Matt Barrie is a lot of things: Charismatic, successful and passionate, but above all he is ambitious. In person, his drive is infectious.
The entrepreneur behind the world’s largest outsourcing network Freelancer.com, one of Barrie’s major ambitions is to give a billion people a job through Freelancer – no small feat.
Since launching in 2009 when he acquired the website Getafreelancer.com (as well as a number of others in what was a fragmented outsourcing marketplace), the site has grown to eight million users and 4.7 million active projects. On top of this, the site now supports 30 different languages and 17 different currencies.
Barrie realised he wanted to enter the outsourcing market when he came across Getafreelancer in 2008. Having taken a year off after leaving his previous company, Sensory Networks, to ski and “do all sorts of fun things”, Barrie started helping friends get website projects started. While building a directory of stores, he wanted to hire someone for data entry. This is when he came across Getafreelancer.
The website, Barrie says, looked just like Craigslist, but within an hour he had received 74 responses from people applying to do the job, so he hired a team in Vietnam and the work was done in three days for $100. This experience kick-started his journey to creating “an eBay for jobs”.
Within two weeks Barrie had started writing his own software and had a rudimentary version up and running, but quickly he realised he was behind the market as he was starting from scratch. He investigated the number of competitors in the market and which had venture backing. He purchased a number of the players in the market, including Getafreelancer.
Now, Barrie has taken the site from a Craigslist look-a-like to one turning over the same amount as the “GDP of some small countries”.
In the 2011-12 financial year the company turned over $50 million and since then Barrie says it has experienced 99% year-on-year growth.
Name: Matt Barrie
Barrie’s daily routine is as simple as “get up, go to work and stay at work”, even on weekends.
“It’s all consuming. The way we think about it is we’re in the beginning stages of being the first software country.
“We have our own economy, we have employers and workers, we have our own financial system, we issue debit cards, we have a rudimentary legal system which involves dispute resolution and arbitration, and we also make decisions about raising the minimum wage in different areas. Plus our GDP is slightly higher than that of a few islands,” he says.
With eight million people posting projects and completing jobs, it’s no wonder Barrie has no time to rest.
“The site has to stay up because if it goes down people can’t feed their families and a lot of them have my email address and will send me irate emails,” he says.
Freelancer has between around 330 people working in offices around the world. When it launched, Barrie did everything from customer service to product development, but now his role is to help grow the business.
“I sit in the middle of the growth team. The growth team is like the powerhouse of the company. I don’t have a single marketing, sales or advertising person, but I have this growth team which composes a range of people like a university medallist in maths, stats, an onsite physicist and a robotics person,” he says.
“They’re a group of guys you’d expect to work at a hedge fund as quantitative analysts. When you work around smart people, it’s fantastic. I work with them a lot around what we’ll do next, revolving around product, strategy and growth.”
For Barrie, growth “is the new marketing”.
“You can’t grow a company of scale by putting up billboards in the street. You have to think about how you quantify that into a science. Effectively it’s by generating referrals – if every person refers two people, the company will go very quickly.
“The only thing which matters in a consumer internet company is growth, or growth and revenue, incrementally getting bigger each quarter.
“If I have one million users and my one million users refer another one million users, that’s how you get relative growth. You can do this on the internet using distribution fire hoses.”
When you see on the bottom of emails “click here for a Hotmail account”, this is an example of what Barrie terms distributions fire hoses – effectively they’re methods of establishing one-to-many relationships.
“Now the business has taken on a life of its own. Marketplaces are great when you get them going, but people often don’t understand it takes millions of users to get them going, it’s like starting a fusion reaction and eventually it will ignite.
“All of a sudden we were flaring up in Hungary and we’d done absolutely nothing.”
One of the greatest challenges, Barrie says, is hiring the right staff.
“If you hire A-grade people they’ll have A-grade people working with them, if you hire B-grade people they’ll attract B-grade people.
“We’re uncompromising on the hiring and we’ll put people through very stringent technical tests. We get the very, very best and it’s really rewarding because people will come to work and they’re energised and it’s fun.”
Unless you’re the best, there’s little point in applying to work at Freelancer. Barrie wants people to put their heart and soul into their job, as well as the hours. And when it comes to the technical tests, they’re not for the faint-hearted – Barrie once had a candidate run down a fire escape to avoid doing the test.
Barrie finds a number of his employees through Sydney University.
“I teach cryptography and I teach technology and entrepreneurship, I’ve done that for 12-13 years now and it’s really like a job interview. I teach cryptography and I hire the hackers and I teach entrepreneurship and I hire the entrepreneurs. It works really well till you get to about 300 employees.
“I’ve corrupted the whole university and taken it over with Freelancer,” he says.
There have been times when Barrie has looked around a guest lecture at the university and realised every person in the lecture theatre works for Freelancer.
“This country needs to produce more graduates in the field and it all starts with high school. We have no robust technology education in the country and students make up their minds by year 10 – if you don’t get them by then they’ll be off doing something else.
“I think we’re in a national crisis here in terms of graduates. It’s something like 60% of IT graduates in this country are foreign right now,” he says.
Hiring the right staff, Barrie says, also helps to build the company culture.
“We have no egos and no politics, which is amazing.
“The challenge moving forward is HR and the HR issues have changed over time. In the early days you want to attract the entrepreneurs and the risk takers and then, as time goes on, you get people who say they won’t work for you because you have over 100 people and they only want to work for a start-up,” he says.
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