From developer to serial entrepreneur: Michael Morris, CEO of Torc

Torc CEO Mike Morris and several colorful illustrated design elements

Originally published as a 6-part series on One Million by One Million.

Michael has not only transitioned successfully from a developer to an entrepreneur, but he has also built communities of developers and 2-sided marketplaces around them over and again. Torc is his third run at this overall mission of enabling and empowering developers to have great careers.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?

Michael Morris: I’m from a little suburb outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I’m the youngest of seven. We had an incredible family life. I’m still very close to all my siblings. I had an Irish Catholic education. Growing up in Boston, it’s not very surprising. I ended up at Boston College High School where I figured out what I wanted to do. I got the bug early on.

My older brother who’s 13 years older than me had been studying Computer Science at UMass Lowell. He was doing his Master’s degree. I started playing around with his computers. I got to high school and I got the chance to play around more with computers. I graduated high school in 1993, but I already realized that I wanted to do computers and physics.

I went to college. I said, “I’ll focus on physics and dabble in computers.” I was a Physics major for the first two years. I went to Boston College. I remember one distinct conversation with my advisor. He said, “Are you 100% sure that you want to keep Physics as your major? You’d be qualified to do two things when you graduate. You’d be qualified to go back to school or teach.”

I thought about that. My plan was always to get my Masters in EE. My brother had now moved to Silicon Valley. He worked in several companies. I had seen from the outskirts what he had been doing. In my junior year, I switched to computer science and never turned back. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to get a job in a software development company and hone my skills. I had my brother saying, “Don’t jump out of a technology position too quickly. Keep your technical edge.”

I graduated in 1997. It was a phenomenal market for anybody who wanted to be a developer. I had all these offers from these big companies. I just happened to run into this small consulting company at a career fair. I just loved the people. I didn’t think I was going to end up there. I went to a recruiting event with them. At the end of the event, I could really see myself working with this group of people. It’s a totally different field. It’s smaller tight relationships – more fraternity-like I guess. I went to this small company.

Sramana Mitra: This was still in Boston?

Michael Morris: They’re out of Hartford, Connecticut. I stayed in Boston. I started coding and traveling all over the US and doing different projects. I absolutely loved it. I worked for Barnes & Noble when they just launched barnes& We were competing with Amazon. That was phenomenal. I learned a lot about financial services and supply chains in a short period of time. The company I joined grew from 80 to 650 in three years’ time. It was acquired for over a billion dollars. That’s when the light dawned on me.

I realized that all this stuff is phenomenal but the real opportunity is to figure out the talent game. If you can figure out the talent and provide a solution around that, that is hugely valuable. Can you do it in a way that’s scalable? We grew from 80 to 650, but I didn’t want that. I wanted it to grow from 80 to 10 million. That’s when my mindset changed. The rest of my career was going to be around identifying, aggregating, and attracting great technology talent.

Sramana Mitra: What year does this bring us up to?

Michael Morris: This would be the end of 2001. A group of us stayed on for a little bit, then we left. We went and started a company called Topcoder. The whole idea was to build a community for software developers to compete and earn a profile, and do what you used to do in universities where you had grades. Oftentimes, you had competitions. We started doing those things with Topcoder. We got to about 10,000 people. We just saw it spread and grow. We grew that community. Fast forward to 2008, we probably had about 250,000 software developers in the community.

Our business model was to go out and find companies that needed to get work done. We would put that work out as projects on the Topcoder platform, and people would work on them. Sometimes they would compete on solving complicated problems. It would be a race to see who can do it first. Sometimes it was just a contracting opportunity. I did that for a long time. I joined Topcoder in 2002. I stayed till about 2011. I was part of the founding team. It was just a fantastic experience.

Sramana Mitra: How many of you were on the founding team?

Michael Morris: There were ten of us.

Sramana Mitra: How were you making money? Were the companies paying to give you these projects to run on Topcoder?

Michael Morris: Have you seen the movie The Social Network?

Sramana Mitra: Sure.

Michael Morris: That time when they were coding and trying to race to see who can solve the problem the fastest. That was how they recruited their developers for the original version of Facebook. That was Topcoder. We were the engine where people could come in and you can set up a competition and get a group of people to compete. It was an arena. Our first set of customers paid us just to sponsor our competitions. It was Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Microsoft. Then Google.

Sramana Mitra: What scale are we talking? How much were they paying to run a competition like this?

Michael Morris: Probably $100,000 to $250,000. We package it up as an annual subscription. They would be a sponsor of the Topcoder Open, which is our version of the Olympics. It ran for a year. You would qualify through a series of competitions. At the end of the year, we had a big in-person event. They would sign up as a sponsor for that. The top end was $400,000 for the title sponsor and $100,000 for the other companies. That part wasn’t hugely scalable. There weren’t a thousand companies like that that were interested in sponsoring our events.

Sramana Mitra: You were 10 people who had to sustain yourselves in this business model. There was enough revenue coming in that you could sustain the 10 of you well.

Michael Morris: Yes. The main Chairman funded the majority of the original build. Then we got to a point where we were generating enough money so that we can sustain the business.

Sramana Mitra: How long did it take you to get there?

Michael Morris: Three years.

Sramana Mitra: The Chairman funded that three-year build-up period.

Michael Morris: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: Do you remember how much money was spent to get to that breakeven point?

Michael Morris: To that period of time, it was probably close to $10 million.

Sramana Mitra: This single person funded $10 million?

Michael Morris: Pretty much.

Sramana Mitra: Who was this?

Michael Morris: His name is Jack Hughes. He was the Chairman of the previous company that we had sold. He earned his money from the sale of that. We had a decent runway.

Sramana Mitra: What level of revenue did the company sponsored-competition reach?

Michael Morris: In 2011, about $20 million.

Sramana Mitra: All from running competitions?

Michael Morris: Yes and project-based work via competitions. Sponsorship was a small piece. The majority was building IP through competitions.

Sramana Mitra: Is it all word-of-mouth that developers found out about you?

Michael Morris: Word-of-mouth. I referenced that Social Network movie because it mostly started in Computer Science departments at universities across the globe. Once we got a foothold in the US, it started going globally. Once we went global, it expanded. There was a point in time when we were adding about 50,000 people per quarter to the community. It was hugely viral growth. We did a great job of celebrating the top talent. That helped.

Sramana Mitra: That was helping their careers.

Michael Morris: Yes, it was almost an early version of influencer marketing.

Sramana Mitra: By the time you got to this $20 million in revenue, how many developers were part of the Topcoder network?

Michael Morris: About 400,000.

Sramana Mitra: What did you do after?

Michael Morris: In 2011, I got antsy. I wanted to go to the next level. I left and I went to start another company in a similar space in the Salesforce ecosystem called CloudSpokes. We did really well the first year. We got good traction and a good community following. Now we knew what we were doing. It took us a million dollars to get things off the ground. We had so much innate knowledge about how to build communities and how to get work done. The funding for CloudSpokes came from Appirio. They funded us.

Sramana Mitra: Now that you’re saying. I remember when I interviewed Appirio for this series, he mentioned Topcoder. He acquired Topcoder, right?

Michael Morris: After about a year and a half of growing CloudSpokes, we acquired Topcoder. We brought the two together and merged them. That was in October of 2013.

Sramana Mitra: That was all part of Appirio though?

Michael Morris: Yes, Appirio was the backer. They financed the entire thing. Then we ended up getting acquired by Wipro in 2016. We were running fairly independently. We’re still reporting to the Appirio CEO, but we ran it as an independent business. The thought was that they may be more valuable independently.

Wipro bought both of them. Appirio went into the consulting organization, and Topcoder went into the CTO organization as a platform. I stayed for three years. Then COVID hits extending it to about four years. We got it to about a $50 million business at that point.

Then I decided that I wanted to go back to the build phase. I just love small companies. My time at Wipro was fantastic. I learned a ton. I learned a lot about working in a big organization, but I wanted to go back to the build phase. This is where it gets exciting.

In the process of selling Topcoder and Appirio, one of the people that I met was the CEO and Chairman of Cognizant at that time – Frank D’Souza. Frank and I ended up having a strong relationship together. We ran into each other at the airport. We just started brainstorming about what’s next. We met in Boston at a hotel lobby and we started whiteboarding on a piece of paper an idea of taking a community-based development model but building one that was essentially employing a million people per year on a cloud-based platform.

That was the model that we set on. I had all the expertise from the community side. Frank had all the expertise from building a juggernaut of a consulting company. We started coming together on all these concepts. We ended up deciding to go out and start another company. That’s where I am today. I’m the CEO and Founder of Torc. Frank and his private equity fund is the company that funded us.

Sramana Mitra: When did you start ?

Michael Morris: The official first day was September 2021.

Sramana Mitra: Tell me what is the beginning of Torc. How much funding did Frank put in?

Michael Morris: That was an important piece for me. Through my experiences at Appirio and Topcoder, I knew about the effort it takes to fundraise. I was concerned about it. I didn’t want to spend all my time constantly fundraising. I just wanted to build something and focus on that. The fact that they were private equity was a little bit of a different structure. I don’t see myself going to somebody else. We had a commitment for a large level of funding, but we’ve only taken $5 million.

There’s also another partner in there – Rob Biederman for Asymmetric Ventures. Rob is an LP in that deal. He gave about 25% of the funding. We have an agreement that, as we need more capital, it’ll come from the two of them. That was very appealing to me. I can focus on building a sound business and not have to do dramatic dancing to get the next set of funding. I really wanted to focus on the longer-term building of a strong business. They gave me the opportunity to do that. We raised the initial $5 million and we’re off. It took us a few months to get the original platform built.

If you’re a software developer and you want to grow a career as a freelancer, we’re the place to go. We’ll help you figure out how good you are today. We’ll help assess your current skills. We will help you build an amazing profile that takes into account the things that you say you’re good at. It takes into account the things that you’ve proven to be good at. Everything is in the cloud. I can pull a year’s worth of your GitHub history and show what you’ve been doing. Then we built and acquired tooling around developer productivity. I call it Fitbit for developers.

The whole concept of developer productivity is something that we feel strongly about. The whole idea is to identify those people on your project team that get stuff done at a significant level. That is not always the person who takes the best test or graduates number one in their class. That’s what I wanted to do – build a platform to help individuals improve their careers dramatically. That starts with understanding where you are in your career and how good you are in your discipline.

As a developer comes on to our platform, we give them these tools and it gives them a complete assessment of where they’re spending their time versus other people. How much time do they spend coding versus reading code, editing code, and fixing bugs? Which files are you spending most of your time on? It’s all about giving this data to a developer to help them become more productive.

The key thing about it is, this is data for them. This is not data to track. Just like I use my Apple Watch to track my movements, they can choose to share that data if they’re proud of something. The whole idea is how do we give developers the tools whether it’s to find educational opportunities or opportunities to improve the way their work. That’s what we are setting out to do for the developers.

On the commercial side, it’s very simple. If you want to get access to freelance developer talent, you come to Torc. We focus primarily on cloud-native technologies. If you want to get a cloud-native technology developer, designer, or architect, we’ll give you somebody that’s been vetted and ready to go and assign them to your team. You can work with them as a freelancer. If a company wants to hire that resource over time with a contract-to-hire, we have that model as well. It’s meant to be a low-friction model for enterprises to get access to freelance talent. We are global and remote.

Sramana Mitra: How big is the developer community now?

Michael Morris: It’s about 2,600 people. We’re still getting off the ground. Out of that, about 500 are vetted. These are people who have gone through our assessment process, built their profiles, linked up their GitHub accounts, and installed and started using our productivity tool.

Sramana Mitra: You have enterprise customers already?

Michael Morris: We’ve got about 10 customers. We are completely in bootstrapped mode. Some of our clients are a couple of Silicon Valley startups that need tech talent. We have companies in Canada through our network. Our first client was NASA through relationships that I’ve had previously. We started with them in February of 2022.

Sramana Mitra: You have significant revenue already from this community?

Michael Morris: We’ll be about $5 million in the first year.

Sramana Mitra: You mentioned that you recommend to the community what courses to take and what certifications to get. How do you determine that?

Michael Morris: We’re hyper-focused on the cloud-native platforms – AWS, GCP, and Azure. When you come into Torc and set up your profile, you hook up your GitHub. We see your past 12 months of activity. You take some technology assessments. We can quickly identify areas of improvement. It can be a course, a certification, or a project most likely. We’re building a lot of that stuff ourselves. Some of those things are open source work that we either need or need to be done but we’ll identify pieces of work that can help train you up in that technology. We have a talented success team. It’s the same concept as customer success except it’s for the talent.

Sramana Mitra: Are you acquiring training content from other companies?

Michael Morris: There are many companies that are experts at training like Udemy and Coursera. There’s one platform that we’re working on. We’re connected with their Head of Learning and Development. They have a really sleek simulator where you can get in and do project work very quickly. Those are the opportunities we are looking for. We have a community and we’re interested in getting them trained. If we can partner with some of these platform companies and get them to sponsor our learning, that’s where I want to go.

Sramana Mitra: If you work with a Coursera or Udemy, what is the business model?

Michael Morris: We don’t make money on that. I see that there are three phases of a developer’s career. There’s the learn phase, an earn phase, and a return phase. The learn phase is something that we will constantly invest in. Our productivity tooling is about how we identify what areas you can focus on to learn more.

The earn phase is where we make money. We put freelancers out and we take a piece of the freelancing.

The return phase is about mentoring. From the very first job I’ve ever gotten, I understood the value of a mentor. I understand the value of mentors and that you should have multiple. We provide an opportunity for our members to be mentors to other members. We will compensate them for that. People want to do it. Developers love nothing more than sharing their knowledge with other developers. They’re proud of that. We feel strongly about that.

Every person that gets placed on the Torc platform will get a minimum of four hours of mentoring per week. Often it’s platform engineering and DevOps help. Sometimes it’s specific technology help. Sometimes, it’s just teaching them how to work in an environment. Not everybody knows that they should ask for a one-on-one meeting with their supervisors. Not everybody knows how to approach that meeting. Even little things like how you communicate in a Slack channel.

Sramana Mitra: Soft skills so to speak.

Michael Morris: Absolutely. At some point, we’ll probably build an offering around that. Right now, it’s just part of the platform.

Sramana Mitra: I have a slightly different kind of question. You are a developer who turned into a successful entrepreneur. You have a real insight into how a developer becomes an entrepreneur. Torc is working on the basis of equipping developers to be freelancers and blossom their careers. Given what’s going on in the world today, there is this tremendous desire for developers to be entrepreneurs. Is that something that you’re thinking about? Is that something that you want to facilitate?

Michael Morris: In our original business plan, we wanted to have a track in Torc that allows that path of going from a developer to an entrepreneur. I also want to be realistic. I think that for 9 out of 10 developers that want to go down that path, it’s not a great idea. Maybe they’re part of an entrepreneurial team. Everybody wants to be a CEO or a visionary.

I’ll give you an example. Once I realized that I wasn’t a great software developer is when my career took off. After I realized that, I then started to focus on other things. My strength just happens to be building a team. Understanding your strengths is super important. If you do want to be an entrepreneur as a developer, understand where you excel and where you’re going to provide the most value in a team, and accept that if it’s not the lead role, that’s okay.

Sramana Mitra: My feedback to you on that topic is, a developer doesn’t really know how to become an entrepreneur until they go through a specific learning on the issues that come up. I’ll give you examples. There’s this myth that you have to quit your job and go full-time at a startup before anything. Otherwise, you’re not a serious entrepreneur.

The path of bootstrapping with a paycheck is how a lot of companies get founded and do very well. Solo entrepreneurs are looked upon as inferior. You know what, Fred Luddy, the founder of ServiceNow, was a solo entrepreneur. There’s a lot of crap like that confuses developers. They need to learn how to be an entrepreneur.

We have become very good at turning developers into entrepreneurs, which is why I was asking you this question. If you did do that, what is your commercial model to support that?

Michael Morris: I don’t need a commercial model right now. The loyalty to Torc is what I want at the end of the day. A developer comes to us and creates a great profile and does our learning assessments all for free, and gets a job with somebody else. I’m okay with that. They’re going to come back to us. It’s my job to make sure that we’re providing enough of a service to make sure they’re loyal. It doesn’t have to be every single time. I would most likely look at something the same way.

I’ll give you an example. I had a company in Canada that is a small company. They needed a CTO. I had the right guy. I had the perfect person through the Torc community. There was a clause for a hiring fee inside of that. It would have been expensive given his level of experience. I said, “I’m going to completely waive that because it’s good for you. I don’t want to prevent that.” What ended up happening is he built his entire development team using the Torc platform.

Sramana Mitra: You answered my question. If a developer becomes an entrepreneur, they will build their entire team using Torc.

Michael Morris: Right.

Sramana Mitra: What’s happening in online learning today is very interesting especially when there’s a solo entrepreneur or two developers tinkering. It’s a very lonely journey. We meet every week. We have a free roundtable and we have programming around that. Then we also have our private roundtable for premium members only where we do the more intense mentoring work.

To be able to come to a community that is swimming in entrepreneurship issues that will help you stay on course is very valuable. We’ve been doing it on a global scale since 2010.

It was great meeting you. Thank you for your time.

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