Once upon a time the founder of freelancing site Fiverr was a lawyer
Once upon a time Micha Kaufman was a lawyer, and he looks the part. He has salt and pepper hair and no nonsense cheekbones. When we met in a coffee shop, the hoodie and converse shoes he wore reminded me of a Mark Zuckerberg Halloween costume. They fit him strangely, as though he ought to be wearing a suit instead.
"I'm a recovered lawyer, but I've been clean for more than 10 years," Kaufman says sheepishly. His corporate roots may still infuse his mannerisms, but in the early 2000s, he chucked the boring world he didn't want to be in, and reinvented himself as a startup man.
It's fitting then that Kaufman is the co-founder and CEO of Fiverr, a company that aims to allow people to freelance their way to fiscal freedom. Fiverr's user base has been steadily growing since its inception in 2010, and as of Monday they've hit 2 million gigs listed through the site. Its popularity is part of the trend of global freelancing, where companies and clients source talent wherever it's located. Kaufman sees the site as a fairy tale story, a place where people can come to achieve financial independence from 9-5 clock-in clock-out jobs.
On Fiverr, users can offer their services online, and get paid to do little tasks like graphic design, translation, or copy-writing for the princely sum of five bucks. Doesn't sound like much, but Kaufman says that people who are great at those tasks wind up doing 5-10 an hour, and career Fiverrs have used the site to pay their way through college and put a down payment on their home. It helps that the 4-year-old startup recently rolled out a couple more zeros, allowing users to charge up to $500 for bigger services, if they've built their reputation through good customer reviews.
I'm a little skeptical -- any work done for five bucks a pop, which is most of the gigs on Fiverr, can't be that liberating. It sounds more like being a cog in a machine, churning out cheap content quickly. But I could see how it might be a nice way to make some money on the side of a full-time job that cushions you with health insurance and the like. And if you can't find a full-time job, well, then any money is better than no money at all.
When I asked him where the inspiration for Fiverr came from, Kaufman didn't have a clear answer. There was no one lightbulb moment behind the site, which is funny given the inherent creativity of the platform. The site draws artists, graphic designers, singers, writers, all looking to make a quick buck with their given skill sets.
"I am not an artist," Kaufman says quickly, confessing when I ask. "I am an entrepreneur."
After quitting lawyer-dom, he was on the hunt for the next big thing. He didn't come across a problem and decide to fix it -- instead he sat brainstorming with other entrepreneurs at think tank meetups in his home country of Israel, kicking ideas around. In late 2009, discussions about the evolving economy and unemployment seemed like the right conditions to launch a site like Fiverr, for talented people to turn to make money.
The idea of globally sourcing talent is something that Kaufman himself has personal experience with. While he was lawyering away in the early 2000s, he came up with an idea for a computer securities product that would encrypt data, and started combing the Web to find someone with the technical skills to create it. Kaufman didn't code, but he had the vision.
Eventually he came across a website in Russian which he translated through Babel Fish. It seemed like the person who wrote it had a similar product idea, so Kaufman began emailing him to see if they could partner. The man spoke broken English and lived in a small Siberian village working in IT at a bank, a far cry from Kaufman both culturally and professionally. But the two went back and forth and eventually decided to start the business together. They placed it on a shareware site, and it was successful, drawing clients like Merrill Lynch and Deloitte. Kaufman earned enough money to quit his law job and pursue entrepreneurship, and his partner quit the bank he worked at and moved his family to Moscow and then to Paris.
To this day, Kaufman and his partner have never met face-to-face. They conducted the whole relationship over the Internet. Even though they got to know each others' families and Kaufman would send birthday gifts to his partners' kids, whenever they made plans to meet something would come up. "Now we're afraid of jinxing it," Kaufman says.
Kaufman didn't limit himself to people in his home country of Israel when he was looking for someone to start a business with. He thought globally, ignoring language barriers and potential obstacles.
To me that story speaks volumes about the inspiration for Fiverr. Fiverr is capitalizing on the trend of distributed talent. By making it easy to buy and sell services, Fiverr creates an Ebay-like network for tasks. This seems to be a trend in employment, particularly content production, with sites like Elance, Mechanical Turk, Contently, and 99Designs.
Of course, there are questions that come from that. These sites give people with design and writing skills the freedom to make money on their own schedule through freelancing, but the jobs listed are small, mundane tasks that are meant to be churned out quickly. Temp work may be status quo for some people, but temp work doesn't pay health insurance bills or a pension.
Despite the drawbacks of freelancing, I suppose the success of sites like Fiverr show that there is still a need for this type of on-demand employment. All hail the gig economy.