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Bounty Hunter

How the man who reinvented email is revolutionizing the way we find stuff

Author Adam Baer

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL HIRSHON

LAST SPRING, MATT MANKINS, the 37-year-old CTO of Fast Company, was struggling to find some specialized employees. The usual means—namely, social networks and personal referrals—weren’t delivering the goods fast enough, so he decided to look for something less traditional (as is his wont, being a graduate of MIT’s illustrious Media Lab). Inspiration struck in the form of the Red Balloon Challenge, in which Pentagon think tank DARPA offered $40,000 to find 10 balloons randomly located throughout the U.S., and which a team of MIT students won with a blend of social networking and cash rewards. Fast Company had more than half a million Twitter followers, Mankins thought, and was willing to pay a substantial finder’s fee for employee referrals. This gave him an idea.

He got together with one of the magazine’s editors and, in a single day, built a crowdsourcing, incentive-driven search service called Crounty. The name comes from “crowd bounty,” a sum offered to a group of people to find something specific, like an employee or a vintage guitar or a signed photo of comedian Chris Elliott. The sum is divided among those who, spurred by the financial incentive, help locate the object. As it happened, Mankins got lucky and found his new employees the old-fashioned way, but by that point Crounty was up and running.

To use the service, you enter your email address, a description of what you’re looking for and the amount you’ll pay for finding it. Then you use email, Twitter and Facebook to send your unique Crounty page—essentially, a classified ad—to contacts. When a friend offers a lead, he can email you through a Crounty email address. The person who finds what you’re looking for gets half the bounty, the friend who referred him gets half of the remainder, and Crounty gets the rest. And if multiple referrals are required, every person down the line receives a percentage. (Mankins estimates that on average it takes three people to fulfill a Crounty hunt.)

This is just the latest in a long line of offbeat innovations from Mankins, who, as an undergraduate math student at the University of Miami, wrote the first code for browser-based email, and followed that with the idea to fund that email with advertising. “Back then he had appeared in the Wall Street Journal for creating alternative uses for Kool-Aid,” says his former professor, Burt Rosenberg. “He was also mailing coconuts to play with the idea that the U.S. Postal Service has to deliver whatever you drop in its boxes.”

Mankins went on to launch EMUmail, a company that created rebrandable webmail systems for Intel, Sun Microsystems and NetZero. EMUmail was bringing in more than $1 million in revenue when he sold it in 2001. (It’s now a publicly traded corporation called SMTP inc.) Mankins then founded Vert, which pioneered GPS-informed taxicab ads, as well as a brick-and-mortar used-book store in Cambridge, Mass., called Lorem Ipsum and powered by an algorithm that spiders online booksellers to calculate the global average price for each book stocked.

The project that would most closely prefigure Crounty, however, was a proportional payment model for online publications, whereby a reader might pay $10 a month to read whatever titles he liked, and publications would receive a portion of that $10 that corresponded to the time spent on their site. This model was picked up by publishing innovator Steven Brill for a project funded in part by Rupert Murdoch. But while Mankins is no longer associated with the venture (which lives on as the website Press+), he says he wants to use the underlying idea to increase Fast Company‘s online revenue.

Crounty, which costs less than $100 a month to run on cloud servers, pays its handful of part-time employees based on the amount of revenue it makes. “I’ve also used Crounty to find things we need, like legal work and a user feedback service,” says Mankins. The business has attracted the interest of well-known companies as potential partners (we won’t name names), which suspect, like Mankins, that there’s ample room to grow. “I’m opening up the interface technology, like Twitter,” he says, “So that companies can put the idea to use for themselves.” Soon companies will be able to rebrand Crounty as their own, as Mankins handles the back end.

Mankins himself recently used Crounty to search for a new manager for his bookstore, but he neglected to use it for an even more stressful task: finding buyers for all the stuff he needs to unload while moving to a new place. “I guess ‘thinking macro’ so much allowed me to fall a little out of practice,” he says.

ADAM BAER offers $1 million to anyone who can find him a new body that likes to exercise.

CROWD SURFING
A hypothetical Crounty quest

• A user sets a $1,000 bounty for a Tom Brady game jersey, and shares his offer with friends and associates.
• Friend A makes a referral that leads the user to the jersey. Friend A gets $500; the other $500 goes to Crounty.
• Or, Friend A forwards the Brady Bounty to his contacts, and Friend B makes the referral. Friend B gets $500, Friend A gets $250 and Crounty gets $250.
• And so on. If it takes, say, five people to get a successful referral, Friend E (the referrer) gets $500, Friend D gets $250, Friend C gets $125, Friend B gets $62.50 and Friend A (the person who got the ball rolling) gets $31.25—and $31.25 goes to Crounty.

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THIS MONTH’S AMAZING FACT

GETTING CUTE
Want to improve your motor skills? Go stare at a puppy

Surgeons typically decline to spend entire afternoons watching cuddly puppies on Cute Overload in favor of catching up on things like “medical journals.” Perhaps they should rethink that plan. According to a recent study from the University of Virginia—which required subjects to play the board game Operation—looking at pictures of adorable animals might improve manual dexterity.

In the study, people played the game, then watched a slideshow of either “highly cute” animals (puppies and kittens) or “slightly cute” ones (dogs and cats), then played the game again. Compared with those who had watched the less cute animals, people who had seen the puppies and kittens improved by threefold their ability to remove fake bones and illnesses from the game’s “patient” without sounding the buzzer. The scientists believe this could be a result of increased “carefulness,” an adaptation that might have helped prehistoric humans care for cute, vulnerable babies. Data on whether the subjects were better able to tell a wrenched ankle from a funny bone, though, was conspicuously absent. —JACQUELINE DETWILER

One Response to “Bounty Hunter”

  1. Jonathan Says:
    April 7th, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Is Crounty still running? It’s a cool idea, but looks as if it didn’t catch on.

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