WSJ Essay: The Ups and Downs of Crowd-Based Resources

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Below is my most recent essay to the WSJ Accelerator series, a dedicated section for the the fast-moving business audience. In this essay, I explore how we’re drinking our own champagne at Crowd Companies, by exploring and adopting crowd-based services.

The Ups and Downs of Crowd-Based Resources

Entrepreneurs today have no shortage of crowd-based services to augment their business models. Most people are probably familiar with Lyft and Uber, the ridesharing transportation services, but a large and dynamic industry of crowdsourced tools has emerged to help manage many aspects of running a business.

I’m currently experimenting with, adopting and using a number of shared services for all areas of my business. My company logo and design work, for instance, was mostly crowdsourced, using services such as crowdSPRING. Our research and content efforts are often augmented using companies like Elance-oDesk to hire experts on demand.

Our company’s social media accounts are handled by community managers from CloudPeeps. Prior, I’ve hosted company events at an Airbnb property, crowdsourced food from Feastly chefs and used photographers from TaskRabbit.

For company operations, rather than having a typically expensive long-term lease in San Francisco, we utilize co-working spots at the Impact Hub, LiquidSpace and Breather. I coordinate my schedule and events using virtual assistants from Zirtual. I depend on Shyp for shipping items on demand.

While we have full-time employees, often our independent, on-demand folks become core parts of our team. We even list our virtual assistant on our company website because she is often our key point-of-contact for our partners and customers.

From my experiences, here are some of the positives of using crowdsourced services to help manage your business:

  • On-demand and cost-effective services. Why have a four-year lease when you are not going to be there all the time, or a full-time employee when you’ll only be working with them as needed? These services enable you to tap into dependable resources quickly, and allow you to only pay for what you need.
  • Access to global, specialized talent. As the world moves to a freelance economy, we’ll see more specialized workers for tasks and projects become available on demand. Hiring, training and managing specialized workers isn’t practical – ‘sharing’ them enables both optimized utilization and talent when you need it.
  • Less administrative overhead. One of the upsides of sharing models is to allow the burden of management, taxes and benefits to be shifted to the startups that offer the services. Some crowd-based companies make their employees full time and others classify them as 1099 contractors. Since performance is rated, clients can simply and easily change workers, using the same sharing service, if their work style isn’t matching company needs.

But crowdsourced services are not perfect. Here are some of the negatives I’ve noticed:

  • New challenges. Using shared services has its own management and communication challenges. Managing crowd-based services can be more time consuming and may require patience, as you have to teach these providers your needs. In some global, online workplaces adjustments must be made for differences in culture. Crowd-based creative services, like Tongal, offer ancillary services to help clients manage the many moving parts.
  • Quality can be sub-par. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” is often accurate in the crowdsourced market, especially if you don’t properly manage the services you use. Global and local marketplaces have overachievers and underachievers – it’s the law of probability. Your entire management team must be clear on goals, onboarding and clarity of communication in order to operate effectively.
  • Debate over treatment of workers and globalization. Right now, there’s a debate over how ridesharing drivers and freelancers should be treated. Some don’t earn health and retirement benefits, and they often don’t have a voice with regulators. Expect new advocacy groups like and the Freelancers Union to fight for the growing number of on-demand workers.

Now that we’ve explored the ups and downs, it’s important to prepare your company for these crowdsourced services. First, ensure that your institutional knowledge and business strategy are kept close to the chest and are your core skills. Then develop skills to manage crowd-based services by preparing clear goals and business metrics for real-time feedback and success.

Now your startup can efficiently and professionally tap crowd services for your business.

Mr. Owyang is the founder and chief catalyst of Crowd Companies, an association for large brands in the collaborative economy. He lives in Silicon Valley.

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