Dec
18
2018
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Ex-Googlers meld humans & machines at new cobotics startup Formant

Our distinct skill sets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions machine can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t require any human thinking, we’ll need software to supervise them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “help people speak robot,” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering element in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the movie Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies,” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent four years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed round from SignalFire, a data-driven VC fund with software for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a single human to oversee 10, 20 or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web,” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

A beautiful marriage

“This is going to sound completely bizarre,” Formant CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a little mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and help me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to avoid this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I would do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD program to build a startup called Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4,000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics, where he was COO, got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at,” Jules tells me.

Formant now has SaaS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “robot-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to construction, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll require precise coordination.

What’s different about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly control them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with LiDAR, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, motor torques and scalar values. The software parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human “foreman” that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For example, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a construction site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the robot to proceed or stop,” Linnell writes. “This decision is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the robot is easily interpreted by a human but difficult or legally questionable for a machine. This choice still depends on the value judgment of the human, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any single data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the different feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it also can turn their choices into valuable training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next time the machine won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rock-star talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest threat is competition from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could try to adapt to the new real-time data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics, plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with different clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that try to build their own robot management software could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure way is a pretty bad problem.” Formant is looking to squash any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With time, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface enormous societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways a continuation of the industrial revolution,” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the machine that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”

Dec
17
2018
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The Mom Project, a job site for moms returning to work, nabs $8M from Initialized and more

If you are a mother who has taken a break from full-time employment to raise kids, you may have also experienced the challenge that is jumping back into the working world after your break.

You may find you need more time flexibility; you have been out of the job market for years and so your confidence is knocked; your skills are no longer as relevant as they were before; or you just want to rethink your career; plus many employers — whether they say it or not — seem less interested in you because of all of the above, and no level of burnishing your resume on LinkedIn will help. It can be tough (and I say that from first-hand experience).

Now, Chicago-based startup The Mom Project, a platform specifically built to help female knowledge workers find jobs after pausing to raise kids, has raised a little egg of its own to take on this challenge. It’s picked up a Series A of $8 million that it plans to use to bring its job marketplace to more cities — it’s currently in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco — and to expand the kinds of services it offers to make the challenge of juggling work and parenthood easier.

The funding is being led by Grotech Ventures and Initialized Capital, with another new investor, Aspect Ventures, and previous backers Atlanta Seed Company, Engage Ventures, OCA Ventures, BBG Ventures, IrishAngels and Wintrust Financial also participating.

This brings the total raised by The Mom Project to $11 million, and with 75,000 registered moms and 1,000 companies, including Procter & Gamble, BP, Miller Coors and AT&T, the startup claims it’s now the largest platform of its kind in the U.S.

From selling diapers to changing diapers

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, said she came up with the idea for the startup in 2016, when she was on maternity leave from a strategy role at Pampers.

“I started realising a lot about moms before I became one,” she says about her last role before striking out as an entrepreneur. “But what I hadn’t understood until I was on maternity leave myself was that your priorities can change after having a child.” (She’s pictured up above with her son.)

Citing a study she’d seen in the Harvard Business Review that estimated 43 percent of skilled women exit the workforce after having children, Robinson realised there was a gap in the market for those among them who had timed out from returning to their previous roles, but still wanted to make the leap back into working at some point.

And she has a point: Not only do people who decide they want to return to work face all of the usual issues of newly needing more time flexibility, wondering whether their skills are still current enough, general confidence and so on, but the average recruitment process, and job sites overall, do not really have ways to account for any of that very well.

And the gap exists on the employer side of the marketplace, too. Businesses — both large corporates very much in the public eye as well as smaller businesses that are not — are rethinking how they hire and keep good people in the overall competition for talent. (Just this week, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics said that the number of unfilled positions in the information and communication technology sector rose by 24.3 percent compared to last year in the country, a shortage that’s reflected in other markets.)

Having a diverse workforce — including more women and women from different walks of life — is key not only to helping counteract that, but to contribute to better overall work culture. That’s a fact that many employers have realised independently or have simply been thrown into the spotlight unwittingly and now are trying to repair.

And yet, there haven’t been many opportunities for them to pursue more diverse hiring practices.

LinkedIn recently made a tiny move into exploring diversity in hiring by at least allowing recruiters to search their job candidate results by gender, but this is a far cry from actually addressing the specific predicaments that particular segments of the working population have, and how to help them connect better with employers who might be keen to bring more of them on through recruitment.

In fact, the idea of providing improved job search for knowledge workers in specific cases is actually a very interesting one that shows there is definitely still room for innovation in the world of recruitment: Handshake earlier this year raised $40 million for its own take on this, which is providing a better LinkedIn-style platform to connect minority university graduates with interesting job opportunities at companies keen to make their workforces more diverse.

“Companies have started to realize the value in building a diverse workforce, but we still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation and opportunities,” said Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech and new Mom Project board member. “Allison and her team have built an incredible marketplace of diverse talent for companies and I look forward to working with The Mom Project to execute on their vision of helping to close the gender gap in the workplace.”

The Mom Project, Robinson said, is tackling the challenges at both ends of the spectrum.

On the employer side, she said there is a lot of educating going on, talking to HR people and getting them to understand the opportunity they could unlock by hiring more parents — which tend to be almost entirely all-women, but sometimes men, too.

“We want to provide more data to these companies,” she said, pointing out that it’s not just a matter of providing a job opportunity, but also giving parents options in areas like childcare, or flexible working schedules. “We want to show them ‘here is where you are doing well, and here is where you are not. Fixes don’t cost a lot of money, but a lot of companies are just not aware.”

“We’ve got 75,000 women on our platform, and currently around 1,000 companies posting jobs,” she said. “The goal is to have 75,000-plus jobs. We want to make sure that all the moms signing up on the platform are getting work.”

“The Mom Project is determined to create a future where women aren’t forced to choose between their families and their careers,” said Alda Leu Dennis, partner at Initialized Capital and new Mom Project board member, in a statement. “There is a huge pool of experienced talent, parents and non-parents, that is sometimes overlooked because companies haven’t created the kind of diverse, flexible workplace culture that attracts and retains them. Initialized wants to be part of making this cultural shift happen.”

On the parent side, not only is it also about making the platform known to people who are considering a return to work, but it’s also about some fundamental, but very important basics, such as giving would-be jobseekers the flexibility to go to interviews. Robinson said that one campaign it’s about to launch, in partnership with Urban Sitter, is to provide free childcare credits to Mom Project jobseekers so that they can get to their interview.

“Sometimes you have to go to an interview with 24 hours’ notice, and lining up a sitter can be stressful,” she said. “We want to alleviate that.”

Parents also know that this isn’t just an issue for the interview: Many towns and regions have what Robinson called “childcare deserts,” where there is a scarcity of affordable options to replace the parent on a more daily basis.

Contract work is king (and queen)

For now, Robinson said that the majority of jobs on the platform are focused on fixed-term employment — that is, not permanent, full-time work.

This is due to a number of reasons. For example, parents coming back to working after a break may be more inclined to ease in with shorter roles and less long-term commitment. And employers are still testing out how this demographic of workers will work out, so to speak. Equally, though, we have seen a huge swing in more general employment trends, where businesses are hiring fixed-term workers rather than full-time employees to account for seasonality and to give themselves more flexibility (not to mention less liability on the benefits front).

While Robinson said that the aim is definitely to bring more full-time job opportunities to the platform over time, this has nonetheless presented an interesting business opportunity to The Mom Project. The startup acts like Airbnb, Amazon and a number of other marketplaces, where it not only connects job-seekers and employers, but also then handles all the transactions around the job. When the job is fixed-term, the Mom Project essentially becomes like the job agency paying the employee, and that is how it makes a cut. And it also becomes the provider of benefits and more.

In other words, while there is an immediate opportunity for The Mom Project to compete against (or at least win some business from) the likes of LinkedIn to target the specific opportunity of providing jobs for women returning to work, there is a potentially and equally big one in becoming a one-stop employment shop to handle customers’ other needs as employers or workers, providing a range of other services, from payroll through to childcare listings and more.

Nov
20
2018
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Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day 

The Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation LabMorgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator focused on companies founded by multicultural and female entrepreneurs, hosted its second Annual Showcase and Demo Day. The event also featured companies from accelerators HearstLab, Newark Venture Partner Labs and PS27 Ventures. (Note: I was formerly employed by Morgan Stanley and have no financial ties.)

The showcase represented the culmination of the program’s second year, which followed an initial five-company class that has already seen two acquisitions. Through the six-month program, Morgan Stanley provides early-stage companies with a wide range of benefits, including an equity investment from Morgan Stanley, office space at Morgan Stanley headquarters, access to Morgan Stanley’s extensive network and others. Applications are now open for its third cohort of companies, with the application window closing on January 4th, 2019.

The 16 presenting startups, all led by a female or multicultural founder, offered solutions to structural inefficiencies across a wide array of categories, including fintech, developer tools and health. Though all of the companies offered impressive presentations and strong value propositions, here are three of the companies that stood out to us.

Hatch Apps

In hopes of democratizing software and app development, Hatch Apps provides a platform that allows users and companies to build iOS, Android and web applications without any code through pre-built templates and custom plug-and-play functions. In essence, Hatch Apps provides a solution for application building similar to what Squarespace or Wix provide for websites.

In the modern economy, every company is in one way or another a tech or tech-enabled company. Now the demand for strong engineers has made the fight for talent increasingly competitive and has made engineering quite costly, even when only needed for simple tasks. 

For an implementation and subscription fee, Hatch Apps allows companies with less sophisticated engineering DNA to reduce entering costs by launching native apps on their own, across platforms and often on faster timelines than those seen through third-party developers. Once an app is launched, Hatch Apps provides customers with detailed analytics and allows them to send targeted push notifications, export data and make in-app changes that can automatically go live in app stores.

The company initially took a bootstrapping approach to financing and raised funds by selling a 2016 election-themed “Cards Against Humanity”-style game created on the platform. Since then, Hatch Apps has already received funding from the Y Combinator Fellowship, Morgan Stanley and a number of other investors.

FreeWill

While estate planning is a topic many don’t like to think about, it’s a critical issue for managing cross-generational wealth. But will drafting can often be very complex, time-consuming and costly, requiring hours of legal consultation and coordination between various parties.

Founded by two former classmates at Stanford Business School, FreeWill looks to simplify the estate-planning process by providing a free online platform that automates will drafting, in a similar function to what TurboTax does for taxes. Using FreeWill, users can quickly set allocations for their estate and select personal recipients, charitable donations, executor specifications and other ancillary requests. The platform then creates a finalized legal document that is legally valid in all 50 states, to which users can also quickly make changes and replace without incurring expensive legal costs.

FreeWill is able to provide the platform to consumers for free due to the proceeds it receives from its nonprofit customers, who pay to be featured on the platform as a partner organization. FreeWill offers a compelling value proposition for partnering companies. By acting as a channel to funnel user donations to listed organizations, FreeWill has been able to drive a 600 percent increase in charitable giving to partner organizations on average. FreeWill also provides partner organizations with backing analytics that allow nonprofits to track bequests and donors through monthly reports. 

FreeWill currently boasts an impressive roster of 75 paying nonprofit partners that include American Red Cross, Amnesty International and many others. In the long-run it hopes to be the go-to solution for financial and legal end-of-life planning for investment advisors, life insurance and employee benefits providers.

Shoobs

Shoobs is looking to be the go-to platform for local “urban” events, which the company defined as events centered on local nightlife, comedy and concerts in the hip-hop, R&B and reggae genres to name a few. But unlike the genre-agnostic, transaction-focused event management platforms that can make the space seem pretty crowded, Shoobs focused on providing genre-specific even discovery. Shoobs matches urban event goers with artists of their choice and related smaller-scale events that can be harder to discover, acting as a form of curation, quality control and discovery.

For event organizers, Shoobs helps provide digital ticketing and promotion services, with event recommendation capabilities that target the most promising potential customers. Through its offering to event organizers, Shoobs is able to monetize its services through ticket sale commission, advertising and brand partnerships.

Since its initial launch in London, Shoobs notes it has become one of the top urban events platforms in the city, with an extensive base of recurring registered users and event organizers. After previously working with AEG for its London launch, Shoobs is looking to expand stateside with the help of organizers like Live Nation. Shoobs joins a long list of promising Y Combinator alumni companies with YC also acting as one of Shoobs’ initial investors.

Other presenting companies included:

Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab

  • BeautyLynk “is an on-demand hair and makeup service provider, specializing in customizable services for women.”
  • Broadway Roulette “is an events marketplace that pairs consumers with surprise cultural events, beginning with Broadway theater.”
  • CariClub “is an enterprise software platform to connect young professionals with nonprofit opportunities.”
  • COI Energy Services “is an integrated platform for electric utilities and business users to optimize and manage energy usage.”
  • CoSign “is an API and application that allows anyone to create, distribute and monetize visual content.”
  • Goalsetter “is a goals-based gifting, savings and investing platform designed for children.”
  • myLAB Box “offers customizable at-home health-test kits and relevant telemedicine consultations / prescription services.”

HearstLab

  • Priori “is a global legal marketplace changing the way in-house teams find, hire and manage outside counsel.”
  • TRENCH “is an online fashion marketplace that makes use of the unworn items in every woman’s closet.”

Newark Venture Partners Labs

  • Floss Bar “is a new type of preventive brand for oral health care. The company offers high-quality, routine dental care across flexible locations at thoughtful prices.”
  • Upsider “is a software solution allowing recruiters to leverage AI technology to identify a comprehensive set of candidates who align with their business and role requirements, resulting in a more strategic understanding of the best possible talent for the job.”

PS27 Ventures

  • BlueWave Technologies “is a cleantech company and the creators of the BlueWave™ Cleaning System — a water-free, detergent-free and chemical-free plasma device that cleans items that are extremely hard or impossible to clean with a washer and dryer.”
  • OnPay Solutions “focuses exclusively on business-to-business payments. They create payment software and offer payment web services to enhance efficiency and productivity for Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable.”

Nov
20
2018
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LinkedIn launches its own Snapchat Stories: ‘Student Voices’

The social media singularity continues with the arrival of Snapchat Stories-style slideshows on LinkedIn as the app grasps for relevance with a younger audience. LinkedIn confirms to TechCrunch that it plans to build Stories for more sets of users, but first it’s launching “Student Voices” just for university students in the U.S. The feature appears atop the LinkedIn home screen and lets students post short videos to their Campus Playlist. The videos (no photos allowed) disappear from the playlist after a week while staying permanently visible on a user’s own profile in the Recent Activity section. Students can tap through their school’s own slideshow and watch the Campus Playlists of nearby universities.

LinkedIn now confirms the feature is in testing, with product manager Isha Patel telling TechCrunch “Campus playlists are a new video feature that we’re currently rolling out to college students in the US. As we know, students love to use video to capture moments so we’ve created this new product to help them connect with one another around shared experiences on campus to help create a sense of community.” Student Voices was first spotted by social consultant Carlos Gil, and tipped by Socially Contented’s Cathy Wassell to Matt Navarra.

A LinkedIn spokesperson tells us the motive behind the feature is to get students sharing their academic experiences like internships, career fairs and class projects that they’d want to show off to recruiters as part of their personal brand. “It’s a great way for students to build out their profile and have this authentic content that shows who they are and what their academic and professional experiences have been. Having these videos live on their profile can help students grow their network, prepare for life after graduation, and help potential employers learn more about them,” Patel says.

But unfortunately that ignores the fact that Stories were originally invented for broadcasting off-the-cuff moments that disappear so you DON’T have to worry about their impact on your reputation. That dissonance might confuse users, discourage them from posting to Student Voices or lead them to assume their clips will disappear from their profile too — which could leave embarrassing content exposed to hirers. “Authenticity” might not necessarily paint users in the best light to recruiters, so it seems more likely that students would post polished clips promoting their achievements… if they use it at all.

LinkedIn seems to be desperate to appeal to the next generation. Social app investigator and TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong today spotted 10 minor new features LinkedIn is prototyping that include youth-centric options like GIF comments, location sharing in messages and Facebook Reactions-style buttons beyond “Like” such as “Clap,” “Insightful,” “Hmm,” and “Support.”

When users post to Student Stories, they’ll have their university’s logo overlaid as a sticker they can move around. LinkedIn will generate this plus a set of suggested hashtags like #OnCampus based on a user’s profile, including which school they say they attend, though users can also overlay their own text captions. Typically, users in the test phase were sharing videos of around 30 to 45 seconds. “Students are taking us to their school hackathons, showing us their group projects, sharing their student group activities and teaching us about causes they care about,” Patel explains. You can see an example video here, and watch a sizzle reel about the feature below.

For now, LinkedIn tells me it has no plans to insert ads between clips in Student Voices. But if the Stories content assists with discovering and vetting job candidates, it could make LinkedIn more unique and indispensable to recruiters who do pay for premium access. And if these Stories get a ton of views simply by being emblazoned atop the LinkedIn feed, users might return to the app more frequently to share them. As we’ve seen with the steady increase in popularity of Facebook Stories, if you give people a stage for narcissism, they will fill it.

LinkedIn’s start as a dry web tool for seeking jobs has made for a rocky transition as it tries to become a daily habit for users. Some tactical advice in its feed can be helpful, but much of LinkedIn’s content feels blatantly self-promotional, boring or transactional. Meanwhile, it’s encountering new competition as Facebook integrates career listings and job applications for blue-collar work into its social network that already sees over a billion people visit each day. It’s understandable why LinkedIn would try to latch on to the visual communication trend, as Facebook estimates Stories sharing will surpass feed sharing across all apps in 2019. But Student Voices nonetheless feels unabashedly “how do you do, fellow kids?”

Oct
07
2018
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Facebook poaches leaders of Refdash interview prep to work on Jobs

Facebook just snatched some talent to fuel its invasion of LinkedIn’s turf. A source tells TechCrunch that members of coding interview practice startup Refdash including at least some of its executives have been hired by Facebook. The social network confirmed to TechCrunch that members of Refdash’s leadership team are joining to work on Facebook’s Jobs feature that lets business promote employment openings that users can instantly apply for.

Facebook’s big opportunity here is that it’s a place people already browse naturally, so they can be exposed to Job listings even when they’re not actively looking for a company or career change. Since launching the feature in early 2017, Facebook has focused on blue-collar jobs like service and retail industry jobs that constantly need filling. But the Refdash team could give it more experience in recruiting for technical roles, connecting high-skilled workers like computer programmers to positions that need filling. These hirers might be willing to pay high prices to advertise their job listings on Facebook, siphoning revenue away from LinkedIn.

Facebook confirms that this is not an acquisition or technically a full acquihire, as there’s no overarching deal to buy assets or talent as a package. It’s so far unclear what exactly will happen to Refdash now that its team members are starting at Facebook this week, though it’s possible it will shut down now that its leaders have left for the tech giant’s cushy campuses and premium perks. Refdash’s website now says that “We’ve temporarily suspended interviews in order to make product changes that we believe will make your job search experience significantly better.”

Founded in 2016 in Mountain View with an undisclosed amount of funding from Founder Friendly Labs, Refdash gave programmers direct qualitative and scored feedback on their coding interviews. Users would do a mock interview, get graded, and then have their performance anonymously shared with potential employers to match them with the right companies and positions for their skills. This saved engineers from having to endure grueling interrogations with tons of different hirers. Refdash claimed to place users at startups like Coinbase, Cruise, Lyft, and Mixpanel.

A source tells us that Refdash focused on understanding people’s deep professional expertise and sending them to the perfect employer without having to judge by superficial resumes that can introduce bias to the process. It also touted allowing hirers to browse candidates without knowing their biographical details, which could also cut down on discrimination and helps ensure privacy in the job hunting process (especially if people are still working elsewhere and are trying to be discreet in their job hunt).

It’s easy to imagine Facebook building its own coding challenge and puzzles that programmers could take to then get paired with appropriate hirers through its Jobs product. Perhaps Facebook could even build a similar service to Refdash, though the one-on-one feedback sessions it’d conduct might not be scalable enough for Menlo Park’s liking. If Facebook can make it easier to not only apply for jobs but interview for them too, it could lure talent and advertisers away from LinkedIn to a product that’s already part of people’s daily lives.

The co-founders of Refdash have something of a track record in building companies that get acquihired to help add new features to existing services. Nicola Otasevic and Andrew Kearney were respectively the founder and tech lead for Room 77, which was picked up by Google in 2014 to help rebuild its travel search vertical. At the time it was described as a licensing deal although Refdash’s founders these days call it an acquisition.

Building tools to improve the basic process of hiring via remote testing could help Facebook get an edge on technical recruiting, but it’s not the only one building such features. LinkedIn’s stablemate Skype (like LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft) last year unveiled Interviews to let recruiters test developers and others applying for technical jobs with a real-time code editor. LinkedIn has not (yet?) incorporated it into its platform.

Sep
14
2018
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Drone startup Airware crashes, will shut down after burning $118M

Drone operating system startup Airware today suddenly informed employees it will cease operations immediately despite having raised $118 million from top investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Google’s GV, and Kleiner Perkins. The startup ran out of money after trying to manufacture its own hardware that couldn’t compete with drone giants like China’s DJI. The company at one point had as many as 140 employees, all of which are now out of a job.

A source sent TechCrunch screenshots from the Airware alumni Slack channel detailing how the staff was told this morning that Airware would shut down.

Airware makes a cloud sofware system that helps enterprise customers like construction companies, mining operations, and insurance companies reviewing equipment for damages to use drones to collect and analyze aerial data. That allowed companies to avoid using expensive helicopters or dangerous rigs with humans on harnesses to make inspections and gauge work progress.

One ex-employee asked “How do I get my options sent to me on paper so I can burn them all in a fire??

Founded in 2011 by Jonathan Downey, the son of two pilots, Airware first built an autopilot system for programming drones to follow certain routes to collect data. It could help businesses check rooftops for damage, see how much of a raw material was coming out of a mine, or build constantly-updated maps of construction sites. Later it tried to build its own drones before pivoting to consult clients on how to most efficiently apply unmanned aerial vehicles.

While flying high, Airware launched its own Commercial Drone Fund for investing in the market in 2015, and acquired 38-person drone analytics startup Redbird in 2016. In this pre-crypto, pre-AI boom, Airware scored a ton of hype from us and others as tried to prove drones could be more than war machines. But over time, the software that shipped with commercial drone hardware from other manufacturers was good enough to make Airware irrelevant, and a downward spiral of layoffs began over the past two years, culminating in today’s shutdown. Demonstating how sudden the shut down is, Airware opened a Tokyo headquarters alongside an investment and partnership from Mitsubishi just four days ago.

“Airware was ahead of the game trying to build their software. So far ahead that the drone hardware on the market wasn’t sophisticated enough to actually produce the granularity of data they needed to test out their software/train their algorithms” an ex-employee told TechCrunch (emphasis ours). “So they spent shitloads of money designing bespoke hardware, including two drones in-house, one multi-rotor called an AT-28, and one fixed-wing called Cygnet. Both projects were scuttled as hardware from DJI and Ebee caught up to needs, after sinking tons of engineering time and manufacturing into them.”

Following TechCrunch’s inquiry about the unnannounced news, Airware confirmed the shut down to us with this statement:

“History has taught us how hard it can be to call the timing of a market transition. We have seen this play out first hand in the commercial drone marketplace. We were the pioneers in this market and one of the first to see the power drones could have in the commercial sector. Unfortunately, the market took longer to mature than we expected. As we worked through the various required pivots to position ourselves for long term success, we ran out of financial runway. As a result, it is with a heavy heart that we notified our team, customers, and partners that we will wind down the business.

This is not the business outcome we had worked so hard for over the years and yet we are deeply proud of our company’s accomplishments and our leadership in driving the adoption of drone powered analytics to improve productivity, mitigate risks, and take workers out of harm’s way.

As we close the book of Airware; we want to thank the partners and customers who believed in us and helped us along the way. And, while it is difficult to say goodbye to our team, we want to thank them for all they have contributed to Airware and the industry. We look forward to seeing how they will take their learnings from Airware to fuel continued innovations in the world around us.”

[Update: Since we broke the news, Airware has put up a “thank you” note about the shutdown informing clients that “A representative from the Airware team will be in touch.”]

An Airware-hardware equipped drone

Employees will get one week’s severance, COBRA insurance until November, and payouts for unused paid time off. It appears the startup wasn’t able to raise necessary funding to save the company or secure an acquisition from one of its strategic partners like Catepillar.

Airware will serve as cautionary tale of startup overspending in hopes of finding product-market fit. Had it been more frugal, saved cash to extend its runway, and given corporate clients more time to figure out how to use drones, Airware might have stayed afloat. Sometimes, even having the most prestigious investors can’t save a startup from mismanagement.

Our ex-employee source concludes that “I think having $118M in the bank led Airware to charge ahead and sink tons of money into force-it-to-work methods rather than exercise a bit of patience and wait for the inevitable advance of hardware to catch up. They had a knack for hiring extremely talented and expensive people from places like Google, Autodesk, there was even SpaceX and NASA alumni there.

They spared no expense ever.”

Aug
18
2018
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Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics

When we think about designing our dream home, we don’t think of having a thousand roommates in the same room with no doors or walls. Yet in today’s workplace where we spend most of our day, the purveyors of corporate office design insist that tearing down walls and bringing more people closer together in the same physical space will help foster better collaboration while dissolving the friction of traditional hierarchy and office politics.

But what happens when there is no office at all?

This is the reality for Jason Fried, Founder and CEO of Basecamp, and Matt Mullenweg, Founder and CEO of Automattic (makers of WordPress), who both run teams that are 100% distributed across six continents and many time zones. Fried and Mullenweg are the founding fathers of a movement that has inspired at least a dozen other companies to follow suit, including Zapier, Github, and Buffer. Both have either written a book, or have had a book written about them on the topic.

For all of the discussions about how to hire, fire, coordinate, motivate, and retain remote teams though, what is strangely missing is a discussion about how office politics changes when there is no office at all. To that end, I wanted to seek out the experience of these companies and ask: does remote work propagate, mitigate, or change the experience of office politics? What tactics are startups using to combat office politics, and are any of them effective?

“Can we take a step back here?”

Office politics is best described by a simple example. There is a project, with its goals, metrics, and timeline, and then there’s who gets to decide how it’s run, who gets to work on it, and who gets credit for it. The process for deciding this is a messy human one. While we all want to believe that these decisions are merit-based, data-driven, and objective, we all know the reality is very different. As a flood of research shows, they come with the baggage of human bias in perceptions, heuristics, and privilege.

Office politics is the internal maneuvering and positioning to shape these biases and perceptions to achieve a goal or influence a decision. When incentives are aligned, these goals point in same direction as the company. When they don’t, dysfunction ensues.

Perhaps this sounds too Darwinian, but it is a natural and inevitable outcome of being part of any organization where humans make the decisions. There is your work, and then there’s the management of your coworker’s and boss’s perception of your work.

There is no section in your employee handbook that will tell you how to navigate office politics. These are the tacit, unofficial rules that aren’t documented. This could include reworking your wardrobe to match your boss’s style (if you don’t believe me, ask how many people at Facebook own a pair of Nike Frees). Or making time to go to weekly happy hour not because you want to, but because it’s what you were told you needed to do to get ahead.

One of my favorite memes about workplace culture is Sarah Cooper’s “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” which includes…

  • Encouraging everyone to “take a step back” and ask “what problem are we really trying to solve”
  • Nodding continuously while appearing to take notes
  • Stepping out to take an “important phone call”
  • Jumping out of your seat to draw a Venn diagram on the whiteboard

Sarah Cooper, The Cooper Review

These cues and signals used in physical workplaces to shape and influence perceptions do not map onto the remote workplace, which gives us a unique opportunity to study how office politics can be different through the lens of the officeless.

Friends without benefits

For employees, the analogy that coworkers are like family is true in one sense — they are the roommates that we never got to choose. Learning to work together is difficult enough, but the physical office layers on the additional challenge of learning to live together. Contrast this with remote workplaces, which Mullenweg of Automattic believes helps alleviate the “cohabitation annoyances” that come with sharing the same space, allowing employees to focus on how to best work with each other, versus how their neighbor “talks too loud on the phone, listens to bad music, or eats smelly food.”

Additionally, remote workplaces free us of the tyranny of the tacit expectations and norms that might not have anything to do with work itself. At an investment bank, everyone knows that analysts come in before the managing director does, and leave after they do. This signals that you’re working hard.

Basecamp’s Fried calls this the “presence prison,” the need to be constantly aware of where your coworkers are and what they are doing at all times, both physically and virtually. And he’s waging a crusade against it, even to the point of removing the green dot on Basecamp’s product. “As a general rule, nobody at Basecamp really knows where anyone else is at any given moment. Are they working? Dunno. Are they taking a break? Dunno. Are they at lunch? Dunno. Are they picking up their kid from school? Dunno. Don’t care.”

There is credible basis for this practice. A study of factory workers by Harvard Business School showed that workers were 10% to 15% more productive when managers weren’t watching. This increase was attributed to giving workers the space and freedom to experiment with different approaches before explaining to managers, versus the control group which tended to follow prescribed instructions under the leery watch of their managers.

Remote workplaces experience a similar phenomenon, but by coincidence. “Working hard” can’t be observed physically so it has to be explained, documented, measured, and shared across the company. Cultural norms are not left to chance, or steered by fear or pressure, which should give individuals the autonomy to focus on the work itself, versus how their work is perceived.

Lastly, while physical workplaces can be the source of meaningful friendships and community, recent research by the Wharton School of Business is just beginning to unravel the complexities behind workplace friendships, which can be fraught with tensions from obligations, reciprocity and allegiances. When conflicts arise, you need to choose between what’s best for the company, and what’s best for your relationship with that person or group. You’re not going to help Bob because your best friend Sally used to date him and he was a dick. Or you’re willing to do anything for Jim because he coaches your kid’s soccer team, and vouched for you to get that promotion.

In remote workplaces, you don’t share the same neighborhood, your kids don’t go to the same school, and you don’t have to worry about which coworkers to invite to dinner parties. Your physical/personal and work communities don’t overlap, which means you (and your company) unintentionally avoid many of the hazards of toxic workplace relationships.

On the other hand, these same relationships can be important to overall employee engagement and well-being. This is evidenced by one of the findings in Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work Report, which surveyed over 1900 remote workers around the world. It found that next to collaborating and communicating, loneliness was the biggest struggle for remote workers.

Graph by Buffer (State of Remote Work 2018)

So while you may be able to feel like your own boss and avoid playing office politics in your home office, ultimately being alone may be more challenging than putting on a pair of pants and going to work.

Feature, not a bug?

Physical offices can have workers butting heads with each other. Image by UpperCut Images via Getty Images.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapier employees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency. At Basecamp, there are no all-hands or town hall meetings. All updates, decisions, and subsequent discussions are posted publicly to the entire company. For companies, this is pretty bold. It’s like having a Facebook wall with all your friends chiming in on your questionable decisions of the distant past that you can’t erase. But the beauty is that there is now a body of written decisions and discussions that serves as a rich and permanent artifact of institutional knowledge, accessible to anyone in the company. Documenting major decisions in writing depoliticizes access to information.

Remote workplaces are not without their challenges. Even though communication can be asynchronous through writing, leadership is not. Maintaining an apolitical culture (or any culture) requires a real-time feedback loop of not only what is said, but what is done, and how it’s done. Leaders lead by example in how they speak, act, and make decisions. This is much harder in a remote setting.

A designer from WordPress notes the interpersonal challenges of leading a remote team. “I can’t always see my teammates’ faces when I deliver instructions, feedback, or design criticism. I can’t always tell how they feel. It’s difficult to know if someone is having a bad day or a bad week.”

Zapier’s Foster is also well aware of these challenges in interpersonal dynamics. In fact, he has written a 200-page manifesto on how to run remote teams, where he has an entire section devoted to coaching teammates on how to meet each other for the first time. “Because we’re wired to look for threats in any new situation… try to limit phone or video calls to 15 minutes.” Or “listen without interrupting or sharing your own stories.” And to “ask short, open ended questions.” For anyone looking for a grade school refresher on how to make new friends, Wade Foster is the Dale Carnegie of the remote workforce.

To office, or not to office

What we learn from companies like Basecamp, Automattic, and Zapier is that closer proximity is not the antidote for office politics, and certainly not the quick fix for a healthy, productive culture.

Maintaining a healthy culture takes work, with deliberate processes and planning. Remote teams have to work harder to design and maintain these processes because they don’t have the luxury of assuming shared context through a physical workspace.

The result is a wealth of new ideas for a healthier, less political culture — being thoughtful about when to bring people together, and when to give people their time apart (ending the presence prison), or when to speak, and when to read and write (to democratize meetings). It seems that remote teams have largely succeeded in turning a bug into a feature. For any company still considering tearing down those office walls and doors, it’s time to pay attention to the lessons of the officeless.

Aug
11
2018
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Blind loyalty

There is a secret behind every open office in Silicon Valley — and it isn’t the drain on productivity.

Tech companies have been the vanguards for pushing corporate culture forward toward “radical transparency.” Mark Zuckerberg works in a fully transparent four-walled glass office surrounded by the rest of Facebook. Valve got rid of managers and titles so everyone can be their own boss. Startup founders host weekly town halls, Friday all-hands, and AMAs. Companies go to painstaking lengths to signal that they trust their employees – to show that this is your company.

But while your company might adopt an open floor plan and give out free snacks so you can feel closer to your coworkers, they likely don’t want you knowing how much they make, who is affected by the impending layoffs, or whether executives are making the right decisions.

The open office has never been more closed, and tech companies are no different than old corporate America in their authoritarian approach to controlling how their employees should think about issues that matter in the workplace. In fact, it may even be more insidious because it’s tucked away behind the veneer of a cheerful, open office.

This is what makes social network Blind so fascinating. Raw and unfiltered, Blind is the antithesis to HR’s utopic vision of a manageable and orderly corporate culture. Instead, it operates outside the walled gardens of IT with no rules and no official corporate supervision.

With Blind, users are completely anonymous, but are required to submit a verified work email to join a company channel. Inside, they are able to freely ask, discuss, prod, and complain without fear of retribution or judgment.

In short, it’s HR’s worst nightmare, and it’s wildly successful.

Building a compelling social product

Blind’s engagement numbers are staggering. It has over 2 million users, including 43K at Microsoft, 28K at Amazon, and 10K at Google. In South Korea, half of all employees at companies over 200 people are active monthly. The typical monthly active user logs in three to four times per day and spends 35 minutes using the app. At the height of the Susan Fowler scandal, Uber employees were spending almost 3 hours a day on Blind. All that, and the entire company is 38 people.

At the heart of Blind’s magic is something universal to every person who has ever been employed — the duality between our personal selves and our “work” selves, and the human drive to be both intimate and in control of our relationships. There is no place more difficult to navigate this duality than the workplace, where we want to feel loved and understood, but also respected.

Hierarchy, politics, and negative career impacts burden conversations about difficult topics, and so Blind tears these barriers down one employee at a time, affording a space for uninhibited dialogue. More importantly, Blind succeeds as a resource for questions not only company-related, but also around career, family, and life decisions.

Blind is in many ways an evolution of a long lineage of ideas in social networking. It’s unique achievement is the recombination of these different ideas to create a platform that is both a safe space for free and open conversation (via anonymity), along with a vetted, contextually relevant community (via workplace email authentication).

Let’s walk though each of these categories to understand Blind’s success.

Lack of Context (Anonymous + Individual/Personal) – Companies like Yik Yak, Secret, and Whisper pioneered the anonymous social network on the consumer side. However, they were beleaguered by cyberbullying, and served more as a digital exhaust pipe for teenage angst and trolling. Perhaps the most successful semi-anonymous social network today is Reddit, where legions of loyal community members cover every topic imaginable. However, what all of these anonymous communities lack is the critical element of shared context and circumstance.

Put another way, your fellow community members on Reddit may share your interest in ice fishing, but they likely will not understand who you are. As Blind cofounder Kyum Kim puts it, “it’s hard for someone to complain on Reddit about feeling poor while making $200K a year without fear of backlash, but on Blind, your coworkers are in the same income bracket, and likely similar education levels, neighborhoods, etc. They can empathize with your situation.” On Blind, there is a single community (your workplace) that spans multiple topics, and there’s a baseline, tacit understanding of each other’s life circumstances, allowing for deeper conversations.

Self-Promoting (Non-Anonymous + Individual/Personal) – LinkedIn and Quora are useful professional platforms, but because individuals and brands are the stars of these platforms, posturing and self-promotion can be quite frequent. When you ask a question on Quora, you are submitting your inquiry to a body of self-proclaimed experts. While many responses can be genuine, the ultimate currency that drives the platform is credibility and brand building, which inhibit authentic and vulnerable conversations from occurring.

Self-Censored (Non-Anonymous + Employee/Work) – On the enterprise side, Yammer, Jive, and recently Slack have attempted to upgrade the creaky company intranet into the enterprise social network. While these tools might make it easier to connect to your coworkers, the conversations happening on these platforms are no different than before – ultimately, these tools are designed to get work done, not for questioning, debating, or reflecting on how work should be. Conversations about sensitive subjects (e.g. how to deal with a bad manager) are unlikely to happen on a non-anonymous, corporate-sanctioned platform where that same bad manager might well be watching.

Finally, we have Blind. The platform strikes a balance between the freedom of anonymity and the context of a shared workplace. The result is a forum for surprisingly rich, relevant, and authentic conversations. While company channels are accessible only to insiders, a look at Blind’s public site (where you still need a verified work email, but you can chat with anyone outside your company) reveals a flavor for the types of conversations that are possible. An engineer at Amazon recently posted about how to deal with a mid-life crisis, with 42 responses of encouragement and advice. Another employee moving from India has a wife suffering from depression and is seeking help navigating the US healthcare system.

It turns out that where we work is a good proxy for who we are, and our coworkers have been an untapped community of wisdom.

Trust and safety

Catalin205 via Getty Images

Blind is by no means perfect. Like all online platforms and particularly anonymous ones, it invites its share of trolls. One look at the “Relationships” section on Blind’s public site and you’ll find questions about how to deal with one-night stands with coworkers and a poll asking guys how many girls they’ve slept with before marriage. While these questions could certainly have come from a genuine place, they are easy fodder for trolls, and the ensuing conversations can be alienating and provide an unnecessary megaphone for toxic bro culture.

Blind acknowledges that these issues exist, but claim that they happen less frequently inside company channels. Because users authenticate with their work emails, cofounders Sunguk and Kim believe that Blind users feel a greater sense of responsibility to each other because they are engaging a real community with shared context and goals.

The vast terrain of cyberspace might suffer from the tragedy of the commons and moral hazard, but within your workplace channel on Blind, your digital community maps onto a physical community – even though you are anonymous. This is evidenced by the successful self-policing on the platform, where 0.5% of all posts have been removed (higher than average for a social media platform), and all of these originated from user-generated flags.

A More Perfect Union

Blind’s success illuminates a reality that is often overlooked: corporations aren’t naturally democratic or transparent. While there are platforms to discuss our roles as individual working professionals (e.g. LinkedIn), there are very few places to gather and organize as employees of companies to collectively bargain for a better workplace.

This is by design. HR, the supposed watchdog of employee wellness, is neither elected nor truly representative, as they must balance the competing goals of being a third party resource for employees while also protecting the company against its employees.

Companies will always be incentivized to maintain an asymmetry of information. Friday all-hands and town halls are heavily scripted by companies. Rarely do we see anyone describing a healthy, transparent culture as a place where employees are freely conversing amongst themselves.

For companies with something to hide, the idea of a public square where conversations happen freely should be alarming. Blind has already been at the center of exposing two major scandals (e.g. the “nut rage” incident by a Korean Air executive and the news that Lyft was spying on its users.)

Blind picks up where labor unions left off and where HR has failed — to serve as a safeguard against corporate overreach, and to provide a protected space for employees to collaborate around solutions to improve the workplace.

A truly open office

For companies, Blind’s rise shouldn’t be seen as bad news. Blind can be a rich source of insight where HR software falls short. While employee engagement surveys have become popular in HR circles (and a crop of well-funded HR tech companies have consequently flooded the market), these practices suffer from the same issues of hosting a town hall. The company decides on the questions asked and interprets the answers given. With Blind, for the first time, HR and executives will have a pulse on employee sentiment that is both real-time and authentic. As Moon puts it, “no company is perfect, and if it was, Blind would not need to exist.”

In short, Blind understands more about your employees than anything in your HR stack.

Where does Blind go from here? Moon and Kyum believe they’re just getting started. Today, Blind is only available in the U.S. and South Korea, and it has been focused on tech companies. Their push into more traditional industries is showing some early signs of success with Johnson & Johnson, Dow Chemical, Barclays, and the US Navy coming online recently. There is still work to do in cleaning up different communities to ensure that conversations are inclusive and not alienating. And of course, Blind has to find a path to becoming a sustainable, revenue-generating company without compromising its integrity with users.

But one can only imagine the potential for Blind if it continues on its path upwards — the anonymous social network that understands who you are, the pulse survey that is authentic and real-time, and the first truly safe and open office made for employees, by employees.

Jul
10
2018
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Foursquare brings on Liz Ritzcovan as chief revenue officer

Foursquare has just hired Liz Ritzcovan as Chief Revenue Officer.

Ritzcovan hails from BazaarVoice, where she also served as CRO. She previously held CRO positions at Sizmek and Parade Media Group, and before that, spent time at Yahoo, Time Inc, and Interbrand.

Though Foursquare has been around since 2009, things have changed a lot for the company. What started as a consumer-facing app to log and share location information has become a SaaS company focused on helping brands understand their customer’s real-world habits and convert those habits into meaningful transactions and experiences.

That started with the unbundling of the legacy Foursquare app into Foursquare (a Yelp competitor centered around recommendations) and Swarm (a social location check-in app). As of 2016, both apps have more than 50 million active users, which—along with insights from partners—has in turn yielded the data necessary to create enterprise tools.

For example, Pinpoint by Foursquare (an ad product) has more than half of the Ad Age 100 as advertisers, and Attribution by Foursquare (a measurement product) has doubled its revenue in 2017. And that doesn’t include the Pilgrim SDK and Places API, which helped contribute to Foursquare’s 50 percent revenue growth year over year for the past three years.

Ritzcovan is aware that, despite the growth of e-commerce, 90 percent of consumer spending and memorable experiences happen in the real world. But getting clients, usually internet-facing companies, to understand that is her new great challenge.

Here’s what she had to say in her announcement blog post:

So what is my first priority as CRO? Client centricity. Foursquare needs to deepen our connection with our partners: explaining to business leaders why it’s critical to leverage more than a single Foursquare solution—be it ad campaigns with Pinpoint, measurement with Attribution, or location-based CRM and messaging with our Pilgrim SDK and Places API—by taking all of these parts together and connecting the dots. Foursquare is more and more about bundling technology licensing, mapping capabilities, and marketing optimization in a suite of solutions. It’s the reason I joined, to help lead the team into packaging these broad “solution sets” for leading organizations and brands.

Jun
21
2018
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Disrupting the paycheck, Gusto’s Flexible Pay allows employees to pick when they get paid

People should get paid for work they have done. It’s a pretty simple principle of capitalism, but a principle that seems increasingly violated in the modern economy. With semi-monthly paychecks, the work an employee does on the first day of the month won’t be paid until the end of the third week — a delay of up to 21 days. That delay is despite the massive digitalization of bank transfers and accounting over the past few decades that should have made paychecks far more regular.

Gusto, a payroll and HR benefits provider focused on small businesses, announced the launch of Flexible Pay today, a new feature that will allow its payroll users to select when they receive their income for work already completed. The feature, which must be switched on by an employer, will cost employers nothing out-of-pocket today. The launch is limited to customers in Texas, but will expand to other states in the coming year.

As Gusto CEO Joshua Reeves explained it to me, a kid mowing lawns in a neighborhood has a much more visceral connection to income than the modern knowledge economy worker. Cut the grass, get cash — it’s that simple. He also pointed out, with irony, that terminated employees experience much better payroll service than regular employees: they have to be paid out on their last day of work outside of the standard paycheck schedule. Reeves and his team wanted to offer that flexibility and convenience to every worker.

Flexible Pay allows users to choose when they get paid, outside of typical paycheck schedules

The key to this new feature has been Gusto’s increasing data about small businesses. Gusto now serves 1 percent of all small businesses in the U.S., and it has comprehensive access to its customers’ financial and payroll data. With integrations to time sheet services and proper risk modeling, Gusto is able to predict exactly what salary a worker has already earned, and can front the money at minimum risk to itself.

One major challenge for Gusto was how to reconcile the books of the employer with the irregular paycheck schedules desired by employees. Gusto handles all the logistics transparently, including tax withholding, so that for employers, the paycheck distribution looks and feels “normal” on its books.

That means that Gusto is effectively loaning money to companies, since it is paying payroll in advance. Gusto is funding those loans off its balance sheet today, but over time, the company expects to create a financial facility to underwrite the product.

For Reeves, Flexible Pay is “the right thing to do.” He believes that this new level of flexibility will empower workers to control their financial lives. In the long run, as more users get habituated to the product and its convenience, he hopes that the feature will draw other employers into using Gusto based on employee demand.

The unfortunate reality in the American workforce is that huge numbers of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, by some counts as many as 80 percent. A bill can come due just a day or two before a paycheck hits, but without cash in a checking account, people often have to resort to predatory financial products like payday loans or high-interest credit cards in order to make ends meet. Flexible Pay is one step in the right direction of fighting for workers to get the money they justly deserve.

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