This article was first adapted from Desmond's original post on LinkedIn.
I founded my first business after high school, a restaurant, to pay for college. It was exciting, fun but extremely tired. I was in the restaurant by 6am in the morning to prepare, and would often stay till 10pm at night washing dishes; because I was consistently short-staffed and needed to hire new people, and to manage and execute operations on my own. Hiring for the best talent is always the top thing for any business, but for a restaurant it was even more critical to source, recruit and hire the top talent due to the high turnover of the industry.
In early 2018, I started Workstream together with my co-founders, Lei Xu and Max Wang, to solve this problem, and to help local businesses and restaurants to hire hourly workers faster and better with text recruiting tools.
At the time, I was an eager recent graduate from Harvard and MIT, and recently moved out to San Francisco Bay Area. I was hungry to make an impact and wanted to work on a mission-driven idea. I started by talking to many local business areas around Palo Alto, where I was staying at. I would walk into many restaurants, cafes and shops in downtown Palo Alto from Coupa Cafe (who would end up being our first customer!), Jamba Juice, Blue Bottle and conduct surveys with business owners, general managers and servers. I walked into shops with a bright smile, introducing myself as a "student" and shared that I'm working on a project and wanted to get their feedback. I was turned away many times, but there were many people who were kind enough to set aside time for me.
From the hundreds of conversations I was lucky to have with these operators who gave me with the time of their day, I re-learned the challenges and difficulties of running a local business and restaurant. The top two challenges of any local business owner were (1) recruiting good talent that stays (2) growing the business. I knew it was a massive problem, with over hundreds of thousands of restaurants and millions of local businesses in America alone, but many of them were struggling - good hourly workers were difficult to find, engaging them and hiring them was difficult, and there was no good tool these operators could use. I knew it was a very challenging and meaningful problem that I wanted to solve. I knew that through helping local businesses, we could impact and help millions of hourly workers whose recruiting process could be streamlined. It was a mission I knew I could dedicate the next few decades of my life on - it was a massive and meaningful problem that hasn't been solved and I wanted to make a difference and impact.
Our First Ten Customers
Over the next year, my co-founders and I started to assemble similar mission-driven teammates, and started to work on building a product that was impactful and meaningful. I could still re-call our first customer, Coupa Cafe in Palo Alto which has 10 locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. We worked closely with them and they provided us with a lot of relevant feedback, and when they hired their first person via Workstream on the third day of using our product (the usual time to hire is 14 days), we knew we had something special.
I will always remember the first ten customers of Workstream, who took a chance on a small team to work with us, provide us with product feedback and to help us to grow. One of our first customer was Steven (photo below), who owned over 16 locations of Jamba Juice in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the one at Stanford University. I will always remember the day when my co-founders and me sat next to Steven at Stanford University and pitched our "wireframes" to Steven. Based on the mock-ups, Steven told us he will pay us if we can finish building in the next 2 weeks. After that meeting, my co-founders and me locked ourselves up in our studio apartment in San Francisco, stocked up on ramen and pizza, to product the first beta version of Workstream, and showed it to Steven. To our disbelief, he was impressed enough to pay us!
Another one of our early customer was Jaron Hall, Founder of Utah Maids. I was on my first trip to Utah in early 2018 with my family to visit the nature and go on some hikes, and guess what I did - I cold emailed hundreds of local business owners to ask for a meeting and learn from them. Jaron was one of the kind souls who offered to meet me. As soon as I landed in Utah, I drove to Utah and pitched our first version of Workstream to Utah. Luckily, he seemed impressed enough to say he was open to try us out. Long story short, Utah Maids has been a happy customer of Workstream since 2018, and after selling Utah Maids in 2019, Jaron joined us as our first business hire, and has contributed to our strong growth till now.
Another special customer to me was Tara and Jason (photo below), who are franchisees of Pieology, Jamba Juice and Carl's Jr. (here's a case study we worked on with them) Tara is a forward-thinking entrepreneur who is at the cutting edge of marketing, technology and franchising. From the first call we had, she was clearly asking relevant questions about how to streamline the applicant sourcing and hiring process, and provided many invaluable inputs for us on how to better help restaurant operators like herself. Three months into working with us, Tara was so impressed by Workstream she sent an email to every single Jamba Juice franchisee in the country detailing a 2 pager review of her experience with Workstream, recommending us. I will always be humbled and thankful for Tara's generosity and innovative thinking. (Plug: Tara is currently providing marketing consulting services, so please ping her if of interest. She's amazing!)
Over the next few weeks and months, we continued to work on product development, and as Paul Graham always says, "Doing things that don't scale", talking 1 on 1 with customers, spending them at the back office of restaurants and local businesses, and learning about the deep pain of hiring, recruiting and onboarding that restaurant operators face daily. We learned at a rapid pace, and was excited at the opportunity to make impact to many of their entrepreneurs and main street operators, who were empowering the economy of America. At the same time, we started to get feedback from our customers daily, and we rapidly realized we were solving a real problem that many people cared about when we started receiving feedback from our customers (like below).
Fast forward to 2020, we work with hundreds of restaurants, franchisees and local businesses from Chick-fil-A, Jimmy John's, McDonald's, Applebee's, Market Street Grill, Seven Peaks, Panera Bread, Dunkin', Sonic Drive-In, Marriott, Westin, Sports Basement, Grocery Outlet and more. I was also lucky enough to assemble a team including my co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Lei Xu (Google, Y Combinator, UC Berkley), co-founder and CTO, Max Wang (Cornell computer science), Head of Sales, Blake Harber (Lucid, HireVue), Head of Customer Success, Aaron Delgadillo (University of San Francisco), Internal Operations Lead, Kerri Kohli, and an initial small team of passionate streamers to join us in this journey. (yes, we are hiring! please feel free to ping any of us)
As our team grew, we needed to make changes daily and weekly, to expand the team, and to build more product. Our team grew rapidly, and we now have two main hubs in the country in San Francisco and Utah, and with many remote streamers in Texas, Washington DC, Vermont, Singapore, and more.
At the same time, we continue to learn new things daily from our customers and restaurants, and I continue to be thankful that I'm able to embark on this mission to help restaurants and local businesses.
We Are Thankful To Be Able To Help Restaurants During COVID
In April 2020, covid hit restaurants and local businesses, and devastated the local business industry. Many restaurants were impacted and needed to close down or re-think how they do business. Many Workstream customers were impacted and we quickly re-grouped to think about how we can be helpful towards our customers. We knew that the livelihood of many our partners were impacted and we wanted to make a difference. We immediately started to reach out to every impacted Workstream customer, doing 1 on 1 with them, offering them assistance and help in any way that we can. At the same time, we created content, including free e-books like this covid guide book to re-opening and re-hiring, and started to hold weekly webinars.
In our conversations with our customers, we found that Workstream was more important and helpful for them than ever before throughout covid. They needed a way to source, hire and onboard talent safely and quicker, via texting and video, in a contactless manner and way. We were thankful we had the opportunity to help them, and started to work closely to double down on our customer success team to help them (kudos to Mary, Benjamin and Tiny). In our customer calls, we saw a wide range of emotions, from fear, cries, to tears of joy when we were able to help a local franchisee in Indiana re-open and re-hire within days as she needed to start her business to provide for her family.
Another Workstream customer we spoke to Amir Hosseini of Curry Up Now. He was opening up restaurants throughout the country in Salt Lake City, Austin, New Jersey and more throughout covid, and needed a way to be able to communicate with both potential candidates and employees, and to drive recruiting forward in a contactless and safe way. We worked closely with Amir to come up with a 30-60-90 day plan to implement text recruiting for all of his 50 over locations throughout the country, and we were able to help them to provide food and resources to their customers, and to also help hundreds of people get employed safely and quickly.
Today, we are still battling covid and helping our customers daily to be able to more efficiently use technology to reopen and to re-hire, and to safely and quickly hire the right talent needed for their businesses. However, throughout the thousands of customer calls our team had performed in past few months, we saw a lot of optimism and hope. We are optimistic that restaurant and local business operators, some of the most strong-willed and most tenacious entrepreneurs I have ever met, will be able to steer forward and overcome the current situation.
Raising Our $10 Million Round
We never had the need to raise funding as we were a frugal and scrappy team, and were growing rapidly. However, we had many customers started to reach out to us, sharing that they wanted to invest in us as they believed in what we were doing, from local franchisees from Halal Guys, Chick-fil-A, to corporate ventures arms of some of our larger customers.
We finally decided that we wanted to raise and I reached out to one of my mentors, Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom. Within minutes of me sharing what we were doing, Eric decided to invest and started to share with me his journey of how he started Zoom after Webex, and how he struggled early on to raise funding and provided me with a lot of guidance and advice.
At the same time, I was introduced to Keith Rabois of Founders Fund. As part of the PayPal mafia, Keith was formerly COO of Square, co-founder of Opendoor, and on the board of Yelp. He is also an early investor in Stripe, Affirm, AirBnb, DoorDash, Wish (about every company that is going public this year!) We knew we could not pass up on the chance to learn from him, and within days of our first meeting, a term sheet was signed and we have been fortunate to learn from him since.
I first Joe Montana via my Harvard classmate, Michael Ma (who is one of the best investors in Silicon Valley), and the first thing that Joe did when he met me was to open the door for me (!!), and to get me a glass of water. I was immediately touched by Joe Montana's humbleness, and in our conversation, was inspired by his journey from San Francisco 49ers superstar quarter to a venture capitalist who has invested in hundreds of top companies from Gitlab, Rippling, and more, and is really only getting started.
In the same week, I was introduced to Tony Xu, CEO of DoorDash via an investor. I was immediately impressed by Tony as in our first meeting. He was waiting for me by the receptionist, early by a few minutes, patiently waiting for me, before he brought me to a small conference room where we started to have a conversation around how we were both trying to help restaurants, create impact and share a common mission. I was humbled by the opportunity to meet and learn from him, and he has been most generous with his time since we met.
As part of our $10 million series A, we were fortunate to raise from investors including Anna Khan of Charles River Ventures, Lan Xuezhao of Basis Set Ventures, Max Levchin (former CTO PayPal, CEO and co-founder, Affirm), former COO of Yelp, COO Okta, CEO of Intercom, James Harden of Houston Rockets, Owner of Sacramento Kings and Soma Capital, Justin Kan (Founder of Twitch), Peterson Ventures in Utah, Bernard Arnault (Chairman of LVMH) GGV Capital, CEO Patreon, CEO Logitech, ex-Googler fund, Holly Liu (former Partner at Y Combinator), CEO Lattice, and many more other local franchisee owners, operators and angel investors.
Sharing Our Journey Till Now
I wanted to share my journey thoroughly because every step of it was challenging, difficult but also incredibly rewarding. It was painful. But that is the way that starting a business is. I first started my first business after high school to pay for college, and have started 5 other businesses before Workstream; each time it was painful and rewarding, but never have I felt as motivated and thankful to be able to work on a mission that can impact over 60% of the American and global economy (80% of workers in world are hourly workers and 65% of workers in US are hourly workers).
At the same time, I wanted to share my story as I read about restaurants closing down or shutting down during covid, and the many challenges they face and meet daily. When I jump on a call with my partners and restaurant owners, I see my own parents in them, the perfect reflection of grit and determination as they push on daily, despite any challenge that they need. I hope to be able to share our story of how restaurants and local businesses during covid are suffering, but will never back down. I am very fortunate and lucky to be able to be on this journey together with fellow streamers to help restaurants and other local businesses as we move forward in one of the most challenging time of the decade and possibly in our lifetime, but I wanted to share my story in the hope that it will motivate restaurants, entrepreneurs and people to keep going, heads up and don't give up. To be a bit cliche, "When it is at is darkest, is when light will appear at the end of the tunnel".
What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve. Onwards.
Desmond Lim is co-founder and CEO of Workstream, an automated hiring platform for companies hiring hourly workers. He is a graduate of Harvard and MIT Media Lab, former product manager at WeChat, and investor at Dorm Room Fund. He is based in San Francisco and lived in Palo Alto with his wife and two young daughters.