Mar 01, 2017
The result of time, testing, and a desire to do good, always.
I joke that I joined the tech industry to make a “dent” in the world rather than truly change it. Time and again I’ve observed small system shifts result in massive societal effects, so a dent should suffice. Today, as we launch Clark, I feel close to that goal.
The plan was always to build things that help people. I joined one startup after another, eventually finding a home as a Product Manager unblocking teams and delivering this thing called “value” to customers. I worked on mobile apps, streaming video services, and cloud infrastructure. I learned to code, built apps in my spare time, and learned how to manage people. Every experience brought new challenges and new learnings, but what fulfilled me most were my co-workers. Driven, motivated by a desire to change the world and frequently disillusioned, I cringed every time I saw someone quit out of frustration or become complacent out of self-preservation. They wanted more and I wanted to give them more, so I left the comfort of a flourishing career in search of answers.
I was referred by a friend to Blue Ridge Labs, a social good incubator funded by the Robin Hood Foundation. I spent the summer fellowship of 2015 exploring the lives of low-income New Yorkers and discovering just how many good people there are who want to do good things with technology. Already primed for a change, I accepted the implications of these new experiences. It would never be enough to create a successful startup; I must also find a way to give back more than I take. Easy, right?
It was inspiring to be called “crazy” as often as I was that summer. One advisor uttered — verbatim — “keep your day job.” Fueled by my contrarian nature and my fellowship team’s early research into hourly work, I fixated on the plethora of problems experienced by everyday Americans that could make great products, businesses, and potentially even fundable ventures.
I spent the next eight months researching the gig economy, teaching Product Management at GA, and feeling incredibly discouraged by what I found. After hundreds of interviews with tutors, domestic workers, and handymen, a trend began to emerge. By focusing on the same high-end tech consumer, tech startups have been removing agency from gig workers and passing over a customer base willing to spend money on solutions to real problems. In fact, the very success of the Ubers and Handys of the world precludes the upward mobility of supply-side providers. I found myself unable to celebrate the magnificent rise of tech in the gig economy without addressing these drawbacks.
It was around this time that I penned a piece claiming that The Sharing Economy is in Beta. There’s no conspiracy to keep workers out of the conversation, but there is absolutely an attitude in the tech and VC communities that the gig economy is poorly understood and thus too risky to fund. With my product brain I recognized that outside of the commoditized ridesharing economy, gig workers are a new type of user with distinct needs. And at 35% of the population and growing, it’s time VCs and founders built products that acknowledge the massive shift we’re seeing in the way people do work. Addressing this market meant I needed to try something radical: Instead of another dating app, I needed to build a sustainable, inclusive service that grows through community investment rather than by value extraction.
The concept of a provider-centric service continued to bounce around in my head: a user-focused platform powered by the latest technologies that grow its market by democratizing not just access but also growth itself. It had to be scalable, solve real user problems, and be palatable to investors. And at its core, it had to enable good people to do good things. Having seen companies suffer due to weak values and toxic culture, I knew being mission driven wouldn’t be enough, To succeed, my nascent idea had to embrace KPIs that furthered our mission as well as our product: the two had to exist in lock-step.
A note to future founders: if you’re struggling with how to implement an idea, spend time on defining your values first. It’s like acting: know your motivation first and the rest will fall into place. This was absolutely the case for me. Fascinated by the power of well-constructed bots and the renewed conversation around AI I began testing prototypes with independent fitness trainers in New York City. The results were incredible: improving communication enabled faster payments, better scheduling, and increased brand value for clients. I had accidentally created a personal assistant for the hourly workforce, and the applications were endless. Oops, I solved it.
It was at that time that I met my co-founder, Megan O'Connor. She was looking for a technical co-founder to build a product for tutors. That was all she knew. I was looking for a business co-founder to help me define a market for some early tech I had. Within minutes, we knew we were both good people trying to do good things. We shared similar, strongly-held truths:
Educators deserve to make a living.
Tutoring should be an activity available to all students.
Tutors deserve to be celebrated as educators and as gig economy professionals.
We were sitting on a revolutionary new way to think about education and we knew it. From that early moment, we knew our mission was to empower educators and solve for the increasingly dire state of the public education system. With class sizes on the rise and a historic teacher shortage increasing year over year, personalized education is going through a renaissance. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time to turn it into a movement.
Clark was the result of our mutual desire to change the education system. Beginning life as an SMS service to facilitate communication between tutors and their students, Clark quickly evolved into the virtual assistant we’re launching today. Clark handles every aspect of a tutor’s business, from finding students to managing payments, scheduling, and communicating progress to parents. Whatever you need, just ask — Clark will do the rest. We make it easy for educators to do what they’re good at, and to make a living doing so. For parents, progress tracking has never been easier. And for students, well, I’m sorry, but you’re in for a lot more [effective] education now.
These last two years have been more challenging and more rewarding than any other time in my life. It’s excruciatingly difficult to Do A Thing without external validation, so you instead focus on the impact your work has on others (protip: aligning impact with business goals permits you act in the best interest of communities and be a selfish, money-grubbing capitalist). We’re still in early days, but tutors are already finding 25% more billable hours, experiencing fewer cancellations, and earning 25% more on the platform. And we’re just getting started.
Building Clark has been inspiring, but once again the work is overshadowed by the people I work with, whose dedication and resolve continue to amaze me. These are the humans who have made Clark possible. From my co-founder who gives me a reason to bring my best every day, to our startup studio Human Ventures who provides so much more than space, to our team of passionate, creative employees who make this whole thing worth doing, to my tolerant and loving girlfriend who has shown more understanding than perhaps I deserve, to our trusting customers who put up with so much “exuberance” on a daily basis: thank you for being good people who want to do good things.
Check out Clark at www.hiclark.com today. We’re excited to share it with you.