Want that organic oatmeal deodorant in less than an hour? Amazon Now’s got you covered. Need to book a flight to St. Louis but can’t muster more than a text message? An app called Magic will take care of it for you. Even while the Internet of Things hogs all the attention, the service economy is being quietly reshaped by the “Internet of People”: Aggregated groups of humans who are organized and managed through underlying technology.
Businesses that find the right balance of people and technology can both satisfy customers and make the market for on-demand goods and services more efficient. But managing that equation is tricky. On one hand, the human component is a key piece of many emerging companies’ service offerings.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs and investors love technology because it’s predictable, scalable, and generally on its best behavior—all things that human beings are often not. Investors (and the entrepreneurs who court them) tend to think of businesses that are heavy on human capital like jury duty—something to be avoided if at all possible—because the path to a scalable money machine can be murky.
And yet it can be done, and it’s worth doing. But it’s crucial for tech startups and other digital services companies to understand how to incorporate both talent and technology without upsetting that balance. Here are a few ways to do that.
Companies have long relied on people to help deliver the best customer experience. Not only does that create a more personable dynamic, it also gives companies more control over how they interact with their users. But without the right system in place, that customer experience can be tough to scale.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure there’s minimal overlap between what your talent and your technology can do. Resist the temptation to hire a human to do a specific task again and again. Instead, hire someone to build it into your platform once. This way, your platform can do things like make data-driven recommendations, and your employees can provide personalized insights.
TaskRabbit achieves this by using data within its platform to recommend the most qualified “tasked”—at which point, of course, it’s all up to the tasker. Here at Contently, our software recommends which creative to use for a specific article or video project, based on data from how their previous work performed. By building intelligent technology, we save our freelancers and employees for creative, big-picture thinking.
Some companies treat the talent part of their business as a commodity. Amazon Mechanical Turk and the content farms of yesteryear are both good examples of this. You can get away with that philosophy if the service you’re providing is so basic that anyone can do it.
However, the best customer experience usually comes from recognizing the uniquely human abilities of the people in your network. You’ll lose some level of predictability (we people are inherently unpredictable), but you can hedge against that by segmenting the individual assignments that those people are performing.
In our case, having a freelancer create content on behalf of a brand requires a lot of trust. To imply that anyone could do the freelancer’s job would make our service offering more scalable, but it would also reduce the value of what we offer.
Instead, we segment our freelancers by activity: Content strategists are responsible for developing a client’s overall strategy, creative contributors are responsible for producing the content, and managing editors oversee the contributors. By breaking up large tasks into smaller projects, you can get more consistent results.
If you intend to provide a high-quality product, set a bottom line for your talent, then hold everyone to it. You might need a large network to fulfill specialized customer requests, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon quality control. Toptal, a technology company that connects companies with engineers, for example, prides itself on only accepting 3% of engineers that apply.
Even if you’re less selective than that, it’s important to carefully vet each person who’s tasked with delivering services on your platform. No matter how intuitive or well-designed your interface, weak or mediocre talent can sink your service offering. But establishing a streamlined, time-efficient process for managing talent is a scalable way to set a baseline for quality that you can stick to.
Think how inconvenient Uber would be if you had to pull up your phone, find a list of drivers in your area, and negotiate the price ahead of time. True, these are the traditional mechanics of a marketplace, but they also ruin the experience. The better the middleware, the more users will value the actual services it gives them access to. As long as your network isn’t doing work your product can do, your middleware should remain scalable.
When you’re connecting a group of people with technology, there’s no single formula for balancing humans with technology. Every company has to sort that out depending on its own needs and those of its target customer base.
But if you combine a product that serves both the needs of the talent who power it and the customers who use it, you’re on the way to solving the equation at the heart of the “Internet of People”—and building a scalable business for the on-demand economy.
Joe Coleman is the CEO and cofounder of Contently. A lifelong entrepreneur, Joe founded two successful technology companies prior to Contently.