ability to attract new users, including new large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients, to, and retain existing users on, our work marketplace. Moreover, if we retain users but they do not spend at the rates we expect, our growth will be negatively impacted. Achieving growth in, and retention of, our community of users may require us to increasingly engage in sophisticated, costly, and lengthy sales and marketing efforts that may not result in additional users that transact on our work marketplace or effectively retain our current users that transact on our work marketplace, or may not do so in a cost-effective manner. For example, in 2019 and 2020 we made significant investments in sales and marketing to acquire new clients and drive brand awareness, and will continue to do so in 2021. We may also modify our pricing model or other services and features to attract and retain such users. Such modifications may not have the intended effect of attracting and retaining users and may have unintended negative consequences such as a loss of users or a reduction of user activity or spend on our work marketplace. For example, in 2019 and the first half of 2020, we experienced a decline in client spend retention, which we believe was related to the launch of our U.S.-to-U.S. domestic marketplace offering in the second half of 2017.
In particular, as discussed below, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting global macroeconomic downturn adversely affected client spend on our work marketplace for a period of time, and may adversely affect it again. In addition, the increases in user acquisition that we have experienced due in part to the shift toward remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may slow or decline once the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is mitigated and users return more frequently to physical offices or are otherwise no longer subject to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If we fail to attract new users, new users fail to transact at the rates we expect, or we fail to maintain or increase activity by existing users in a cost-effective manner or at all, our revenue will grow more slowly than expected or may decline and our business will be adversely impacted.
Freelancers have many different ways of marketing their services, securing clients, and obtaining payments from clients, including advertising to, meeting, and contacting prospective clients through other online or offline platforms and methods, signing up for online or offline third-party agencies and staffing firms, using other payment services, or finding full-time or part-time on-site or remote employment directly with a business. If we fail to attract new freelancers, freelancers decrease their use of, or cease using, our work marketplace or prefer to take remote employment opportunities that are increasingly available as a result of the shift to remote work, the quality or types of services provided by freelancers that use our work marketplace are
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not satisfactory to clients, or freelancers increase their fees for services more than clients are willing to pay, clients may decrease their use of, or cease using, our work marketplace and our revenue may be adversely impacted.
Clients have similarly diverse options to find and pay service providers, such as engaging and paying service providers directly, finding service providers through other online or offline platforms or through staffing firms and agencies, using other payment services, or hiring temporary, full-time, or part-time employees directly or through an agency.
Beginning in the second half of 2019, we began evolving our offerings, products, brand positioning, and marketing to better address large enterprise, global account, and mid-market prospects and clients with larger, longer-term talent needs. And more recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have prioritized our advertising, marketing, and certain product development efforts to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with remote freelancers in light of the restrictions intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The evolution of these and other efforts, either individually or in the aggregate, may not be successful in producing sales or growing client spend from these target clients, and in the event these efforts result in the loss of or reduction in spend by other clients that is not offset by increased activity from these target clients, they may result in a temporary or long-term deceleration in GSV growth. Moreover, any increase in user acquisition resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic may slow or decline once the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.
Users can generally decide to cease using our work marketplace and related services at any time. Users may stop using our work marketplace and related services if the quality of the user experience on our work marketplace, including our support capabilities in the event of a problem, does not meet their expectations or keep pace with the quality of the user experience generally offered by competitive products and services. Users may also choose, and in the past have chosen, to cease using our work marketplace if they perceive that our pricing model, including associated fees, is not in line with the value they derive from our work marketplace, or for other reasons, including cost-cutting measures or other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, as discussed below in the risk factor titled “Users circumvent our work marketplace, which could adversely impact our business,” users circumvent the payment services on our work marketplace and pay freelancers directly or through another service, which is likely to happen more frequently during a macroeconomic downturn, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as users may be more cost sensitive or reduce their spending altogether during such period. In addition, expenditures by clients may be cyclical and may reflect overall macroeconomic conditions or budgeting patterns.
Additionally, for the years ended December 31, 2019 and 2018, we generated more than 10% of our revenue from one client, to which we provide services through our managed services offering. Therefore, a decrease in revenue from this client could have an adverse effect on our operating results. Moreover, revenue from this client has grown at a slower rate than revenue generated from the rest of our business, and we anticipate this trend to continue, which could adversely affect our financial condition.
Any decrease in the attractiveness of our work marketplace, failure to retain users, or reduced spending by clients could lead to decreased activity, diminished network effects, or a drop in GSV on our work marketplace, which could adversely affect our business, revenue, financial condition, and operating results. We expect our GSV to fluctuate between periods due to a number of factors, including the volume and characteristics of projects that are posted by clients on our work marketplace, such as size, duration, pricing, the availability and qualification of freelancers to complete client projects, and other factors.
If users stop using, or reduce their use of, our work marketplace and services for any reason, including the foregoing reasons, our revenue and business would be adversely affected.
We have experienced growth in recent periods and expect to continue to invest in our growth for the foreseeable future. If we are unable to manage our growth effectively, our business, revenue and profits, and financial condition could be adversely affected.
We have experienced growth in a relatively short period of time. For example, our total revenue for the year ended December 31, 2020 was $373.6 million, representing a period-over-period growth rate of 24% over the same period in 2019. This revenue growth was due in part to the shift toward remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore may not be indicative of future growth. Moreover, future period-over-period revenue growth rates, when compared against the third and fourth quarters of 2021, may fail to meet the expectations of investors or securities analysts given the accelerated revenue growth experienced during such periods due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting increased adoption of remote work and reduced seasonality experienced during such periods. Over time, we plan to continue to expand our operations and personnel significantly. Sustaining our growth will place significant demands on our management as well as on our administrative, operational, and financial resources. To manage our growth, we must continue to improve our operational, financial, and management information systems; expand, motivate, and effectively manage and train our workforce; and effectively collaborate with our third-party partners, all of which can be more difficult with an increasingly remote workforce. If we are unable to manage our growth successfully without compromising our quality of service or our profit margins, or if new systems that we implement to assist in managing our growth do not produce the expected benefits, our business, operating results, financial condition, and ability to successfully market our work marketplace and serve our users could be adversely affected.
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Our recent and historical growth should not be considered indicative of our future performance. We have encountered, and will encounter in the future, risks, challenges, and uncertainties frequently experienced by growing companies in rapidly changing industries. If our assumptions regarding these risks, challenges, and uncertainties, which we use to plan and operate our business, are incorrect or change, or if we do not address these risks successfully, our financial condition and operating results could differ materially from our expectations, our growth rates may slow, and our business would be adversely impacted.
We have a limited operating history under our current business strategy and pricing model, which makes it difficult to evaluate our business and future prospects.
We recently evolved, and will continue to evolve, our sales, marketing, and brand positioning efforts. Recently we have expanded our focus on large enterprise, global account, mid-market, and other clients with larger, longer-term talent needs. In an effort to better serve this market segment, in recent years we have expanded our Upwork Enterprise offering and, in 2019, launched our Upwork Business offering, both of which help enterprises and other larger businesses connect with freelancers and provide these larger clients with additional products and services. We also continue to develop our current offerings and create and test additional premium offerings, features, and services to serve this and other market segments. We regularly launch new offerings, including two recent offerings “Direct Contracts,” a service for freelancers to easily charge clients that are not registered users on Upwork’s work marketplace, and “Project Catalog,” through which freelancers offer pre-scoped projects easily purchased via a click-and-buy experience. Not all offerings achieve market acceptance at the levels we expect and therefore may not be cost-effective to maintain. For example, in the fourth quarter of 2020, we decided that it was no longer cost-effective for our sales team to sell our Upwork Business offering. This decision resulted in a reduction in force of approximately one-third of our sales employees in November 2020.
Changes in our offerings and pricing, and the continued evolution of our business strategy and related pricing, subject us to a number of uncertainties, including our ability to plan for and model future growth and make accurate projections regarding our future performance. Our historical revenue growth should not be considered indicative of our future performance. In particular, there can be no assurance that our increased revenue growth due in part to the shift toward remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will continue following relaxation or lifting of restrictions intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We have encountered, and will continue to encounter, risks, difficulties, and uncertainties frequently experienced by growing companies in rapidly changing industries, including our ability to achieve market acceptance of our work marketplace and offerings and attract and retain users, as well as increasing competition and expenses as we continue to grow our business. In addition, we have in the past seen, and may in the future see, unexpected or unintended effects, sometimes negative, as a result of changes to our pricing model, products and offerings, and sales, brand positioning, and marketing efforts, including a failure to attract new clients that spend on our work marketplace or the loss of spend from existing clients. For example, in 2019 and the first half of 2020, we experienced a decline in client spend retention, which we believe was related to the launch of our U.S.-to-U.S. domestic marketplace offering in the second half of 2017. Also, in 2016, we implemented a significant change to our pricing model, which, for a period of time following the pricing change, contributed to GSV growing at a faster rate than revenue. We cannot ensure that we will be successful in addressing these and other challenges we may face in the future, and our business may be adversely affected if we do not manage these challenges successfully.
Our business experienced, and may again experience, an adverse impact from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, users may reduce their use of our work marketplace as offices begin to reopen as the pandemic subsides.
The COVID-19 pandemic adversely impacted our business for a period of time and has resulted in reductions in demand for our products and services by some of our clients, including our small- and medium-sized business clients, which have been most impacted by the resulting macroeconomic downturn and from which we derive a substantial portion of our GSV and revenue. If these clients continue to reduce their spending or cease operations entirely, the COVID-19 pandemic may have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition, results of operations, and cash flows. Conversely, in 2020 we experienced an increase in GSV and revenue growth driven by an acceleration in the shift toward remote work, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. These positive impacts may not continue following the COVID-19 pandemic and the relaxation or lifting of restrictions intended to prevent its spread.
The extent to which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will adversely affect our business, financial condition, results of operations, and cash flow will depend on future developments, which are highly uncertain and cannot reasonably be predicted with confidence at this time, including the duration, spread, and severity of the outbreak, or the occurrence of additional “waves” of the outbreak; the timing and efficacy of vaccinations; government responses to the pandemic and potential restrictions on our business and the businesses of our users; the impact of the pandemic on the U.S. and global economies and demand for our offerings; how quickly and to what extent normal economic and operating conditions resume; and the reaction of users and potential users to these developments, among others. The potential impacts of such developments include, but are not limited to:
decline in demand on our work marketplace, resulting in lower GSV and lower revenue, following relaxation or lifting of restrictions intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19;
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reduced client spend on our products and services;
diminished ability to acquire new clients, particularly large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients;
increased costs or reduced revenue as a result of marketing and promotional efforts to reach and support those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic;
increased risk of fraud or other illegal activity conducted by bad actors seeking to take advantage of our users or us due to the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic;
longer sales cycles due to slower decision-making, reduced budgets, or delays in planned work by existing and potential clients;
reduced GSV and revenue as a result of increased user circumvention of our work marketplace;
reduced availability of key personnel to conduct important business activities, such as providing support to users and developing new products or offerings;
any impairment charges on our operating lease asset being recognized as a general and administrative expense due to a reduction to our office space and our potential sublease of such office space at a rental rate that is less than our rent expense for such office space, or any termination fees we may incur as a result of our termination of the operating lease for such office space;
impacts on payment partners, disbursement partners, or other critical third-party partners that may cause delays in processing payments to freelancers or other important functions of our work marketplace, result in an increase in payment transaction costs, lead to loss of revenue, or cause a decline in quality or availability of services, negatively affect our reputation or user activity on our work marketplace, or increase our operating costs;
delayed or missed client payments to us or freelancers on our work marketplace, which may also result in increased transaction losses, numbers of disputes with users, and costs as we seek to compel payment, which we may not be able to recover;
reduced spend by clients or availability of freelancers located in areas or regions more affected by the COVID-19 pandemic;
reduced ability to attract, train, integrate, and retain highly-skilled personnel;
reduced GSV and revenue as a result of freelancers reducing the fees they charge to clients due to an excess number of freelancers joining our work marketplace;
difficulty in business planning and forecasting due to significant uncertainty in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all aspects of our business and on our clients and freelancers and other business partners;
significant disruption of global financial markets, which may impact our ability to access capital now or in the future or make capital available only on terms less favorable to us;
reduced sublease income as a result of our sublease tenants being unable or unwilling to make the rental payments set forth in their respective sublease agreement;
the diversion of resources and attention of our management and workforce away from important ongoing initiatives, including the introduction of new, or modifications to existing, offerings and products, as well as long-term strategic investments and business objectives;
impairments to our goodwill or other long-term assets if their carrying value exceeds their fair value;
increased obligations to satisfy our escrow funding requirements with our own funds or by drawing on our line of credit as a result of more frequent declines of client payment methods or increased client-issued chargebacks, which would negatively impact our cash flows and may result in higher credit card processing fees; and
de-globalization, which may result in clients being less willing to connect with non-U.S. users of our work marketplace.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic did not have a material adverse impact on our financial results for the year ended December 31, 2020, the rapidly changing market and macroeconomic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the business of many of our clients, which resulted in a reduction in spend on our work marketplace for some of those affected clients. There can be no assurance that the positive impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as increased client acquisitions, increased client spend, and increased client retention, will continue to offset those parts of our business that have been adversely impacted. Many of these risk factors are unpredictable and outside of our control, and any of these factors could
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amplify the other risks and uncertainties described elsewhere in this Annual Report. It is uncertain what impact that the various legislative and other government responses being undertaken in the United States and other countries in which our users are located will have on the economy, our industry, our partners, our users, and our company. In connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also implemented measures to protect the health of our workforce, including by requiring most of our employees to work remotely for an indefinite period of time. These measures may negatively impact the health and safety of our employees, impact workforce productivity, increase the risk of data security breaches and other privacy and security incidents, and may cause other disruptions to our business. As and to the extent offices reopen, our efforts to comply with applicable health guidelines may not prove sufficient to protect the health of our employees and other visitors to our offices, or that our adoption of these measures will not adversely affect our business operations. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, we may continue to experience adverse impacts to our business due to the macroeconomic downturn that has occurred as a result and is likely to continue in the future. Furthermore, any increase in client acquisition due to the shift toward remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may slow or decline once the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is mitigated and users are no longer subject to government restrictions intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
We face payment and fraud risks that could adversely impact our business.
Our work marketplace systems and controls relating to user authentication and fraud detection are complex. If our user authentication and fraud detection measures are not effective, our work marketplace may be perceived as not being secure, our reputation may be harmed, and our business may be adversely impacted. In addition, bad actors around the world use increasingly sophisticated methods to engage in illegal activities involving personal information, such as unauthorized or fraudulent use of another’s identity, payment information, or other information; misrepresentation of the user’s identity or skills, including using accounts that they have purchased, sold, or leased; and acquisition or use of credit or debit card details and banking or other payment account information. These types of illegal activities may increase as work marketplaces like ours gain more prominence due to the shift toward remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic or in the event of a macroeconomic downturn, such as the downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, as bad actors seek to take increasing advantage of us or our users. This conduct on our site could result in any of the following, each of which could adversely impact our business:
bad actors may use our work marketplace, including our payment processing and disbursement methods, to engage in unlawful or fraudulent conduct, such as money laundering, terrorist financing, fraudulent sale of services, bribery, breaches of security, unauthorized acquisition of data, piracy or misuse of software and other copyrighted or trademarked content, and other misconduct;
we may be, and historically have been, held liable for the unauthorized use of an account holder’s credit or debit card details and banking or other payment account information and required by card issuers, banks, and other payment partners to return the funds at issue and pay a chargeback or return fee, and if our chargeback or return rate becomes excessive, credit card networks may also require us to pay fines or other fees and the DFPI may require us to hold larger cash reserves;
we may be subject to additional risk and liability exposure, including for negligence, fraud, or other claims, if employees or third-party service providers, including freelancers that provide services to us, misappropriate our banking, payment, or other information or user information for their own gain or to facilitate the fraudulent use of such information;
users that are subjected or exposed to the unlawful, fraudulent, or improper conduct of other users or other third parties may seek to hold us responsible for the conduct of or content posted by users, may lose confidence in our work marketplace, decrease or cease use of our work marketplace, seek to obtain damages and costs, or publicize their negative experience, and law enforcement or administrative agencies could seek to hold us responsible for the conduct of or content posted by users, impose fines and penalties, bring criminal action, or require us to change our business practices, and private or public enforcement may increase depending on interpretations of and possible changes to intermediary liability provisions such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996;
we may be subject to additional risk if clients fail to pay freelancers for services rendered, as freelancers may seek to hold us responsible for the clients’ conduct and may lose confidence in our work marketplace, may decrease or cease use of our work marketplace, or seek to obtain damages and costs;
if freelancers misstate their qualifications or location, provide misinformation about their skills, identity, or otherwise, perform services they are not qualified or authorized to provide, produce insufficient or defective work product, or work product with a viral or other harmful effect, clients or other third parties may seek to hold us responsible for the freelancers’ acts or omissions and may lose confidence in our work marketplace, decrease or cease use of our work marketplace, or seek to obtain damages and costs; and
we may suffer reputational damage adversely impacting our business as a result of the occurrence of any of the above.
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We do not have control over users of our work marketplace and cannot ensure that any measures we have taken to detect, prevent, and mitigate these risks will stop or minimize the use of our work marketplace for, or to further, illegal or improper purposes. We have received in the past, and are likely to continue to receive in the future, increased complaints and inquiries from clients, freelancers, and other third parties, including law enforcement, administrative agencies, and the press, concerning misuse of our work marketplace and wrongful conduct of other users, especially as a result of increased fraudulent activity related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have also brought claims against clients and other third parties for their misuse of our work marketplace, and may be required to bring similar claims in the future. Even if these claims do not result in litigation or are resolved in our favor, these claims, and the time and resources necessary to resolve them, could divert the attention and resources of our management and adversely affect our business and operating results.
Changes to our pricing model have in the past and could in the future adversely affect our business.
We implemented a significant change to our pricing model in 2016, which, for a period of time following the change, contributed to GSV growing at a faster rate than revenue. From time to time we have made, and will continue to make, other changes, including in 2019 when we launched new paid membership types for clients and new Connects pricing for freelancers, which resulted in user dissatisfaction and negatively impacted fill rates for projects on our work marketplace. We anticipate further changes to Connects pricing and policies in the future, which may have a negative impact on our revenue or marketplace take rate. From time to time, we will make further changes to our pricing model due to a variety of reasons, including potentially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, due to changes to the market for our products and services or our business strategy, as new competitors enter our market segment, as we introduce or refine our offerings, as competitors introduce new products and services, and to grow our international user base. Changes to any components of our pricing model, such as the recent changes made in the pricing and packaging of Connects purchases, have and may continue to, among other things, result in user dissatisfaction, lead to a loss of users on our work marketplace, result in a change to the way we recognize revenue, reduce the amount of revenue we generate as a percentage of GSV, reduce the rate or size of projects that get posted or completed on our work marketplace, negatively impact fill rates for projects on our work marketplace, or otherwise negatively impact our operating results, financial condition, and cash flows.
If we are unable to maintain our payment partner relationships on favorable terms, or at all, or if our payment partners cease providing services to us, our business could be adversely affected.
Our payment partners consist of payment processors and disbursement partners. We rely on banks and card processors to provide us with corporate banking services, escrow trust accounts, clearing, processing, and settlement functions for the funding of all transactions on our work marketplace, and we do not always have duplication in vendors in the event one relationship is terminated for any reason. We also rely on a network of disbursement partners to disburse funds to users.
Our payment partners are critical to our business. In order to maintain these relationships, we have in the past been, and may in the future be, forced to agree to terms that are unfavorable to us. If we are unable to maintain our agreements with current payment partners on favorable terms, or at all, or we are unable to enter into new agreements with new payment partners on favorable terms, or at all, our ability to disburse funds and our revenue and business may be adversely affected. This could occur for a number of reasons, including the following:
our payment processors may be unable or unwilling to perform the services we require of them, such as processing payments to freelancers in a timely manner, including in a manner that is satisfactory to us as it relates to compliance with U.S. federal, state, and international laws and regulatory requirements;
we may choose to cease doing business with our payment partners for a number of reasons, including due to allegations of fraud or other impropriety by them or their third-party partners;
our payment partners may be subject to investigation, regulatory enforcement, or other proceedings that result in their inability or unwillingness to provide services to us or our unwillingness to continue to partner with them;
our payment partners could, and, in some cases, have notified us in the past that they would, increase the rates that they charge us or our users, especially in light of changes in those payment partners’ interpretation and enforcement of their rules, increased declines of client payment methods, or increased client-issued chargebacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic;
our payment partners may be unable to effectively accommodate changing service needs, such as those which could result from rapid growth or higher volume or those which relate to international expansion and local jurisdictions;
our payment partners could choose to terminate or not renew their agreements with us, or only be willing to renew on different or less advantageous terms;
our payment partners could reduce the services provided to us, cease doing business with us, or cease doing business altogether;
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our payment partners could be subject to delays, limitations, or closures of their own businesses, networks, or systems, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing them to be unable to process payments or disburse funds for certain periods of time; or
we may be forced to cease doing business with payment processors if card association operating rules, certification requirements and laws, regulations, or rules governing electronic funds transfers to which we are subject change or are interpreted to make it difficult or impossible for us to comply.
For example, in June 2020, Wirecard AG, a prepaid card issuer used by one of our payment partners to issue prepaid cards to our non-U.S. users, filed for insolvency and was ordered by the UK Financial Conduct Authority to cease all licensed activity. As a result, our non-U.S. users who previously chose to withdraw their funds to a prepaid card could not access their funds for several days. The order was eventually lifted, allowing those users to access their funds; however this incident or any similar future incident concerning our payment partners or their respective vendors could cause our users to lose trust in our work marketplace and could have an adverse impact on our business.
Our revenue growth and ability to achieve and sustain profitability will depend in part on being able to increase the productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency of our sales force.
In order to increase our revenue from our premium offerings and achieve and sustain profitability, we must improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our sales force and generate additional revenue from new and existing users. For example, in the fourth quarter of 2020 we completed an evaluation of the efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness of our sales force at generating revenue from our Upwork Business offering, as well as our other premium offerings. As part of this evaluation, we undertook a reduction in force of approximately one-third of our sales employees in an effort to drive efficiencies in our sales organization. There can be no assurance that this reduction will increase the productivity or efficiency of our sales force.
There is significant competition for sales personnel with the skills and technical knowledge required to maintain a productive and efficient sales force. Our ability to achieve significant revenue growth will depend, in large part, on our success in recruiting, training, effectively deploying, and retaining sufficient numbers of sales and sales support personnel to support our growth. It is difficult to find, and we may be unable to retain, a sufficient number of sales personnel with the specific skills and technical knowledge needed to sell our Upwork Enterprise, and other premium offerings. Furthermore, hiring and effectively deploying sales personnel, particularly in new markets, is complex and requires additional costs that we may not recover if the sales personnel fail to achieve full productivity. Even if we are able to hire qualified personnel, doing so may be costly and lengthy, as new sales personnel require significant training and can take a number of months to achieve full productivity. In addition, new sales personnel do not always achieve productivity milestones within the timelines that we have projected, negatively impacting our ability to achieve our long-term financial projections associated with such personnel. Not all of our sales personnel and planned hires have or will become productive, or do so as quickly as we expect. When our new sales personnel do not become fully productive on the timelines that we have projected, or at all, our revenue will not increase at anticipated rates, or at all, and our ability to achieve long-term projections may be negatively impacted. The COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions intended to prevent its spread adversely affected the productivity of our sales force for a period of time, and may adversely affect it again. Moreover, after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, the productivity of our sales force may diminish as users return more frequently to physical offices or are otherwise no longer subject to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic If our sales personnel are not successful in obtaining new business or increasing sales to our existing user base, our business and results of operations will be adversely affected.
Our revenue growth depends in part on the success of our strategic relationships with third parties and their continued performance.
To grow our business, we need to continue to establish and maintain relationships with third parties, such as staffing providers, banks, software and technology vendors, and payment processing and disbursement providers. For example, we work with third-party staffing providers, upon which we are dependent to support our employment offering, Upwork Payroll. As our agreements with third-party partners terminate or expire, we may be unable to renew or replace these agreements on favorable terms, or at all. Moreover, we cannot guarantee that the parties with which we have strategic relationships will continue to offer the services for which we rely on them at economically reasonable terms or at all, devote the resources necessary to expand our reach, increase our distribution, or support an increased number of users and associated use cases. Our dependence on any single third-party supplier increases when our supply of a particular service is more heavily concentrated with that third-party. Some of our strategic partners are experiencing delays, disruptions, or closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which may result in disruptions to the services they provide to us and our users. Further, some of our strategic partners offer, or could offer, competing products and services or also work with our competitors, the likelihood of which may increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting macroeconomic downturn, increased unemployment rates, and increased adoption of remote work. As a result of these factors, many of our third-party partners may choose to develop alternative products and services in addition to, or in lieu of, our work marketplace, either on their own or in collaboration with others, including our competitors. If we are unsuccessful in establishing or maintaining our relationships with third parties on favorable terms, our ability to compete
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or to grow our total revenue could be impaired and our operating results may be adversely impacted. Even if we are successful in establishing and maintaining these relationships with third parties on comparable terms, we cannot ensure that these relationships will result in increased usage of our work marketplace or increased revenue.
Our business model subjects us to disputes with or between users of our work marketplace.
Our business model involves enabling connections between freelancers and clients that contract directly through our work marketplace. Freelancers and clients are free to negotiate any contract terms they choose, but we also provide optional service contract terms that they can elect to use. Disputes sometimes arise between freelancers and clients with regard to their contract terms, work relationship, or otherwise, including with respect to service standards, payment, confidentiality, work product, and intellectual property ownership and infringement. These disputes may occur more frequently during a macroeconomic downturn, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. If either party believes the contract terms were not met, our standard terms and some individually negotiated services agreements provide a mechanism for the parties to request assistance from us, and, for some contracts, if that is unsuccessful, they may choose to resolve the dispute with the help of a third-party arbitrator. Whether or not freelancers and clients decide to seek assistance from us, if these disputes are not resolved amicably, the parties might escalate to formal proceedings, such as by filing claims with a court or arbitral authority. Given our role in facilitating and supporting these arrangements, claims are sometimes brought against us directly as a result of these disputes and freelancers or clients bring us into any claims filed against each other, particularly when the other user is insolvent or facing financial difficulties, like those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through our terms of service and services agreements for premium services, we disclaim responsibility and liability for any disputes between users (except with respect to specified dispute assistance programs and services); however, we cannot guarantee that these terms will be effective in preventing or limiting our involvement in user disputes or that these terms will be enforceable or otherwise effectively prevent us from incurring liability as a result of disputes between users. In addition, from time to time users assert claims against us regarding their experience on our work marketplace, including related to their search ranking results, their feedback ratings, our advertising or marketing, our dispute resolution process, or admission or non-admission to the work marketplace or other programs and badges, including those designed to highlight successful freelancers. Moreover, for some premium services, we provide enhanced services and assistance with respect to disputes over work product, and clients or freelancers may pursue claims against us if they are not satisfied with those enhanced services. Disputes between clients and freelancers and between users and our company may become more frequent based on conditions outside our control, such as a macroeconomic downturn, like the one resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Any increase in the number of disputes may result in an adverse effect on our company, such as a loss of goodwill with users, reputational harm, lost GSV and revenue, and an increase in costs to us. Even if these claims do not result in litigation or are resolved in our favor, these claims, and the time and resources necessary to resolve them, could result in legal, settlement, or other financial costs; divert the resources of our management; and adversely affect our business and operating results.
Our business depends largely on our ability to attract and retain talented employees, including senior management and key personnel. If we lose the services of Hayden Brown, our President and Chief Executive Officer, or other members of our senior management team or key personnel, we may not be able to execute on our business strategy.
Our future success depends in large part on the continued services of senior management and other key personnel and our ability to retain and motivate them. In particular, we are dependent on the services of Hayden Brown, our President and Chief Executive Officer, and our future vision, strategic direction, work marketplace, and technology could be compromised if she were to take another position, become ill or incapacitated, or otherwise become unable to serve as our President and Chief Executive Officer. We rely on our leadership team in the areas of product, engineering, operations, security, marketing, sales, support, corporate development, and general and administrative functions. Our senior management and other key personnel are all employed on an at-will basis, which means that they could terminate their employment with us at any time, for any reason, and without notice, and we do not maintain any “key-person” life insurance policies. If we lose the services of senior management or other key personnel, if our succession plans prove inadequate, or if we are unable to attract, train, integrate, and retain the highly-skilled personnel we need, our business, operating results, and financial condition could be adversely affected.
From time to time, there have been and may be changes in our management team resulting from the hiring or departure of executives. For example, in December 2019, we announced that our prior President and Chief Executive Officer, Stephane Kasriel, was resigning from this position, and that Hayden Brown, our prior Chief Marketing and Product Officer, would take the position of President and Chief Executive Officer effective January 1, 2020. Additionally, in August 2020, we announced that our prior Chief Financial Officer, Brian Kinion, was resigning from this position and that Jeff McCombs would be appointed as our Chief Financial Officer. We have made, and may continue to make, other changes that have been and will be disruptive to our personnel, such as the reduction of a portion of our sales force in November 2020 and reorganizations of reporting lines of our workforce. These changes have resulted, and they or future changes may result, in increased attrition of our personnel, including senior management and key employees, stemming from organizational restructuring, as new reporting relationships are established, and as other companies may increasingly target our executives. Any such changes may also result
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in a loss of institutional knowledge, cause disruptions to our business or distract or result in diminished morale in or the loss of workers.
Our future success also depends on our continuing ability to attract, train, integrate, and retain highly-skilled personnel, including software engineers and sales personnel. We face intense competition for qualified personnel from numerous software and other technology companies. In addition, competition for qualified personnel, particularly software engineers, is particularly intense. We may not be able to retain our current key employees or attract, train, integrate, or retain other highly-skilled personnel in the future, all of which may be more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions intended to prevent its spread. We may incur significant costs to attract and retain highly-skilled personnel, we may lose new employees to our competitors or other technology companies before we realize the benefit of our investment in recruiting and training them, and our succession plans may be insufficient to ensure business continuity if we are unable to retain key personnel. To the extent we move into new geographies, we would need to attract and recruit skilled personnel in those areas.
Volatility or lack of appreciation in our stock price may also affect our ability to attract new talent and retain our key employees. Conversely, many of our senior personnel and other key employees have become, or will soon become, vested in a substantial amount of stock or stock options and may be more likely to leave us if the shares they own, or the shares underlying their vested options, have appreciated in value relative to the original purchase or issue price of the shares or the exercise price of the options. If we are unable to attract and retain suitably qualified individuals who are capable of meeting our growing technical, operational, and managerial requirements, on a timely basis or at all, or if we need to increase our compensation expense to retain our employees, our business, operating results, financial condition, and cash flows may be adversely affected.
Clients sometimes fail to pay their invoices, necessitating action by us to compel payment.
In connection with our Upwork Enterprise and Business offerings, and for certain legacy clients, we advance payments to freelancers for invoiced services on behalf of the client and subsequently invoice the client for such services. In addition, in certain instances, we will advance payment on a freelancer invoice if the client issues a chargeback or their payment method is declined and the freelancer assigns us the right to recover any funds from the client. From time to time, clients fail to pay for these services rendered by a freelancer, and as a result, we may be adversely affected both from the inability to collect amounts due and the cost of enforcing the applicable agreement or our terms of service, including through arbitration or litigation. We may experience an increase in the failure of clients to pay for services in the event of a macroeconomic downturn, such as a downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, as clients become unable or unwilling to pay for services rendered. Furthermore, some clients may seek bankruptcy protection or other similar relief and fail to pay amounts due, or pay those amounts more slowly, either of which could adversely affect our operating results, financial position, and cash flow. All of these risks are made more likely during a macroeconomic downturn, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and could result in increased costs to us as we advance payments to freelancers and seek to compel payment from our clients.
The requirements of being a public company may strain our resources, divert management’s attention, and affect our ability to attract and retain additional executive management and qualified board members. The additional requirements we must comply with may further strain our resources and divert management’s attention from other business concerns.
As a public company, we are subject to the reporting requirements of the Exchange Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which we refer to as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, the listing requirements of The Nasdaq Global Select Market, and other applicable securities rules and regulations. Compliance with these rules and regulations will increase our legal and financial compliance costs, make some activities more difficult, time-consuming, or costly, and increase demand on our systems and resources, particularly now that we are a large accelerated filer. The Exchange Act requires, among other things, that we file annual, quarterly, and current reports with respect to our business and operating results. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires, among other things, that we maintain effective disclosure controls and procedures and internal control over financial reporting. In order to maintain and, if required, improve our disclosure controls and procedures and internal control over financial reporting to meet this standard, significant resources and management oversight may be required. As a result, management’s attention may be diverted from other business concerns, which could adversely affect our business and operating results. Although we have already hired additional employees to comply with these requirements, we may need to hire more employees in the future or engage outside consultants, or may have difficulty attracting and retaining sufficient employees, which would increase our costs and expenses.
In addition, changing laws, regulations, and standards relating to corporate governance, stockholder litigation, and public disclosure, including with respect to environmental and social matters, are creating uncertainty for public companies, increasing legal and financial compliance costs, making some activities more time-consuming, and increasing the likelihood and expense of litigation. These laws, regulations, and standards are subject to varying interpretations, in many cases due to their lack of specificity, and, as a result, their application in practice may evolve or otherwise change over time as new guidance is provided by regulatory and governing bodies. This could result in continuing uncertainty regarding compliance matters, higher costs necessitated by ongoing revisions to disclosure and governance practices, and increased expenses and management attention due to actual or threatened litigation. We intend to continue to invest resources to comply with evolving laws, regulations, and
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standards (or changing interpretations of them), and this investment may result in increased general and administrative expenses and a diversion of management’s time and attention from revenue-generating activities to compliance activities. If our efforts to comply with these laws, regulations, and standards differ from the activities intended by regulatory or governing bodies, regulatory authorities may initiate legal proceedings against us, and our business may be adversely affected. Being a public company and complying with the associated rules and regulations, and being subject to heightened likelihood of litigation, makes it more expensive for us to obtain director and officer liability insurance, the costs of which can fluctuate significantly from year-to-year due to general market conditions in obtaining such insurance, but in recent years have risen significantly, consistent with the increase in market rates. As a result, we may be required to accept reduced coverage, incur substantially higher costs to obtain coverage, or may be unable to obtain coverage on economically reasonable terms, or at all. These factors could also make it more difficult for us to attract and retain qualified executives and qualified members of our board of directors, particularly to serve on our audit, risk, and compliance committee, our compensation committee, and our nominating and governance committee.
As a result of disclosure of information in filings required of a public company, our business and financial condition has become more visible, which may result in threatened or actual litigation, including by competitors. If such claims are successful, our business and operating results could be adversely affected, and even if the claims do not result in litigation or are resolved in our favor, these claims, and the time and resources necessary to resolve them, could divert the resources of our management and adversely affect our business and operating results.
In addition, as a result of our disclosure obligations as a public company, we could face pressure to focus on short-term results, which may adversely affect our ability to achieve long-term profitability.
Our management team has limited experience managing a public company.
Most members of our management team, including Hayden Brown, our President and Chief Executive Officer, have limited experience managing a publicly traded company in the positions they currently hold, interacting with public company investors, managing significant regulatory oversight and reporting obligations and the continuous scrutiny of securities analysts and investors, and complying with the increasingly complex laws pertaining to public companies. These new obligations and constituents require significant attention from our senior management and could divert their attention away from the day-to-day management of our business, which could adversely affect our business, financial condition, and operating results.
We may be unable to integrate acquired businesses and technologies successfully or to achieve the expected benefits of such acquisitions. We may acquire or invest in additional companies, which may divert our management’s attention, result in additional dilution to our stockholders, and consume resources that are necessary to sustain our business.
Our business strategy may, from time to time, include acquiring complementary products, technologies, businesses, or other assets. We also may enter into relationships with other businesses to expand our work marketplace or our ability to provide our work marketplace in foreign jurisdictions, which could involve preferred or exclusive licenses, additional channels of distribution, discount pricing, or investments in other companies. Negotiating these transactions can be time-consuming, difficult, and expensive, and our ability to close these transactions may often be subject to approvals that are beyond our control. Consequently, these transactions, even if undertaken and announced, may not close, and any acquisition, investment, or business relationship may result in unforeseen or additional operating difficulties, risks, and expenditures. For one or more of those transactions, we may:
issue additional equity securities that would dilute our stockholders’ ownership interest;
use cash that we may need in the future to operate our business;
become subject to different laws and regulations due to the nature or location of the acquired business, products, technologies, or other assets, or become subject to more stringent scrutiny or differing applications of laws and regulations to which we are currently subject as a result of such transactions;
incur debt on terms unfavorable to us or that we are unable to repay;
incur expenses or assume substantial liabilities;
encounter difficulties retaining key employees of the acquired company or integrating diverse software codes or business cultures;
encounter difficulties in assimilating acquired operations and development cultures or otherwise fail to realize the anticipated benefits of such transactions;
encounter diversion of management’s attention to other business concerns;
become subject to adverse tax consequences, substantial depreciation, or deferred compensation charges; and
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be required to adopt new, or change our existing, accounting policies.
Any of these risks could adversely impact our business and operating results.
Risks Related to Our Industry, Products, and Services
Because we derive the substantial majority of our revenue from our marketplace offerings—with most of our marketplace revenue derived from our Upwork Basic, Plus, and Enterprise offerings—our inability to generate revenue from our marketplace offerings would adversely affect our business operations, financial results, and growth prospects.
We derive, and expect to continue to derive in the near future, the substantial majority of our revenue from our marketplace offerings, with most of our marketplace revenue derived from our Upwork Basic, Plus, and Enterprise offerings. As such, market acceptance of our marketplace offerings is critical to our continued success, and any failure of our work marketplace or specific offerings to meet users’ expectations with respect to user experience or the failure of specific features to be effective in attracting and retaining users, such as onboarding, search, project bidding, or matching features, could have a negative impact on our business. Demand for our marketplace offerings is affected by a number of factors beyond our control, including the timing of development and release of new products and services by our competitors, our ability to respond to technological change and to innovate and grow, contraction in our market, client spending patterns, freelancer activity levels, changes in adoption of remote work, macroeconomic effects, such as those resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other risks identified herein. Moreover, as a result of the macroeconomic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we may experience an increase in transaction losses due to declined payment methods and chargebacks. If we are unable to continue to meet user demands, to expand the categories of services offered on our work marketplace, or to achieve and maintain more widespread market acceptance of our marketplace offerings, our business operations, financial results, and growth prospects could be adversely affected.
We face intense competition and could lose market share to our competitors, which could adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial condition.
The market segment for freelancers and the clients that engage them is highly competitive, rapidly evolving, fragmented, and subject to changing technology, shifting needs, and frequent introductions of new competitors as well as new products and services. The level of competition within, and the frequency and likelihood of increased third-party investment and new competitors entering, such market segment may intensify further due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting increase in remote work, macroeconomic downturn, and increased unemployment rates. We compete with a number of online and offline platforms and services domestically and internationally to attract and retain users and expand our share of user spend. Our main competitors fall into the following categories:
traditional contingent workforce and staffing service providers and other outsourcing providers, such as The Adecco Group, Randstad, Recruit, Allegis Group, and Robert Half International;
online freelancer platforms that serve either a diverse range of skill categories, such as Fiverr, Guru, and Freelancer.com, or specific skill categories;
other online providers of products and services for individuals or businesses seeking work or to advertise their services, including personal and professional social networks, such as LinkedIn and GitHub (each owned by Microsoft), employment marketplaces, recruiting websites, and project-based deliverable providers;
software and business services companies focused on talent acquisition, management, invoicing, or staffing management products and services, such as Workday;
payment businesses, such as PayPal and Payoneer, that can facilitate payments to and from businesses and service providers;
businesses that provide specialized professional services, including consulting, accounting, marketing, and information technology services; and
online and offline job boards, classified ads, and other traditional means of finding work and service providers, such as Craigslist, CareerBuilder, Indeed, Monster, and ZipRecruiter.
In addition, well-established internet companies, such as Google, LinkedIn, and Amazon, social media platforms, such as Facebook, and businesses that operate driving, delivery, and other commoditized marketplaces, such as Uber Technologies, have entered or may decide to enter into our market segment. Some of these companies have launched or may launch, or have acquired or may acquire companies or assets that offer products and services that directly compete with our work marketplace. For example, LinkedIn launched ProFinder in 2016 and Open for Business in 2019, and is developing a new offering called Marketplaces, each of which are services to connect LinkedIn members with one another for freelance service relationships, and recently announced that it intends to create a series of online vertical marketplaces addressing specific skill categories. Many of
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these established internet companies and other competitors are considerably larger than we are and have considerably greater financial and other resources than we do.
Internationally, we compete against online and offline channels and products and services in most countries. Local competitors, or competitors that have invested more in international expansion, might have greater brand recognition than us in their local country and a stronger understanding of local culture and commerce. Some competitors also offer their products and services in local languages and currencies that we do not offer. As our business grows internationally and we expand and grow our services offerings, we may increasingly compete with these international companies. We also compete against locally-sourced service providers and traditional, offline means of finding work and procuring services, such as staffing businesses, personal and professional networks, classified ads, and recruiters.
We also compete with companies that utilize emerging technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and machine learning. These competitors may offer products and services that may, among other things, provide automated alternatives to the services that freelancers provide on our work marketplace, use machine learning algorithms to connect businesses with service providers more effectively than we do, or otherwise change the way that businesses engage or pay service providers so as to make our work marketplace less attractive to users. Many of the companies and services that utilize these technologies in our market are still new and not yet fully mature in their capabilities or network scale; however, we may face increased competition should these companies or services, or new entrants, succeed.
Many of our current and potential competitors, both online and offline, enjoy substantial competitive advantages, such as greater name recognition and more prominent brand reputation; pre-existing relationships with desirable clients; longer operating histories; greater financial, technical, and other resources; more users; newer technologies; and, in some cases, the ability to rapidly combine online platforms with traditional staffing and contingent worker solutions. Some of our current and potential competitors have recently undertaken, or may in the future undertake, an initial public offering or another equity or convertible debt issuance, which could improve their competitive position due to enhanced brand recognition and additional working capital. These companies may use these advantages to offer products and services similar to ours at a lower price, develop different or superior products and services to compete with our work marketplace, or respond more quickly and effectively than we do to new or changing opportunities, technologies, standards, regulatory conditions, or user preferences or requirements. In addition, while we compete intensely in more established markets, we also compete in developing technology markets that are characterized by dynamic and rapid technological change, many and different business models, and frequent disruption of incumbents by innovative online and offline entrants. The barriers to entry into these markets can be low, and businesses easily and quickly can launch online or mobile platforms and applications at nominal cost by using commercially available software or partnering with various established companies in these markets.
Moreover, current and future competitors may also make strategic acquisitions or establish cooperative relationships among themselves or with others, including our current or future third-party partners. By doing so, these competitors may increase their ability to meet the needs of our existing or prospective users. These developments could limit our ability to obtain revenue from existing and new users. For all of these reasons, we may not be able to compete successfully against our current and future competitors. If we are unable to compete successfully against current and future competitors, our business, operating results, and financial condition would be adversely impacted.
If we fail to develop, maintain, and enhance our brand and reputation cost-effectively, our business and financial condition may be adversely affected.
The Upwork brand did not exist before 2015. We believe that developing, maintaining, and enhancing awareness and integrity of our brand and reputation in a cost-effective manner are important to achieving widespread acceptance and use of our work marketplace and are important elements in attracting new users and retaining existing users. Successful promotion and positioning of our brand, products, and business model depend on, among other things, the effectiveness of our marketing efforts and brand messaging, our ability to provide a reliable, trustworthy, and useful work marketplace and products at competitive prices, the perceived value of our work marketplace and products, and our ability to provide quality support. In order to reach the brand awareness and acceptance levels of some of our competitors, we need to continuously invest in marketing programs that may not be successful in achieving meaningful awareness and acceptance levels, particularly during early phases of expansion into newer user awareness segments, such as international users. Further, brand promotion activities may not resonate with existing or potential users or yield increased revenue, including any brand promotion efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or other global or national events, and even if they do, the increased revenue may not offset the expenses we incur in building and maintaining our brand and reputation. For example, we invested heavily in advertising in the United States in 2019 and 2020 to increase our brand awareness, which investment will continue in 2021, and it is not certain that these investments have had or will have sufficient positive impact on our brand to be cost effective. Likewise, publicity efforts or news coverage may undermine our brand promotion efforts or harm our reputation or may not resonate with existing or potential users. We have also recently evolved, and will continue to evolve, our marketing and brand positioning efforts to expand our focus on large enterprise, global account, mid-market, and other clients, with larger, longer-term talent and
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contracting needs and may not be successful in achieving the brand awareness and acceptance levels with this market segment, in a cost-effective manner, or without harming other areas of our business.
We also rely on our community of users in a variety of ways, including their willingness to give us feedback regarding our work marketplace, and failure of our users to provide feedback on their experience on our work marketplace or our failure to adequately address any concerns could negatively impact the willingness of them or prospective users to use our work marketplace. For example, the recent changes made in the pricing and packaging of Connects purchases has and may continue to result in user dissatisfaction and negatively impact fill rates for projects on our work marketplace. If we fail to promote and maintain our brand successfully, address user concerns, or to maintain loyalty among our users, or if we incur substantial expenses in unsuccessful attempts to promote and maintain our brand, we may fail to attract new users or retain our existing users and our business and financial condition may be adversely affected.
If we are not able to develop and release new products and services, or develop and release successful enhancements, new features, and modifications to our existing products and services, our business could be adversely affected.
The market for our work marketplace is characterized by rapid technological change, frequent product and service introductions and enhancements, changing user demands, and evolving industry standards. The introduction of products and services embodying new technologies can quickly make existing products and services obsolete and unmarketable. We invest substantial resources in researching and developing new products and services and enhancing our work marketplace by incorporating additional features, improving functionality, and adding other improvements to meet our users’ evolving demands in our increasingly highly competitive industry. For example, in 2020 we invested a significant amount of resources to launch a new product offering “Project Catalog,” through which freelancers offer pre-scoped projects easily purchased via a click-and-buy experience. The success of any enhancements or improvements to, or new features of, our work marketplace or any new products and services, such as Project Catalog, depends on several factors, including timely completion, competitive pricing, adequate quality testing, integration with new and existing technologies on our work marketplace and third-party partners’ technologies, and overall demand and market acceptance consistent with the intent of such products or services. We cannot be sure that we will succeed, on a timely or cost-effective basis, in developing, marketing, and delivering enhancements or new features to our work marketplace or any new products and services that respond to continued changes in the market for talent or business services. Any enhancements or new features to our work marketplace or any new products and services may not achieve, and in the past certain features and offerings have not achieved, market acceptance, been cost-effective, or produced the intended effect. In the past, we have experienced unintended negative effects, including reduced client spend retention, diminished fill rates for projects on our work marketplace, and user dissatisfaction from certain modifications to our products, services, and features. For example, in 2019 and the first half of 2020, we experienced a decline in client spend retention which we believe was related to the launch of our U.S.-to-U.S. domestic marketplace offering in the second half of 2017.
Because further development of our work marketplace is complex, challenging, and dependent upon an array of factors, the timetable for the release of new products and services and enhancements to existing products and services is difficult to predict, and we may not offer new products and services as rapidly as users or prospective users of our work marketplace require or expect. Any new products or services that we develop may not be introduced in a timely or cost-effective manner, may contain errors or defects, may not be properly integrated with new and existing technologies on our work marketplace or third-party partners’ technologies, may not achieve the intended market acceptance, or may adversely impact existing client spend and user growth and retention. Moreover, even if we introduce new products and services, we may experience a decline in revenue from our existing products and services that is not offset by revenue from the new products or services. In addition, we may lose existing users that choose to use competing products or services. This could result in a temporary or permanent decrease in revenue and adversely affect our business.
Because a substantial portion of the services offered by freelancers and sought by clients on our work marketplace is information technology services, a decline in freelancers offering information technology services or the market for information technology service providers on our work marketplace could adversely affect our business.
A significant portion of the services offered by freelancers and sought by clients on our work marketplace relates to information technology. If, for any reason, the market for information technology services declines, including as a result of the relaxation or lifting of restrictions intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a macroeconomic downturn such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, increased use of artificial intelligence, automation, or otherwise, if talent is not available on our work marketplace or willing to perform these services or businesses satisfy their needs for these services through alternative means, including through use of our competitors’ products, the growth in the number of users on our work marketplace may slow or decline and as a result our revenue and business may be adversely impacted.
Users circumvent our work marketplace, which could adversely impact our business.
Our business depends on users transacting through our work marketplace. Despite our efforts to prevent them from doing so, users circumvent our work marketplace and engage with or pay each other through other means to avoid the fees that we
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charge. Circumvention by users of our work marketplace is also likely to have increased and may continue to increase in response to a macroeconomic downturn, such as the macroeconomic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, as users may be more cost-sensitive with respect to our fees. In addition, enhancements and changes we make with respect to our products, services, and features may unintentionally cause, and may have unintentionally caused in the past, users to circumvent our work marketplace. Moreover, the changes we make to decrease circumvention by users have in the past and could inadvertently result in user dissatisfaction, increased user circumvention, and a decline in user activity on our work marketplace. The loss of revenue associated with circumvention of our work marketplace may have an adverse impact on our business, cash flows, operating results, and financial condition. In addition, our efforts to reduce circumvention may be costly or disruptive to implement, fail to have the intended effect or have an adverse effect on our brand or user experience, cause users to cease using our work marketplace, reduce the attractiveness of our work marketplace, divert the attention of management, or otherwise harm our business.
Our sales efforts are increasingly targeted at large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients, and as a result we may encounter greater pricing, implementation, and customization challenges, we may incur additional costs, and we may have to delay revenue recognition for more complicated transactions, each of which could adversely impact our business and operating results.
Our sales efforts are increasingly targeted at large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients, and as a result, we face greater costs, longer sales cycles, and less predictability in completing some of our sales and in increasing spend by existing clients. For larger clients, use of our work marketplace may require approvals by multiple departments and executive-level personnel and require us to provide greater levels of services and client education regarding the uses, benefits, security, privacy, worker classification, payments, and compliance services offered on our work marketplace. Larger enterprises typically have longer decision-making and implementation cycles and may demand more customization, higher levels of support, a broader range of services, and greater payment flexibility. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some existing and potential clients have failed to respond to our sales outreach, slowed down decision-making, delayed planned work on our work marketplace, and sought to negotiate pricing and other terms that are less favorable to us. This has led, and may continue to lead, to diminished productivity and effectiveness of our sales force, longer sales cycles, and otherwise negatively impacting our sales efforts. Restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 restrict our ability to travel and negotiate in person, which may also negatively impact our sales efforts. In addition, large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients may require greater functionality and scalability that can lead to delays in sales or difficulties in growing client spend. We are often required to spend time and resources to better familiarize potential large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients with the value propositions of our work marketplace generally. Despite our efforts in familiarizing potential large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients with the benefits of our work marketplace, these potential clients may decide not to use our work marketplace if, among other reasons, they do not feel that their procurement or compliance needs are or will be met. In addition, sales opportunities with large enterprise, global account, and mid-market companies may require us to devote greater sales and administrative support and professional services resources to individual clients, which could increase our costs, lengthen our sales cycle, and divert our own sales and professional services resources to a smaller number of larger clients. We may spend substantial time, effort, and money in our sales efforts without being successful in producing sales or growing client spend.
Even if we reach an agreement with a client to use our work marketplace, the agreement may not be on pricing or other terms that are favorable to us. Moreover, a significant portion of the fees we typically receive from clients is contingent on the level of spend by the client. If a client negotiates pricing terms that are less favorable to us, does not engage freelancers on our work marketplace, or uses freelancers for few projects or projects of low value, our revenue from the relationship may be minimal.
We also have in the past agreed, and may in the future agree, to take on additional risk for worker classification, privacy, security, work product, payments, or other matters for larger enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients, or to other terms that are less favorable to us in order to secure a client’s business or increase its spend, including as discussed further in the risk factors titled “There may be adverse tax, legal, and other consequences if the contractor classification or employment status of freelancers that use our work marketplace is challenged.” All these factors can add further risk and expenses to business conducted with these clients even after a successful sale.
If the market for freelancers and the services they offer develops more slowly than we expect, our growth may slow or stall, and our operating results could be adversely affected.
The market for online freelancers and the services they offer is relatively new, rapidly evolving, and unproven. Our future success will depend in large part on the continued growth and expansion of this market and the willingness of businesses to engage freelancers to provide services. It is difficult to predict the size, growth rate, and expansion of this market, whether any expansion will be long-term or temporary, particularly in light of the recent shift toward remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entry of products and services that are competitive to ours, the success of existing competitive products and services, or technological, macroeconomic, legal, regulatory, or other developments that will impact the overall demand for freelancer services. Furthermore, many businesses may be unwilling to engage freelancers for a variety of reasons, including
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perceived negative connotations with outsourcing work, quality of work, or privacy or data security concerns or the rapidly evolving regulations that may impact the demand for independent contractor services more generally, including as discussed further in the risk factor titled “There may be adverse tax, legal, and other consequences if the contractor classification or employment status of freelancers that use our work marketplace is challenged.” If the market for freelancers and the services they offer does not achieve widespread adoption, or there is a reduction in demand for freelancer services, including once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, it could result in decreased revenue and our business could be adversely affected.
If we or our third-party partners experience a security breach, other hacking or phishing attack, ransomware or other malware attack, or other privacy or security incident, whether intentionally or unintentionally caused by us or by third parties, our work marketplace may be perceived as not being secure, our reputation may be harmed, demand for our work marketplace may be reduced, our operations may be disrupted, we may incur significant legal costs, fines, or liabilities, and our business could be adversely affected.
Our business involves the storage, processing, and transmission of users’ proprietary, confidential, and personal information as well as the use of third-party partners and vendors who store, process, and transmit users’ proprietary, confidential, and personal information. We also maintain certain other proprietary and confidential information relating to our business and personal information of our personnel. Our systems, and the systems of our vendors and third-party partners, may be vulnerable to privacy or security incidents, such as computer viruses and other malicious software, physical or electronic break-ins, or vulnerabilities resulting from intentional or unintentional service provider actions, and similar disruptions that could make all or portions of our website or applications unavailable for periods of time. Any such privacy or security incident, whether intentionally or unintentionally caused by us or by third parties, that we experience could result in unauthorized access to, misuse of, or unauthorized acquisition of our, our personnel’s, or our users’ data; the loss, corruption, or alteration of this data; interruptions in our operations; or damage to our computers or systems or those of our users. Any of these could expose us to claims, litigation, fines, enforcement actions, other potential liability, and reputational harm. An increasing number of online services have disclosed breaches of their security, some of which have involved sophisticated and highly targeted attacks on portions of their services. Additionally, ransomware or other malware, viruses, social engineering (including business email compromise and related wire-transfer fraud), and general hacking in our industry have become more prevalent and more complex. Bad actors often use uncertainty caused by a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to try to take advantage of us, our users, and our vendors and third-party partners by using social engineering and other methods to persuade their victims to make fraudulent payments, or to download viruses, ransomware, or other malware into computer systems and networks. Because the techniques used to obtain unauthorized access, disable or degrade service, or sabotage systems change frequently and often are not foreseeable or recognized until launched against a target, we and our vendors and third-party partners may be unable to anticipate these techniques or to implement adequate preventative measures, despite our efforts to implement and maintain a robust information security program. If we or our vendors or third-party partners experience an actual or perceived breach or privacy or security incident, public perception of the effectiveness of our security measures and brand could be harmed, and we could lose users and business. Data security breaches and other privacy and security incidents may also result from non-technical means, such as, for example, actions taken by employees or contractors, such as freelancers that we engage on our work marketplace to perform services for us.
Any compromise of our security or the security of our vendors or third-party partners could result in a violation of applicable privacy and other laws, regulatory or other governmental investigations, enforcement actions, litigation, and legal and financial exposure, including potential contractual liability. We may also need to expend significant resources to protect against, and to address issues created by, security breaches and other privacy and security incidents. While we maintain cyber liability insurance, these liabilities may exceed the amounts covered by our insurance; further, we cannot be certain that our insurance coverage will extend to or be adequate for liabilities actually incurred, or that insurance will continue to be available to us on economically reasonable terms, or at all. Any such compromise could also result in damage to our reputation and a loss of confidence in our security measures. In addition, significant unavailability of our work marketplace due to security breaches and other privacy and security incidents could cause users to decrease their use of or cease using our work marketplace. Any of these effects could adversely impact our business.
Depending on the nature of the information compromised, in the event of a security breach or other privacy or security incident, we may also have obligations to notify affected individuals and regulators about the incident, and we may need to provide some form of remedy, such as a subscription to credit monitoring services, pay significant fines to one or more regulators, or pay compensation in connection with a class-action settlement (including under the private right of action under the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, which we refer to as the CCPA). Such breach notification laws continue to evolve and may be inconsistent from one jurisdiction to another. Complying with these obligations could cause us to incur substantial costs and could increase negative publicity surrounding any incident that compromises our, our users’, our employees’, our contractors’, or other confidential, proprietary, or personal information.
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If internet search engines’ methodologies or other channels that we utilize to direct traffic to our website are modified to our disadvantage, or our search result page rankings decline for other reasons, our user growth could decline.
We depend in part on various internet search engines, such as Google, as well as other channels to direct a significant amount of traffic to our website. Our ability to maintain the number of visitors directed to our website is not entirely within our control. For example, our competitors’ search engine optimization and other efforts such as paid search may result in their websites receiving a higher search result page ranking than ours, internet search engines or other channels that we utilize to direct traffic to our website have in the past and could again revise their methodologies or implement other changes or penalties that adversely impact traffic to our website, or we may make changes to our website that adversely impact our search engine optimization rankings and traffic. As a result, links to our website may not be prominent enough to drive sufficient traffic to our website, and we may not be able to influence the results.
Search engines and other channels that we utilize to drive users to our website periodically change their algorithms, policies, and technologies, sometimes in ways that cause traffic to our website to decline. These changes can also result in an interruption in users’ ability to access our website or a drop in our search ranking, or have other adverse impacts that negatively affect our ability to maintain and grow the number of users that visit our website. We may also be forced to significantly increase marketing expenditures in the event that market prices for online advertising and paid listings escalate or our organic ranking decreases. Any of these changes could have an adverse impact on our business, user acquisition, and operating results.
Our ability to attract and retain users is dependent in part on ease of use and reliability of our work marketplace and the quality of our support, and any failure to offer high-quality support could adversely impact our business, operating results, and financial condition.
Our ability to attract and retain users is dependent in part on the ease of use and reliability of our work marketplace, including our ability to provide high-quality support. Our users depend on our support organization to resolve any issues relating to our work marketplace and to communicate effectively concerning their accounts. Our ability to provide effective support is largely dependent on our ability to attract, resource, and retain service providers who are not only qualified to support users of our work marketplace, but are also well versed in our work marketplace. Offering our website and user support only in English may negatively impact our relationships with our users. As we seek to continue to grow our international user base, our support organization will face additional challenges, including those associated with delivering support and documentation in languages other than English. Any failure to maintain high-quality support or effectively communicate with our users, or any market perception that we do not maintain high-quality support or act professionally, fairly, or effectively in our communications and actions with respect to users, could harm our reputation, adversely affect our ability to sell our work marketplace to existing and prospective users, and could adversely impact our business, operating results, and financial condition.
Errors, defects, or disruptions in our work marketplace could diminish demand, adversely impact our financial results, and subject us to liability.
Our work marketplace enables our users to manage important aspects of their businesses, and any errors, defects, or disruptions in our work marketplace, or other performance problems with our work marketplace or infrastructure could harm our brand and reputation and may damage the businesses of users. As the usage of our work marketplace grows, we will need an increasing amount of technical infrastructure, including network capacity and computing power, to continue to operate our work marketplace. It is possible that we may fail to continue to effectively scale and grow our technical infrastructure to accommodate these increased demands, which may adversely affect our user experience. We also rely on third-party software and infrastructure, including the infrastructure of the internet, to provide our work marketplace. Any failure of or disruption to this software and infrastructure could also make our work marketplace unavailable to our users. For example, for a short period of time in May 2019, due to an inadvertent error by a regulatory agency in Bangladesh, users in Bangladesh were unable to access our website and other websites that included “-rk.com” in their website addresses. Also, certain jurisdictions, such as India, Pakistan, Uganda, and Myanmar, have in the past voluntarily shut down the internet in response to civil unrest or prior to contested political elections and, in the event any such governmental action were to take place again, it would adversely affect user activity on our work marketplace throughout the duration of such shut down. Our work marketplace is constantly changing with new updates, which may contain undetected errors when first introduced or released. Any errors, defects, disruptions in service, or other performance or stability problems with our work marketplace, or the inadequacy of our efforts to adequately prevent or timely remedy errors or defects, could result in negative publicity, loss of or delay in market acceptance of our work marketplace, loss of competitive position, our inability to timely and accurately maintain our financial records, inaccurate or delayed invoicing of clients, delay of payment to us or freelancers, claims by users for losses sustained by them, or investigation and corrective action taken by the DFPI or other regulatory agencies. In such an event, we may be required, or may choose, for customer relations or other reasons, to expend additional resources in order to help resolve the issue. Accordingly, any errors, defects, or disruptions in our work marketplace could adversely impact our brand and reputation, revenue, and operating results.
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We rely on AWS to deliver our work marketplace to our users, and any disruption of service from AWS or material change to our arrangement with AWS could adversely affect our business. We are also subject to litigation relating to our use of AWS.
We currently host our work marketplace, serve our users, and support our operations using AWS, a provider of cloud infrastructure services. We do not have control over the operations of the facilities of AWS that we use. AWS’s facilities are vulnerable to damage or interruption from earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, cybersecurity attacks, terrorist attacks, power losses, telecommunications failures, and similar events or could be subject to break-ins, computer viruses, sabotage, intentional acts of vandalism, and other misconduct. The occurrence of any of these events, a decision to close the facilities or cease or limit providing services to us without adequate notice, or other unanticipated problems could result in interruptions to our work marketplace, including lengthy interruptions. Our work marketplace’s continuing and uninterrupted performance is critical to our success and users may become dissatisfied by any system failure that interrupts our ability to provide our work marketplace to them. We may not be able to easily switch our AWS operations to another cloud or other data center provider if there are disruptions or interference with our use of AWS, and, even if we do switch our operations, other cloud and data center providers are subject to the same risks. Sustained or repeated system failures could reduce the attractiveness of our work marketplace to users, cause users to decrease their use of or cease using our work marketplace, and adversely affect our business. Moreover, negative publicity arising from these types of disruptions could damage our reputation and may adversely impact use of our work marketplace. We may not carry sufficient business interruption insurance to compensate us for losses that may occur as a result of any events that cause interruptions in our service and we cannot be certain that insurance will continue to be available to us on economically reasonable terms, or at all.
AWS does not have an obligation to renew its agreements with us on commercially reasonable terms, or at all. If we are unable to renew our agreements or unable to renew on commercially reasonable terms, our agreements are prematurely terminated, or we add additional infrastructure providers, we may experience costs or downtime in connection with the transfer to, or the addition of, new data center providers. If these providers charge high costs for or increase the cost of their services, we may have to increase the fees to use our work marketplace and our operating results may be adversely impacted. We also plan to complete the transition during the first quarter of 2021 to a different AWS facility than the one we are currently using in an effort to reduce long-term costs, to gain access to servers with enhanced functionality, and increase operational resilience. During this transition, we may experience resulting downtime, cause errors in our work marketplace or services, including escrow or payment services, or incur additional costs, particularly if we encounter an unforeseen issue or incident during the migration. We expect to incur increased costs during the migration, as we will need to use two AWS data facilities at one time during the transition period.
In addition, we and other customers of AWS have been subject to litigation by third parties claiming that AWS and basic HTTP functions infringe their patents. Although we expect Amazon to indemnify us with respect to at least a portion of such claims, such litigation has been, and may in the future continue to be, time consuming, and may divert management’s attention and, if Amazon fails to fully indemnify us, adversely impact our operating results.
We are vulnerable to intellectual property infringement claims and challenges to our intellectual property rights brought against us by third parties.
We operate in a highly competitive industry, and there has been considerable activity in our industry to develop and enforce intellectual property rights. Intellectual property infringement claims against us or our users or third-party partners could result in monetary liability or a material disruption in the conduct of our business. We cannot be certain that aspects of our work marketplace, content, and brand names do not or will not infringe valid patents, trademarks, copyrights, or other intellectual property rights held by third parties, including our competitors. Also, we are now, have in the past been, and may in the future be, subject to legal proceedings and claims relating to the intellectual property of others, including our competitors, in the ordinary course of our business. The likelihood of intellectual property-related litigation and disputes may increase due to the increased attention on our market segment due to the recent shift to remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies, including non-practicing entities and our competitors, have also sent us demand letters and instituted proceedings alleging that we infringe their intellectual property, seeking licensing fees, royalties and damages, and demanding that we cease certain commercial activity. We may receive such demand letters and be subject to similar proceedings in the future. Our competitors and other third parties have in the past challenged, and may in the future challenge, our registration or use of our trademarks, including “Upwork,” and other intellectual property rights, and, if successful, such a challenge could adversely affect our brand and business. Our competitors and others may now and in the future have significantly larger and more mature patent portfolios than we have or trademarks or other rights that pre-date and take precedence over our own. We may also be obligated to indemnify certain clients on our work marketplace or strategic partners or others in connection with such infringement claims, or to obtain licenses from third parties or modify our work marketplace or marketing strategy, and each such obligation would require us to expend additional resources. Some of our infringement indemnification obligations related to intellectual property are contractually capped at a very high amount or not capped at all.
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Any litigation or other disputes relating to allegations of intellectual property infringement could subject us to significant legal costs and liability for damages, invalidate our proprietary rights, or force us to do one or more of the following:
cease conducting certain operations in some or all jurisdictions, or stop using technology that contains the allegedly infringing intellectual property;
stop using the name “Upwork” or other trademarks in some or all jurisdictions;
incur significant legal expenses;
pay substantial damages or ongoing royalty payments to the party whose intellectual property rights we may be found to be infringing;
pay substantial amounts in settlement to a party that asserts allegations of intellectual property infringement;
prevent us from offering aspects of our work marketplace or make expensive and disruptive changes to our work marketplace or our methods of doing business; or
attempt to obtain a license to the relevant intellectual property from third parties, which may not be available on reasonable terms or at all.
Even if intellectual property claims do not result in litigation or are resolved in our favor, these claims, and the time and resources necessary to resolve them, could divert the resources of our management and adversely affect our business and operating results. We expect that the occurrence of infringement claims is likely to grow as the market segment for freelancers and the clients that engage them grows. Accordingly, our exposure to damages resulting from infringement claims could increase and this could require us to expend additional financial and management resources.
Failure to protect our intellectual property could adversely affect our business.
Our success depends in large part on our proprietary technology and data. We rely on various intellectual property rights, including patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets, as well as confidentiality provisions and contractual arrangements, to protect our proprietary rights. In addition, to protect our brand, we also expend substantial resources to register and defend our trademarks and to prevent others from using the same or substantially similar marks. As the adoption of remote work becomes more prevalent and competitors enter our market segment, particularly due to the recent shift toward remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, our exposure to unauthorized copying and use of our work marketplace, technology, intellectual property, and other proprietary information may increase. If we do not protect and enforce our intellectual property rights successfully or cost-effectively, our competitive position may suffer, which would adversely impact our operating results.
Our pending patent or trademark applications may not be approved, or competitors or others may challenge the validity, enforceability, or scope of our patents, the registrability or validity of our trademarks, or the trade secret status of our proprietary information. If we are unsuccessful in a dispute or litigation, we may be unable to stop competitors or others from using our marks or confusingly similar marks, and we may suffer dilution, loss of reputation, genericization, or other harm to our brand. Efforts to protect and enforce our intellectual property rights, even if successful, may be costly, negatively impact our brand, negatively affect worker productivity, and be time consuming and distracting to our management. There can be no assurance that additional patents or trademarks will be issued or that any patents or trademarks that are issued will provide significant protection for our intellectual property. In addition, our patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and other intellectual property rights may not provide us a significant competitive advantage. There is no assurance that the particular forms of intellectual property protection that we seek, including business decisions about when and where to file patents or register or renew trademarks and when and how to maintain and protect trade secrets, will be adequate to protect our business, or that common law protection will be sufficient for marks or in jurisdictions where we do not register the marks.
We may not pursue or file patent applications or apply for registration of copyrights or trademarks in the United States and foreign jurisdictions in which we have a presence with respect to our potentially patentable inventions, works of authorship, and marks and logos for a variety of reasons, including the cost of procuring such rights and the uncertainty involved in obtaining adequate protection from such applications and registrations. Moreover, recent amendments to, developing jurisprudence regarding, and possible changes to intellectual property laws and regulations, including U.S. and foreign patent law, may affect our ability to protect and enforce our intellectual property rights or defend against claims alleging we are infringing others’ rights. If the intellectual property rights that we develop are not sufficient to protect our proprietary technology and data, our brand, our business, financial condition and operating results could be adversely affected.
In addition, the laws of some countries do not provide the same level of protection for our intellectual property as do the laws of the United States. As our global reputation grows and we expand our international activities, our exposure to unauthorized copying and use of our work marketplace and proprietary information will likely increase. Despite our precautions, our intellectual property is vulnerable to unauthorized access through employee or third-party error or actions, theft, cybersecurity incidents, and other security breaches and incidents. It is possible for third parties to infringe upon or misappropriate our
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intellectual property, to copy our work marketplace, and to use information that we regard as proprietary to create products and services that compete with ours. Effective intellectual property protection may not be available to us in every country in which our work marketplace is available. In addition, many countries limit the enforceability of patents or other intellectual property rights against certain third parties, including government agencies or government contractors. In these countries, patents or other intellectual property rights may provide limited or no benefit. Further, certain countries impose additional conditions on the transfer of intellectual property rights from individuals to companies, which may make it more difficult for us to secure and maintain intellectual property protection in those countries. We may need to expend additional resources to defend our intellectual property rights domestically or internationally, which could be costly, time consuming, and distracting to management and could impair our business or adversely affect our domestic or international expansion. If we cannot adequately protect and defend our intellectual property, we may not remain competitive, and our business, operating results, and financial condition may be adversely affected.
We rely on trade secrets as an important aspect of our intellectual property program and to cover much of our technology and know-how. We seek to protect our trade secrets and obtain rights in intellectual property developed by service providers through confidentiality and invention assignment or intellectual property ownership agreements with our employees, contractors, and other parties. In addition, for employees of third-party staffing providers or other contractors, the employer agrees to enter into these agreements with individual workers. We also take other measures to protect our information and data, including implementing acceptable use policies, limiting access to our information and data through technological means, and monitoring and limiting the dissemination of our information and data outside of company-owned information systems. We cannot ensure that these agreements, or all the terms thereof, will be enforceable or compliant with applicable law, or these agreements and other measures will be effective in controlling access to, use of, and distribution of our proprietary information or in effectively securing and maintaining exclusive ownership of intellectual property developed by our current or former employees and contractors. Most of our employees and all of the contractors with which we work are remote, which may make it more difficult to control use of confidential materials, increasing the risk that our source code or other confidential or trade secret information may be exposed. Further, these agreements with our employees, contractors, and other parties may not prevent other parties from independently developing technologies that are substantially equivalent or superior to our work marketplace. Any failure to protect intellectual property that we develop or our proprietary technology and data would adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial condition.
We spend significant time and resources securing and monitoring our intellectual property rights, and we may or may not be able to detect infringement by third parties. Our competitive position may be adversely impacted if we cannot detect infringement or enforce our intellectual property rights quickly or at all. In some circumstances, we may choose not to pursue enforcement because an infringer may have a dominant intellectual property position or for other business reasons. In addition, competitors might avoid infringement by designing around our intellectual property rights or by developing non-infringing competing technologies. We have in the past been, and may in the future be, forced to rely on litigation, opposition, and cancellation actions, and other claims and enforcement actions to protect our intellectual property, including to dispute registration, use of marks that may be confusingly similar to our own marks, or use of technologies that infringe on our intellectual property. Similar claims and other litigation may be necessary in the future to enforce and protect our intellectual property rights. Litigation brought to protect and enforce our intellectual property rights could be costly, time-consuming, and distracting to management, and could result in the impairment or loss of portions of our intellectual property. Further, our efforts to enforce our intellectual property rights may be met with defenses; counterclaims attacking the scope, validity, and enforceability of our intellectual property rights; or counterclaims and countersuits asserting infringement by us of third-party intellectual property rights. Our failure to secure, protect, and enforce our intellectual property rights could adversely affect our brand and our business, and we could lose the right to use certain intellectual property or lose the opportunity to license our technology to others or to collect royalty payments based upon successful protection and assertion of our intellectual property against others.
Our work marketplace contains open source software components, and failure to comply with the terms of the underlying licenses could restrict our ability to market or operate our work marketplace.
Our work marketplace incorporates certain open source software. An open source license typically permits the use, modification, and distribution of software in source-code form subject to certain conditions. Some open source licenses contain conditions that any person who distributes a modification or derivative work of software that was subject to an open source license make the modified version subject to the same open source license. Distributing software that is subject to this kind of open source license can lead to a requirement that certain aspects of our work marketplace be distributed or made available in source code form. Although we do not believe that we have used open source software in a manner that might condition its use on our distribution of any portion of our work marketplace in source code form, the interpretation of open source licenses is complex and, despite our efforts, it is possible that we may be liable for copyright infringement, breach of contract, or other claims if our use of open source software is adjudged not to comply with the applicable open source licenses.
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Moreover, we cannot ensure that our processes for controlling our use of open source software in our work marketplace will be effective. If we have not complied with the terms of an applicable open source software license, we may need to seek licenses from third parties to continue offering our work marketplace and the terms on which such licenses are available may not be economically feasible, to re-engineer our work marketplace to remove or replace the open source software, to discontinue offering our work marketplace if re-engineering could not be accomplished on a timely basis, to pay monetary damages, or to make available the source code for aspects of our proprietary technology, any of which could adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial condition.
In addition to risks related to license requirements, use of open source software can involve greater risks than those associated with use of third-party commercial software, as open source licensors generally do not provide warranties or assurances of title, performance, or non-infringement, nor do they control the origin of the software. There is typically no support available for open source software, and we cannot ensure that the authors of such open source software will implement or push updates to address security risks or will not abandon further development and maintenance. Many of the risks associated with the use of open source software, such as the lack of warranties or assurances of title or performance, cannot be eliminated, and could, if not properly addressed, negatively affect our business.
Our user growth and engagement on mobile devices depend upon third parties maintaining open application marketplaces and effective operation with mobile operating systems, networks, and standards that we do not control.
Mobile devices are increasingly used for marketplace transactions. A significant and growing portion of our users access our work marketplace through mobile devices, including through the use of mobile applications. Our mobile applications rely on third parties maintaining open application store platforms, including the Apple App Store and Google Play, which make current and new applications or new versions of our mobile applications available for download and use on mobile devices. We cannot assure you that the platforms through which we distribute our applications will maintain their current structures or terms of access, that such marketplaces will continue to make our mobile applications or newer versions of our mobile applications available for download, or that such marketplaces will not charge us fees to list our applications for download, or charge us fees to offer products and services through our applications. Additionally, there is no guarantee that popular mobile devices will continue to support our work marketplace, that the use of mobile devices for payments or other transactions on our work marketplace will be available on commercially reasonable terms, or that mobile device users will use our work marketplace rather than competing products. We are dependent on the interoperability of our work marketplace with popular mobile operating systems that we do not control, such as Android and iOS, and any changes in such systems that degrade the functionality of our website or applications or give preferential treatment to competitors could adversely affect the usage of our work marketplace on mobile devices. Additionally, in order to deliver high-quality mobile products, it is important that our products are designed effectively and work well with a range of mobile devices, technologies, systems, networks, and standards that we do not control. We may not be successful in developing relationships with key participants in the mobile industry or in developing products that operate effectively with these devices, technologies, systems, networks, or standards. In the event that it is more difficult for our users to access and use our work marketplace on their mobile devices, our users find our mobile offering is not cost-effective, our users find our mobile offering does not meet their needs, our competitors develop products and services that are perceived to operate more effectively on mobile devices, or our users choose not to access or use our work marketplace on their mobile devices or use mobile products that do not offer access to our work marketplace, our user growth, user engagement, and business could be adversely impacted.
Risks Related to Legal and Regulatory Matters
We and our users may be subject to new and existing laws and regulations, both in the United States and internationally.
We and our users are subject to a wide variety of foreign and domestic laws. Laws, regulations, and standards governing issues that may affect us, such as worker classification, employment, worker health, payments, worker confidentiality obligations and whistleblowing, intellectual property, consumer protection, taxation, privacy, and data security are often complex and subject to varying interpretations, in many cases due to their lack of specificity, and, as a result, their enforcement and application in practice may change or develop over time through judicial decisions or as new guidance or interpretations are provided by regulatory and governing bodies, such as federal and state administrative agencies. Many of these laws were adopted prior to the advent of the internet, mobile, and related technologies and, as a result, do not contemplate or address the unique issues of the internet, mobile, and related technologies. Other laws and regulations may be adopted in response to internet, mobile, and related technologies. New and existing laws and regulations (or changes in interpretation of existing laws and regulations), including those concerning worker classification, independent contractors, employment, discrimination and harassment, payments, whistleblowing and worker confidentiality obligations, intellectual property, consumer protection, taxation, privacy, data security, benefits, unionizing and collective action, arbitration agreements and class action waiver provisions, unfair competition, terms of service, website accessibility, background checks (such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681), escheatment, and federal contracting may also be adopted, implemented, or interpreted to apply to us and other online
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services marketplaces or our users. Likewise, these laws affect our users, and their application, or uncertainty around their application, may affect demand for our work marketplace.
New laws, regulations and orders enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or the resulting macroeconomic downturn may also affect our business in ways that we did not anticipate, and existing laws and regulations may be interpreted and enforced differently than they have in the past in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These laws may change rapidly and compliance may be costly to us. For example, the restrictions intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 currently enacted in many jurisdictions may result in a loss of productivity of our workforce and an increase in data security breaches and other privacy and security incidents, among other things. On the other hand, a loosening of these restrictions as certain geographic areas begin to reopen may result in a decline in user activity on our work marketplace.
As our work marketplace’s geographic scope expands and as we expand the categories of services offered on our work marketplace, regulatory agencies or courts may claim that we, or our users, are subject to additional requirements, or are prohibited from conducting our business, or conducting business with us, in or with certain jurisdictions, either generally or with respect to certain services, or that we are otherwise required to change our business practices. It is also possible that certain provisions in agreements with our users or service providers, or between freelancers and clients, or the fees we charge, may be found to be unenforceable or not compliant with applicable law.
The level of regulatory scrutiny on larger companies, technology companies in general, and companies engaged in dealings with independent contractors, payments, or personal information in particular has increased significantly recently and may continue to increase. Legislators have enacted, and may continue to enact, new laws or regulatory agencies may promulgate new rules or regulations that are adverse to our business or the interests of our users, or they may view matters or interpret or enforce laws and regulations differently than they have in the past or in a manner adverse to our business or the interests of our users. Such legislative or regulatory scrutiny or action may create or enhance different or conflicting obligations on us from one jurisdiction to another.
New approaches to policy-making and legislation may also produce unintended harms for our business, which may impact our ability to operate our business in the manner in which we are accustomed. For example, there has been increased focus on worker classification and independent contractor regulations which led in part to the adoption of legislation in California, and it is possible that other jurisdictions will implement similar laws and regulations, as discussed in the risk factor titled “There may be adverse tax, legal, and other consequences if the contractor classification or employment status of freelancers that use our work marketplace is challenged.” These laws and regulations may have a far-reaching impact, including on the independent professionals that use our work marketplace and their clients. Any of these regulations could negatively impact our users, including perceptions regarding their use of our work marketplace, or have a material adverse effect on the demand for freelancers on our work marketplace or on the manner in which we are able to operate our work marketplace.
As we look to expand our international footprint over time, we may become obligated to comply with additional laws and regulations of the countries or markets in which we operate or have users. We may be harmed if we are found to be subject to new or existing laws and regulations or if those laws are interpreted and applied to us in a manner that harms our business or is inconsistent with the application of U.S. laws, including those concerning worker classification, independent contractors, employment, payments, whistleblowing and worker confidentiality obligations, laws related to the COVID-19 pandemic, intellectual property, consumer protection, taxation, privacy, data security, benefits, unionizing and collective action, arbitration agreements and class action waiver provisions, unfair competition, terms of service, website accessibility, background checks, and escheatment. In addition, contractual provisions that are designed to protect and mitigate against risks, including terms of service, services agreements, arbitration and class action waiver provisions, disclaimers of warranties, limitations of liabilities, releases of claims, and indemnification provisions, could be deemed unenforceable as to the application of these laws and regulations by a court, arbitrator, or other decision-making body. If we are unable to comply with these laws and regulations or manage the complexity of global operations and supporting an international user base successfully or in a cost-effective manner, or if these laws and regulations are found to apply to our users or cause a decline in demand for freelancer services, our business, operating results, and financial condition could be adversely affected.
Our success, or perceived success, and increased visibility may also drive some third parties that view our business model to be a threat, or otherwise problematic, to raise concerns about our business model to local policymakers and regulators. These third parties and their trade association groups or other organizations may take actions and employ significant resources to shape the legal and regulatory regimes in countries where we have, or may seek to have, a significant number of users, in an effort to change such legal and regulatory regimes in ways intended to adversely affect or impede our business and the ability of users to utilize our work marketplace.
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There may be adverse tax, legal, and other consequences if the contractor classification or employment status of freelancers that use our work marketplace is challenged.
Clients are generally responsible for properly classifying the freelancers they engage through our work marketplace under our terms of service. Some clients opt to classify freelancers as employees for certain work, while many freelancers are classified as independent contractors.
We offer an optional service to our Upwork Enterprise and premium clients, through which we help classify freelancers as employees of third-party staffing providers or independent contractors. For clients that subscribe to this service, subject to applicable law and the terms of our agreement with the client, we indemnify clients from misclassification risk and make warranties to the client, such as to compliance with applicable laws. In addition, we offer a number of other premium services where we provide increased assistance to users to find and contract with one another. Third-party staffing providers employ freelancers classified as employees for clients, and failure of these staffing providers to comply with all legal and tax requirements could adversely affect our business. Moreover, material business changes to one or more of our third-party staffing providers could lead to increased costs for clients or us, a reduced profit margin, a diminished user experience, or the inability to offer the staffing provider services in one or more jurisdictions. We also use our work marketplace to find, classify, and engage freelancers to provide services for us and for our managed services offering. In general, any time a court or administrative agency determines that we or our clients that use our work marketplace have misclassified a freelancer as an independent contractor, we or our users could incur tax and other liabilities for failing to properly withhold or pay taxes on the freelancer’s compensation as well as potential wage and hour and other liabilities depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction. We have in the past been, and may in the future be, subject to administrative inquiries and audits concerning the taxation and classification of our workers and the users of our work marketplace. We cannot be certain that any insurance coverage that we have or may obtain will extend to or be adequate for liabilities actually incurred or that insurance will continue to be available to us on economically reasonable terms, or at all.
There is often uncertainty in the application of worker classification laws, and consequently there is risk to us and to users, both freelancers and clients, that independent contractors could be deemed to be misclassified under applicable law. The tests governing whether a service provider is an independent contractor or an employee are typically highly fact sensitive and vary by governing law. Laws and regulations that govern the status and misclassification of independent contractors are also subject to change as well as to divergent interpretations by various authorities, which can create uncertainty and unpredictability. For example, in California, we are aware of the state supreme court’s 2018 decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, as well as Assembly Bill 5, which we refer to as AB 5, which went into effect January 1, 2020 and which has the stated purpose of codifying the Dynamex holding. Together, they change the standard in California for determining worker classification and are widely viewed as expanding the scope of the definition of employee for most purposes under California law. Given the enactment of AB 5, there is little guidance from the courts or the regulatory authorities charged with its enforcement and there is a significant degree of uncertainty regarding its application.
A misclassification determination, allegation, claim, or audit creates potential exposure for users and for us, including but not limited to reputational harm and monetary exposure arising from or relating to failure to withhold and remit taxes, unpaid wages, and wage and hour laws and requirements (such as those pertaining to minimum wage and overtime); claims for employee benefits, social security contributions, and workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance; claims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation under civil rights laws; claims under laws pertaining to unionizing, collective bargaining, and other concerted activity; and other claims, charges, or other proceedings under laws and regulations applicable to employers and employees, including risks relating to allegations of joint employer liability. Such claims could result in monetary damages (including but not limited to wage-based damages or restitution, compensatory damages, liquidated damages, and punitive damages), interest, fines, penalties, costs, fees (including but not limited to attorneys’ fees), criminal and other liability, assessment, injunctive relief, or settlement. These types of claims have become more frequent in light of deteriorating macroeconomic conditions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more prone to agency error in light of overwhelmed agencies, more commonly submitted on a fraudulent basis, and more difficult to oppose due to COVID-19 related delays. Claims naming our company may also have become and may continue to be more prevalent in light of legislative and regulatory responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which we refer to as PUA, program and state programs implementing PUA. Such an allegation, claim, or adverse determination, including but not limited to with respect to the freelancers that provide services to us, or the requirement for us to indemnify a client, could also harm our brand and reputation, which could adversely impact our business. While these risks are mitigated, in part, by our contractual rights of indemnification against third-party claims, any limitations or obligations that we include in our contracts with clients to limit our exposure to claims could be determined to be unenforceable, could be costly to enforce or ineffective, or may otherwise prove inadequate.
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The regulatory landscape regarding contractor classification is rapidly changing, and changes in these laws could adversely affect demand for our services and platform and adversely affect our business.
Worker classification and independent contractor issues, including AB 5, have been the subject of widespread national discussion and it is possible that other jurisdictions, including New York, Washington, Illinois, and other states, as well as the European Union, which we refer to as the EU, through its work on the Platform Workers Directive and other legislative and regulatory instruments, may enact similar laws. Additionally, initiatives such as California’s Proposition 22 (which was passed in 2020) alter, and other potential legislation could alter, the legislative and regulatory landscape regarding how states, municipalities and the federal government may choose to regulate independent contractors broadly and specific sectors as well, which may affect how our users run their businesses depending on their locale. As a result, there is significant uncertainty regarding what the worker classification regulatory landscape will look like in future years, and compliance with any new legislation or regulations may be costly and difficult or they may be impossible to comply with in a commercially reasonable manner. In addition, any developments or changes in the regulatory environment impacting worker classification and independent contractors may reduce the demand for independent contractors more generally in one or more jurisdictions and have an adverse effect on our business, operating results, and financial condition.
The applicability of sales, use, and other tax laws or regulations on our business is uncertain. Adverse tax laws or regulations could be enacted or existing laws could be interpreted as applying or otherwise applied to us or users of our work marketplace, which could subject us or our users to additional tax liability and related interest and penalties, and adversely impact our business.
The application of federal, state, local, and international tax laws to services provided over the internet is evolving. In addition to income taxes, in the United States and various foreign jurisdictions, we may also be subject to non-income based taxes, such as payroll, sales, use, value-added, and goods and services taxes (including the “digital service tax”), and we may also be subject to increased obligations as a withholding agent. Many of the fundamental statutes and regulations that impose these taxes were established before the adoption and growth of the internet and ecommerce. In addition, governments are increasingly looking for ways to increase revenue, which has resulted in aggressive enforcement and new interpretations of existing tax laws, enacting new laws and promulgating new regulations (particularly those establishing an economic nexus as a basis to collect taxes from companies with no local presence), discussions about tax reform, and other legislative action to increase tax revenue, including through indirect taxes. New income, payroll, sales, use, value-added, goods and services, platform, intermediary, digital services, or other tax laws, statutes, rules, regulations, or ordinances are regularly enacted and could be enacted at any time (possibly with retroactive effect), could be applied solely or disproportionately to services provided over the internet, could target certain products and services offered on our work marketplace, or could otherwise affect our or our users’ tax obligations or financial position and operating results. Many countries in the EU, as well as the United Kingdom, India, and a number of other countries and organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have recently proposed or recommended changes to existing tax laws or have enacted new laws that could impact our tax obligations. The impact and burden of these regulations and proposed regulations on our business and the businesses of our users is uncertain, but may have a negative impact on our business.
We currently collect and remit indirect taxes on our fees in a number of jurisdictions and from time to time we may begin collecting and remitting indirect taxes in additional jurisdictions. Our collection of indirect taxes on our fees in these jurisdictions may cause our users to use other platforms or other alternatives that do not collect indirect taxes on their fees, which may in turn affect our financial results. In addition, tax authorities may raise questions about, challenge or disagree with our determination as to whether we are obligated to collect indirect taxes or our calculation, reporting, or collection of taxes and may require us to remit additional taxes and interest, and could impose associated penalties and fees. Should any new taxes become applicable or the application of existing taxes be deemed to apply to us or our users, or if the taxes we pay are found to be deficient, our business could be adversely impacted. We have in the past been, and may in the future be, audited by tax authorities with respect to non-income taxes, and we may have exposure to additional non-income tax liabilities, which could have an adverse effect on our operating results and financial condition. In addition, our future effective tax rates could be favorably or unfavorably affected by changes in tax rates, changes in the valuation of our deferred tax assets or liabilities, the effectiveness of our tax planning strategies, or changes in tax laws or their interpretation. Such changes could have an adverse impact on our operating results and financial condition.
Moreover, state, local, and foreign tax jurisdictions have differing rules and regulations governing sales, income, use, value-added, payroll, services, and other taxes, and these rules and regulations can be complex and are subject to varying interpretations and enforcement positions that may change over time. Existing tax laws, statutes, rules, regulations, or ordinances could be interpreted, changed, modified, or applied adversely to us or our users (possibly with retroactive effect), which could require us or our users to pay additional tax amounts on prior sales and going forward, as well as require us or our users to pay fines, penalties, and interest for past amounts. Although our terms of service require our users to pay all applicable sales and other taxes and to indemnify us for any requirement that we pay any withholding amount to the appropriate authorities, our work marketplace does not include functionality to easily enable users to charge any applicable taxes to one
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another, users may be unwilling or unable to pay back taxes and associated interest or penalties and may fail to indemnify us, we may determine that it would not be commercially feasible or cost-effective to seek reimbursement, the indemnification obligation may be deemed unenforceable, or the functionality and indemnification provisions may cause users to seek out other platforms. If we are required to collect and pay back taxes and associated interest and penalties, or we are unsuccessful in collecting such amounts from our users, we could incur potentially substantial unplanned expenses, thereby adversely impacting our operating results and cash flows. In addition, tax laws and regulations may subject us to audit by tax regulators and require us to provide certain data and information, including user information, from our work marketplace to tax regulators in certain jurisdictions. If we are obligated to provide such information to tax regulators in any jurisdiction, users may choose to use other platforms or other alternatives, which may in turn adversely affect our operating results and financial condition.
As a result of these and other factors, the ultimate amount of tax obligations we owe may differ from the amounts recorded in our financial statements and any such difference may adversely impact our operating results in future periods in which we change our estimates of our tax obligations or in which the ultimate tax outcome is determined.
Having an international community of users and engaging freelancers internationally exposes us to risks that could have an adverse effect on our business, operating results, and financial condition.
Even though we currently have a limited physical presence outside of the United States, our users have a global footprint that subjects us to the risks of being found to do business internationally. We have users on our work marketplace located in over 180 countries, including some markets where we have limited experience, where challenges can be significantly different from those we have faced in more developed markets, and where business practices may create greater internal control risks. Further, certain skills and services are offered by freelancers concentrated in countries with higher risks of instability and geopolitical uncertainty, such as Russia and Ukraine, both of which have experienced recent political unrest. In addition, we engage freelancers located in many countries to provide services for our managed services offering and to us for internal projects. Because our website is generally accessible by users worldwide, we have received in the past, and may continue to receive, notices from jurisdictions claiming that we or our users are required to comply with their laws. Laws outside of the United States regulating the internet, payments, escrow, data protection, data residency, privacy, taxation, terms of service, website accessibility, consumer protection, intellectual property ownership, services intermediaries, payment intermediaries, labor and employment, wage and hour, worker classification, worker health, background checks, and recruiting and staffing companies, among others, which could be interpreted to apply to us, are often less favorable to us than those in the United States, giving greater rights to competitors, users, and other third parties. Compliance with international laws and regulations may be more costly than expected, may require us to change our business practices or restrict our product offerings, and the imposition of any such laws or regulations on us, our users, or third parties that we or our users utilize to provide or use our services, may adversely impact our revenue and business. In addition, we may be subject to multiple overlapping legal or regulatory regimes that impose conflicting requirements which could lead to additional compliance costs and enhanced legal risks.
Risks inherent in conducting business with an international user base and engaging freelancers globally include, but are not limited to:
being deemed to conduct business or have operations in the jurisdictions where users, including freelancers that provide services to us, are resident and being subject to their laws and regulatory requirements, including those concerning taxation;
new, changed, or conflicting regulatory requirements;
varying worker classification standards, regulations, and approaches to enforcement and requirements and expectations of employment;
compliance with U.S. and foreign laws designed to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities;
the imposition of taxes on transactions between us and our users or among our users, or the imposition of liability on us for the failure to collect and remit taxes owed by our users;
compliance with U.S. and foreign laws and regulations regarding privacy, data protection, information security, and the collection, storing, retention, sharing, use, processing, transfer, disclosure, and protection of personal information and other content;
the cost and burden of complying with a wide variety of laws that may be deemed to apply to us, including those relating to labor and employment matters (including but not limited to requirements with respect to works councils or similar labor organizations, worker classification, and taxation on income or earnings, including the obligation to withhold and remit taxes), consumer and data protection, privacy, network security, encryption, data residency, and taxes, as well as securing expertise in local law and related practices;
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tariffs, export and import restrictions, restrictions on foreign investments, sanctions, changes to existing trade arrangements between various countries, and other trade barriers or protection measures;
regional or global public health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic;
economic weakness or currency-related challenges or crises;
costs of localizing services, including adding the ability for clients to pay in local currencies;
macroeconomic and political conditions, including in certain foreign jurisdictions such as the evolving relations between the United States and China and instability and geopolitical uncertainty in Russia and Ukraine;
fluctuations in foreign currency exchange rates;
lack of acceptance of localized services or of services generally because they are not localized;
difficulties in, and costs of, staffing, managing, and operating international operations or support functions;
weaker intellectual property protection;
organizing or similar activity by workers, local unions, works councils, or other labor organizations in the U.S. or elsewhere;
our ability to adapt to business practices and client requirements in different cultures;
corporate or state-sponsored espionage or cyberterrorism; and
geopolitical instability and security risks, such as armed conflict and civil or military unrest, political instability, human rights concerns, and terrorist activity in countries where we have users.
The risks described above may also make it costly or difficult for us to expand our operations internationally. Analysis of, and compliance with, global laws and regulations may substantially increase our cost of doing business. We may be unable to keep current with changes in laws and regulations as they develop. Although we have implemented policies and procedures designed to analyze whether these laws apply and, if applicable, support compliance with these laws and regulations, there can be no assurance that we will always maintain compliance, that our interpretations are or will remain correct, or that all of our employees, contractors, partners, users, and agents will comply. Any violations could result in enforcement actions or other proceedings, fines, civil and criminal penalties, damages, interest, costs and fees (including but not limited to legal fees), injunctions, loss of intellectual property rights, or reputational harm. If we are unable to comply with these laws and regulations or manage the complexity of global operations and supporting an international user base successfully and in a cost-effective manner, our business, operating results, and financial condition could be adversely affected.
Changes in laws or regulations relating to privacy or the protection, collection, storage, processing, transfer, or use of personal information, or any actual or perceived failure by us to comply with such laws and regulations or our privacy policies, could adversely affect our business.
We receive, collect, store, process, transfer, and use personal information and other user data. There are numerous federal, state, local, and international laws and regulations regarding privacy, data protection, information security, and the collection, storing, sharing, use, processing, transfer, disclosure, and protection of personal information and other data. The scope of these laws and regulations is changing, subject to differing interpretations, and may be inconsistent among states and countries, or conflict with other laws and regulations. We are also subject to the terms of our privacy policies and legal and contractual obligations to third parties related to privacy, data protection, and information security. The regulatory framework for privacy and data protection worldwide is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, uncertain and complex, and it is possible that these or other actual or alleged obligations may be interpreted and applied in a manner that we do not anticipate or that is inconsistent from one jurisdiction to another and may conflict with other rules or our practices. Further, any significant change to applicable laws, regulations, or industry practices regarding the collection, use, retention, security, or disclosure of the data of our users, employees, contractors, or others, or their interpretation or enforcement, or any changes regarding the manner in which the express or implied consent of users for the collection, use, retention, or disclosure of such data must be obtained, including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, could increase our costs and require us to modify our services and features, possibly in a material manner, which we may be unable to complete in a cost-effective manner, or at all, and may limit our ability to store and process user data or develop new services and features.
We also expect that there will continue to be new laws, regulations, and industry standards concerning privacy, data protection, and information security that are proposed and enacted in various jurisdictions. For example, European legislators adopted the General Data Protection Regulation, which we refer to as the GDPR, which became effective in May 2018 and superseded the existing EU, data protection legislation, imposes more stringent EU data protection requirements, and provides for significant penalties for noncompliance. The GDPR created new compliance obligations applicable to our business, users, vendors, and
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third-party partners, which expose us to increased financial penalties for noncompliance, including possible fines of up to 4% of global annual turnover for the preceding financial year or €20 million, whichever is higher, for the most serious violations. The GDPR also confers a private right of action on data subjects and consumer associations to lodge complaints with supervisory authorities, seek judicial remedies, and obtain compensation for damages resulting from violations of the GDPR. Compliance with the GDPR has been and will be a rigorous and time-intensive process that may increase our cost of doing business or require us to change our business practices, and there is a risk that we may be subject to governmental investigations or enforcement actions, fines and penalties, claims, litigation, and reputational harm in connection with any European activities.
Moreover, on July 16, 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union, which we refer to as the CJEU, declared the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield to be an invalid mechanism for transferring personal information from the EU to the United States. In addition, while the CJEU upheld the adequacy of the standard contractual clauses (a standard form of contract approved by the European Commission as an adequate personal information transfer mechanism, and potential alternative to the Privacy Shield), it made clear that reliance on them alone may not necessarily be sufficient in all circumstances. The use of standard contractual clauses for the transfer of personal information specifically to the United States remains under review by a number of European data protection supervisory authorities. German and Irish supervisory authorities have indicated that the standard contractual clauses alone provide inadequate protection for EU-US data transfers. On August 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the European Commission announced new discussions to evaluate the potential for an enhanced EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework to comply with the July 16 judgment of the CJEU. The CJEU’s decision (and certain regulatory guidance issued in its wake) and recent statements by EU supervisory authorities have led to uncertainty regarding the legality of EU-U.S. data flows in general and those conducted under the Privacy Shield in particular. The CJEU’s decision may continue to create new compliance obligations applicable to our business, users, vendors, and third-party partners, which could cause us to change our business practices. As further guidance is issued by European authorities, the full rights and responsibilities resulting from the CJEU’s decision may continue to change.
As supervisory authorities continue to issue further guidance on personal information, we could suffer additional costs, complaints, or regulatory investigations or fines, and if we are otherwise unable to transfer personal information between and among countries and regions in which we operate, it could affect the manner in which we provide our services, the geographical location or segregation of our relevant systems and operations, and could adversely affect our financial results.
Further, in connection with its process of leaving the EU, the United Kingdom has enacted the Data Protection Act 2018, which we refer to as the Data Protection Act, that is substantially consistent with the GDPR. From the beginning of 2021 (when the transitional period following Brexit expired), we will have to continue to comply with the GDPR and also the Data Protection Act, with each regime having the ability to fine up to the greater of €20 million (£17 million) or 4% of global turnover. The relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU remains uncertain, for example, how data transfers between the United Kingdom and the EU and other jurisdictions will be treated and the role of the United Kingdom’s supervisory authority. These changes will lead to additional costs as we try to ensure compliance with new privacy legislation and will increase our overall risk exposure.
Additionally, in June 2018, California passed the CCPA, which provides new privacy rights for consumers and new operational requirements for companies. The CCPA became effective on January 1, 2020 and enforcement began on July 1, 2020, along with related regulations which came into force on August 14, 2020. Fines for noncompliance may be up to $7,500 per violation without limitations. Additionally, on November 3, 2020 Californians passed a ballot initiative called the California Privacy Rights Act, which we refer to as the CPRA, which extends the CCPA and imposes additional data protection obligations on companies doing business in California, including additional consumer rights processes and opt outs for certain uses of sensitive data. The costs of compliance with, and other burdens imposed by, the GDPR, CCPA, and CPRA may limit the use and adoption of our products and services and could have an adverse impact on our business. Because the GDPR, the UK’s Data Protection Act, the CCPA, and the CPRA are in force or recently passed, their application in practice may change or develop over time through judicial decisions or as new guidance or interpretations are provided by regulatory and governing bodies, such as federal and state administrative agencies, and our interpretations of these laws and efforts to comply with the rules and regulations of these laws may be deemed invalid. Additionally, the CCPA has prompted a number of proposals for new federal and state-level privacy legislation, such as in New York, Nevada, Virginia, New Hampshire, and other jurisdictions. If passed, these new laws could add additional complexity, impact our business strategies, increase our potential liability, increase our compliance costs, and adversely affect our business.
Any failure or perceived failure by us to comply with our privacy policies, our privacy-related obligations to users, employees, contractors, or other third parties, or any other legal obligations or regulatory requirements relating to privacy, data protection, or information security may result in governmental investigations or enforcement actions, litigation, claims, or public statements against us by consumer advocacy groups or others and could result in significant liability, cause our users to lose trust in us, and otherwise have an adverse effect on our reputation and business. Our ability to comply with a global patchwork of competing privacy regimes may be inhibited by the competing nature of those regimes. It is possible that, as new regulatory requirements come into law, especially those which may diverge, even slightly, from existing regulatory frameworks, such as
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the United Kingdom’s Data Protection Law as it leaves the EU, we may incur costs related to compliance, or may need to seek remedies to ensure such competing regimes are interpreted and enforced fairly. Furthermore, the costs of compliance with, and other burdens imposed by, the laws, regulations, and policies that are applicable to the businesses of our users may limit the adoption and use of, and reduce the overall demand for, our work marketplace.
Additionally, if third parties we work with violate applicable laws, regulations, or agreements, such violations may put the data of our users, employees, contractors, and others at risk, could result in governmental investigations or enforcement actions, fines, litigation, claims, or public statements against us by consumer advocacy groups or others, and could result in significant liability, cause our users to lose trust in us, and otherwise have an adverse effect on our reputation and business. Further, public scrutiny of or complaints about technology companies or their data handling or data protection practices, even if unrelated to our business, industry, or operations, may lead to increased scrutiny of technology companies, including us, and may cause government agencies to enact additional regulatory requirements, or to modify their enforcement or investigation activities, which may disrupt the conduct of our business, increase our liability, increase our costs and risks, and adversely affect our business.
We may be subject to escrow, payment services, and money transmitter regulations that may adversely affect our business.
Our subsidiary, Upwork Escrow, is licensed as an internet escrow agent under California’s Escrow Law and is subject to regulations applicable to internet escrow agents promulgated by the DFPI. While we have received two inquiries, each prior to 2014, from regulatory authorities inquiring whether we are engaging in payment activities through Upwork Escrow or oDesk (which is now Upwork Global Inc., which we refer to as Upwork Global), these inquiries were resolved in our favor and did not require us to obtain a license in the applicable jurisdiction.
Although we believe that our operations comply with existing U.S. federal, state, and international laws and regulatory requirements related to escrow, money transmission, and the handling or moving of money, the laws or regulations may change, and interpretations of existing laws and regulations may also change. As a result, Upwork Escrow or Upwork Global could be required to be licensed as an escrow agent or a money transmitter (or other similar licensee) in other U.S. states or other jurisdictions or may choose to obtain such a license even if not required. Such a decision could also require Upwork Escrow or Upwork Global to register as a money services business under federal laws and regulations. It is also possible that Upwork Escrow or Upwork Global could become subject to regulatory enforcement or other proceedings in those states or other jurisdictions with escrow, money transmission, or other similar statutes or regulatory requirements related to the handling or moving of money, which could in turn have a significant impact on our business, even if we were to ultimately prevail in such proceedings. Upwork Escrow or Upwork Global may also be required to become licensed as a payment institution (or obtain a similar license) under the European Payment Services Directive or other international laws and regulations. Any developments in the laws or regulations related to escrow, money transmission, or the handling or moving of money; material changes to the mandate, purview or regulatory approach at the DFPI; or increased scrutiny of our business may lead to additional compliance costs and administrative overhead.
The application of laws and regulations related to escrow, money transmission, and the handling or moving of money is subject to significant complexity and uncertainty, particularly as those laws relate to new and evolving business models. If Upwork Escrow or Upwork Global is ultimately deemed to be in violation of one or more escrow or money transmitter or other similar statutes or regulatory requirements related to the handling or moving of money in any U.S. state or other jurisdiction, we may be subject to the imposition of fines or restrictions on our business, our ability to offer some or all of our services in the relevant jurisdiction may be suspended, and we may be subject to civil or criminal liability and our business, operating results, financial condition, reputation, and brand could be adversely affected.
Failure to comply with anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, and sanctions laws, including the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which we refer to as the FCPA, and similar laws associated with our activities outside of the United States, could subject us to penalties and other adverse consequences.
We have voluntarily implemented an anti-money laundering compliance program designed to address the risk of our work marketplace being used to facilitate money laundering, terrorist financing, or other illicit activity. We also have policies, procedures, and sophisticated technology designed to allow us to comply with U.S. economic sanctions laws and prevent our work marketplace from being used to facilitate business in countries, regions, or with persons or entities included on designated lists promulgated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which we refer to as OFAC, and equivalent foreign authorities. We may be subject to fines or other penalties in one or more jurisdictions levied by federal or state or local regulators, including state attorneys general, as well as those levied by foreign regulators in the event that we engage in any conduct, intentionally or not, that facilitates money laundering, terrorist financing, or other illicit activity, or that violates sanctions or otherwise constitutes sanctionable activity. Regulators continue to increase their scrutiny of compliance with these obligations, which may require us to further revise or expand our compliance program, including the procedures that we use to verify the identity of our users and to monitor our work marketplace for suspicious or potential illegal activity. In addition, any policies and procedures that we implement to comply with OFAC regulations may not be effective, including in
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preventing users from using our services within the OFAC-sanctioned countries of North Korea, Syria, and Iran, and the Crimea region of Ukraine. Attempts by individuals or entities that have been designated by OFAC or are located in a country subject to an embargo by the United States to utilize our service or take advantage of us or our users may also be exacerbated during a macroeconomic downturn, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the technical limitations in developing controls to prevent, among other things, the ability of users to publish on our work marketplace false or deliberately misleading information or to develop sanctions-evasion methods, it is possible that we may inadvertently and without our knowledge provide services to individuals or entities that have been designated by OFAC or are located in a country subject to an embargo by the United States that may not be in compliance with the economic sanctions regulations administered by OFAC.
Consequences for failing to comply with applicable rules and regulations could include fines, criminal and civil lawsuits, forfeiture of significant assets, or other enforcement actions. We could also be required to make changes to our business practices or compliance programs as a result of regulatory scrutiny. In addition, any perceived or actual breach of compliance by us, our users, or payment partners with respect to applicable laws, rules, and regulations could have a significant impact on our reputation and could cause us to lose existing users, prevent us from obtaining new users, cause other payment partners to terminate or not renew their agreements with us, negatively impact investor sentiment about our company, require us to expend significant funds to remedy problems caused by violations and to avert further violations, and expose us to legal risk and potential liability, all of which may adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial condition and may cause the price of our common stock to decline. Further, even if we maintain proper controls and remain in compliance with OFAC regulations, should any of our competitors not implement sufficient OFAC controls and be found to have violated OFAC regulations, user perception of online freelance marketplaces in general may decrease and our business, brand, and reputation may be adversely affected.
For example, our and other freelancing platforms and websites have been the subject of additional scrutiny and press attention relating to North Korea. A State Department advisory issued in July 2018 stated that “there are cases where North Korean companies exploit the anonymity provided by freelancing websites to sell their IT services to unwitting buyers.” Additionally, press reports have stated that North Korean operatives have used various social media applications and freelancing websites, including ours. Accordingly, although we have controls in place to detect and prevent such OFAC violations and our systems show no access from persons in North Korea, nor from any other OFAC-sanctioned jurisdictions, we may face higher levels of scrutiny by users, partners, and regulators due to the publishing of this advisory and those or similar press reports.
We are also subject to the FCPA, the U.S. domestic bribery statute contained in 18 U.S.C. § 201, the U.S. Travel Act, and the UK Bribery Act 2010, and may be subject to other anti-bribery, anti-money laundering, and sanctions laws in countries in which we conduct activities or have users. We face significant risks if we fail to comply with the FCPA and other anti-corruption laws that prohibit companies and their agents and third-party intermediaries from authorizing, offering, or providing, directly or indirectly, improper payments or benefits to foreign government officials, political parties, or private-sector recipients for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business, directing business to any person, or securing any advantage. In many foreign countries, particularly in countries with developing economies, it may be a local custom that businesses engage in practices that are prohibited by the FCPA or other applicable laws and regulations. We may have direct or indirect interactions with officials and employees of government agencies or state-owned or affiliated entities, and we may be held liable for the corrupt or other illegal activities of these third-party intermediaries, our employees, representatives, contractors, partners, and agents, even if we prohibit or do not explicitly authorize such activities. We have implemented an anti-corruption compliance policy, but we cannot ensure that all of our employees, users, and agents, as well as those contractors to which we outsource certain of our business operations, will not take actions in violation of our policies or agreements and applicable law, for which we may be ultimately held responsible.
Any violation of the FCPA, other applicable anti-corruption laws, or other anti-bribery, anti-money laundering, or sanctions laws, could result in investigations and actions by federal or state attorneys general or foreign regulators, loss of export privileges, severe criminal or civil fines and penalties or other sanctions, forfeiture of significant assets, whistleblower complaints, and adverse media coverage, which could have an adverse effect on our reputation, business, operating results, and prospects. In addition, responding to any enforcement action may result in a significant diversion of management’s attention and resources and significant defense costs and other professional fees.
Litigation could have a material adverse impact on our operating results and financial condition.
From time to time, we are involved in litigation and receive demands and claims threatening possible litigation. The outcome of any litigation (including class actions and individual lawsuits or arbitration), regardless of its merits, is inherently uncertain. Regardless of the merits or ultimate outcome of any claims that have been or may be brought against us or that we may bring against others, pending or future litigation could result in a diversion of management’s attention and resources and reputational harm, and we may be required to incur significant expenses defending against these claims or pursuing claims against third parties. If we are unable to prevail in litigation, we could incur substantial liabilities. We may also determine that the most cost-
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effective and efficient way to resolve a dispute is to enter into a settlement agreement, and terms of any such settlement agreements are increasingly limited by legislation. Where we can make a reasonable estimate of the liability relating to pending litigation and determine that it is probable, we record a related liability. As additional information becomes available, we assess the potential liability and revise estimates as appropriate. However, because of uncertainties relating to litigation, the amount of our estimates could be wrong as determining reserves for pending litigation is a complex, fact-intensive process that is subject to judgment calls. Any adverse determination related to litigation or adverse terms contained in a settlement agreement could require us to change our technology or our business practices in costly ways, prevent us from offering certain products or services, require us to pay monetary damages, fines, or penalties, or require us to enter into royalty or licensing arrangements, and could adversely affect our operating results and cash flows, harm our reputation, or otherwise negatively impact our business.
We may be required to comply with governmental export control laws and regulations. Our failure to comply with these laws and regulations could have an adverse effect on our business and operating results.
We may be subject to U.S. export controls and sanctions regulations that prohibit the shipment or provision of certain products and services to certain countries, governments, and persons targeted by U.S. sanctions. While we take precautions to prevent aspects of our work marketplace from being exported in violation of these laws, including implementing internet protocol address blocking, we cannot guarantee that the precautions we take will prevent violations of export control and sanctions laws. If we are found to be in violation of U.S. sanctions or export control laws, it could result in substantial fines and penalties for us and for the persons working for us.
In addition, various countries regulate the import and export of certain encryption and other technology, including imposing import and export permitting and licensing requirements, and have enacted laws that could limit our ability to distribute aspects of our work marketplace or could limit our users’ ability to access our work marketplace in those countries. Changes in our work marketplace, or future changes in export and import regulations may prevent our international users from utilizing our work marketplace or, in some cases, prevent the export or import of our work marketplace to certain countries, governments, or persons altogether. Any change in export or import regulations, economic sanctions or related legislation, or change in the countries, governments, persons, or technologies targeted by such regulations, could result in decreased use of our work marketplace by existing or potential users with international operations. Any decreased use of our work marketplace or limitation on our ability to export or sell our products would likely adversely affect our business, operating results, and financial results.
Risks Related to Finance, Accounting, and Tax Matters
We have a history of net losses, anticipate increasing our operating expenses in the future, and may not achieve or sustain profitability.
We have a history of incurring net losses, and we expect to incur net losses for the foreseeable future. For the years ended December 31, 2020, 2019, and 2018, we incurred net losses of $22.9, $16.7 million, and $19.9 million, respectively. As of December 31, 2020, we had an accumulated deficit of $194.8 million. We have made, and expect to continue to make, significant expenditures related to the development and expansion of our business, including investing in marketing programs and activities, such as brand promotion efforts, including those designed to reach new and existing clients seeking to engage with remote freelancers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic; enhancing our Upwork Enterprise and other premium offerings; expanding our services and features; expanding our international user base; broadening and deepening the categories on our work marketplace; promoting client engagement of those freelancers that typically optimize to deliver larger projects, including through our Upwork Payroll offering; localizing our offerings in select locations; enhancing our mobile product offering and our U.S.-to-U.S. domestic marketplace offering; expanding our sales force; and in connection with legal, accounting, and other administrative expenses related to operating as a public company. These and other efforts may prove more expensive than we currently anticipate, and we may not succeed in increasing our revenue sufficiently, or at all, to offset these higher expenses. While our revenue has grown in recent years, we may not be able to sustain the same level of growth in future periods, or at all. For example, we experienced a reduction in the growth of GSV and revenue in the second quarter of 2020, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and could experience a similar reduction in GSV and revenue growth following the COVID-19 pandemic. If our revenue declines or fails to grow at a rate faster than increases in our operating expenses, we will not be able to achieve and maintain profitability in future periods. As a result, we may continue to generate losses. We cannot ensure that we will achieve profitability in the future or that, if we do become profitable, we will be able to sustain profitability.
Our operating results may fluctuate from quarter to quarter, which makes our future results difficult to predict.
Our quarterly operating results have fluctuated in the past and may fluctuate in the future, particularly during a macroeconomic downturn such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, we have a limited operating history under our current business strategy and pricing model, and we make pricing, product, and other changes from time to time, all of which make it difficult to forecast our future results. As a result, you should not rely upon our past quarterly operating results as
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indicators of future performance. You should take into account the risks, difficulties, and uncertainties frequently encountered by companies in highly competitive and rapidly evolving markets. Our operating results in any given quarter can be influenced by numerous factors, many of which are unpredictable or are outside of our control, including:
uncertainty regarding demand for our work marketplace following the COVID-19 pandemic;
ongoing uncertainty and impact on the global economy and spending by large, medium and small companies relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift to remote work, availability of qualified freelancers, and uncertainty regarding the timing and nature of any future economic recovery, as discussed further below;
our ability to generate significant revenue from our Upwork Basic, Plus, and Enterprise offerings, and our other premium offerings;
spending patterns of clients, including whether those clients that use our work marketplace frequently or for larger projects, reduce their spend, stop using our work marketplace, or change their method of payment to us, including in each case as a result of the implementation of macroeconomic or other external factors, new pricing or the introduction of new or modified products or services on our work marketplace, such as the changes made in the pricing and packaging of Connects purchases in 2019, and any pricing or other changes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic;
due to our tiered pricing model for freelancer service fees, the mix in any period between freelancers that have billed larger amounts to clients on our work marketplace, where we charge a lower rate on billings, and freelancers that have billed clients less on our work marketplace, where we charge a higher rate on billings;
our ability to maintain and grow our community of users, including our ability to acquire large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients with larger, longer-term talent needs and qualified freelancers;
our ability to respond to competitive developments, including new and emerging competitors, pricing changes, and the introduction of new products and services by our competitors;
our ability to attract, retain and grow small- and medium-sized business clients;
the success of our marketing and brand positioning efforts;
the productivity and effectiveness of our sales force;
the length and complexity of our sales cycles;
our ability to attract and retain freelancers that provide the types and quality of services sought by clients on our work marketplace, particularly freelancers that provide services for which client demand exceeds supply on our work marketplace;
the demand for and types and quality of skills and services that are offered on our work marketplace by freelancers;
ongoing uncertainty regarding U.S. and global political conditions;
the number of users circumventing our work marketplace and our fees, which could increase during economic downturns, such as the current macroeconomic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic;
our ability to introduce new products and services or enhance existing products and services without adversely affecting our existing revenue;
our ability to generate significant revenue from new products and services;
fluctuations in gross margin and managed services revenue due to our recognition of the entire GSV from our managed services offering as revenue, including the amounts paid to freelancers;
the disbursement methods chosen by freelancers;
fluctuations in the prices that freelancers charge clients on our work marketplace;
changes to our pricing model, including associated fees, and any resulting change to how we recognize revenue;
spending patterns and project bidding behavior of freelancers with respect to the products and services available to them on our work marketplace, such as membership fees and Connects purchases;
revenue recognition fluctuations for arrangements subject to our tiered pricing model for freelancer service fees;
litigation, regulatory investigations or enforcement actions, and adverse judgments, settlements, or other litigation-related costs;
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data security or privacy breaches or incidents and associated remediation costs and reputational harm;
the impact of sales, use, and other tax laws and regulations in jurisdictions in which we have users, including the requirement in certain jurisdictions to collect indirect taxes on user fees, to withhold and remit taxes related to income or earnings, or to pay any such taxes or resulting penalties as a result of our failure to comply with such requirements;
seasonal spending patterns by clients or work patterns by freelancers, seasonality in the labor market, and mitigated impact of typical seasonality in the labor market due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions intended to prevent its spread, as well as the number of business days, the number of Mondays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for a substantial portion of our client fees each week) or the number of Sundays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for the majority of our freelancer service fees each week) in any given quarter, as well as local, national, or international holidays;
changes in the mix of products and services that our enterprise clients or other users demand;
changes in the law or interpretation of law, or in the statutory, legislative, or regulatory environment, such as with respect to privacy, data security, wage and hour regulations, worker classification (including classification of independent contractors or similar workers and classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt), internet regulation, payment processing, global trade, or tax obligations;
fluctuations in the mix of payment provider costs and the revenue generated from payment providers;
the episodic nature of freelance work generally or changes to demand for freelance work due to political or regulatory changes or uncertainty;
the impact of public health pandemics, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, or other global or regional events or conditions;
fluctuations in transaction losses;
fluctuations in trade and client receivables due to the timing of cash receipts from clients and the number of transactions on our work marketplace;
increases in, and timing of, operating expenses that we may incur to grow and expand our operations and to remain competitive, such as advertising and other marketing expenses, including those associated with evolving our brand positioning;
the cost and time needed to develop and upgrade our work marketplace to incorporate new technologies or develop new or improved offerings;
the impact of outages of our work marketplace and associated reputational harm, including the planned outage resulting from our migration from the AWS data centers in California to the AWS data center in Oregon scheduled for the first quarter of 2021;
potential costs to attract, onboard, retain, and motivate qualified talent to perform services for us;
the impact of reductions in our workforce, including claims against us from departing employees or others;
any impairment charges on our operating lease asset being recognized as a general and administrative expense due to a reduction to our office space and our potential sublease of such office space at a rental rate that is less than our rent expense for such office space, or any termination fees we may incur as a result of our termination of the operating lease for such office space;
changes to financial accounting standards and the interpretation of those standards that may affect the way we recognize and report our financial results, including changes in accounting rules governing recognition of revenue;
costs related to the acquisition of businesses, talent, technologies, or intellectual property, including potentially significant amortization costs and possible write-downs;
general economic and political conditions and government regulations in the countries where we currently have significant numbers of users or where we currently operate or may expand in the future;
fluctuations in currency exchange rates;
changes in the mix of countries in which our users are located, which impacts the amount of revenue we derive from foreign exchange;
operating lease expenses and other real estate expenses;
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lease termination fees or rent expense that is in excess of sublease income for a particular office space;
non-cash accounting charges such as stock-based compensation expense, including those related to executive compensation arrangements, and depreciation and amortization;
losses and expenses from indemnification, dispute assistance, and similar contractual obligations we owe to clients; and
expenses incurred in connection with The Upwork Foundation initiative.
The impact of one or more of the foregoing and other factors may cause our operating results and performance metrics to vary significantly. As such, we believe that quarter-to-quarter comparisons of our operating results and performance metrics may not be meaningful and should not be relied upon as an indication of future performance. If we fail to meet or exceed the expectations of investors or securities analysts, the trading price of our common stock could fall substantially, and we could face costly lawsuits, including securities class action suits.
If our estimates or judgments relating to our critical accounting policies prove to be incorrect or financial reporting standards or interpretations change, our operating results could be adversely affected.
The preparation of financial statements in conformity with U.S. GAAP requires management to make estimates, judgments, and assumptions that affect the amounts reported in our consolidated financial statements and accompanying notes. We base our estimates on historical experience and on various other assumptions that we believe to be reasonable under the circumstances, as provided in “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations” included elsewhere in this Annual Report. The results of these estimates form the basis for making judgments about the carrying values of assets, liabilities, and equity as of the date of the financial statements, and the amount of revenue and expenses, during the periods presented, that are not readily apparent from other sources. Significant assumptions and estimates used in preparing our consolidated financial statements include those related to determination of revenue recognition, the useful lives of assets, assessment of the recoverability of long-lived assets, goodwill impairment, allowance for doubtful accounts, reserves relating to transaction losses, the valuation of warrants, stock-based compensation, and accounting for income taxes. Our operating results may be adversely affected if our assumptions change or if actual circumstances differ from those in our assumptions, which could cause our operating results to fall below the expectations of industry or financial analysts and investors, resulting in a decline in the trading price of our common stock.
As a result of new standards, changes to existing standards, and changes in interpretation, we might be required to change our accounting policies, alter our operational policies and implement new or enhance existing systems so that they reflect current financial reporting standards, or we may be required to restate our published financial statements. Such changes to existing standards or changes in their interpretation may have an adverse effect on our reputation, business, financial position, and profit, or cause an adverse deviation from our revenue and operating profit target, which may negatively impact our financial results.
Our corporate structure and intercompany arrangements are subject to the tax laws of various jurisdictions, and we could be obligated to pay additional taxes, which could adversely impact our operating results.
We may expand the geographic scope of our product and marketing efforts, operations, and personnel to support our global user base. Our corporate structure and associated transfer pricing policies contemplate future growth into international markets, and consider the functions, risks, and assets of the various entities involved in the intercompany transactions. The amount of taxes we pay in different jurisdictions may depend on the application of the tax laws of the various jurisdictions, including the United States, to our international business activities, changes in tax rates, new or revised tax laws or interpretations of existing tax laws and policies, and our ability to operate our business in a manner consistent with our corporate structure and intercompany arrangements. The taxing authorities of the jurisdictions in which we operate may challenge our methodologies for pricing intercompany transactions pursuant to the intercompany arrangements or disagree with our determinations as to the income and expenses attributable to specific jurisdictions. If such a challenge or disagreement were to occur, and our position was not sustained, we could be required to pay additional taxes, interest, and penalties. This could result in one-time tax charges, higher effective tax rates, reduced cash flows, and lower overall profitability of our operations. Our financial statements could fail to reflect adequate reserves to cover such a contingency.
We track certain performance metrics with internal tools and do not independently verify such metrics. Certain of our performance metrics may not accurately reflect certain details of our business, are subject to inherent challenges in measurement, and real or perceived inaccuracies in such metrics may harm our reputation and negatively affect our business.
We track certain performance metrics, including GSV, the number of core clients, client spend retention, and marketplace take rate with internal tools, which are not independently verified by any third-party. Our internal tools have a number of limitations and our methodologies for tracking these metrics may change over time, which could result in unexpected changes to our
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metrics, including the metrics we report. If the internal tools we use to track these metrics undercount or overcount performance or contain algorithmic or other technical errors, the data we report may not be accurate. In addition, limitations or errors with respect to how we measure data (or the data that we measure) may affect our understanding of certain details of our business, which could affect our longer-term strategies. If our performance metrics are not accurate representations of our business, user base, or traffic levels; if we discover material inaccuracies in our metrics; or if the metrics we rely on to track our performance do not provide an accurate measurement of our business, our reputation may be harmed, we may be subject to legal or regulatory actions, and our operating and financial results could be adversely affected. In addition, from time to time we may change the performance metrics that we track, including metrics that we report, and any new performance metrics will also be subject to the foregoing limitations and risks.
We have recently remediated a material weakness in our internal control over financial reporting and if we fail to develop and maintain an effective system of disclosure controls and internal control over financial reporting, our ability to produce timely and accurate financial statements or comply with applicable laws and regulations could be impaired.
A material weakness is a deficiency or combination of deficiencies in our internal control over financial reporting such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of our consolidated financial statements would not be prevented or detected on a timely basis. As previously disclosed, we identified a number of adjustments relating to previously issued consolidated financial statements that resulted in a revision to our consolidated financial statements as of and for the year ended December 31, 2016 and determined that this control deficiency constituted a material weakness in our internal control over financial reporting. We successfully remediated the material weakness during the quarter ended June 30, 2020.
If we experience additional material weaknesses or otherwise fail to maintain an effective system of internal controls in the future, we may not be able to accurately or timely report our financial condition or results of operations or prevent fraud, which may adversely affect investor confidence in us and, as a result, the value of our common stock. We cannot assure you that all of our existing material weaknesses have been identified, or that we will not in the future identify additional material weaknesses. Any failure to maintain effective disclosure controls and internal control over financial reporting could have an adverse effect on our business and results of operations and could adversely impact our business, operating results, and financial condition.
If we are unable to assert that our internal control over financial reporting is effective, or if our independent registered public accounting firm is unable to express an opinion on the effectiveness of our internal control, we could lose investor confidence in the accuracy and completeness of our financial reports, which would cause the price of our common stock to decline, and we may be subject to investigation or sanctions by the SEC. Furthermore, investor perceptions of our company may suffer if, in the future, material weaknesses are found, and this could cause the price of our common stock to decline. In addition, if we are unable to continue to meet these requirements, we may not be able to remain listed on The Nasdaq Global Select Market.
Our ability to use our net operating loss carryforwards and certain other tax attributes may be limited.
As of December 31, 2020, we had net operating loss carryforwards for U.S. federal income tax purposes and state income tax purposes of $343.1 million and $72.9 million, respectively, available to offset future taxable income. Our federal net operating loss carryforward amounts began to expire in 2019, including $14.5 million that expired in 2019, $15.1 million that expired in 2020, and $21.6 million that will expire in 2021, and will continue to expire in 2022 and future years. The state net operating loss carryforward amounts will begin to expire in 2028. Realization of these net operating loss carryforwards depends on future income, and there is a risk that our existing carryforwards could expire unused and be unavailable to offset future income tax liabilities, which could materially and adversely affect our operating results.
In addition, under Sections 382 and 383 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, which we refer to as the Internal Revenue Code, if a corporation undergoes an “ownership change,” generally defined as a greater than 50% change (by value) in its equity ownership over a three-year period, the corporation’s ability to use its pre-change net operating loss carryforwards and other pre-change tax attributes, such as research tax credits, to offset its post-change income may be limited. In addition, we may experience ownership changes in the future as a result of subsequent shifts in our stock ownership. As a result, if we earn net taxable income, our ability to use our pre-change net operating loss carry-forwards and other tax attributes to offset U.S. federal taxable income may be subject to limitations, which could potentially result in increased future tax liability to us.
Our loan and security agreement provides our lender with a first-priority lien against substantially all of our assets (excluding our intellectual property), and contains financial covenants and other restrictions on our actions, which could limit our operational flexibility and otherwise adversely affect our financial condition.
Our loan and security agreement with Silicon Valley Bank, as amended, which we refer to as the Loan Agreement, restricts our ability to, among other things:
incur additional indebtedness;
sell certain assets;
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declare dividends or make certain distributions; and
undergo a merger or consolidation or other transactions.
In addition, the interest rates we pay under our Loan Agreement are derived from the prime rate, which may increase in the future. Interest rate increases will result in us having to make higher interest payments and reduce the amount of working capital available to us. Our Loan Agreement also prohibits us from falling below an adjusted quick ratio. Our ability to comply with this covenant is dependent upon our future business performance as well as future expenditures, such as an acquisition, strategic investment, or other business endeavor.
Our failure to comply with the covenants or payment requirements, or the occurrence of other events specified in our Loan Agreement, could result in an event of default under the Loan Agreement, which would give our lender the right to terminate their commitments to provide additional loans under the Loan Agreement and to declare all borrowings outstanding, together with accrued and unpaid interest and fees, to be immediately due and payable. In addition, we have granted our lender first-priority liens against substantially all of our assets, as collateral, excluding our intellectual property (but including proceeds therefrom) and the funds and assets held by Upwork Escrow. We have also agreed to a negative pledge on our intellectual property. Failure to comply with the covenants or other restrictions in the Loan Agreement could result in a default. If the debt under our Loan Agreement was to be accelerated, we may not have sufficient cash on hand or be able to sell sufficient assets to repay it, which would have an immediate adverse effect on our business and operating results. This could potentially cause us to cease operations and result in a complete loss of your investment in our common stock.
We may require additional capital to fund our business and support our growth, including in connection with any future acquisitions or strategic investments, and any inability to generate or obtain such capital may adversely affect our operating results and financial condition.
In order to support our growth and respond to business challenges, such as developing new features or enhancements to our work marketplace, acquiring new technologies, and improving our infrastructure, we have made significant financial investments in our business and we intend to continue to make such investments. In addition, we may, from time to time, seek to acquire or strategically invest in other complementary products, technologies, or businesses. As a result, we may need to engage in equity or debt financings, in lieu of or in addition to borrowing funds under our Loan Agreement, to obtain the funds required for these investments, acquisitions, and other business endeavors. If we raise additional funds through equity or convertible debt issuances, our existing stockholders may suffer significant dilution and these securities could have rights, preferences, and privileges that are superior to those of holders of our common stock. If we obtain additional funds through debt financing, we may not be able to obtain such financing on terms favorable to us. Such terms may involve additional restrictive covenants making it difficult to engage in capital raising activities and pursue business opportunities, including potential acquisitions and strategic investments. If we are unable to obtain adequate financing or financing on terms satisfactory to us when we require it, our ability to continue to support our business growth and to respond to business challenges could be significantly impaired and our business may be adversely affected, requiring us to delay, reduce, or eliminate some or all of our operations. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting macroeconomic downturn may cause significant disruptions of global financial markets, which may impact our ability to access capital now and in the future, and capital may be available only on terms less favorable to us.
Our reported financial results may be adversely affected by changes in U.S. GAAP.
U.S. GAAP is subject to interpretation by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which we refer to as the FASB, the SEC, and various bodies formed to promulgate and interpret appropriate accounting principles. A change in these principles or interpretations could have a significant effect on our reported financial results and could affect the reporting of transactions completed before the announcement of a change and could result in variability of our financial results. Any difficulties in implementing these pronouncements could cause us to fail to meet our financial reporting obligations, which could result in regulatory discipline and harm investors’ confidence in us.
In particular, in May 2014, the FASB issued ASU No. 2014-09, Revenue from Contracts with Customers (Topic 606), which supersedes the revenue recognition requirements in Accounting Standards Codification (Topic 605), Revenue Recognition (Topic 605). The core principle of Topic 606 is that an entity should recognize revenue to depict the transfer of promised goods or services to customers in an amount that reflects the consideration to which the entity expects to be entitled in exchange for those goods or services. On December 31, 2019, Topic 606 became effective for us retroactive to January 1, 2019. Under Topic 606, more estimates, judgments, and assumptions are required within the revenue recognition process than were previously required. This includes more enhanced disclosures in our consolidated financial statements to enable users to understand the nature, amount, timing and uncertainty of revenue and cash flows arising from contracts with our users. Under Topic 606, we are required to estimate the standalone selling price of certain performance obligations that represents a material right, which requires significant judgment. Our reported financial position and financial results may be harmed if our estimates or judgments prove to be wrong, assumptions change, or actual circumstances differ from those in our assumptions. Any difficulties in
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applying Topic 606 could cause us to fail to meet our financial reporting obligations, which could result in regulatory discipline and harm our business.
If currency exchange rates fluctuate substantially in the future, the results of our operations, which are reported in U.S. dollars, could be adversely affected.
As we expand our international footprint, we will become more exposed to the effects of fluctuations in currency exchange rates. Although we expect an increasing number of sales contracts to be denominated in currencies other than the U.S. dollar in the future, all of our sales contracts are and have historically been denominated in U.S. dollars. However, we offer clients the option to settle invoices denominated in U.S. dollars in the local currencies of several non-U.S. countries, and therefore, a portion of our revenue is subject to foreign currency risk. While we currently use derivative instruments to hedge certain exposures to fluctuations in foreign currency exchange rates, the use of such hedging activities may not offset any, or more than a portion, of the adverse financial effects of unfavorable movements in foreign exchange rates over the limited time the hedges are in place. Moreover, a strengthening of the U.S. dollar could increase the real cost of transacting on our work marketplace to clients located outside of the United States and could result in a loss of such clients, which could adversely affect our business, operating results, financial condition, and cash flows.
Risks Related to Ownership of Our Common Stock
The stock price of our common stock has been and may continue to be volatile, and you could lose all or part of your investment.
The market price of our common stock has been and may continue to be volatile, particularly in light of the macroeconomic uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The market price of our common stock may fluctuate significantly in response to numerous factors, many of which are beyond our control and some of which will be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions intended to prevent its spread and macroeconomic downturn, including:
actual or anticipated fluctuations in our revenue and other operating results;
changes in the financial projections we may provide to the public or our failure to meet these projections;
overall performance of the equity markets;
the economy as a whole and market conditions in our industry;
failure of securities analysts to initiate or maintain coverage of us, changes in financial estimates by any securities analysts who follow our company, or our failure to meet these estimates or the expectations of investors;
lawsuits threatened or filed against us or our key personnel, litigation involving our industry, or both, or lawsuits threatened or filed against our users relating to their use of our work marketplace;
recruitment or departure of key personnel;
developments or disputes concerning our or other parties’ products, services, or intellectual property rights;
negative publicity related to the real or perceived quality or security of our work marketplace, as well as the failure to timely launch new products and services that gain market acceptance;
acquisitions, strategic partnerships, joint ventures, or capital commitments;
speculative trading practices by stockholders and other market participants;
rumors and market speculation involving us or other companies in our industry and/or other industries;
new laws or regulations or new interpretations of existing laws or regulations applicable to our business, including those governing worker classification, taxation of workers, or withholding and remitting taxes on income or earnings;
announcements by us or our competitors of new or terminated products or services, commercial relationships, or significant technical innovations;
sales of shares of our common stock by us or our stockholders, including sales of large blocks of our stock relative to the size of our public float;
changes in accounting standards, policies, guidelines, interpretations, or principles;
political changes or events, such as the ongoing U.S. and global political and international relations environment; and
other events or factors, including those resulting from war, incidents of terrorism, or responses to these events.
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In addition, the stock markets have experienced extreme price and volume fluctuations that have affected and continue to affect the market prices of equity securities of many companies. Stock prices of many companies, and technology companies in particular, have fluctuated in a manner unrelated or disproportionate to the operating performance of those companies and are attributable, in part, to outside factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy. In the past, stockholders have instituted securities class action litigation following periods of market volatility. If we were to become involved in securities litigation, it could subject us to substantial costs, divert resources and the attention of management from our business, and adversely affect our business.
Sales of substantial amounts of our common stock in the public markets, particularly sales by our directors, executive officers, and significant stockholders, or the perception that these sales could occur, could cause the market price of our common stock to decline and may make it more difficult for you to sell your common stock at a time and price that you deem appropriate.
The market price of our common stock could decline as a result of sales of a large number of shares of our common stock in the market. The perception that these sales might occur may also cause the market price of our common stock to decline. We had a total of 124,795,222 shares of our common stock outstanding as of December 31, 2020. All shares of our common stock are freely tradable, generally without restrictions or further registration under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, which we refer to as the Securities Act subject to certain exceptions for shares held by our “affiliates” as defined in Rule 144 under the Securities Act.
In addition, as of December 31, 2020, we had outstanding (i) stock options that, if fully exercised, would result in the issuance of 4,858,590 shares of common stock and (ii) 5,568,225 unvested RSUs. We have filed registration statements on Form S-8 to register shares reserved for future issuance under our equity compensation plans. The shares issued upon exercise of outstanding stock options or settlement or outstanding RSUs will be available for immediate resale in the United States on the open market.
Moreover, certain holders of our common stock have rights, subject to certain conditions, to require us to file registration statements for the public resale of such shares or to include such shares in registration statements that we may file for us or other stockholders.
We may also issue our shares of common stock or securities convertible into shares of our common stock from time to time in connection with a financing, an acquisition, investments, or otherwise. We also expect to grant additional equity awards to employees, directors, and consultants under our 2018 Equity Incentive Plan and rights to purchase our common stock under our 2018 Employee Stock Purchase Plan. Any such issuances could result in substantial dilution to our existing stockholders and cause the market price of our common stock to decline.
The concentration of our stock ownership with insiders could limit your ability to influence corporate matters, including the ability to influence the outcome of director elections and other matters requiring stockholder approval.
As of December 31, 2020, our executive officers, directors, 5% or greater stockholders, and affiliated entities together beneficially owned a meaningful portion of our common stock. As a result, these stockholders, acting together, could have substantial influence over most matters that require approval by our stockholders, including the election of directors and approval of significant corporate transactions. They may also have interests that differ from yours and may vote in a way with which you disagree and which may be adverse to your interests. This concentration of ownership may have the effect of delaying, preventing, or deterring a change of control of our company, could deprive our stockholders of an opportunity to receive a premium for their common stock as part of a sale of our company, and might ultimately affect the market price of our common stock.
If securities or industry analysts do not publish research, or publish inaccurate or unfavorable research, about our business, the price of our common stock and trading volume could decline.
The trading market for our common stock depends in part on the research and reports that securities or industry analysts publish about us or our business. If industry analysts cease coverage of us or fail to publish reports on us regularly, the trading price and trading volume for our common stock would be negatively affected. As of December 31, 2020, there were six securities analysts that cover us and publish reports on us regularly. If one or more of the analysts who cover us downgrade our common stock or publish inaccurate or unfavorable research about our business, the price of our common stock would likely decline. If one or more of these analysts cease coverage of us, which has occurred previously, or fail to publish reports on us regularly, demand for our common stock could decrease, which might cause our common stock price and trading volume to decline.
Even if our stock is actively covered by analysts, we do not have any control over the analysts or the measures that analysts or investors may rely upon to forecast our future results.
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We do not intend to pay dividends for the foreseeable future.
We have never declared or paid any cash dividends on our common stock and do not intend to pay any cash dividends in the foreseeable future. Additionally, our ability to pay dividends on our common stock is limited by restrictions under the terms of our Loan Agreement. We anticipate that for the foreseeable future we will retain all of our future earnings for use in the development of our business and for general corporate purposes. Any determination to pay dividends in the future will be at the discretion of our board of directors. Accordingly, investors must rely on sales of their common stock after price appreciation, which may never occur, as the only way to realize any future gains on their investments.
Provisions in our charter documents and under Delaware law could make an acquisition of our company more difficult, limit attempts by our stockholders to replace or remove our current management, limit our stockholders’ ability to obtain a favorable judicial forum for disputes with us or our directors, officers, or employees, and limit the market price of our common stock.
Provisions in our restated certificate of incorporation and amended and restated bylaws may have the effect of delaying or preventing a change of control or changes in our management. Our restated certificate of incorporation and amended and restated bylaws include provisions that:
provide that our board of directors is classified into three classes of directors with staggered three-year terms;
permit the board of directors to establish the number of directors and fill any vacancies and newly-created directorships;
require super-majority voting to amend some provisions in our restated certificate of incorporation and amended and restated bylaws;
authorize the issuance of “blank check” preferred stock that our board of directors could use to implement a stockholder rights plan;
provide that only the chairperson of our board of directors, our chief executive officer, president, lead independent director, or a majority of our board of directors will be authorized to call a special meeting of stockholders;
prohibit stockholder action by written consent, which requires all stockholder actions to be taken at a meeting of our stockholders;
provide that the board of directors is expressly authorized to make, alter, or repeal our bylaws; and
establish advance notice requirements for nominations for election to our board of directors or for proposing matters that can be acted upon by stockholders at annual stockholder meetings.
In addition, our restated certificate of incorporation provides that the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware is the exclusive forum for any derivative action or proceeding brought on our behalf, any action asserting a breach of fiduciary duty, any action asserting a claim against us arising pursuant to the Delaware General Corporation Law, which we refer to as the DGCL, our restated certificate of incorporation, or our amended and restated bylaws, or any action asserting a claim against us that is governed by the internal affairs doctrine. Our amended and restated bylaws also provide that the federal district courts of the United States would be the exclusive forum for resolving any complaint asserting a cause of action arising under the Securities Act, which we refer to as the Federal Forum Provision. Any person or entity purchasing or otherwise acquiring any interest in any of our securities shall be deemed to have notice of and consented to this provision.
These choice of forum provisions may limit a stockholder’s ability to bring a claim in a judicial forum that it finds favorable for disputes with us or any of our directors, officers, or other employees, which may discourage lawsuits against us and our directors, officers, and other employees.
Moreover, Section 203 of the DGCL may discourage, delay, or prevent a change of control of our company. Section 203 imposes certain restrictions on mergers, business combinations, and other transactions between us and holders of 15% or more of our common stock.
General Risks
Adverse or changing economic conditions may negatively impact our business.
Our business depends on the overall demand for labor and on the economic health of current and prospective clients that use our work marketplace. Any significant weakening of the economy in the United States or Europe or of the global economy, including the macroeconomic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting increase in unemployment rates, more limited availability of credit, a reduction in business confidence and activity, decreased government spending, economic and political uncertainty, financial turmoil affecting the banking system or financial markets, trade wars and higher tariffs, a more limited market for independent professional service providers or information technology services, shifts away from
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remote work, and other adverse economic or market conditions may adversely impact our business and operating results. Global economic and political events or uncertainty may cause some of our current or potential clients to curtail spending on our work marketplace, and may ultimately result in new regulatory and cost challenges to our operations. In addition, small- and medium-sized businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the macroeconomic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which have reduced their spend on our work marketplace. These adverse conditions have resulted, and may continue to result, in reductions in revenue, increased operating expenses, longer sales cycles, slower adoption of new technologies, and increased competition. There is also risk that when overall global economic conditions are positive, our business could be negatively impacted by a decreased demand for freelancers as businesses utilize more full-time employees relative to their use of independent contractors. We cannot predict the timing, strength, or duration of any economic slowdown, including the macroeconomic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, or any subsequent recovery generally. If the conditions in the general economy continue to deteriorate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic or otherwise, our business, financial condition, and operating results could continue to be adversely affected.
We may be adversely affected by natural disasters and other catastrophic events, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, by man-made problems such as terrorism, or failures of technology, that could disrupt our business operations and our business continuity and disaster recovery plans may not adequately protect us from a serious disaster.
A significant natural disaster, such as an earthquake, blizzard, hurricane, fire, flood, or other catastrophic event, such as a power loss or telecommunications failure, or other technological failure resulting in the permanent destruction of data, could have a material adverse impact on our business, financial condition, and operating results. In the event of natural disaster or other catastrophic event, we may be unable to continue our operations and may endure system interruptions, reputational harm, delays in development of our work marketplace, lengthy interruptions in service, security breaches, and loss of critical data, all of which could have an adverse effect on our operating results. Certain of our departments are situated primarily in one office location and any natural disaster or catastrophic event to such office or the surrounding communities where our employees live may impact productivity or revenue generating activities by employees based in that office. Our corporate headquarters are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region known for seismic activity and catastrophic fires. In addition, natural disasters and other catastrophic events could affect our partners’ ability to perform services for users on a timely basis. In the event any such partners’ information technology systems or service abilities are hindered by any of the events discussed above, our ability to provide our work marketplace and other services may be impaired, resulting in missing financial targets for a particular quarter or year, or longer period. Further, if a natural disaster or other catastrophic event occurs in a region from which we derive a significant portion of our revenue, users in that region may delay or forego use of our work marketplace or other services, which may adversely impact our operating results. In addition, acts of terrorism, civil disorder, public health pandemics (including the COVID-19 pandemic), or military conflict could cause disruptions in our business or the business and activity of our partners, users, or the economy as a whole. These disruptions may be more severe than in the case of natural disasters. All of the aforementioned risks may be augmented if our or our partners’ business continuity and disaster recovery plans prove to be inadequate. To the extent that any of the above results in delays or reductions in platform availability, activities or other services, our business, financial condition, and operating results would be adversely affected.
We may be adversely affected by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU Single Market and Customs Union.
In January 2020, the United Kingdom formally withdrew from the EU, which we refer to as Brexit. Upon its withdrawal, pursuant to an agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the EU, a transition period came into effect which ended on December 31, 2020, from which time the United Kingdom withdrew from the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On December 24, 2020, the EU and the United Kingdom agreed the terms of a trade and cooperation agreement which sets out the terms of their future relationship, which we refer to as the Trade Agreement. The Trade Agreement offers United Kingdom and EU businesses preferential access to each other’s markets, ensuring imported goods will be free of tariffs and quotas. However, economic relations between the United Kingdom and the EU will now be on more restricted terms than before and there remains uncertainty around the post-Brexit regulatory environment, as the provisions of the Trade Agreement do not cover the services sector. This uncertainty could cause significant economic disruption and further depress consumer confidence and the economy of the United Kingdom. Our results of operations derived from revenue earned from clients and freelancers in the United Kingdom may be adversely affected by such uncertainty. Brexit could also contribute to instability in global financial and foreign exchange markets, including volatility in the value of the Euro and the British Pound, which are currencies in which we transact business. In addition, we could be adversely impacted by changes in trade policies, labor, tax or other laws and regulations, and intellectual property rights and supply chain logistics. All or any one of these factors could adversely affect our business, revenue, financial condition, and results of operations.
Item 1B. Unresolved Staff Comments.
Not applicable.
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Item 2. Properties.
Our corporate headquarters are located in Santa Clara, California, where we occupy facilities totaling approximately 32,500 square feet under a sublease agreement that expires in October 2028.
We also lease office space in San Francisco, California and Chicago, Illinois and rent working space in Oslo, Norway.
We may procure additional space as we add employees and expand geographically. We believe that our facilities are adequate to meet our needs for the immediate future, and that, should it be needed, suitable additional space will be available to accommodate any such expansion of our operations; however, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions intended to prevent its spread, we are evaluating our needs for current office space.
See “Note 5—Balance Sheet Components” of the notes to our consolidated financial statements included elsewhere in this Annual Report for additional information on our leased properties.
Item 3. Legal Proceedings.
We are not a party to any material pending legal proceedings. From time to time, we may be subject to legal proceedings and claims arising in the ordinary course of business.
Item 4. Mine Safety Disclosures.
Not applicable.
PART II
Item 5. Market for Registrant’s Common Equity, Related Stockholder Matters and Issuer Purchases of Equity Securities.
Market Information for Common Stock
Our common stock has been traded on The Nasdaq Global Select Market under the symbol “UPWK” since October 3, 2018. Prior to that time, there was no public market for our common stock.
Holders of Record
As of January 31, 2021, there were approximately 730 holders of record of our common stock. Because many of our shares of common stock are held by brokers and other institutions on behalf of stockholders, we are unable to estimate the total number of beneficial owners of our common stock represented by these record holders.
Dividend Policy
We have never declared or paid cash dividends on our capital stock. We currently intend to retain all available funds and any future earnings for use in the operation of our business and do not anticipate paying any dividends on our capital stock in the foreseeable future. Any future determination to declare dividends will be made at the discretion of our board of directors, subject to applicable laws, and will depend on our financial condition, operating results, capital requirements, general business conditions, and other factors that our board of directors may deem relevant.
Securities Authorized for Issuance Under Equity Compensation Plans
The information required by this item will be included in our Proxy Statement for the 2021 Annual Meeting of Stockholders to be filed with the SEC within 120 days of the fiscal year ended December 31, 2020, and is incorporated herein by reference.
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Stock Performance Graph
This performance graph shall not be deemed “soliciting material” or to be “filed” with the SEC for purposes of Section 18 of the Exchange Act, or otherwise subject to the liabilities under that Section, and shall not be deemed to be incorporated by reference into any filing of Upwork Inc. under the Securities Act or the Exchange Act.
The following graph shows a comparison from October 3, 2018 (the date our common stock commenced trading on The Nasdaq Global Select Market), through December 31, 2020, of the cumulative total returns for our common stock, the NASDAQ Composite Index and the NASDAQ 100 Technology Index, respectively. The graph assumes $100 was invested at the market close on October 3, 2018 in the common stock of Upwork Inc. Such returns are based on historical results and are not intended to suggest future performance. The NASDAQ Composite Index and the NASDAQ 100 Technology Index assume reinvestment of any dividends.

https://cdn.kscope.io/b5d5d6754cb86f525b4c7f06e035975f-upwk-20201231_g1.jpg

Recent Sales of Unregistered Securities
In October 2020, we issued 49,971 shares of our common stock upon the cashless exercise of a warrant to purchase up to an aggregate of 500,000 shares of common stock. The warrant was exercised as to all 50,000 then-vested and exercisable shares. In lieu of a cash payment, the holder of the warrant surrendered 29 shares of common stock to cover the exercise price in accordance with the terms of the warrant. The offer, sale, and issuance of these securities was deemed to be exempt from registration under the Securities Act in reliance on Section 4(a)(2) of the Securities Act. The recipient of securities acquired the securities for investment only and not with a view to or for sale in connection with any distribution thereof and appropriate legends were affixed to the securities issued in this transaction. The recipient of the securities was an accredited or sophisticated person and had adequate access, through business or other relationships, to information about us.
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Use of Proceeds
None.
Issuer Purchases of Equity Securities
None.
Item 6. Selected Consolidated Financial Data.
The following tables present selected historical consolidated financial and other data for our business. We derived the selected consolidated statements of operations data for the years ended December 31, 2020, 2019, and 2018 and the consolidated balance sheet data as of December 31, 2020 and 2019 from our audited consolidated financial statements that are included elsewhere in this Annual Report. We derived the selected consolidated statements of operations data for the years ended December 31, 2017 and 2016 and the selected consolidated balance sheet data as of December 31, 2018, 2017, and 2016 from our audited consolidated financial statements not included in this Annual Report. Our historical results are not necessarily indicative of the results that may be expected for any other period in the future.
On December 31, 2019, we adopted Topic 606 effective as of January 1, 2019 using the modified retrospective method. Financial results for the years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019 are presented in accordance with this new revenue recognition standard. Historical financial results for reporting periods prior to 2019 are presented in conformity with amounts previously disclosed under the prior revenue recognition standard, Topic 605.

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The following historical selected consolidated financial data should be read in conjunction with, and are qualified in their entirety by reference to, the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations” and our consolidated financial statements and the related notes included elsewhere in this Annual Report. You should read this information in conjunction with the sections titled “Business” and “Risk Factors” included elsewhere in this Annual Report.
Year Ended December 31,
20202019201820172016
Consolidated Statements of Operations Data:(in thousands, except per share data and percentages)
Revenue
Marketplace$338,152 $268,284 $223,831 $178,046 $138,484 
Managed services35,476 32,278 29,523 24,506 25,961 
Total revenue373,628 300,562 253,354 202,552 164,445 
Cost of revenue(1)
104,267 

88,144 

81,458 

65,443 62,578 
Gross profit269,361 212,418 171,896 137,109 101,867 
Operating expenses
Research and development(1)
83,471 64,027 55,488 45,604 37,902 
Sales and marketing(1)
133,225 95,891 72,963 53,044 37,437 
General and administrative(1)
71,518 67,327 49,336 37,334 35,446 
Provision for transaction losses3,555 3,905 5,821 4,250 5,550 
Total operating expenses291,769 231,150 183,608 140,232 116,335 
Loss from operations(22,408)(18,732)(11,712)(3,123)(14,468)
Interest expense778 1,306 2,038 960 858 
Other (income) expense, net(469)(3,407)6,142 62 908 
Loss before income taxes(22,717)(16,631)(19,892)(4,145)(16,234)
Income tax benefit (provision)(150)(28)(15)22 
Net loss(22,867)(16,659)(19,907)(4,123)(16,233)
Premium on repurchase of redeemable convertible preferred stock— — — (6,506)— 
Net loss attributable to common stockholders$(22,867)$(16,659)$(19,907)$(10,629)$(16,233)
Net loss per share attributable to common stockholders, basic and diluted(2)
$(0.19)$(0.15)$(0.38)$(0.32)$(0.51)
Weighted-average shares used to compute net loss per share attributable to common stockholders, basic and diluted
118,699 109,815 52,328 32,945 32,072 
Other Financial and Operating Data: (3)
Core clients (4)
145.4 124.4 105.5 86.4 76.5 
GSV (5)
$2,523,649 $2,087,055 $1,756,289 $1,373,161 $1,148,363 
Client spend retention (6)
102 %102 %108 %99 %85 %
Marketplace take rate (7)
13.6 %13.1 %13.0 %13.2 %12.3 %
Adjusted EBITDA (8)
$14,022 $7,438 $3,824 $7,909 $1,260 
(1)Includes stock-based compensation expense as follows:
Cost of revenue$779 $456 $282 $290 $193 
Research and development9,783 6,471 3,258 1,797 1,820 
Sales and marketing4,440 2,609 1,637 1,299 1,052 
General and administrative10,506 9,262 5,184 3,460 4,201 
Total$25,508 $18,798 $10,361 $6,846 $7,266 
(2)See “Note 2—Basis of Presentation and Summary of Significant Accounting Policies” and “Note 12—Net Loss per Share” of the notes to our consolidated financial statements included elsewhere in this Annual Report for an explanation of the calculations of our net loss per share, basic and diluted.
(3)For a discussion of limitations in the measurement of core clients, GSV, client spend retention, and marketplace take rate, see the section titled “Risk Factors—We track certain performance metrics with internal tools and do not independently
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verify such metrics. Certain of our performance metrics are subject to inherent challenges in measurement, and real or perceived inaccuracies in such metrics may harm our reputation and negatively affect our business.”
(4)For the definition of core clients, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations—Key Financial and Operational Metrics.”
(5)For the definition of GSV, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations—Key Financial and Operational Metrics.”
(6)For the definition of client spend retention, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations—Key Financial and Operational Metrics.”
(7)For the definition of marketplace take rate, see the section titled “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations—Key Financial and Operational Metrics.”
(8)For the definition of adjusted EBITDA, a non-GAAP financial measure, and a reconciliation of net loss to adjusted EBITDA, see the section below titled “—Non-GAAP Financial Measures.”
As of December 31,
20202019201820172016
Consolidated Balance Sheet Data:(in thousands)
Cash and cash equivalents$94,081 $48,392 $129,128 $21,595 $27,326 
Marketable securities75,570 85,481 — — — 
Working capital162,054 131,537 128,282 29,483 31,205 
Total assets529,227 446,380 391,573 275,189 249,600 
Debt, current and noncurrent10,723 18,283 23,910 33,833 16,962 
Redeemable convertible preferred stock— — — 166,486 178,785 
Total stockholders’ equity (deficit)299,310 259,424 243,745 (31,367)(30,131)

Non-GAAP Financial Measures
In addition to our results determined in accordance with U.S. GAAP, adjusted EBITDA is a non-GAAP measure that we believe is useful in evaluating our operating performance.
We define adjusted EBITDA as net income (loss) adjusted for stock-based compensation expense, depreciation and amortization, interest expense, other (income) expense, net, income tax (benefit) provision, and, if applicable, other non-cash transactions. Adjusted EBITDA is not prepared in accordance with, and is not an alternative to, financial measures prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP.

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The following table presents a reconciliation of net loss, the most directly comparable financial measure prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP, to adjusted EBITDA for each of the periods indicated:
Year Ended December 31,
20202019201820172016
(in thousands)
Net loss$(22,867)$(16,659)$(19,907)$(4,123)$(16,233)
Add back (deduct):
Stock-based compensation expense25,508 18,798 10,361 6,846 7,266 
Depreciation and amortization10,172 6,661 4,949 4,186 8,462 
Interest expense778 1,306 2,038 960 858 
Other (income) expense, net(469)(3,407)6,142 62 908 
Income tax (benefit) provision150 28 15 (22)(1)
Tides Foundation common stock warrant expense750 711 226 — — 
Adjusted EBITDA$14,022 $7,438 $3,824 $7,909 $1,260 

We use adjusted EBITDA as a measure of operational efficiency. We believe that this non-GAAP financial measure is useful to investors for period-to-period comparisons of our business and in understanding and evaluating our operating results for the following reasons:
adjusted EBITDA is widely used by investors and securities analysts to measure a company’s operating performance without regard to items such as stock-based compensation expense, depreciation and amortization, interest expense, other (income) expense, net, income tax (benefit) provision, and, if applicable, other non-cash transactions that can vary substantially from company to company depending upon their financing, capital structures, and the method by which assets were acquired;
our management uses adjusted EBITDA in conjunction with financial measures prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP for planning purposes, including the preparation of our annual operating budget, as a measure of our core operating results and the effectiveness of our business strategy, and in evaluating our financial performance; and
adjusted EBITDA provides consistency and comparability with our past financial performance, facilitates period-to-period comparisons of our core operating results, and also facilitates comparisons with other peer companies, many of which use similar non-GAAP financial measures to supplement their U.S. GAAP results.
Our use of adjusted EBITDA has limitations as an analytical tool, and you should not consider it in isolation or as a substitute for analysis of our financial results as reported under U.S. GAAP. Some of these limitations are as follows:
adjusted EBITDA excludes stock-based compensation expense, which has recently been, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, a significant recurring expense for our business and an important part of our compensation strategy;
although depreciation and amortization expense are non-cash charges, the assets being depreciated and amortized may have to be replaced in the future, and adjusted EBITDA does not reflect cash capital expenditure requirements for such replacements or for new capital expenditure requirements;
adjusted EBITDA does not reflect: (a) changes in, or cash requirements for, our working capital needs; (b) interest expense, or the cash requirements necessary to service interest or principal payments on our debt, which reduces cash available to us; or (c) tax payments that may represent a reduction in cash available to us; and
other companies, including companies in our industry, may calculate adjusted EBITDA or similarly titled measures differently, which reduces the usefulness of this measure for comparative purposes.
Because of these and other limitations, you should consider adjusted EBITDA along with other financial performance measures, including net loss and our other financial results prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP.
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Item 7. Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.
You should read the following discussion and analysis of our financial condition and results of operations together with the sections titled “Business,” “Risk Factors,” and “Selected Consolidated Financial Data,” and the consolidated financial statements and related notes included elsewhere in this Annual Report. This discussion contains forward-looking statements based upon current expectations that involve risks and uncertainties, as well as assumptions that may never materialize or that may be proven incorrect. Our actual results may differ materially from those anticipated in these forward-looking statements as a result of various factors, including those discussed in the sections titled “Special Note Regarding Forward-Looking Statements” and “Risk Factors” and in other parts of this Annual Report.
Overview
Business
Independent talent is an increasingly sought-after, critical, and expanding segment of the global workforce. We operate the world’s largest work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent, as measured by GSV. GSV represents the total amount that clients spend on both our marketplace offerings and our managed services offering as well as additional fees we charge to both clients and freelancers for other services. We define freelancers as users that advertise and provide services to clients through our work marketplace, and we define clients as users that work with freelancers through our work marketplace. Freelancers on our work marketplace include independent professionals and agencies of varying sizes. The clients on our work marketplace range in size from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies. With users in over 180 countries, our work marketplace enabled $2.5 billion of GSV for the year ended December 31, 2020. For purposes of determining countries where we enable GSV, we include both the countries in which the clients that paid for the applicable services are located, as well as the countries in which the freelancers that provided those services are located.
As a global work marketplace that connects freelancers and clients regardless of their location, our GSV originates from around the world. Of the $2.5 billion of GSV enabled on our work marketplace in 2020, approximately 25% was generated from U.S. freelancers, our largest freelancer geography, as measured by GSV, in each of 2020, 2019, and 2018, while freelancers in India and the Philippines remained our next largest freelancer geographies in all three years. Of the $2.1 billion and $1.8 billion of GSV enabled on our work marketplace in 2019 and 2018, respectively, approximately 27% and 23%, respectively, was generated from freelancers in the United States.
Approximately 67% of our GSV in 2020 was generated from U.S. clients, compared to approximately 68% and 66% of GSV in 2019 and 2018, respectively, with clients in no other country representing more than 10% of our GSV in any year.
We generate revenue from both freelancers and clients, with a majority of our revenue generated from service fees charged to freelancers. We also generate revenue from fees charged to both clients and freelancers for other services, such as for transacting payments through our work marketplace, premium offerings, purchases of Connects, foreign currency exchange, and our Upwork Payroll offering. In addition, we provide a managed services offering where we engage freelancers to complete projects, directly invoice the client, and assume responsibility for work performed.
On December 31, 2019, we adopted Topic 606 effective as of January 1, 2019 using the modified retrospective method. As a result, revenue results for the years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019 are presented in accordance with this new revenue recognition standard while historical revenue results for reporting periods prior to 2019 are presented in conformity with amounts previously disclosed under the prior revenue recognition standard, Topic 605.
Financial Highlights for 2020
In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a pandemic, which continues to spread throughout the United States and the world, and has resulted in governmental authorities implementing numerous measures to contain the virus, including travel bans and restrictions, shelter-in-place orders, and business limitations and shutdowns. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions intended to prevent its spread have accelerated the secular shift toward remote and independent work, and, with our unique, remote-based business model, the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted our clients’ access to highly-skilled freelancers to complete short- and long-term projects on our work marketplace. In 2020, we continued to identify opportunities to prioritize our advertising and marketing efforts in order to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with independent talent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as companies that have already embraced a remote work model. As a result of these efforts, our 2020 results were fueled by both existing and new clients, who used our work marketplace to address their changing business needs.
We began to see the impact of the pandemic on our results at the end of the first quarter, when we experienced a temporary reduction in the growth rates of GSV and revenue. This trend continued into the beginning of the second quarter, driven by spend contraction by many of our clients, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt their businesses. These trends stabilized in the second half of the second quarter, and improved thereafter, contributing to an overall increase in the growth
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rates of GSV and revenue in 2020. Also, beginning in the second half of the second quarter of 2020, we began to see an increase in client acquisition driven by the acceleration in the shift toward remote work, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the execution of our strategic initiatives. This increase in client acquisition continued to accelerate in the second half of 2020 and drove an increase in freelancer billings, which, in turn, drove an increase in marketplace revenue.
As a result, our work marketplace enabled $2.5 billion of GSV in 2020, $2.1 billion in 2019, and $1.8 billion in 2018, representing year-over-year increases of 21% in 2020 and 19% in 2019. We generated revenue of $373.6 million in 2020, $300.6 million in 2019, and $253.4 million in 2018, representing year-over-year increases of 24% in 2020 and 19% in 2019. While we have not incurred significant disruptions to our business thus far from the COVID-19 pandemic, at this time, we are unable to fully assess the aggregate impact it will have on our business due to various uncertainties, which include, but are not limited to, the duration of the pandemic, its effect on the economy, its impact to the businesses of our clients, actions that may be taken by governmental authorities related to the pandemic, and other factors identified in Part I, Item 1A “Risk Factors” in this Annual Report, including the risk factor titled “Our business experienced, and may again experience, an adverse impact from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, users may reduce their use of our work marketplace following the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Additionally, while we have made significant investments to grow our business, including investments in sales and marketing to acquire new clients and drive brand awareness, in the fourth quarter of 2020, we decided that it was no longer cost-effective for our sales team to sell our Upwork Business offering. We do not expect this decision to have a material impact on our marketplace revenue, as we will service those clients that we had previously targeted with our Upwork Business offering with our other marketplace offerings, such as Upwork Basic and Plus. In 2020, we also made significant investments in research and development to build new product features and launch new offerings and in operations and personnel, and we intend to continue to focus on these efforts. As a result, we generated a net loss of $22.9 million in 2020 compared to a net loss of $16.7 million in 2019. Our adjusted EBITDA was $14.0 million in 2020, an increase of 89% from 2019. Adjusted EBITDA is a financial measure that is not prepared in accordance with, and is not an alternative to, financial measures prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP. See the section titled “Selected Consolidated Financial Data—Non-GAAP Financial Measures” for a definition of adjusted EBITDA and information regarding our use of adjusted EBITDA and a reconciliation of net loss to adjusted EBITDA.
Key Financial and Operational Metrics
We monitor the following key financial and operational metrics to evaluate our business, measure our performance, identify trends affecting our business, formulate business plans, and make strategic decisions. On December 31, 2019, we adopted Topic 606 effective as of January 1, 2019 using the modified retrospective method. Financial results for the years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019 are presented in accordance with this new revenue recognition standard. Historical financial results for the year ended December 31, 2018 are presented in conformity with amounts previously disclosed under the prior revenue recognition standard, Topic 605.
Our key metrics were as follows as of or for the periods presented (in thousands, except percentages):
As of or for the Year Ended December 31,
202020192018
GSV$2,523,649 $2,087,055 $1,756,289 
Marketplace revenue$338,152 $268,284 $223,831 
Marketplace take rate13.6 %13.1 %13.0 %
Core clients145.4 124.4 105.5 
Client spend retention102 %102 %108 %
Net loss$(22,867)$(16,659)$(19,907)
Adjusted EBITDA (1)
$14,022 $7,438 $3,824 
(1)Adjusted EBITDA is not prepared in accordance with, and is not an alternative to, financial measures prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP. See “Selected Consolidated Financial Data—Non-GAAP Financial Measures” above for a definition of adjusted EBITDA and for information regarding our use of adjusted EBITDA and a reconciliation of adjusted EBITDA to net loss, the most directly comparable financial measure prepared under U.S. GAAP.
As discussed below with respect to each key metric, we believe these key financial and operational metrics are useful to evaluate period-over-period comparisons of our business and in understanding our operating results, and management uses these metrics to track our performance. For a discussion of limitations in the measurement of our key financial and operational metrics, see “Risk Factors—We track certain performance metrics with internal tools and do not independently verify such metrics. Certain of our performance metrics may not accurately reflect certain details of our business, are subject to inherent challenges in measurement, and real or perceived inaccuracies in such metrics may harm our reputation and negatively affect
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our business.” GSV represents the total amount that clients spend on our marketplace offerings and our managed services offering as well as additional fees we charge to both clients and freelancers for other services. We believe that GSV is an important metric, as it represents the overall amount of business transacted through our work marketplace, which in turn is a key driver of our financial results. We believe our marketplace revenue, which represents a majority of our revenue, will grow as GSV grows, although they could grow at different rates. We evaluate the correlation between marketplace revenue and GSV by measuring marketplace take rate, which is calculated as marketplace revenue divided by marketplace GSV. We use the number of core clients to track the number of clients that we consider are actively using our work marketplace, and this metric in any given period drives both GSV and client spend retention. Similarly, client spend retention impacts the growth rate of GSV. For information on how we define core clients and how we calculate client spend retention and marketplace take rate, see “—Core Clients,” “—Client Spend Retention,” and “—Marketplace Take Rate,” respectively, below.
Gross Services Volume (GSV)
GSV includes both client spend and additional fees charged for other services. Client spend, which we define as the total amount that clients spend on both our marketplace offerings and our managed services offering, is the primary component of GSV. GSV also includes additional fees charged to both clients and freelancers for other services and offerings, such as for transacting payments through our work marketplace, user memberships, purchases of Connects, and foreign currency exchange.
GSV is an important metric because it represents the amount of business transacted through our work marketplace. Our marketplace revenue is primarily comprised of the service fees paid by freelancers as a percentage of the total amount freelancers charge clients for services accessed through our work marketplace. Therefore, marketplace revenue is correlated to GSV, and we believe that our marketplace revenue will grow as GSV grows, although they could grow at different rates. For a discussion of how we measure and evaluate the correlation between marketplace revenue and GSV, see “—Marketplace Take Rate” below. Growth in the number of core clients and increased client spend retention are the primary drivers of GSV growth, and we expect the client spend retention trends discussed in “—Client Spend Retention,” below, to affect the rate at which GSV grows. We derive a substantial portion of our GSV and revenue from small- and medium-sized businesses. In 2020, we continued to identify opportunities to prioritize our advertising and marketing efforts in order to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with independent talent. As a result, of these efforts, coupled with the secular shift towards remote work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions intended to prevent its spread, our work marketplace enabled $2.5 billion of GSV in 2020, representing a year-over-year increase of 21%. We expect our GSV to fluctuate between periods due to a number of factors, including the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our clients’ businesses; the number of Sundays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for the majority of our freelancer service fees each week) or the number of Mondays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for a substantial portion of our client fees each week) in any given quarter; and the volume of projects that are posted by clients on our work marketplace, the characteristics of those projects, such as size, duration, and pricing, and the availability and qualifications of freelancers to complete those projects.
Marketplace Revenue
Marketplace revenue, which represents the majority of our revenue, consists of revenue derived from our Upwork Basic, Plus, and Enterprise and other premium offerings. We generate marketplace revenue from both freelancers and clients. Our marketplace revenue is primarily comprised of service fees paid by freelancers as a percentage of the total amount freelancers charge clients for services accessed through our work marketplace, and to a lesser extent, payment processing and administration fees charged to clients. We also generate marketplace revenue from fees for premium offerings, freelancer memberships, purchases of Connects, and other services, such as foreign currency exchange and our Upwork Payroll offering.
Marketplace revenue is an important metric because it is the primary driver of our business, and we believe it provides greater comparability to other online marketplaces. The growth rate of marketplace revenue fluctuates in relation to the growth rate of GSV. Therefore, marketplace revenue is correlated to GSV, and we believe that our marketplace revenue will grow as GSV grows, although they could grow at different rates. The COVID-19 pandemic and execution of our strategic initiatives resulted in an increase in client acquisition in the second half of 2020. This increase in client acquisitions drove an increase in freelancer billings, and, in turn, drove an increase in marketplace revenue. We expect our marketplace revenue growth rates to continue to vary from period to period due to a variety of other factors such as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and any resulting macroeconomic impact on the businesses and spending behavior of our current and prospective clients; the number of Sundays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for the majority of our freelancer service fees each week) or the number of Mondays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for a substantial portion of our client fees each week) in any given quarter; the lapping of significant launches of new products, pricing changes, and other monetization efforts; the performance of client spend retention; and the ability of the recent and continued investment in our enterprise sales team to accelerate the acquisition of, and achieve increased spend from, Upwork Enterprise clients, and the timing of those results.
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Marketplace Take Rate
Marketplace take rate measures the correlation between marketplace revenue and GSV and is calculated by dividing marketplace revenue by marketplace GSV. Marketplace take rate is an important metric because it is the key indicator of how well we monetize spend on our work marketplace from our Upwork Basic, Plus, and Enterprise and other premium offerings. During the year ended December 31, 2020, our marketplace take rate increased primarily as a result of an acceleration in the shift toward remote work, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the execution of our strategic initiatives that resulted in an influx of new clients, which caused freelancers to bill at higher rates of our tiered service fee structure, as well as increased client payment processing fees, and other monetization efforts. We expect our marketplace take rate to vary from period to period as marketplace revenue and GSV vary as a result of a variety of factors, such as the number of Sundays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for the majority of our freelancer service fees each week) or the number of Mondays (i.e., the day we bill and recognize revenue for a substantial portion of our client fees each week) in any given quarter; pricing changes; the ability of the recent and continued investment in our enterprise sales team to accelerate the acquisition of, and achieve increased spend from, our Upwork Enterprise clients and the timing of those results; and ongoing efforts to improve processes on our work marketplace, including project proposals and purchases of Connects, among others.
Core Clients
We believe that the number of core clients is an indicator of our growth and the overall health of our business because core clients are a primary driver of GSV and, therefore, marketplace revenue. We define a core client as a client that has spent in the aggregate at least $5,000 since it began using our work marketplace and also had spend-activity on our work marketplace during the 12 months preceding the date of measurement. We believe that aggregate spend of at least $5,000 indicates that the client is actively using our work marketplace. Historically, these core clients have been more likely to continue using our work marketplace, although we saw a contraction in spend from many core clients during the first half of the second quarter that we believe was a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the businesses of these clients. This trend stabilized in the second half of the second quarter of 2020, and then improved throughout the remainder of 2020, as spend from clients increased due to a greater need for remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, we saw an increase in core client acquisitions, as we have seen new clients come to our work marketplace due in part to the increase in remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the execution of our strategic initiatives. We continue to see businesses of all sizes use our work marketplace in a recurring way for larger, more complex projects, and we expect the number of core clients to continue to increase over time but could vary quarter by quarter depending, in part, on the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic and any resulting macroeconomic downturn impacts our business, the businesses of our clients, and other factors identified in the section titled “Risk Factors” included elsewhere in this Annual Report, including the risk factor titled “Our business experienced, and may again experience, an adverse impact from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, users may reduce their use of our work marketplace following the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Client Spend Retention
We calculate client spend retention by dividing our recurring client spend by our base client spend. We define base client spend as the aggregate client spend from all clients during the four quarters ended one year prior to the date of measurement. We define our recurring client spend as the aggregate client spend during the four quarters ended on the date of measurement from the same clients included in our measure of base client spend. Our business is recurring in nature even though clients are not contractually required to spend on a recurring basis. We believe that client spend retention is an indicator of the value of our work marketplace and the overall health of our business because it impacts the growth rate of GSV, and, therefore, marketplace revenue. Long-term and recurring use by freelancers and clients are the primary drivers of growth in our marketplace and give us increased revenue visibility.
While continued use of our work marketplace by freelancers is a factor that impacts our ability to attract and retain clients, we currently have a significant surplus of freelancers in relation to the number of clients actively engaging freelancers for most categories of services on our work marketplace. As a result of this surplus, we primarily focus our efforts on retaining client spend and acquiring new clients, as opposed to acquiring new freelancers and retaining existing freelancers. Moreover, we generate revenue when clients engage and pay freelancers, and therefore, our key metrics and operating results are directly impacted by client spend. Additionally, the number of freelancers retained between periods is merely one of many factors that may impact client spend in a particular period and is not a primary driver of our key metrics and operating results.
As of December 31, 2020 and 2019, client spend retention was 102%. Although the COVID-19 pandemic did not have a material adverse impact on our financial results for the year ended December 31, 2020, we believe the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of the business of many of our clients resulted in a temporary reduction in spend from some of those affected clients in the second quarter. Client spend stabilized in the second half of the second quarter, and then improved throughout the remainder of 2020, due to the increased adoption of remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and execution against our strategic initiatives. This temporary reduction in spend in the second quarter, combined with the acceleration of client spend from existing clients in the second half of 2020, resulted in client spend retention remaining unchanged from 2019.
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Additionally, client spend retention has declined—from its historically highest levels in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019—following an acceleration in client spend retention that occurred subsequent to the launch of our U.S.-to-U.S. domestic marketplace offering in the second half of 2017, which initiated a substantial increase in the average hourly earnings rate of freelancers. These hourly rates stabilized over the course of 2019, causing the reduction in retention rate. As we acquire more large enterprise, global account, and mid-market clients in current and future periods, we expect them to continue to make positive contributions to our client spend retention in future years. Client spend retention will continue to vary from period to period due to client size and spending behavior, among other factors, including the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the related restrictions intended to prevent its spread, and the resulting macroeconomic downturn on the businesses and spending behavior of our clients.
Adjusted EBITDA
We define adjusted EBITDA as net income (loss) adjusted for stock-based compensation expense, depreciation and amortization, interest expense, other (income) expense, net, income tax (benefit) provision, and, if applicable, other non-cash transactions. In 2020, we made significant investments to grow our business, acquire new clients, and drive brand awareness. As a result, our adjusted EBITDA was $14.0 million in 2020, representing an increase of 89% from 2019. Adjusted EBITDA is not prepared in accordance with, and is not an alternative to, financial measures prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP. See the section titled “Selected Consolidated Financial Data—Non-GAAP Financial Measures” above for information on our use of adjusted EBITDA and a reconciliation of net loss to adjusted EBITDA.
Components of Our Results of Operations
Revenue
Marketplace Revenue. Marketplace revenue is generated from our Upwork Basic, Plus, and Enterprise and other premium offerings. Under these marketplace offerings, we generate revenue from both freelancers and clients. Marketplace revenue, which represents the majority of our total revenue, is primarily comprised of the service fees paid by freelancers as a percentage of the total amount that freelancers charge clients for services accessed through our work marketplace and, to a lesser extent, payment processing and administration fees paid by clients.
In the fourth quarter of 2020, we decided that it was no longer cost-effective for our sales team to sell our Upwork Business offering. We do not expect this decision to have a material impact on our marketplace revenue, as we will service those clients that we had previously targeted with our Upwork Business offering with our other marketplace offerings, such as Upwork Basic and Plus.
Our Upwork Basic and Plus offerings provide clients with access to freelancers with verified work history and client feedback on our work marketplace, the ability to instantly match with the right freelancers, and built-in collaboration features. For freelancers working with clients that are on our Upwork Basic and Plus offerings, we have a tiered freelancer service fee schedule based on cumulative lifetime billings by the freelancer to each client. Freelancers typically pay us 20% of the first $500, 10% for the next $9,500, and then 5% for any amount over $10,000 they bill to each client through our work marketplace. We recognize revenue on Sunday for the majority of our tiered freelancer service fees each week. To a lesser extent, we also generate revenue from freelancers through membership fees, purchases of Connects, and withdrawal and other fees.
In addition, we generate marketplace revenue from our Upwork Basic and Plus offerings by charging clients a payment processing and administration fee. Clients using our Upwork Basic offering pay a fee equal to 3% of their client spend. We recognize revenue on Monday for a substantial portion of our client fees each week. Clients using our Upwork Plus offering pay a flat fee of approximately $50 per month for additional features and pay a fee equal to 3% of their client spend unless they pay via ACH (in which case, provided all eligibility criteria are met, the fee is waived). To a lesser extent, we also generate revenue from clients through foreign currency exchange fees when clients choose to pay in currencies other than the U.S. Dollar.
Our Upwork Enterprise and other premium offerings, which are designed for larger clients, include access to additional product features, premium access to top freelancers, professional services, custom reporting, and flexible payment terms. For our Upwork Enterprise offering, we charge clients a monthly or annual subscription fee and a service fee calculated as a percentage of the client’s spend on freelancer services, in addition to the service fees paid by freelancers. Additionally, Upwork Enterprise clients can also subscribe to a compliance offering that includes worker classification services for an additional fee and may also choose to use our work marketplace to engage freelancers that were not originally sourced through our work marketplace for a lower fee percentage.
One of our premium offerings, Upwork Payroll, is available to clients when freelancers are classified as employees for engagements on our work marketplace. The client enters into an Upwork Payroll agreement with us, and we separately contract
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with unrelated third-party staffing providers that provide employment services to such clients. Revenue from Upwork Payroll is currently immaterial.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions intended to prevent its spread have accelerated the secular shift toward remote and independent work. In 2020, we continued to identify opportunities to prioritize our advertising and marketing efforts in order to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with independent talent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as companies that have already embraced a remote work model. As a result of these efforts, coupled with our execution against strategic initiatives, our 2020 results were fueled by both existing and new clients, who used our work marketplace to address their changing business needs and drove an increase in freelancer billings, which, in turn, drove an increase in marketplace revenue. Although the COVID-19 pandemic did not have a material adverse impact on our financial results for the year ended December 31, 2020, we are continuously evaluating the nature of and extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic will impact our business, operating results, and financial condition.
Managed Services Revenue. Through our managed services offering, we are responsible for providing services and engaging freelancers directly or as employees of third-party staffing providers to perform services for clients on our behalf. The freelancers providing services in connection with our managed services include independent talent and agencies of varying sizes. Under U.S. GAAP, we are deemed to be the principal in these managed services arrangements and therefore recognize the entire GSV of managed services projects as managed services revenue, as compared to recognizing only the percentage of the client spend that we receive, as we do with our marketplace offerings. Managed services revenue grew at a slower rate than our marketplace revenue in 2020 compared to 2019, and we anticipate this trend to continue, as we primarily focus on increasing client usage of and spend on our marketplace offerings.
Cost of Revenue and Gross Profit
Cost of Revenue. Cost of revenue consists primarily of the cost of payment processing fees, amounts paid to freelancers to deliver services for clients under our managed services offering, personnel-related costs for our services and support personnel, third-party hosting fees for our use of AWS, and the amortization expense associated with capitalized internal-use software and platform development costs. We define personnel-related costs as salaries, bonuses, benefits, travel and entertainment, and stock-based compensation costs for employees and the costs related to other service providers we engage.
We expect cost of revenue to increase in absolute dollars in future periods due to higher payment processing fees, third-party hosting fees, and personnel-related costs in order to support growth on our work marketplace. We expect third-party hosting fees to increase in 2021 as we complete our migration from the AWS data centers in California to the AWS data center in Oregon because we will need to use both AWS facilities during the migration period. We plan to complete this migration in the first quarter of 2021. Additionally, we are implementing disaster-relief protocols that will increase third-party hosting costs in future periods.
Amounts paid to freelancers in connection with our managed services offering are tied to the volume of managed services used by our clients. The level and timing of all of these items could fluctuate and affect our cost of revenue in the future.
Gross Profit and Gross Margin. Our gross profit and gross margin may fluctuate from period to period. Such fluctuations may be influenced by our revenue, the mix of payment methods that our clients choose, the timing and amount of investments to expand hosting capacity, our continued investments in our services and support teams, the timing and amounts paid to freelancers in connection with our managed services offering, and the amortization expense associated with capitalized internal-use software and platform development costs. In addition, gross margin will be impacted by fluctuations in our revenue mix between marketplace revenue and managed services revenue. For example, our managed services revenue grew at a slower rate than our marketplace revenue in 2020 compared to 2019, and we anticipate this trend to continue, as we primarily focus on increasing client usage of and spend on our marketplace offerings. As a result, we expect gross profit to increase in absolute dollars in future periods, although gross margin, expressed as a percentage of total revenue, may vary from period to period.
Operating Expenses
Research and Development. Research and development expense primarily consists of personnel-related costs and third-party hosting costs related to development. Research and development costs are expensed as incurred, except to the extent that such costs are associated with internal-use software and platform development that qualifies for capitalization. In 2020, we made significant investments in research and development to build new product features and launch new offerings, and we believe continued investments in research and development are important to attain our strategic objectives. As a result, we expect research and development expense to increase in absolute dollars in future periods, although this expense, expressed as a percentage of total revenue, may vary from period to period.
Sales and Marketing. Sales and marketing expense consists primarily of expenses related to personnel-related costs, including sales commissions, which we expense as they are incurred, and advertising and marketing activities. In 2020, we made significant investments to grow our business, including investments in sales and marketing to acquire new clients and drive
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brand awareness. However, in the fourth quarter of 2020, we decided that it was no longer cost-effective for our sales team to sell our Upwork Business offering. We do not expect this decision to have a material impact on our marketplace revenue, as we will service those clients that we had previously targeted with our Upwork Business offering with our other marketplace offerings, such as Upwork Basic and Plus. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global macroeconomic downturn and their effect on client spend on our work marketplace, we continue to identify opportunities to prioritize our advertising and marketing efforts in order to reach those new and existing clients seeking to engage with independent talent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as companies that have already embraced a remote work model. As a result, we expect this expense to increase in absolute dollars in future periods, although this expense expressed as a percentage of total revenue may vary from period to period.
General and Administrative. General and administrative expense consists primarily of personnel-related costs for our executive, finance, legal, human resources, corporate development, and operations functions; outside consulting, legal, and accounting services; and insurance. We expect to continue to invest in corporate infrastructure and to incur additional expenses associated with operating as a public company, including increased stock-based compensation expense related to executive compensation arrangements, legal and accounting costs, investor relations costs, insurance premiums, and compliance costs. Additionally, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions intended to prevent its spread, we are evaluating our needs for our current office space, and any reductions to our office space may impact the recoverability of our operating lease asset, which could result in impairment charges being recognized in general and administrative expense. As a result, we expect general and administrative expense to increase in absolute dollars in future periods, although this expense, expressed as a percentage of total revenue, may vary from period to period.
Provision for Transaction Losses. Provision for transaction losses consists primarily of losses resulting from fraud and bad debt expense associated with our trade and client receivables balance and transaction losses associated with chargebacks. Provisions for these items represent estimates of losses based on our actual historical incurred losses and other factors. We expect provisions for transaction losses to increase proportionally as GSV grows. As a result, we expect provision for transaction losses to increase in absolute dollars in future periods, although expressed as a percentage of total revenue, this expense may vary from period to period.
Interest Expense
Interest expense consists of interest on our outstanding borrowings.
Other (Income) Expense, Net
Other (income) expense, net consists primarily of gains and losses from foreign currency exchange transactions, interest income that we earn from our deposits in money market funds and investments in marketable securities, and, prior to October 2018, expenses resulting from the revaluation of our redeemable convertible preferred stock warrant liability. Our redeemable convertible preferred stock warrant was converted to a common stock warrant exercisable for the same number of shares, and our redeemable convertible preferred stock warrant liability was reclassified to additional paid-in capital upon the completion of our IPO in October 2018.
Income Tax Benefit (Provision)
We account for income taxes in accordance with the liability method. Under the liability method, deferred assets and liabilities are recognized based upon anticipated future tax consequences attributable to differences between financial statement carrying amounts of assets and liabilities and their respective tax bases. The provision for income taxes is comprised of the current tax liability and the change in deferred tax assets and liabilities. We establish a valuation allowance to the extent that it is more likely than not that deferred tax assets will not be recoverable against future taxable income.
Deferred tax assets and liabilities are measured using the enacted tax rates that will be in effect for the years in which those tax assets are expected to be realized or settled. We regularly assess the likelihood that deferred tax assets will be realized from recoverable income taxes or recovered from future taxable income based on the realization criteria set forth in the relevant authoritative guidance. To the extent that we believe any amounts are less likely than not to be realized, we record a valuation allowance to reduce our deferred tax assets. The realization of deferred tax assets is dependent upon future earnings, if any, the timing and amount of which are uncertain. Accordingly, the net deferred tax assets have been fully offset by a valuation allowance. If we subsequently realize deferred tax assets that were previously determined to be unrealizable, the respective valuation allowance would be reversed, resulting in an adjustment to earnings in the period such determination is made.
In addition, the calculation of tax liabilities involves dealing with uncertainties in the application of complex tax regulations. We recognize potential liabilities based on an estimate of whether, and the extent to which, additional taxes will be due. We account for uncertain tax positions in accordance with the relevant guidance, which prescribes a recognition threshold and measurement approach for uncertain tax positions taken or expected to be taken in our income tax return, and also provides guidance on recognition, classification, interest and penalties, accounting in interim periods, disclosure, and transition. The
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guidance utilizes a two-step approach for evaluation of uncertain tax positions. The first step is to determine if the weight of available evidence indicates a tax position is more likely than not to be sustained upon audit. The second step is to measure the tax benefit as the largest amount that is more likely than not to be realized on ultimate settlement. A liability is reported for unrecognized tax benefits resulting from uncertain tax positions taken or expected to be taken in a tax return. Any interest and penalties related to unrecognized tax benefits are recorded as income tax expense.

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Results of Operations
The following table sets forth our consolidated results of operations for the years ended December 31, 2020, 2019, and 2018 (in thousands):
202020192018
Revenue:
Marketplace$338,152 $268,284 $223,831 
Managed services35,476 32,278 29,523 
Total revenue373,628 300,562 253,354 
Cost of revenue(1)
104,267 88,144 81,458 
Gross profit269,361 212,418 171,896 
Operating expenses
Research and development(1)
83,471 64,027 55,488 
Sales and marketing(1)
133,225 95,891 72,963 
General and administrative(1)
71,518 67,327 49,336 
Provision for transaction losses3,555 3,905 5,821 
Total operating expenses291,769 231,150 183,608 
Loss from operations(22,408)(18,732)(11,712)
Interest expense778 1,306 2,038 
Other (income) expense, net(469)(3,407)6,142 
Loss before income taxes(22,717)(16,631)(19,892)
Income tax provision(150)(28)(15)
Net loss$(22,867)$(16,659)$(19,907)
(1) Includes stock-based compensation expense as follows (in thousands):
Cost of revenue$779 $456 $282 
Research and development9,783 6,471 3,258 
Sales and marketing4,440 2,609 1,637 
General and administrative10,506 9,262 5,184 
Total$25,508 $18,798 $10,361 

Comparison of the Years Ended December 31, 2020 and 2019
Revenue
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
Marketplace$338,152 $268,284 69,868 26 %
Percentage of total revenue91 %89 %
Managed services$35,476 $32,278 3,198 10 %
Percentage of total revenue%11 %
Total revenue$373,628 $300,562 $73,066 24 %

For the year ended December 31, 2020, total revenue was $373.6 million, an increase of $73.1 million, or 24%, as compared to 2019.
Marketplace revenue represented 91% of total revenue and increased by $69.9 million, or 26%, compared to 2019. Marketplace revenue increased primarily due to an increase in GSV, which grew by 21% in 2020 as compared to 2019, and a 17% increase in the number of core clients as of December 31, 2020 compared to December 31, 2019. We believe these increases in marketplace revenue, GSV, and core clients were primarily due to investments in sales and marketing to accelerate the
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acquisition of new clients and drive brand awareness, the launch of new offerings such as Upwork Plus, the recent changes made in the pricing and packaging of Connects purchases in 2019, and investments in research and development to build new product features. Additionally, marketplace revenue also increased as a result of an increase in client acquisition that was driven by an acceleration in the shift toward remote work, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and execution of our strategic initiatives. This increase in client acquisition, which began in the second quarter of 2020 and accelerated throughout the remainder of the year, continued to drive an increase in freelancer billings, which, in turn, drove an increase in marketplace revenue. Freelancer service fees generated $199.3 million and $168.8 million of marketplace revenue during the years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019, respectively. Client payment processing and administration fees generated $55.2 million and $43.9 million of marketplace revenue during the years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019, respectively.
Managed services revenue represented 9% and 11% of total revenue for the years ended December 31, 2020 and 2019, respectively. Managed services revenue increased by $3.2 million, or 10%, for the year ended December 31, 2020 compared to 2019.
Cost of Revenue and Gross Margin
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
Cost of revenue$104,267 $88,144 $16,123 18 %
Components of cost of revenue:
Costs of freelancer services to deliver managed services28,703 26,763 1,940 %
Other components of cost of revenue75,564 61,381 14,183 23 %
Total gross margin72 %71 %

For the year ended December 31, 2020, cost of revenue increased by $16.1 million, or 18%, compared to 2019. The increase was primarily due to a $14.2 million, or 23%, increase in other components of cost of revenue, which was driven by an increase of $7.5 million in payment processing fees due to an increase in client spend on our work marketplace, $2.9 million in third-party hosting costs due to our AWS data center migration and implementation of disaster-relief protocols, $2.0 million in amortization of capitalized platform development costs, and $1.8 million in customer support, software, and other costs.
Research and Development
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
Research and development$83,471 $64,027 $19,444 30 %
Percentage of total revenue22 %21 %

For the year ended December 31, 2020, research and development expense increased by $19.4 million, or 30%, as compared to 2019. The increase was primarily due to increases in personnel-related costs of $18.6 million, which resulted from investments made to increase the size of our workforce in connection with the execution of our strategic initiatives, and licensed software and other costs of $2.1 million, partially offset by the capitalization of $1.3 million of additional internal-use software and platform development costs.
Sales and Marketing
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
Sales and marketing$133,225 $95,891 $37,334 39 %
Percentage of total revenue36 %32 %

For the year ended December 31, 2020, sales and marketing expense increased by $37.3 million, or 39%, as compared to 2019. This increase was primarily due to year-over-year increases of $20.3 million in personnel-related costs to expand our enterprise sales team, including sales commissions that we expense as incurred, $15.7 million in marketing and advertising costs due to our efforts to accelerate our acquisition of Upwork Enterprise clients and our ongoing focus on increasing brand awareness, and $1.3 million in amortization of licensed software and facilities-related and other costs resulting from ongoing business growth.
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General and Administrative
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
General and administrative$71,518 $67,327 $4,191 %
Percentage of total revenue19 %22 %

For the year ended December 31, 2020, general and administrative expense increased by $4.2 million, or 6%, as compared to 2019. This increase was primarily due to increases of $5.2 million in personnel-related costs and $0.7 million in outside consulting and other costs, partially offset by reductions in facilities-related and other expenses of $1.7 million.
Provision for Transaction Losses
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
Provision for transaction losses$3,555 $3,905 $(350)(9)%
Percentage of total revenue%%

For the year ended December 31, 2020, provision for transaction losses decreased by $0.4 million, or 9%, as compared to 2019, and represented approximately 1% of revenue for each period.
Interest Expense and Other (Income) Expense, Net
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20202019$%
Interest expense$778 $1,306 $(528)(40)%
Other income, net(469)(3,407)2,938 (86)%

For the year ended December 31, 2020, interest expense decreased by $0.5 million, as compared to 2019. This resulted from lower balances outstanding on the Term Loans. See “Note 7—Debt” of the notes to our consolidated financial statements included elsewhere in this Annual Report.
For the year ended December 31, 2020, other income, net was $0.5 million, as compared to $3.4 million in 2019, which was primarily driven by lower investment income received from marketable securities of $1.5 million, as well as additional foreign currency exchange losses of $1.4 million from higher volumes of foreign currency transactions resulting from additional foreign currencies added in the second quarter of 2019.
Comparison of the Years Ended December 31, 2019 and 2018
Revenue
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20192018$%
Marketplace$268,284 $223,831 44,453 20 %
Percentage of total revenue89 %88 %
Managed services$32,278 $29,523 2,755 %
Percentage of total revenue11 %12 %
Total revenue$300,562 $253,354 $47,208 19 %

For the year ended December 31, 2019, total revenue was $300.6 million, an increase of $47.2 million, or 19%, as compared to 2018.
Marketplace revenue represented 89% of total revenue for 2019, an increase of $44.5 million, or 20%, compared to 2018. Marketplace revenue increased primarily due to an increase in GSV, which grew by 19% in 2019 as compared to 2018. GSV grew primarily driven by an 18% increase in the number of core clients as of December 31, 2019 compared to December 31,
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2018. We believe these increases in marketplace revenue, GSV, and core clients were primarily due to investments in sales and marketing to acquire new clients and drive brand awareness, the launch of new offerings such as Upwork Plus and Upwork Business, the recent changes made in the pricing and packaging of Connects purchases in 2019, and investments in research and development to build new product features. Freelancer service fees generated $168.8 million and $149.9 million of marketplace revenue during the years ended December 31, 2019 and 2018, respectively. Client payment processing and administration fees generated $43.9 million and $35.5 million of marketplace revenue during the years ended December 31, 2019 and 2018, respectively.
Managed services revenue represented 11% and 12% of total revenue for the year ended December 31, 2019 and 2018, respectively. Managed services revenue increased by $2.8 million, or 9%, for the year ended December 31, 2019 compared to 2018, primarily due to an increase in client demand for our managed services offering and a resulting increase in the amount of freelancer services used to deliver our managed services offering.
Cost of Revenue and Gross Margin
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20192018$%
Cost of revenue$88,144 $81,458 $6,686 %
Components of cost of revenue:
Costs of freelancer services to deliver managed services26,763 24,490 2,273 %
Other components of cost of revenue61,381 56,968 4,413 %
Total gross margin71 %68 %

For the year ended December 31, 2019, cost of revenue increased by $6.7 million, or 8%, compared to 2018. The increase was partially due to a $2.3 million, or 9%, increase in cost of freelancer services to deliver managed services, which was driven by a corresponding increase of $2.8 million in managed services revenue for the year ended December 31, 2019 compared to 2018. In general, the cost of freelancer services to deliver managed services is directly correlated to our managed services revenue. Other components of cost of revenue increased by $4.4 million, which included an increase of $5.8 million in payment processing fees due to an increase in client spend on our work marketplace and $0.9 million in amortization of capitalized platform development costs, partially offset by a $1.7 million reduction in third-party hosting costs due to our migration to AWS and a $0.6 million reduction in personnel-related costs, amortization of licensed software, and other costs.
Research and Development
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20192018$%
Research and development$64,027 $55,488 $8,539 15 %
Percentage of total revenue21 %22 %

For the year ended December 31, 2019, research and development expense increased by $8.5 million, or 15%, as compared to 2018. The increase was primarily due to an increase in personnel-related costs of $8.8 million and an increase of $1.7 million in amortization of licensed software, partially offset by the capitalization of $1.3 million of additional internal-use software and platform development costs and a $0.7 million reduction in third-party services and other costs during 2019.
Sales and Marketing
(in thousands, except percentages)Year Ended December 31,Change
20192018$%
Sales and marketing$95,891 $72,963 $