Guest: AJ Brustein, COO & Cofounder, Wonolo
Air Date: August 17, 2018
Chad: Hi everyone, my name is Chad Nitschke, cofounder and CEO of Bunker, And also the host of this podcast: Ready Set Work. Ready set work is a podcast series that focuses on the future of work, specifically highlighting all different perspectives from the gig economy, to on-demand platforms, and more. Join us each episode to hear from thought leaders paving the way toward the future of work.
Chad: Hi everyone, we’re here today with AJ Brustein, cofounder and COO of Wonolo. Welcome AJ to the first episode of Bunker’s Ready Set Work podcast.
AJ: Thanks Chad, this is awesome.
Chad: So Aj, can you briefly describe Wonolo, and what the future of work means to you, and I guess particularly as someone who has been involved in building a company that leverages the gig economy. And maybe before you dive into that, I know the answer to this because we know each other, but could you share with the listeners what WONOLO stands for? Everyone loves a good origins naming story
AJ: Wonolo stands for work now locally, and that’s really what we do. We enable workers to find work, locally, around them, right now, or any time that they’d like. And that’s basically what Wonolo is, it’s an on-demand staffing platform, you can think of it that way. We allow people to find work flexibly, and just like I mentioned, they can decide, they go through our onboarding process, and once they get through, they can see jobs that are available around them and that match their skill set, and then they decide where they want to work, when they want to work and how they want to work. We’ve been doing it for about 4 and a half years now, and we started it — I mean to answer your question about the future of work, that’s exactly why we started it. We saw that there was this movement of people, really, who were looking for different ways to work. They weren’t looking really for the 9-5, you know, 5 days a week, they were looking for more flexibility and they wanted to make their own decisions, particularly around their own schedules. And that might be because they have some other passion that they’re also interested in, and they want to prioritize their passions over their paychecks, or it might be because they have a job that they like, but they’re underemployed, or they’re working full time but it’s still not enough and they need to find work around their existing schedules. You know, whatever the reason might be, people want to be in power of and in control of their own lives, and the current way that we’re all used to of getting work with one employer, and being set on a schedule, and being told ‘this is when we need you to come in and to do your work’ just doesn’t work for people anymore, and we wanted to be part of helping that workforce, and the new generation of workers, being able to work the way they want to work.
Chad: That’s great, and I’m curious, what lead you down that path to decide to solve this problem for workers?
AJ: Actually, out of our own business problem that we were trying to solve. So, my background is in brand marketing, I worked at Coca Cola most recently for about 7 years, and as a marketer, we would launch new campaigns and new products, and one of the biggest frustrations would be that after we spent a lot of time and money on implementing a new campaign, if the product wasn’t available on the shelf for the consumer to purchase it, there was no point in doing what we’re doing. It would be very frustrating. And so when we tried to figure out why products weren’t on the shelves, you know, it was a number of reasons why that happened, maybe they were selling out faster than expected, or maybe there was a kink in the supply chain, or something like that. But ultimately, they all came down to was there a person available to solve that problem. Could someone go and make more product or deliver more product or stock the product on the shelf. And when we tried to understand why these out of stocks were happening, we realized that it was just the inability to deal with unpredictability in the workforce. So when something like an out of stock happened at coca cola, it was very challenging to find someone to go and restock that shelf. And we thought, well, with the rise of the smartphone and the new technology, similar to what we saw Uber and Lyft doing, we thought we could find a better way to match people, but more importantly, we thought that we could find a workforce that would be interested in working flexible, one off jobs rather than trying to hire someone and give them full time work, when that’s not necessary for a one-off thing like this. We worked with Coca Cola to say, let’s see if we can find merchandisers that might work for another company, or maybe just, you know, a stay at home dad who happens to be shopping at walmart at that moment to restock the shelf. And so that’s sort of how we found this problem, you know not only on the company, coca cola side, but all of Coke’s partners seemed to have the same sort of problem, you know it manifests itself in different ways, but matching the demand of work with the supply of labor is a challenge all over, and we said, you know, we could solve this problem and that’s how we got started.
Chad: Yeah that’s great, and I’m curious, you know, with any marketplace, like you mentioned, you need to solve for both the demand and the supply side, and maybe if we could dive in to the supply side a little more and I’m curious, how easy or how difficult was it to find workers that effectively wanted to kind of work the way that you guys were suggesting?
AJ: Honestly, it was very easy. As I mentioned earlier, typically, your day or your week is decided by the person or the company that you work for. It’s dictated by that schedule, that they need you. And so finding people that were looking for flexible opportunities to work was not really a challenge. Making sure they understood how the platform worked and what was expected of them, how they would get paid, how this is different than the typical ways they were working, took a little bit of time. Making sure that the right people get through the onboarding process also takes a little bit of time, but finding people that really want to live this new future of work wasn’t that hard. So that’s where we got started. Finding the companies that were willing to let the worker have all the power, you know that were willing to relinquish sort of everything that they hold, and held, and said yeah, anyone can pick up this job as long as they’re qualified and I’ll accept that person, and they’re going to work for a day and they’re going to do a good job, took a little bit of a leap of faith for some of the companies, so really that was the challenge for us.
Chad: Got it, that makes sense. And I’m curious, you mentioned this a little bit before, you mentioned, like a stay at home dad. You know, if you can share a little bit more about who is the typical Wonoloer, if there is a typical, and I guess how do they impact both the gig and maybe even more importantly, the broader macro economy?
AJ: I think that there really is no typical gig economy worker, or typical Wonoloer, as we lovingly call the workers on our platform. I mentioned this new generation of workforce, it doesn’t necessarily equate to millennials, although certainly we have a large millennial workforce on wonolo, but we see everything from, as I mentioned, stay at home parents to retirees. So we see all different age groups and backgrounds. But the way that we would often break it up is not by standard age, or gender or anything like that, sort of demographics, but really three main groups. So we see groups that are unemployed that are using Wonolo to find the work, you know the money that they’re going to earn through Wonolo, so they might work five days a week on Wonolo at first, and then take some time off. You might see on the other end of the spectrum someone who is really just looking for flexibility. So that could be the younger generation, students who need to work around their class schedule, or that might be retirees who are looking to work a few days a week, or whenever their schedule allows them or that they’re interested in working. Often they’re not working for the money they’re just working to, you know, kill time or meet new people or learn new skills. And then the middle group, which we find is the most interesting and also answers part of your second question is, there’s a large group of underemployed people. And these are people who, let’s say they work at a company, let’s say they work at Walmart, they love Walmart, they work there 29 hours a week, and Walmart loves them. But, for whatever reason, they’re not afforded full time work, so they can’t get more than 30 hours on average per week. But they need to have more hours to sustain their lifestyle, so they need to find a second or third company to work for. For those people, Wonolo is a great solution because when Walmart says, alright this week you’re going to work Thursday Friday and Saturday, then I can fill in the gaps in my schedule working at another company when I’m free and not working at the company that I love, which is Walmart. And so we see this flexibility solving problems not just for the students, the retirees, etc. but really solving this problem that, today, you know, unemployment is at historic lows, and that’s great. But underemployment is not, and it continues to be a problem for a lot of people, and if we can create a platform that solves the problems of these underemployed workers, and also in a way helps the companies that are employing the underemployed people because it keeps them happy and keeps them at that company, versus trying to find an opportunity somewhere else, I think that we’re solving a great problem for both sides of the equation.
Chad: No that’s great. And you know this might relate to some of your comments here, but we know the gig economy has seen significant growth, and I personally routinely read estimates that the number of Americans working for themselves could triple by the year 2020, and I’m curious why do you think the gig economy is evolving at such a rapid pace?
AJ: I think that, you know, whether it’s Wonolo or Uber or Postmates etc. All of these different sorts of companies that are labeled as the gig economy really do offer that one thing that traditional jobs don’t, which is flexibility. And that flexibility is important to different people for different reasons, like I mentioned it might be because they need extra money, it might be because they have a passion that they want to pursue, you know it could be any number of reasons, but it’s something that was really never available to them before. And, you know, as we see today with, you know, all across the spectrum, across multiple things outside of the workforce, you know, we the people, the idea that the people have the power is truly coming to life across a number of things and I think the gig economy is creating the, you know, we the people – these movements that is allowing the people to have the power to make decisions that are right for them and that feel fair and just. And the gig economy is allowing that through fexible work for the people.
Chad: And then I’m curious, do you – what do you think might be the biggest misconception about the gig economy and I’ll even throw out kind of as an example, you have, like, Uber and Lyft, you know, really really large ride-sharing platforms, and I think a lot of people associate kind of them with the gig economy, when in reality it’s a lot more broad than that, and I’m curious if there are any, just, misconceptions that you think about relative to the gig economy?
AJ: I think that there is a general misconception that the gig economy isn’t looking out for the worker. And I think that’s entirely untrue. You know, often there’s examples brought up that there’s no insurance for example, to take care of someone if they get injured on the job, or if they have damage to, in Uber’s case their car or something like that, that they would be afforded if they had full time, or regular, permanent employment from a company. And I think that, as you know, with our relationship, we provide insurance to cover people if they’re injured and need to cover their medical bills, you know, we provide insurance to cover any liability issues. These things are relatively new, but the idea that the gig economy is not there to protect their workforce I think is entirely untrue, and it doesn’t even make sense because we know that, at least here at Wonolo, we’ll only be successful if we have a strong community of Wonoloers who are happy, and love wonolo, and decide that they want to spend their time working with companies on Wonolo versus somewhere else. You know, they have lots of options today to decide how they want to spend their time, and if we don’t respect the Wonoloers, and if we don’t reward Wonoloers and recognize their hard work, then they might choose to spend their time somewhere else. So, that’s very important for us that we have a workforce that’s happy, and a workforce that feels like they’re being heard, and that they feel safe when they’re working on Wonolo. And I think that other gig economy platforms probably feel the same way as well.
Chad: Yup. No that’s great, and I’m curious, how do you – or do you – kind of measure engagement from the Wonoloers, and maybe this is a good segue too, because I know one of the things that I really like about the Wonolo platform is, like I know you yourself AJ, you sign up as a Wonoloer, and you work in some of the jobs, and I’m curious, what are some of the things that you do to ensure that Wonoloers are happy in what they’re doing. And I’m curious, working as a Wonoloer, has that helped really shape the company, from just a product and customer success perspective?
AJ: Yeah I think that’s a great point, and when we first started, back in 2014, my cofounder Young and I, we went out and did every single Wonolo job before we posted on the platform, and we did that for two reasons. One, we did it to make sure that, you know, does this concept, would this business model actually work, and prove that to ourselves, but also to prove it to Wonoloers and to prove it to requesters, so businesses on our platform, that yes this in fact does work, and that this job is a good job for Wonoloers, and we know that because we’ve done the job ourselves. And today we still sort of live that ethos because every single employee here at Wonolo goes out and works at least one job per quarter on Wonolo. In fact I did one last Friday, I was delivering Pizza. And you get to , you know, not only eat your own dog food, as you might say, but also you get to see how it works and what’s good and what’s bad and what needs to be improved, and what needs to be accelerated. And during those times you get to talk to Wonoloers and requesters and hear their real feedback, and often they don’t know that we work for Wonolo, and they’ll tell us exactly like it is. So that’s a fantastic opportunity. But besides those, you know, we of course measure engagement and satisfaction through typical things like net promoter score, and our customer satisfaction scores that come in through support, but we also reach out to Wonoloers regularly, have local events where they can come together and meet other Wonoloers and share their opinions, etcetera. And so we do, as much as we can to stay connected with the Wonoloer community, and make sure that we’re always doing everything that’s in our power to make it an even better experience.
Chad: Yeah that’s great, and I’m curious, have there been any big surprises when you’ve been working as a Wonoloer? Like any really good stories that you wanted to share with the listeners?
AJ: Um, I think that there’s definitely been some surprises, in the way that we thought the product feature might work, and then the way that it was actually working wasn’t as intended. So we’ve learned a lot and been able to fix some of our technical product things, but the great stories aren’t really about the products, they’re about the people. And so we get to hear fantastic stories about how Wonolo, and honestly it feels weird to say it, but has literally changed people’s lives. One of the first Wonoloers that I met back in 2014 was a guy who was – he was a little bit older gentleman, had been in the workforce for a while, but got laid off and had a really difficult time finding work. He found that he was often considered overqualified for the types of jobs that he was applying for because he couldn’t find work at the level he was at before. And he was willing to do anything, he was happy to work, you know, in a distribution center and make $15 an hour, but people thought that he would probably just leave because he had too much experience and wasn’t right for that job. So despite having a great background, he just couldn’t find work and it was really frustrating and challenging for him. And so, on Wonolo, he was able to, obviously, pick up the jobs that he wanted and work as often as he wanted, which was fantastic and, you know, he was able to make his rent check, and it was exactly what he needed. He went on to get hired by a company, and now he works, apparently at that company, which is great, but there’s tons of stories like that where you know, Wonolo has kept someone in their house, or kept a family together, been able to put presents on the table – or on the floor for christmas – etcetera. So, being able to share those stories really reaffirms why we started Wonolo and that we’re able to make an impact and really help people better themselves. So, you know, we love going out and working jobs and hearing those stories.
Chad: Yeah that’s great, I mean it’s definitely a strong mission and impact. I’m curious, so shifting gears a little bit, one of the gig economy topics that comes up probably daily is benefits. And, like we talked about, you definitely have benefits by being a gig worker in the form of autonomy and being your own boss, and how have you heard about, kind of, Wonoloers thinking about this trade off in terms of those traditional 9-5 benefits that you might get as a W2 employee, versus the benefits of being an independent contractor and not having some of those same benefits?
AJ: Yeah, I think it’s a really important question and, you know, it depends on how you define benefits and what benefits are truly available to workers, but if you’re talking about someone who’s working part time at a larger company, most likely they’re not receiving any benefits, and that’s one of the reasons that they are part time versus being full time. And so in that case, there really isn’t a trade off. And, often, when we look at the people who are working a few times a week, they may have that coverage already – or those benefits – through another employer, and they come to Wonolo as a supplemental source of income. So, again, that’s not what they’re looking for. Really, the only situation I think where there’s a trade off is when someone decides to, you know, quit their job, or can’t find other work, and decide to work full time on Wonolo, and that’s a very small group of Wonoloers, but for that group we’re doing what we can to see how we can provide them additional benefits. They may not be traditional benefits, but might serve them in a similar way, and that’s something that we and other gig economy platforms are working on to provide, maybe, you know, is it discounts to things, or maybe it’s ways to save money. So again, it may not be a traditional 401K, but a different way to save for the future. And so we’re working with partners like Bunker, in different fields, to try and find was that we can help these independent contractors find ways to get what they might consider benefits. And the ones that we rolled out early one have been received very well from our community so we continue to push to find different ways to offer new things.
Chad: That’s great. And maybe for any, you know, entrepreneurs that are listeners, is there any one particular problem that you think, boy I wish this would be solved for the gig economy, and so you know we talked about resources and, like, our partnership with you guys at Bunker, but is there any one particular thing that you think boy this would be fantastic if someone was working on solving that problem, what would it be?
AJ: I think that there are a bunch, but there are two in particular that we’re really focused on, and they’re health care and training. And so we already work with partners to provide options for Wonoloers to be able to purchase healthcare, but because of the way that laws are structured, we’re not able to help pay for that or really get deeply involved in that process, and so if there was a way to you know, offer them portable benefits has been talked about, but whatever the solution may be, to find a better solution for the health care situation for Wonoloers, we’d love that. And the second one is training, and as many people may be aware, a company’s not allowed to provide training to independent contractors, so we’re working with partners to find ways to do that that don’t break any laws, but can help people better themselves and find ways to earn more money. But, if that was easier and there were ways to do that for a larger group of people, we’d be very very interested in that, and I think Wonoloers would also be very interested in that. Those are the two things I would love to solve, you know, honestly as soon as possible.
Chad: Yeah that’s great, well we’ll definitely use that as a call-out to any entrepreneurs that are listeners, so if you’re out there thinking about, you know, what it is you want to do next, these are two definite problems that should be solved and – I mean I agree 100% and I think another one is kind of the retirement savings, having appropriate vehicles for independent workers to save, so yeah. So that’s a call out to any entrepreneurs that are listeners that you’ll have a customer in Wonolo if you can build something that solves for that problem.
AJ: For Sure
Chad: So before we wrap this up, is there anything else that you wanted to share with our listeners, just about your experiences and observations with the gig economy and, you know just maybe even how your perspective on the gig economy has changed from when you started at Wonolo until now?
AJ: Um, I mean I think that the gig economy is really just this bucket of companies that are using technology to match supply and demand in whatever vertical they’re focused on, and when we started Wonolo back in 2014, I went out and onboarded, and did work with a number of different gig economy companies, some of which are flourishing today and some of which are no longer around. But really what I’ve seen is that the gig economy is just made up of people who really value this idea of flexibility. I think that, you know, there’s some industries where maybe flexibility doesn’t make a lot of sense, but those are few and far between, and if we can find more ways to introduce flexibility that works for both the worker and the company, I think that we’ll be in a much better place. So I’m really excited when I see new companies rolling out that are finding different ways in different fields to make work flexible for people as well as for companies. And what I’m seeing is more people opening up to this idea of not needing to have a permanent position in one company until the end of time, but really open to the idea of, let me prove my value, my worth, my skills, share my experience, and let me go and work in a number of different places, and help myself while helping other companies. So I’m really excited about where the gig economy is going, and I’m really excited about how this is changing the workforce and, you know, really doing it for the benefit of the worker.
Chad: Yup. Definitely. Alright well I think that is a wrap, so a huge thank you, again, to AJ for taking the time to share his experiences with us on the Ready Set Work podcast, and of course thank you to our listeners, We really appreciate you tuning in, and hope you can join us again on our next episode of Ready Set Work. We love to hear from our listeners. If you have ideas, thoughts for guests, or suggestions for future podcast topics, please reach out. Tweet us @BunkerHQ using the hashtag #ReadySetWork, or email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alright, back to work.
Next Episode: “The Evolving Tools of The Gig Economy” ft. Alex Marlantes, CEO of Everlance