How Can We Create a Future of Good Jobs?
Today, we’re excited to be publicly announcing Prefer. While we’re still in the early part of this journey, I want to share more about the exploration that helped shape our vision for the future of work, and how we think we can help.
Prefer is working to create better careers for a wide range of service professionals, from massage therapists to babysitters, accountants to tutors. We’re excited about the opportunity to support those who use their time, energy and skills to support the rest of us. Through this, we hope to nudge the labor market toward better jobs built on the foundation of relationships.
It’s hard to miss the fact that recent decades have been tough on workers.
This has only become more obvious with recent political events. The job market hasn’t been providing strong careers as readily, and the disparity between those who are winning and losing in this new economy is widening dramatically. Gone are the days of longstanding loyalty to one company, rewarded with stable income, retirement packages, and full benefits.
Prior to helping found Prefer, I was a venture capitalist at IVP starting in 2011. As a VC, I was lucky to have a front-row seat to how new business models and the rise of smartphones were rapidly and fundamentally changing the shape of the labor market and the nature of employment. Using the power and scalability of software, it was possible to coordinate hundreds of thousands of workers and consumers in real time — ultimately creating a new and different type of work opportunity: the gig economy.
Yet, despite seeing the massive potential for technology to help workers, I also saw roadblocks. On-demand business models in particular have focused almost exclusively on the consumer. They have a tendency to commoditize talent and reduce leverage for workers. The logical extent of this trend is a bleak future for the average worker — serving as a faceless cog, summoned by a smartphone app, doing the work we just haven’t quite figured out how to automate yet.
This problem hooked me.
I grew up in Berkeley, California, a strong contender for the most liberal place on earth. My parents moved to the San Francisco Bay Area as hippies in the 70’s. My great-grandfather was a member of the IWW, a radical left-leaning union. All of this made me particularly sensitive to the perspective of workers. There had to be ways we could use technology to truly serve workers, but I needed to get closer to the problem to uncover solutions.
I started out by talking to over a hundred ride-sharing drivers beginning in mid-2014. Over many hours of discussions, one clear theme emerged in nearly every conversation. Though the drivers said it many different ways, it was obvious that they deeply valued the autonomy and flexibility that independent work gave them. It let them prioritize whatever was important to them, from spending time with their kids to earning a little bit of extra spending money for an upcoming vacation.
While many rely on ride-sharing companies to earn a living today, automation will likely erase these jobs in the coming years…so what conditions would create good, independent jobs both today and in twenty years? As I dug into that question, two key factors stood out:
1) the level to which a job required a learned skill
2) the extent to which a human-to-human relationship and interaction was actually a critical part of the job
This insight led to inspiring conversations with dozens of different types of independent professionals, from personal trainers to dog walkers, copywriters to realtors. Independent professionals are a diverse group that constitute up to a third of the total US labor force by some estimates, but these independent service professionals I spoke with shared a lot in common:
They valued the freedom and flexibility working for themselves provided. They were doing something they were really good at and their craft was a big part of their identity — in many cases the work itself was fun for them. They were motivated by and found meaning in using their skills to make a difference for someone else. I frequently heard them say they considered themselves lucky to be able to do something they loved and support themselves at the same time. Compared to overall US job satisfaction of less than 50%, clearly there was something special here.
So what’s the catch?
While it was clear that these could be good jobs — rewarding careers, even — in the long run, it was often an arduous path to success. In becoming independent, all of a sudden, they had the stress of running an entire business alone. From marketing themselves to managing their schedule, there were countless distractions and challenges outside of their actual skill and service that made it much harder to succeed.
I met a cleaner that ended up paying thousands of dollars for a basic online scheduling system that most of her clients didn’t even end up using. I spoke to a martial arts trainer who occasionally missed getting paid because it was too awkward to ask for money from clients who had become more like friends over time. I visited a top-rated handyman who felt forced to give away a full day’s work to an unreasonable client for fear of one negative online review. I was introduced to a talented, charismatic personal chef who had worked at a Michelin-star restaurant, but was so uncomfortable with social media and self-promotion that she couldn’t find enough new clients to support herself. That same chef learned, only after giving up on pursuing her own business, that her existing clients would have actively promoted her to their friends, had they known she needed and wanted the work.
At Prefer, these are the problems we’re devoted to. We want to help anyone with skills and the motivation to provide a service for others to build a rewarding, independent career on that foundation. Hopefully we’ll be successful by using the most powerful tools at our disposal, but in a way that would still make my great-grandfather proud — using entrepreneurship and technology to empower people, and not the other way around.