Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about Microtask that you’d like to share with the audience?
Ville: So far we’ve had over, I think a bit over 100,000 people working on the platform so we have collected a lot of data about how people with different demographics are able to do data entry. So, we capture every single little micro task, which only usually takes about two seconds to complete one task, and we store all of that in the database so we can do some very interesting data mining afterwards.
We set up our sales team here in the U.S. We started building a sales team in September, and it took a couple of months for the guys to get going. This is enterprise sales to large corporations after all. In December, we closed a bit over $1 million in sales, so that’s starting to pick up and I think that’s pretty good.
What else? There’s been a lot of media coverage, some 150 articles in different newspapers all over the world. Mainly, a lot of the interest stems from just one project we did. We worked together with the National Library of Finland, and these guys have this massive newspaper archive. So, they have basically every single newspaper ever published in Finland in that archive, which they have microfilmed and they have scanned, and now they really need to make that searchable.
What we did with these guys was a bit different than what our daily operations are, but it’s very much in the same spirit. We built for them a web site called Digitalkoot, which means digital collaboration in Finnish. We built a couple of computer games, so people could just come on the website and play computer games. And as a side effect of these games, people were actually completing micro tasks and donating them to the national library. They were very cute games with very cute mole characters in them, and your job is to save a lot of moles by typing in different words. So, you’re kind of like solving CAPTCHAs as a part of the game. And this got a lot of international media coverage and that’s been quite useful.
Matthew: We know founders face new challenges when they decide to start and build a company. What was the hardest part about building Microtask, and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Ville: Initially, the hard thing was that we were all still doing some other things on the side, so getting everyone to work full-time, that was initially challenging. It also took a while to get the founder dynamics to work. Now, I think we have really gelled in that sense. It is very important that we have those dynamics in place because we are a distributed organization. For a company with 18 people, I think we have people in nine cities in Finland and all over the U.S.
I’m traveling all the time. Last year I traveled 250 days, so I’m keeping in touch with my team over Skype. Every morning at 7:00 a.m. Pacific standard time, we’re having a Skype conference regardless of where you are on the planet. So, we do the daily scrum. We’re borrowing some ideas from the engineering side of the operation.
Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your users or your business that you didn’t realize?
Ville: To be perfectly honest, the founding team knew absolutely nothing about the document processing industry when we decided to go there. Someone said this about serial entrepreneurs: the first start up they set up, they have a huge amount of domain knowledge. They do it purely out of passion about something that they really care and know about. Then, when they start setting up their next companies, they tend to turn the whole thing around and are often building some kind of a technology for which they have no idea what the market’s going to be. And then, they know the mechanics of how to discover the initial market, the beachhead market, and so forth.
They end up building products in areas that know very little about. So, what we did was that when we set up the sales team, we brought in people who all have extensive knowledge about the document management and document processing industries. Over the last four or five months, I’ve been learning way more about that industry than I ever knew I wanted to know about.
Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make building companies look easy. We know it can be challenging. What talents or skills come intuitively or easily for you? What’s been difficult, and how do you manage that?
Ville: The cool thing about being an entrepreneur is that when you run a small company you get to do everything. Over the years, I’ve been doing pretty much or almost everything that you can do in a startup. I started out doing designing or software coding, being a software architect, running a larger tech team, then slipping over to the dark side doing technical marketing and technical sales, evangelism, and nowadays mostly PR and being CEO of a company.
I really like what I’m doing right now, which is interfacing with bloggers and the press and doing fundraising, so talking with a lot of investors, because I get to work with people. I’m a pretty outgoing and social kind of a person. I like and love a lot of the people I’m interfacing with, so this is good for me. The one area that I wouldn’t want to do, and I don’t think people should let me do is the financial side of things, so I wouldn’t make a good CFO.
I think that in all the roles I’ve been in, they all have their really good sides. If I had all the time in the world, I would love to go back to just straightforward programming. That would be awesome. If I could just ignore all the other problems within the company, I wouldn’t have to worry about finances or whether we’re able to sustain the company for another month. I could just concentrate on optimizing an interlobe. That would be wonderful.
Matthew: What was the most important lesson you’ve learned building Microtask?
Ville: The one thing I’ve really learned over the last couple of years is how much faster the world has become. Back in the mid-90s when we were first building Hybrid, we had all the time in the world so we could spend an enormous amount of time doing background research, trying out different things and then building really a quality product and then just keep polishing it. We just didn’t have to worry too much about whether it takes one extra month or two extra months or so forth.
These days, the game out there is completely different. It’s also become global. So, if you come up with a startup idea right now, you’d better execute it right now because there’s other people in Silicon Valley, there’s people in Shanghai, there’s people in Berlin who are guaranteed to have the same idea right now, and they’re working on it. So, it is this kind of a race.
To be honest, I’m 36 now, and for most people in other professions think that 36 is still pretty young. For building a startup, 36 is actually fairly old in many ways. And my co-founders there are 38 and 40 and 42. We are not as agile and not as fast as many of the startups I see, for example, here in San Francisco, who I greatly admire for being able to pivot every two weeks and build stuff super quickly. We realize that and it’s clear that we cannot compete on those terms.
That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been pushing what we’re doing really into the much more hard core enterprise world selling to the public sector, selling to U.S. military and things like that. Your typical San Francisco startup guys will really stay away from those kind of customers. And that’s an area where we’re able to somehow slow the game down a bit and have the things we’re good at, I mean, we’re good at doing enterprise sales and big deals, multi-million dollar deals. So, we try to move the game in that direction.
Matthew: Can you share with our audience a time when you experienced failure?
Ville: I think one of the biggest failures during my startup years was at Hybrid. We were trying to, at some point seriously put together a merger of our company and another technology company, and we had really worked our asses off. We had spent months and months planning it, eventually taking it all the way to introducing the staff of the two companies together, having an introduction party to say, hey we’re now going to be under the same umbrella and so forth.
Then, at the very last minute, the biggest joint customer of the two companies announced to us that they wouldn’t let us do this merger. They just didn’t want to see us being together, and the whole thing fell apart in a matter of hours. I was completely devastated at that point because I had already set my mind to deal with the new structure, organization and so forth. That’s not that much of a personal failure, but it was something that I felt extremely bad about, especially having to discuss this within the company and then going and explaining to all of our engineers what just happened and that everything we’d been telling you over the last month and all you guys have been working on and figuring out the reorg and so forth, all that work is for nothing.
Matthew: What advice would you like to share with the audience about launching and building a startup? If you had to distill it, what are the key elements?
Ville: I think that is choosing your co-founders and initial investors well. That’s crucial because those are decisions that you’re going to be potentially regretting every day for the rest of your life if you do that wrong. Then, not being too tied up with your initial idea. As we were talking, these days the scene changes so fast that whatever idea you start out with that’s not what you’re going to launch eventually, and that’s definitely not going to be the product that’s going to get financed eventually. Or the company that’s going to be exited is extremely unlikely that’s the same thing. Also, these days again, people have to be fast. They have to be able to execute fast, interact quickly and be willing to adapt to the changes in the environment.
Matthew: Before we close, we’d love for you to share with the audience your vision for Microtask and how you hope it will change the world.
Ville: What we see Microtask doing, and the related cloud labor industry, is that what we’re doing is bringing human intelligence to the cloud, offering human intelligence as a cloud service. So, five years down the road, maybe even quicker, a lot of activities that can only be done by humans and not by machines are accessible through APIs 24/7 with near real-time rates, so if your piece of software needs access to human intelligence.
Let’s say they need a human to validate something. They need human face recognition capabilities. They need to understand speech or something like that, they’re just able to tap into that at a fairly low cost. Right now, we’re focusing on challenging the existing outsourcing industry. That part is really what’s going to be the big change because it allows building completely new kinds of applications, mind blowing applications that you cannot even think about.
Some of my pet ideas have been things like, I would really love to add human intelligence to traffic lights because again today I spent minutes and minutes at a pretty much empty intersection with a red light pointed at me. And I was just sitting there. If there was any intelligence whatsoever in that traffic light system, using a human to validate whether there’s cars or bicycles or pedestrians, that would have been solved immediately.
Another thing that I would really like is that whenever I go shopping for clothes, I would really love to have this kind of a hot or not mirror so that when I’m trying on a new shirt, I would get a rating. I wouldn’t really like to have me being rated against the other guys there but I would rather it be me being rated about my previous self. So, when I walk in, that would be Index Ville and then when I’m trying a new nice blue shirt, I would get a score relative to that so I know whether a crowd of people that are being tapped into actually like it or not. So, really get real time opinions about practical everyday things. That’s going to be another interesting application.
Matthew: Ville, it’s been an honor having you as a guest on FounderLy. We’re rooting for your continued success. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more, you can visit their website at www.microtask.com?
Matthew: This is Matthew Wise at FounderLy. Thanks so much, Ville.