We’ve been at the forefront of crowdsourcing since the early 2000s — long before the gig economy was mainstream; before it was even a possibility. And in all my time at Topcoder, the world’s largest global talent network and crowdsourcing platform, I’ve had my share of successes and setbacks. Most of them have had to do with risk, economic trends, and shifting our focus time and again.
This summer at MIT’s 2018 Platform Strategy Summit, I spoke about Topcoder’s unique talent model and the lessons learned from leading a crowdsourcing technology company. I want to share those widely now. Here’s a look at the four core lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Lesson #1: Know the market, ride the wave
This one is about intuition — about being able to know what’s happening in the market before it happens. Not everyone has that. And if it’s not the right time, you can’t make it the right time. You may have to pivot, change directions, change course altogether.
Years ago at Topcoder, we were able to use consulting revenue to keep us going while the industry caught up with the platform marketplace. It’s important to keep things fluid and to be able to roll with the punches as they come. Because they do and they will.
Lesson #2: Make your user experience digital
If you don’t take making the user experience digital seriously from a technical perspective, you run the risk of ignoring all or most of your marketplace. We’ve always been digital, but we did so for our community members. We didn’t always have a completely digital experience on the customer side. We were somewhat arrogant in thinking we really knew what was best from a customer perspective, and we didn’t focus on making their experience as digital (i.e., touchless) as it should have been as early as it could have been.
What do I mean by that? If it takes people for users to use your platform, then you’re not really digital. Whereas now you can go to topcoder.com and launch a project, a few years ago customers had to go through an architect to get something done.
If there’s access via an API, then it’s a digital experience. Everything we do should have an API defined behind it. From a customer’s perspective, for us, the experience is entirely digital. We may have manual processes behind some of it, but from the user perspective, we provide a truly digital experience on our platform.
Lesson #3: Lean into risk
It’s fear of failure and the risk of being wrong or messing up what you already have that slows companies down. It keeps them from innovating, disrupting themselves, and disrupting their industry. Most large companies spend more time and effort focusing on how to reduce the risk of failure that they end up sacrificing the benefits of success.
In order to get past this, you have to have the right management team in place. Don’t waste your time working with companies where you can see this fear of failure upfront. They’re not going to do what’s needed to create meaningful change.
Lesson #4: Trends don’t lie
The best thing about an epic failure is how quickly you learn from it. An epic failure is fast, horrendous, and you come away from it with knowledge for the future. Everyone says they want a chart that goes up and to the right. But what you should focus most on is avoiding erratic trends and progress — moments of success, moments of brilliance that give you a false sense of security. At Topcoder, we spent years trying to make that erratic progress go one way or the other. We needed to blow something up. Things had to change.
What it comes down to is this: If you lead with your heart but don’t ignore your head, you’ll do well. If you only lead with your heart, you’ll have blinders on. And if you only lead with your head, you won’t have the passion you need to succeed. It’s true with crowdsourcing and it’s true with every other business out there. The real lesson is that it’s all about the experience. Whether it’s the community or customer, you have to be cognizant of the experience you provide. The experience matters most!