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Meet the Microworkers

A new breed of online worker is paid by the task

When Julia Lee first heard of Tongal, she thought it was a scam. Tongal pays people—anyone with a good idea, really—to create online videos for companies such as Mattel (MAT), Allstate (ALL), and Popchips. Companies typically pay $15,000 to $20,000 for each project they post on Tongal's website. Tongal runs the projects like contests. Yet, instead of a winner-take-all approach, it breaks up the projects into stages, such as ideas and videos. The top-five ideas are rewarded with cash and then participants in the video phase can use any of those five ideas to create the video.

Lee's first submission, an idea for a 30-second commercial for a wine-related iPhone app won $1,000 and it only took three hours of work. When she created an animated video for a nonprofit, she earned $4,000. There have also been projects where her ideas or videos didn't make the top five, so she didn't make any money. Still, in the past year, Lee, 36, has earned more than $6,000 for about 100 hours of work, or $60 an hour on average. "It helped me pay off my credit-card bills," she says. In addition to supplementing her salary from her job at San Francisco nonprofit VolunteerMatch, Lee is finally able to put her Master of Fine Art degree to good use. She says she'd like to save money to make a film someday.