I was contacted by the founders of Easle to tell me about their new business venture, as they’d heard of Masters of Many amongst the creative community. The boys (Nick Gubbins, a musician; Scott Wooden, a photographer; and Nick Law who heads up new business) are all from start up backgrounds, impassioned by a different way of working that the entrepreneurial space allows for.
Easle is a marketplace for the top creative freelancers. As a platform it allows clients to easily find the right creator for their project, and features a unique conversational contract platform and escrow service to help streamline key project processes from initial conversation to delivery and payment.
The site went live at the start of April with it’s first 50 illustrators, and additional disciplines, including design, animation, music composition and film making are rolling out gradually. I caught up with the two Nick’s to find out more about the business and it’s goals, and why they like working as entrepreneurs so much….
How did Easle come to life?
(Nick Gubbins) I was working for a startup as a software engineer and I wanted to build my own company to help our freelance creative friends. They were struggling to make ends meet and do things like getting an agent. We had this genius idea that we could build a micro donation platform. Ultimately it was a crowd funding idea where you could post a video, song, or bit of writing and people could donate money. We built the platform at the end of last year and got 250 artists involved.
However, we did some user feedback and the artists (illustrators, videographers etc) thought the platform was nice in theory, but questioned why people would give them money. We asked them what the problems they face are and they all had the same issues that come with freelancing, chasing invoices, marketing their services, and agents who take massive cuts.
We decided to try and get these guys work. We had a bunch of composers and we thought about who needs composers in this day and age. Our solution was indy games developers who need them for their soundtracks. We had a bit of technical wizardry to target the right people on line and that was the birth of Easle.
Essentially, it’s a platform to make a marketplace of these people’s skills, and enable people to hire artists of any type, undercutting agent and recruiter fees. We started to reach out to artists, and then to start ups who were finding it difficult to infiltrate creative networks. Even ad agencies were finding people via friends of friends. It was a tool that was desperately needed.
Are there no other tools that provide this service?
(Nick Law) I think we've been quite surprised at lack of competition in some of the verticals. In a couple of industries there are tools that exist, but for most of the people we have been chatting to, they isn’t anything for them to use. They have been finding freelance through family, friends or broader contacts. For recent grads in particular without that support system, it's almost impossible to find freelance work.
How does Easle work?
(Nick Gubbins) There are two user groups - creators and clients. For creators, you apply with your portfolio online. We make sure there is a certain standard of professionalism and we're working on building an ambassador scheme for people be part of that assessment process. You get accepted, set up a profile, and upload your work.
From the other side, the client sets up with their name, company and bio. They can post a brief or job spec and once they post that we can match them with the people that we think are appropriate to that job. The creators can see the briefs, and the clients can see the creators that match the spec. There is a a chat functionality that allows the creator to build up a contract in real time and the two parties agree and opt in. They pay, and we act as the escrow. The client receives 45%, then when the work is complete we take 10% of the final amount.
Our differentiating point vs. tools like ‘People per Hour’ and ‘Fiver’ is quality. Other platforms are looking for a quick fix, and might feature people who can do things like illustrate, but we are only dealing with people where that is their specialty.
Why do you think there isn’t much competition for the platform, especially in a growth market for freelancers?
(Nick Gubbins) There are big megalithic platforms like freelancer.com and upwork.com that have been around for a while. There has been a trend of more specialist platforms, particularly around app and web development, like ‘Crew’ for example. We are modelling ourselves more on that. There is a lot to be said for a dedicated platform for a particular industry, but it hasn't happened in the creative world. Agents have a pretty strong grip on those industries.
For the past few months our priority has been meeting people in that world - illustrators, writers, composers etc. We’ve been trying to find out what platforms they use and have been really surprised that they haven’t really been using any at all.
We've come across niches since we started that we hadn't even thought about before like 3D art. It's a fairly small industry and the people we spoke to - artists and a publisher for a 3D magazine in that world - were saying that it's the platform that they've been waiting for. We’re focusing on finding these niches and building a place for them.
You’ve literally just launched - how are things going so far?
(Nick Gubbins) We’ve had a simple splash page up since November and have already been processing jobs each week. Through that, we’ve got to understand the process of matching clients and creatives and have understood the pain points.
We have 800 people signed up now as there has been a lot of word of mouth. We’ve been blown away by the quality of people signing up from around the world. We’ve got people from the Ukraine, South America, NY, LA, Florida, all over.
Our actual launch has focused on a limited scope to ensure it's all working properly. We invited 50 illustrators to join and we’re sitting with the London based ones for user feedback. The number one thing we need to ascertain is how many people we need in each discipline. We want to be in a position that we have the right resource to match any brief that comes to us and that anyone on the platform has a good chance of getting regular jobs. We want to be proactive for the creatives on behalf of the platform, going with their profile to various clients and pushing their experience.
Does that make your service more like a recruitment agency at that point?
(Nick Law) The platform will always exist as an open marketplace but we're really seeing that there is a value for a more personal service. There are 100 illustrators on the site and a company might not have time to sift through all of them, so we could offer a personalised service. The focus at the moment is to get the platform working and we have a top notch functionality that enables us to drill down into the different disciplines and sub-disciplines.
How have you found running your own start-up so far?
(Nick Gubbins) I'm pretty much broke and have become very accustomed to £3 meal deals at tesco! I love it though, it's fun and in terms of the day to day I wake up and genuinely look forward to what I do each day. I haven't had a weekend for a while, but meeting the creatives is really exciting. We seem to be building something that people really need and want and that’s great.
I worked at Dojo before this (the city discovery app), as one of their first employees. It was great to witness what the founders had gone through there. The level of responsibility is radically different though. The highs are really high, but the lows are really low, and if anything goes wrong it’s hard not to take it personally.
At the weekend I had to spend about 12 hours battling with server problems and I really wanted to not do that! But net, the highs outweigh the lows. We're working in an office with a few other start ups and having those teams around is really beneficial in terms of sharing grievances and issues we face. Our first intern was due to start last week and we were really excited, and then the day before she contacted us saying she'd accepted a full time position somewhere else. That was rough, I hadn't experienced that kind of let down before. We’ve had a new intern start since then, Mathilde.
Every week has been insane in terms of the people you meet, what you learn and the reciprocated enthusiasm about what we are doing. You can tell by the end of the meetings that the excitement is from their end too and that's a really nice feeling.
What would your advice be to other start ups? What do you wish you’d known before?
(NIck Gubbins) One thing that we did really wrong at the beginning (and we should have known better) was starting out to build something that we thought the worldwanted without really talking to them. It was when we chatted to the creatives that we fortunately worked out another way to take the idea, but we should have done that before we wrote a line of code. There is a pride involved, but people should validate and talk to people before they lift a finger to move forward with a project.
I’d also advise people not to get caught up with vanity measures. Focusing on how much start up money you secure, or user sign ups can be quite debilitating. You shouldn’t compare measures, they should be specific to the company itself.
What is it you love about start up life?
(Nick Gubbins) I did my masters in computer science and there are always these fabled ideas about your start up making you the next Mark Zuckerberg. That idea enticed me, but having got into it, it’s actually the breadth of experience that being in a start affords you at a young age that is spectacular. It's also the passion it allows you to have for your job. It’s not well paid, and a lot more risky than a traditional job, but at this stage of life where you are without kids or a mortgage, it's worth those sacrifices. I love everything that I do, every day.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given along your journey?
(Nick Gubbins) Mills is the guy whose office we are working in. He is such an enigmatic character and his motto is 'just fucking do it’. Don't wait, don't deliberate, don't worry about money or anything. Just do what you want to do, and worry about it later. For a while we were considering doing contract work to pay the bills and he was like “if you really care about it - just go with it”. I may be bankrupt in a couple of weeks though, so time will tell!
To follow Easle go to @easleteam on Twitter or Instagram; and www.facebook.com/easleteam