Kellogg Magazine  |  Spring/Summer 2015



The Crowded Office
The Crowded Office
Through crowdsourcing, companies are bypassing the conventional model of staffing to find talent online

About two years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced that he would crowdsource the team’s new uniform design. He offered no money for the design and no rights other than “eternal bragging” ones. At best, he said he might throw in a few tickets.

The design community was divided in its response. Working for free? What was he thinking? Chicago-based crowdSPRING, however, saw an opportunity and persuaded the Mavericks to partner on the uniform redesign.

An online marketplace with 170,000 designers and writers around the world, crowdSPRING started a global uniform redesign project and offered $1,000 to the winner. The winning design came from crowdSPRING.

“Nine of the 10 designers Mark selected as finalists, including the winner, were from crowdSPRING, which shows the tremendous depth of design expertise, talent and skills in our global creative community,” said Ross Kimbarovsky, a 1992 Northwestern graduate who, along with Mike Samson ’04, cofounded crowdSPRING.

In simple terms, crowdSPRING lets businesses describe what they need and set a price. Instead of picking from bids, freelance contractors propose actual designs, whether it’s developing brand names and logos, creating mobile apps, building 3-D models or, in other crowdsourcing models, coding for software.

At crowdSPRING, the payouts can range from $200 to tens of thousands of dollars. One crowdSPRING project — designing a new mobile phone for LG — included awards worth $80,000.

“Crowdsourcing has been used for everything from rebranding companies to creating new products,” said Samson in an interview with PR Week. “One of the biggest challenges that brands face is how to create innovative marketing campaigns without breaking the bank.”

Crowd wisdom
Back in the Middle Ages — 2006, to be exact — writer Jeff Howe in Wired told of the fledgling National Health Museum’s search for stock photos of sick people. The museum’s organizers contacted a photographer who offered a discounted rate of $600 for four photos.They declined when they discovered that iStockphoto, which started as a crowdsourced site, offered photos for $1 each.

“How can I compete with a dollar?” the photographer asked Howe, who coined the term that became the title of his book, Crowdsourcing:  Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business (Crown, 2008).

That collective aptitude many call the “wisdom of the crowd” can be used in different ways. Nonprofit created a platform for solutions to socialimpact challenges. Solutions to one such query — improving early childhood care in impoverished areas — included neonatal care kits in India and schoolbased clinics in rural Kenya. Meanwhile, the crowdsourced astronomy website Galaxy Zoo solicited stargazers to help classify images from the Hubble Telescope.

The crowd no longer moves in mysterious ways, and researchers are finding new methods of maximizing the crowd’s effectiveness, said PJ Lamberson, a senior lecturer in the Management & Organizations Department at Kellogg and associate director of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems.

Lamberson teaches Social Dynamics and Network Analytics, or Social-DNA (Note: He crowdsourced the title with his students.) In that course, Lamberson explores ways to aggregate individual interactions within the crowd to produce collective outcomes in business. “The real power of crowds comes in more difficult problems that take advantage of the crowd’s diversity,” Lamberson said.

He cited the example of a chemist from Illinois who is an expert on concrete mixing. The chemist won a $20,000 prize through the “open innovation” company InnoCentive for helping an Alaska oil company find a way to keep oil in deep storage tanks from freezing.

Reinventing the workforce
There are downsides to crowdsourcing, of course. Just ask Howe’s photographer or an established graphic designer who competes against cheaper labor from all over the world. Nonetheless, Lamberson sees a significant and longterm paradigm shift.

“MBAs have to start thinking of organizations in new ways. It’s no longer so clear where the firm ends and begins, who is the customer and who is the product creator. It can be a collaborative effort,” he said.

As Cuban discovered, crowdSPRING’s talent runs wide and deep. It has nearly 168,000 creatives representing more than 200 countries, with more than 44,500 projects and 5.4 million entries. Each project averages about 110 entries.

With that, Samson and Kimbarovsky can build teams from a wealth of talent that spans not only the globe but also across occupations and time zones, factors that have limited productivity in the past. It’s a model that flies in the face of conventional agencies, Samson told PR Week. Not that he minds.

“Because crowdsourcing doesn’t respect title, salary or geography, these classically trained and highly regarded professionals are leaving the workforce to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the ‘crowd’ — a truck driver by day who is a writer at night to fulfill a passion, the stay-at-home mother who needs some adult time while the kids nap and the social media expert who was laid off during the recession,” Samson said. “Their stories are amazing and make for a truly human backdrop to the crumbling and reinvention of the agency workforce.”

The new normal
Those entering the business world have taken this to heart, stepping away from the traditional and utilizing these crowd-based marketplaces to solve their needs.

Years before he was head of digital marketing for the San Francisco-based, ride-sharing startup Sidecar, Amit Bakshi ’08 worked for oDesk, a marketplace that allows small businesses to hire freelancers worldwide.

As only one of 22 full-time employees at the time, Bakshi said he got “tremendous leverage by managing teams of freelancers,” including writers and a Web designer from the Ukraine, to build out the company’s blog. He continues to work with the Web designer to this day.

“When you find great talent, you need to keep them happy and take them with you wherever you go,” he said. Though, he noted, “I actually have never spoken to her.”

Another early adopter was Brad Morehead ’05, CEO of LiveWire Security, a technology company specializing in residential home security systems recently acquired by Monitronics for $67 million. Since 2007, Morehead has used crowdsourcing firms like oDesk, crowdSPRING and Rent A Coder to handle a number of his firm’s projects, from logo work to software development.

But there have been a few bumps, especially in those early days. Sometimes, language and time zone barriers halted productivity on a project. Occasionally, Morehead had to weed out some freelancers who didn’t work out. “There’s going to be a learning curve,” said Morehead. “You’re going to have to invest some time to find the right person.”

But it’s the speed of crowdsourcing that keeps Morehead coming back. Many platforms come with rating systems and testimonials, which have helped Morehead sort through potential candidates faster than if he were interviewing freelancers in his office. He also gave the contractors smaller, more menial projects at first, then increased the complexity according to their performance.

Recently, Morehead bid out a market research project through oDesk and received interest from 20 freelancers. He hired three, based on their ratings, to complete the project. In subsequent months, Morehead has gone back to one of the freelancers to continue working on similar projects.

“And it was still more cost-effective and faster than it would have been to try to find someone to do that for us here in the office,” he said. “For us, it’s become a part of how we handle certain projects cost-effectively and quickly.”

The above design took top prize. The second and third place winners are available below.
(click thumbnails to see larger images)

The Crowded Office 2nd Place   The Crowded Office 3rd Place