I work as a venture capitalist in a glass-walled office and wear dress shirts to work. But it wasn’t so long ago that I wore an orange neon vest instead. That was when I stocked shelves at a big-box, home-improvement chain. I also drove a truck — where I was once nearly arrested for incorrectly filling out my vehicular paperwork on the job — washed dishes, waited tables, was a telemarketer and even hauled dirt at a cemetery.
I don’t think this is the usual route to a job in tech and venture capital. But my former work life has opened my eyes to a corner of the technology world I think has the chance to create the next Salesforce, Oracle or LinkedIn: software targeted at workers, often blue-collar, who do their jobs outside corporate offices.
The forgotten workers
For those of us sitting at our desks and working behind laptops on programs like Microsoft Office, it can be easy to overlook the large, sometimes forgotten, workforce out there in construction, manufacturing, transportation, hospitality, retail and many other multi-billion-dollar industries. Indeed, more than 60 percent of U.S. workers — and even more globally — fall into these “blue-collar” industries.
By and large, these workers have not benefited much from recent technology improvements available to office-based workers — think new email and workplace-collaboration technologies, or advanced sales and HR systems. Never mind the long-term opportunities from technologies like artificial intelligence, drones and virtual or augmented reality for companies in these sectors; hourly and field workers are dealing with much more basic on-the-job challenges, like finding work, getting their jobs done on time and getting paid.
These more basic needs can be solved with seemingly simple technologies — software for billing, scheduling, navigation and many other business workflows. These kinds of technologies, unlike AI, don’t automate away workers. Instead, they empower them to be more efficient and productive.
Today, these technologies for hourly and blue-collar workers are finally proliferating and coming into their own. This is mainly because of two broad technological shifts: the rise of the smartphone and the advent of cheaper and easy-to-deploy, customizable “cloud” software.
These new technology products can, for example, help plumbers view new jobs, navigate to their next appointment and bill customers on the fly. My firm recently backed a company based in Southern California that does just that. Another one of our recent investments, also in this area, lets maintenance and facility workers snap a photo of a broken piece of equipment on a manufacturing line and create and route a work order — all in seconds on their phone. In the past, most of this was done on paper, or via very clunky, desktop software.
The market for this type of technology is potentially vast. Given that today’s publicly traded cloud-software companies have created roughly $200 billion in market value by targeting the 40 percent or so of the population that work in offices, I believe that the opportunity to build software for blue-collar workers is just as large.
In part, I believe in these markets because I’ve been doing “diligence” on them for nearly 15 years.
In venture capital, being too early is the same as being wrong
After holding my various odd jobs in cemeteries, big-box stores and more, I began my professional career in a part of the tech industry that wasn’t nearly as glamorous as going to work for Goldman Sachs, McKinsey or Microsoft. Building on my earlier experience, I started work at a company building a software business targeting plumbers and heating and air conditioning and electrical contractors.
The idea was to provide customers with a mobile app that would enable them to do things like receive work orders and manage their day-to-day operations and invoices in the field — all from their mobile phones and without having to return to the office. The only challenge was that the basic technology infrastructure to make this type of solution viable just wasn’t available yet. These were pre-iPhone/Android days. My business was stuck trying to sell expensive, ruggedized hardware that cost between $2,000 and $3,000 per bulky phone before we could sell any software. Coupled with data-connectivity issues in remote areas, getting the business to take off was an uphill battle.
Today, thanks to better mobile technology and the cloud, the landscape is completely different. Several companies are capitalizing on these trends and providing specialized software to workers globally. Procore, for example, serves the construction general-contractor market, providing software for tablets that GCs can carry around construction sites to view blueprints and plan tasks. And a number of other companies — among them Australia’s Deputy, Sweden’s Quinyx and When I Work, based in Minnesota — make scheduling software to replace manual time sheets for hourly workers in industries like restaurants, healthcare and many more.
Times have clearly changed. In today’s smartphone-centric world, blue-collar software is now, in my opinion, a good value and potentially transformative for many companies. I may have hung up my orange neon vest, but I’m a believer in this technology.