I’m sure you’ve heard the saying before: Content is king. Companies know this all too well: 82 percent of marketers used content marketing in 2021 (up 70 percent from the previous year). But they struggle to keep up with the demand for unique, high-quality, interesting, and relevant content.
nDash steps into that gap. Whether you’re a marketer who wants to scale content production or a writer who wants to work with top-tier clients, nDash streamlines the creation process for over 7,000 brands, giving them access to a community of over 15,000 expert freelance writers. All serviced by a small team of eight people.
Putting Experts in Charge of Content Creation
Michael Brown, the founder of nDash, is a writer by trade. Before starting nDash, he was the content manager of a crowdsourced software testing company for five years. This is where he learned two important things. “One, I saw what it was like to create content for a company and how much of a burden it can be for a solo content creator. Two, I got a front-row seat to the crowdsourced business model in action,” he says.
Elaborating on the former, Michael says, “Not only was it the quantity, but it was also tough to write content that resonated with the audience. I was a writer, not a software developer, so I found it challenging to create content that appealed to that audience. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the people creating the content should be experts themselves. A content manager should manage the process, yes, but the experts should be writing it.”
However, it can be hard for companies to find and hire those experts themselves. Michael saw an opportunity to apply what he learned from the crowdsourcing marketplace model to content creation in a way that hadn’t been done yet. His vision was for companies to run hybrid content teams comprising both in-house writers and freelance experts to truly engage their audiences.
“In 2014, I quit my long-time job and started nDash within a matter of months. I’d had the idea for nDash for a long time and always said that I would develop it on the side while working full-time – but I never did it. If I’m going to do something, I have to be singularly focused on that one project. I have a lot of respect for people who can do two things at once, and do it well. I needed to jump in with both feet to start my company,” Michael says.
A Platform Built by a Writer for Writers
nDash has established a huge community of talented writers and elite brands with almost no advertising budget – it has grown mostly through word of mouth. Michael says, “As a former writer, I built this platform for writers. We’re not trying to scam writers and we’re not trying to take all of their earnings. So, when writers say good things about us, that brings in new (and better) writers, which then brings in new clients. I’m proud that nDash is the most pro-writer platform around.”
How is nDash different from other freelance platforms (like UpWork)? Michael says there are two ways to look at this: the freelancer side and the brand side. “With almost any type of work marketplace, jobs originate on the demand side. So, it’s a company saying, ‘Hey, we need this task done,’ and then they look to hire a freelancer. As a freelancer on the supply side, all you can do is create a profile and wait for those projects to come your way.”
nDash takes a different approach. Once a writer gets approved to join the community, they can see every customer (i.e. brand) in the nDash database. Then the writer can proactively pitch content ideas to those companies – just like a journalist would pitch a publisher.
Michael realized early on that many companies needed freelance writers but they had no immediate projects due to a lack of content ideas. He says, “When I was a freelancer myself, that’s how I got new clients. I would find companies that I wanted to write for and then pitch topics that I thought would benefit them. That then led to ongoing work. So with nDash, freelancers are the community’s driver for new business.”
“Brands appreciate that our writers pitch ideas to them, instead of the other way around. You can learn a lot about a writer just from their pitch. It shows brands whether the writer understands the space and knows what type of content they need. Other platforms might have writing tests or contests to see who wins the job, but that’s not how ours works. We don’t ask our writers to do work for free,” Michael says.
On the brand side, nDash differs in that it’s a specialist marketplace. It’s not a platform where anyone can sign up and get work. nDash vets writers intensively, checking their background, work experience, writing samples, client reviews, and so on. Michael says, “We want brands to come to nDash because they are looking for writers with specific subject matter expertise – not just writers that are willing to do the work. So that is why we have an in-depth vetting process.”
In the beginning, nDash did a lot of work in the B2B technology industry, because that is what their writers knew. Over time, they’ve developed a community with a whole mix of experts, including real estate writers, financial writers, and legal writers.
Finally, platforms like Upwork are primarily transactional. A company submits a project, a freelancer gets it done, they complete the payment, and then they’re out, so to speak. nDash, on the other hand, helps companies create a modern writing team where some writers might be in-house and others are freelance. Companies can manage both along with the entire content creation process from calendars to workflows in the nDash platform.
From Agency to SaaS Platform
The first iteration of nDash was a one-person agency with Michael working as a freelance writer with five or six clients. He grew the agency to a ten-person team until it ended in 2017. That’s when nDash really came into its own as the company it is today. Michael says, “The agency was a means to an end. It was a way for nDash to fund the platform that I was trying to build. I’d always had the idea for some type of platform, but running the agency gave me the vision of exactly what it needed to be.”
Michael founded nDash, developing most of the business rules and wireframing for the platform. But when it came time to break ground on the coding, he needed a technical co-founder. He met his co-founder, Andre Wehe, through CoFoundersLab, a platform that connects entrepreneurs with co-founders, advisors, and mentors for their startup.
“I had talked to a couple of people as part of that interview process and we hit it off right out of the gate. Andre still had a full-time job, so it wasn’t until a year and a half later that he joined us full-time,” Michael says. nDash’s other co-founder, Matt Solar, worked at the same company that Michael was previously at. He joined as a late-stage co-founder in 2018 and focused on scaling revenue and operations.
The nDash platform was initially built to manage their agency customers. They already had a solid book of business and freelancers working with those customers, pitching content ideas, so they needed a tool that could help them manage it all.
Michael says, “Once we knew it was something that everyone could benefit from, we invited our agency clients to use it themselves. The first writers to be part of the community were the ones we were already working with – and from there, we created a waitlist for new writers and brands to join.”
Once the platform was live and public, their first milestone was getting the first paid transaction through nDash. “For Andre, our technical co-founder, it was in his contract that the vesting wouldn’t start until that first transaction hit. We were strangers at first, so that was our way of making sure that everything would go according to plan and that he was incentivized as well,” Michael says.
From there, nDash focused on repeat transactions, increasing the number of freelancers in the community, and increasing the number of brands signing up, along with all the metrics you would expect at a SaaS company marketplace.
The Mindset of Startup Funding
“I think a lot of startup founders, including myself, don’t realize that you don’t necessarily need external funding to be successful. If you have a prototype and no customers, no revenue, then going out to get a round of funding might seem like your only choice. For some startups that might be the case. But for many, it’s not,” Michael says.
“We went out there and pitched angel groups and VCs because we thought that was the next step. But we never pushed too hard on trying to get funding because we already had customers, good traction, and revenue coming in. So it felt like every moment I spent trying to woo an investor was a minute that I couldn’t spend on improving the business.”
Michael does say it’s important to note that the other paths to success aren’t always that sexy. Sometimes the alternative to not getting VC money is that entrepreneurs have to stay at their full-time job a bit longer or have to take on consulting to pay the bills.
“The advice I would give to other entrepreneurs is to stop looking for so much advice,” Michael says laughing. “Being over-advised isn’t a good thing. Early on, I spent way too much time reading guidance from others, especially people I didn’t have much in common with, like entrepreneurs who had raised $300 million. To listen to them talk about how they approached things did not really help me bootstrap my business,” he says.
“I wish something like Bootstrappers had been around when I first started to show that startups can be successful without investors. I would have been better served by that type of advice, seeing how entrepreneurs similar to me grow their business as opposed to trying to mimic companies that are in a completely different place.”
The Challenge of the Pay-As-You-Go Model
The biggest challenge for nDash is making money one transaction at a time. The model they have is meant to work at scale – so operating a company like that when it’s still small can be difficult, “especially going from the agency model to the pay-as-you-go model,” Michael says. “We used to have yearly retainers with clients, so we knew exactly what our revenue was going to be.”
“That’s completely different now for the majority of our customers. When we launched the nDash platform, we sat back and waited to see how much companies would spend on it. Also, in the agency days, we would recognize all the incoming revenue as our own. But in this new model, 85 percent of the revenue goes to the freelancer. Looking back, I do think we pivoted off the agency model a bit too soon. We were just so excited about the platform and the community we were building that we wanted to push everybody there.”
nDash does have different plans and monthly commitments that companies can choose from, but it’s mainly on-demand. As a result, nDash’s challenge is making sure it stays top of mind and that brands keep coming back. Michael says it’s not just about converting a client that first time, they are constantly trying to prove themselves to current and prospective customers.
“We do this by continuously developing new features on both the writer and brand side. We also focus heavily on finding talent that companies want to work with. We add new writers to the platform all the time and have expanded the verticals that our experts write about,” he says.
Even though nDash has experienced its own set of obstacles, Michael has managed to bring his vision to life and build a thriving community – not just another content mill. He says, “The thing I love most about entrepreneurship is the potential. When I was at my traditional, full-time job, I knew what my pay grade could be, I knew what salary level I could get to, and I knew the impact I was making. But with entrepreneurship, the sky’s the limit. There’s an unlimited upside potential and that’s so exciting.”
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