Crowdsourcing: Why turn to the masses for mission-critical business decisions?

There are two types of companies nowadays – private and public. I don’t mean public as in ‘publicly traded’, instead I’m talking about the way in which they interact with the public. Some companies are perfectly at home engaging with, enabling and learning from their customers and some aren’t.

The most striking example of these two different approaches is from tech archrivals Google and Apple. Google proudly displays a “beta” tag on many of its products and crowdsources its testing – inviting the public to push new services to breaking point before eventually deeming them ready for launch. Apple, by contrast, is a brushed aluminium fortress that nobody may peer into until products are polished to perfection.

The surprising thing is that these two approaches can often yield the same results. Google’s methods may be public and Apple’s private, but the end products are remarkably similar (just look at Android and iOS) and both firms have been wildly successful.

It’s clear that both public and private companies can achieve success, so the choice basically boils down to you, the company founder. Do you want to be public or private?

At my company (we offer online accountancy services with a team of accountants to help freelancers, contractors and micro-businesses operate more tax efficiently), we have adopted the Google approach. Almost every element of our business is open to public scrutiny. We use crowdsourcing techniques in our design to dictate our development roadmap and to shape our marketing – even to name our headquarters!

Some of our most successful developments have been a direct result of tapping into the knowledge of the crowd. When looking to do a complete UI overhaul of our accounting software earlier this year, our designers did the initial work themselves before launching the new UI in a “beta” channel for our users to test-drive.

The feedback came back thick and fast and, as a result, we made a slew of tiny changes that improved our system immeasurably.

As thorough as a testing regime can be, it can never replicate the way individual users interact with our software. By opening up the testing process to our clients we were able to identify quick changes that, combined, add up to more than the sum of their parts. Simple additions like “auto-populate this box with today’s date” were met with uproarious praise.

A good example came from our recently launched project, a fiendishly simple limited company formations site called GoLimited. We needed a simple, friendly logo, but our designers were otherwise occupied.

We turned to a crowdsourcing logo design website and received hundreds of submissions, eventually settling on one we thought captured the site’s simplicity and user-friendly nature. This might have taken a designer days to perfect, but by using the creativity of the crowd we were able to get a result we all loved within a few hours.

So why would you turn to the unwashed masses to inform mission-critical business decisions? Think about it this way, the kind of people who will be motivated to respond to your request are likely to be people who are interested in your brand.

People who care what direction your business takes and people who have knowledge (or at the very least a personal opinion) of your product or service. Put simply, they are your customers. If you’re not in business to please your customers, why are you in business at all?

Opening up to the crowd has all kinds of serendipitous side effects. Crunch has a user-feedback area where our clients can suggest and vote on new additions to our software. Our development team populates this forum with many in-depth new features they are planning to implement, but invariably the most popular suggestions are tiny tweaks to page layouts or workflow.

These can be implemented in minutes and the quick response from our development team lets our users see we’re really listening to what they want.

This crowdsourcing approach ensures customers value our service – and we value their input even more. These issues would probably have taken hours in user testing to identify, but by tapping into our user’s collective knowledge we’re able to fix them in minutes.

With the advent of social media, crowdsourcing doesn’t even have to be difficult. A few seconds in typing out a tweet can result in a landslide of suggestions that would have never crossed your mind.

When we moved into larger premises, we nonchalantly tweeted that we needed a catchy name for our new offices. Within seconds we had around twenty fantastic suggestions (including Crunchingham Palace, Battlestar Crunchlactica and The Crunchservatory), we eventually settled on Castle Crunchenstein.

In the past, companies have been private by default, but with the web (and especially social media) they are now switching the default position to public. This benefits the company through greater interaction and a direct line to the thoughts of both current and future customers (something that would have cost them dearly in the form of market research just a few years ago).

Likewise, the customer benefits from greater corporate transparency and an equal voice, whereas in the past they would have been inaudible.

Still unsure? What do you usually do when making a business decision? You ask around. You poll your employees or partners to gauge the general opinion. Crowdsourcing is exactly the same thing, but on a far grander and, therefore, more meaningful scale.

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Darren Fell is MD and founder at Crunch and has been instrumental in the creation of this new modern accountancy service. Crunch operates online (using cloud based software) with advice from a team of real accountants via telephone and email. Darren has been named ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ by Sussex Business Awards 2007/8 and also won the ‘Innovation in Business’ accolade at the Brighton and Hove Business Awards 2009. Darren is also MD at GoLimited, which is owned and operated by Crunch. GoLimited enables freelancers, contractors and small businesses to set up a limited company quickly, easily and for only £4.50.

  • Really interesting piece Darren. I’ve got a couple of projects coming up that would suit the crowdsourcing approach. Can you recommend any crowdsourcing sites?

    • For the logo design mentioned above we used CrowdSpring.

      It’s important to be a bit cautious when using crowdsourcing sites as they can sometimes reward low-cost quick-turnaround work. Offer a price you’d be happy paying to a local designer and you’ll usually attract high-quality work, and hopefully strike up a relationship with the person you choose.

      • Cautious? Would you like to expand please?

        • Many career freelancers dislike sites like Crowdspring as they feel they undercut their work in terms of both price and quality – which is a fair observation in a lot of ways.

          If you put up a project saying “I want a logo designed for X, my budget is £25”, you’ll attract loads of entries, but they’ll likely be low quality as the more talented designers, whose work commands a higher price, won’t be interested.

          If you put up a detailed description of the logo you’d like produced, and offer a good price, you’ll still get all the low quality entries but you’ll also attract the more talented people. 

          Of course this is quite apart from the fact that you should always pay a price you’re comfortable with. If somebody asked you about your logo, would you be comfortable saying “I paid some guy in Thailand £10 to do it”?Crowdsourcing changes a lot of things, but the phrase “you get what you pay for” still applies!

          • Absolutely, and thanks for the insight. For what it’s
            worth, I’m seeing a similar trend in the blogging/copywriting market.