By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
SWANSEA — From the outside, it looks pretty much like a standard, single-story, brick-and-glass building at the back of a modern-day office park.
Inside, though, you’d be hard pressed to ignore the accoutrements. The Darth Vader prop. The basketball scoreboard. The bar. The pool table. The massage room. The barber shop.
Oh, and don’t overlook the full-size race car that gets creative juices roaring in the main work area.
Welcome to the crowd at CrowdSource, a Juggle.com business that relies on the talents of hundreds of thousands of individuals, coordinated by 47 well-treated employees.
“We’re all about a work hard, play hard culture. We want this to be a comfortable environment,” Erin Steinbruegge, chief operating officer, said.
Despite its comfort-cozy approach to its office, CrowdSource expects a lot of its team members, who until recently were part of one of the most under-the-radar tech businesses in Southern Illinois.
That’s quickly changing. The four-year-old company just announced its second business acquisition, one that aims to give it a bigger piece of the estimated $715 billion on-line freelancing market. It entered a definitive agreement to acquire St. Louis-based SideraWorks, a management consulting firm focused on assessing and scaling organizational culture.
The acquisition will strengthen what CrowdSource says is a goal of building the best online workplace for freelancers. Its client base already represents a who’s who of the enterprise world, companies like eBay, Overstock, Facebook, Orbitz and Amazon.
CrowdSource is a cloud-based platform that helps companies find, curate, train, manage and pay freelance contractors. Businesses use the services of CrowdSource as an alternative to traditional employees or suppliers.
CrowdSource is based in a former suite of doctor’s offices at 33 Bronze Pointe, Swansea. But its efforts extend around the globe. In a recent 30-day stretch, freelancers logged in from roughly 110 countries.
The company was launched in 2011 by founders Ryan Noble, of Swansea, and Stephanie Leffler, of St. Louis, a pair who met in college at Washington and Lee University.
Years before, the same two people founded MonsterCommerce, an ecommerce software company offering solutions for businesses wanting to get on-line. The duo ran the business in Swansea from 2002 until 2006 when they sold it to Network Solutions. A lot of the MonsterCommerce team moved on, but Leffler and Noble still had the entrepreneurial itch.
After taking a couple years off, they formed a new holding company, Juggle.com, as a reference resource website to provide structured information on a variety of topics. What started as a six-employee company quickly grew as opportunities were recognized.
The first Juggle effort was a subsidiary, an on-line publishing operation called ROIMedia, formed to create content that could be featured on many websites.
The operation found itself hiring a lot of freelancers, mainly full-time copywriters, and recruitment became a challenge. Managing a handful of such contractors is one thing but hundreds of them is another, especially from the standpoint of finding and vetting talent, a predicament many businesses face.
“As a business, you find yourself managing many freelancers on many different platforms. Recruitment, communication, performance management and payments become complicated very quickly. That was sort of the ‘Aha!’ moment for Steph (Leffler) and Ryan (Noble),” Steinbruegge said.
For Leffler, who is the CEO, and Noble, who is the president, it became clear that more focus should be placed on improving the experience for freelancers and businesses. Juggle.com launched CrowdSource to address these challenges, and company growth has been pretty much nonstop ever since. Today, CrowdSource accounts for most of Juggle.com’s operations. Several of its startups are listed on signage outside the building, including Clickable Names, a domain acquisition company.
Businesses turn to CrowdSource as a one-stop shop for on-demand talent in multiple specialties.
“We have over 400,000 (freelancers) that have logged in to our platform and have completed over a hundred million assignments. We’re at a point of critical mass. We’ve been carefully managing the influx of freelancers into our system because they won’t be happy unless there’s an adequate supply of work,” Steinbruegge said.
The company vets applicants, such as copywriters, designers, videographers, website moderators, researchers and others, and matches them to freelance opportunities. Applicants can express interests in particular fields and complete assessment tests to prove their expertise.
The system is designed to meet the demands of clients who need to utilize on-demand talent on a large scale, from large online retailers to online publishers, agencies and marketers.
Steinbruegge said CrowdSource’s success is driven by its ability to match the right freelance candidates with the right opportunities. And freelancers love having steady, predictable income, so the talent pool is plentiful. Forty percent of the freelancer industry is supposedly paid late.
“On our platform, we pay daily, for approved work. It’s dependable. And we’re bringing the work to the freelancer, rather than them having to manage the sales and administrative overhead that typically comes with freelancing,” she said.
Some 34 percent of the American workforce — 53,000 million people — freelance in some capacity, she said.
“You see a lot of headlines calling this the future of work, but we look at each other and say, ‘The future of work is now,” Steinbruegge said.
The number is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2020, she said — part of the millennial generation’s desire to work on things they are passionate about, without the constraints of a typical corporate setting.
When they were considering launching CrowdSource, Noble and Leffler approached a lot of their old teammates from MonsterCommerce, Steinbruegge among them. She calls Noble the visionary behind the operation with the ability to predict where the industry’s headed, and she says Leffler is the face of the company and the “brilliant” mind behind the sales operation.
“I had started my own digital marketing firm. Steph and Ryan kept knocking at the door. I started talking with them, and as soon as I saw their vision and heard all about it, I was all in,” Steinbruegge said.
That was in 2012, the same year that Highland Capital provided an enormous boost, with a $12.5 million investment.
Officials won’t say how much CrowdSource is worth today, but the capital infusion and rapid growth suggest it’s poised for success. The two recent business acquisitions will play a crucial role.
The first of those was Servio in fall 2013. The San Francisco-based company provided enterprise content services and was somewhat of a competitor for crowdsourcing, primarily in copywriters and editors, targeting on-line retail and publishing. The acquisition involved both customers and talent.
“We needed to migrate their entire freelance workforce on to our platform and sunset their software. We set out to do that in three months, which is probably borderline insane. But I could not be more proud of our team, they accomplished that goal and it was pretty much seamless,” Steinbruegge said.
SideraWorks, meanwhile, was an intellectual property-based acquisition. “Matt (Ridings, the CEO of SideraWorks) and his team saw these shifting trends in the workforce. They saw that millennials are now the largest segment of the workforce. They value things differently than previous generations, like flexibility, autonomy and influence over stability, salary and benefits. Their clients were large organizations in which the demands of the new workforce were outpacing the organization’s ability to change. He was trying to drive cultural change internally within those businesses through consulting them.”
In a statement, Ridings says he is most excited about “disrupting a space” that is ripe for change.
“What we have in development is going to turn this industry on its head. We toss around numbers that sound impressive regarding the opportunity here, but the dollars in play and the ability to create such massive positive change for people is staggering. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s new territory, and it’s absolutely exhilarating.”
CrowdSource hopes to apply to its own company what SideraWorks has learned about the industry.
Said Leffler, CEO of CrowdSource: “We are helping companies take the guesswork out of hiring freelancers. There’s still a great deal of pain and friction present on freelance marketplaces and it’s our job to remove that. Matt and his work are going to be a big part of helping make that happen. They have been analyzing organizational culture for years and will help us translate what works in an office environment to the world of online work.”
CrowdSource has no plans to significantly expand its own internal team, comprised of client services, operations, product and engineering, sales and executive forces.
“We call that eating your own dog food,” Steinbruegge said. “If we’re going to tell businesses that they can achieve their business goals with an elastic workforce … then we believe we should excel at it.”
To say that CrowdSource caters to its own team members, would be an understatement.
“I have to credit the uniqueness of this office to Ryan,” Steinbruegge said. “There are a number of perks. What you see is a reflection of him but it’s also a reflection of our culture. We have a boot camp trainer that comes in twice a week for team members that want to work out. We offer massages twice a week. They can get their haircuts here. You saw the lounge — it’s a great place to hang out. The experience is kind of like hanging out with close friends and building great things together.”
And there are a couple of large beanbags in case anyone needs to crash the night.
Noble is a bit of a collector, surrounding his employees with the unusual. In a sealed case in the conference room is a pair of Marty McFly’s shoes — the real thing — from “Back to the Future.”
The racecar on display in the work room also has an interesting back story.
Juggle.com sponsored a car a few years ago in a Nascar race that several employees attended in Phoenix. Noble managed to get ownership of the vehicle and brought it back to Swansea. Today, it has been reskinned with the CrowdSource name. A wall was moved to get the car into the building.
So what’s ahead for CrowdSource? Until now, the company has been selective about who it worked with, companies that could drive its business forward without distracting from product development.
“Right now, we’re the only managers of our software,” she said. “Clients don’t touch it. A client comes to us, describes the business problems they’re trying to solve. We put together a plan and curate the right freelance team for them and manage their project on our platform.
“Where we’re headed is, rolling out a software as a service (SaaS) product where we envision businesses and freelancers using our software to communicate directly with one another. Our software solves a lot of the challenges that freelancers and businesses have in making the freelance model work. We’ll still offer managed solutions because for the right client that’s a better fit, but we have a long list of clients and freelancers wanting to use our software directly.”
That new business model is due sometime in 2016.
“Getting a SaaS product on the market has been on our roadmap since the beginning and we could not be more excited to see how close we’re getting to achieving that goal,” Steinbruegge said.
Many other startups are trying to break into the market that CrowdSource has been perfecting the last four years, and CrowdSource has partnered with several of them.