Lyft lays off up to 50 in bikes and scooters as it gears up for another wave of launches

As Lyft continues to prepare for its IPO, the on-demand transportation startup is trimming staff to cut costs ahead of another wave of expansion.

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Lyft has laid off around 50 staff in its bike and scooter division, mainly people who had joined the company when it acquired the electric bike sharing startup Motivate a deal that closed about three months ago. The cuts range from managers and through to technical people and those holding less senior roles, and have been made across a number of cities, including Boston, San Francisco and New York.

(The Information separately also published a short report about the layoffs last night.)

A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch that Lyft is continuing to hire in its scooter and bike division. “This was part of our performance management process,” she said in a statement. “We are actively hiring for this part of the business with hundreds of hires planned this year.”

Given that Lyft currently employs around 5,000 people, the cuts work out to a small percentage of that, around one percent to be exact. But it’s notable because of where the cuts were made, and because they are coming as the company gears up for a public listing, after which it will be subject to more public scrutiny.

Lyft has made a big move in the last year to expand its transportation options beyond private cars. This has been done partly to meet consumer demand in different scenarios (for example, shorter routes that might otherwise be clogged with traffic, or options that let the rider get a little exercise in during the journey); partly because its competitors are also presenting alternatives, which could drive business away from Lyft if it doesn’t offer the same options; and — now that there is a public offering in sight — partly to present a more diversified business to the market. The Motivate acquisition was likely made for at least all of those reasons.

Before Lyft acquired it, Motivate had made its name in bikes alone. In fact, it had grown to be the biggest bike sharing company in the US, with its network including CitiBike in New York; Capital Bikeshare in Washington; Ford GoBike in San Francisco and many others.

Under Lyft, Motivate became part of Lyft’s bigger strategy to expand beyond private car services, which also included its scooter business. While Lyft is continuing to develop business for both transportation mediums — for example, it added 4,000 electric bikes recently to the New York City bike sharing operation — scooter sharing has most definitely had the bigger surge of industry interest in recent months.

One person who tipped us about these layoffs believes that they were made with a specific strategy in mind, to cut costs on the bike operation, which is a more established business, to help channel resources into the costly scooter business. “Lyft is going big on scooters and cutting bike people,” said the tipster. To be clear, though, Lyft itself did not characterise it that way.

Whether the two are directly related, it is true that in the next couple of weeks, the company will be kicking off a big scooter launch in multiple cities, with its SXSW presence this year all about the two-wheeled, electric-powered vehicles.

Other companies and investors are certainly putting their money on scooters right now. Lime is now valued at $2.4 billion after raising $310 million last month. Bird is also reportedly raising at a similar valuation. Uber, meanwhile, acquired Jump last year to spearhead its own scooter and bike strategy.

All that is despite what has been a very uneven path for scooters. Some of the issues have included controversy around safety (for example, Lime appears to have a persistent safety problem with some of its fleet; the after-effect of having gluts of them cluttering the streets and the regulatory issues that surround this; and the tough unit economics.

On the last of those, this essay outlines how difficult it is to make money right now on a scooter business, when you calculate the average price for a ride, the average lifespan of a scooter, and the average price to get one on the street. And that’s before you consider marketing and other costs, and before you have seen the basic premise proven out: that a critical mass of people will use hired electric scooters on a regular basis.

Our tipster estimated that a typical scooter rollout is making a loss of about $23 per scooter per ride ($2 per ride, versus $25 per ride cost). “Better design durability and more scale to get to operational efficiency will address that in theory,” the tipster said, which is likely why hires are still being made, and services are still being rolled out.

Minnie Ingersoll, co-founder of the fast-growing car marketplace Shift, just became a VC in LA

Minnie Ingersoll has already had an enviable career. After 12 years at Google, working as product manager and later principal with Google.org, she co-founded the venture-backed online car marketplace Shift in 2013, then she left to join the nonprofit Code for America, where she learned entirely new skills, including managing finance and marketing and recruiting.

Now, Ingersoll is taking her skills, know-how and network and putting them to work at the eight-year-old, L.A.-based seed-stage firm TenOneTen Ventures, which she has newly joined as a venture partner.

It’s a move she’d been longing to make, even if she wasn’t entirely honest with herself about it. “I’ve always been interested in VC but I think I was vaguely intimidated by the industry,” she said in a call earlier this afternoon. Despite her background — including a computer science degree from Stanford and a Harvard MBA — she wasn’t always sure she was qualified for a role as an investor.

Turns out that venture firms in L.A. quickly dispelled her of this notion.

While contemplating a move south from the Bay Area because it’s an expensive place to raise a family and because of aging parents in Southern California to whom she wanted to get nearer, Ingersoll found herself talking with local venture firms about executive roles at their portfolio companies. But those talks soon turned into job interviews, she says, which soon turned into repeated talks with one firm in particular: TenOneTen.

It’s the perfect fit for TenOneTen, says the firm’s co-founder, David Waxman. In fact, he says that while the firm had begun looking to hire another investor into the firm beginning last year, it only realized over time — while Ingersoll was meeting with some of TenOneTen’s portfolio companies as a kind of advisor — that he need look no further than Ingersoll, who felt very much part of the team straightaway.

Ingersoll voices a similar sentiment, saying she has fallen in love with L.A.’s collaborative seed-stage venture scene broadly, but adding that she was most attracted to TenOneTen because the young firm “feels like a scrappy startup with an unassuming techie team made of up hard-working engineers.” It’s a comfortable place for her to be, she suggests.

As for what Ingersoll will be funding, she says to stay tuned. TenOneTen typically writes $1 million checks to seed-stage companies, often as part of a syndicate, but its mandate is fairly broad. While Ingersoll remains interested in consumer tech and mobility, she suggests that not a lot is off the table.

Among the firm’s newest bets, for example, is HiHello, a year-old, Palo Alto, Calif.-based developer of digital business cards that can be exchanged seamlessly and that earlier this month announced $2.5 million in seed funding, including from K9 Ventures and August Capital.

Another of its bets is CREXi, a 3.5-year-old, Venice, Calif.-based commercial real estate marketplace that went on to raise $11 million in Series A funding last year, including from Jackson Square Ventures, Manifest Investment Partners, Lerer Hippeau, Freestyle Capital and Founder Collective.

Moka raises $27M led by Hillhouse to make hiring more data-driven in China

Moka, a startup that wants to make talent acquisition a little more data-driven for China-based companies that range from smartphone giant Xiaomi to Burger King’s local business, announced Monday that it has raised a 180 million yuan ($27 million) Series B round of funding.

The deal was led by Hillhouse Capital, an investor in top Chinese technology companies such as Tencent, Baidu, JD.com, Pinduoduo — just to name a few. Other investors who took part include Xianghe Capital, an investment firm founded by two former Baidu executives, Chinese private equity firm GSR Ventures and GGV Capital.

Moka claims more than 500 enterprise customers were paying for its services by the end of 2018. Other notable clients are McDonalds and one of China’s top livestreaming services YY. It plans to use its new capital to hire staff, build new products and expand the scope of its business.

Founded in 2015, Moka compares itself to Workday and Salesforce in the U.S. It has created a suite of software aiming to make recruiting easier and cheaper for companies with upwards of 500 employees. Its solutions take care of the full cycle of hiring. To start with, Moka allows recruiters to post job listings across multiple platforms with one click, saving them the hassle of hopping between portals. Its AI-enabled screening program then automatically filters candidates and make recommendations for companies. What comes next is the interview, which Moka helps streamline with automatic email and message reminders for job applicants and optimized plans for interviewers on when and where to meet their candidates.

That’s not the end, as Moka also wants to capture what happens after the talent is onboard. The startup helps companies maintain a talent database consist of existing employees and potential hires. The services allow companies to keep a close tap on their staff, whose resume update will trigger a warning to the employer, and alerts the recruiter once the system detects suitable candidates.

Moka is among a wave of startups founded by Chinese entrepreneurs with foreign education and work experiences. Zhao Oulun, whose English nickname is Orion, graduated from the University of California, Berkley and worked at San Francisco-based peer-to-peer car sharing company Turo before founding Moka with Li Guoxing. Li himself is also a “sea turtle,” a colloquial term in Chinese that describes overseas-educated graduates who return home to work. Li graduated from the University of Michigan and Stanford University, and had worked at Facebook as an engineer.

When the founders re-entered China, they saw something was missing in the booming domestic business environment: effective talent management.

“Businesses are flourishing, but at the same time many of them fall short in internal organization and operation. To a large extent, the issue pertains to the lack of digital and meticulous operation for human resources, which slows down decision-making and leads to mistakes around talents and company organization,” says chief executive Zhao in a statement.

Moka’s mission has caught the attention of investors. Jixun Foo, a partner at Moka backer GGV Capital, also believes China’s businesses can benefit from a data-driven approach to people management: “We are positive about Moka becoming a comprehensive HR service provider in the future through its unique data-powered and intelligent solutions.”

Zendesk just hired three former Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe execs

Today, Zendesk announced it had hired three new executives — Elisabeth Zornes, former general manager of global support for Microsoft Office, as Zendesk’s first chief customer officer; former Adobe executive Colleen Berube as chief information officer and former Salesforce executive Shawna Wolverton as senior vice president, product.

The company emphasized that the hirings were about expanding the executive suite and bringing in top people to help the company grow and move into larger enterprise organizations.

From left to right: Shawna Wolverton, Colleen Berube and Elizabeth Zornes

Zornes comes to Zendesk with 20 years of experience at Microsoft working in a variety of roles around Microsoft Office. She says that what attracted her to Zendesk was its focus on the customer.

“When I look at businesses today, no matter what size, what type or what geography, they can agree on one thing: customer experience is the rocket fuel to drive success. Zendesk has positioned itself as a technology company that empowers companies of all kinds to drive a new level of success by focusing on their customer experience, and helping them to be at the forefront of that was a very intriguing opportunity for me,” Zornes told TechCrunch.

New CIO Berube, who comes with two decades of experience, also sees her new job as a chance to have an impact on customer experience and help companies who are trying to transform into digital organizations. “Customer experience is the linchpin for all organizations to succeed in the digital age. My background is broad, having shepherded many different types of companies through digital transformations, and developing and running modern IT organizations,” she said.

Her boss, CEO and co-founder Mikkel Svane sees someone who can help continue to grow the company and develop the product. “We looked specifically for a CIO with a modern mindset who understands the challenges of large organizations trying to keep up with customer expectations today,” Svane told TechCrunch

As for senior VP of product Wolverton, she comes with 15 years of experience including a stint as head of product at Salesforce. She said that coming to Zendesk was about having an impact on a modern SaaS product. “The opportunity to build a modern, public, cloud-native CRM platform with Sunshine was a large part of my decision to join,” she said.

The three leaders have already joined the organization — Wolverton and Berube joined last month and Zornes started just this week.

Jobs platform Vangst just raised $10 million to plug more people into the fast-growing cannabis industry

People are increasingly interested in finding a way to participate in the cannabis industry, and for good reason. It’s growing like a weed (yes, we said it). According to a San Francisco-based research company, Grand View Research, the global legal marijuana market is expected to reach $146.4 billion by end of 2025.

Still, it isn’t easy for potential recruits to know where to look for both temporary and permanent jobs, and it’s just as challenging for companies to find candidates who understand their business. Enter Vangst, a now three-year-old,  Denver-based startup that just raised $10 million in Series A funding from earlier backers Casa Verde Capital and Lerer Hippeau to become the go-to recruiting platform for the cannabis industry, even while going up against several older entrants, including Seattle-based Viridian Staffing and Ganjapreneur, in Bellingham, Wa.

Yesterday, with chatted with the CEO and founder of the now 70-person company, Karson Humiston, about starting the platform in college, and why she isn’t so worried about the competition.

TC: Some people launch startups in college. Not many of them grow them into sustainable companies. How did Vangst get going?

KH: I went to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York and while there, I’d started a student company and compiled a database of students and recent grads — people who’d gone on trips through the startup or expressed an interest in going on trips. The spring of my senior year, in 2015, I sent an email to all of them asking what jobs they were interested in, and more than 70 percent said the cannabis industry.

TC: Wow, interesting.

KH: That was my reaction, but living in New York where recreational cannabis isn’t yet legal, I didn’t know a lot about it. So I took a weekend off from school to go to a trade show in Colorado, where I saw everything from cultivation to extraction to retail to ancillary businesses. And when I asked what jobs they were looking to fill, they said, essentially, everything: a director of cultivation, retail dispensary store managers, HR, marketing. They all said it was their top pain point because if they posted on a traditional jobs board — and remember, this was 2015 — the listing would often get taken down. Meanwhile, there was no industry-specific resource because it [marijuana is] federally illegal.

TC: So you dropped the travel startup idea and pursued this. Where did you start?

KH: First, I rushed back to St. Lawrence and made an inexpensive site on Wix and starting connecting people in my database with summer internships. I’d told the companies I’d met with that I could find them employees for $500 and I called this new company Graduana, [with the tagline] green jobs for grads. My thought was, I’ll go to Colorado and do Graduana for six months and see where the industry really is.

By the spring of 2016, I realized that demand far exceeded interns and recent grads and the we needed to find recruiters who know what they’re doing, so we brought on recruiters who was just focused on cultivation, for example, and who know the difference between someone who can grow cannabis in the garage and someone who has done large-scale agricultural growing. They they started pulling in people from the tomato and tulip and big commerical ag who’ve grown [plants] in big state-of-the-art greenhouses and could bring important skills to the table. We also brought in recruiters to just focus on the retail side of things.

It became this profitable, 25-person, boutique staffing agency. But we also saw an opportunity for on-demand labor, because of the seasonality of the industry. Cannabis grows, then it needs to be trimmed and packaged. . .

TC: So it was time for venture capital?

KH: When you’re talking about temporary staffing, it’s been done really manually in this industry so we wanted to build a platform that would notify candidates that a . certain company needs 20 trimmers and is willing to pay $12 an hour and where, meanwhile, employers could see that someone has trimmed for 2,000 hours, and each could rate each other. So we needed to hire engineering and a customer success team and legal, and our revenue wasn’t going to cover those costs.

Thankfully, a founder friend in the space, Ryan Smith of LeafLink, introduced us to Lerer Hippeau when he heard were raising a seed round. We received a warm intro to Casa Verde, too, and both have been amazingly helpful to us.

TC: Are you still doing high-end hiring, too?

KH: We are. Revenue from that piece of our business, where we’re helping companies find COOs or a director fo cultivation or extraction, more than doubled last year and continues to be profitable. We get 1,000 resumes some days. We now have 200,000 job candidates on the p latform.

TC: Obviously you’re charging employers different amounts depending on the the type of role you’re filling. Can you share some specifics?

KH: Right On the direct hire side, we take a percentage of their first year’s salary. On the gig side, a company tells us how much they’d like to pay for gig workers, and there’s a mark-up on that that we keep.

TC: No matter how long that person works for your client?

KH: It’s usually for a matter of weeks. If it’s longer than that, we charge the a buyout fee [to step out of the relationship].

TC: I take it you’re marketing the service to college students largely.

KH: We market the service through career fairs that we throw in different states, and at trade shows in and out of the industry.  We also spent time going to college campuses. But our acquisition costs have been relatively low. Everyone who gets placed with us is known as an original Vangster and we do Vangster nights, where anyone in our network can bring a friend and we can help turn them into employees, too.

TC: More states are legalizing recreational cannabis; how are you drumming up workforces in different places?

KH: We have a team now in Denver, in Santa Monica, and a small team in Oakland, and as we launch additional cities for Vangst gigs, we’re hiring managers and people who can do client outreach and candidate vetting and onboarding. We just hired an early employee of Uber, Will Zinsmeister, who helped oversee the launch of cities in Texas for Uber, so we’re excited to have Will and others thinking through supply and demand issues as we launch more widely.

TC: Out of curiosity, how much do cannabis jobs pay, and how many people work in the industry right now – – do you have any idea?

KH: I think there’s more than 160,000 employees across the cannabis industry right now, and by 2022, the industry is expected to grow to around 340,000 full-time employees.

We did survey 1,500 people to put together a salary guide and one of the questions we asked what how much of their labor needs are seasonable versus otherwise and they said about 30 percent.

As for the salaries, the on-demand jobs are very in line with other industries. When it comes to full time jobs, outside sales jobs pay on average a salary of $73,000, which is in line with other outside sales jobs. On the higher end, a compliance manager can make $149,000, a director of extraction makes on average $191,000 and a director of cultivation on the high end . can make $250,000.

TC: I think that’s more than people might have imagined. Who is landing these higher-end jobs other than people with backgrounds in traditional large-scale farming?

KH: You’re seeing people graduating with a degree in botany who’ve maybe worked for a cannabis company for six years and are seen as having very unique experience. We’re seeing a lot of clients in Maryland and other places saying they want candidates from Colorado.

Roger Dickey ditches $32M-funded Gigster to start Untitled Labs

Most founders don’t walk away from their startup after raising $32 million and reaching 1000 clients. But Roger Dickey’s heart is in consumer tech, and his company Gigster had pivoted to doing outsourced app development for enterprises instead of scrappy entrepreneurs.

So today Dickey announced that he’d left his role as Gigster CEO, with former VMware VP Christopher Keane who’d sold it his startup WaveMaker coming in to lead Gigster in October. Now, Dickey is launching Untitled Labs, a “search lab” designed to test multiple consumer tech ideas in “social and professional networking, mobility, personal finance, premium services, health & wellness, travel, photography, and dating” before building out one

Untitled Labs is starting off with $2.8 million in seed funding from early Gigster investors and other angels including Founders Fund, Felicis Ventures, Caffeinated Capital, Joe Montana’s Liquid Ventures, Ashton Kutcher, Nikita Bier of TBH (acquired by Facebook), and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron.

Investors lined up after seeing the success of Dickey’s last two search labs. In 2007, his Curiosoft lab revamped classic DOS game Drugwars as a Facebook game called Dopewars and sold it to Zynga where it became the wildly popular Mafia Wars. He did it again in 2014, building Gigster out of Liquid Labs and eventually raising $32 million for it in rounds led by Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint. Dickey had proven he wasn’t just dicking around and his search labs could experiment their way to an A-grade startup.

“I loved learning about B2B but over the years I realized my true passions were in consumer and I kinda got the itch to try something new” Dickey tells me. “These things happen in the life-cycle of a company. The person who starts it isn’t always the same person to take it to an IPO. Gigster’s doing incredibly well. It was just a really vanilla separation in the best interest of all parties.”

Gigster co-founders (from left): Debo Olaosebikan and Roger Dickey

Gigster’s remaining co-founder and CTO Debo Olaosebikan will stay with the startup, but tells me he’ll be “moving away from a lot of the day-to-day management.” He’ll be in a more public facing role, evangelizing the vision of digital transformation to big clients hoping Gigster can equip them with the apps their customers demand. “We’ve gotten to a really good place on the backs of the founders and to get it to the next level inside of enterprise, having people who’ve done this, lived this, worked in enterprise for a long time makes sense for the company.”

Olaosebikan and Dickey both confirm there was no misconduct or other funny business that triggered the CEO’s departure, and he’ll stay on the Gigster board. Dickey tells me that Gigster’s business managing teams of freelance product managers, engineers, and designers to handle product development for big clients has grown revenue every quarter. It now has 1200 clients including almost 10% of Fortune 500 companies. Olaosebikan says “We have a great repeatable sales model. We can grow profitably and then we can figure out financing. We’re not in a hurry to raise money.”

Since leaving Gigster, Dickey has been meeting with investors and entrepreneurs to noodle on what’s in their “idea shelf” — the product and company concepts these techies imagine but are too busy to implement themselves. Meanwhile, he’s seeking a few elite engineers and designers to work through Untitled’s prospects.

Dickey said he came up with the “search labs” definition since he and others had found success with the strategy that no one had formalized. The search labs model contrasts with three other ways people typically form startups:

  • Traditional Startup: Founders come up with one idea and raise from venture firms to build it into a company that’s quick to start and lets them keep a lot of equity, but these startups often fail because they lack product market fit. Examples: Facebook, SpaceX.
  • Startup Accelerators and Incubators: Founders come up with one idea and enter an accelerator or incubator that provides funding and education for lots of startups in exchange for a small slice of equity. Founders sometimes learn their idea won’t work and pivot during the program, which is why accelerators seek to fund great teams, but otherwise operate traditionally. Examples: Y Combinator, 500 Startups.
  • Startup Studio: The studios’ founders work with entrepreneurs to come up with a small number of ideas while keeping a significant of the equity. The entrepreneurs operate semi-autonomously but with the advantage of shared resources. Examples: Expa, Betaworks.
  • Search Lab: Founders conceptualize and experiment with a small number of startup ideas, then focus the company around the most promising prototype. Examples: Untitled Labs, Midnight Labs (turned into TBH)

Dickey tells me that after 80 angel investments, going to every recent Y Combinator Demo Day, and talking with key players across the industry, the search lab method was the best way to hone in on his best idea rather than just going on a hunch. Given that approach, he went with “Untitled” so he could save the branding work for when the right product emerges. Dickey concludes “We’re trying to keep it really barebones. We don’t have an office, don’t have a logo, and we’re not going to make swag. We’re just going to find the next business as efficiently as possible.”

Amazon hires Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin as Director of Alexa Gadgets

Amazon has hired Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin to head its Alexa Gadgets division, TechCrunch has learned. Laughlin spent eight years at Disney, most recently as the SVP and General Manager of Games, Apps and Connected Experience at the entertainment giant’s Consumer Products and Interactive Media division.

According to his LinkedIn profile, the role found Laughlin overseeing apps, connected hardware and games for Disney and Lucasfilm. The gig also involved AI, IoT and AR/VR. Also, lots of Muppets.

Amazon has since confirmed the hire. A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch, “I can confirm that Kyle Laughlin has joined Amazon as Director, Alexa Gadgets. We’re very excited to have him.”

The gig appears to revolve around the newly defined “Alexa Gadget” category, which the company describes as “fun and delightful accessories that pair to compatible Echo devices via Bluetooth.”

Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch after eight years at Disney. Examples of current Alexa Gadgets include the Echo Wall Clock and Gemmy Industries’ connected Big Mouth Billy Bass and Dancing Plush Animatronics.

In a few short years, the Echo has transformed from smart speaker to a category defining, industry driving project. Alexa has become a huge business for Amazon and left everyone else struggling to catch up. Alexa Gadgets is a big push from Amazon to grow the smart assistant’s ecosystem beyond the smart speaker, through a wide range of connected devices.

Hire faster, work happier: Startups target employment with AI and engagement tools

If you have a job today, there’s a good chance you personally reached out to your employer and interviewed with other humans to get it. Now that you’ve been there a while, it’s also likely the workday feels more like a long slog than the fulfilling career move you had envisioned.

But if today’s early-stage startups have their way, your next employment experience could be quite different.

First, forget the networking and interview gauntlet. Instead, let an AI-enabled screening program reach out about a job you don’t seem obviously qualified to do. Or, rather than talk to a company’s employees, wait for them to play some online games instead. If you play similarly, they may decide to hire you.

Once you have the job, software will also make you more efficient and happier at your work.

An AI-driven software platform will deliver regular “nudges,” offering customized suggestions to make you a more effective worker. If you’re feeling burned out, head online to text or video chat with a coach or therapist. Or perhaps you’ll just be happier in your job now that your employer is delivering regular tokens of appreciation.

Those are a few of the ways early-stage startups are looking to change the status quo of job-seeking and employment. While employment is a broad category, an analysis of Crunchbase funding data for the space shows a high concentration of activity in two key areas: AI-driven hiring software and tools to improve employee engagement.

Below, we look at where the money’s going and how today’s early-stage startups could play a role in transforming the work experience of tomorrow.

Artificial intelligence

To begin, let us reflect that we are at a strange inflection point for AI and employment. Our artificially intelligent overlords are not smart enough to actually do our jobs. Nonetheless, they have strong opinions about whether we’re qualified to do them ourselves.

It is at this peculiar point that the alchemic mix of AI software, recruiting-based business models and venture capital are coming together to build startups.

In 2018, at least 43 companies applying AI or machine learning to some facet of employment have raised seed or early-stage funding, according to Crunchbase data. In the chart below, we look at a few startups that have secured rounds, along with their backers and respective business models:

At present, even AI boosters don’t tout the technology as a cure-all for troubles plaguing the talent recruitment space. While it’s true humans are biased and flawed when it comes to evaluating job candidates, artificially intelligent software suffers from many of the same bugs. For instance, Amazon scrapped its AI recruiting tool developed in-house because it exhibited bias against women.

That said, it’s still early innings. Over the next few years, startups will be actively tweaking their software to improve performance and reduce bias.

Happiness and engagement

Once the goal of recruiting the best people is achieved, the next step is ensuring they stay and thrive.

Usually, a paycheck goes a long way to accomplishing the goal of staying. But in case that’s not enough, startups are busily devising a host of tools for employers to boost engagement and fight the scourge of burnout.

In the chart below, we look at a few of the companies that received early-stage funding this year to build out software platforms and services aimed at making people happier and more effective at work:

The most heavily funded of the early-stage crop looks to be Peakon, which offers a software platform for measuring employee engagement and collecting feedback. The Danish firm has raised $33 million to date to fund its expansion.

London-based BioBeats is another up-and-comer aimed at the “corporate wellness” market, with digital tools to help employees track stress levels and other health-related metrics. The company has raised $7 million to date to help keep those stress levels in check.

Early-stage indicators

Early-stage funding activity tends to be an indicator of areas with somewhat low adoption rates today that are poised to take off dramatically. For employment, that means we can likely expect to see AI-based recruitment and software-driven engagement tools become more widespread in the coming years.

What does that mean for job seekers and paycheck toilers? Expect to spend more of your time interfacing with intelligent software. Apparently, it’ll make you more employable, and happier, too.

Applied gets $2M to make hiring fairer — using algorithms, not AI

London-based startup Applied has bagged £1.5M (~$2M) in seed funding for a fresh, diversity-sensitive approach to recruitment that deconstructs and reworks the traditional CV-bound process, drawing on behavioural science to level the playing field and help employers fill vacancies with skilled candidates they might otherwise have overlooked.

Fairer hiring is the pitch. “If you’re hiring for a product lead, for example, it’s true that loads and loads of product leads are straight, white men with beards. How do we get people to see well what is it actually that this job entails?” founder and CEO Kate Glazebrook tells us. “It might actually be the case that if I don’t know any of the demographic background I discover somebody who I would have otherwise overlooked.”

Applied launched its software as a service recruitment platform in 2016, and Glazebrook says so far it’s been used by more than 55 employers to recruit candidates for more than 2,000 jobs. While more than 50,000 candidates have applied via Applied to date.

The employers themselves are also a diverse bunch, not just the usual suspects from the charitable sector, with both public and private sector organizations, small and large, and from a range of industries, from book publishing to construction, signed up to Applied’s approach. “We’ve been pleased to see it’s not just the sort of thing that the kind of employers you would expect to care about care about,” says Glazebrook.

Applied’s own investor Blackbird Ventures, which is leading the seed round, is another customer — and ended up turning one investment associate vacancy, advertised via the platform, into two roles — hiring both an ethnic minority woman and a man with a startup background as a result of “not focusing on did they have the traditional profile we were expecting”, says Glazebrook.

“They discovered these people were fantastic and had the skills — just a really different set of background characteristics than they were expecting,” she adds.

Other investors in the seed include Skip Capital, Angel Academe, Giant Leap and Impact Generation Partners, plus some unnamed angels. Prior investors include the entity Applied was originally spun out of (Behavioural Insights Team, a “social purpose company” jointly owned by the UK government, innovation charity Nesta, and its own employees), as well as gender advocate and businesswoman Carol Schwartz, and Wharton Professor Adam Grant.

Applied’s approach to recruitment employs plenty of algorithms — including for scoring candidates (its process involves chunking up applications and also getting candidates to answer questions that reflect “what a day in the job actually looks like”), and also anonymizing applications to further strip away bias risks, presenting the numbered candidates in a random order too.

But it does not involve any AI-based matching. If you want to make hiring fairer, AI doesn’t look like a great fit. Last week, for example, Reuters reported how in 2014 ecommerce giant Amazon built and then later scrapped a machine learning based recruitment tool, after it failed to rate candidates in a gender-neutral way — apparently reflecting wider industry biases.

“We’re really clear that we don’t do AI,” says Glazebrook. “We don’t fall into the traps that [companies like] Amazon did. Because it’s not that we’re parsing existing data-sets and saying ‘this is what you hired for last time so we’ll match candidates to that’. That’s exactly where you get this problem of replication of bias. So what we’ve done instead is say ‘actually what we should do is change what you see and how you see it so that you’re only focusing on the things that really matter’.

“So that levels the playing field for all candidates. All candidates are assessed on the basis of their skill, not whether or not they fit the historic profile of people you’ve previously hired. We avoid a lot of those pitfalls because we’re not doing AI-based or algorithmic hiring — we’re doing algorithms that reshape the information you see, not the prediction that you have to arrive at.”

In practice this means Applied must and does take over the entire recruitment process, including writing the job spec itself — to remove things like gendered language which could introduce bias into the process — and slicing and dicing the application process to be able to score and compare candidates and fill in any missing bits of data via role-specific skills tests.

Its approach can be thought of as entirely deconstructing the CV — to not just remove extraneous details and bits of information which can bias the process (such as names, education institutions attended, hobbies etc) but also to actively harvest data on the skills being sought, with employers using the platform to set tests to measure capacities and capabilities they’re after.

“We manage the hiring process right from the design of an inclusive job description, right through to the point of making a hiring decision and all of the selection that happens beneath that,” says Glazebrook. “So we use over 30 behavioural science nudges throughout the process to try and improve conversion and inclusivity — so that includes everything from removal of gendered language in jobs descriptions to anonymization of applications to testing candidates on job preview based assessments, rather than based on their CVs.”

“We also help people to run more evidence-based structured interviews and then make the hiring decision,” she adds. “From a behavioral science standpoint I guess our USP is we’ve redesigned the shortlisting process.”

The platform also provides jobseekers with greater visibility into the assessment process by providing them with feedback — “so candidates get to see where their strengths and weaknesses were” — so it’s not simply creating a new recruitment blackbox process that keeps people in the dark about the assessments being made about them. Which is important from an algorithmic accountability point of view, even without any AI involved. Because vanilla algorithms can still sum up to dumb decisions.

From the outside looking in, Applied’s approach might sound highly manual and high maintenance, given how necessarily involved the platform is in each and every hire, but Glazebrook says in fact it’s “all been baked into the tech” — so the platform takes the strain of the restructuring by automating the hand-holding involved in debiasing job ads and judgements, letting employers self-serve to step them through a reconstructed recruitment process.

“From the job description design, for example, there are eight different characteristics that are automatically picked out, so it’s all self-serve stuff,” explains Glazebrook, noting that the platform will do things like automatically flag words to watch out for in job descriptions or the length of the job ad itself.

“All with that totally automated. And client self-serve as well, so they use a library of questions — saying I’m looking for this particular skill-set and we can say well if you look through the library we’ll find you some questions which have worked well for testing that skill set before.”

“They do all of the assessment themselves, through the platform, so it’s basically like saying rather than having your recruiting team sifting through paper forms of CVs, we have them online scoring candidates through this redesigned process,” she adds.

Employers themselves need to commit to a new way of doing things, of course. Though Applied’s claim is that ultimately a fairer approach also saves time, as well as delivering great hires.

“In many ways, one of the things that we’ve discovered through many customers is that it’s actually saved them loads of time because the shortlisting process is devised in a way that it previously hasn’t been and more importantly they have data and reporting that they’ve never previously had,” she says. “So they now know, through the platform, which of the seven places that they placed the job actually found them the highest quality candidates and also found people who were from more diverse backgrounds because we could automatically pull the data.”

Applied ran its own comparative study of its reshaped process vs a traditional sifting of CVs and Glazebrook says it discovered “statistically significant differences” in the resulting candidate choices — claiming that over half of the pool of 700+ candidates “wouldn’t have got the job if we’d been looking at their CVs”.

They also looked at the differences between the choices made in the study and also found statistically significant differences “particularly in educational and economic background” — “so we were diversifying the people we were hiring by those metrics”.

“We also saw directional evidence around improvements in diversity on disability status and ethnicity,” she adds. “And some interesting stuff around gender as well.”

Applied wants to go further on the proof front, and Glazebrook says it is now automatically collecting performance data while candidates are on the job — “so that we can do an even better job of proving here is a person that you hired and you did a really good job of identifying the skill-sets that they are proving they have when they’re on the job”.

She says it will be feeding this intel back into the platform — “to build a better feedback loop the next time you’re looking to hire that particular role”.

“At the moment, what is astonishing, is that most HR departments 1) have terrible data anyway to answer these important questions, and 2) to the extent they have them they don’t pair those data sets in a way that allows them to prove — so they don’t know ‘did we hire them because of X or Y’ and ‘did that help us to actually replicate what was working well and jettison what wasn’t’,” she adds.

The seed funding will go on further developing these sorts of data science predictions, and also on updates to Applied’s gendered language tool and inclusive job description tool — as well as on sales and marketing to generally grow the business.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Nick Crocker, general partner at Blackbird Ventures said: “Our mission is to find the most ambitious founders, and support them through every stage of their company journey. Kate and the team blew us away with the depth of their insight, the thoughtfulness of their product, and a mission that we’re obsessed with.”

In another supporting statement, Owain Service, CEO of BI Ventures, added: “Applied uses the latest behavioural science research to help companies find the best talent. We ourselves have recruited over 130 people through the platform. This investment represents an exciting next step to supporting more organisations to remove bias from their recruitment processes, in exactly the same way that we do.”

Upwork pops more than 50 percent in Nasdaq debut

Upwork, the rebranded merger of oDesk and Elance, debuted on Nasdaq this morning, after dropping its S-1 about four weeks ago. Shares opened at $23.00, which represents a 53% jump — shares were priced at $15 before the opening bell by investors, a significant uptick from the company’s revised projection of $12 to $14, which was already an increase from its original $10 to $12 target. The stock trades under the ticker UPWK, and the company will fundraise approximately $102 million of new cash for its balance sheet ($187 million total with existing shareholders).

Shares are still currently up 40% compared to their original price.

I talked with Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel this morning about the IPO road show, in which he said he took approximately 160 meetings with investors. Investors were engaged on the “combination of the strengths of the business and the strengths of the mission,“ and he was clearly excited about the engagement the offering received.

Upwork, whose antecedent companies go back almost two decades, is a positive cash flow business, albeit one growing top line revenue only about 27.6% year over year. Kasriel said that the company should be able to “compound at that rate for decades” due to the growing number of workers who freelance around the world in order to have flexible work arrangements. “When you think about which jobs are being created in the global economy, in most countries it is these knowledge jobs,” he said.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel (Photo from Upwork)

In addition, “When you really take a long term view, what really matters is to be good stewards of capital,” Kasriel noted, and said that the company was very focused on areas like sales and marketing ROI. His goal is to continue to grow the company with limited dilution to shareholders, a message that apparently has been well-received.

As for Kasriel himself, he becomes a public company CEO. He was elevated to the CEO role in 2015 from SVP of Engineering – a somewhat unusual path, even in tech-obsessed Silicon Valley. He emphasized that “we are a tech company,” and noted that every day is a learning experience. “I was just on CNBC, and for introverts, what really scares me is to be on live broadcast TV,” he said.

A huge part of Upwork’s business today is focused on the enterprise, particularly complex workflows that require multiple types of talent. The company’s platform not only handles talent management, but the long array of tasks to manage people: HR, legal, procurement, information security, and others.

According to the company, it will host $1.5 billion worth of gross sales value across two million unique projects. The company estimates that its products are used by 30% of the Fortune 500.

Upwork, which has offices in Mountain View, San Francisco, and Chicago, has 1,500 employees – and as is to be expected – roughly 1,100 of them are freelancers. Kasriel said, “We use our own product, which we call drinking our own champagne.”

Among the major VC investors behind the company are Benchmark, which owned 15%, Sigma Partners, which owned 14.2%, and Globespan, T. Rowe Price, and FirstMark. The company is offering 6,818,181 new shares as well as 5,658,512 shares from existing shareholders. Citigroup, Jefferies, and RBC jointly led the book.

Now that the company has debuted, Upwork wants to refocus once again on its business following weeks of talking to investors. “We need to build this company for the ages,” Kasriel noted, and said that his message to employees was to “focus on the mission.”