How this founder built a niche marketplace connecting businesses with scientists

Joining me is an entrepreneur who discovered there was no easy way to hire a scientist. If you have a company and you need a specific expertise, there’s no clear path for contacting these experts.

To create a solution, she launched a marketplace where anyone could hire PhD level experts and scientists. I invited her to Mixergy to tell me how she did it.

Ashmita Das is the co-founder of Kolabtree, a freelance platform for scientists.

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Ashmita Das

Ashmita Das

Kolabtree

Ashmita Das is the co-founder of Kolabtree, a freelance platform for scientists.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they build their businesses for an audience of entrepreneurs who would like to be inspired by what others are doing and come up with ideas for themselves or frankly just bliss out listening to stories of how other people did it.

Joining me is a woman who said, “There is not an easy way to hire a scientist if you’re a company, and you want to do it. What do you have to do? You have to look online for universities, go through the list of professors who work at the university, try to contact each one individually. Some actually want to be contacted for work. Others feel like it’s an intrusion. It’s just not convenient. It’s not effective. I think I could do better.”

And she did. She launched a marketplace where anyone, including you, the person who’s listening to me can hire a scientist, and it’s up and running. I invited her here to talk about how she did it. Her name is Ashmita Das. She is the founder of Kolabtree. It’s a freelance platform for scientists. We’re going to do this interview, thanks to two sponsors. The first, you’ve never heard of before or, at least, I have never done an ad for them before. It’s Qordoba. If you and your team are freelancers, are doing a lot of writing, this is a good way to make sure that everyone is communicating similarly, and no one is, well, being offensive. I’ll talk about that later on. And I’ll also tell you about Toptal, the place where you go to hire developers. Ashmita, good to see you here.

Ashmita: Hi, Andrew. Thanks for having me. Excited to chat with you today.

Andrew: I usually start off by asking what the company’s revenue is to get people synthesized. But I think it’s helpful to start off today with an example, Chemo Mouthpiece. They’re a client that used your marketplace. What is Chemo Mouthpiece? What do they create?

Ashmita: So Chemo Mouthpiece was started by a founder who had cancer and chemotherapy treatment himself. And during the treatment, he realized after the chemotherapy treatment, he had certain . . . There were sores in his mouth that he wasn’t able to treat with, or it wasn’t very comfortable to deal with that condition with the standard treatment, so he decided to come up with . . .

Andrew: The sores in his mouth from chemotherapy.

Ashmita: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Andrew: Okay. And, by the way, I’m on their website. I see it. I can understand why that would be uncomfortable. I’m sorry. You were starting to say what they did? What he did do?

Ashmita: Yeah. Yeah, so he devised the device to deal with those sores. And so basically it was a small team.

Andrew: It’s a mouthpiece.

Ashmita: Yeah, it’s a mouthpiece. It’s a mouthpiece to . . .

Andrew: You put it in your mouth.

Ashmita: Yeah. Obviously, he explains it a lot better than I do. But basically what it does is it soothes both the sides of your mouth, so the standard treatment is ice chips. You put ice chips in your mouth to soothe the pain. And this device, it would cover both the top and bottom of your mouth because the ice chips, due to gravity, they’re covering the bottom, not the top. So he kind of came up with this device, and he says, “You know, I just wish I had this when I was undergoing my treatments.”

Andrew: And it keeps things cool. According to the website, it uses near-freezing temperatures to shrink the blood vessels of the mouth while chemotherapy drugs are being administered, making it harder for the drugs to reach the oral cavity, keeps it cool. I get it. He had a problem that he came to your site with. What’s the problem that he had?

Ashmita: Right. Now, this is a medical device. Number one, he might’ve registered a patent for it. Then, you know, there are regulatory hurdles you have to go through just to be able to put your device on the market. And he needs [inaudible 00:04:02] supporting the efficacy of the device, and he needed an underwriter to do that at the time, you know? This was a founder. We were a small team, and they just needed an extra pair of hands to be able to prepare those documents, deliver on those documents, and they needed someone with the right background to be able to prepare those documents, so this is not . . .

Andrew: A scientific writer, specifically.

Ashmita: Exactly.

Andrew: That’s what I’m seeing on the website say, “Look. Get me the research that shows how this works. Help me back this up,” right?

Ashmita: Absolutely. Do the desk research, read the journals, read the science, and then put it in a format that other people can understand.

Andrew: And it looks like he paid $2,750. It took 20 days to get this research put together to his liking, and he was very satisfied, gave that project a five-star rating. That’s the type of work that’s being done right now on Kolabtree. All right. So now, the revenue question comes up. How much revenue are you doing making these types of matches?

Ashmita: So that’s something that we’re not ready to reveal quite yet. I will say this. It’s not nearly as much as we wanted at this point. It’s more than I ever expected to get to. And that’s probably an announcement that we’re a little bit away from making at this point.

Andrew: Do you feel comfortable saying whether it’s over $1 million so far?

Ashmita: Yes, we are into the seven digits, but yeah, yeah, we’ll see. [crosstalk 00:05:33].

Andrew: All right. And the company is six years old, right?

Ashmita: That’s right. We incorporated [inaudible 00:05:38], April 2015, so five years, I think.

Andrew: Okay. So I want to get into how you came up with this. You say, “We, we, we,” a lot. It’s because you were working where at the time when you had this idea.

Ashmita: I was working with this company called Cactus Communications, and I was working as a product manager back in, I think, maybe 2013, 2012. And I was looking for an NLP data scientist to help us develop the product, so I contacted the local universities. I contacted their business offices. And, you know, they got back to me really quickly. They put me in touch [inaudible 00:06:20] and then radio silence. When I will go back to the offices and said, “You put me in touch with the faculty.” They hang on, “We’re following up.” Get in touch with them again. I get in touch with him again. And I spent like about, I don’t know, a couple of months just doing this back and forth and just trying to get someone to talk to about this.

And, you know, they were fantastic professors available that I really wanted to work with, that I just couldn’t get anything done so that kind of seeded the idea. So when the co-founder of Cactus, at that time, was also kind of looking to start something new maybe incubate something new. And at that time, Cactus Communications, they work with academia as a core segment for them. So they work a lot with researchers, helping them prepare publications, and just kind of putting it all together, re-study, you know? And they use freelancers a lot for that work. So we said, “You know, it just makes sense to explore this.”

Andrew: Started off as a brand-new business, you and the founder of Cactus Communications were going to partner up on this as a business. What is Cactus Communications?

Ashmita: Cactus Communications, they’re an overall scientific communications company. So they help different segments prepare publications to either, you know, for peer-reviewed research, to publish in journals, or . . .

Andrew: Because academics don’t just write up their research and publish it. They have somebody help them. I mean, honestly, I didn’t realize that.

Ashmita: It’s a very time-consuming process to write up those papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Andrew: I had no idea. I just assumed that academics that what they do is write their stuff up. I didn’t realize that scientists now needed communications companies to help them express their ideas. Makes total sense, and now, I can understand why the founder of Cactus would partner up with you. The other interesting thing that . . . As I was reading your story, it came up for me. Whenever I interview someone and they give me the name of their professor, I have this habit of just researching the professor. And I often will find them on their university website. Photo, full name, description of what they teach, and an email address. And I never understood what the email address was there for.

I assume that maybe it’s for the students to be able to reach the professor. One of the things that I learned in preparing for this interview is universities intentionally put the email addresses of professors up because they want the professors to have corporate experience, to have this type of opportunity. They want to open it up to it, but not every professor wants to get emails from strangers, not everyone wants to do work with everyone else. Got it. And so sometimes they just ignore you. That’s what you are finding, even you in the scientific research and communications space.

Ashmita: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And, you know, and it’s just a matter of the professor might not be available at the time. Maybe it’s just not the right project for them. Maybe they’re not interested. Maybe they are interested. But yeah, it’s a cumbersome process. And typically, if you want to find the specific kind of expert, you might have to actually contact professors across five different universities, you know, because you might find one professor at this university, another one at a different university, And then those are five different places you have to contact. And you can’t reach the professor directly because the university has places where you can contact them. But again, you know, it just increases the touchpoints where you just have to . . . you got to keep at it until you get someone.

Andrew: So I thought, at that point, you go and create a marketplace, maybe get some off-the-shelf marketplace software, put it up on a website, and get started. You told our producer, “No. I wanted to understand two things before I got started. The first was I wanted to see what services Ph.D.’s that would be on my platform would be able to offer. Like, what’s the menu of options I can get customers? And the second is I want to see if businesses would be willing to come and look for projects, look for people on my platform.” The question I have for you is how are you able to check this out? How are you able to test to see what Ph.D.’s would be willing to offer, and then what businesses would be willing to buy?

Ashmita: You know, so when we started the site and this was back in, like, 2015, recall, it wasn’t even a beta version. It was an alpha version. Basically it was almost no functionality. What we basically had was one form to let people come in and create projects and one form for freelancers to fill to create a profile. And that was it. And we weren’t really . . . While there were standard business models, you know, obviously, by then Upwork was quite established. Freelancer.com, they had kind of models for how these things work. So we just wanted to understand our clients that given their issues, would they be willing to even work with this model? And so, you know, with just those two very fundamental functionalities, we kind of launched, and we got a few interested people coming in, posting projects and . . .

Andrew: How?

Ashmita: They just filled out the form.

Andrew: So the way you tested it was to put up a website and see if anyone would fill out either of those forms.

Ashmita: Yeah, pretty much.

Andrew: So how did people find the site?

Ashmita: So we did, like, just very, very basic marketing, you know, a few blog posts, a few things. I mean, we’re not talking about volumes here. We’re just talking about, you know, just trying to see if we can get someone interested and try this process out with us, and so we just had that. We had a few people coming in, post some briefs that we could use, and then the whole rest of the process, we did completely offline. You know, for example, right now, we have a place where people . . . where freelancers can actually fill out a proposal form and submit their bid.

And at that time, we just sent them a Word document, said, “Hey, fill this out.” We converted that to PDFs, send it to the client. You know, we converted, we took screenshots of the profiles, send it to the client. The clients, they, you know, chose someone. They say, “We really like this person. Let’s work with them.” We said, “Okay. Here’s their email. These work together, and please keep us in cc, so we can see how that goes.”

Andrew: That’s it.

Ashmita: That’s it.

Andrew: And, by the way, I’m looking at an early version of your site. There were posts like the one on September 8th, 2014, “Where is the demand for Ph.D.’s?” And you’re talking in that blog, post about where the demand is, expecting the Ph.D.’s would come in and say, “Oh, I didn’t realize there was a demand for me. I want to fill out the form.” And the form was right underneath. In fact, it wasn’t two forms. It’s one form which asked for name, email address. And then from a drop-down menu, they could say whether they are interested in getting work or interested in hiring an expert, right? And that’s even just an off-the-shelf tool that you used. What did you discover as you were finding people fill out this form?

Ashmita: Well, obviously, you know, look, I think what you’re describing was like that was before we even kind of launched. That was just a WordPress site to see if we can generate any kind of interest. And basically what we realized was, “Yes, there are people interested. We’re getting some people who kind of express interest in the idea, or who were intrigued by the concept.” So now, let’s move this to the next stage. So from the WordPress site, we said, “Okay. Now, let’s launch a proper website with a homepage and a proper form.”

And so that when we launched the two forms, and then when we got these few projects, we conducted them completely offline. We saw that, okay, this is the kind of workflow that would fit these kinds of clients. And then we said, “Okay. Now, let’s build that a little bit more functionality.” Because obviously, people without seeing anything, they were very hesitant actually, you know, to try us out. So, you know, we just kind of kept building the basic building blocks of functionality that we needed to move to the next step, to get more users to try us out. And that was really the first three years.

Andrew: Did people filling out the form, for the first three years, give you any insight into whether there was enough demand for this? What type of demand there was?

Ashmita: Yes, they did. And, in fact, it was, you know, a lot of these last five years have really been just a large-scale discovery process for us. So when we started, we kind of started with this vision. We wanted to democratize access to scientists. We had a few use cases in mind. These are the kind of companies who would use us and for so and so reasons. And then when we launched it and when we started getting people to come in, we actually discovered a wider variety of use cases than we actually anticipated, and so that kind of just kept us going.

Oh, here’s this food science company coming in, saying, “You know, we’re trying to get this. It’s like, you know, mom’s recipe. I’m trying to turn it into a manufacturing recipe. I have this product. It’s not lasting long enough. I want to increase shelf stability.” And then without actually a lot of effort on our part, we kind of saw a growing segment there. So that’s something that kind of came organically to us. In this last year, we saw this influx of clients from the cosmetics industry coming in. And we dug a little deeper, and we found that actually, the cosmetics boutique industry is exploding a little bit. And, you know, there are a lot of these entrepreneurs who are just starting their own cosmetic products.

Andrew: You know, it’s like Instagram stars who all decided that they’re going to create their own cosmetics, their own skincare line, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They have a couple of ideas, and so the way that they find somebody to back their ideas and help them figure out what actually would work is to come to Kolabtree.

Ashmita: Exactly. Exactly.

Andrew: Okay. All right. Let me take a moment to talk about my first sponsor, and then I’ll come back into this conversation. My first sponsor is a company that you might be able to use. It’s called Qordoba. Here’s something that I’ve noticed. For a lot of companies addressing their audience as guys, it’s offensive. It’s sexist. It assumes that everyone reading the material is a man, and it’s just off-putting for other people, just not the way that they want to write. They don’t want to address their audience that way. The problem is that every writer on the team, including the developers, including the freelancers, including the person who was just communicating via email doesn’t exactly know what the rules are in a company for how to communicate.

And some companies have gone the extra step and put together a Google Doc or some kind of stylesheets, style guide with everything that they stand for, and how they communicate. Nobody reads those things. So the people at Qordoba said, “You know what? We’re just going to make software that makes it easy for writers to write. Writers throughout the company to write. And by the way, whenever they’re ready to see if their writing is clear, if their writing is grammatically correct, if their writing is in line with the way that the company communicates, they could just have our software tell them, and we’ll make it easy.

We’ll underline the things that are just grammatically wrong or the phrases that are just not in line with how we communicate and allow anyone on the team to write, not just well but write the same way as everyone else in the company.” And you wouldn’t realize this was a big issue, except if you were me because I’m an interviewer, and I have to tell you before I do an interview with you or anyone else that I interview here, I go and I see how did they write their company name. Like Kolabtree could be capital K, capital T? Is it capital K, capital T? Who knows? But for founders, it’s offensive if you get wrong. Is it in your company, capital K, capital T?

Ashmita: It’s a lowercase t.

Andrew: Sorry.

Ashmita: It’s actually a lowercase t.

Andrew: Lowercase t, right? And it’s all one word, and that matters to you. Some founders feel like, “You don’t even know me. You didn’t take the time to prepare for me because look at how you got my name wrong.” I get it. The problem I have is I will go on their website to see how they write it. And I got to tell you. The logo has it one way. The copyright has it another way. Whoever wrote the . . . What’s it called? The terms of service had no idea and wrote it a third way. And then the blogger from last week who wrote a great blog post about their topic has it a fourth way, and so I have no idea what it is.

Because the company isn’t working the same way. And that’s just for the way that they communicate their company name. Think about the way that they write. The style, when it’s off, it feels off. When it’s on, it feels like it’s a professional operation. That’s what Qordoba does. They make it easy for everyone on your team to communicate the same way and make it easy. All right. Here’s what I’m going to offer you. Anyone who wants to go and try this thing, you’re going to have a hard time spelling Qordoba, so I’m going to spell it for you, and then I’m going to give you a discount on it.

So Qordoba is spelled Q-O-R-D-O-B-A. And if you go to qordoba.com/mixergy, you can even just try it for free. So that’s Q-O-R-D-O-B-A.com/M-I-X-E-R-G-Y, and you’ll get it for free to try it out, see if it works for you, see if it could replace your stylesheet, see if it could help you and your company and your freelancers all communicate better. All right. Wow, you know, and it’s not just free time on the software if you decide to pay for it afterwards. They’re even going to take off 25%. All right. Qordoba, thank you so much for sponsoring. The software was first, WordPress. When you started to shift, what did you shift to, and who created it?

Ashmita: So we got together with a developer. We hired a consultant to design the homepage, and the developer, you know, kind of just put the website together, put those forms together. It was very, you know, a startup mode just to get resources where we can.

Andrew: Why build it from scratch? Why build it from scratch? It feels to me like there are tools on the market for marketplaces, right? Couldn’t you just have used one of the software that’s out there? Maybe not WordPress, but there are open-source and other tools that you can use.

Ashmita: Yes, that maybe might’ve made sense on the face of it, but we always kind of knew that the key piece of what we’re going to build and how we’re going to do this is the platform that we built, is the product that we built. And really, at the end of the day, you know, our top priority is to matchmake, you know, businesses with the kind of experts they need. And then second, that the whole process of working together on the project very easy. So just an example, you know, and this is an early feature that we built. We have an integration with an organization called ORCID. ORCID supplies unique author IDs to academics and academics use it to compile unique collocation records. And so we have that integration so that scientists can populate the profiles on their platform by connecting to their ORCID profiles and simply [inaudible 00:21:16] information from there, including their publication lists.

Andrew: Oh, got it. And that’s the type of thing that off-the-shelf software is not going to be able to do.

Ashmita: Absolutely not.

Andrew: So an academic who already has their information on ORCID can just connect to ORCID and bring in all of their background and allow themselves to present themselves well on your platform without having to re-create their profile. Got it. And that’s the type of thing you want to do from scratch. How was the development process for getting this done the first time?

Ashmita: There was a learning curve, definitely. I think theoretically, we all think we can prioritize and, you know, just be very efficient in development and art as much as the science. And that, it can take time to kind of hone it to the point where you’re spending your time on the right things and just making sure . . .

Andrew: What is a mistake that you made in developing the first version?

Ashmita: I think maybe initially, we were . . . Because we were thinking we built this very forward-looking product, we picked a text stack that was just a little too forward-looking, so we actually had to . . .

Andrew: What was that? What do you mean?

Ashmita: So we picked, I think, it was called closure, the text stack and something that would help us with a lot of the algorithm writing and other things that anticipating, and it turned out no, actually, you know, the standard text stack would work equally well if not better for us. And so we actually had to take a little bit of time to change our text stack right. One second. I think the light in the office is going off.

Andrew: Yeah. What time is it where you are? Where are you?

Ashmita: I’m in London.

Andrew: In London?

Ashmita: Yeah.

Andrew: It’s quite late in the day.

Ashmita: Yeah, it’s 6:30, and it’s dark out. But I’m not sure why this is . . .

Andrew: And so what you do is you’re waving your arm up to make sure that the light in your room turns on.

Ashmita: I’m just trying to get it back on.

Andrew: Is this your own personal office that you installed one of these lighting systems on to automatically turn off?

Ashmita: No, absolutely not. This is a shared workspace.

Andrew: Oh, okay. I want to know how cheap you were. I love hearing how entrepreneurs are cheap. How cheap are you? Do you have an example?

Ashmita: Oh, gosh, you know, there’s a tool that’s, like, $20 a month. Like, really, do you really need it? And how much is it going to save, you know?

Andrew: For yourself, because if there’s a software online for 20 bucks a month, you second-guess it several times before you decide to make a purchase.

Ashmita: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, anything, you know, that’s going to take expense out for more than two months in a row, do we really need it? What’s the value-add here? What are we saving time on?

Andrew: Is there one that you are, especially proud that you are able to get rid of?

Ashmita: There’s so many tools that we’ve just experimented with.

Andrew: I’ll tell you one that . . . Yeah, and so you experiment with them, and then you sign up. The biggest problem I have with software is, it’s really hard to stop using it. You’re so tied in. You know, like Google Drive, I needed to go away to South Africa, and I said, “All right. We don’t have enough room on our Google Drive. I’m going to just up it from 100 . . . No, what was it? It’s, like, from 10 terabytes to 20 terabytes. We create a lot of videos here. I upped. Now, I’ve to go down. It’s such a pain because I have to find one terabyte of data that I don’t need anymore to get rid of it. Then the software that we all signed up for as a team . . .

And it gets embedded in our site somewhere and the whole site breaks if we get rid of it, so it’s really hard. And for me, especially because there are so many people who I interviewed, who created software, who wanted me to try it out, and I hate asking people for free trials of their stuff or for free software. So I say, “Okay. Sure. Sign me up.” But it’s often really hard. If it’s integrated into your business, it’s really hard to break yourself of it.

Ashmita: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, we generally tend to . . . We kind of just put a trial period in our heads anyway, all the time.

Andrew: When you sign up.

Ashmita: When we sign up, you know, even if we’re paying for it.

Andrew: Okay. And the month to go cancel.

Ashmita: Yeah, exactly.

Andrew: And then with a reminder to cancel.

Ashmita: Yes, I do. I do put reminders on my Mac to cancel subscription in two months if it doesn’t work out.

Andrew: You know, my biggest pain is it’s not even software. It’s people because you hire someone, even if it’s a freelancer on an ongoing basis, it could be super expensive over time, right?

Ashmita: Absolutely.

Andrew: And then people know about expanding scope. All right. How many people are on your team now? How many people are running this?

Ashmita: We are a 17-member team now.

Andrew: Wow, you’ve grown.

Ashmita: Yeah, and we are actually fairly . . . We’re pretty geographically distributed, so that’s another way we can save quite a bit. We’re very much a remote collaboration team. If we’re trying to build a platform where we’re trying to encourage remote collaboration. It just makes sense that we’re really good at it, so that’s the kind of way we’ve kind of build it out. So we have a few people in the UK. We have a large team in India. Some of them work out of . . . So we’ve gotten space at Cactus Communications, so, you know, we saved quite a bit with that. At least, we have a shared office space in another city in India, that another team works out of, and then we have a shared office space in the UK that we come to when we need to work together.

Andrew: What’s the Indian team for?

Ashmita: So it’s all a mix, so our technology where we’re building it in-house, so the full technology team is in India. Half of our marketing team is in India. Our business team who kind of looks after our users, builds relationships, does our customer relationship management, customer support, etc., they work . . . There’s a team in India, and we have someone . . . I’m in the UK as well, so it’s all kind of . . . Yeah.

Andrew: By the way, you talk with your hands as much as I do. Watch how much you’re banging on the table because it hits the mic on your computer. All right. Talk to me about how you’re able to find both sides of the marketplace. At first, it was you put stuff online and you have a blog post and people show up, but not that many. What’s the part of the marketplace that you spent the most time on in the early days?

Ashmita: We were pleasantly surprised in that we found quite a few researchers and scientists interested in freelancing and trying to find industry projects to work on, business projects to work on. So what we found difficult . . . And initially, at least, it’s just getting the word out about this platform because this is not a space where you’re used to thinking, “Oh, let me just go to this place and find a freelancer.” It’s actually not even standard to think, “Oh, let me go to a place where I can find a freelancer.”

It’s usually, you know, “Do you know someone? I need someone with this kind of background. Do you know someone? Let’s just look around on LinkedIn and see if we can find someone.” That’s kind of the standard MO for companies when they’re looking for an expert of this type. So just to make ourselves visible, get ourselves out there as a place they can come to shop for those experts, that was really difficult to . . .

Andrew: Yeah, so what do you do?

Ashmita: You know, it started off a little bit slowly in that. You know, we were targeting everyone. We were saying, “Hey, you need a scientist, come to us.” And if you actually dig even a little deeply, you know, just one level down into this industry, it’s a vast industry with a lot of segments, a lot of niches, a lot of various . . .

Andrew: So let’s say you’re going after everyone. How would you do that? Let’s be specific. You’ve come up with the site. You put up your form. You need people to come on. You decide, “You know what? If we could get clients, then we’ll figure out a way to get the scientists that they need.” So you decide, “I’m going to focus on the people with the money. And then they’ll be patient as I go and hunt down the freelancers that they need to do the work,” right? Great. Then you say, “We’re going to go after anyone who needs a scientist.” When you do that, how did you do it? Did you send out emails to strangers? Did you go online and start blogging about all these different topics that don’t relate to each other? What did you do? Buy ads? Be specific.

Ashmita: We tried all of it. We wrote a ton of blog posts. We went out. We published in other publications. Oh, I’m so sorry.

Andrew: Yeah, watch out.

Ashmita: We took out ads. We really tried everything and really, in the beginning, we were saying, “Oh, you need a scientist, come to us.” So, you know, we were looking at people saying, “Oh, I want to hire a scientist.” And then we realize, you know, people aren’t saying, “Oh, I want to hire a scientist.” People are saying, “Oh, I want to hire a biologist,” or “I want to, you know, hire a mathematician?” So then we dug one level deeper, and then we found, “Oh, you’re saying you want to hire . . . ” You know, people who want to hire a mathematician, actually they don’t just want to hire any mathematician. They might want to hire someone who’s really good at algorithm optimizations or, you know, they might want to hire someone who’s really good with analytics.

Andrew: And when you say dug deeper, you mean when somebody came to the site saying, “I want to hire,” you would check in with them and say, “What are you hiring for? Who is it,” right?

Ashmita: Exactly.

Andrew: And then how formal was that? Did they have to talk to you on the phone before they could hire from your platform?

Ashmita: I mean, when people post requirements with us, you know, they fill out a short . . . You just fill out a short form with your brief, and we use that brief to find, to kind of handpick and match you to the best experts that we have available. And those briefs, by themselves, kind of give us a much fuller picture of what people are looking for because the briefs would kind of describe the work that they had, and the kind of expertise they were looking for, the scope of the work that needed to be completed, and the skills that the freelancer needed to have to complete that work. So it was really just, you know, on a daily basis, looking at what was coming in, understanding what those guys were looking for, guys and gals were looking for.

Andrew: When you say what they were looking for, you mean by talking to them on the phone beyond the brief or just looking at the brief?

Ashmita: In some cases, looking at the brief. Wherever we got the chance by talking to them, I mean, we still try to get on the phone with as many people as we can to really understand what their, you know, goals are, what they’re looking for, and to, you know, just kind of add whatever we can to the parameters that we use to search for the best experts for them.

Andrew: All right. I’m looking at a version of your site from just not too long ago. I want to ask you a few questions about what I see on there. But first, I’m going to talk about my second sponsor. It’s a company called Toptal. If someone’s listening to me and what they decide is that they need a designer, I want you to understand the story that I’ve heard recently about a company that does retreading. Do you know what retreading is? I’ve never heard of this. Ashmita, do you?

Ashmita: No.

Andrew: You’ve never heard of it either, right? Get this. You know all the trucks that we see on the road, all those businesses that have lots of cars on the road, it turns out they have three big expenses.

One, of course, is people because you have to pay people to sit on those trucks and move them around. Second is gas. We all understand that. The third thing is tires because they go through tire so much because they’re driving all the time that the tire starts to get bald which is unsafe. You got to replace it. Well, there’s a company that decided, “Well, what we’re going to do is retread tires.” And that means take the tread on a tire. I think they buff it off, and then they get brand-new tread, and they glue it on, and it has to be done in the right way or else, you know, you have an accident. That company is called Bandag.

I had to go look at the company name. I saw the retreading process. It’s amazing. But for all the people who are involved in making sure that a tire gets retreaded properly, they need software to manage every part of the process. And they said, “You know, we don’t have expertise in creating software. We have expertise in adding treads to tires. Let’s go to Toptal.” And so they went to Toptal, and they said, “Do you have a designer, somebody who has experience creating a software that’s so compelling that people almost have to force themselves to stop using it.”

And Toptal said, “Yeah, of course.” They introduce them to some developers. Bandag hired those developers, ended up with software that made sure that there aren’t mistakes that would be made if there wasn’t any software. But also, that it’s used in a way that ensures that the treading process gets done right. And they love it so much that I saw that they created this whole video about how much they enjoyed working with Toptal, and what their process was like. The reason I’m bringing this up is I’ve talked for a long time about how you can go to Toptal and hire designers from them.

I think a lot of people expected to be designers to make the thing look a little bit better, a splash of paint, or a better logo. That’s not what I’m talking about. When I say designers, yes, you can get that from Toptal, but you can get experienced designers from Toptal. People you can go to and say, “Here’s what I’m trying to get my user to do,” whether it’s your customer or people inside your company. “Here’s what I need them to do, and I want them to do it well without mistakes and give them the user experience that’s actually enjoyable.” And so that’s what Toptal can do for you.

If you’re out there and you’re looking to hire a user experience expert, a designer, I want you to go to toptal.com/mixergy because if you use that special URL, number one, I get credit for it. Number two, you get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours, in addition to a no-risk trial period. So here it is. Top as in top of your head, tal as in talent. T-O-P-T-A-L.com/mixergy.

The thing that I noticed as I went to your site was it is a lot of different types of scientists. You’ve got machine learning in healthcare here. You’ve got someone for medical device. You got a blog post about a clinical evaluation report writer for your medical device. At what point did you say, “We’re going to start to focus in on one area?” And then how do you figure out what to focus on if you did?

Ashmita: That’s a great question. That’s actually where we’re at right now. Like I said, these last few years have really just been a discovery process for us in terms of, you know, understanding who are the segments, who are the kinds of clients, where are the use cases for this kind of marketplace? And now, we actually have a fair idea of the various verticals, and we’re looking to kind of double down and start narrowing our focus. So currently we’re focusing on medical device companies and biotech companies who are heavily in the innovation space.

They constantly need knowledge workers for a variety of tasks core to product development or related to taking the product to market, regulatory requirements, or even with their marketing activities, to prepare the right papers, articles, blog posts, etc. So this is a space that we’re really excited about, and we’re going to start narrowing our focus on this.

Andrew: And that’s where you’re going to start to spend more of your time, focusing more the blog posts on that, the outward communication on that, and that’s because you’ve already seen the people on the platform doing this.

Ashmita: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know, we’ve seen the kind of use cases that these companies come to us with. And it’s an area that we think is very . . . where we can help add a lot of value in terms of, you know, saving these companies time and effort and shopping around for that consultant or shopping around for that expert who can deliver quickly, so . . .

Andrew: And the other thing that I noticed when I went to your website is, it’s spelled Kolabtree with a K, even though collaboration is spelled with a C. Why?

Ashmita: Well, Kolabtree with the C was already taken.

Andrew: Okay. I’ve got great news for you. It’s not taken any more. This very minute, no kidding. I’m not screwing around with you. Right now, if you go on any service and you buy Colabtree, C-O-L-A-B-T-R-E-E.com, it’s available. I see it right now on whois.com for $9.88. I’m not messing with you, and you should do it.

Ashmita: Thanks.

Andrew: Once this interview is over, whoever had it before is done with it. Grab it.

Ashmita: So actually, you know, the name Kolabtree comes from a term called collaboratory which is . . . It’s not a well-known term, but it’s something we came across when we were trying to figure out the name. And so collaboratory, it’s C-O-L-L-A-B- . . . well, laboratory. And it’s a term that’s used to describe a group of researchers or scientists coming together to collaborate remotely across different locations on a variety of disciplines, so that term really stuck with us. So we are thinking actually, “Let’s call this Collaboratory.” And then the media feedback with that was, “No, that’s too complicated a word.” So then we . . .

Andrew: Yeah, it’s a bit of egg heady thing to do. I have to tell you. As somebody who has a difficult name, you got to watch out because for years and even still right now, people use the name Mix Energy to describe my company all the time, and it’s Mixergy, and it’s a pain. And even though I know the difference between the two of them, I just have to tell you that most people do not know it. I’ve got an email here. Michael . . . Why am I forgetting Michael’s last name? From DomainSherpa. Michael, what’s your last name? Michael said, “Everyone keeps doing this. I’m going to go and buy you the domain.” He worked out a deal with the guy who had Mix Energy, and he bought it for me as a gift, so . . . and it’s a nice help.

Ashmita: So actually we find that in our brand searches, people don’t usually spell it with the C, they usually add a double L to it, so . . .

Andrew: Oh, let me see if one with double L.

Ashmita: K-O-L-L. Yeah.

Andrew: Oh, K-O-L-L. K-O-L-L . . .

Ashmita: Yeah, K-O-L-L.

Andrew: . . . labtree.com. I’m telling you. Michael from DomainSherpa is listening to this, just burning up because there again. K, double L . . . Kolabtree with double L is also available for $9.88. You lock those domains up. Nobody else gets it. It makes it easier. Forget about losing customers. It just makes it easier for your customers who are searching for you. All right.

Ashmita: That’s a good idea. We’ll definitely do that.

Andrew: I love it. I love how cheap it is, and I love that it’s available. But you better do it before this interview is published because somebody out there is going to go get it, and then they’re going to start to hit you up for money. Actually, I know my audience. They’re probably going to give it to you as a gift. Especially if Michael Cyger . . . That’s his last name. Michael Cyger. If he discovers it, he’ll help out. So the other thing that I’m wondering is what percentage of your business do you own yourself since you kind of co-founded it with someone else, who incubated it, who put up some of the money?

Ashmita: So I’m not at liberty to reveal this. The exact percentages, I do own a minor stake and . . .

Andrew: It’s a minor stake.

Ashmita: Yeah. Basically the way it’s worked out is Cactus Communications, they’ve incubated us, and they’ve, you know, provided all the seed funding. They’re continuing to invest in us, and they’re a major stakeholder.

Andrew: All right. Why didn’t you take this idea and run with it on your own? Imagine if you would’ve said, “I see this need. I think I’m just going to go create a marketplace. It’s too different from Cactus for it to be an issue for them. I’ll go and do it. I’ll get some free off-the-shelf WordPress template for doing this or some other tool for creating a marketplace, and I’ll get started.” I feel like there’s a reason why you didn’t do that. I know Ray Kroc, for years, was asked, “Why didn’t you just copy the McDonald’s brothers instead of buying McDonald’s and dealing with that?” I’m going to ask you the same thing. Why didn’t you just go off find your own?

Ashmita: It didn’t really occur to me at the time when we started this to go off on our own. You know, this was kind of a brainchild, you know, of the founders of Cactus Communications. They’ve been wanting to start a marketplace and me kind of wanting to get into the startup world and get something up and running, so it just kind of came together organically, so . . .

Andrew: So one of the advantages that you get is you get a salary, right? So it’s more dependable. You’re not in this freak-out zone where I have to work for years without taking any money and then eventually take a little bit of money, right? So you get that. The other advantage is that you get experienced co-founders who are working with you, right? You also get instant financing. You don’t have to spend months trying to find . . . You’re nodding as I say all this, just for people who are listening. And then finally, you get the benefit of been associated with Cactus and the relationships that Cactus might’ve built up, right?

Ashmita: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, the kind of support they’ve provided us, and they’ve really given us the room to experiment to where, you know, I think we’ve built a strong foundation for our growth path. We kind of know how we want to grow. We know what we need to do to grow. And it’s really that kind of leeway that they offer us to experiment, try different things, spend some time getting that product-market fit. Correct. I think maybe that kind of has slowed us down a little bit in the beginning, that discovery process, but it’s given us a very strong growth path ahead where we’re fairly, you know, as confident as you can be in terms of, “Okay. How do we grow this, and how do we make sure that this has the potential that we see?”

Andrew: I think this makes a lot of sense. I wonder who’s listening to us right now, who’s working at a company that’s kind of entrepreneurial, that wants to go and do their own thing but is not ready to do it because you have to start from scratch, who’s saying, “Maybe this is the thing for me. An opportunity for me to find a problem that our company can’t address directly because it’s a bit of a distraction but should. In fact, if they try to address it directly, they’re going to get pulled back into everyday stuff. What if I lead this thing as a separate company? They fund the business. I co-own it with them, even if I own a minority share, it’s better than owning nothing and being just an employee. And boom, now, I got a thing that’s up and running.”

When I was in school, I remember they told us that there is an alternative to entrepreneurship. It’s called intrapreneurship. That’s where you come up with a brand-new idea. The business owns it completely, but you run it like it’s an entrepreneurial activity within the big company. I feel like there’s another opportunity for something that’s not that. That’s like almost side-trepreneur like a side gig for the business that you go and run. We talk about all the benefits that you get.

The benefit to the business is they get somebody who’s fully committed to running it without the distraction of having to take their people off current projects and tell their people that we’re doing this other thing, but we’re also caring about our past thing. It’s a really interesting approach. I would definitely be open to it if somebody at my company came in and said, “Andrew, there’s a side thing we need to create. You help fund it. You help grow it. I’ll go run it.” I like it a lot. All right. Any advice for somebody wants to do this for lack of a better word, side-trepreneurship. What advice for how to deal with Cactus, or how to deal with the big company?

Ashmita: Look. At the end of the day, it has to be your own thing. You have to have your own vision. You kind of have to have that kind of desire to build it up from the ground up because while that support is there, you still have to drive it with the same energy and . . . yeah, with the same energy as if, you know, you mortgaged your house, and you’re doing it, you know? There’s not that much different actually. You know, there are certain trade-offs that you make. Yes, I own a little bit less, but there’s more support. There’s a little bit more security there. There’s more room to experiment, so . . .

Andrew: But you’re saying you still have to act as if? You don’t have all that and still put in the late nights. When the lights go off at the office, you have to wave your arms to get them to come back up. And Andrew in San Francisco thinks that it’s convenient to do an interview at 11 a.m. Pacific time, but really for me, it means 8 p.m. is when I’m done,” right? And you have to put up with all that.

Ashmita: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. None of that goes away.

Andrew: None of it goes away.

Ashmita: No.

Andrew: You work weekends, too, now?

Ashmita: Oh, yes.

Andrew: You are.

Ashmita: Work weekends. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: You know, what do you do? I should have ended the interview there and just . . . But I got to ask you. What do you do about ongoing recurring revenue? Do you have that? Marketplaces often will end up with a situation where somebody comes in with a quick project, they get the project done. They either don’t have another project coming up, or they work out a side agreement with the freelancer and say, “Cut out this marketplace. You and I will just work directly, and I can give you a little bit more money, and I will pay a little bit less because we’re cutting out the middleman.” What do you do for recurring revenue and the cutting out the middleman issue?

Ashmita: I think that’s a fairly standard problem all marketplaces deal with. I know we’ve used marketplaces ourselves, and we’ve tried to cut them out once we’ve gotten comfortable with the freelancer. It’s a natural thing to do. And I think we’ve really taken that up as a challenge saying that, “You know, we want to make it inconvenient for you to cut us out as the middleman.” And that’s really where we see a lot of the value that we add.

Andrew: So how do you do that? How do you make it less convenient?

Ashmita: So there’s a certain, you know, when you’re working with a variety of freelancers or a variety of consultants, there are just certain admin issues, certain things you have to deal with, you know, contracts and retainers and, you know, tracking the bills and passing those to the finance team, and, you know, there are just a variety of things associated with it. On the face of it, yes, let me just, you know, find a freelancer. Once we trust each other, let’s just work with them. But no, you have to manage their contracts. At the end of the year, the contract might be up. We’ll have to sign another one, so, you know, it’s not as seamless.

Andrew: What is the administrative tasks of managing a contractor relationship you guys take on?

Ashmita: Right. We take on, or we aim to take on. So just making that collaboration very seamless because at the end of the day, if we’re saying, “We’re a one-stop shop, that means that . . . you know? And especially the areas that we deal with today, you know, you might need, let’s say, someone with a medical . . . you know, who’s really experienced with product development to help you with the medical device. Tomorrow, you might need someone who’s familiar with the regulations, and the day after, you might need someone who’s a public communications expert who can actually communicate the benefits of your device to a public consumer audience.

So, you know, we’re the one-stop shop to get all of these different types of experts in one place without having to go to different agencies and different platforms to find them. And then once you find them on our platform, we want to . . . you know? It’s really easy to keep working with them in short-term bursts or over, you know, a certain period of time and collaborate [crosstalk 00:49:50].

Andrew: Are there long-term relationships? Like, we talked about the product. What was it called? The chemo product. Once, he had research he needed, he didn’t need to come back to you guys, did he?

Ashmita: I think he did come to us for . . . I think he hired the same freelancer for a second project, actually. And he did come back to us a few times. I’m not sure when the last time was he was active with us. But we do have a certain set of clients that we do find are recurring. They keep coming back, and they keep coming back because they need different experts each time, or they keep coming back because they’re just finding it easier to manage maybe a group of experts in one place as opposed to, you know, managing them all over email.

Andrew: And what if somebody need . . . What type of ongoing experts do they need?

Ashmita: So, you know, if I can just use this example of a medical device company again, right? So when they’re starting off, they might need, let’s say, to do a survey of the land, you know, a landscape survey and understand what are the devices in the market? Who are the people manufacturing those devices? Where are the gaps, you know, so basically do kind of gap assessment? Then they might be ready to start developing the product, so they might need someone with a very hard-core science background to help them resolve the technical challenges of developing the product, guide them or advise them on the correct way to develop the product, the correct materials to use, the ingredients, what have you. Then once that product is done, they might need to . . . They’ll need to figure out the manufacturing strategy, so they might need someone to help them identify a contract manufacturer, so identify shortlist, identify and shortlist the best contract manufacturers, help them get in touch, and work out the details.

Andrew: I see what you’re saying. As the product evolves, they need different types of experts, and they come back to you. If they needed the same thing over and over again, might be easier to cut you out. But if they need a different type of person, different resource as the business changes, that’s why they need your marketplace.

All right. The website for anyone who wants to go check it out, especially all of you who are in cosmetics or even food, right? I feel like that would be a big one. I see a lot of people in my audience, for some reason, wanting to create things like energy drinks or some other thing.

So I have a listener who supported my product, my site for a while as a sponsor. What is it? David Hauser came up with this. I can’t remember what it’s called? But it was almond paste in this little container. But, you know, what does he know about almonds. So the best place to go if you have those ideas is to Kolabtree, where you can find somebody who will help you. Help you do what? How do I phrase that? Will help you with the scientific aspect of it, figure out how to have the right shelf life, how to change the flavoring, that type of thing, right?

Ashmita: Yep, a food scientist.

Andrew: A food scientist that you research to prove that it really does make you healthier to drink your almonds or whatever your product is. All right. It’s Kolabtree. Hopefully, by the time this interview was up, you could spell it with a C or a K, but the actual spelling is K-O-L-A-B-T-R-E-E.com. And I want to thank the two sponsors who make this interview happen. The first, if you want your whole team to communicate properly together, use your company name right, decide whether you guys are saying guys or y’all or people or customers or clients, whatever the phrasing is, it’s always different for different companies.

Get on the same page, have everybody write well together, be grammatically correct, but more than that, be in line with how you and your customers speak. Go check out qordoba.com/mixergy to try the software for free. It’s Q-O-R-D-O-B-A.com/mixergy. And if you’re hiring a designer, go to toptal.com/mixergy. Thank you so much for doing this interview.

Ashmita: Thanks, Andrew, for having me.

Andrew: You bet. Good night.

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