Crowdsource Your Business, Any Time, Anywhere


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GUEST MENTOR, Niel Robertson, CEO of Trada, Boulder, Colo.: For more than five years, I have been deeply involved in the growth and evolution of the crowdsourcing industry. Through both my founder and CEO role at Trada, as well as my directorship at the Crowdsortium, the trade group for crowdsourcing companies, I’ve seen the power that well-organized crowds have to solve problems. A strongly built community can produce the right expert or team of experts to solve most problems. With such unprecedented access to expertise online, it stands to reason that a startup could be built anywhere using these communities to access better expertise than they may have available locally.

While I tend to agree with this thesis, the real question may not be ‘can a startup be built anywhere, but instead, can any startup really be built anywhere? If all startups can be built solely with online crowd- or outsourced talent, the current digital labor marketplaces would be sufficient to separate startup success from location. But this hasn’t really happened, and for a good reason: The issue is that building startups is a two-dimensional problem of expertise.

Crowdsourcing companies tend to focus on one work product, process or set of expertise and over time, expand their pool of experts to those with that expertise in many verticals or categories. For example, while paid search expertise is a distinct skill, there are subtleties for how to do it well for a retail website that wouldn’t be as useful for a business-to-business lead generation site.

A well-curated crowd will eventually possess the diversity to solve a specific business problem in any vertical.

But it takes time to reach this level (four-to-five years seems to be the norm). Consider a truism of online crowd-building: the 90-9-1 rule. This rule essentially states that 1% of your community will be heavy contributors, 9% will be mild contributors, and 90% will primarily be consumers of the value created by the community. Wikipedia is a familiar example.

We all likely use Wikipedia on a regular basis to consume information, but how many of us have actually added content or been a heavy contributor in the last couple of years? It turns out that Wikipedia and online communities like Quora, StackExchange, YouTube and even the blogosphere at large tend towards this 90-9-1 phenomenon. It takes a large number of participants to cover a broad spectrum.

Startups, however, are not simply a collection of point problems. A startup is an evolving journey that constantly requires not only tactical expertise (which could be supplied by online crowds) but mentorship and holistic direction. Furthermore, this directional expertise that a startup needs changes over time (e.g. from help financing the company to talent management to operational discipline, etc.). This is the two-dimensional expertise problem — needing both a tactical expert to solve a problem, as well as an expert to sew together the collection of experts to solve the bigger problem.

It turns out that the density of the expertise in the real-world community a startup lives in, much like an online crowd, can have profound effects on the startup’s success. And for scale reasons, not every community is this deep yet.

This takes us back to the constraints of the 90-9-1 rule for the real-world. Any community is in fact one-tenth as powerful as the total number of members who participate in it. The “9” and the “1” are the workhorses of the community, especially in the early days. It takes concerted effort from the contributors to constantly expand the reach and activity of the community to create depth of experience and insight.

Most of the work of community building online is the process of encouraging, cajoling, enticing, or demanding that some of the 90% stop watching and start helping. In the real world, this takes time. The real-world communities that support startups the best are built on many generations of entrepreneurs who have built a deep community that can help a startup through each stage of its growth.

It turns out that I’ve been lucky enough to spend my time thinking about community building all while inside one of the most vibrant communities of all — the Boulder startup scene.

Boulder is a great example. When I arrived in 1998 there had been roughly two generations of the tech startup tradition, starting with the founders of Storage Tek, followed by some of the early software and telecom pioneers.

Years later, I participated in the first wave of internet software and commerce companies. Most recently, Boulder has exploded with Web 2.0, ad-tech, social media centric and mobile-centric software companies. Along the way, a vibrant ecosystem grew up to support these generations: from law firms to tech consulting companies to co-working spaces, venture funds, angel networks and incubators like TechStars.

At each stage, more of the consumers of the community started to engage and became contributors. As this happened, more and more startups could become successful as there was access to mentorship and support at every stage of a startup’s evolution.

Boulder is the formula for startup community building, having started with a few key contributors like Brad Feld, who studiously worked to rope more and more people into the contributor category. TechStars was a successful contributor program, designed around mentor activity probably more than actual startup creation.

You can now see the same thing in Santa Monica with Mark Suster, and of course in New York with Fred Wilson. It’s not that these individuals single-handedly shepherded startups to success, but that they relentlessly attracted contributors to the community. Case in point: I moved to Boulder as a result of Brad’s cajoling 14 years ago.

With online expertise, you can start some startups anywhere, but it takes a special real-world community to birth and support any kind of startup one can envision. Either way, the power (and necessity) is in the crowd.

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