Ian Ippolito hesitates to claim he founded Rent A Coder. It's more like the idea found him.
Ippolito was running a software development firm in Tampa, Florida, with more work than he knew what to do with. Whenever he released a new program, people emailed him asking for little modifications. "I had all these people kind of bothering me, and I couldn't keep up," Ippolito says. "I saw there was a need out there: People had these small software projects that they wanted to get done, but they didn't have access to good programmers."
In 2001, Ippolito created Rent A Coder with the idea of helping his supplicants find qualified software developers to take on their little jobs. In just over three years, the site—a sort of eBay for software projects—has exploded, attracting a cumulative 45,000 buyers who've posted projects and 121,000 coders around the globe offering to take on work.
Rent A Coder isn't without rivals; Elance.com and ScriptLance offer similar services. These networks aren't just for programmers anymore—there's work for Web designers, translators, proofreaders, and writers. Posting a project on Rent A Coder is free, as is bidding on it. Once the work gets assigned, the buyer puts the project cost into escrow; when the programming is done, the developer gets paid, less a Rent A Coder fee of between 7.5% and 15%. As on eBay, both parties can rate each other at the end of a transaction.
The site is a window into the distributed, hypercompetitive future of work: Coders, mostly from the United States, India, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and Pakistan, dive into the fray to bid on projects. Those with the best reputations, based on past work, can command a premium; many newcomers work at a loss for several projects to build credibility.
The corresponding challenge for those who commission projects, such as Darren Gates of the Los Angeles Web site Tufat.com, is managing far-flung contractors via email and instant messages. Gates, who sells inexpensive add-ons such as chat rooms for Web sites, typically works with five to eight programmers simultaneously, especially those in Eastern Europe. (In 2004, "two of my programmers had to take a two-month break because of the Ukrainian election crisis," he says. "They were involved with the protests, and I was crossing my fingers, hoping it wouldn't turn into a civil war.")
Sometimes, when he needs a design project done, Gates hires several designers through Rent A Coder to see whose work he likes best.
Just as eBay grew into a powerful marketplace with a minimum of hiring, Ippolito aims to keep Rent A Coder lean. The site has just nine employees, most of whom handle customer support and arbitrate disputes between coders and those who commission projects. The meat of his marketing plan has entailed buying keywords on Google. Which means, of course, that just like eBay, Rent A Coder can make a ton of money. Just how much, Ippolito won't say. But "we have no venture-capital funding," he says, "so we had no choice but to be profitable."
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.