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Job Carving: Flipping the “Workforce On Demand” on its Head

Here at NinjaGoat, we have a fairly simple policy when it comes to job responsibilities: if it needs to be done, and you can do it, get it done.

Granted, we’re early on in our life as a company and a culture, but this kind of inclusiveness is one of the most essential parts of who we are, and who I hope we’ll become. And it sits astride an intersection of a number of trends that are, to say the least, affecting how small businesses operate, and how that affects the people who work for them.

I’ve worked in companies of all sizes – I started my professional career in a small web development firm of 20 people in 2000, stayed on as it grew to 200, consulted for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, worked alongside non-profits and grass-roots organizations, and now run two businesses of my own.

And until very recently, “run” meant “do everything myself.” Small business owners know: you don’t own the business, it owns you. And the biggest challenge I’ve had has been figuring out how to get out-of-the-way, and let other people take responsibility for what needs to be done. That challenge has two pieces:

  • Elucidating clearly what needs to be done
  • Learning to accept a wide range of how that actually happens

Writ small, this is basically the challenge all organization – tiny and huge – face. Bringing fatCoffee to market wasn’t exactly easy – but it wasn’t terribly complex. Once the idea was formed in my mind, and the recipe figured out, it was simply a series of steps to take to bring it to people who wanted to buy it.

Scaling up, at first, wasn’t terribly complex either: for the first year or so, it meant only, “doing the same thing, more frequently.” We went from producing one or two of a thing:

To making four or five of that same thing:

And then we started adding new flavors, and packaging different numbers of servings in different boxes, and selling different places online and offline. And like any small business just starting up, and looking to grow, we tried a ton of different things. Referral programs, multiple online stores, selling on Amazon, and more. And soon, the business started to look a bit more like:

(Yes, I got a 3D printer recently; I’m a bit obsessed at the moment, but it’s still a good metaphor). And now, looking to the side, I see this:

There are pieces, lots of them – and they sort of seem like they’re supposed to fit together and form something, but it’s not entirely clear what. And it’s even less clear if these new pieces fit together nicely with the ones I’ve already put together, and have working pretty well.

What does it mean to have an “on-demand” team?

Currently, we make fatCoffee about once a week. A lot of pieces have to come together for that to happen: ingredients need to be in stock, I need to be able to get time in the commercial kitchen we rent, my machinery needs to be in working order… and I need help in there.

It takes a team of 4-5 people to get fatCoffee from raw ingredients to a packaged product ready for delivery. (Or, it takes one person 10x as long.)

And while that happens, there are orders to route, vendors to deal with, website maintenance, emails, customers, and more.

Now, for sure, some of these things can be outsourced, even to software. I use a ton of web-based software and services to run my business. And, to be sure, we are adding some automation to the production process, but for now: it’s a lot of manual work.

The same manual work, over and over again. 3000 times in a row, until a dozen cases of fatCoffee are ready to head out the door.

Maybe the “gig economy” is a term you’ve heard before: Uber drivers, TaskRabbits, InstaCart Shoppers – there seem to be a lot of businesses today that work only because the people who work for them are hired “as needed” – an hour here, a ride there, a shopping trip over there.

Regardless of what you think of that kind of arrangement, the structure of those businesses is somewhat similar to our own, but for very different reasons.

Whereas some large companies are looking to “freelancize” their workforce to avoid the “entanglements” of having bona-fide employees, we’ve looked to create flexibility not just in our schedule, but in our job descriptions.

Our employees work shifts that work for them – in and around other jobs, responsibilities and commitments. But they also have the flexibility to take on work in areas outside of their “core” – want to help with the website? Here’s a list of things we need done. Want to go out and find a coffee shop and get them to start carrying fatCoffee? Here’s a list of some in your area. Want to promote fatCoffee online and earn commissions? Here’s a link to our affiliate program.

(BTW, If you’ve ever wondered what happens when you buy from a small business, it’s simple: you employ more people, more often, so they can support themselves, their families, and their communities. Now, personally, I buy stuff from all kinds of businesses, big and small. But when you buy from a small business, it’s really easy to see exactly where your money goes.)

From “On Demand Employees” to “On Demand Jobs”

Aside from production, there’s a ton of administrative stuff to do: photos of products, moving sales data from one place to another, following up with customers, and updating the website.

Ellis, our first regular employee, is a fine example: he started with us last summer, initially to help wrangle our data – a mess of reports from different websites and spreadsheets that took as long to make sense of as it did to learn anything useful from.

Along the way he asked, “can I help in the kitchen, too?” And frankly, there didn’t seem to be any reason to say no. fatCoffee production is a pretty straight-forward affair, and it’s easy enough to step in and start learning one of the steps… and then to eventually learn a few more, and more, until you’re able to fill in pretty much anywhere help is needed.

A challenging aspect of this is the need to write out, in fairly minute detail, the steps needed to complete any one of step of our process. But even this bears unexpected fruit: a well-detailed process is easier for everyone to analyze, both to understand, and to suggest improvements. (Yet another advantage of Universal Design.)

Another advantage: our team grows their skills, finds the pieces of our company’s needs that fit their abilities, and finds opportunities to help each other learn, grow and integrate more successfully.

At a time when unemployment and underemployment among Autistic individuals is stretching towards 90%, it seems flat-out absurd to keep plugging away with a standard set of job descriptions that may not match what employees have to offer. We’re a young and growing company – and with that we have the flexibility to carve out sets of responsibilities that meet our employees’ needs as well as our own.

Today, we have about 10 employees who bring a variety of skills and interests to the team, and who all have the opportunity to take care of our “open job descriptions” policy. It’s just a start, but an auspicious one.