Domino

"Find work through your friends"

img-jobshare-yinyang

Draft

Domino was an audacious attempt to improve how freelancers found great work, predicated on a totally new marketplace model:

Combine a marketplace with a social network, and let jobs move through networks of trusted friends & colleagues.

The idea was simple. Finding it, then building it was anything but.

This led us on a wild 3 year journey, deep into the systemic problems of freelancing, online marketplace mechanics & sociology.

Research

1

1.0

Starting with the problem

As former freelancers, we had first-hand experience with the common problems that new freelancers face. The barriers to entry for freelancing are just too high. Most new freelancers, seeking economic agency, end up worse off than before.

Wanting to move beyond our own personal anecdotes, we began towards the end of 2014 by interviewing over 100 freelancers to learn their challenges & work habits.

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64%

Struggle to find work.

54%

Don't know how to price their work

1 in 2

Suffer from imposter syndrome.

43%

Don't know basic accounting

41%

Struggle with self-promotion.

1.1

The Root Cause

The responses were diverse, with freelancers citing many different problems. After mapping them out we noticed that the majority are second and third order effects from a single source:

Never learning how to freelance.

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Common Problems

  • Finding work
  • Getting paid
  • Time Management
  • Socializing
  • Self-Promotion
  • Sales & Negotiation
  • Confidence
  • Cashflow Management
  • Communication Skills

No Knowledge

No Confidence

No Promotion

No Sales

No Work

They never learnt to freelance? Sure. Most people conflate their principle skills (design, writing, etc.) with their skill at freelancing (i.e. running a small business). It's a costly and time consuming mistake.

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Second & Third Order Effects

The deeper, often unexpected effects that manifest in response to the original interaction.

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1.2

Learning by Doing

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Experiential Learning

You learnt best by doing. I can try to teach you how to eat an ice cream, but you're not really going to get it until you eat the damn thing yourself.

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Incentives

If you finish reading this case study I'll give you an ice cream. Any flavor!

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Inversion

Seeking a new perspective by turning the problem inside out.

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While the root cause had been identified, the solution wasn’t to write a book. We learn most effectively through personal experiences. In fact, 61% told us they learnt how to freelance through "trial and error".

Well designed systems can also leverage incentives to protect us from our own worst behaviors - an important consideration when freelancers have so little external accountability.

Inverting our perspective, we asked:

"Rather than educating freelancer's to help improve their work prospects, why don't we design a system that improves their work prospects and educates them in the process?"

Most freelancers find jobs online through job boards, social media, or marketplaces, but only the marketplace model gave us the scope to design a complete flow: from job discovery to delivery, that could educate them in the process. Importantly, it also offered the security and reliability craved by employers.

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What employers need.

We interviewed dozens of employers to understand their needs. The biggest was reliability: trusting they're hiring the right person, who can do a great job, on time, on budget and is a pleasure to work with.

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1.3

A Problem, Wrapped In A Solution

While finding consistent work was overwhelmingly the #1 problem, there was a silver lining:

64%

said finding consistent work is a challenge

but

77%

Their best work comes from referrals.

We knew this first hand. As freelancers, our best jobs had always come from our friends, too: it was an existing behavior.

We wondered if a marketplace based around job referrals could help freelancers find jobs more consistently, by improving the referral process.

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Existing Behaviors

When building products, your chances of success are always higher if you can improve an existing behavior. Trying to create a new behavior is a slow, expensive process.

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Fixing Referrals

Referrals are great: they're like a social shorthand for quality & trust - but the process of referring sucks. It's slow, takes time, and isn't trackable or recordable in any way, and you have to start the process all over again every time you try and refer a job to someone. It's a real pain in the ass.

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1.4

The Lay of the Land

After researching the existing marketplaces, we saw two trends:

These online marketplaces were either exclusive with high pay, or inclusive with low pay.

Gigster
Gun
Crew
Toptal
Design Inc

Exclusive

High Pay

Low Pay

Inclusive

Upwork
Freelancer
Guru
99 Designs
Fiverr

There was uncharted space if we could find a way to create an inclusive marketplace that also offered well paying jobs. It would require a new approach to distributing these jobs, and referrals were one possibility.

The "exclusive" or "invite only" marketplaces actually functioned more like traditional product studios. While they did provide well paying jobs, they were always in short supply of them.

What about the larger, inclusive marketplaces? They were something else entirely.

1.5

A great way to find bad jobs

Our research showed that employers' experiences on these larger marketplaces was mixed, but freelancers were almost universally bad. Economics subverts the user experience.

1

A global labor pool skews supply.

2

Favoring freelancers with lower costs of living.

3

And depresses wages.

4

Without an artificial price floor.

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Artificial Price Floor

It's intended to stop prices from falling below a certain amount. The most famous example is the minimum wage.

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5

Forcing high competition for low paying projects.

Reputation The skewed supply & demand also corrupts a platforms reputation system. With so many freelancers chasing so few jobs, employers can easily filter out freelancers without a perfect reputation and still find plenty of candidates for their project. Conversely, an employer's negative rating will be overlooked by a freelancer desperate for work.

A negative power dynamic can emerge, with an employer holding the threat of a poor rating against a freelancer to extract more work or unfair conditions during a project.

Power Laws & The Pareto Principle The flawed reputation model used by online marketplaces leads to power laws that entrench the top 20% while discouraging the long tail of new and casual freelancers from establishing themselves.

Incentivization Finally, because the employers are the ones with the money, the platform is incentivized to favor them in any dispute. While anecdotal, numerous freelancers we spoke to felt they experienced this.

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Long Tail

The mass of niche ice cream flavors that aren't in high demand individually. Collectively, though, they add up to a large market.

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Pareto Principle

Also known as the "80/20 Rule", and an example of a power law in action.

20% of the flavors at my ice cream store make up 80% of all the sales.

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Sketching the Product

2

2.0

Form through subtraction.

We began defining what Domino would be, by subtracting what it wouldn't:

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Via Negativa

Defining what something is, by defining what it is not.

An ice cream is not hot. Not square. Not hard. Not bland.

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+

Hypercompetitive.

+

Using an artificial reputation system.

+

Requiring a large time investment to win jobs.

+

No mechanism to stop unsustainable pricing.

+

A place for cheapskates.

+

Predatory

+

Excess Choice

+

Unvetted

2.1

Friction & Distribution

The freelancers become victims of the platform's success. They're close to perfect, making them lousy places to find good work. Ironically, adding friction could improve things by using referrals & interconnected social groups to intelligently restrict the distribution of jobs to:

1

Reduce competition per job

2

Improve matching for freelancers & employers

3

Give employers new metrics to guide hiring

In the end, employers don't want to be inundated with choice. They just want to be given the right one.

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Friction

What happens when two objects come into contact, reducing motion. Like frozen ice cream coming into contact with an ice cream scoop.

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Perfect Competition

When all competitors are equal, and have no means of differentiation. Like a sea of ice cream shops that sell an identical brand of chocolate ice cream.

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Bounded Rationality

The quality of a decision is limited by factors like time and available knowledge, forcing us to make satisfactory decisions, instead of optimal ones. The referral mechanism might help improve that ratio.c

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2.3

Putting the pieces together.

We started mixing and matching different elements together, forming them into equations based on what we'd learnt:

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Combinatorial Creativity

Creativity comes from taking different ideas from different places and combining them together into new combinations. Like an ice cream hotdog.

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77% find work through friends

+

Reciprocity

+

Strength of Weak Ties

=

Social Job Distribution

Reciprocity

+

Incentives

+

Real World Reputation System

=

reliability for employers

Social Networks

+

Freelance Jobs

=

Distributed Marketplace

Friction

+

Social Job Distribution

=

Natural Price Floor

2.4

Mapmaking

Maps permeate our daily lives as a cognitive shorthand. While incredibly effective, an outdated or incomplete map can trap us inside a false projection of the world. Current marketplaces all follow a similar map:

Eve posts job

1

apply for job

2

Freelancer 1

Freelancer 2

Freelancer 3

Eve awards job

3

Copying them is both boring and bad business. We began creating new maps of business models, user experiences, revenue models, and product strategy - anything that could obsolete the maps they were operating from.

Eve posts job

1

The job is only shared with Eve's friends & recommended freelancers

2

Brian Eno

Peter Schmidt

David Byrne

Only freelancers connected to Eve can apply.

3

And she can see how she's connected to all applicants.

4

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Incomplete Maps

Manipulating the real environment in order to obsolete everyone's maps of that environment, except your own.

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Execution

3

3.0

Community First

Social relationships - trusted groups of friends - were the glue that would bind Domino together. Before writing a single line of code, Chris and I committed to creating a positive community of freelancers.

Neither of us had any experience building online communities before, so we just got to work: we recruited our friends and people we found across Reddit, Twitter & other freelancing-centric sites, and encouraged them to invite their friends.

We opted to create a public Slack group (in early 2015 when this was still a novel idea) and grew to over 2,000 members. They also became invaluable for our user research.

3.1

Product Decisions

A marketplace has a lot of moving parts. Broadly, they can be categorized into two distinct phases:

Discovery
Reputation Sys.
Profiles
Search
Delivery
Project Mgmt
Communication
Billing
Dispute Resolution

We had initially set out to build the marketplace in its entirety, before backtracking after a couple of months to refocus our efforts. We were a bootstrapped team of two and needed to pick our battles.

We sought to prototype a few smaller pieces of the marketplace, and run through the agile development cycle to determine the most viable. From there, we'd work to gain traction before building out the remaining marketplace components.

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Agile Development Cycle

The ongoing, iterative set of actions to prototype, test and build products and product features. Like working on a new bubblegum flavored ice cream through testing and tweaking the recipe and getting your customer's feedback.

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3.2

Strategies, Forms, Prototypes

Product strategy does not exist in a vacuum. There are many complexities, concepts and concessions to consider when formulating & executing your approach. Some of the questions on our mind were:

"How simple is the revenue model?"

"Does it support & build upon our core interaction?"

"What is its technical & social complexity?"

"How does this grow into the marketplace?"

"How do people currently solve this problem?"

"Is there clear utility & immediate value?"

We landed on two paths:

Search & Discovery

Every marketplace is predicated on a core interaction: the fundamental actions necessary for it to function.

Focusing on the marketplace's "Discovery" phase - helping employers find freelancers - would help validate this core interaction and build out our moat: the web of trusted connections that determine job distribution.

From Tools To Network

A well established strategy for building marketplaces is known as "come for the tools and stay for the network".

Could we build a simple, barebones and ultrafast project management tool for freelancers, and eventually build out the other marketplace components around it?

Next Up

We prototyped both products and sought validation from our freelance community. Both received positive feedback, some of which we suspected were false positives.

It took just two weeks to build out each MVP, owing to their simplicity and a partially shared codebase. We released them to our freelance community and gauged the response.

Our search and discovery MVP was modeled after a social feed. Anyone could post jobs which would be seen by their "friends".

Engagement was abysmal. Very few jobs were posted. While people did recommend their trusted friends, it was limited. It simply wasn't working.

In contrast, our project management tool ( Fast Track ) was doing much better. We had consistent monthly active users and the feedback was positive.

It was a lightweight time tracker that created invoices automatically with the click of a button. It was dead simple to understand, setup & use.

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Systems Thinking

Conceptualizing your work within the scope of a system of interdependent elements. Your ice cream store isn't just about the ice cream, but the weather, supply chain, competition, interior design, branding, music, customer service, etc.

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Core Interaction

The set of actions undertaken by producers & consumers on an online platform that are fundamental to its functioning. On Airbnb that's listing and renting out space, on eBay it's listing and bidding on items. Domino's core interaction is recommending people & sharing jobs.

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Social Complexity

Understanding how society, social relationships & systems function. Domino's product theory relies on the creation of networks of recommendations to work. How hard is it to convince people to formalize those networks on an online platform?

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Immediate Value

How quickly can we provide value to someone after they sign-up? Their interest in a product is constrained by their perceived value, minus the energy they need to spend to get it.

I'm more likely to go to the ice cream store if it's a 5 minute walk than a 5 hour one.

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Moat

A competitive moat is the highly defensible, hard to replicate & unique advantage you hold over your competitors.


Like an ice cream shop that sells a never ending ice cream.

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Come for the Tools

A strategy to bootstrap networks by attracting initial users with a "single player tool" which provides immediate value. With a critical mass of users, you can then encourage them to participate in the network, which is where long term value & defensibility lie.

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False Positives

Like a false alarm. In this case, we know that freelancers are always looking for jobs. During research, they may be overly supportive of a product designed to get them more, but that enthusiasm may not translate into usage when the product is in their hands.

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3.3

And the winner is..

User engagement metrics showed the clear winner: Fast Track. But if we only listened to the data, we'd be no more than mindless automatons!

There was more to the story. Fast Track was easy to understand and provided immediate value. On the other hand, the social job feed had a lot holding it back:

1

Our landing page was not informative

2

There was no onboarding

4

There was no immediate value

Our ongoing user interviews with the community affirmed these failings. The feed was also a questionable product form to follow.

Fast Track had challenges of its own. How it would evolve into the marketplace was largely unclear. User feedback centered heavily on niche functionality requests. Gaining traction would also require us to compete in a crowded market. Our concerns led to a lack of conviction.

We chose to focus on the freelancer/job discovery strategy. Except, we'd replace the feed with a better product form: the search engine.

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Product Forms

Digital products are all manifestations of a handful of the same forms: feeds, search engines, calendars, clocks etc. which have their own UX quirks and qualities. These forms are themselves mostly just manifestations of the humble list.

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Activity Begets Activity

Sites that are social feeds, or rely on user generated content, require a minimum amount of daily activity to encourage others to contribute. If you went on Reddit and the most recent post was over a year old, you wouldn't feel encouraged to post to the site. What's the point? It looks dead.

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To

Be

Continued