After nearly 12 years of building When I Work – both the technology and the company – I finally have time to reflect on everything that went into growing a startup into a successful company. Success for When I Work looks like being recently acquired by Bain Capital, who has a shared vision for our customers and the company. And they are excited about the future of what we have built over the last decade.
Some people will have you believe that if you just have a brilliant idea, grind for few years, and hire the right people, your startup with flourish into a BILLION dollar unicorn. At least that is where the news cycle seems to focus. And while that is possible, I'm here to say that there are other, more likely, and equally rewarding ways that startups grow. And in many cases, the founders grow with it and become better, more equipped people for their next big thing.
In April of 2010 when I began working with Chad & Garret, after meeting on Craigslist. For this to happen today sounds crazy, but back then posting (and pursuing) a job posting on CL wasn't that uncommon. We all worked together at a development agency, but Chad had an idea that was going to empower employees and employers at shift-based workplaces around the world, and we were all excited about it. He had been thinking about it for awhile, but with the three of us, we finally had the tools and skills necessary to make it a reality.
We believed in the power of the product; we knew we wanted it to sell itself and thus had to be intuitive and easy to use. We also wanted to focus the experience on the people who would actually use the product. A majority of our customers to this day are small and medium sized businesses, meaning that more likely than not, the person paying the bill is also one of the people using our product. This isn't necessary for a business to be successful, but we found it the best way to deliver immediate value where it mattered most.
The idea itself wasn't exactly exciting, flashy, or extravagant. It didn't include buzzwords like AI or big data. We were excited to create a simple and intuitive solution to the boring, yet complex problem of employee scheduling and time tracking. We had found a problem that each one of us had experienced, and many others around the world: getting the schedule at our hourly jobs. This was our starting point to begin creating a world class solution and company determined to serve the shift-based workforce.
Scheduling and managing shift-based workers isn't an easy job, and it's generally not an enjoyable experience for the employees either. A schedule typically isn't static after a manager creates and posts it. It's a living document that is changing in real-time as employees, managers, and owners adjust their needs and demands every week, day, or even hour. This poses a problem on both sides, for the employees, and the managers.
Our main focus was on communication & collaboration over compliance & control. This was – and still is – unique in the HCM software space. We believed that true success for managers, and subsequently our product, was to empower the employees to be participants in how they received and communicated about their schedule and time tracking. We heavily invested in making our product easy to use for employees and built tools that allow real-time shift trading, seamless communication, and more. While the manager experience was also important, we believed that in order for managers – the buyers of our product – to be successful, their own employees needed to love When I Work and benefit by being engaged. This meant figuring out how to put these tools in the pockets of every worker possible.
As Chad, Garret, and I launched When I Work for the web, we looked around and realized that shift based workers rarely sit in front of a computer. At this time the iPhone was less than 5 years old, and mobile phones looked very different than they do today. But we took a calculated risk. We decided that to maximize value for our customers, we needed to include every feature we built for the web browser into a native mobile app. This would require additional product planning, additional designs, and additional development effort, but the value we would deliver was worth it.
As we developed each feature, we thought through how it would be used on a computer, and how it would be used on a phone. It was important to get it right on each platform, and to launch many of our features in tandem. In order to efficiently achieve this goal, it was necessary for us to rewrite a majority of our platform. We wanted to truly put the schedule into the employees pockets.
This shift may seem minor on the surface, but we were committed to it wholeheartedly, and the way we shifted our thinking, our design choices, and our technology wasn't trivial. But it set us up for great success going forward.
As we grew the company by adding more employees - and entire departments - we remained focused on our goal of empowering employees and managers, so they could focus on running their businesses and living their lives. We continue to champion communication & collaboration over compliance & control, and it continues to deliver immense value to our customers.
Over the past decade we certainly have deviated, with some success and some failure. At one point we focused on enterprise customers, only to come back to our small business focus. At other times we have tried to add features and products outside of our core competency. But overall we have never deviated from that core mission: to deliver value to the employees and managers of every shift based workplace on the planet.
The Next Phase
As I look back over the last 12 years of building this great company with Chad, Garret, and the many other amazing team members we've had along the way, I am filled with joy and reminded of all the good times we had, and the great things we learned.
And as I look forward, not knowing what's next for me, I can say that I am fully confident in the great leadership at Bain Capital carrying the When I Work banner into the future. Phil, Scott, and others over at Bain have full confidence in the vision and mission we first set over a decade ago, and with their leadership and skills I believe When I Work will flourish in the years to come!