Years ago I was running a manufacturing plant when I decided I wanted to change careers and become a ghostwriter. But I knew nothing about the business of writing: How to find clients, how to manage projects. Worse, other than what little writing I did for work, I had never really written.

So I did what many people do: Lots of talk, no action.

My wife got tired of that and created my profile on Elance, a platform that connected businesses with freelancers.  She bid on several projects. She -- meaning I -- won one. "It's time to put up or shut up," she said. "I signed you up on Elance and got your first writing gig." (Yes, I married way over my head.)

Over time, by doing dozens of projects through Elance, I made connections. I built a base. I figured out the business of ghostwriting. And I became a better writer. 

While it's been over a decade since I used the site, and while the path from then to now is certainly not a straight line, Elance played a large part in making my career change possible.

Today Elance is now known as Upwork. And since yesterday Upwork was publicly traded for the first time after its IPO that resulted in a $1.5 billion valuation, it seemed the perfect time to talk with Beerud Sheth, the co-founder of Elance. Beerud is also the co-founder and CEO of Gupshup, the bot and messaging platform that has created chatbots for companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Beerud came from India to the U.S. when he was twenty years old, earned a master's in Computer Science from MIT, worked on Wall Street, and started Elance in a two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City.

And as you'll see, Upwork's path to success was also not a straight line.

You've started two extremely successful companies. What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

There are two key aspects to being an entrepreneur: There's the personal aspect. Then there's the specific idea and business.

The personal side is huge. Many people overlook it. They focus on the idea.

Long before you get to the idea, you need to be clear about what you're getting into. Many people aren't, and they realize starting a company is too hard... or is just not what they want.

So the first thing I always say is, 'Don't become an entrepreneur if it's just about the money.' There are a lot easier ways to reliably make money. (Laughs.)

Being an entrepreneur isn't just a way of making a living. It's also a lifestyle.

It is really about passion. It takes an enormous amount of perseverance -- no matter how smart you are.

I was fortunate to have a great academic record... but I had to use perseverance and grit more than my intellectual background. Building a company requires an enormous amount of patience and determination. Building a company is marathon: It's a lot longer and harder than you realize.

That's why the personal side is so important. It takes a powerful internal drive: I really want to build something -- not because my friend is doing it, not because I think startups are cool, not because I think being an entrepreneur is trendy, not because Inc. Magazine writes about it (laughs)... it's none of those things.

Starting a business really has to be a calling. You have to want to do it even when there are naysayers and challenges.

That's true even after -- sometimes especially after -- the early days. Were there times when you thought Elance wouldn't make it?

There were numerous times. (Laughs.)

We started out in a 2-bedroom apartment; at one point there were 19 people crammed in there working. We were too late for the booming '90s. We had to survive the busts of 2001 and 2008. We had to outlast competitors who raised more money and spent more money.  We had to survive a pivot to enterprise software.  

Especially after 2001: We had just gone up to around 300 employees... and a few months later we had to let half of them go. I was personally involved in many of those conversations.

That's obviously harder on the person being laid off, but it also takes a huge toll on you.

It was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was hard not to question our strategy, it was hard not to point fingers... 

So how did you work through those times?

It wasn't easy. Whatever challenges you face, six months you can deal with. A year you can deal with. But two years in... that gets really hard.

And that's where perseverance comes into play. That, and keeping your higher objective in mind. What you are trying to achieve, what impact it has on stakeholders, employees, customers... knowing the difference you can make will help keep you going.

Another thing is borrowing elements of the serenity prayer: "Give me the courage to change what I can, the patience to accept what I cannot..." 

There was nothing we could do about the financial meltdown, but we could control how much money we spent. We could control what we spent money on. We could control our strategy. 

We could be water flowing around the rocks rather than crashing against the rocks.

That's the key: You have to be persistent and keep flowing.

All of which takes us back to your point about the personal aspect of entrepreneurship.

This what I love doing. I'm passionate about it. I want to create things that impact lots and lots of people.

We did have a few near-death experiences. We couldn't raise money, people wanted to quickly get to profitability, we had to make a number of course corrections...   

But it's really gratifying when you see the impact you hope to make actually happen.

Let's talk about the idea and the business.

First, start with a domain that you know and understand.

For me, Elance was based on three influences that came directly from my life experience.

I was an Indian immigrant in New York. I went to grad school at MIT.  Based on my experience I knew there were lots of smart people all over the world -- including in India. Two, because of my computer science background I knew technology was connecting people in ways that had never been possible. And three, since I was working on Wall Street I knew you could create a marketplace for anything, even something custom and illiquid like services.

Those three things: How do you use technology to connect incredibly smart people around the world and create a liquid marketplace to facilitate those transactions... I knew those things. I was confident it would create a huge opportunity.

Start with a domain you understand. 

You also encourage people to think bigger, not smaller.

Keep tweaking and refining your idea so it can scale. For example, there were many ways we could go with Elance. We could have focused just on logo design. We could have focused just on the U.S. market.

You really want to think big and design your product, your business model, and your business plan so it can scale.

It's just as hard to do small things as it is to do big things.

And if you're aiming big, it's much easier to get everyone around you interested and excited. You need investors, employees, partners, media to cover you... entrepreneurship is all about convincing lots of people to help you in your cause. When your cause is truly big and ambitious, it makes it that much easier.

While that sounds paradoxical, it makes sense.

In fact I would argue it's easier to do something hard than it is to do something easy. Even thought that sounds odd. (Laughs.)

Aiming big captures the imagination. If Kennedy had said, "Let's build a better rocket," that wouldn't have been particularly exciting. But going to the moon? That's something people can get excited about. That's a target worth shooting for. 

But no matter how big the idea, very few companies become exactly what their founder envisioned.

Absolutely. That's why "perfection" is a misguided objective. Start with a draft... and then iterate quickly as you listen to customers and the market. Most successful startups were great at adapting and incorporating feedback.

With Elance we had a thriving community. In fact it was a noisy community. (Laughs.) I remember we were trying to make one particular change and the community was so against it that we had to roll it back.

In fact we went to the other extreme. We engaged with the community not just as a team but also personally. We would all get on calls with freelancers. They were surprised but also really liked that we were so willing to hear what they had to say.

Too much feedback can be a problem, though, since you have to sift through to decide what you should and should not change. 

It is hard when you receive conflicting info, but engaging is half the battle. And if you can't do certain things, explaining why really helps.

And in a broader sense you just have to step back and think about your mission. Will a certain change take you in the right direction? That's what matters most.

What would you say to an aspiring entrepreneur who is struggling to come up with an idea? 

There is no simple, single idea that will take you all the way. Starting a business is a process.

That's what a lot of young entrepreneurs don't realize.

The entrepreneurial narrative that is often told is fantastic idea... genius entrepreneurs...overnight success." 

The reality is far from that. The reality is an idea that got fleshed out over time... a persistent entrepreneur that didn't give up... a business long in the making... that 'overnight' suddenly hits public consciousness.

Start with a domain you understand, and then get started on the process. Because it is a process.

Looking back on Elance/Upwork, from a personal point of view what are you most proud of?

We were short on experience and ability but long on ambition. We wrote some plans forecasting the impact we could have and hoped to make... and probably the most amazing thing to me is that some of the statements in the S-1 filing are consistent with what we thought about twenty years ago.

We wanted to impact a huge portion of the service economy. We always believed that, and still do.

Even though we had all that ambition, we didn't realize the impact it's had. Millions of freelancers around the world who can earn a living wage, or change careers like you did... I'm proud of that. 

I'm also proud of the fact that a tremendous amount of good can come out of for-profit businesses. If you want to help people you don't have to start a charity. Certain types of businesses can have a similar impact. In fact, for-profit businesses can sometimes make a bigger impact because they can more easily attract funding, investors, employees... so if your goal is to make a difference in the world, don't assume you can only do so through a charitable organization. Any company can make a positive difference in the lives of other people.

Not to make this all about me, but I wanted to do something different, something I would enjoy more... and Elance helped me get a start on that path.

That's the amazing thing about the entrepreneurial journeys that platforms like Upwork provide. They create economic opportunity from thin air.

Countless companies need to get work done, and there are countless people with untapped potential who can help them get that work done.

Elance helped pioneer the gig economy. Those foundations have trickled into so many businesses. That helps those businesses... and it helps all the people who want to provide the services they need.

That's what we were hoping to do... and that mission is what helped us get through those inevitable dark days that every entrepreneur must face.

Published on: Oct 4, 2018
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