A startup called Skillbridge is trying to create a new kind of marketplace for freelance work – not for the programming and writing jobs that you’d find on a site like Elance, but for strategy, finance, marketing and other professional services.
The company is announcing today that it has been backed by First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, the firm’s student-run investment arm that offers mentorship and $20,000 in funding to each company. (Skillbridge is also part of Highland Capital’s summer incubator and the MassChallenge accelerator..)
Co-founders Brett Lewis and Raj Jeyakumar have worked as consultants themselves – Lewis, for example, spent nearly three years at Bain & Company. They’re both recent graduates of Wharton Business School, and they said that when they were students, they wanted to use their experience for freelance work. However, they discovered that it was incredibly difficult to actually find interested companies, so they created Skillbridge to match qualified workers with businesses looking for professional services.
Lewis outlined the vision in a post for the Wharton Entrepreneurship Blog, where he said that the United States’ freelancers have grown from 6 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to 20 to 30 percent now: “Elance, an early talent marketplace, has focused on low-end providers of technology and creative talent. Yet the biggest growth trends are in areas of financial planning and analysis, accounting and legal strategy, where only behemoth white-shoe firms have dominated until now.”
Lewis and Jeyakumar said their core talent base consists of stay-at-home parents and graduate students who have either an MBA or at least three years of experience at a finance or consulting firm. These are people who either aren’t in a position to work full-time or aren’t interested, but they are willing to take on smaller projects or part-time work with flexible hours. And by hiring these workers, companies don’t have to pay for the overhead of a traditional consulting firm.
Not that Skillbridge is trying to replace the big firms. Jeyakumar compared them to Ferraris: “There will always be a need for Ferraris, but there are people for whom a BMW is just fine.” If the BMW doesn’t seem like much of a compromise, that’s Jeyakumar’s point. With Skillbridge, companies that probably couldn’t afford to hire a traditional consulting firm can still pay for high-quality work. He added that there’s already been interest in companies ranging from “pre-revenue startups that need help with market sizing for their pitch decks” to large e-commerce organizations.
The company supposedly delivers a “highly curated” experience, where it provides customers with templates for work requests, identifies two or three of the best matches that they can choose from, and helps to create milestones for the project to ensure that things stay on track. It’s currently in beta testing, with plans for a full launch later this year.
All startups have an origin stories of some sort, but for ArtCorgi, it’s both about the beginning of the company and the engagement of its co-founders.
That’s right, it’s a startup run by an engaged team of Malcolm (CEO) and Simone (COO) Collins. You can read Malcolm’s full account of the proposal here, but the gist of it is that he commissioned 21 pieces from 18 artists via online art community deviantART, and then posted them on Reddit. Maybe not the way you would propose, but still, pretty darn amazing. (And most importantly, she said yes.)
Apparently Malcolm (who’s also a grad student at the Stanford Business School) and Simone (formerly director of marketing at HubPages.com) were working on another startup called Gigaverse at the time, but they found that people seemed much more interested in talking about the proposal story and the commissioned art. Malcolm said that as he thought about it, he realized “just how ridiculous” the process was. In fact, he said that he had to contact more than 300 artists to get the final 21 pieces, because so many of those artists were no longer active or said they were too busy.
So with ArtCorgi, they’re aiming to make the process as easy as possible, and they’ve developed the system in consultation with artists. Someone looking for work can upload their portfolio, showcasing different types of art that they’re proficient in, then users can browse the submissions and choose the style that they like – so for example, you could say, “I want a picture of me done in this style.” (What you’re really purchasing on ArtCorgi is the digital art, but if you want a physical copy, it also connects you with printing services.) To deal with the disappearing or inactive artist issue, artists are removed from the system once they don’t do a commission.
Simone said they talked to Justin Cannon, founder of Y Combinator-backed art commissioning startup EveryArt (which appears to have shut down) about some of the challenges that he faced. Apparently the big difficulty was the “attrition rate” during the initial back-and-forth between the artist and potential customer. ArtCorgi tries to avoid that by making it clear what you’re asking for (hence the style-based ordering) and by offering set pricing, so there shouldn’t be any negotiation or surprises.
In fact, the money is held in escrow during the commissioning process, so you know the artist isn’t just going to disappear before they finish their work, and the artist knows that they money is there for them to get paid eventually.
Of course, there can be complications. You might agree on a style and a subject, and then the artist comes back with something that you hate. If that happens, the art gets sent to a five-person panel of other artists in the network. The panel is asked to evaluate whether the piece is, in Simone’s words, “the same style, the same level [of quality], the same subject the artists said they were willing to depict.”
The company isn’t focusing too narrowly on one particular audience, but Simone suggested that one likely customer base is romantic – not just marriage proposals, but also Valentine’s Day cards, wedding invites, that kind of thing.
Beyond the launching the site (which currently has 70 artists, they said), Malcolm and Simone said they want to build an ArtCorgi community, which will probably be important from the business side, because it turns one-time customers into repeat buyers. And in the long-term, Simone said they want to build “a series of boutique marketplaces that leverage a connected backend of freelance suppliers.” In other words, there would be a number of different brands focusing on different types of work, but behind it all would be “a huge network of expertise.”
“We wanted to bring a different idea to freelannce work online,” Simone said – she compared sites like Elance to Costco and Walmart, and she suggested that the ArtCorgi approach will be higher quality (and presumably offer higher payments).
When it comes to photo-oriented web services, for every slam-dunk success like Instagram, there seem to be quite a few Color-esque shutdowns. And today, another photo startup is hitting the deadpool.
Everpix, the San Francisco startup that launched its cloud-oriented photo storage and sharing platform at SF Disrupt in 2011, announced today it is shutting down. Starting now, new sign-ups and subscriptions are not available, and Everpix apps will switch to read-only mode. Operations will cease completely on December 15th, 2013. Everpix says that it will email its users with full details regarding exporting their photos and obtaining refunds.
The company, which had raised $1.8 million from investors including Index Ventures and 500 Startups, has six staff listed on LinkedIn. In a post on Everpix’s official blog today entitled “We Gave It Our All…”, the company said that the shutdown comes as a result of failing to secure more capital or find an aquirer:
“It is with a heavy heart we announce that Everpix will be shutting down in the coming weeks.
…It’s frustrating (to say the least) that we cannot continue to work on Everpix. We were unable to secure sufficient funding in order to properly scale the business, and our endeavors to find a new home for Everpix did not come to pass. At this point, we have no other options but to discontinue the service.”
Casey Newton wrote a great post-mortem of Everpix for The Verge today, which you can read here. I’ve reached out to Everpix’s CEO Pierre-Olivier Latour for additional comment on the shutdown, and will update this post with any response.
Everpix really had created a beautiful app – you can see a demo of one of the most recent versions in this video interview from this past March – but it seems it just wasn’t enough to keep things alive. Kudos to the Everpix team for being honest about its shutdown story and the difficulties the company faced in its final days.
Amidst Obamacare’s Marketplace Madness, The YEC Wants To Help Startups Take The Hassle Out Of Health Insurance
Amid partisan shenanigans, a government shutdown and much squabbling, The White House launched a new website today that will eventually allow Americans to compare the price of health insurance plans – which is now mandatory under the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. While the exchange, or the Insurance Marketplace as it’s being called, did in fact go live this morning, it’s been having a rough day, thanks to technical issues and an onslaught of heavy traffic.
Today has been a showcase of how challenging it will be to bring coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, reiterating many of the concerns that entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses across the country have had in anticipation of Obamacare going into effect in January. In response, one organization is taking steps to help startups navigate these new premiums, exchanges, compliance issues – and the change health insurance landscape as a whole – with the launch of StartupInsurance, a portal where startups can go to buy health insurance and other policies.
The new resource is a product of The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization of entrepreneurs that aims to provide small businesses with the resources, mentorship and tools they need to thrive – and counts executives or co-founders of startups like ReTargeter, Yodle, Disqus, Klout, Hipmunk, Rent The Runway, Hootsuite and Indiegogo, to name a few, as members.
The organization has been developing its new portal over the last year in the hopes of providing a resource and “insurance destination,” says YEC founder Scott Gerber, which will contain a curated collective of providers and affordable insurance plans from around the country. The goal, he explains, is to provide startups, business owners and all those likely to transition into self-employment as a result of being able to purchase health insurance, with direct access to affordable plans that are compliant with Obamacare. Minus the confusion and time sink, of course.
Thanks to the direct carrier partnerships the YEC has been able to strike, StartupInsurance will give entrepreneurs access to “one of the largest medical footprints in the U.S.,” with insurance options available in nearly every state.
“In speaking to thousands of entrepreneurs, freelancers and small business owners over the years, we have learned what is important to them, what’s working for them-and most importantly, what isn’t,” Gerber says. “And this direct feedback has guided our thinking in creating StartupInsurance – it’s meant to be a destination created by the people it aims to serve.”
The idea, according to Gerber, is that the YEC has done the homework for startups so that they don’t have to worry about spending the time, energy and resources it usually takes to assemble these packages and navigate the new exchanges.
When asked what the plans will cost when the portal officially goes live with Obamacare in January, what kind of coverage will be offered and so on, Gerber said that he isn’t able to discuss the details yet for legal reasons – in other words, because he is not a broker himself. However, we do know that, like Kayak and other metasearch engines have done for years in travel, The YEC will be paid referral fees every time it sends a customer to one of its insurance partners and, while other carriers will no doubt enter the fold over time, as of now, the portal’s chief insurance carrier is Assurant Health.
In conversation with the New York Times, however, a spokeswoman for Assurant said that the plans “were the same plans Assurant already offered,” which is certainly a good deal for the insurance carrier, but doesn’t necessarily seem like it will guarantee startups access to the most affordable plan.
Other questions remain as well, particularly around what will differentiate StartupInsurance.com from the two additional portals YEC is launching, SmallBusinessInsurance.com and FreelancerHealthcare.com, other than the fact that they will be serving their own particular verticals. However, the YEC founder did point out that the freelancer portal will not be offering group coverage and that differences between the three will be come clearer overtime, as the organization incorporates feedback from startups and entrepreneurs and preps for January.
While some of the plans that the portals will be offering will not, in fact, comply with Obamacare’s provisions for minimum value – meaning that they’d have to pay the penalty of the individual mandate – Gerber said that, after speaking to thousands of business owners, the YEC found that a portion of entrepreneurs would be willing to pay a tax penalty in order to receive more affordable coverage. The portal, he continues, will offer an array of Obamacare-compliant plans, but that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for startups. Instead, some will prefer to incur the tax penalty in exchange for accessing its lower premiums – as well as a destination that could be decidedly less noisy.
The YEC founder rightly points out that, today, many insurance providers are moving away from offering individual or small group coverage, because, put simply, the new regulations will make it difficult for brokers to make money off of these types of customers – and plans. It’s a fact that has led companies like Zenefits – which helps startups set up and manage group health coverage, payroll and other benefits by automating the process in the cloud – to believe that there’s opportunity in this space. Or, said another way, there’s a gulf that’s growing as insurance brokers move away from small group coverage, and someone has to meet the demand.
It’s likely that, rather than compete, the two will likely be able to help each other meet the growing demand among small businesses that are looking to comply with Obamacare and get their employees covered. The YEC’s portals still have some time before Obamacare goes into effect in January, and it will need to be able to distinguish its three portals from each other, and make clear the benefits of each.
Startups and entrepreneurs themselves will need to decide whether the inexpensive, affordable option is what they want, or whether costlier, fuller coverage is a better way to go in the long run. But, either way, for startups, the more options and the less headache they have to wade through, the better.
After all, as Gerber says, “we want to stay away from all this partisan nonsense … in the end, healthcare is a personal decision, and one startups and entrepreneurs need to make for themselves.”
Readers can find more of our coverage on the launch of the White House’s health insurance exchanges here or find StartupInsurance at home here.