Mike Samson, Co-Founder of crowdSPRING on Community Building and NO!SPEC Campaign

by Wayne Liew

in Biz Brains Exchange

If you missed the first part of my interview with Mike Samson, co-founder of crowdSPRING, where he talks about how crowdSPRING successfully raised $3 million in angel funding and shares some important tips that every entrepreneur will find useful down the road, click on the link below to get started.

Mike Samson, Co-Founder of crowdSPRING on Raising Angel Funding [Part 1]

crowdSPRING Homepage Screenshot

In this second part of the interview, Mike shares with me the secret of building two communities on crowdSPRING and keeping both of them in balance. Towards the end of the interview, Mike also explained the stance of crowdSPRING on speculative work.

Keep reading and I’m sure you have tons to learn from this interview.

Community Building Tips for All Businesses

Wayne: We’ll talk a little bit about community building. A lot of entrepreneurs and bloggers that I spoke to have trouble building a community around their applications, websites or blogs. Since crowdSPRING does not only build one, but two communities, one of which is the designer community and the other is the buyers community, there must be some secret that you guys have on community building. What do you think are missing from all the community building efforts out there that failed?

Mike: First and foremost, you have to have a reason for building a community. We were trying to build a community of creatives and a community of buyers around a common purpose and the purpose is buying and selling creative services.

Mike: Buyers came to us because they need a solution to their problem and their problem was they couldn’t find high quality design at a price they could afford. Creatives were coming to us because they couldn’t find clients to work with. crowdSPRING, from day one, offered a place where they could meet each other.

Mike: One of the important elements we believe in community building is giving people resources they need. For both groups, we offer lots of education, lots of written content and forums where they could speak to one another. We started a blog from day one that is very focused on providing them with content they would be interested in. We started using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook very early. Tools like these allowed us to communicate with them and vice versa.

crowdSPRING Twitter Profile

Mike: One of the things that we’re proud of is our transparency within our community. We are very available to answer questions, we provide them with information about us and our business transparently. We try to be very honest. We run into problems and we share those problems with our community. We work very hard and it’s a credit to our Marketing Director, in creating a voice for the site and personality. That was long way to help those things together and to help people relate to our site, to our business and feel connected to our site.

Mike: Those things together, for us, are really the building blocks of community: Providing great content, giving them the ability to communicate with you and with each other, having the personality and voice, being honest and transparent, and really using the tools that exist to help people solve their problems. If a company can do those things, I believe they can start to gain some traction and they can really go far towards building a community.

Balancing the Ecosystem of Dual Communities

Wayne: Another aspect of community building that I see crowdSPRING is doing very well is keeping both the creatives and buyers communities in balance. If creatives outnumber the buyers, there will not be enough projects to go around and if buyers outnumber the creatives, projects posted will not have enough bids or participation from the creatives community. What is crowdSPRING doing to maintain the balance of the whole ecosystem?

Mike: It’s a very good question and it’s a critical component for us. When we first started, we had many discussions about who should we focus on. Thinking that creatives will then follow, should we focus on attracting buyers to the site? Or should we focus on attracting creatives to the site and thinking that buyers will then follow?

Mike: We made a conscious choice that we would focus on attracting buyers to the site and our thinking was pretty simple. We determined that creatives, providers of the services, for the most part, were more technically sophisticated and they were already working on the Internet. The word would spread much more easily, virally, with creatives than it will with buyers because we knew that there were already communities of creatives out there that speak to one another, look at each others’ work and so on.

Mike: Buyers are more difficult to communicate with. They tend to be less sophisticated technically, they spend less time on the Internet, they do not congregate in the same place necessarily, they don’t read the same online magazines, blogs or journals and they come from all different industries, geography and backgrounds. Our thought was that if we could attract buyers and have them to post projects, effectively putting money on the table, the creatives will follow because there’s money on the table. That’s proven to be true and we see that in our data.

Mike: For instance, as we grew, the more projects we had available on the site, it means the more money there was on the table and the more we saw the registration by creatives. When there are more open jobs, there will be more registrations. Creatives do see each other and do spread the word. The example that I gave you in the story about a group of Malaysian design students, that was an existing community! It is very easy to find those communities, talk to them and get the message out.

Mike: We have been very fortunate and lucky to build our community that way. If we can get the buyers to come to the site to post the projects, the creatives will follow. Speaking to both sides equally really does work for us. Part of the reason that we’ve had some traction is because of that strategy.

Pitching for Business from Big Brands

Wayne: Apart from small business buyers, I’m also seeing some projects posted by big brands. For example, crowdSPRING is currently featuring a project posted by Amazon and another by Philips on its homepage right now. Does crowdSPRING actively seek for big brand buyers or they just come to you guys organically?

Mike: We have some features that nobody else has and that really served to attract larger businesses. First of all, when we conceived of building the company, we didn’t build it for Philips or for Amazon,we really built it for small and mid-size businesses that don’t have access to creative services and good designs in the same way that Philips does or Amazon does.

Mike: However, we really quickly think that there was a demand, not just among larger businesses, but also advertising agencies for their clients. They have a very special need that nobody was offering so we very quickly responded to that and started offering some products that really fit their needs.

Mike: We started off with a product that we called crowdSPRING Pro. crowdSPRING Pro works exactly like a regular crowdSPRING project but what it did was to give a layer of privacy protection. Agencies and larges businesses found this to be very valuable.

Mike: For example, crowdSPRING Pro projects are protected by non-disclosure agreements. In order to participate in a Pro project, a creative has to agree to a non-disclosure. It also gives the buyer the ability to have a “closed gallery” and in a closed gallery, the only party who can see all of the entries to that project is the buyer. The creatives cannot see one another’s entries if the buyer chooses to close the gallery.

Mike: The advantage to that is about their competitors. For example, if Philips wants to post an industrial design project for a steam iron, one of the things that they will worry about is to have one of their competitors find their way into the project and steal ideas. With the closed gallery, that’s not a problem because if someone did manage to get into the project, they couldn’t see anybody else’s ideas. The ability to do that was something that really allowed large businesses and advertising agencies to start leveraging the site and leveraging the community.

Mike: We are really proud of the fact that of the available sites out there who work in a similar model to us, we have done a great job honoring the market of larger businesses and advertising agencies because of the privacy protection. We have many Fortune 500 companies posting on the site. Lots of big projects from companies like LG, Tivo, Starbucks, Forbes Magazine and I could go on and on. Most of the major agencies have been on the site, either for their own internal work or for their clients.

Wayne: You know, those brands that you have just mentioned are all like really, really big brands and most entrepreneurs, especially first time entrepreneurs, have a hard time trying to buff up their confidence to speak with established brands or companies. Do you have some tips that might be able to help them out?

Mike: The biggest tip I can give is to make sure that you have a great service and a good offering. If you have value to offer and you have confidence in that value, you can sell it to anybody. It doesn’t matter if you are selling it to your local auto mechanic who needs a logo or Amazon, who needs a new email template. If the value proposition is clear, it sells itself.

Mike Samson with an Award

Competitors and How crowdSPRING Competes

Wayne: I noticed that there are other startups that are competing in the similar space as crowdSPRING. One group will be the RFP-based outsourcing sites like Elance, Guru and oDesk where businesses actively search for contractors or agencies to get tasks done and the other group will be those that bears a similar concept like crowdSPRING such as 99designs. How is crowdSPRING trying to differentiate itself from the rest and what is crowdSPRING doing to stay ahead?

Mike: Great question and that’s a great question for any business. Every business has competitors, whether they are direct competitors or indirect competitors, you have to offer value and differentiation. When we differentiate ourselves from Elance and Guru, we offer value of choice. A typical crowdSPRING project is going to give you over a 100 entries to choose from. When you go to Elance or Guru, you don’t get to choose any entries. All you get to choose is the provider and hopefully, you can find a good provider who will do the work for you at a cost that you can afford.

Mike: When you go to an individual graphic designer, that person is going to, hopefully, have a good draft for you at a price you can afford and hopefully, three or four concepts to choose from, which they will offer a few more revisions on the concept you picked. In our concept, all that matters is how good the work that are submitted because you see the actual work of the provider that you’re using. You don’t see a bid or a proposal so that’s a critical differentiator.

Mike: With our direct competitors, we focus on a couple of things. We focus on the protection of intellectual property, Nobody protects intellectual property like we do and that goes to the privacy features that are represented by Pro projects. It goes to the fact that we provide a custom contract for every single project done on the site so the intellectual property is protected. We also have policies and procedures internally for reporting and judging violation of intellectual property. Those are some key differentiators.

Mike: You’ve asked also on how we continue to compete. Part of the answer is in the community building that we discussed earlier and another part of the answer is building great word of mouth and great reputation. We are very focused on providing world class customer service. We take customer service very seriously and we take customer service requests very quickly and accurately. We believe that great customer service is also great marketing because when people get great customer service, they’re happy and they’ll spread the word about the their great experience. Finally, you have to constantly improve, add features, make what you have better and make sure your platform is dependable, solid and fast.

Spec Work and crowdSPRING’s Stance

Wayne: Mike, while I was researching for this interview, I came across this one big word or phrase that is somewhat negatively related to crowdSPRING. Do you want to have a guess at what it is?

Mike: Haha… I don’t even need to guess. it is the NO!SPEC movement.

Wayne: Yup! Do you mind explaining it because I’m not so familiar with it? And perhaps you can also describe crowdSPRING’s stance on this issue?

Mike: Wayne, the idea of spec work is that people will do work, speculatively and it happens in many industries. As a matter of fact, speculative work is around the design industry or creative industries as long as the industries have been around. Very simply, speculative work is work that provider does with no guarantee that they will be paid for or hired for that work.

Mike: For instance, when an advertising agency is trying to pitch a new account, they will do a certain amount of work to prepare that pitch and they are competing with other advertising agencies that are doing the same thing. A brand might invite three or four agencies to compete for their business and each of those agencies will produce speculative work to make the pitch, to say that this is what we’ll do if you give us the account. At the end of the process, the brand hires which agency’s work they like best and the agency is then paid for the work that they have done.

Mike: It happens in architecture for instance. Architects compete for work and as part of the competition, they will prepare a concept or drawings to present to a potential client and hopefully, the client will pick them. Musicians work speculatively all the time. They will create and record music with no guarantee that anyone is going to buy it or a record label is going to sign them but they will do the work with the hopes that they will be paid for ultimately so that’s speculative work.

Mike: crowdSPRING is built on a speculative model. Designers come to participate in creative projects with no guarantee that their work will be chosen and paid for. The objection to speculative work is that people are working for free with no guarantee of being paid. That’s absolutely true, people are doing work with no guarantee that they will be chosen. That’s not evil and that’s a decision for people on how they choose to work.

Mike: Different people choose to work in different ways. Our short answer to people who ask is, crowdSPRING is not for everybody. It’s for many people but for others, it’s not for them. That’s OK for us and we recognize the fact that we are not for everybody. We’re certainly nothing new in the world to that sense. Speculative work has been around forever and we are doing something that the Internet and technology has enabled on a scale that wasn’t available before. Sometimes, meaningful and profound change like that, represented by technology, does scare people so a lot of objections that you see are fear-based.

Upcoming Plans and Features from crowdSPRING

Wayne: Are there any upcoming plans or features for crowdSPRING that you can share with us?

Mike: We’re working on some great stuffs that we don’t talk about publicly but they will be rolled out in the coming months. We constantly polish and redesign parts of the site and we continue that process non-stop. We are building several new features. Again, I can’t talk about those today, Wayne but we’re proud of them and excited. In the next couple of months, you will start to see those features being introduced. Keep an eye on us because we’re going to introduce some more fun stuffs.

Get In Touch with crowdSPRING and Mike Samson

Wayne: Before I end this interview, are there any ways which my blog readers can get in touch with you?

Mike: Sure. First of all, we encourage all of them to come visit the site. The easiest way to contact us is to come to the site and click the link that says “Contact Us” or they can write to us at support@crowdspring.com. Plus, we provide lots of information on our How It Works page which shows you quickly how the site works, some examples and great testimonials from other buyers that have used the site.

Wayne: OK, Mike. Thanks again for doing this interview with and you have definitely shared a lot of tips with my blog readers.

Mike: It’s a pleasure, Wayne. Thanks for the time and we really appreciate you writing about us.

Questions and Thoughts on the Interview?

It’s definitely a lot of fun to chat with Mike and as crowdSPRING grow, I’m sure Mike will have lots more to share with us in the future.

What do you think about the interview? Do you have any questions for Mike or would you like to comment on some of his tips and answers?

Feel free to leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

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