Sramana Mitra: Where does that bring us up to, timeline-wise?
Mike Morris: That brings us up to 2001. That’s when the next major shift in my career happened. That was the time where we had gone through our first year after the acquisition. The economy wasn’t fantastic, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. I moved back to Boston and got married.
At that point, I was looking to do something else. I was done with consulting. It wasn’t as fun as it was when you’re in the high-growth mode. I was either going to grow and start a biotech company, and Boston was the right place to do that. I started researching and taking a class on bioinformatics. At the same time, I was connected with the Chairman and Founder of Tallan. He had a lot of capital and a lot of ability to invest in things.
I’d been discussing with him this idea of a biotech company, and he was busy with the idea for what would later would become a crowdsourcing company. Topcoder was this concept that the Internet completely flattens the world. If you want to get access to talent, there’s no need for them to be in the same room with you. They can be anywhere. You should be able to access the talent easily through a marketplace approach. I saw it as an enabler.
If we got this off the ground, then I can use that to build the biotech company. Little did I know that once I got into Topcoder, I would get completely hooked in that business model. From an entrepreneur’s perspective, you have to be willing and anticipate that you’re going to have to pivot a lot. That’s the only thing that’s true about every plan. As soon as it’s done, it’s out of date.
Sramana Mitra: What was the genesis of Topcoder?
Mike Morris: When we were in Tallan, we used to run coding competitions for fun. The best developers in the company used to love it. We saw this whole shift into offshore labor as the next paradigm. We felt that this whole concept of virtual labor was more powerful. The whole thing about competition and being fun for people to compete with each other and this concept of virtual labor were the two concepts that started Topcoder.
Sramana Mitra: How did you frame that solution at that point? What were you going to do?
Mike Morris: The first thing we had to do was create a global community. This was probably in the summer time of 2001. There was no such thing as a social network. Facebook didn’t exist. We made an online arena, and we allowed people to come in, compete against each other, and win prize money.
We launched it and it turned out that the community loved it. We were giving out probably $10,000 of prize money a week. We did that for about a year. We got a huge following in universities. We started to grow virally. We got probably around 10,000 people in 40 countries by 2002. At that point, we felt like it was growing virally. We had all the best universities represented in Topcoder. We had statistics that could rank people by country, or by the school they represented.