Pando

Crew raises $8.5 million to make life easier for design freelancers

By Dennis Keohane , written on July 15, 2015

From The Art Desk

Of all the cities in North America, the one with the best mix of Old and New World design sensibilities is probably Montreal.

Cobblestone streets and a Latin Quarter/French Quarter mix seamlessly with vibrant public art, prevalent and awe-inspiring graffiti, and, as best as I can describe it, ‘the strange cosmic urge,’ at almost every corner.

So of course, the city is going through a bit of a tech and design moment. The city has an impressively expanding incubator program in FounderFuel, and a hometown early stage venture capital champion in Real Ventures. The city already has a few success stories -- and a pipeline to Atlas Venture/Accomplice -- in companies like Lagoa and Hopper. And now that reach is expanding with the design and developer shop Crew.

Formerly known as Oompf, Crew is a design project marketplace for those without the time to wait through the long and expensive -- and complicated -- process of website and mobile design. As co-founder Mikael Cho explained, Crew has developed a network of pre-vetted designers and developers who are then matched with vetted short term creative contract projects -- all through the company’s platform and established business processes.

Today, Crew announced that it has raised $8.5 million ($10 million Canadian if you were wondering) from a group of investors led by Accomplice (Atlas Venture/FKA) and joined by iNovia Capital, Real Ventures, Boldstart Venture Capital, BDC Capital, AngelList, Launch Capital, and LDV Capital.

The company was started by Cho and his wife and COO Stephanie Liverani (who he followed to Montreal, showing up on Liverani’s front door, fresh from a one-way ticket from Wisconsin, after meeting her a week earlier on a Mexican vacation) in 2013, and has tried to approach the developer and designer system to both benefit the contractor and the freelancer.

The opportunity, and the reason for building the company come from experience on both sides of the design/developer space.

“A lot of what’s built into crew were things I saw during my time working at an agency,” Cho said. In particular, he was turned off by the system that charge a premium for a service and then only paid the person who worked on the project a small percentage of what was collected. In reference to a specific example Cho gave me, the CEO said, “It just seemed really strange...It was really off that we would charge $150 and only give the person doing most of the work $20.”

As an independent freelancer, Cho found bigger problems. “When I was independant, it was a huge challenge,” he said. “I wanted to work on projects but I was spending most of the time trying to attract work. I was doing sales and marketing, setting up my legal, paying bills, and all that.”

“With Crew, our goals was to flip the model, and to make this a better process for freelancers,” Cho said.

The company charges less for design or developer projects -- like designing a website or mobile app or site -- but charges far less than agencies and offers more value than freelancers. “The big difference for Crew is that we do a big portion of the budgeting, estimation, vetting and protection,” Cho explained. “We want this to go well for our customers and also for the freelancer.”

In the growing Montreal tech space, Crew seems like an organization that could help prop up the scene.

“We were there at the start,” said Cho of this current stage for the city’s innovation space. “There is a lot of early stage stuff going on,” Cho said. “Three years ago, it started to pick up. We joined FounderFuel and Real Ventures emerged as the active early stage seed fund here and doing tons of investment in Montreal.”

“We were lucky to be part of there right at the beginning and have been watching since,” Cho added.

But it wasn’t so easy when Cho arrived from Wisconsin. “The hard thing about getting a job in Montreal is that you have to speak French and English,” he said.

“But eight years later, my French is still not great. Yet a couple other languages have taken priority, like CSS and HTML, there are a lot of languages to learn and my wife’s grandparents only speak Italian,” Cho told me, laughing.

But French is on the list of stuff for him to improve.

And he doesn’t seem to want to have built Crew anywhere else. “It’s a very creative and artsy city so there is a lot of inspiration,” Cho said of Montreal. “It’s a much different feeling and vibe. I always enjoy Montreal, and you can get a lot done.”

“Especially in the winter, because you can’t go anywhere,” he added, laughing.

With a vibrant design and art community, Montreal could be on the cusp of being a nice little dev shop outpost. And if it keeps building companies like Crew, it may even attract other like-minded startups.