Turbine: The Company Built With Elance (Part Two)Elance_Keith | Jul 26, 2011
In the second part of our interview with Turbine Founder Matthew Stibbe, we discuss the reach of his Elance usage—from Turbine to several other blog projects he manages, how he sees Elance playing a role in the future of startups, and his choice tips for managing online workers.
To read Part One, please click here.
What do you feel are the strengths about Elance’s platform?
Initially the value of Elance is tapping into the inventory of talent but when you start using it, you see the management tools and the way in which it balances the relationship between supplier and employer with escrow. That’s a great feature that gives both parties the confidence to transact. That is one of the big challenges of cross border work.
Feedback is useful, especially since it is an incentive for the contractor to do a good job. Bad feedback means bad business and good contractors are very careful that they have happy customers.
For what projects are you currently using Elance?
On GolfHotelWhiskey.com nearly all the blog content is written by online workers. They scan the blogosphere for interesting things for pilots and then write articles on them. On another site of mine, BadLanguage.net, I write all the content, but I use Elancers to help me add unique functionality to the site, such as a ‘popular posts’ page which lists the top five posts in each category, much like Alltop.com.
With Turbine right now, almost all the work is done through Elance, including all web development, testing, and content writing. Our site launched about a month ago, with early functionality and 4 or 5 modules for things like time off management and expenses claims. The full-blown Turbine probably will have 20-25 modules altogether, so we have another year of innovation and development. It’s a constant process, but I’m able to manage it through Elance quite effectively.
Having done it both the traditional way and using online workers, how do you see the future of startups and entrepreneurship?
There are always going to be people who start in their bedroom and write code themselves. You don’t know what garage the next Apple is going to start in. I still think there will be conventional businesses with offices and VC funding, but this route is only available to some people and VC money comes at a real cost, in terms of equity and control.
The Elance approach lets people find their own way by filling gaps in their own talent. A hybrid organization might be the future, where companies are less and less vertically integrated. Instead, they will focus on what is really important to them in-house and they will outsource the rest using offshore, nearshore, and onshore talent and remote work to do it, and it’ll work.
I would not tell people to go off and be a one person multinational [laughing]. But it is possible now, and you simply couldn’t do it ten years ago. I think I am making it work because I have ten years’ experience running complex software projects and another ten years in writing and marketing. But 15 or 20 years ago, if you asked me about the core competency of my business I would have said software development. Today programming is important but it’s not something you have to own, it’s partly commoditized—that’s a real change. Now project management, marketing and ideas are really important.
You’ve essentially built Turbine on Elance. What are some tips that you’d like to share with the entrepreneur community given the success you’ve found utilizing the “human cloud” of online workers?
My advice would be to start with several small projects first and build up. Initially my first projects were all $50 – $250, but it gave me the confidence to engage in bigger projects. My number one tip: work hard on specifications. I’m a writer and I would use really clear, simple English—“export English” for those whose second language is English. Communicate proposals in two different ways—issue a brief in writing and then put in a question that you want contractors to answer to test that they’ve understood it. For bigger projects, you can follow this up with interviews and other qualification tests to make a shortlist of possible suppliers.
For development jobs, I have them build UI mockups before they start code to see if they understand how the desired functionality works. For big, complex projects, I have them build a prototype before committing to the whole thing. For Turbine, I shortlisted four candidates and interviewed them on Skype for an hour each. Asking question was a very important part of the process for me—how are you going to build a prototype, what kind of tools you use, etc.
The challenge with online hiring is selecting the right people and effectively managing them, then getting rid of the bad ones. When I used Elance for my blogs, I had 8-10 projects in the first year, and I was training myself as well on how to best use the Elance platform. That was invaluable. Elance is an awesome tool but you have to learn to use it properly.
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.