Where is the Market for Leveraging and Monetizing Peer-to-Peer Work?

UpdateI just happened to be searching for a domain name for an idea I have and ran into this: ShuffleApp.com . The short description of which sounds an awful lot like what I’m describing below! Here’s hoping!

Twitter Post Screenshot

The other day I encountered this post by venture capitalist Fred Wilson wherein caught my interest by talking about Coase’s ‘The Theory of the Firm” and plugging Work Market. It turned out his post was serendipitous for me.

Read Fred’s post, he links to Coase’s essay, the Wikipedia page, etc. Read those as well. For the sake of brevity I imply a lot of things below that are spelled out in detail by Coase.  He was thinking about these things before  he published his work in November, 1937.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of work since I made The Offer. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with solo founders, some of whom are in out-of-the-way places. The majority of these founders are non-technical but have some other valuable skill-set. They feel passionately about their endeavors and are pursuing them to the best of their ability. Many have hit a roadblock with respect to technical implementation. I would say that most of these people are open to a technical co-founder but live in places that potential co-founders are hard to come by. Others are just a bit cautious about ‘founder dating’ and finding the right person to invest so much time and energy and emotion with. Trust can be a hard bridge to build.

So off to Work Market I went. I didn’t have any set expectations, I was just mildly curious. I’d checked out other work marketplaces before, they seem to be cropping up just about everywhere.

As I was clicking around on the Work Market site, I found myself thinking about all those entrepreneurs I’ve been speaking or corresponding with and I began to feel some disappointment. I wasn’t disappointed with what I saw in Work Market, it seems like a great site.  The disappointment stemmed from that fact that I’ve been looking for a more adequate, bundled,  solution for the set of problems that I hinted about above. Basically, I’m looking for a way for people, especially those outside ‘The Valley’ to get the help they need to overcome some of the initial inertia in getting their minimum viable product launched and rolling. Maybe more than that, but at least that. I was (and still am) looking for a way for these people to create the opportunities for serendipity that residents of places like Silicon Valley, San Francisco and New York City take for granted. What better way to do this than to do a lot of work for and with a lot of other people. It’s one of the primary ways we network.

And because I’m that kind of guy when I can’t find something, I start thinking about how it might look or how I would go about building it:

You have a large group of people all working toward their own goals. Some of these people have extra cash. Perhaps we can throw some more successful organizations, seeking freelancers, into the fray as well. Perhaps 60% of these people are ambitious but underfunded. They will trade labor for cash. Moonlighting to earn enough to stay on track and pay to fill gaps in their skill-set. Just to be clear, a pool of motivated talent willing to trade their work for something that they will then be able to trade for the work of others. Obviously, we’re talking about currency but the value comes from the work. Could you create a currency much like MMO game designers do? You do what you do in a game, you make some game cash, you trade that cash for whatever. Thanks to Gold Farmers these currencies even trade against national currencies. So my solution would be a peer-to-peer Work Market with a built-in currency (point) system. Why the currency system? You’ll see.

So let’s say I help someone to RAD out a Ruby on Rails proof-of-concept, we’ve decided this work is worth $2000 BAPBucks (BPX). I need some help with my pitch deck and a critique of my presentation. There’s an MBA here who used to work for some VC’s and is doing a pretty good business in coaching up-and-coming entrepreneurs. He has great peer-review feedback ratings. That person is charging just $200BPX for a deck review and an hour of pitch critique via a Google Hangout, Skype, whatever.  You get the idea.

So this almost exists. I can put some money on sites like oDesk, eLance or ScriptLance. I can hire some people, get deliverables, pay them. I can do some work to earn more money, I can turn that money around and spend it on others’ labor. I can take the money out and go off to other sites, like 99Designs, to try a different transaction model for getting my work done.

What doesn’t exist is a very well executed way of building this community specifically around peer-to-peer labor trade. Wherein labor is whatever you can do for someone else that they value. Right now I’m mostly thinking about small, mostly online startups but technically I could do some development work and use my created wealth of BPX to hire a plumber.. Or donate it to a nonprofit that could use it to further their own mission.

So where’s the monetization model? Here are some possibilities: Some fee for each transaction, maybe a standard 2.5%BPX. Second, exchange handling fee for taking money out of the system. Third, we can sell BPX to entities who don’t want to use labor to get labor.  In fact we can use arbitrage to sell it at a slight profit. All of the value in our market comes from the work, just like in MMO games where all the value comes from some worker in a sweatshop that looks like an internet cafe grinding away for in-game currency and prizes. We as a company add value by creating a place for that market to happen and incredible tools to help the people doing the work. Yes, the tools have to incredible because this is one key to our ability to compete with all the other markets that are about to (or already are) springing up around us. Obviously things like the network effect and the exchange and transactions rates, etc would have to make us competitive as well.

We could just build a fantastic user experience around these concepts and activities. Provide great tools for accomplishing these goals and base the whole thing on the USD, that would probably be a lot easier, a smaller problem to solve, an easier answer to find. Still, I think there are certain advantages to building a point trading system which is effectively a currency. One of them is very self-evident, the IRS is already on to us though. Further, I know from experience that you can find people who do great work outside of U.S. borders (Hello awesome Gilt Ireland team.) Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to constantly calculate exchange rates when buying and selling work? Create a neutral system and you only have to worry about exchange when you’re exchanging. Or build the exchange rate calculator right into every price on the site for your chosen currency. “10 hours wordpress plugin development $500BPX ($250USD).” In fact you could build up work in our system, store value, and trade it against whatever  ‘Real World’ currency gave you the most bang. Perhaps you sell your work to the our company who then sells it to highest bidder (arbitrage again.) Obviously we have to be very careful about inflation. I have no idea if some of this makes sense, I am not an economist and I am a poor game theorist.

These aren’t new concepts, I guess I’m just surprised that the solution I see in my head doesn’t exist yet. I’m hoping someone will see this and explain where the giant flaws in this idea are. Maybe these things are already in the works and we just haven’t seen their realization yet? Maybe someone will contact me and explain how their startup is doing just exactly what I’m describing!

UPDATE: Talk about serendipity, I just backed this Kickstarter Project. I greatly look forward to these guys roaming around and ferreting out “The Future of Work” in a way I can only be envious of. Good Luck!

The AMBER Alert Mobile App

UPDATE:  Amber Alerts for missing children now in Google Search and Maps!

 

I was watching some ridiculous F.B.I. drama streaming from Netflix the other night while waging my never-ending war against insomnia, when it suddenly hit me: There’s No Smartphone App for AMBER Alerts.

The AMBER Alert™ Program is a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and the wireless industry, to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases. The goal of an AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child.

(Emphasis mine.)

Most people would immediately fact-check themselves by searching the app store to verify their initial assumption of no app. So maybe the fire of inspiration was upon me or, far more likely, I was just really tired and I skipped doing so. It turns out that my initial premise wrong, there is an AMBER alert app for iOS (and probably for  all of the other mobile platforms as well.)

So without checking I proceeded to brainstorm, formalize my thoughts with long-form writing (this post), draw pictures and mock up some screens. I can’t bring myself to see this as wasted time. I find it instructive to conduct thought experiments and check the results against reality. For instance I completely overlooked including screens for ALL currently missing children (DUH!) My initial focus was on rapid notification around a particular event. The current AMBER alert app is geared toward collecting and disseminating information about the width and breadth of missing children.

It turns out that, as of this writing, the current iOS app doesn’t leverage push notifications which was the initial spark for my interest. So here are the things I jotted down:

There is certainly a great constellation of technology and services we can leverage to make this work:

  • Always on pocket computer with great display and wireless data services otherwise known as a smartphone (A.K.A. iPhone, Android, etc.)
  • Push notification systems (SMS is great in a pinch but I think we can do so much better than that.)
  • Geographic check-in services run by many successful companies including Facebook, Yelp, Google, Twitter, etc. We could also just let users tell us where they typically are by postal code and key off that.. less accurate but we really just want to get the word out for maximum eyes on the ground coverage.

The lynchpin of this operation is to quickly notify potential spotters who have  a high likelihood of laying eyes on the abductors and/or abductees we are trying to locate. I’m going to  assume that there’s a throughput issue on pushing notifications to a large pool of devices which means we should prioritize our alerts to people more likely to be in the correct area and work our way out radially from there. For this to succeed we need to have a good idea of where our volunteers might be when the alert goes out. There are many ways to accomplish this, here I present three:

Recent Check-in Data.

You’ve opted into the AMBER alert volunteer group with your location provider. When you check in your coordinates are sent off to our new system via our published service or perhaps location providers create an API and we harvest our volunteers locations from various points.  We might cache these locations for a day or a week or a month depending check-in resolution. I rarely check-in to places but I know people who are obsessive about it. I would imagine that convincing J. Random Corp, Inc to send us the data by making an extra API call would be far simpler than convincing them to building/exposing an API to us and backing it up with enough hardware to keep performance optimal. But then, who knows. Maybe they could find/negotiate a federal tax break out of it.

Location Heat Maps.

Another solution is to use check-in data to build a location heat map for each user. I would be surprised if check-in providers aren’t profiling users based on geographic location in order to look at more directed advertising, market research, etc. In either case the provider of our service could produce a heat map service and then we could query. Alternatively, we could build the heat map from the data harvested in the solution above.  Possibly, we could skip the external geographic databases altogether and allow our users to just tell us what areas they can usually be found in. I like the ‘cool factor’ of real-time location and only alerting you if you’re nearby but I get that having your GPS on all the time and updating your location to a database in real-time isn’t really feasible based on current phone (battery) performance parameters.  Your cell phone provider probably has a pretty good idea of where you are at all times based on tower usage and triangulation. Perhaps there is a way to flag your phone and then have the cell service provide a list of opted-in users based on current cell tower usage.

There is an important aside here regarding civil liberties concerns, I’ll briefly touch on that below.

Poll and Respond.

A third option is to send a push asking volunteers to register their current position based on general geographic parameters they’ve provided in their profile. That way we could gather who is ‘on the spot’ and notify these people first and work our way out from there. The big drawback here is user response time, which may well cripple any benefit garnered on profiling users’ locations and alerting some before others. The upshot is that we don’t have to keep very much data or retain any data for very long about the location of our volunteers.

The point is, there are plenty of ways to handle the location problem. Some simple, some complicated.

The mobile app could be fairly simple. I am not a designer:

Screen 1:  Child’s description, photo, name. This has maximum impact and hopefully will inspire empathy and an attitude towards taking action. Technically that photo could probably be a movie clip but that would certainly slow down load time and eat up people’s (metered) bandwidth.

Screen 2: Any information about the circumstances that the child has gone missing under. For instance if this was a stranger abduction someone might have seen the car and part of the license plate. Also perhaps a map of where the abduction happened to give people some geographic context.

Screen 3: Maybe we should add some additional ‘send in a tip’ functionality that would include GPS data, maybe you could take a picture, and add some text.

I would assume the call button goes to whatever emergency hotline is geographically appropriate.

 

Accepting realtime tips probably requires us to build a processing dashboard for operators. I imagine something that looks like a cross between a Twitter style live feed and Google maps. Maybe you could pin more promising leads to be processed out to law enforcement. Perhaps you could set some kind of chronologically increasing tip radius (as the perpetrator has more time to travel.) For that matter, you can time your outgoing alerts based on travel radius too hopefully keeping your alerts N geographic units ahead of where an abductor may have travelled. Really though, if we were to implement the operational screens we would have to huddle up with stake holders on the child rescue side of the house to see what features and data increase our chances of success most dramatically. My impressions of what they might need is probably mostly informed by Hollywood. Which is to say: grossly inaccurate.

“Pretty” pictures aside we would also need a fast, stable and robust messaging system to accept incoming data. We would have to require carrier grade reliability, lives are literally depending on it. I’m not sure what kind of technology stack is currently the accepted norm for this kind of system. If I had to guess I would say Java and Oracle. Obviously up and coming technologies like Node.js and MongoDB might be a lot more entertaining to build on but I have a sneaking suspicion that our choice of technology would be heavily influenced by ‘certified technology’ lists, government regulation, etc. If anyone has any insight into this particular facet I would love to hear it. It’s been a very long time since I wrote code for anything remotely resembling a government agency and even those were things like Utility Districts which are typically quasi-governmental at most.

I suppose you could abstract some parts of this out to allow people to report on any crime and have that report routed to the appropriate agency, nearest officer, etc.. Although I suspect that’s a solution searching for a problem.

The Civil Liberties Issue:

Obviously there is room for abuse here as well. There’s been push back about ‘over-sharing‘ by others. I’m not sure we wouldn’t want to abstract the management of this system into a non-profit instead of housing it directly with Law Enforcement. We don’t want people to opt-out of volunteering to help save children because they fear the government having unfettered access to a database of their location and travels. I suppose some agency similar to that housing military service member gene data could be set up with strict provisions about the data only being accessed to alert people of a missing child in their area. Even then, that database has been used by law-enforcement and those uses have been pretty controversial. I’m not here to preach either side of the civil liberties debate, I just want to point out that as the people pushing the envelope with technology we should try to be cognizant of unintended consequences.

UPDATE:

Geoloqi is trying to solve the always on location problem and Dennis Crowley (Foursquare co-founder) had this to say about real-time location limitations at SXSW on March 10, 2012:

Dennis Crowley of Foursquare and Pando friend MG Siegler took the stage in one of the convention center’s largest rooms. Crowley talked a lot about his discovery engine Radar, which the company hasn’t pushed too much because of the battery use problem of running an ambient location app in the background at all times. Plus, the company feels it’s a little too early and users aren’t quite ready to have their phones buzzing based on where they are. Auto-checkin will be an optional setting some day, when users are ready. Crowley’s favorite topic was Foursquare’s data and how useful they’re making it to users and developers on the company’s API. Regarding Foursquare’s growth over the last three years since it’s launch at SXSW, Crowley said, “We’re the smallest of the big guys now. We’ve earned our place.” via PandoDaily

Stock Photos & Bloggers: A Feature Request

Do you own or are you employed by a stock photography site such as iStockPhoto, ShutterStock, 123rf, etc? Do you know of anyone who fits this description?

If so, can we set up a meeting during which I try to convince you to build an API so that bloggers can preview stock photography in their posts before they buy that photography or publish the post?

Here’s what I imagine the workflow would feel like:

I come up with an awesome concept for a post (like this one!) and I write some stuff and then I go looking for imagery. I show up at the awesome “Lenstrument.com” stock photo site. I forage for photos (maybe I should have called it photoforage.com)

Once there I start selecting photos and throwing them into a cart or lightbox or whatever. Here are some typical lightboxes:

123rf.com lightbox

 

istockphoto lightbox

 

Shutterstock.com lightbox

Up to this point, everything I’ve described is simply my current process. Here’s the magic:

I go to my WordPress post and I click the StockPhoto_Preview Plugin button. Maybe this is a universal plugin that talks to every stock photo site that opens an API or maybe I have to choose which store my photos are coming from today. I select 1 or 3 or all of the photos that I want to try out in that position and the plugin drops in a slideshow displaying the images (suitably watermarked) that only works while the post is unpublished.

So I flip through the slide show and figure out which image I like. Maybe futz with dimensions that would work best, etc. Rotate? Simulated crop?

Then I buy the photo  I choose.  I can go back to the stock photo site to purchase but preferably there’s a buy button in the plugin. Better yet, why can’t I search from the plugin?  Either way hopefully the image gets shoved into my WordPress media library right after the transaction clears. Really seamless trying and buying. Isn’t this the kind of thing the we invented e-commerce for?

I’ll make you a deal. You open up the API, I’ll author the plugin. Fair warning: if you don’t I or someone else might just build a stock photo site (photoforage? Lenstrument?!) on top of the The OpenPhoto Project (Hi Jaisen & Team!) and ramp the competition.