Fellow Founders and CEOs,
We survived the Presidential election, so now the real work begins.
How will we, the primary beneficiaries of the borderless global economy, help the Americans hurt by it? Since the products and services we have built continue to eliminate Main Street businesses with devastating job loss for local communities, how do we replenish jobs that provided not only financial stability, but also a sense of self and worth? How do we train today’s workforce to compete in a borderless, global economy?
HireAthena is a management team based in one of the bluest States, but we employ work-from-home parents in some of the reddest States. Many of our employees are single moms, some with special needs children, and working outside the home can present an insurmountable challenge. Our mission is to bring a million moms (and dads) back to work, without forcing them to give up being there for their kids.
We are a mission-driven team that worries each day about the number of rent payments dependent on our getting this right. Startup life is very hard at times, but we know we are making a difference by providing financial stability to American families that need it the most. We got here by making lots of painful, expensive mistakes, mistakes that we can help others avoid while creating technology jobs in Trump Country. Before I share the three lessons we learned the hard way, here is some background on our journey.
Our employees are often straight-shooters that the modern, borderless economy has left behind. They follow rules, don’t question authority, and have a strong preference to ask permission rather than risk having to beg forgiveness later. More often than not, they’ve done everything right within their power. But they must fight harder than ever to stay on the right side of the middle class as the divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots widens.
Moreover, it’s been my observation, that as jobs in the rust belt move overseas or are taken by new immigrants, it’s not uncommon for our moms to become the primary or sole breadwinner, which can strain traditional, conservative American households. These are the lucky ones. Many jobs have disappeared altogether as technology and big national brands continue to replace Main Street businesses that once employed the community’s trusted advisors — tax planners, accountants, insurance agents, etc.
So when a woman decides against Hillary Clinton, I believe she is often choosing change from a failed system, rather than any particular candidate. She is craving salvation from the current state of despair, living hand to mouth. Imagine not being able to reassure your children as you tuck them in at night that tomorrow will be bright.
And when she chooses Trump, she is likely mesmerized by the siren song of going back to the way things were. When America felt great to her family, when her husband felt secure and proud to bring home a stable paycheck. I get it, and I want the same thing.
I worked four jobs through Cornell University where entitled prep school boys bragged about their trust funds and believed that the rules did not apply to them. My perspective comes from having struggled as an immigrant throughout my adolescence before settling into the technology community in Silicon Valley almost twenty years ago. I had to juggle multiple jobs from high school through college to help my parents pay the rent. I remember the trade-offs we had to make when shopping for groceries, so we could continue to live together as a family in an impossibly tiny apartment in Arlington Heights, Illinois. I was grateful to sleep in the living room every night on a tattered loveseat — an incredible find from our church garage sale.
My parents barely spoke English, yet saw their children graduate from Ivy League institutions. I can’t imagine how intolerable it would have seemed if the Dream felt unattainable. I feel deep empathy for those who have a need to affect positive change for their families, irrespective of their means to the desired end.
Despite what we see and read, this election does not seem to be about political ideology at all — it’s an outright class war. So we can’t be surprised by the threat of violence on Election Day. Throughout world history, it hasn’t ended well when the Haves ignored the pain of the Have-Nots. The ease with which Donald Trump has been able to aggregate and channel the pain of the Have-Nots is an early wake-up call to the Haves, for which we owe a huge debt of gratitude. We have an opportunity to do something about it, instead of whining about the Deplorables. We should understand that when we ask “How can anyone vote for Trump?”, we are heard saying “Let. Them. Eat. Cake.”
What Will We Do About the Pot/Kettle Hypocrisy Within the Tech Community?
My social media feeds have become an explosion of outrage expressed by leaders within the tech community, judging with contempt both Trump and his supporters. Yes, it’s terrible that America contains this cesspool of racist and sexist bigotry, covered with myopic xenophobia, with a sprinkle of anti-Semitism. But how are we any better than he, judging without compassion and empathy? Is the deplorable state of so many Americans the cause? Or the inevitable effect of the very trend — globalization of a rapidly borderless economy enabled by technology — from which we all have benefitted immensely?
We have become the Haves looking down at the Have-Nots. Our “disruptive” companies bring to market the very products and services that quickly redistribute wealth to innovative cities and States at the expense of Middle America. The Have Nots increasingly feel left behind, and social media and reality TV keep score.
As leaders in the technology industry, how will we redistribute wealth back to the communities that need it the most? These are proud, hard-working Americans that resist the shame of handouts — and they desperately need skilled jobs. But to be successful in these jobs, they need the training to expand their skillset to compete in an increasingly global marketplace where the minimum threshold for tech literacy is fairly high.
With much humility, I share the experiences of the HireAthena team bringing skilled jobs to Trump Country over the past 5+ years. Keep in mind that our most valuable insights are from having gotten things very, very wrong. We are inspired by the idea that if one small, inconsequential company like ours can create jobs in the American communities that need them the most — in several states in fact — imagine how many the tech community will be able to create in aggregate. We are proving that an employer does not need the resources of bellwether titans like Salesforce to create jobs in traditional Red States like Indiana, Utah, and Idaho.
Lesson 1 — Product: Respect and Address the Product Needs of the Thoughtful Shy Voice Compared to the Self-Centric Bold Voice
We learned the hard way that business software is often built by alpha males for alpha males. Default User persona: Ask forgiveness not permission. While managing our remote distributed workforce of mainly female accountants — the HireAthena Field Team — we grossly underestimated the software needs of the thoughtful rule-followers, whose voice was drowned out by the shoot-first-ask-questions-later communication style of our clients.
My company almost failed three years in, despite doubling revenue every year. We were forced to pause growth and develop Scalus, a workflow engine that neutralized the varying levels of self-advocacy found in our diverse cross-functional, cross-organizational team. We tried seven different collaboration tools — from Asana to Zendesk — without success, and the company almost died until we created our own solution.
Imagine an environment where stunned silence from the Shy Voice is more often than not interpreted as agreement by the Bold Voice…until it’s too late. We needed but couldn’t find software to support a conservative, risk-averse Field Team conditioned to communicate less rather than more due to a lifetime of gender programming.
We observed that while most men brag and blame with immunity, many women are afraid to be judged for exhibiting the same behavior (ironically by other women). So they erred on the side of under communicating, which caused massive service delivery failures. We had to build nuanced software — Scalus — that would automagically brag and blame or stand up for them. It was a matter of survival that we aggressively addressed the collaboration needs of a cross-functional team, across organizations, in a way that neutralized gender programming.
In our experience, Trump Country is filled with thoughtful doers that respect authority, follow rules, and resist risk and change as a result. They call themselves conservative for a reason. The communication products chosen to collaborate with them are critical.
Lesson 2 — Process: Training is a Continual Change Management Process Rather than a New Employee Onboarding Step
At HireAthena we woefully underestimated the level of discomfort felt by our remote Field Team as we rolled out changes at a startup pace. Small adjustments to an ongoing tactical plan were often perceived as massive shifts in the strategic direction of the company. The “calibrate as you go and learn” mantra of Silicon Valley was unfathomable, and those coming from industries and companies that have not evolved in decades questioned the competence of Management. When relatively minor adjustments are received as unplanned, out-of-control reactions, the idea of change management takes a new meaning.
We put a lot of thought into this problem when designing Scalus, and we’ve come up with a solution that systematically scales Process Management in a way that allows shy voices to be heard. Workflows become automatically recurring, so the more risk averse users can always anticipate what’s coming, and when. This has created a culture where people don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to be a self advocate, and that is a core value of how we build process at HireAthena.
Lesson 3 — People: Et Tu, Brute? When an Employee Is Asked to Leave a Mission-Driven Company, Failure is Personal and the Sense of Betrayal is Emotional, So Setting Expectations Early and Often is Critical
In Silicon Valley, the talent market can get so tight that any competent resource can find another opportunity in a day or so. As employers, we coddle the nimble “disruption” junkies that seek change like an addictive drug, with gourmet meals, onsite massage services, and the ubiquitous foosball table decor to communicate forced fun.
With venture capital flooding the streets, the demand for talent often exceeds supply, and it takes great discipline to treat the recruiting process more diligently than a round of speed-dating. As CEO, my greatest failing has been not exercising more diligence, compassion and empathy during the recruiting process to validate long-term fit. It doesn’t matter that our staff turnover has been lower than that of other startups, it matters that our staff is more vulnerable to unemployment than the Silicon Valley talent pool of serial job hoppers. It matters that these moms feel personally betrayed by the company for being part of the establishment that has failed them and their families, and I have the battle wounds from Glassdoor to prove it. I understand how hard it is to be a working parent or a child of parents working around the clock. Disappointment quickly turns to anger and a sense of betrayal toward a system that has failed them — a system represented by Hillary Clinton in the eyes of many.
I’m most embarrassed by the fact that we could have avoided a big part of this sense of betrayal by setting expectations more thoughtfully from the very beginning. We now start those new to work-from-home arrangements or the startup culture as temporary employees. We clarify early in the process that we are a financially responsible, profitable (!) company, setting out to prove that it is good business to employ work-from-home parents, rather than another Silicon Valley experiment with an unrealistic and perhaps naive profit-will-come-later mentality.
We have made many mistakes along the way, but hope that we will be able to help other technology companies avoid those mistakes. These American communities desperately need jobs, the jobs that we have trouble filling in the innovation hubs. The technology is here to enable it — in fact, it’s being used to send the jobs overseas.
One of our competitors brags that her software-enabled accounting, tax, and payroll firm will lay to waste the US accounting industry with millions of employees. I admire the audacity of this youth-induced bravado, but others in the heartland may feel the opposite, and we can’t blame them. From what we understand, her company is building a large facility in the Philippines to house foreign US-educated CPAs who will work for less than a quarter of what US-based CPAs need to support their families. This is not a good use of US venture capital. The reality is that AI machines will soon do the work for virtually no cost, but that is a whole separate matter.
Over the past ten years, I’ve observed that many new entrants in the accounting, payroll, and benefits technology space are Canadian or Australian, helping put some of the US Main Street business advisors out of work. We can’t ignore the panic of xenophobia for those affected. The system is just not working for Americans struggling to stay in the middle class. Why are we so surprised that they are angry? We owe Donald Trump a debt of gratitude for waking us up to this reality. Now let’s do something about it!