Airpair plays digital matchmaker between startups, developer experts

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Launching a new product or business is hard. Sometimes, even computer nerds need a little tech support.

That’s the thinking behind Airpair, a San Francisco-based service that aims to help entrepreneurs work through the technical challenges of their projects by connecting them with outside developers via one-on-one video sessions.

It’s a bit like tutoring, but for startups. The idea behind Airpair is rooted in the British English word “upskill,” said Jonathon Kresner, the company’s founder.

“It refers to bringing employees up to snuff with new skills, and keeping them relevant,” said Kresner, who previously lived in London. While in other industries new innovations might come every 15 years, “in tech it’s 15 months,” he said.

Some of the sessions Airpair has already facilitated have been plenty technical. During one, a developer worked with an entrepreneur for two hours on a problem related to stack overflow, which occurs in programming when too much memory is used for a particular operation.

The site has been in a test-run mode since March. Since then, some 75 entrepreneurs have put in conferencing requests, with almost 30 leading to actual sessions. The service, which officially launched Thursday, has a roster of roughly 150 software developers, consultants and engineers located around the world.

Airpair aims to connect entrepreneurs with outside developers.

Besides Kresner, three other people work for Airpair, all part time. The early stage company plans to seek more funding after collecting more feedback over the next couple of months.

Here’s how the service works: If the user is an entrepreneur, he clicks the “Find an expert” button on the Airpair homepage, then fills out a form with several questions about the project, the technologies involved (such as Node.js, Python or Backbone), and what he wants help with. The answers are automatically logged into a Google Docs spreadsheet for Airpair.

Conversely, if the user is a developer, she can click the “Be an expert” button on the homepage to fill out a form detailing her development skills and which days of the week she would be available for consulting. Developers set their own hourly rate, and Airpair collects an additional fee. Most sessions, which are held using Google Hangouts, last between one and two hours.

Other services also pair entrepreneurs with developers, but what distinguishes Airpair from services such as oDesk or Elance is that the project in question is not outsourced to other people who build it themselves, Kresner said. Instead, he said, the developers “teach you how to do what you want to do.”

“Airpair is about communicating knowledge and saving time ... to push products into the market quicker so you don’t get stuck on the technology,” Kresner said.

San Francisco-based Late Labs also offers a similar “crowdcoding” service by connecting startups with developers, but that site’s model is based more on longer-term projects as opposed to shorter, one-on-one sessions in real time.

Kresner founded two other startups before launching Airpair. In 2005 he launched Preparty, a social invitation and event-booking service based in Australia. But the project “was basically too big,” and Kresner did not have enough commercial development experience to sustain it, he said.

The precursor to Airpair was an online rock-climbing community designed to help people find climbing partners, which Kresner launched in London in 2008. The service, Climbfind, eventually attracted more than 1 million users. “Climbfind was proof that I could get traction on a product,” Kresner said.

Airpair generates revenue by collecting either a $20 or a $40 fee on top of the hourly rate set by the developer, which can range from $10 to $230 per hour. The session’s price is also based on whether the developer opts to have the session posted publicly on the Airpair website so other entrepreneurs can learn from them for free.

The one- or two-hour sessions might seem like a quick fix, but “we’re not handing you a hack,” Kresner said. “The expert isn’t just handing you something, they’re teaching,” he said.

Ultimately, Airpair wants to help not just startups, but also banks, financial services companies, and IT more generally. “I was inspired to help entrepreneurs, but the applications could go well beyond that,” Kresner said.

As a tool for connecting people, remote videoconferencing has also attracted some attention at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival. Suitable Technologies, based in Menlo Park, California, generated some buzz at the Austin, Texas, tech show with its Beam device. That product, which takes the form of a talking monitor on wheels, is designed to connect people who are separated by long distances but want to share a physical space.

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