Understanding the Crowdsourcing Community

June 30, 2014 Ben Kerschberg


No Leap of Faith Required: Crowdsourcing with Topcoder, the World’s Finest Innovation Partner

A Five-Part Series — Part 2

Over the course of its 13-year history, Topcoder has mastered how to tap into the extraordinary potential of crowdsourcing with data scientists, app developers, and designers. In the process, it has built the largest (650,000 members) and most respected expert community in the world. According to Andrew McAfee, co-founder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (part of the MIT Sloan School of Management), the Topcoder community “identifies and taps into sparks of genius in a way that we have never been able to before.” While technology such as cloud computing has democratized access to global expertise, many enterprises are still wary of crowdsourcing, albeit needlessly so.

The linchpin of successful crowdsourcing is to work with a world-class partner such as Topcoder that understands the unique motivations of the community (crowd) with which it works. Those who do will “have access to an almost unlimited pool of cost-effective resources.” Gilbert van der Heiden & Kris Doering, Pilot the Use of Crowdsourced Communities for Application Development to Achieve Agile Innovation (Gartner May 2, 2014).

Some enterprises find it difficult to take flight when it comes to crowdsourcing, yet they must do so in order to remain competitive in today’s crowdsourcing economy. According to Professors Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani of the London Business School and Harvard Business School, respectively, too few companies crowdsource. They write: “Pushing problems out to a group of strangers seems risky and even unnatural, particularly to organizations built on internal innovation.” In isolation, Boudreau and Lakhani have a point. Innovation based on a strategy that relies on external, unaffiliated actors could be unnerving to some. In my opinion, enterprises that do not overcome this friction are blind enterprises (ABEs), a term I coined in this Forbes article about innovation by means of leveraging open global expertise platforms. Indeed as Lakhani has opined elsewhere, the use of internal innovation alone is tantamount to a self-imposed handicap vis-á-vis one’s competition.

He writes:

“[P]latforms such as Topcoder, with solvers in the range of tens to hundreds of thousands, have achieved considerable success by exposing thousands of problems to larger numbers of heterogenous problem-solvers and by appealing to a wide range of motivations to exert effort and create innovative solutions.”

Karim Lakhani, Letter to the Editor: Prize-based Contests Can Provide Solutions to Computational Biology Problems (Nature Biotechnology Feb. 2013).

Therein lies a key to successful crowdsourcing — expert management of one’s “relationship with the community, both individually and en masse.” Gartner, Pilot the Use (supra). With Topcoder and its 650,000-member community serving as an open innovation platform for clients such as NASA, DARPA, HP, Honeywell, Comcast, Ferguson, Cessna Airplanes, and Harvard, among others, it’s not difficult to understand Gartner’s enthusiasm for crowdsourcing’s “almost limitless pool of cost-effective resources providing access to innovation beyond most expectations.” Id. Gartner predicts:

  • By 2017, application service providers will have replaced 20% of their internal application management staff with crowdsourcing and community sourcing. Id.
  • By 2017, 60% of technology product companies will engage their targeted consumer segments through crowdsourcing. Id.

All of this, of course, depends on a well-managed community of globally distributed experts outside the enterprise and who will self-select to find extreme value solutions — those not even conceived of by the client — based on the community’s unique motivations discussed below.

The hundreds of thousands of data scientists, app developers, and designers who comprise the Topcoder community are a unique bunch. Here’s what keeps them on the move — writing paradigm-shifting algorithms, creating world-class apps that change the way Fortune 100 companies do business with their own customers, and producing amazing design work.

  • Members have a strong desire to belong to a community. They often rate this as their primary motivation. 
  • Members wish to build skill sets and obtain objectively measured, peer-reviewed rankings. These serve as a highly respected signaling function both within the community and to prospective employers. Google, for example, respects Topcoder’s rankings sufficiently to allow top-rated applicants to skip steps in Google’s notoriously demanding interview process. Other companies direct applicants to obtain a verifiable Topcoder ranking before they will be considered for hire.
  • Developers want to be recognized within the community. Topcoder acknowledges this with its annual Topcoder Open (TCO), a worldwide programming challenge and design tournament that takes place for an entire year in order narrow down the best global expertise. Finalists of the annual TCO from around the world are brought together for ultimate challenges in limited periods of time. Perks include socializing among peers, meeting corporate executives, and partnering to start businesses – not to mention landing dream jobs at Facebook, Google, Intel, and Yelp, among others.
  • Members want to affiliate with nothing but the world’s best innovation platform. In this respect, they rely on proper management of the community. It is not just the reputation of their crowdsourcing partner at stake but, more importantly, the reputation of the community members themselves that they want to protect. Selection and management of these members should be taken seriously.
  • While the members of Topcoder’s global expert community do not place financial rewards at the top of the motivations, Topcoder rewards are significant. The Topcoder Open alone awards $300,000. At least one community member has earned over $1 million through his work on Topcoder alone.


Crowdsourcing is changing the global economy, with daily press describing how it is being used in profound, unique ways. The decision to crowdsource with Topcoder puts you in the fine company of the world-class Topcoder partners set forth above. As a lone actor, crowdsourcing might require a leap of faith. By contrast, when you partner with Topcoder, you tap into limitless resources in the areas of data science, app development, and design. You leave nothing to chance with respect to the management of a highly unique community that Topcoder has spent 13 years building, cultivating, and collaborating with to produce extreme value solutions for its clients.

In a nutshell: No leap of faith is required.

Note:  If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the first blog post in this 5-part series: 5 Reasons Why Topcoder is the World’s Best Crowdsourcing Partner.



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