Workpop is not your father's job site
Chris Ovitz has daddy issues.
He wouldn’t admit as much himself, of course, or at least not to a journalist, but you only have to spend ten minutes with him, or thirty seconds thinking about his new startup, Workpop, to figure out what’s going on. Tale as old as time: The son of a famous father doing everything he can to chart his own course, be his own man.
Ovitz is the son of former CAA kingpin and frequent Spy Magazine star, Michael Ovitz. I mention that not just to piss off Chris Ovitz — who, I should probably note, speaks of his father with nothing but love — but rather to explain the baggage of building a company in LA with the Ovitz name. Vanity Fair once spent an entire lede debating whether Ovitz pere is the devil (spoiler: he isn’t, but some people are still demanding a recount.) And it’s not like Ovitz fils was able to escape into tech: In recent years, his father has reinvented himself as a “tech dealmaker” and was reportedly the inspiration for how Andreessen Horowitz structured its business. [Disclosure: Marc Andreessen is a personal investor in Pando.]
All of which might explain why Chris Ovitz’s latest venture, despite launching initially in LA and having just raised a tidy $7.9 million series A led by Trinity Ventures, couldn’t be further from a Hollywood production. Rather, Workpop — which launched earlier today — is focussed on making life a little easier for the least glamorous, lowest paid workers in America. It might also be the only LA startup that doesn’t boast a single celebrity spokesperson.
Workpop is a job site for hourly workers, particularly younger workers for whom the idea of putting together a traditional resume in Microsoft Word makes little sense — and for employers who are more interested in personality and reliability of the people they hire than in their career history. As Ovitz explained: “It’s about giving [workers] methods that make it easier to apply for certain jobs. For example, by using video so they can tell their story in a way that’s more natural to them.” Unlike other job sites, Workpop also allows multi-job workers to fill the gaps in their schedule by showing employers the exact times and days they are able to work.
When I ask Ovitz whether his family name was what inspired him to shun Hollywood for something as dull as recruitment, he demurs on both counts. “Truthfully that had nothing to do with it,” he says. “I’ve always been excited by the jobs space. I’ve always connected people and I wanted to do that in a meaningful way.” And anyway, he says, the concept for Workpop came not from Ovitz but from his co-founder, former Zynga GM Reed Shaffner. “He had this amazing idea,” says Ovitz.
You might say that Shaffner has daddy issues of his own. Shaffner’s father developed the solid fuel rocket program at NASA. When the program was shut down, he and most of the town suddenly found themselves out of work, trying to use existing recruitment tools that were rarely fit for purpose. Watching his father’s frustration, Shaffner knew he could build something better. That something would eventually be Workpop.
I first visited the company back in April, just as Workpop closed its seed round from a group of Valley luminaries like SV Angel, Evan Williams and Biz Stone's Obvious Ventures, Joe Lonsdale, Aaron Levie, and Dave Morin and Aaron Sittig’s Slow Ventures. At the time, the entire company consisted of Ovitz, Shaffner, and two other employees, crammed into a converted shack behind a Mediterranean restaurant in Venice. Ovitz and Shaffner worked together most recently at Scopely, the mobile entertainment company to which Ovitz escaped just before his previous company, Viddy, went south. Also from Scopely are Workpop’s CTO Benjamin Berman and Director of Product Henry Jay Yu. Although they joined the company later, Berman and Yu are listed as co-founders of the new venture.
It was while working at Scopely -- rooming together at a company retreat, in fact -- that Shaffner and Ovitz met and decided that they’d like to start a company together one day. That friendship, and the idea that everyone should get to work with people they like, forms a fundamental part of the culture at Workpop. I use the word “culture” carefully, having seen the word used in some startups to alienate anyone who doesn’t fit into a very specific mold, and reduced in others to allowing employees to fill the whole fucking place with scurrying, yapping dogs.
Ovitz would only agree to show me Workpop’s “culture document” if I agreed not to quote from it directly, which is a shame because it should be a model for every company in the Valley. Instead of buzzwords and puppies, it contains solid advice on how to treat workmates with respect, even when you disagree with them. In place of a “yay dogs!” clause, there’s an open invitation for employees to bring their partners and children to the office, and a reminder that no matter how elementary a customer service request, no Workpop employee will "ever, ever" joke about a user.
Today, Workpop’s HQ is nowhere near big enough to hold the ten-person company, especially given the “bring your everyone to work” perk. They’re moving out October 29th and the shack is going to be demolished to make way for a boutique hotel. But before they leave, and after nearly eight months of building, the first public version of the product is finally ready to fly.
Berman explains that the speed of development is due, in large part, to Workpop's use of the Meteor platform which, according to Meteor.com, allows developers to build “top-quality web apps in a fraction of the time.” In Workpop's case at least, that seems to be a reasonable boast.
It’s been a long time since I applied for an hourly job, but as Shaffner and Ovitz demoed their product I felt a pang of jealousy that it didn’t exist when I was applying for summer work between high school and University. At the time, my work experience consisted of precisely zero, forcing me to pad out my one-page CV with all manner of hobbies, real and imagined. The only jobs I was offered were the ones where I presented well at the interview: No one gave a flying damn if I enjoyed reading and “socializing with friends.” I also thought of my parents, who run a small hotel in the UK, and how much time they spend interviewing candidates who too enjoy reading and socializing with friends, but woefully lack the experience or temperament for the service industry.
Workpop cuts through a lot of the traditional crap of recruiting. Candidates are encouraged (but not forced, that’s apparently illegal) to upload a pre-interview video to their profile, answering either a generic question or one specifically asked by the employer. That feature alone will likely save millions of hours of wasted real-life interviews. Candidates can add tags to highlight their marketable skills: For restaurant workers that includes experience with Opentable, ServSafe certification, that kind of thing. In a nod to LinkedIn-style endorsements, previous employers are then invited to confirm those qualifications, again slashing the time spent chasing up references.
This being a site targeted in large part at a millennial workforce, Workpop has also given a lot of thought to (ugh) “social.” Mercifully, this doesn’t mean they’ve slapped share buttons on anything — rather, as Shaffner explains, they’re “trying to make [job seekers’] friends relevant in the application process… letting people they’ve worked with say ‘this person on is really good’ and making it much easier to reach out to everyone you’ve worked with, as well as worked for.” The founders have particular disdain for the “antiquated flow” of including the phone number of former employees at the end of your paper resume. “Today [thanks to social] they’re always an [instant] message away.”
A list of features makes for boring reading so, given the site is already live, I’ll skip most of that. The most important point to be made is how incredibly slick Workpop’s interface is. The fact that several members of the team have a background in game design is evident on every page. I’m not talking about gamification — the lack of awards and virtual candy is equally merciful — rather, the site’s intuitive UX belies the complexity beneath.
A dumb example to explain what I mean: As you complete each stage of the sign up process, the submit button occasionally strobes like the “continue?” prompt on a video game, to ensure you know where it is when you need it.
Workpop sure is pretty, and its functionality at launch is impressive. Workers can apply for jobs with a click, and employers can quickly filter applicants into definite no’s, maybes, and definite yeses. Once a job is filled, Workpop takes down the job ad and gives unsuccessful applicants the bad news. “We take you all the way through the whole process,” says Ovitz. The biggest differentiator, though, is that Workpop is entirely free, for both employers and workers. “Everything until you click ‘accept’ [on a job offer] is free,” Ovitz says.
The ease of use had comical consequences during testing: “We used to do demos on the same [live] site we used for in-the-wild testing. We’d post fake ads saying ‘this job is a test please don’t apply.’ But literally in the course of the demos we would get applications from real people,” explains Ovitz. On the day I visited Workpop they’d received their first real job posting from a business that had apparently stumbled across the beta site and decided to sign up. After that, they stopped doing testing on the live site.
While everything is free for now, revenue for Workpop will eventually come from everything that follows a successful recruitment. Background check services, automated contracts and offer letters, legal compliance... all the stuff that has to be done after you’ve found your ideal new hire.
According to Ovitz, the intention is that Workpop will always be free for applicants, even with all the fancy new features that the team is apparently working on. Coming soon is a dashboard showing anonymized data about how employers interacted with your profile: Whether they watched your video (and, if so, for how long), how your application compared with other applicants... “We’re storing all the data now, but the visualization will go online soon after [our platform] launch,” Ovitz explains. Also planned is a Reddit-inspired “resume critique” for other Workpop users to offer suggestions on your profile. “Nobody is helping candidates get better,” he says.
According to Workpop’s own numbers, there are 76 million hourly workers in the US alone. For now, though, Workpop is only launching for LA-area employers and workers. “We feel pressure now from current employers, but we’re going to wait until the product is exactly right,” explains Shaffner. With over $8 million raised before launch, the Workpop team has time on their side.
Speaking of fundraising, when Sarah Lacy and I discussed Workpop, she noted that it’s interesting for the company not to have raised money from Andreessen Horowitz, given Michael Ovitz’s high profile affiliation with the firm. Perhaps another attempt by Chris Ovitz to show the world that if Workpop is a hit, it’s all down to him, Shaffner and the team they’ve built?
Just before filing this piece, I called Ovitz to run my “daddy issues” theory past him. After reiterating that the idea for Workpop came from Shaffner, and asking me to make sure his business partner is given equal billing in this piece, he didn’t entirely disagree.
“My father is incredibly supportive, as anyone would be for their son and his business partner," Ovitz says. "He invested in Workpop, because it would be weird if he didn’t, but it was a fraction of the seed round."
"I'm a huge fan of Andreessen Horowitz, but they weren't in the Series A. I wanted to keep things separate.”