Preface: Matt Barrie is an award-winning entrepreneur, technologist and lecturer. He is the CEO of Freelancer.com, the world’s leading freelancing and crowdsourcing marketplace connecting over 17 million professionals worldwide.
Why did you start Freelancer.com as opposed to a different company?
I had started several businesses in the past and was looking for the next big thing. The idea about Freelancer.com came about when I needed to get a data entry task completed for my mother’s retail business. I offered to pay $2 per row and I needed 1000 rows filled. It could have been an easy $2000 earned for a little kid that might want to do it. However, most people I asked found it boring. So I decided to look online, I googled the keywords ‘cheap data entry’ and found a website ‘GetAFreelancer.com’. It looked terrible, much like Craigslist.
I posted a job there and over night I ended up with 74 emails in my inbox from people all over the world wanting to do it for me in 3 days. I was blown away. 74 people wanted to do this job for $100 and yet I couldn’t find anyone to do it locally. This was the origins of the idea. The vision then developed into building a truly global marketplace for services, in contrast to eBay and Amazon as marketplaces for products. We then moved very quickly by acquiring competing websites and similar marketplaces all around the world.
Can seeing opportunity be learned? What are your suggestions to those looking for their first or next business?
Those looking to start a new business should always think about scalability, current trends and where the market is heading. Thinking about the future includes being aware of the principles like Moore’s law when you project your growth rate and progress. As Wayne Gretzky said, it is important to look ‘where the puck is going and not where the puck has been’.
Look for a business that isn’t necessarily straightforward. Think about what is taboo or super hard. You sometimes need to risk potentially looking like an idiot in order to be a hero.
Were there times you thought Freelancer might fail? What pulled you through those?
My experience with Freelancer.com has been a rollercoaster ride, especially in the early years before profitability. However, it does get easier. The earliest days are hard because of insufficient revenue and traffic. You are constantly constrained. You can’t visit any early stage company and not smell burning money.
Every company has its ups and downs, you just have to persevere and execute. We are now making more money each day and that comes from being a mission critical site, we are providing jobs for people in emerging markets across the world. For many, we are their only source of income. If we are not there for them, people may lose their living.
Has your own approach to business changed over the years? If so, how?
I use a lot more methodologies and practices to execute things faster. We constantly create small changes across the site, analyse the results and structure ourselves for maximum efficiency. At our heart, we are a product-focused and data-driven engineering company and we work within a meritocracy where initiative, innovation and most importantly execution are highly respected. We run the platform using smart algorithms and machine learning to make the product itself part of our overall process of continual improvement. The Product Manager of the product group is responsible for everything, from the code, to testing, T&Cs, and these product groups are dependent on each other.
One of the biggest challenges for any business is also finding the right people. You need to find people who are better than you and give them that job. If you don’t delegate, you will never build a big company. When you hire A-grade people, in turn they attract more A-grade people to want to work at the organisation, you don’t want Bs and Cs. So essentially I always look for someone who is an A-grade and is able to fit into our culture.
Talk to me about your toughest business experience…
There have been plenty of dark moments and failure. My last company sold to Intel but it wasn’t a huge exit. I have had so many learning experiences throughout the course of my career. Despite having a fantastic technology, when you are cash flow negative, or are in too early for the market, or have the wrong business model, it really is personally draining - the shit really does hit the fan.
If you are thinking about starting something, go and do it. It will be one of the most rewarding and challenging things you can do in your life. Just make sure you keep being focused, don’t become complacent and always look to be growing as a company. Sometimes being an entrepreneur is like crawling on broken glass.
What does the future look like to you?
The human labour market is the biggest opportunity for us. There are over 3 billion people on the Internet. If they can use a computer, do some sort of a job or get a better rate of pay, we can cater for them. The opportunity for Freelancer is massive. We have also just bought escrow.com, which has had $2.7 billion in transaction volume to date but we’re planning to take that business to a whole new level.
What is one thing you think most entrepreneurs don’t know but they should?
Just the simple fact that they can do it. Many people may think they can’t do something, that they should wait for the next year for something to happen, or they would need a VC to solve all their problems. In reality, you are the solution to (all) your problems.