Free Product Idea: Skill Hub

My first job was with an ambitious managed service consulting startup called Quidnunc.  They had an interesting mentorship system, wherein, new employees were assigned a seasoned consultant to act as a mentor and given a stack of "competencies" that they needed to attain in order to progress in their career.  

It sort of worked like the merit badge system in a boy-scout troop.  Each competency had a page on the intranet that listed a set of skills associated with it and a test of some sort that you had to complete to prove that you'd achieved it.  Your mentor would work with you as a coach, cheerleader, and eventually, examiner.

Many of these competencies were hard technical skills, like:  Java, HTML, Bug Tracking.  Others were soft ones, like:  Task Management, Document Writing, Giving Feedback.  Even a few recursive ones, like:  Mentoring and Writing Competencies.

The tests to achieve a competency were generally focused on actually doing whatever the competency was about.  Need the Object-Oriented Design merit badge?  Produce a UML object diagram for an online web store.  Need Document Review?  Go review three documents.

HR maintained an online database that tracked what competencies each person had gained, and you could search for people by competency to find someone to mentor you or sometimes just because you needed someone who spoke German for a meeting with a client.  It also provided a sort of career progression tree that listed the required competencies for a given title. 

Want to get rid of the Junior part in your title?  Then you need to go get:  Java, Code Review, Document Writing, Task Management, etc.

At first, it felt a little silly.  But after the kool-aid sunk in, it turned out to be absolutely brilliant.  

You see, there are a lot of things that people desperately need to know to be successful, but are embarrassed to ask about or don't even know they need.  Most companies either try to hire people outright with these skills (see, tragedy of the commons) or toss people into the water, ass over teakettle, to find out if they sink or swim.

The Quidnunc system gave you a simple structure to follow with clear sign-posts to where you should be heading next.  It provided a support system studded with people who were genuinely interested in your progress.  It also established a type of meritocracy that strong technical folks thrived in.

My favorite thing, is that it gave teams a set of common experiences they could draw on to communicate.  I'm still appalled by how many leads/architects don't know UML.  I hated every bit of learning it, but when two people who understand the same visual language for expressing programming concepts get up to the whiteboard, everyone else stand the hell back, you are about to get a bunch of work done really fast.

So Where's the Product Idea?

Gamification, like any buzzword, gets thrown around quite a lot.  It's a gorgeous idea, but hard to pull off.  

Often, it's misinterpreted as making something that is dull...FUN FUN FUN!  But, anyone who's played a Zynga game knows how soulless gamification can feel to a user.  

My interpretation is that it's about leveraging the innate human need to complete patterns and make tangible progress to meet a succession of short-term goals with a long-term payoff.  

So here's the pitch:  Create a trusted online community for skill sharing.  

The core functionality:

  • be a repository for detailed self-guided tutorials on how to master a skill
  • be a social lobby for people to find and interact with mentors for those skills
  • be the authoritative source for finding out what people are experts at

Breaking that down a wee bit, the primary use cases might be:

  • Skill Seekers discovering new skills and connecting with Experts to mentor them.
  • Experts providing advice/answers to Skill Seekers, encouraging their progression and ultimately evaluating them in tests to award them Expert status.
  • Experts proposing new or amended tutorials for skills with an approval flow that involves the other Experts of that skill.  
  • External Users searching for Experts in a particular skill to hire or consult.

Here's a mock-up of what the homepage might look like:

How to Make Money

One way to monetize would be with pay-to-play participation from Skill Seekers, with a cut to the Experts and to the house.  This has a couple of up/down-sides.  The key benefit would be greater engagement from all parties.  The main drawback would be people trying to game the system. 

Another vector could be paid access to searchable user profiles.  The benefit of this would be that outside companies could subsidize the community, while the drawback would be limiting the value to skill seekers who want to maximize their skill profile. 

First Steps

First, you need to build some product, with an initial backlog that looks something like:  

  • a collaborative workflow for creating a tutorial
  • a catalog of tutorials
  • a searchable database of user profiles
  • a collaborative workflow for progressing against a tutorial

Secondly, or actually in parallel as this will be the hardest part, is establishing a small network of experts who will form the nucleus of the community and create the initial tutorials.  It's important that this network be well respected and prepared to actively engage with new users.

Thirdly, time go to to beta.  Use the network of experts to create the seed content and use their stock of friends/colleagues to get the word out and build some buzz.

Fourth...profit!  Okay, there are a thousand details I've left out, but go re-read The Lean Startup and figure those out for yourself.