Wednesday interview: Michael Sikorsky of Cambrian House on the wisdom of crowdsourcing

Sikorsky
"Join our happy hivemind," invites the homepage of Cambrian House.
"We’re growing a collective to help decide the fate of sticky ideas.
Resistance is – oh, you know."

This is open-source software,
Jim, but not as we know it. It’s got a sense of humour, for a start. Cambrian House is the company behind ‘crowdsourcing’. In a nutshell, this involves soliciting cool software ideas, getting its community to vote on which are the best, then getting a collective of developers to actually build them, before sharing out any profits.

So far, Cambrian House has launched two market tests, with another to follow that’s the coolest Web 2.0 idea Tech Digest has heard in a long time. More of that later. I talked to the company’s MD Michael J. Sikorsky to find out more.

"We share the rewards, but also share the risk," says Sikorsky. "If a project does well,
people will be phenomenally overpaid, but if it doesn’t do well,
they’ll be phenomenally underpaid!"

The roots of Cambrian House are in the open-source development world, which has a noble history of generating good ideas, but not always managing to commercialise them effectively. As Sikorsky himself days, "Often when it comes to that point, the community goes out the window, and it reverts back to the ways of 1950s corporations!"

Gwabs
Cambrian House opened its doors in February this year, and has been gathering ideas and getting its community to build the best ones ever since. The first market test, Gwabs, is a desktop-to-desktop combat game (see right), where you create a character, kit them out with weapons and armour, and then fight other people’s characters while trash-talking over Skype.

The second, BigHal, is an instant messaging translation plug-in for MSN, ICQ, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger and AIM. You type in a phrase, and it gets translated into one of 60 languages. But it’s the soon-to-be-launched third market test that fired my imagination. Called Robinhood Fund, it’s like a Web 2.0 charity.

"People post any
wish they want, and it costs $5 to do it," says Sikorsky. "$3-4 of that goes to a
central fund, while the rest goes towards running the fund. And people
vote on whether you should receive your wish, and every week we go
through who has the most votes, and what’s in the fund, and pay as many
people as we can."

People
can post their wishes as text-only requests or videos – the latter will probably be more effective – which
takes Robinhood Fund into a cross between YouTube and Amazon wishlists.
Extra spice is added by the fact that there are five categories,
including one, ‘Me Myself & I’, which is purely for selfish wishes.
20% of the fund will go to each category, ensuring that someone will
get their wish, even if it’s selfish.

"You don’t have to feel guilty!" says Sikorsky. "It’s going to
be fascinating seeing who gets paid, and what it takes to pull on
people’s heartstrings! I think it’s the funniest things I’ve come
across in a while."

So what have been the biggest challenges since Cambrian
House set up shop earlier this year? Sikorsky said one issue was to
make the company’s website fun rather than po-faced – something it’s
been successful in doing. But the biggest problem was how to make sure
people trusted the company.

"We had to be transparent," he says. "We wanted people to
understand everything, including how the royalties work, and how weird
decisions get made. We put a lot of effort into things like our FAQs,
and the information on who we are and who’s on our board. And it’s also
stuff like make sure every member of the community has a history tab,
so you can see what they’ve done in the past."

Ideawarz
One
interesting thing about Cambrian House is its Ideawarz model (see left), where
different ideas are rated by the community. Today, new examples include:

Suburban Celebrity (a web tabloid about the antics  of ordinary people rather than celebs); Fridge Door Madness (a user-generated fridge-magnet retail site); and Online Identity Aggregator (a one-stop aggregator service for all your web identities, passwords etc).

However, Ideawarz is currently being
revamped into a tournament structure, where idea battles idea, and the
winner advances to the next round, until a winner is found. Cambrian
House is already looking at getting tech industry luminaries involved
in the competition – the first is Guy Kawasaki – turning it into a cross between Pop Idol and
Dragon’s Den, complete with a ‘Follow The White Laptop’  marketing campaign.

"In our business plan, we called it American Ideas," he
laughs. "We always wanted to have a tournament model. Up until now,
there’s been no end in sight when you submit your idea. We’re going to
run at least one tournament a month, and if you win that month, you get
a market test."

So what’s surprised Sikorsky since the ideas started rolling in?"It’s
true that a lot of the ideas are just not that good," he says. "But we
were expecting that out of every 1,000 ideas, more then 900 or even 990
would be bad. But we’re far better than that. There’ve been some
amazing ideas that have blown me away! That’s awesome."

 

This month, Cambrian House’s team is heading to Silicon Valley for some meetings with high-powered venture capitalists, which will hopefully result in beefed-up financial backing for the community’s market tests. One interesting thing is whether crowdsourcing will have an impact on corporations, who haven’t tended to pursue this kind of model when developing new products.

"It’s
going to be the classic change or die scenario," says Sikorsky.
"Anybody can basically harness the participation of crowds. The only
reason it hasn’t happened before is that the monetisation of the
commercial part of making stuff is the least fun part of it. That’s
what we’re for. We take care of all the nasty stuff."






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Stuart Dredge

Stuart DredgeWednesday interview: Michael Sikorsky of Cambrian House on the wisdom of crowdsourcing