Using International Talent To Build A Unique Product, Interview With Shaun Masavage, CEO Edge Tech Labs

Masavage provides practical tips on how and where to tap into a global talent pool.

PEOPLE

TAKEAWAYS

  1. Start with Upwork — it provides lots of tools to make it easy (e.g. screenshots). Don’t judge people too harshly just by their ratings — give them a chance. Stay away from ones charging too much or too little.
  2. Use PayPal if you’re hiring someone who is not on Upwork; the fee is totally worth the insurance for any disputes.
  3. Google Translate works well if there’s a language barrier.

TRANSCRIPT

[00:00:19] Anil Hemrajani: Welcome to the Startup Sidekick Interview. My name is Anil Hemrajani. I’m the founder of Startup Sidekick. Thanks for spending some time with us today. The topic of today’s interview is using international talent to build a unique product. My guest today is Shaun Masavage. He’s the CEO and founder of Edge Tech Labs. Very cool company, I’m actually using one of their products, but I’m going to let him describe that in a minute. He’s a mechanical engineer by trade with a lot of international experience, which fits into our topic today. Welcome, Shaun. How’s it going?

[00:00:52] Shaun Masavage: It’s going well. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:54] Anil: No, thank you for doing this. I’m pretty excited of having you onboard. Can you tell us a little bit about your company to get us rolling?

[00:01:02] Shaun: Yes. I created Edge Tech Labs with the idea of bringing in general a consumer product to market that had better execution than what we had seen out there, and honestly, didn’t know what we were going to settle on at first. We had a couple of ideas, and what we have settled on rather interestingly, is a music education product for fretted instruments, guitar, ukulele, and bass guitar.

The actual product here, one of the variations comes in a box like this. What it is actually is a paper-thin LED strip that attaches to your existing instrument like this beautiful guitar right here, and what it does is it syncs up over Bluetooth to an app. You can take video lessons and when the instructor is actually putting their fingers on their digital guitar, it lights up color-coded on your own instrument. It’s a really interesting merge of video and physical devices. Very challenging, lots going on in it, lots still going on in it, but very exciting all along.

[00:02:13] Anil: Yes, that’s why I’ve been really wanting to talk to you because I never get to do this in an interview so I might as well, but I’ve got the Fret Zealot on here. I know it’s a blurred background and all that right now, but no, I love the product and the whole concept. Let’s start with a discussion. What got you thinking about launching this company? Why did you launch it, especially with your mechanical engineering background and all?

[00:02:41] Shaun: I guess I started in industry, I was actually– We’re in Washington DC. Worked for a defense contractor, not a big surprise there. I had a lot of ideas, not this idea, other ideas, but I said, “Okay, I’m going to show leadership what my ideas are, really make these things happen.” After just years of not being able to actually feel like I can make a difference, I said, “Okay, this isn’t for me. I need something that moves faster.” I need to have a little more control, not necessarily over my life for employees or all that, but just over the ability to actually make a change in an area where I see something could be better.

That was the overarching experience for this product. The phenomenon that allowed this to happen was what I call the golden age of crowdfunding in the 2014, 2015 era, where it was new and people were excited, it wasn’t full of scammers yet, and stuff like that. You could actually launch a product, which is how this product actually got launched on Kickstarter and now it’s in major retailers and everywhere.

[00:03:48] Anil: Oh, okay. I didn’t realize that about Kickstarter. That’s interesting. You talked a little bit about your mission. What’s your long-term vision? Where would you like to see this company go?

[00:04:00] Shaun: That’s really interesting. The focus right now is definitely on digital offerings, lessons of all sorts. What we have is essentially a curated marketplace. We go and we find really interesting instructors, really high-quality instructors, bring them in, and what we’re doing is improving the music education industry as a whole. We’re not competing with people, we’re actually just working together to make it better. That’s pretty fundamentally different from a lot of companies, especially in the music world where there’s just so much competition.

It’s nice having the competitive edge of the hardware and being able to say, “Yes, we have something that’s the best and if you have something to offer as well, come work with us.” It’s not just with instructors, there’s also other apps that can use a free SDK to display directly on a Fret Zealot. Really trying to emphasize working together and letting everybody win, not just trying to push out competition and stuff like that.

[00:05:03] Anil: Yes. No, that’s great. You’re based in DC, and as I mentioned, you’ve traveled a lot internationally, but what really got you thinking about hiring internationally and building a team that way?

[00:05:17] Shaun: I guess it first started with those Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns where there were so many international backers, 30% to 40% international, and it got me thinking, “Okay, there’s markets internationally. Let me engage more and see what’s going on.” That was my initial discovery of a lot of international talent. That was the start of it.

Then we used– I guess it wasn’t even called Upwork in the day, but now it’s Upwork, but Upwork was our go-to for getting help in the early days when we needed kind of contract work and couldn’t bring up on anybody full time or a lot of the issues here were that it wasn’t just bringing somebody on full-time, it was a guarantee with a retainer, multi-year contracts, and weird IP restrictions. It was just fascinating. We wanted a, I guess a faster solution to get things out the door quicker.

[00:06:11] Anil: You mentioned Upwork, which is, yes, I think formerly was called oDesk, and I use it too, it’s a great site. Is that pretty much what you rely on? How do you go about finding talent?

[00:06:27] Shaun: Yes. When we need more people for a project or for something that’s recurring, we do start with Upwork. We usually ABC test, we hire three people or the goal is to hire three people. We put a project up, we let people bid on it, and then we hire three people to do not the same thing, sometimes the same thing. With what we’re doing with lessons, it’s not a big deal to have them do the same thing, but similar things and see what comes back at us.

What we found is there’s the obvious part, which is quality, but then the non-obvious, which is almost a more important aspect to us, is actually delivering remotely on time or at all. Going into I know what we’re talking about here is we found that overwhelmingly we had difficulty getting our US-based contractors to actually finish the job, and it was just fascinating. Sometimes they just go completely radio silent, and it’s like, “What’s going on?” It’s fascinating how we’ve seen– That was our biggest push towards international, it’s actually just trying to function as a company.

[00:07:36] Anil: Wow. Yes, I didn’t realize that. What have been some of your challenges with time zones and communications, anything like that?

[00:07:46] Shaun: Definitely. I guess let me give a little summary of where we have people at this time. We’ve got our data engineers, these are people who actually watch videos and code in the Fret Zealot data for the fingerboard along with some other fun stuff. They’re based in the Philippines and Honduras. That was actually the result of an ABC test. Our third person who is based in the US failed the test. We actually hired the two international people.

Our packaging design was based out of Colombia, that’s where we used somebody there. We’ve been using these people for years now. Photographer in Venezuela, which is fantastic, we ship the product down there and he just goes and finds amazing bands to put the product on and take lifestyle shoots. Our videographer is based out of Spain. We have, of course, our software development, a great team based out of India. Then we have some PCB work that gets done. They’re actually based out of Russia, central Russia, definitely colder there than here right now, and then manufacturing in China.

[00:08:57] Anil: Wow. I love this. Pre-pandemic I loved traveling globally so I love hearing stuff like that. How do you handle collaboration? What kind of tools do you guys use?

[00:09:10] Shaun: Staying in touch is actually remarkably easy. We’re huge fans of Slack, that’s our go-to. Google Drive, in general, the Google suite has been fantastic because we can just put tasks in a spreadsheet, and then if they have a question, they simply tag us in it, we get the email, we respond to it later. We used to use Skype a lot. We rarely need to use Skype or video conferencing. It’s just all very seamless. It’s funny as the world became– In this pandemic, as the world moves towards video conferencing, we shied away from it, where we were just like, “We don’t even need that. We just have all these tools that work well.”

China is a huge challenge. They have nothing Google related, nothing Slack related. That is a bit more interesting. Skype works, but normally we do have to just use WeChat a lot. That’s probably one of the hardest communication challenges. Time zone, not a big deal. It’s really easy to figure out who’s online, who isn’t online when things are happening. India, our firm actually works quite a late shift. They work noon to 8:00 or 9:00 PM over there to match most of their US clients. That’s a rather unique situation that we’re just lucky to have. The challenges aren’t with communication.

To answer your first question, talking about other specific challenges, of course, we’ve had our experiences. I think Upwork is great because they handle disputes, but even with that, you have to be careful about who you hire. We had a firmware developer who was actually a freelancer and they were based in China to do some extra work. We do a lot of our development in-house, but if there’s something that requires a lot of repetition, something that we just don’t have time for, we’ll outsource it. This individual did– was great, fantastic work for months, and then they just dropped off the face of the earth. We were like, “What’s going on?”

We actually had to file a PayPal dispute. Because we use PayPal, you get a seller protection guarantee; and pulled the money back and they responded quite immediately when the money left their account. It was interesting how little things like that you take for granted. PayPal, huge fan because of that seller guarantee. It’s the polar opposite of credit cards. On our web store, if somebody files a chargeback, we just lose by default. The credit card company, the bank has so much power. They say, “Oh, it was fraud, but here we’re taking the money out and you have to pay the chargeback fee.”

It’s just funny how PayPal is upsetting all of that by actually working with the seller a little bit and giving tools. Using Upwork’s protection, using PayPal when you can’t use Upwork’s protection. Other than that, we have not had any major issues with getting any of the work done. All of the challenges have been with our US-based contractors, where it’s been just a nightmare to get stuff back to us, a lot of pushback on the design.

To be honest, people call us crazy for doing this because of a lot of things that went into the electronics, but that’s what was needed. The international contractors understand that, but it’s hard with the US-based ones. They want to say like, “No, it should be this,” and we’re like, “It doesn’t work like that.” They’re like, “But it should be.” It’s like, “It can’t.” It’s fascinating getting that cultural dynamic as well.

[00:12:57] Anil: Obviously, you’ve made it work. It’s an awesome product and all that. Are these longer-term contractors that you work with? Is it shorter-term, like on a task basis? How do you end up? Or does it just become a long-term team? How does that work for you?

[00:13:17] Shaun: Everything’s been contract-based, but we’ve worked with the same individual for years now. Because we’re in the midst of raising Series A right now, there’s a couple of people who we do want to bring on full-time, and that’ll actually be interesting, figuring out just the logistics of a full-time salary international employer. There’s not a direct path to hiring a lot more domestic help.

We are a remote-based company. I am in the office right now for some physical fulfillment. We don’t need employees all in one location, so we might as well take advantage of the international help. Aside from being very good, there are cost savings. I will say, our primary driver was not necessarily the cost savings, but actually the quality and timeliness of work delivered.

[00:14:10] Anil: A couple of examples you gave me definitely sounds that way. You listed a few countries where you’re working with people. What are some of your favorite regions or countries to hire from, and why?

[00:14:25] Shaun: This is fascinating. The Philippines is amazing for anything related to data entry, data engineers, or customer service. I know that might sound stereotypical, that’s a very common theme, but the reason is, they go to college to learn American English and how to actually deal with customers. As Americans, we’re not very good, either as customers or dealing with customers, because we just get our way and it’s just our culture. Over there, they actually learn how to stay calm if you’re dealing with somebody who’s irate. How to actually interact with people at a fundamentally professional level. It’s just fascinating to me.

I don’t think you could find a college course in customer service in the US. The Philippines is not only good at it, they actually have a lot of people trained for it, so it’s very professional in what they do. It’s not by chance necessarily. South America is amazing for design. We love working with South America on our designs because designs cause it’s very colorful. They helped us with this package that actually has all the colors that come out as you take this off, with these little cutouts in it representing the LEDs that would actually light up if it were on. South America is fun for that, and photography, videography, that kind of thing. Just very colorful, bright. That obviously, went with our product.

India, definitely software development. That’s also pretty stereotypical. That takes a lot of vetting. I can’t just say you can work with anybody and get good quality. You need to definitely go through recommendations. That’s how we found our company. Actually, still, originally through Upwork, but actually vetted them a bit more and didn’t just throw them all bunch of work right at the beginning. If I had to do it again, India is still a good go-to, but probably Eastern Europe, like Ukraine, that’s definitely a go-to place for high-quality app development and software at this time.

Then finally, I’d say the Russian PCB developers are an anomaly. They were found through Upwork, but I think that was just luck that we found a really good firm in a smaller city, and they speak perfect English. It’s just a really good situation. I won’t necessarily say that that’s a good go-to. Although they are very good with circuit boards obviously, and other things that have been in the news lately.

China is definitely the go-to for manufacturing. It’s not just because there’s a lot of manufacturing done there, again, they’re taught how to manufacture things. I tried so hard to get anything made here in the US. There’s not tooling available for it. There’s not expertise available for it. In the end, so much is outsourced anyway, that you’re just paying for another middleman.

We definitely go direct in China, and the quality we get because of the tools we’ve put in place, and luckily, we’re a full-stack company. We do design manufacturing equipment, little black boxes for testing the equipment and making sure it all works. We’re able to send that over and very easily help them maintain their quality. If you take an active role in maintaining quality in China, then you get amazing quality. If you just send a design and hope that it comes back all right, you will be very disappointed.

[00:18:06] Anil: Wow. You have no idea how much I’m learning here. I can’t even wait to get this interview out to our viewers. I definitely knew all about the India versus Ukraine thing, and I agree with you on that, but the whole Philippine’s customer service aspect– You know about manufacturing in China, but what you just said that you can’t just throw it over the wall and expect it to– I didn’t realize about South America, they’re so good with design and all that. Just to wrap up this interview, if you have to give a couple of takeaways to people that are considering recruiting international talent, what would those be?

[00:18:44] Shaun: Definitely, starting with Upwork. There’s a lot of tools to make you feel easy about it. I’d say don’t judge people too harshly on ratings. Ratings are always challenging to get, especially at the beginning. Give people a chance, but don’t throw a ton of money at them obviously. It’s pretty easy to see what makes sense. If somebody’s charging something that’s absurdly high or absurdly low don’t, don’t use those.

There’s tools there that allow you to see what’s going on and gain trust, including, they have screen recording while a person is working. For us, they actually do exclusively computer work, and it just takes a screenshot every few seconds, every few minutes, and it just shows what they’re working on. You can verify that they are actually working wherever they are in the world.

The takeaways would be, use Upwork wisely. Use PayPal if you’re hiring anybody who is not on Upwork; because they have seller protection, and whatever the fee is for seller protection, like 1%, 2%, it’s not very much, it’s totally worth it as insurance, and it works. I’d say that. Those are probably the two biggest things, and then everything else falls along with it. Google Translate works well if there is any language barrier. Usually, you can find somebody who has enough of an English background to get by, or if you know a different language, finding somebody who can speak that language.

[00:20:14] Anil: Even the PayPal thing, I didn’t realize that. That’s another nugget there. Thank you so much for doing this.

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