Davis Baer

Host of Hacker Noon Founder Interviews

Founder Interviews: Jeremy Burton of Wonolo

Jeremy Burton and the Wonolo team are finding work for more people by addressing the needs of millions of under-employed workers through flexible, in-demand blue collar gigs.
What’s your background, and what are you working on?
My name is Jeremy Burton and I am the co-founder, CTO, and chief data scientist at Wonolo. Originally from London, I’ve now lived in San Francisco for 15 years where Wonolo is based. I’m a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur: Wonolo is the ninth startup I’ve worked for and I’m grateful to work with an amazing team helping people find flexible, on-demand work every day.
Wonolo — which stands for Work. Now. Locally. — is a leading in-demand staffing platform. Founded in 2014, it is a two-sided marketplace that is revolutionizing the temporary staffing industry and changing the future of work.
For businesses, we help fill temporary labor needs with a qualified, vetted workforce. For workers, we provide flexible jobs when and where they need them, to meet the demands of modern day life. We have onboarded more than 300,000 users onto our platform coast to coast, operating largely in frontline, light industrial work. To date, we have raised $60M in venture capital and most recently closed our Series C round in November 2018.
What motivated you to get started with your company?
Wonolo has a unique and somewhat unusual founding story. Originally incubated inside the Coca-Cola Company’s Founders Program, the company sought to solve one pervasive issue: how can we ensure cans of Coca-Cola are always on the shelf? When a warehouse worker calls out sick, a driver is caught in traffic, or a merchandiser can’t work overtime, how can we find the talent to get the product on the shelf?
At the same time, my co-founders saw a growing segment of frontline workers and merchandisers, often part-time or unemployed, struggling to find additional work around their busy schedules. Some already had the right skill set to get that product on the shelf, while others had the capability to quickly learn.
The convergence of these two insights began our journey to not only create a smarter way to match supply and demand but to redefine the pool of talent available to get work done. What started with getting Sprite on the shelf evolved into giving anyone the opportunity to Work Now Locally — making Wonoloing the future of work for frontline jobs.
I met my co-founders AJ Brustein and Yong Kim when they were working on Wonolo inside Coca-Cola. Immediately I knew the company would be a great fit for me. I had built a number of two-sided marketplace businesses and had learned how to overcome the unique challenges that these businesses present. Moreover, I had been lucky enough during the last 10 years to work on businesses that combine technology and a for-profit motive with social good. In addition to the benefits Wonolo provides to businesses, Wonolo also serves a traditionally underserved population of people who generally live pay-check to pay-check and struggle to find work around their other responsibilities.
As the rest of Silicon Valley is primarily focused on building products and services tailored to white-collar workers, Wonolo stood out to me due to its blue-collar worker-first approach. The company focuses on empowering workers, providing recognition, rewards, and respect to a group of workers who’ve been left behind by technology. The work we do ensures workers of all skill levels and backgrounds have opportunities for flexible, dependable work and a community they are proud to be a part of.
What went into building the initial product?
Marketplace businesses can be difficult to build because essentially, you’re building two products rather than one. When we set out to build the product, we knew we’d have to provide two unique experiences: one for our users, who we call Wonoloers, and one for our customers, who we call Requestors.
The need to continually switch between a consumer/B2C (Wonoloer) and SaaS/B2B (Requestor) mindset can cause a degree of cognitive dissonance for the product team but we are proud of the product we’ve created and continue to grow. We built Wonolo using many open source technologies. Our backend platform is built on Ruby-on-Rails and Python. Our web front-end is React and for mobile development, we use Swift and Kotlin.
For our Wonoloers, the experience is a mobile-only smartphone app. Once users download the app, they walk through an onboarding process and once approved, have access to the tens of thousands of jobs across the country. When users have their location services turned on, we are able to provide the most relevant, local jobs in the app and/or through push notifications. We know the experience has to compete with the best-of-breed consumer apps that everyone has on their phone.
For our Requestors, the experience is both web and mobile based. We made this choice knowing that it has to co-exist with other SaaS products that our Requestors use for their business. From the Wonolo app or web portal, Requestors can post job listings and communicate with workers and Wonolo support. Notably, our team of engineers has built an algorithm that helps Requestors determine the most competitive wage to offer based on Wonoloer location, job time, and job type.
How have you attracted customers and grown your company?
We originally launched Wonolo in San Francisco in 2014. As with any marketplace company, you face a “chicken or the egg” problem of having to simultaneously build supply and demand while keeping the two balanced.
For Wonolo, we had to get customers posting jobs but we also had to find workers to do those jobs. This was very hard to juggle! The solution for Wonolo — our first “growth hack,” if you will — was to do many of the early jobs ourselves (for our first 20 customers, in fact). The idea was simple: if we weren’t willing or able to do the job, we shouldn’t ask others. My first Wonolo job was carrying an extremely heavy metal cabinet up a steep flight of stairs for a fashion startup. It was a great introduction to the work that our Wonoloers do every day.
Today, we still have a policy that every Wonolo employee must do at least one Wonolo job per quarter. Not only does this force us to “eat our own dog food” — to experience Wonolo as Wonoloers do — but it also reminds us that we are not “above” the work that our Wonoloers do.
As we have continued to grow, we have dedicated sales teams across the country working with local businesses and large companies alike. We target those in the warehousing, general labor, delivery, manufacturing, food production, washing/cleaning, administrative, merchandising and event staffing industries.
To attract initial Wonoloers, we held many local community events to learn about the needs and desires of our users. Our very first event was held in a mall food court to meet our potential users. We were thrilled as we received over 100 RSVPs. We showed up in bright yellow t-shirts, cornered a bunch of tables, and set up 10 large pizzas ready for the crowd. Three people showed up. It was humbling to say the least. But community events have become a staple of how we stay connected with the community. In fact, one Wonoloer who showed up for pizza that day ended up being one of our best Wonoloers and is still working on the platform today. Currently, we have a committed team of ambassadors and community outreach leaders that are working coast to coast to help empower the lives of our users and the communities we serve.
What are your goals for the future?
There are three broad ways in which Wonolo is continuing to scale:
  1. We are continuing to expand geographically. We’re currently in several major metro markets and growing. While it’s possible to list a Wonolo job anywhere in the country, we have dedicated Wonoloer user bases in major metropolitan areas. These include Northern California, Southern California, New York/New Jersey, Nashville, Atlanta, Southern Florida, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Seattle, Detroit, and most recently in Phoenix.
  2. Second, we are continuing to grow the types of jobs we offer on the Wonolo platform and expand into different verticals. As mentioned, we currently work most with warehousing, general labor, delivery, manufacturing, food production, washing/cleaning, administrative, merchandising, and event staffing industries. We hope to bring our services to Requestors and Wonoloers who need us the most.
  3. Lastly, we plan to enter new industries like insurance and healthcare which share the same need for flexibility and in-demand staffing as the verticals we currently serve.
Personally, my goal is to build a business that outlasts my own involvement and for Wonolo to become a household name. I see my role as a founder is to ultimately make myself redundant. We now have a fantastic leadership team at Wonolo that has taken over many of the functions that we founders focused on in the early days. This has freed me up to focus on what’s really critical to our success in the long-term, including culture and long-term product strategy.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and the obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
One seemingly unpopular choice we made early on which has proven to be hugely beneficial, was to make the experience for our Wonoloers mobile-only. Despite repeated calls for some, or all of it, to be duplicated on the web, our focus on mobile has allowed us to move and scale quickly while also ensuring Wonoloers can use the real-time messaging and location-based features that we view as essential for flexible work.
When it comes to challenges though, co-founder and CEO Yong Kim recently wrote about a tough company moment in 2016. We had to lay off more than 50 percent of our staff just two years after founding the company. And even then, we had just three months of cash runway.
But rather than panicking or making rash decisions, the co-founders sat down to assess exactly what went wrong and what we needed to do to fix it. Oddly enough, the core problem and its solution were the same: our culture. We made adjustments where necessary, and fast. We knew we hired too fast, so we focused on hiring smart. We weren’t communicating well, so we focused on transparency, vulnerability, and honesty. And to overcome apathy, we started celebrating even the smallest wins. Culture is the very DNA of a company and the way things get done. Competitors can replicate anything from strategy to product, but culture cannot be replicated.
Additionally, I’d say the biggest challenge at Wonolo is not unique to Wonolo at all and one that I’ve seen in all startups: Focus. Saying no to bad ideas is easy, but the challenge with many early-stage startups is that there are so many tantalizing opportunities you could say yes to. It’s ultimately up to the leaders who must say no those few tempting ideas. In order to do a few things really well, rather than many things averagely well, you’ve got to learn to say no.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think we got incredibly lucky that the three Wonolo founders have very different but complementary skills and perspectives. Despite our differences, we’re united by common values and a shared vision for the business which allows us to cover one others’ blindsides. I’d love to be able to claim that this was deliberate but, like many good things in early-stage startups, we simply got lucky.
Personally, I think any founder has to develop an ability to ruthlessly prioritize. Every day, you need to ask yourself, “Of all the things I could be doing, am I doing those things which most move the business towards success?” This is how you can achieve the focus I discussed above.
In the early days, I grouped tasks into three buckets: “do now,” “do tomorrow,” and “future.” The reality is that you never get to the “future” bucket because the first two buckets are always filling up. However, as the business grows, you start to have more time to focus on the important but not urgent — which is where you really should be focusing as a founder.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
My first piece of advice is to choose your co-founders, early employees, and early investors very, very carefully. You’re going to spend more time with them than anyone else in your life — it’s like getting married. If you don’t trust and respect them, or share common values, it’s going to spell trouble.
Second, build something that people want, not what you think they want or what they should want. The book that changed my life in this regard was “The Four Steps To The Epiphany” by Steve Blank. If you want to start a company but haven’t read this book, stop and read it first.
Thirdly, rigorously focus on doing one thing well. Early on, there will be so many exciting ideas, shiny new technologies, and blue-sky possibilities. Resist the siren voices. By all means pivot if necessary, but do one thing and do it well.
Lastly, treat everyone well. This does not mean carrying weak performers or always being “nice.” It means being empathetic and authentic in your personal interactions with everyone, always. I do my best to practice “radical candor.” In the long-term, people don’t remember what you did; they remember how you made them feel. That will be your legacy.
Where can we go to learn more?
Be sure to check out Wonolo’s website and blog. We are also active on social media and you can find us on TwitterFacebookLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.
Vibrating Melon is where I share my personal experience, advice and thoughts on startups. I have opinions on a broad range of topics so I am happy to answer any questions below.

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