REUNIT, A STORY

A start-up project that ended, and that’s just the beginning.

Let me tell you the story of a start-up project that had the ambition to change the lives of thousands of underpaid workers. You’ll see why it came to be and how it could have worked. You’ll see it never became more than an idea, but as nothing is more powerful than an idea which time has come, I am confident it will come to be, whether or not I have anything to do about it. And that it may eventually come to be true is all that matters.

“Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?”

I realised in June 2015 in London that my project to make the world a better place was doomed. One could argue — I know I would — that any endeavour that purports to make the world a better place is either naive or delusional. For the least such a project will take many twists and turns and will change many times of hands before it gives its first blossoms, that is if ever it does.

“Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?”

This question, asked by a senior venture capital partner in one of the major investment funds worldwide, was that turn in the way of my dream project, although it took me several months to acknowledge this. In the fall of 2014 a friend of mine — whose start-up project has since taken him from Numa in Paris to Techstars in New York City — gave me a sound piece of advice with respect to my idea: “If you have a start-up idea, the first thing you do is forget it. Then, if the idea comes back to you some time later, you forget it again. And then if the idea keeps coming back to you, forcing its way in whatever cognitive activities you’re pursuing, keeping you awake at night, making you angry or impatient because it does not exist, you start working on it.” Now this question is the one that haunts me.

“Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?”

I was spending the summer of 2013 in a remote village near Montpellier in the south of France, kayaking with my wife and our two daughters in the gorgeous canyons of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, taking long swims, reading long books, thinkbathing in the sun. As happenstance had it I would dedicate my attention — freed from the daily vagaries of my work — to a very patchy assortment of books and newspaper long-reads: The End of Power by Moises Naim, a collection of the Greatest Speeches of the French Revolution, The Guardian’s in-depth coverage of the 0-hour contract in the UK, my usual dose of digital trends, a bit of Thomas Piketty (pre-Capital in the XXI Century) and some Victor Hugo for good measure. Should you want to deep dive into this chapter of the story, I’ll let you connect the links on your own — I urge you to read Naim whose profound understanding of the shifts that shape our world, combined with a very pedagogical tone, make for a seminal work. Suffice to say that I was feeling angry and impatient; angry that workers around the world were being left without properly working unions, stripped of their dignity by the follies of financial capitalism, the powerlessness of governments, and the creative destruction of digital disruptors; impatient for a time when innovators would truly move beyond first-world-problems (like sending your friends your latest feet-on-the-beach picture) or stop focusing on the white-collar employment market (how’s your LinkedIn profile these days) to cope with rising inequalities, to re-empower the “dispowered”, to meet the fundamental needs of the growing class of poor service workers around the world: work and live in dignity.

“Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?”

Building the Will — i.e. Why?

Back to the spring of 2014, unknowingly heeding the advice my friend would give me some weeks later, I let this urge dwell in the interstices of my attention whilst I was leaving the French branch of a global creative advertising agency to join a small and sharp digital design studio in London. Part of the reason why I chose to write this eulogy for REUNIT (version 1) as a story is because it is best told so, because our eyes must see the characters instead of the professional creatives, developers or HR consultants through whom they’re embodied. Take me for instance; of all people why and how would I take upon to ease the modern hardship of workers?

I was raised in the 1980s and 1990s in a well-off family (definitely one in the one percent), read Law in Paris and London at the turn of the century, worked in law firms, start-ups, advertising agencies, design studios and digital publishing houses. That’s me, but what’s my character? Respect for all and everyone was one of the cardinal values my parents ingrained with their children. Back in the summer of 1995, working as a handler in one of the warehouses of my parents’ company, I remember sympathising with a fellow worker for whom my father had gone out of his way; a particular health condition made it hard for him to find work you see, but this did not matter to my father who chose to trust him with a floor management position anyway. When faced with someone’s hardship you can choose to do nothing, or you can choose to do something about it, especially if you’re in a position of power in respect thereof. I choose the latter too.

I came of age, intellectually, in places that would set me on a constant path of progress-seeking. The social and political upheaval of the year 1968 started at the University of Nanterre where students were growing more and more impatient for advanced liberal social norms — including in the University dormitories that were still unisex — and for solutions to the unacceptable shanti towns that were far too prevalent — especially around Nanterre — in a rich country like France. The London School of Economics, or the LSE as it is more commonly known, was established in 1895 by members of the Fabian Society and has to this day been recognised as one of the leading progressive research and teaching institutions worldwide. These are my almae matres, the places where I went through some very formative years and developed an unwavering progressive state of mind.

I’m a creative person. I like to connect the many fields I’ve ventured into and the various know-hows I’ve garnered over the years to solve existing problems in new ways. So that’s my character, but that’s not enough to launch and develop a platform that aims to ease the hardship of modern workers, to help pave the way for work in dignity.

“Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?”

Building the Team — i.e. Who?

As this idea would not leave my mind, in the first days of 2015 I set out to build a small and expert team to bring it to life. As I’ve never learnt to code beyond the rudimentary levels of HTML and CSS I needed a Chief Technology Officer who could build the platform. As data was the fuel with which REUNIT would work I needed a top level data scientist to sort it all. The United Kingdom being the most deregulated labour market in Europe I wanted to launch the service there in the first place, and I needed someone with an intimate knowledge of Whitehall, Westminster and big businesse. As we would need some serious bootstrap money upon launch, I needed someone inside the finance world who would sympathise with the goal of REUNIT — not an easy match I thought. And as we would embark on a mission to disrupt the archaic and analog employment industry, I needed an insider. In a very serendipitous way it turned out that I had all of this within reach, that I could and actually would indeed bring together the A Team in the first half of 2015.

More out of habit than interest I’ve always maintained loose ties with former colleagues and associates, through occasional encounters or online interactions; that has always been pleasant and instructive, and this has often proved useful too. My first start-up experience was at linkfluence, a company I joined as it had just been founded and that has always been on the edge of social science and digital technology applied to social media research. And it is there, in 2007, that I met the then CTO of the company whose interest for history and humanities made him a match for my mind and my 2015 idea; and it is there too, in 2008, that I met a then intern who went on to become one of the lead data scientists at LinkedIn in Mountain View and who was looking, in 2015, for European adventures. CTO, check. Data scientist, check.

More out of personal inclination than limitation I’ve always kept a small number of friends, whatever the distances between us. One of them, a French working in the high fashion industry I met in Paris in 2002, whom I would see interspersedly over the years in London or Milan, had hooked up with a British LSE graduate with a strong knowledge of business to business commercial matters and regulatory affairs in Whitehall and Brussels. COO, check. And so it went with a friend of mine whom I had met in a banking setting and who had turned into a private wealth management advisor, with a lot of clients in the tech field. Fundraising Advisor, check.

More out of curiosity than opportunity I’ve always been open to chance encounters. On the 23rd of March 2015 I took my coach seat in the London-bound Eurostar from Paris for one of my usual fortnight commutes. Hardly had I arrived next to my seat that I could not help but notice the massive fella on the seat next to mine reading a book on the bicentennial of Waterloo, serendipitously matching the Napoleon’s biography I pulled out of my bag. A conversation ensued between a French frog and an Irish fella, common interests were found, and a potential path ahead we might tread upon together: he told me he was an HR consultant. Employment Market Expert, check.

“Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?”

Building the Way — i.e. How?

Uber, Lyft, Handy, TaskRabbit, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Instacart… Those are some of the the shiny services, start-ups and unicorns at the forefront of the on-demand economy, turning employees into entrepreneurs, turning jobs into tasks, turning labour into a precarious state of affairs. Digital technologies offer a never-seen-before degree of flexibility at a marginal cost that’s close to 0. High labour market transactional costs in the XX century have led companies around the world to internalise their workforce. Now that those costs have all but virtually disappeared, companies no longer need to have internal stable workforce, they can have external available workforce. This trend is only here to stay and to get even bigger, notably because of the parallel rise of the robot economy, destroying jobs in the middle of the labour market, and slowly eating up at the top of the pyramid (law, medicine, etc.). So all that’s left for a majority of people is low-tier service jobs.

REUNIT rested on a simple promise: dignity through work. In wealthy societies, work should lead to dignity — says Robert Solow among others. In technology-rich societies, companies should be offered flexible labour solutions along with reliable manpower and stellar reputations. This is what many academic researchers and thinkers, tech entrepreneurs and VCs are beginning to utter — not least because the Silicon Valley is part of the problem, contributing to rising inequalities between the haves and the haves not, notably in its own backyard.

But it seemed to me that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and VCs were not well placed to solve this problem, as this is not one of these “first world problems” that dozens of them are prone to solve. Take dating for instance. I’m not saying that is not important, it is to some extent, but it is capturing an unfair share of attention, energy, creativity, data science and money. Whereas technologies offer solutions to many problems, none has tackled this issue. Networks and platforms are either made for mass niche-entertainment, like Facebook and YouTube, for white collar workers (LinkedIn), or for perso-preneurs, i.e. individuals that turn the little they possess into market assets with Uber, Lyft, Blablacar, …

But service workers are left unaddressed as such. They should be offered their own platform, one that caters to their needs, one that sets the bar high: dignity through work. And dignity through work entails fully grasping the context of an on-demand labour economy: turning flexibility into a positive context for workers, re-thinking the manner in which training, healthcare, financial, housing or transport services are presented to such workers, etc.

REUNIT rested on a simple premise: leveraging cost and operational efficiencies afforded by digital platforms to disrupt employment agencies and to distribute much higher hourly wages to part-time, O-hour and other underpaid service workers, all the while charging employers no more than what they were used to paying through traditional employment agencies, all the while offering employers seamless employment services.

I understand that in a 0-marginal-cost and on-demand economy flexibility is going to be the name of the game; therefore there will be no lasting solution to working poverty that does not play that game. Increasing labour reliability (absenteeism, demonstrations, strikes) and the reputations of companies can be made not just to coexist but to codepend on dignity through work. There are billions at stake here, in lost hours or in the decreased value of intangible assets like brands.

What’s great is that technology enables just that. We just had to think about it really. A platform-driven approach to labour relations between companies and employers can offer many additional benefits to companies:
- Collect, organise and leverage worker-related data, which companies are not able to do anymore because of high turnover and churn rates in the market. Individual reliability and performance selection criteria can be integrated in such a platform.
- As a consequence employers can easily and rapidly gain access to very specific skills: proven salesmanship of categories of goods and services, etc.
- Leverage worker feedback on workplaces to offer consulting services to companies.

So here’s what we had — below an abridged version of REUNIT’s initial presentation.

Everything was falling into place: the idea, the team, the revenue model, the product vision, the execution plan. Yet REUNIT was cash-heavy to bootstrap (whether it was absolutely so or my business model was flawed does not matter much), so we turned to investors and VCs for seed money. Many understood the concept and the vision, some found the execution plan rather sound (if somewhat incomplete) but all were reluctant to invest in it, and one made it abundantly clear why: “Can you tell me again why people would prefer your service over others?

I am a resourceful person, seldom lacking an explanation or a line of reasoning but I must admit to having been dumbfounded when a senior partner of a top-tier VC fund asked me this question. I understand how one could see the many operational shortcomings or delusional motivations of REUNIT, even I could to some extent. But how someone would fail to grasp how a 10 to 30% pay increase per hour of work could be the difference between cold water and hot water for your shower, between an empty table and one with food for on it for your children, between a fever and the aspirin to cure it, well that escapes me. The senior partner sitting across the table was asking me what REUNIT’s competitive advantage would be over other companies disrupting work placement and employment agencies, knowing these would certainly cut the prices for employers. When I replied that we were going for the network effect advantage, aiming to build a base of workers — drawn to our platform because of the promise and hopefully reality of more bread on the table — large-enough that employers would be highly incentivised to turn to us, he seemed unconvinced, he seemed trapped in the first-world-problem-focused innovation project that the market of ideas churns out by the thousand everyday, he seemed to lack the empathy that would have allowed him to walk — even if for a small metaphorical moment — in the worn shoes of millions of workers around the world.

I realised in June 2015 in London that my project to make the world a better place was doomed in its existing shape. Yet I haven’t entirely given up on its idea, on its promise.

Building the Way Forward — i.e. What Now?

I take comfort in seeing initiatives that are driven by the same ambition, whether they are for-profit start-ups, not-for-profit organisations or new forms of labour mobilisation. I take comfort in knowing that it is just a matter of time before somebody somewhere finds the key to fulfilling the promise of REUNIT, whether they are a (rebooted) union, politician or company. I take comfort in hoping I can contribute in some way or form, starting with this humble billet.

Il existe une chose plus puissante que toutes les armées du monde, une idée dont l’heure est venue — Victor Hugo

PS: special thanks to the small team of great talents who will have worked with me to refine REUNIT, and big thanks to those who are advancing the notions of fair pay and living wage around the world.