Overcome Entrepreneurial Shock with Online Project Collaboration

by Jill Foster on March 2, 2009


Guest post by Maria Colacurcio, co-founder of Smartsheet.com. She’s now advising the company’s strategic communications on an average of 2 hours a day as she raises her 2 year old daughter and 5 month old twins. Prior to Smartsheet, Maria worked in B2B marketing for 10 years at companies including Microsoft and Onyx Software. She can be reached at www.twitter.com/mcolacurcio.

Shock of the plunge: starting my business
For any of us that have left the company-employee ship and struck out on our own, the most immediate entrepreneurial shock has been the utter lack of resources and help. All of a sudden, we have to do every single thing ourselves. If you’re like me, you started looking real fast for pre-bundled help. Anything in a ‘how-to with a pre-packaged tool’ works well for me.

The two big questions
Plenty has been written about what business plan builder, what accounting package, what online software tools to use, but far less has been well written to address the daily grind questions.

And there are two that come up over and over.

  • How can I get new clients?
  • How can I do more with less and make more money in less time?

Life has a funny way of making us sleep in the bed that we’ve made. Here’s my story and how I answer the two big questions.

Three years ago, I co-founded Smartsheet along with my (now) husband and two others. Smartsheet.com is an online project collaboration company to help small businesses get things done. I served as the VP of marketing until September when I gave birth to identical twin girls (in addition to my 20-month old daughter). Now, I’m advising Smartsheet’s
strategic communications from the bench on an average of 2 hours a day (and at times, advising other companies as well).

Getting new clients hasn’t been an issue, but doing more with less has become a maniacal mission. Any time lost in menial labor is painful and expensive.

My time is relegated to the brief windows when through some force of nature all the girls are napping at the same time. I need for those minutes to be focused on the big, high priority stuff.

Now comes the part about sleeping in the bed I made.
Smartsheet’s intended mission is to manage the world’s work. It’s an online project collaboration solution that in form, somewhat mirrors a spreadsheet, but in function is built for managing projects, tasks and to do lists with your team, clients, etc. Now that I am reliant on it as my primary operational tool, it’s shining a spotlight on any claim that it successfully helps someone get things done – in this case me and my #2 issue per above.

A large virtual workforce (and putting it to work for me)
A few weeks ago, my founding partners added a feature to our product called Smartsourcing, which is powered by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. What is Mechanical Turk? It’s basically a large virtual workforce, 77% of which reside in the United States. They are folks looking to pick up some extra small tasks here and there to make money or satiate their boredom or to challenge themselves.

They’ve become my virtual assistant – that gopher employee missing from my world — that can run down all the menial, yet necessary stuff so I can keep moving forward.

A quick example on how this helped::
I directed the marketing/PR portion of the Smartsourcing launch and it’s clearly of interest to ‘crowdsourcing’ journalists. With little familiarity with the topic or any journalists that cover it, I’m starting at research ground zero, that place where countless hours of Google-mining the web turn into a list of names and articles that serve to educate and target. The actual search is time consuming and low value. But the resulting analysis of the coverage is high value so I can’t outsource that.

What I can do is create a Smartsheet with columns labeled Article, Web Link, Author, # of Comments and Date, and:

Ask 25 people to give me 10 article links apiece via smartsourcing, including the date, author and number of blog comments (if applicable) – paying 10 cents to each person (yes 10 pennies). This takes me 2 minutes to craft and submit the question.

Forty five minutes later, 250 suggestions show up automatically in my Smartsheet.

I sort them by author, then article, then # of comments. Of course there are a good number of duplicates, but these are likely the most popular and therefore most relevant. It turns out Jeff Howe is the current father of the crowdsourcing blogosphere.

Then I add another column for e-mail addresses and send Jeff and the other target journalists back into the virtual workforce:

I trade them 10 cents for valid emails for each journalist.

Believe it or not, they got 15 out of 19 right on the first pass. Another 3 minutes of my time expended, and now I have all I need for a first run at looking closely at my targets (…and deciding whether our launch would interest them as well as the angle strategy for each writer).

I’ve used this in other ways too, such as:

  • Test taglines:ask 50 virtual workers which tagline (of 3 options) they like the best;
  • Test a home page: ask where they would click next…;
  • Conduct online research:
    -on competitors, vendors, and more.

The point is not that I can’t do many of these things myself with Google, but that my time is worth more than $0.20/hr and its extremely limited.

Increasing my billing rate
Now, the really cool part is how the virtual gopher has increased my effective billing rate. While I don’t charge my own company, my normal rate is $125/hr. Were I to charge normal rates on the typical research time to accomplish the above example, the client would have paid me $375. Subtract the $5 I paid the virtual workers and divide the resulting $370 into the 5 minutes of data gathering plus 55 minutes of actual value added planning, and my effective billing rate is $370 per hour.

Since launching Smartsourcing a few weeks ago, we’ve already seen huge usage by those in the virtual assistant industry and from small business owners. It makes sense. These two types of roles are notoriously saddled with a host of unavoidable tasks that are low-value, but necessary. They are creatively using Smartsourcing to get out from under these types of tasks to focus on growing their business, gaining more clients, and doing more with less.

Other online sources that help me be effective:

  • Business resources for women;
  • Icerocket, a great tool for monitoring your brand.
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