The Way We Work

By Tom Opdyke

While Jay Shapiro watches his daughter perform in her Montessori school glee club in New Jersey, an international team of contractors works on videos promoting his startup, Infinite Monkeys. As his daughter sings:

  • A team leader in Louisiana hires translators to script the video in seven languages, then brings on a voiceover artist.
  • A producer in the Philippines adds the audio tracks.
  • A team in India mounts the videos on the seven language-based Infinite Monkeys websites.
  • A contractor in India search-engine-optimizes the videos for YouTube, and a U.S. contractor uploads them.

A few weeks later, as the project is completed — on time and within budget — Shapiro; his wife, Alice Gugelev; and their children, Maya and Kurt, are comfortably worlds away at the family summer cabin on Gibson Lake in Ontario.

“There is no way I could have done that before oDesk,” says Shapiro, who started working with online teams more than a decade ago when he founded Singapore-based BLUE, an award-winning digital advertising agency that he later sold.

Life at BLUE — without VOIP or even a thought of cloud storage and real-time communication — was different than Shapiro’s approach to work today.

Back then, with satellite offices in London, Singapore, Tokyo, China and on both U.S. coasts, Shapiro lived in a narrow seat with no leg room at 30,000 feet and ate unevenly heated meals from an airline commissary.

“I would typically spend three weeks of every month flying circles around the planet. At the height of the stupidity, in 2007, I had a house in Singapore, a house in San Mateo [CA], a leased flat in west London and a leased flat in Beijing. I’ll never do that again,” says Shapiro.

He still works more than 50 hours per week, but now he does it from anywhere he wants. That has included a glacier in Alaska, as well as stops in southeast Asia and many parts of the United States while the family was traveling.

“I’ve learned that I don’t have to be tied down with a permanent staff or have to be headquartered in one location,” says Shapiro, whose company — which allows anyone to build their own mobile app — reached a milestone of 10,000 created apps in its first year.

The startup’s sprint initially involved about 140 contractors, Shapiro says. Today, he uses 30 to 40.

“Infinite Monkeys presented the rare opportunity to have a clean sheet of paper. No legacy teams or structures,” he says.

“With the advent of online project management tools and access to a huge talent pool, we could assemble a team with all the skills you could possibly need to build a company. We have staff literally spread across six continents. They are an incredible team that brings us a level of skills and cost-efficiency we could never get in the past,” says Shapiro.

Infinite Monkeys, launched in February 2012, grew out of Shapiro’s recognition that evolving technology was making mobile app development easier, just as it had with website design.

His site, a drop-and-drag app that requires no coding knowledge, operates on a freemium model and provides its professional app builder free to any 501(c)3 nonprofit group. Infinite Monkeys also donates 10 percent of every dollar earned to a foundation to save orangutans in Borneo.

Alice, his wife, also runs an oDesk team in support of the couple’s charity: Muskoka Foundation. The non-profit group works with a broad network of travelers who use their skills to teach workshops ranging from business to photography, at orphanages, children’s shelters and community centers around the world.

Although Shapiro’s home is in northern New Jersey, his preferred business address is “global nomad,” as he runs Infinite Monkeys from a laptop with no fixed address. Often it’s from his lake house in Canada, but occasionally it’s from his custom-built motor home — a carbon-neutral, heavily modified Ford F650 he calls the “EcoRoamer,” in which his family tours the world.

“If you had said to me three years ago that we could work this way, I would have said it would be impossible” he says.

Shapiro leverages oDesk’s tools and others, such as cloud storage, white-boarding, screen-sharing and video-conferencing.

Says Shapiro: “It doesn’t matter if a person is in the cubicle next to me or a couple of time zones away, we’re working together as a team. We’re really living the dream.”

Brought under one roof, Shapiro’s team would need about 4,000 square feet, plus support services and equipment — costs that could choke a startup launching in a conventional way.

“With a virtual organization, we don’t worry about the typical overhead because we don’t need all that space and equipment,” Shapiro says.

And having a global workforce can bring unexpected benefits.

For example, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in late October, Shapiro lost power at his home for three days, but Infinite Monkeys never missed a minute of work.

“Because of the distributed nature of our team, the company just kept going, that’s pretty powerful.” he says.

Tom Opdyke is a B2B/B2C public relations and marketing thought leader specializing in branding for enterprise systems developers, financial services institutions and start-ups. He is a veteran print, broadcast and digital writer/editor, with more than three decades as a journalist. Also an actor and commercial voice talent, Tom has written two movie scripts (in option), contributed to an anthology of southern culture and written and voiced scores of regional commercials. He especially likes voicing video games and animated characters. When not otherwise occupied, Tom is a high school and college baseball umpire, public speaker and voice coach.