The founders of Elance, Freelancer.com, and others perhaps never envisioned that one day smart, industrious, and innovative contractors would use the freelance work platforms to build million-dollar businesses. Srish Agrawal, CEO of A1 Future Technologies created accounts on Elance and Scriptlance, which was acquired by Freelancer.com in July 2012, and before long, he found himself at the helm of a thriving Web development business.
Sramana Mitra: Hi, Srish. Let’s start with your story. Where are you from? Where did you grow up, and what kind of environment did you start working in?
Srish Agrawal: I started out in 1997. I was still in college. We started out as a small cyber café in Calcutta, which was one of the first cyber cafés in the eastern part of India. We got into Web development in 2002. We actually got a few orders from Calcutta because of moving into Web development. It was a domain that was catching up. Then we started bidding sometime in the same year, 2002. That was working very well for us. We bid on Elance, and Scriptlance. Things went very well, and we started hiring people.
SM: You started bidding on Elance when?
SA: We started sometime in 2001 or 2002.
SM: So, the cyber café continued until when, around 2001 or 2002?
SA: Right. During that period, what used to happen was we would run a cyber café, but once in a while, we would get a few Web development projects from the people who would come to our cyber café. Our clients actually taught us what Web design is all about. With the first project that I got from a Calcutta-based client, I just accepted the project before I even knew what HTML was. Somebody told me, “I need to get a website designed.” I just accepted the project. Once I accepted the project, I went on the Internet and started learning what HTML is all about. That is how the learning started.
SM: Did you have any technology background?
SA: No, I cannot say that I have a technology background. My dad is a computer engineer, so he handed me a 406 machine back in 1996 or 1997. That is where I started playing with computers. I was given a choice of whether to buy a bike or a computer. I chose a bike, but fortunately, my dad convinced me to go for the computer instead. That changed my life.
SM: Yes, of course. What happened next? You said you started bidding on Elance. How did you know about Elance? What prompted you to find out about it; how did you find out about it?
SA: I don’t really remember. It was maybe through the Internet. I got into Scriptlance and Elance. They were the two main websites we used to get projects. Even today, two of our biggest clients are clients we got through Elance. They are still with us, and they are our biggest clients even today. I do owe a portion of our success to these freelancer websites. We got our clients from there. The clients saw our work, and as their businesses grew, we started working together.
SM: So, these were all Web development projects?
SA: Yes. We started with development projects, but as things moved ahead, we found a niche for ourselves with graphic design and logo design. We thought that everybody was moving into Web development, and it was becoming a very competitive area. So, we started moving into graphic design, logo design, or interface design. Instead of making those Web development companies our competitors, we converted them into collaborators. We started working for those Web development companies and enabled them with their interface design requirements and all kinds of print design requirements and logo design requirements.
SM: I see. So, you do the entire graphic design production work on behalf of other design agencies.
SM: Talk to me a bit more about how you navigated Elance. Of course, today, 10 years from when you first joined, is an extremely competitive environment today. I imagine 10 years ago it was not as competitive. How did you start getting traction?
SA: Elance was much easier in those days. Because we were a small team, it was easy for us to provide clients with mockups. Most of the time, whenever we would bid on a project, the client would ask for a mockup. Since we were a small team and didn’t have a lot of projects, we started providing mockups. Most of the clients would like the mockups and award the projects to us. This is how things moved ahead. The clients were happy to pay – then.
If you go to Elance today, you find that everybody is bidding on Elance, and the prices have come down drastically. Now, it’s become slightly tiring for us, but if somebody is asking for mockups, we have to say no straightaway. Earlier, things were easier. Because the clients were paying, you could always invest a bit of extra time in offering them mockups.