Coffee & Power, From Linden Labs Founder, Puts A Jolt of Creativity Into Crowdsourcing

After building a vast virtual world with a complex internal economy sustained by the labor of more than a million active users, what do you do for an encore?

For Philip Rosedale, the founder and former CEO of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, the answer was to try to recreate some of the same dynamics in the real world.

Coffee & Power, the San Francisco crowdsourcing startup that Rosedale founded in 2010 with former Linden Lab colleague Ryan Downe and former Accenture consultant Fred Heiberger, is all about making it easier for people to do small chunks of creative work for one another, and get paid for it. Transactions are initiated online, at a website where people can post small jobs they need done or are willing to do. But most of the actual work happens offline—and there are even two physical Coffee & Power “workclubs,” in San Francisco and Santa Monica, where members can meet to collaborate or deliver services.

Coffee & Power co-founder Philip Rosedale

“At Linden Lab I was the sci-fi, physics-and-atoms guy, a total geek for assembling things out of digital pieces,” says Rosedale. “But the magical thing about Second Life—what changed me more as a person and was more inspiring to me as a leader—was not the digital Legos. It was the way people’s welfare and livelihoods were changed by their interactions with each other. Ryan and I said, ‘We have got to do this for the real world.'”

Coffee & Power, which opened to the public on November 1, is far from the first online marketplace for small jobs. Investors have been paying a lot of attention lately to bigger crowdsourcing players like oDesk and Elance, as well as upstarts such as TaskRabbit, MobileWorks, and Zaarly. But one of the things that makes Coffee & Power interesting is the way it copies three of the elements that, in Rosedale’s view, made Second Life so successful. (In its heyday in the late 2000s, the virtual world had more than 20 million registered users and as many as 88,000 people online at any given time).

The first element is rich communications, in the form of profiles, reviews, status updates, and a live public chat space (sorry, no 3-D avatars this time). The second is radical transparency, meaning the details of every transaction are available for everyone to see. The third is a virtual currency, called C$ in an echo of Second Life’s Linden Dollars or L$.

Those are the “key enabling features” that help sellers and buyers find one another, decide who’s trustworthy, and pay for work completed, Rosedale says. “All you have to do is put the right pieces together so people can very rapidly decide to work with each other or for each other.”

There’s something else that makes Coffee & Power unusual: the fact that the site itself was crowdsourced. It turns out that Coffee & Power is the second thing Rosedale and his co-founders set out to build after the Linden Lab experience. The first was Worklist, a new collaboration system for software developers. It’s a place where entrepreneurs who need help building a program or a website built can farm out the job in small pieces—a half-day’s work is the usual increment.

Downe, Heiberger, and Rosedale assembled the entire Coffee & Power website by posting tasks such as “fix Facebook/LinkedIn login redirects” and “change ‘about us’ copy” on Worklist. As of yesterday, they’d spent a cumulative $289,628 on the project (the figure is visible to everyone, thanks to the aforementioned transparency principle).

It’s no coincidence that Coffee & Power matches up buyers and sellers of small jobs, with all payments handled digitally; the site is simply a broader implementation of the ideas built into Worklist itself. After launching Worklist, “the three of us sat down and said, ‘How can we apply what we have learned and how we do things with Worklist to more generalized forms of work that might be more highly scalable?'” says Rosedale. “That was the birth of Coffee & Power. We said, ‘We have got to be able to use this to let people do anything they want.'”

Now that Coffee & Power is up and running, Rosedale says Worklist is developing into a business of its own, with … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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