Startup Learnings

In this interview with IdeaMench i share some of my learnings along the journey of entrepreneurship (and what a journey it’s been!) Read the full article here 

 

Where did the idea for SuperTasker come from?

SuperTasker is an evolution of our parent product, PeoplePerHour, a classic two-sided community marketplace where users can post a job and get proposals from freelance talent that will complete the job remotely. Our edge is that we curate all the freelancers and have a big focus on only allowing the best to qualify for and stay in the marketplace. Small businesses use SuperTasker to outsource anything from a quick design job to managing big remote teams on an ongoing basis.

SuperTasker arose to serve a subset of jobs in which customers aren’t as worried about who does the work — they just want it done! This includes things like small design tweaks or one-hour fixes to templated sites, such as WordPress, Joomla, and Magento. The way we solve the problem here is through tight curation and definition of the deliverables up front, relieving the customer from the effort of finding someone and weighing him against other candidates. With SuperTasker, you literally complete a form, and we take it from there. The task usually gets picked up within three minutes, and most deliverables are returned within one hour.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

I start early because we run engineering out of Athens, which is seven hours ahead of Eastern time. I tend to have early cross-Atlantic calls with the teams in Athens and London while it’s still daytime for them. I normally take a break at lunchtime to have a quick workout, and that sort of resets my day. My U.S. day begins around 2 p.m.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We have a culture where we encourage the flow of ideas and a lot of discussion. Great ideas take time to mature and need a lot of conversation, so we allow everyone to chip in ideas about a problem we’re trying to solve, then get around the table (or on Skype or Google Hangouts) and hash them out. You can’t structure that process too much; otherwise, you kill creativity. It’s about having short but frequent conversations — with research and analysis to validate assumptions in between.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

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We’re getting SKUed !

 

The reason I’m so excited about our latest product SuperTasker is not just because it’s a cool product (and looks pretty according to my unbiased opinion of course !;) that solves a real need in a novel way. More importantly its driving a new macro trend which is way overdue : the introduction of SKUs for services.

 

SKUs (Supplier Keeping Units) are now second nature in the world of physical products.  They are the classification of all things made and sold. The worlds all encompassing ‘product catalogue’. Each SKU is tied in with specific product specs. So buying the same SKU anywhere in the world, through any site or retail store means the same thing pops out of the box. In other words: standardisation.

 

We take this for granted now but SKUs have marked a fundamental shift from a nation of blacksmiths to mass production and standardisation. Before the industrial revolution buying a table, or a bottle of ketchup meant going to a craftsman, blacksmith or the local farmers market. What you got that day would differ to what you’d get the next.  In a nice ironic turn of events that serendipitous discovery in the purchasing process is now finding its way back spurring new hot businesses like Birchbox and Plated amongst many others. Too much standardisation can get boring. But we wouldn’t have come this far if we weren’t able to standardise production to feed a nation en masse.  No doubt our standard of living has massively improved since then. You can buy mass produced items for a fraction of what a craftsman could afford to charge you however hard you bartered.  In economic terms:  we reaped ‘economies of scale’.

 

Yet in intangibles we are STILL a nation of blacksmiths. Try getting a simple logo done on 5 different platforms. The cost will vary drastically as will the quality, and other service elements bundled in the purchase such as number of revisions or the ‘return’ policy.  It’s a hit and miss experience, much like buying goods was before mass production.

 

Some argue that one of the reasons is that you can’t commoditise creative work.  Well. I’m sure that’s exactly what the blacksmith or craftsman in the case above would have said before Henry Ford put them out of business.  There is creativity in virtually EVERY production process. Whether you’re making a table, a pair of shoe laces, a home made ketchup recipe or a logo. There is no reason for them to differ.

 

That’s what we are fundamentally doing at SuperTasker. We are the world’s first catalogue of SKUs in digital services. And we aim to eventually expand to more. But for now we ‘stick to the knitting’ as they say. A design edit, a WordPress fix, an Infographic or creative banner production, to name just a few, are all SKUed. In other words we define what the cost should be, the delivery time, the penalty on lateness, the quality standard (all the ‘producers’ are curated and trained to that standard), and those other service elements like number of revisions per purchase and refund policy. We leave no guesswork to the ‘craftsman’ or the customer. It’s SKUed.

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Rethinking the definition of ‘Entrepreneur’

I recently wrote this article for Forbes as i feel that the nature, context and value that entrepreneurship brings to the world is evolving fast, and hence is its definition.  Read the full piece here: Rethinking the definition of ‘Entrepreneur’ 

Entrepreneurs are integral to the success of the U.S. economy. According to figures from Forbes, over 50% of the working population is at a small business, equating to over 120 million people. That’s a lot of competition.

Calling yourself an entrepreneur is to define yourself as many things: You are declaring yourself an innovator and a risk taker, and may find yourself pigeonholed with assumptions and stereotypes. However, an entrepreneur cannot be defined by a group of characteristics.

As the traditional route of finding employment has become increasingly challenging, the aspiration to become an entrepreneur has risen, making the original definition of entrepreneur problematic. Forty-three percent of Americans believe there are good opportunities for entrepreneurship, up by more than 20% since 2011. These days, you can be an entrepreneur if you’re a mother making wedding cakes during the school day, or a young horseback rider setting up a business introducing buyers to sellers of the finest dressage horses. You don’t need a flashy office or lots of space; 69% of new businesses in the U.S. start at home, and 59% of established businesses are home-based. So then the term entrepreneur — what does it actually mean?

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Rise in second jobs makes UK a nation of grafters

PeoplePerHour in the Financial Times today on the rise of second jobs.

Read the full articles here:

Rise in second jobs makes UK a nation of grafters – FT

Case study_ Factory worker makes jewellery in spare time – FT

The UK is becoming a nation of grafters. With living standards at their lowest in a decade and real-term wages falling 8 per cent since the financial crisis, more people are cramming extra work into evenings, weekends and even their lunch hours to supplement their main incomes.

Officially, the average number of hours Britons work each week has increased from 31.4 to 32.2 since 2011 after years of decline. There are now about 1.2m with two jobs, up from about 1.05m in 2007. The number of workers combining their main job with a second self-employed role has increased 40 per cent since 2006 to 450,000.

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Cut & Paste doesn’t work for startups!

One of the worst pieces of advice you can get when building a startup is the classic “Airbnb [or Apple or Google] does it this way, so should you”. Its incredible how many investors give that advice thinking you can retrofit substance to process. If it were only that easy to cut & paste there wouldn’t be any figuring out to do would there? Why is it then that first time entrepreneurs have a higher success rate? Because they are hungry, and their lack of knowledge is the best weapon. They are not afraid to ask the dumb questions. They think fresh and solve problems. Ignorance is bliss.

 

Last week I met up with two different first time entrepreneurs, super smart founders and CEOs both of venture backed business. We went for a beer to catch up and share war stories. PeoplePerHour is a little further ahead in the journey so I had the benefit to reflect on some of my many screw ups and do most of the talking while they enjoyed their beer!

 

We discussed how we manage our time, our team, how we handle meetings . What we do and don’t get involved in. I was not amazed that each of them were making the same mistake (which I also made many times). One said to me “our VCs said to me recently that Apple’s leadership team spends 3 hours just ‘talking about random stuff’ on Monday mornings… so we should do the same. It fosters creativity and innovation lalala.”  My instant reaction was “are you out of your fucking mind?” Firstly, there is a slight difference between a ten person startup and a company like Apple. Maybe at their scale talking casually about ‘random stuff’ with no agenda works because a) someone else is doing the hard work of executing and b) they may be having a good problem to have which is – where the heck to we invest our cash mountain next? Do you really think that when Apple started in a garage Woz and Steve Jobs just sat in a room talking about random shit waiting for a business to get built?

 

The other Founder I met up with similarly was spending all this time doing X because his investors told him that it worked for another portfolio company. That’s absurd logic. You will find tonnes of things that work for what are seemingly similar businesses but don’t work for you. The devil is in the detail. All that matters is what YOUR business needs NOW. That may change tomorrow. You can’t retrofit substance to process. You figure out what builds and sells the shit and fit process around it. And in a fast growing startup you probably need to rethink that every other month if not sooner.

 

At PeoplePerHour we went through this cycle multiple times. A process of holding a management meeting with everyone round the table sharing what they’re each doing worked well. Until it stopped working! So we changed it. Why did it stop working? Because we HAD to go from a phase where we needed to innovate and hence conversation was necessary, to a phase where it was all about straight line execution. In that phase, you need as little conversation as possible. You just need to roll up your cuffs and execute. You’ve figured out how to climb the mountain, so now you need to shut up and start climbing!

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Freelance and contract hiring are shaping our future workforce!

CIO magazine included one of my predictions today in the top 6 tips for 2015 in an article titled “6 IT Workforce Predictions for 2015″

“The global economy in general is moving to a contract or freelance workforce. It’s now a $1 billion worldwide market, and projected to be $5 billion in the next five years,” says Xenios Thrasyvoulou, founder and CEO of PeoplePerHour and SuperTasker.

“The flexibility benefits for both employees and employers are hard to beat; the ability to find exactly the talent you need for exactly the job you need them for is one of the drivers, as well as the desire for specialization without having to pay a premium long-term for a full-time employee,” says Thrasyvoulou.

Read the full piece here >>

Why your low moments are your biggest blessings in disguise: startup war stories

There are no certainties in a startup’s path, apart from one: you are bound to have a roller coaster ride, and a bundle of war stories to recount.  No matter how successful you end up being. It’s never a straight line to success or failure. Along the way, the true test of whether you have what it takes to make it is what you do in your lowest of low moments. When you are most vulnerable.  For make no mistake – they will come!

 

In my experience you can almost bucket people into two: those who stay down when they’re down or drift sideways, wither and die. And those who jump back up stronger.  My biggest successes, leanings and adventures always followed from such low moments. When I was weakest and most vulnerable. I’m one of those people who performs much better when things aren’t going my way. It’s like a slap in the face, it wakes me up, makes me more stubborn and determined to hit back even harder. Ben Horowitz put it perfectly in his last book ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’. He said ” there are two kinds of CEOs: peacetime CEOs and wartime CEOs”.  Peacetime CEOs are those who do well when things are doing well. They are typically the people who you hire to take a business from B to C and scale it up. They are smooth, political and great at blowing the trumpet. But the journey from A to B is definitely a wartime situation. You need to thrive in the gutter.

 

My first moment of vulnerability was when my first business – essentially a ‘brick n mortar’ version of PeoplePerHour.com - wasn’t scaling.  I was in my mid-twenties with no experience at all, no co-founder, partner or other senior member of the team, running what’s probably the hardest type of business to run – a service business.  I was essentially the head of sales, delivery, quality assurance, and the person everyone called when things went wrong. Which they did! Often! And in weird hours.
Exhausted and demoralized, with employees and clients jumping ship at an accelerating pace, I had to figure a way out.  Failure was not an option – I had friend’s and family money in the business and countless hours of sweat and anxiety. This being 2006 and in London where there is much more taboo around failure (decreasing no doubt but still much more than the US) I was petrified.  To make it all worse my then long-term girlfriend decided to split up with me because I was working too hard, so the one person I had close to me jumped ship too.

 

I felt like a brick had hit me on the head.  Fortunately my cost base was quite low  (and getting lower as more people were jumping ship) so going bust would take a while, but that’s like dying a  slow and painful death. It’s almost better if it’s a short sharp blow.  I kept racking my brain constantly  ‘how on earth will I scale this business up”. I decided to go away for a few days  (in the beautiful Cannes I recall) steam off and think it through (and in the mean time try and forget this ex girlfriend who ditched me at the worst possible time!). It was in that trip that the idea hit me. Why don’t I turn the business on its head, circumvent my own self by turning a service provider to a platform business that connects service providers (like myself) with customers and take a cut instead of delivering the service myself? That way it can scale. It was the eureka moment I was waiting for. PeoplePerHour.com was hence born.

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The Future of Work: the evolution of labor marketplaces

Operating in the labor / outsourcing space for almost 10 years now (first with an offline business and then online) this is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and in many ways have been part of its evolution. What does the Future of Work look like? In this post my aim is to highlight the trends that I think will shape it versus the applications and solutions it will manifest itself in.

  1. The West-East playing field will level out

The outsourcing industry has its origin in the labor rate arbitrage between developed and developing economies. The first labor marketplaces like Elance & Odesk were in essence online versions of the Wipros & Infosys’ of this world, connecting businesses in the more developed Western economies with cheaper labor where it was abundant in the East, mainly in IT services. They emerged to piggy back on the newly minted IT industries in India in the 90s.

That rate arbitrage is narrowing today as the economies of India & China and other emerging markets are growing faster than the West inflating prices (including that of labor) and hence closing the gap.

Secondly, as these economies mature they start developing a middle class and an SMB (Small & Medium Sized Businesses) sector – the backbone in any economy that’s the essential channel for distribution of wealth downward from the gorillas at the top of the food chain – the big corporations and national institutions.

Much like those gorillas, these SMBs turn to the west to adopt some of the best practices that have matured over decades. The ‘freelance consultant’ is to those SMBs what the McKinseys of this world and the Harvard MBA franchise has been to the gorrilas at the top. They hire them to help with the things they are weakest in, from basics  like writing sales and marketing collateral, design & UI, to business management advice social media marketing and so on.

PeoplePerHour.com was founded largely on this premise. From the start we focused on nurturing a freelance workforce in the West which is still over 70% of our total. Most of hiring happens ‘semi-locally’ (i.e. not onsite , the work sill gets done remotely, but in same geographic region) or from companies in the emerging economies  hiring talent in Europe or the US.

As I argued in a previous post I also believe that this may well be the rebirth or the once might export economy of Western nations.  With manufacturing on the decline and unable to compete with lower cost economies in the East, the next wave of exports may well be skills and services that are more in abundance in the West and scarcer in emerging markets, the gap being bridged by the emergence and growth of online labor marketplaces.

  1. Marketplaces 3.0: the rise of End-to-End (e2e) solutions

We are entering what I believe is the third generation of marketplaces. The ‘1.0’ era was all about liquidity (Craiglist). ‘2.0’ was about building trust via reputation systems, social validation (eBay, Airbnb, Etsy) to help in the discovery process as inventory exploded making discovery more challenging. Now, ‘3.0’ is making discovery redundant or unnecessary altogether (you don’t interview your taxi driver on Uber or Lyft and equally you don’t select your tasker on SuperTasker). These are what have been termed e2e solutions, going deeper at both ends – supply & demand – to remove friction in the experience.

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An example of the worst possible service you can get – complements of Best Buy Inc.

I rarely slag of companies in public but this experience has been so appalling I feel the need to share it with the world

I recently move apartments so on September 4rd I duly commissioned GeekSquad (a subsidiary of BestBuy) for the second time (repeat customer no less!) to come and install my projector in my new place. I should mention this is a pretty heavy piece of kit, quite a high end spec that cost me over $4000

The GeekSquad team arrives. With ATTITUDE I should add. From the start one guy was constantly winging about how X or Y or Z was not mentioned in the work order. IT WAS. And I know that because I had the same issue last time so this time I itemized everything in granular detail. I even sent them the full spec, the amazon receipt and the whole shebang. They even mentioned that I had to move my own furniture around as they are prohibited to move other people’s stuff. Question: how the hell do you get a projector on the ceiling without moving something? Including the projector! Idiots. That’s already my equipment.

I left them to it and was unpacking other things to filter out their winging. A few minutes later I hear a loud BANG! One of the two idiots (they share a brain cell between them at best and that’s on a good day!) dropped the thing on the floor and smashed it.

Fair enough. Mistakes happen. I tried to keep upbeat as they reassured me I would soon get a call from their insurance to ‘sort it out’. Mean time their manager – another incompetent idiot called Miguel – called me to tell me the next steps. The only issue was – he didn’t know what they were! He told me he would find out and call me back

In the end they left me with an Insurance claim number and went their way.

The sequence of events that ensued is just a comedy. And this is just the summary:

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