Developers: Earn Equity for Your Code at SF-Based Late Labs

Zach Davis

Scenario: You're a contestant on the game show, “Mystery Box.” You've made it to the final round, in which you're presented a pair of options. You can walk away from the show with $5,000…OR…you get whatever is inside the Mystery Box. If you're anything like me, you choose Mystery Box (and win a lifetime subscription to Newsweek and a Walkman – thanks for playing).

The human imagination is a powerful thing. Entrepreneurs typically possess it in spades. After all, they're supplanting the status quo with a new reality; imagination is what bridges the two. That's why these entrepreneurs are happy to trade in the lofty paychecks they would otherwise be receiving from a corporate job for what's inside the Mystery Box.

And this is precisely the angle that Late Labs is taking to recruit high caliber developers to build their projects. The San Francisco-based startup offers a series of projects for developers to get involved with, but instead of offering a flat payment, they receive equity. From there, Late Labs' founder, Justin Johnson, takes the role of biz dev to find potential suitors.

It's a novel idea — so novel, in fact, that Johnson is still tweaking the details of the Late Labs compensation model. But this hasn't stunted their early progress. According to Johnson:

People from all of the top schools, and from many of the most innovative tech companies in the valley and out of the valley, have applied. We have started development on and are getting a lot of interest in Satisfactor right now. We are currently going through the process of figuring out what our next project will be and are planning to start development on it mid November.

I caught up with Johnson to learn more about his innovative “shared resources” startup.

Tech Cocktail:  What was the inspiration behind Late Labs? What do you enjoy most about working on it?

Late Labs founder Justin Johnson (on the left)

Justin Johnson: “I get really excited about shared resources and doing something meaningful with idle things that have value. I think about stuff like AirBnB, GetAround, and TaskRabbit and can't help but think that the future world is going to be so much more productive because of the opportunity technology gives us to better use our physical and intangible resources.

We are applying this kind of thinking to the developer community. The reality is that almost every developer out there has at least one side project going on, but that side project almost always lacks one of the catalysts that will make it successful (again monetization, design, distribution, money…) We want to close that gap and make a developer's craft and extra resources just as valuable as their time in the office.

We love thinking about lots of problems and how to improve them. Late Labs provides a platform for us to effectively work on all sorts of things with all sorts of smart creative people… and that's pretty rad.”

Who is your greatest competitor, and how does Late Labs differentiate itself?

Johnson:  “What we are doing is a different take on a couple different models. You might say we are competing with accelerators like 500 Startups, Y Combinator and Tech Stars… but I don't really think so. There are also dev houses like Pivotal Labs and Carbon 5, but we aren't creating a market place, and we definitely aren't a services company. We are probably most like Odesk and other contractor platforms.

The difference is that we are offering equity instead of money, and we think that this will attract a different type of person.”

What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage of starting up in San Francisco?

Johnson:  “San Francisco is a great city for starting a technology company! There are so many people here who are excited about tech and startups. That in itself is both the good and bad thing. Lots of opportunity, and lots of noise at the same time.”

Describe a challenging moment or a crucial decision for Late Labs. How did you deal with it, and what did you learn from it?

Johnson:  “When we launched, we didn't expect the amount of response that we got… so we were underprepared. We approach things in a very lean, least-amount-of-work-for-most-bang kind of way, which is good — to an extent. But on the launch, our application process actually broke for a hot second, and we lost some registrations. So, lesson was be prepared for best case possible.”

What’s one quirky fact about you, your team, or your office culture?

Johnson:  “My favorite food is coffee.”

Late Labs was one of the startups showcased at the recent Tech Cocktail San Francisco Mixer.  

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.