As a kid in the 1970s Patrick O’Donnell learned about computers at the knee of his father, a programmer for United Airlines back when the machines took up a whole room. Today with Seattle-based Spare5, O’Donnell is making it possible for any smart phone owner to do some work for a company that could be halfway around the world: Users with a few minutes of spare time can log into the app and make a little cash by tagging photos, taking surveys, and guessing the price of items. And businesses get real data they can use.
It’s the latest step in a 25-year career that took O’Donnell from California to the Pacific Northwest. This is how he got there.
O’Donnell is a Banana Slug—or put another way, he’s a graduate of the University of California–Santa Cruz, with degrees in computer science and applied math. His love of all things digital started early—thanks to Dad—and defined his childhood. “I started taking programming classes in middle school and got a job in high school at Berkeley Computer doing things like building cables.”
For his first job out of school, O’Donnell signed on as the seventh employee of a Berkeley-based startup that was developing digital image databases. He didn’t stay long, but the gig primed him for his jump to Seattle, where he joined Continuum, the company that would eventually become Corbis.
Riding the Wave
At Starwave, Paul Allen’s short-lived web development firm, O’Donnell grew to love—actually, became obsessed with—sports. Not only did he help build out ESPN’s site and its fantasy sports pages, O’Donnell and the other employees routinely got to play on Allen’s basketball court.
After a stint at Jobster, he teamed with Ethan Lowry and Adam Doppelt to launch Urbanspoon from Doppelt’s basement. “Acquire traffic through SEO, monetize through ad networks, and manage servers through the cloud,” is how O’Donnell describes its business model, which translates to “make one of the first kickass restaurant-recommendation apps.” And as in the past, he dove into his subject matter, developing an affinity for spots like Monsoon, Lark, and Pam’s Kitchen.
In 2013 O’Donnell took a detour into the nonprofit world by helping to get Code.org off the ground. The organization champions computer science curriculums for school-age children—particularly girls and minorities—and though his stay was brief, it’s still special to him. “I’m very proud to have been part
of it,” O’Donnell says. And from there, it was on to Spare5, where he joined a who’s who of startup vets, including CEO Matt Bencke, formerly of Getty Images, and CTO Daryn Nakhuda, who’s worked at TeachStreet and Porch. O’Donnell has moved on from fantasy teams to his dream team.
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.