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8/12/2011
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Building A Creative Exchange On Social Software

To build a collaborative business for creative professionals and their clients, Blur Group stitched together cloud and open source technologies.

To streamline an inefficient market, Blur Group founder and CEO Philip Letts decided to get creative--but not too creative. To build a market that would connect creative professionals with their clients in marketing and advertising, Letts and his team built a proprietary trading platform and custom web dashboards for participants, but they also took advantage of cloud services and open source technologies.

Letts said one of inspiration for the business, which launched in 2010 after a couple of years in development, was looking at the open source world where participants from all over the world collaborate to produce a product. He contrasted that with the world of advertising and marketing, with its reliance on big agencies working on retainer with elaborate song-and-dance sales presentations for every new deal. "As a customer of those agencies, I always thought to myself that it seemed like a very outdated model - very heavy and slow and hard," he said in an interview. He thought there had to be a better way for corporate marketing officers to find the right people to work with on any given project.

So Blur Group set out to create an online exchange or marketplace for that talent. Actually, several of them: blur-marketing.com, blur-designs.com, blur-media.com (for writers and bloggers), b-uncut.com (artwork), and innovatrs.com (innovation consulting).

Letts had previously run a couple of other Internet marketplace or exchange businesses. The first was Beenz.com, a company he cofounded in 1998 that traded points in loyalty and rewards programs. Beenz was sold in 2001 to the Carlton Marketing Group for $20 million. Later, he was CEO of Tradaq, an existing barter-oriented business-to-business exchange.

Blur (and that's supposed to be "blur" as in speed) doesn't function strictly as the type of exchange where price is the only thing that matters, but also allow clients to weigh other qualitative factors. Clients, who are typically corporate marketing executives, begin by submitting a creative brief, which in advertising is an outline of a project, its goals, schedule, and budget. Rather than bombarding these customers with hundreds of proposals in response to those briefs, Blur appoints a "brief manager" who has the job of selecting three finalists that represent the best match for the requirements and budget.

While other online brokers like Elance and Guru.com also place artists, designers, writers, and web developers, Letts said those services typically handle "piecework" projects with deal values in the hundreds of dollars, where Blur deals with bigger projects budgeted in thousands of dollars. The company expects to handle about 500 projects this year and double or triple that next year, he said. About a quarter of the firm's business now comes from the U.S., and that percentage is growing while the percentage coming from closer to home in Western Europe has dropped to less than 50%, with the remainder coming from Asia, Latin America, and other regions of the globe.

"From the beginning, we put social into everything we do," Letts said. "We started around things like WordPress and integrating Facebook and Twitter into that from day one. On the creative side, we made sure the cloud platform was a highly social system that behaves like a social network. The creatives could come into the cloud platform, and we allowed them to collaborate with each other."

The relationship between the client, the creative professionals or agencies, and the brief manager is where the need for collaboration is greatest. The client has the opportunity to negotiate through the online system, before making a final decision. In addition to providing custom built web dashboards for each participant, Blur takes advantage of the Box cloud-based file management system to allow participants to share project documents.

Even before the exchange was up and running, Blur established a private social network for creative workers based on Ning. At the time, Letts thought that might be a temporary stopgap measure until his developers had the time and resources to create their own online community. "I never imagined, four years later, that we would still be on that platform," he said.

As Ning has improved its application programming interface, however, it became possible for his developers to customize the service rather than building their own. For example, they were able to integrate the logins for the Blur custom Dashboard and for Ning so users can use the same password for both.

The social network is important because it allows creative professionals to connect and collaborate with peers between projects, keeping them more engaged with the business, he said.

Blur also takes advantage of cloud applications for back office functions, including Google Apps for email and calendar, Insightly, a customer relationship management system that works with Google Apps, and Xero, a web-based financial system.

Letts said that's a big contrast with the technical environment at his previous online exchange ventures, which was much more proprietary and based on high priced hardware and software. The emphasis on cloud service does come with its own tradeoffs, because even though all the services provide APIs they tend to be "at the classic 1.0 level," he said. "The developers need to be very good at working with the APIs and doing the extra bit to make sure that it works."

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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