Elance Blog

Turbine: The Company Built With Elance (Part One)

In the first of a two-part Q&A, we speak with Matthew Stibbe, Founder of online office management software Turbine, about his journey starting Turbine after putting the idea on the shelf for years. Here we discuss Matthew's entrepreneurial past and then discover how Elance allowed him to go from an early vision to a growing company.

Greetings Matthew! Please tell us a little bit about your company Turbine.

Turbine lets businesses take care of routine paperwork more efficiently. People can do time off requests, expenses claims, purchase requests etc. anywhere, anytime online. Managers get instant reporting and best practice approval workflows. As we add more functions – appraisals, timesheets and invoicing are coming next – the system becomes ever more useful and efficient. Growing businesses need to spend their time on innovation, marketing, sales and customer service and we help them do that.

When and why did you see a need for an all-in-one administrative tool like Turbine?

Turbine grew out of my experience running a computer software company in the 90s. As we grew, we added all this paperwork – holiday forms, purchase requests, expenses etc. And we hired people to process all the paperwork. And set up an HR database to keep track of it all. The whole thing was time-consuming, inefficient and expensive. Little bits of paper cost big bucks in growing companies.

The heart of Turbine: the ‘social network’ of your business

Tell us about the kind of customer that would benefit from using Turbine. How was Turbine compare to its larger competitors?

Right now, we’re targeting business with three or more employees. Each time you automate a bit of paperwork with TurbineHQ.com, you save time and money. These benefits multiply as you add more staff. However, the next wave of features, including timesheets, invoicing and so on, will be equally attractive to solopreneurs and we’ll be doing a special deal for them. For individuals, the benefits increase as we add more features because you don’t have to enter the same information twice.

What about your entrepreneurial history, prior to founding Turbine?

I put myself through college by designing computer games, and eventually started Intelligent Games Ltd., a company that grew to 75 people, developing games for Electronic Arts, Sony, Hasbro, and the BBC, before selling the business in 2000. I was a freelance journalist for a few years, writing for Wired and Popular Science, among other magazines and then I started my other business, Articulate Marketing (www.articulatemarketing.com) which is still going strong. Turbine is my third startup.

Turbine’s dashboard where you track, review and approve requests

And how did the framework for Turbine come about?

I originally thought about doing Turbine during the dotcom boom after I sold Intelligent Games. Back then it felt like everything was possible. But when I looked at the tech that was available, talked to venture capitalists, etc., it became obvious that it would be very, very expensive to build it. Almost everything had to be created from scratch – hosting, payment processing, content management systems, databases – and at the time I believed that the only way to create software was to have a big office and hire lots of programmers.

I put it on the shelf for 10 years, and then my interest was rekindled two years ago. Hosting had become a commodity, and you can rent a dedicated server for a few hundred pounds a month, which is extraordinarily cheap. In 2000, it was going to cost tens of thousands of pounds to set up a server farm. Plus there are now content management systems like WordPress , databases like MySQL and development frameworks like Ruby on Rails which give you a huge headstart compared with building it all from scratch. The final piece was being able to access amazing development talent overseas at dramatic discounts relative to the cost of hiring people locally in the UK. Project management and communications tools have advanced hugely in ten years too so that you can use things like Skype, Lighthouse and so on to communicate efficiently with people anywhere in the world. No need for that expensive office any more.

How did Elance come into play at that point?

I was using Elance for some other things and it slowly dawned on me that it was the missing piece in the puzzle that would allow me to turn Turbine from a dream into a reality. I didn’t start with the intention of building Turbine. It was partly a consequence of using Elance. I wanted to try and find ways to be more productive in my business and personal life. I have a couple of blogs that I enjoy working on but which take a lot of time, and I needed help with content, coding and web design. I did a survey on the various players on the market, and found Elance to be the best one.

For my site GolfHotelWhiskey.com, I wanted to compile a map of hot spots near airports, for pilots, so I had an Elancer build a WordPress plugin with Google Maps. Two other freelancers were hired for gathering data and coding. In the end, we were able to do 80 airport reviews and a Google mashup for less than a thousand dollars. I would never have been able to do that myself with the time and technical skill required.

What are some of the key advantages you’ve seen through online hiring?

It’s really expensive to run a business, hire people and put them in an office in London—that’s a big, bold venture with big risks and big costs. Now I can fish in a global pool and have access to better talent but without the overhead. There’s no office, no HR manager, no receptionists, no rent, no IT manager etc. You can use the internet to manage them. I think it’s the beginning of a new industrial revolution.

Elance is the mechanism by which I get to those people. I like to think of myself now as not being much different than when I had my 70-person company. I have programmers, testers and graphic designers but I work from home and manage them using Elance. I have people in Ukraine, Romania, Vietnam, and Argentina. I like to think of myself as a one-man multinational.

How about from a cost perspective?

I estimate that back in 2000, building a Turbine-like product would have cost 1 to 1.5 million pounds. To get Turbine launched cost less than £50,000. It simply wouldn’t be possible without Elance.

About Matthew
Matthew Stibbe developed TurbineHQ.com to help growing businesses take charge of their paperwork. He is also CEO of Articulate Marketing working for clients such as Microsoft, HP, Symantec and NetJets. He writes the Bad Language blog and the Aviator column for Forbes. Before all that he set up, ran and sold a computer games company and studied history at Oxford University.

Click here for Part Two, as Matthew discusses the ways in which he utilizes Elance, and his top tips for hiring online workers.