Why cleaners are just as valuable to my startup as computer scientists

Maybe even more important than an engineer?
Maybe even more important than an engineer?
Image: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
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When my co-founder and I began working on Managed by Q, the company didn’t look much like it does today. It wasn’t that long ago, a little over a year. The on-demand economy was coming into maturity, Uber had just raised mammoth rounds of financing to take over the world, and the venture market was‒and still is‒clamoring for the next breakout success, pouring money into technology enabled services. Everything from on-demand doctors to dog walkers to mechanics got funded…they still do.

Investors were driven not only by a thesis around disrupting old industries, but went as far as to prescribe how to get the job done: talk about marketplaces, don’t talk about creating jobs.

We started off there. Having both worked on building digital products and digital businesses, we thought that was what we would do. When we launched in April of 2014, using primarily subcontracted labor from existing cleaning companies, we realized we hadn’t quite accounted for something: no amount of beautifully designed software could make up for bad office cleaning, or even worse, employees acting unprofessionally while donning our logo.

We watched others struggle with the model as well‒labor unrest, low quality, legal issues‒it didn’t look like innovation. As we spoke to people working in the on-demand economy we learned that a slick app alone doesn’t make for a good job.

We realized early on that the “Uber-for-X” model wouldn’t work for the business we wanted to build. We knew that the idea of a marketplace of independent contractors could be great in some cases, but it wasn’t a silver bullet, and it wasn’t right for our business. That isn’t to say that it wouldn’t have worked, but it wouldn’t be aligned with the company we wanted to build.

People are a crucial piece of Q’s user interface. Just like we wouldn’t neglect the design of a critical user-facing screen, we couldn’t leave the quality of our people operations to chance. We concluded that in order to succeed in the long term, we needed to be the best employer possible for our “operators”‒our term for the cleaners, assistants, helpers, and handymen that power the office operations of hundreds of companies in our New York City and Chicago markets.

We thought about who our best operators would be, how we could attract them, and what our responsibilities would be in order to retain them. We sought out advisors from companies like the Four Seasons and Starbucks and traded in the startup reading list for books like Zeynep Ton’s Good Jobs Strategy.

The approach we took to structuring our wages and developing hiring policies is far from the standard in the on-demand economy, though it seems like common sense: we looked at household economics and the needs of our would-be employees. From there, we worked backwards.

Ultimately, we concluded that to attract and retain the best people, we needed to embrace our role as an employer. We needed to hire people properly, providing them with a sufficient income, benefits, training, and a path within our organization to build something with us, not for us. We couldn’t do any of this with a marketplace of independent contractors‒it wouldn’t produce the results we needed.

While our engineering team is world class and technology is at the forefront of our business, we provide technology enabled services, and without amazing people motivated by a common goal, we could never truly realize our vision of creating an operating system for the physical world.

Today we employ over two hundred operators in the New York City and Chicago areas‒this means we pay our portion of their income tax as an employer, as well as provide them with workers compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, and paid sick leave. Where others have shirked the responsibilities conferred on employers and called it “innovation,” we readily accept these duties.

We also go beyond our legal obligations. We pay wages above market and have elected to provide a Fortune 500 level of benefits to all of our employees by providing health benefits that are 100% covered by the company and access to a 401(k) plan. These benefits are extended to everyone at the company, not just the people who sit in an office all day.

While we fundamentally believe in treating people well, we don’t create good jobs because we’re on a mission to save the world. We create good jobs because we honestly believe that it is the only way to build an enduring, transformational business. If we didn’t create good jobs, an important piece of our interface would never be beautiful. This is why at Q, cleaners are as valuable as computer scientists, something we cover in our promise to our operators.

There once was a time when companies looked at their employees as their greatest strength, rather than costs to be minimized. While some people look at the forward march of technology and see people as the past, we see them as our future.