Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com, joined James Altucher to talk about startups, stories, and the moment when Barrie realized, “I could hire an army with a credit card.” Even though this interview started out slow, it was filled with some Big Ideas. Plus, many of the podcast guests are on the show to sell something. That’s not bad and it’s great to learn from people like Andy Weir (episode #92), Nicholas Megalis (episode #104), and Jack Canfield (episode #90). But it’s also fruitful to hear from people who are just getting work done. While Barrie is promoting Freelancer.com, it’s less so than others.
Barrie starts the interview by telling James that the types of jobs available at Freelancer.com are “anything that can be done on a computer.” Of course, the pair quickly dives into what it’s like to “choose yourself” and Barrie says, why not. You can “architect your career,” he tells James. Scott Adams (episode #47) has similar advice in his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Adams writes that for every skill you have, you double your odds of success. In the book, he has a list of ideas:
“I made a list of the skills in which I think every adult should gain a working knowledge. I wouldn’t expect you to become a master of any, but mastery isn’t necessary.”
His list includes public speaking, psychology, and accounting among many others. It’s the working knowledge part that Adams stresses.
In some ways I think Barrie is expressing the same thing. If you want to hire a freelancer to build you a website or write some code – you don’t have to understand everything that goes along with that. You have to understand just enough.
One thing that might help, says Barrie, is the parallel alignment between you and the freelancers. Everyone who works in freelance is there to make money Barrie says, so you’re dealing with people who want the same things as you. Being around the right people like this is often part of what makes something a success.
Peter Thiel (episode #43) told James that PayPal was built by people all aligned around a common goal. Jay Jay French (episode #75) needed to find band mates that were aligned with his goal of making great music. Thiel and French and create great things because they worked with their friends. They created great things because they didn’t. The more powerful alignment was with goals, not personalities.
Barrie says that 3D printing is the freelance trend of the moment, but there has been an uptick in Apple development requests as well because of the Apple watch. James says that he thinks 3D printed jewelry is one of the next trends that will be big. (For more futuristic predictions, go back to the Kotler and Diamandis (episode #93) interview)
One thing that neither could have predicted was giant inflatable swans.
The story goes, according to Barrie, a guy wanted inflatable swans for a party. Not being able to find what he wanted, he created a contest at Freelancer to have people design a new swan. He got a good option, ordered some from a factory in China, and now just sells them. It’s his full-time job.
The biggest project on the site was $340K for an ongoing series of website templates. In another case, an engineer was hired to reverse engineer a boat.
One of the far-reaching benefits of a site like Freelancer.com, says Barrie, is the change in the quality of life. “The quality of life of someone changes dramatically as they go up the s-curve of industrialization.” Tim Ferriss (episode #109) said that he looks to the s-curve (also know as the Sigmoid curve) when he tries to help people too.
James asks Barrie how he started Freelancer.com and it was a case of needing to scratch your own itch. Barrie began with a degree in engineering (from Stanford of all places, and at the same time Brin and Page were there building Google) and he started a circuits company. Eventually, that company was sold to Intel, but only years after Barrie left. When he first left the company, “I was actually crushed emotionally and physically crushed” Barrie tells James. The problem was that the timing was off. His company was good but good at the wrong time.
Mark Cuban (episode #24) tells James that his timing has been off too. In Cuban’s case, it was streaming media, which his companies had done years before Pandora or Spotify. Trip Adler (episode #61) told a similar story about his idea for a ride-sharing app that was ahead of its time.
In Barrie’s case, his lack of timing here would be balanced out many years later. After leaving the circuit company he started doing some website work. Eventually he had some data entry he needed to be done, but couldn’t find anyone local to do it. After a handful of failed attempts, Barrie stumbled onto a freelance site and had someone from Vietnam do “perfect work” in a matter of days for less money. “This was the real eureka moment,” Barrie says, because “every great business needs to have a problem that’s being solved.” Sam Shank (episode #78) told James much the same thing:
“It boils down to saving time and saving money. I think all consumer products need to deliver on one, ideally both.”
Barrie realized that he could hire an army of developers, coders, and designers with a credit card. Rather than transatlantic flights for meetings – which are often unnecessary, just ask Brad Feld (episode #91) – Barrie started hiring people digitally. Eventually, he realized he should just own the freelancing company he was using.
This is where Barrie gets the timing right. Before 2008, he says, developing countries weren’t on the map for freelancing. You could go online and get something done, but chances were that the person wasn’t all that different from someone would meet offline. It might be the case where you were in Boston and ended up with someone from New York. The idea was so prepubescent that sometimes you even had to meet face to face to collect the software. After 2008 though, technology reached the point where you could get good work done by people who really were remote.
Clay Shirky wrote an interesting book about this very idea. In Here Comes Everybody Shirky writes that the burden for organization was too high. Much like Archimedes when he said, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” Connecting to people around the globe lengthened the lever.
Even though technology allows you to reach more people, you still have to find the good ones. The hardest ones to find now are good designers says to Barrie. This was his experience at least. After he bought the freelancing business for $3.5M, one of the first things he did that changed the revenues was to change the design. It had a huge impact. One person who’s figured this out is Ramit Sethi (episode #36). “We are all cognitive misers,” Sethi told James in their interview. This is why design can be such a crucial element. We don’t want to spend the time and energy to compare and contrast things. We don’t want to weigh the pros and cons.
What we want is to have easy decisions that we can feel good about. Who can design things to be this way, designers.
Barrie ends the interview by telling James that his success was thanks to “timing and luck.”
“If I was six months earlier it probably wouldn’t have worked out and if I was six months later it would have been financed by venture capitalists.”
And it’s important to recognize this for decision making says Stephen Dubner (episode #110). If our success = skills + persistence + luck and we fail, then we need to know how much of each we had and how much of each we need.
Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano. My favorite quote from Barrie that didn’t fit was; “the Australian stock market is like Kickstarter for grown-ups.”
One small request. I’m working on a book that unifies the concepts on the blog and need a good title. If you could take this two question survey about title ideas and leave some feedback, I’ll send you the e-book free once it comes out.
Remember, reading is something a lot of successful people do. Barrie said, “education has always been the lubrication for moving up in the labor force.” If you don’t want to read Influence, you can sign up to see the other things I’m reading.