Can you crowdsource a sales team? Yes.

Anand Kulkarni, chief executive of Mobileworks, has a novel approach to closing more sales.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Companies everywhere are looking for efficiencies, but the sales organization remains resistant: sure, you can demand more and more productivity from a sales rep, but how can you really extract more value from something so...unstructured?

By focusing on the drudgery, that's how. Anand Kulkarni, the chief executive of Berkeley, Calif.-based Mobileworks, thinks sales reps can outsource the mundane parts of their job and focus on the glad-handing that wins accounts.

He calls his solution LeadGenius, and it's a clever approach to wringing more money from an already money-generating part of a business.

We spoke with him about it.

ZDNet: Before we talk sales, tell me what Mobileworks actually does.

AK: Mobileworks is a virtual staffing company. We make virtual staffers reliable enough for businesses to use. Online marketplaces have been around for the last 10 years, but there's still a lot of pain and agony involved in hiring, recruiting, managing and all that. We erase that complexity by letting folks push us work. We essentially find virtual staffers directly.

ZDNet: OK, so where does LeadGenius come in?

AK: For LeadGenius, we’re focused on sales and lead generation staffing. We can hand that process to virtual staffers. It's best for people who are starting to build out a sales team, for whom it's not a core competency in the organization, or for complementing an existing sales force.

We call it user acquisition as a service. We're seeing a segmentation in sales forces. The first is young technologists who are building out successful products and companies but don't have sales as a core competency.

Another case is to make existing sales teams more efficient. They're very expensive—those people are being paid $100,000 or $200,000 per year, and their time is not best used doing sales support such as filling out data, scheduling, and so forth. It makes sense to have virtual staffers do that work.

ZDNet: How did this come about? What was the market opportunity?

AK: We’ve been around for two years as a virtual staffing company. We found that by far the biggest use case was to take virtual staffers and put them on sales support. People were doing things that were ridiculously scalable: figuring out ways to get their sales team in touch with the entire set of new companies that were formed in the State of California in the last two years. This kind of large scale outreach would require an enormous in-house sales team.

So we decided to [cut] this off and create its own product. There was this notion that Salesforce.com championed years ago, that sales people shouldn't prospect themselves—that is, actively search for their own leads.

ZDNet: How do you convince your target customers that this is worth doing?

AK: Usually there are two groups that come to us: technologists for whom sales is alien; they don't see why they should be doing that themselves. For large organizations, it's an R.O.I. case—they look at how their sales people are spending their time and they realize they can get more bang for their buck.

We've seen a lot of uptake by individual sales people who sign up on their own and not finding prior authorization. This is fun for us. The cost is low enough and it's easy enough that sales people don't need higher authorization to use this product. They start bolstering their own lead supply. Very quickly they'll find positive returns. Then two or three people start using it. And then we'll end up talking to the VP of Sales.

The fact that we're able to put people in organizations in a trusted way, on-demand, it doesn't engage a lot of overhead.

ZDNet: What are your challenges? Your product has been live since October, but you've only just made it public in October.

AK: We've had the problems that new products love to have: we've had difficulty keeping up with demand. Sales people don't want to spend time doing the stuff that most of them spend their time doing. There's a need. There's been a lot of attention and interest. One of the limitations compared to a pure staff model is that we have real people behind the scenes.

Getting more folks in the door in our organization is certainly a bottleneck, and we resolve that through hiring. Another is improving our technology to make it more streamlined. Today we run about a 24-hour lead time between hiring and placement. Generally that time isn't badly used; we’re spending it coordinating with the client and all that. But we'd like to get it down to one or two hours. It's [about] handling the on-boarding process so that it's smooth and efficient. It's all technology. The good news is that none of this affects the quality of the product. It's more about turning an early customer into a dedicated one.

ZDNet: Any specific areas of interest for this product?

For LeadGenius, we see this growing. Technologists are very used to as-a-service. It's very natural for them. And technology companies are often folks whose speciality is not in sales.

We're starting to see more interest in finance and real estate, which both have sales down to a T—they're perhaps the biggest users. To grow, we need exposure there. For virtual staffing in general, it's more complex—we need to figure out how to make a virtual workforce secure in doing transactions under a non-disclosure agreement. For the medical industry, we needed to ensure compliance. But there are things we solved, and you can now place staffers without running afoul of these concerns. Opening up to the cloud, there's always a bit of trepidation. Companies are moving other forms of services to the cloud, and there's a high degree of comfort in moving technology and data to the cloud. There was concern, then improved efficiencies that helped drive people around those hurdles. We're in a very different space—staffing is not traditionally thought to be moving to the cloud. But it's a similar case. We're seeing people come around.

ZDNet: Why now?

Cloud workers and virtual workers are on the rise and are now becoming reliable enough to use. For us, the answer is technology. All the workers in our workforce are automatically assessed and recruited and on-boarded.

The old school online outsourcing companies, these guys have not made an effort to compete on quality. Big companies have difficulty trusting individuals that they'd hire on an online job board.

And it's not that there aren't good people in the virtual work world. There are 10 good people and 200 lousy people that will respond to any forum message you'd make. There's an overhead that’s involved that's palatable for some but not really for most. For us, it's a turnkey solution—"acquisition-as-a-service."

ZDNet: Any competitors? What's the size of this market?

AK: We're going after temp agencies and big outsourcing firms. In the offline staffing space, you're talking Adecco and Manpower controlling a $9 billion market. It's an industry that's screaming to be brought into the modern age. And even the online marketplaces out there, it's a question of vouching for quality. And then there's traditional outsourcing: Wipro, Infosys, et cetera, which are way too expensive for small organizations or individuals.

ZDNet: And finally, I've got to ask you: do you use your own service to make sales?

AK: (laughs) Yes, we dog-food back out the product. We employ a fairly large group of people from the cloud ourselves, particularly to help our existing sales team, which is relatively small but has to reach out to a fairly large customer base.

We hope to be offering virtual staffers in other areas as well: content editing and production, graphic design, and software testing and coding.

In any role, we have the opportunity to separate high-value activity from low-value activity. The latter is what is handed out to virtual staffers in the cloud and people like you and me can focus on spending their time doing things that are uniquely creative or uniquely valuable.

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