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Tech talent Web site launches in a crowded field

HelloBrain is carving its own niche in a field flooded with start-ups that aim to tackle the tight talent market by matching freelance workers to technology projects.

Culture
First came the online marketplaces where farmers, steel tycoons and chemical giants could broker deals with the click of a mouse.

Now, big technology thinkers have an exchange of their own at HelloBrain.com. The site, which launches today, is intended to connect engineers, developers and entrepreneurs who have product design problems to experts who can provide help with everything from a CAD layout to a microprocessor design to a program for a handheld device.

With its site, analysts say Cupertino, Calif.-based HelloBrain is carving its own niche in a field flooded by start-ups--including Niku, Opus360, HotDispatch, eLance, and Guru.com--that aim to tackle the tight market for talent by matching freelance workers and contractors with technology projects. HelloBrain differs from these companies, analysts say, for its pure focus on finding people--worldwide, eventually--who have the right know-how to solve a problem for a client rather than fill a position.

For one example, HelloBrain's chief executive Bharat Sastri said an entrepreneur using the site during its test phase has already earned $18,000 by making a Dolby Digital decoder run on a specific platform for a customer. Sastri argues HelloBrain's marketplace makes sense in an age where companies must tap intellectual property from many sources when developing a product--a process that is both expensive and time-consuming.

"What we're really trying to do is reinvent the way engineering is done, the same way people have reinvented the supply chain in the enterprise," said John Walecka, a partner at Redpoint Ventures and an early backer of HelloBrain.

A 20-year technology industry veteran and former Silicon Graphics executive, Sastri founded the company in February and has since built a staff of 18 people. HelloBrain received its first $3.5 million round of funding from Brentwood Capital, which recently merged with Institutional Venture Partners (IVP) to form Redpoint, and is planning to announce a second round soon.

An early advocate of Sastri's plan is National Semiconductor chief Brian Halla, a former executive at chip company LSI Logic, where HelloBrain's vice president of marketing, Dirk Smits, worked on the Sony PlayStation project.

"I'm sure we will use [HelloBrain]," Halla said in an interview with CNET News.com, though he said he views the site as a resource the company will add to the design houses it already uses when searching for engineering help.

Halla said he did have some concerns about how HelloBrain will be able to stop theft of intellectual property on the site--or whether his own engineers would be tempted to sell their ideas on the site during work hours. The company has said it has mechanisms in place to help customers manage risk during deals.

"You need to make sure that information belongs to the [seller] and not that person's company," Halla said. Having said that, Halla contended that online marketplaces for intellectual capital are inevitable and could soon replace traditional contracting methods because the method is faster and cheaper than networking in the brick-and-mortar world.

HelloBrain's Smits speculated that if Sony had access to HelloBrain's marketplace years ago, the company could have cut its search for a microprocessor provider on the PlayStation project from several months to several weeks, which would have helped the company in its scramble to launch PlayStation before Nintendo at Christmas-time.

For companies using the site, HelloBrain will serve as the middleman brokering the Web-based transactions. Companies or entrepreneurs working on a design will post the technical problems they need solved on the site, and sellers will bid for the work, offering a ready-made solution or a way to create one. HelloBrain will hold all project payments in escrow from the beginning of a deal, paying the seller only when the work has been approved by the buyer. HelloBrain's business model is based on collecting commissions off those deals.

The challenge HelloBrain and other marketplaces face is bringing a critical mass of technology experts to the site who can bid for the projects, said Stephen Cole, analyst at Forrester Research.

"The way they'll solve the problem of scarce or rare resources [within companies] is by having a large number of resources--two or three people who want to do the same project," he said.

Commenting on the company's irreverent name, Sastri said, "HelloBrain made sense because the Web and the Net were invented to connect brains together."

"This almost fits," he said. "We're connecting all the brains in the world in one giant connection machine."

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