The Way We Work

By Josh Breinlinger

I work full time in the venture capital industry which means I meet hundreds of great entrepreneurs.  Frequently, I’ll meet business-minded folks that are pitching or brainstorming ideas for a startup.  The conventional wisdom nowadays is that the idea is not worth much by itself.  Business founders are frequently stumped as to how to take their idea to reality and desperately seek the mythical “technical cofounder.”

I decided to take a different approach for my idea.  I turned to oDesk (my alma mater as I like to think of it).  I worked at oDesk in a variety of roles from 2004 – 2010 and feel like I learned more each passing year than I did in my full four years of college. So I’m sufficiently biased, but I will share my experience as accurately and objectively as possible.

Step 0: The Idea
I had kept a list of startup ideas in a Google Doc for about two years.  Every time I would awake from a dream or have some stroke of genius in the shower or feel some massive pain point at work, I would jot it down in a private Google Doc called “Josh’s Startup Ideas.” But really, this was an ongoing thought process.  Talking through the idea with some of my good friends led me to select the idea behind QwikTalk as the most promising one to pursue. The concept is to allow users to quickly call experts.  For example: excel expertsmechanics, or veterinarians. It’s launched as of yesterday — so I’d be thrilled to have you give it a try and would welcome any feedback.

Step 1: A Spec – A Work in Progress
Once I had the foundation of an idea, I really had just a one- to two-sentence description of a problem and a solution.  A week or so of work during evenings at home turned this into a workable specification document.  My spec was about eight pages in a Google Doc.  Mostly it consisted of breaking down the entire vision into discrete modules of work to facilitate an easier development roadmap.  A couple workflow diagrams and descriptive text about intended user functionality, and let the developer fill in the best implementation.

Step 2: An oDesk Team
For most any web development project, you’ll need a lead developer and a lead designer.  I found both on oDesk in two different ways:

  • Lead Developer. I was fairly technology agnostic — I didn’t care so much whether we develop in Rails or PHP.  I also happen to know that Zend offers a rigorous certification process.  So, I looked at the Zend Certified group on oDesk and invited half a dozen candidates to take a look at the job. I also erred on the side of the experienced and correspondingly expensive developers. Anyone that could command $20 – $35 per hour on oDesk I felt had proven themselves.  I received responses from a few, had Skype chats mostly to test business fit (do they understand the idea, seem passionate about the work, communicate well, etc).  Then I asked them to produce a time estimate and outline for the project and return it to me in three days.  This is the first test — if they can’t perform this simple task quickly, accurately, and on-time then I will end things with that candidate.  Once I was down to two proposals that I liked, I asked a good technical friend to review the proposals with me and selected our lead developer, Den Markin. He has been incredibly dedicated and productive. I could not ask for anything more.
  • Lead Designer. I had a bit of a false start on this one.  Designers are tough to interview in the traditional sense, so I really scoured the network and looked at portfolios and asked for some sample work. I asked candidates to include a representative sample of their work in the cover letter — a tactic that very easily weeds out many candidates since they can’t even follow this one instruction.  I ended up picking a designer living in Germany and asked him to spend <8 hours coming up with a homepage mockup.  He produced something that I really wasn’t very happy with so I went back and invited more candidates to do a homepage mockup.  I got one I was very thrilled with from Gaston Soto down in Argentina and hired him to the team.

The thing that has impressed me most about both Gaston and Den is the amount of energy and passion that they share for the project. I believe it’s not just freelance work to them — they truly are passionate about helping the company succeed …

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of The $8,000 Startup, where Josh will break down steps three through five!

What steps have you taken with your startup? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.
Josh Breinlinger is a Senior Associate at Sigma Partners.