Hate your boss? B12 is designing work without (human) managers

Online labor marketplaces have been around since the dawn of the internet. Post a task, select a worker, verify the work, and submit a payment. There are dozens of companies that broker labor services, and the rise of these marketplaces has been a large factor in encouraging as many as a third of American workers to become freelancers.

While finding individual workers for simple tasks is now common online, finding and building teams to solve complex tasks is anything but. Diverse skill sets, complex relationships between tasks, and the need for institutional memory around a project have made team building on the internet a challenging subject for researchers and startup founders alike.

Using research around a concept called flash teams, New York-based B12 is looking to solve the team-based labor marketplace challenge, all the while opening its core infrastructure to the public as an open source project known as Orchestra. The company, the brainchild of CEO Nitesh Banta and CTO Adam Marcus, is targeting website creation and management as its first vertical.

The concept of flash teams originated in the work of a group of computer science researchers at the Stanford HCI Group. The goal of their original 2014 paper was to identify the challenges in using algorithms to build teams, including how to evaluate experts, construct teams with complementary skillsets, and handle organizational behavior to ensure that work was completed satisfactorily.

As an example, consider building a new home. One needs architects to design it, engineers to evaluate the structure, and construction crews to build it. These are expert tasks — if an architect doesn’t know exactly what he or she is doing, it could spell disaster for the whole project. Adding to the complexity, tasks are not linear: the foundation of the home can be started before the full design of the kitchen is complete, for instance.

There are a couple of insights at the heart of flash teams. First, experts with significant experience should evaluate other experts with less experience in their field of expertise. So a senior architect with dozens of projects under their belt is likely the best candidate to evaluate the quality of a new architect. Marcus explained that “You can’t review everything on the platform, but you can do analysis to determine what parts could most use another set of expert eyes, rather than arbitrarily.”

Second, projects often follow similar patterns, and so a new project can start with a preexisting “scaffold” to get started. “One [benefit] is automating away as much of the project management as possible,” Marcus said. “The other is to automate as many parts of our designs as possible, so that [our workers] can focus on what they are experts at.” In other words, designers should be designers, not bureaucrats tracking paperwork.

B12’s first mission was to take that Stanford research and turn it into a usable software library. Orchestra is designed to take a workflow of discrete steps and distribute work to a network of experts that have been evaluated through hierarchical review. As such, it is a flexible library that should be able to fit any complex work vertical. The company hired Daniela Retelny, the first author of the flash teams paper, to be its director of product.

Given the rising concerns of algorithmic accountability and fear of a black box society, B12 decided to open source Orchestra, “so that anyone in the community can give us feedback,” Marcus explained.

Next, B12 had to pick a vertical to launch its system, and landed on website creation and management. Banta and Marcus explained to me that web design has traditionally been a choice between an online do-it-yourself editor or a full-service consultancy, and they wanted to offer something more customizable but still retaining the price advantage of DIY systems. Banta felt that “we could kind of use this mix of AI and automation and smart staffing to try to redesign website creation end-to-end.”

Using a set of preexisting scaffolds, B12 can start to construct a website as soon as a couple of basic questions about the business are answered. It uses entity detection to scan social media profiles and pull in existing assets, and it can use pre-existing designs based on the vertical of a particular business to kick-off the process. That cuts the most boring work significantly, allowing experts to focus on the creative aspects of their work.

“As soon as you see your algorithmically generated website, [users] can tell us what they like and dislike about their website. Orchestra can then pull together a team of experts to work on your website for you,” Banta explained. So if a user wants a different design, or other functionality, Orchestra is designed to fire off tasks to the right kinds of experts to make those changes. Once a website is launched, B12 offers regular SEO updates based on its experts’ reviews of the site to maximize its traffic. Fully automated website design is free, and premium design is $29 a month and up.

For experts, the benefits of this system are clear. Drudgery is replaced with algorithms, as is the complex coordination that required hours in Slack to figure out who is going to do what. Performance evaluations are also handled by other experts in your field — not generalist managers who have no particular expertise to analyze the quality of your work. Algorithms may well be the best boss you ever had.

Joining the platform today requires working on a starter project which is then evaluated by another expert. That first project provides the initial seed reputation for a new expert, and from there, Orchestra can assign them progressively more difficult and interesting tasks as their reputation improves. Marcus noted that B12 has received more than 1000 expert applications, and has accepted roughly 3% of them.

Today, the company is exclusively focused on building websites, but it is very aware of the possible extensions of its technology to nearby verticals. Ultimately, the company’s goal is to build software that allows humans to be humans. “The benefits of having something like Orchestra is building a community of people who don’t just enjoy working in an expert way, but also in a team-oriented way,” Marcus said.

B12 has raised $12.4 million from General Catalyst, Breyer Capital, Founder Collective and SV Angel.