As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alok Alström. Alok is the CEO and co-founder of Appjobs, a Swedish startup founded in 2017 with a mission to empower everyone to play a role in the labor market. Alok previously worked as General Manager at Uber in Sweden, Director at Bisnode and Consultant at the Boston Consulting Group.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in the suburbs of Uppsala in Sweden. I first took on a management role at the age of 20, when I moved to Stockholm and became the General Manager of the biggest youth organization in Sweden. After that I started studying at Stockholm School of Economics. Once I completed my Masters, I joined the Boston Consulting Group and was working there for 4 years and then joined Bisnode. It was not until 2015 that I had my first experience of working in a startup, when I became General Manager of Uber in Sweden.
My time at Uber gave me the inspiration for Appjobs. I realized that the revolutionizing invention behind Uber wasn’t only about getting people from A to B by the push of a button. The idea focuses on how people who want work could almost “stream” work to their smartphones on demand. The core idea behind AppJobs was simple. It was to match people who want to get flexible work through their phone with apps like Uber, Deliveroo and Rover in the city that they’re in.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We had this really great genius developer who my co-founder Bertan had brought in. He was a Polish guy and his name was Przemek. I started by completely messing up the pronunciation of his name and someone was kind enough to correct me. Or so I thought. A year later when I was telling a new team member about the incident and how proud I was to get the pronunciation right, Przemek broke his silence and said “Actually, I didn’t want to embarrass you but you’ve been pronouncing it wrong since then.” It helped me understand the importance of noticing all the details when people present themselves and try to not be as absent minded.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I have subscribed to an email newsletter called the Marketing Analytics Intersect by a guy called Avinash. As someone who is not an expert on Marketing analytics, it has helped me gain deeper insights and understanding into these topics. Learning about the different aspects of your business has been important to me in setting up my own business. Even if you aren’t an expert in a sector, learning more and understanding it is very important to empathizing with other teams and hiring the top team.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
The core idea behind AppJobs was simple. It was to match people who want flexible opportunities with the available opportunities in their city. Our mission is to empower everyone to play a role in the labor market through organizing personalized flexible job opportunities, tools, resources and support. People have become disconnected and lack power in the labour market: we want to restore the power balance and be the supportive best friend to gig workers.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Transparency is one of AppJobs core values. This means not only being personally transparent or transparent in the company plans now and in the future. It’s about having transparent processes in the company.
- Sometimes I make the comparison that starting at Appjobs is a bit like entering a nudist beach for the first time, without having been told that you are in fact entering a nudist beach. You might be used to working in a private document on your own computer and then show it to a colleague or boss only when you feel really satisfied and confident about your work product. The process at Appjobs is completely different. Here you are working in the cloud shared by everyone and the doc you’re working on is open for all to see, comment and contribute to.
- Most people are used to airing disagreements or questions about eg. a certain company policy first in confidence with a close colleague or friend, and then maybe bring it up with your boss. We work differently. You’ll find people openly disagreeing and debating in shared slack-channels for everyone to see, follow and contribute to. It’s like AppJobs wants you to strip, pick a side and join the debate.
- There are many benefits to embracing these values. Other people may spot something you missed or provide you with a perspective you didn’t think about. It reduces the cost to engage others and crowd-sources the intelligence. It shortens decision paths, so much so that when there is a fundamental disagreement on one level, it becomes easier and faster to escalate to the next decision-making level. All this ensures that we keep progressing forwards. Above all, it enables us to collaborate as a company on each of the challenges we are tackling. However, all of this rests on one key factor: Trust. When you are naked, you are vulnerable — and you only expose your vulnerability if you can trust that others will not take unfair advantage of that vulnerability.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have been fortunate enough to be based in Sweden: here, the government restrictions have been less forceful than in other countries. I have been able to spend a lot of time outside with my family, which I feel extremely lucky to be able to do. Despite being in Sweden we’ve been careful seeing other people outside of the family and it’s been challenging.
One of the biggest personal challenges I have faced during this crisis has been to lead the company across unfamiliar terrain. It is difficult to give the right support to the management team and figure out how to bring out the best of the team as a whole. I see how the lockdown has affected my colleagues. It is a challenging time that doesn’t just require us to stay inside and spend a lot of time introspectively, it’s also about an underlying uncertainty about the future, not knowing what’s to come. To address this, I’ve been taking notes from people from the pre-digital era who faced many challenges, but did not have the assistance of technology. It has helped me a lot in trying to navigate and make hard decisions together with my team.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Some of the main challenges we have faced as a company externally include the influx in people turning to the gig economy and the changes in demand across the different sectors. As for the internal challenges, just like with other companies the challenges are from adapting to these conditions.
Gig platforms have been affected in many different ways by the shifts in demand. Currently, we have seen that the delivery and online survey sectors have increased in demand from gig workers. However, childcare and house sitting gigs are some of the sectors that have suffered due to the pandemic. This means that we have had to adapt, and have had a change in revenue: if platforms have lower demand, then they are less likely to run their paid campaign with us. However, for services that are seeing an influx of demand, we need to increase the services we can provide for partners to assist. Our Gig Acquisition Platform recently added both a Power Filter (filtering out only the perfect candidates for the job) and Sourcie (helping partners complete the entire acquisition process).
As for the internal challenges we have faced, they’re about working out how to adapt to these new working conditions. It is a challenging time to be a CEO and try to find solutions for your team who are all across the globe and face different levels of impact. It is hard to adjust from a regular routine in a physical office to having to work from your home. When you don’t have that division between work and home, it is easy to overwork. I feel like there’s a very fine line between pushing in a motivational way and in a detrimental way. In order to help our team combat these issues, we have created workshops to discuss how we are all dealing with these issues and what difficulties we are facing: community is more important than ever in making it through these challenges.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It remains a challenge to give “good” advice during these times. As I am fortunate enough to have not been so badly impacted as many friends and colleagues who face more severe restrictions and complications, it is hard to give advice when you aren’t in their shoes: the best we can do is be supportive and empathize.
The initiatives our management team have taken include the creation of challenges to keep our teams moving, encourage them to limit their news consumption and maintain a sense of routine. These ideas are simple to implement, but can help maintain a sense of normality during the chaos.
As for my friends, family and loved ones, I do my best to be present. I make sure to check in with those I care about: my son and I have been fortunate enough to still be able to see my mother (at a safe distance) during the pandemic. It is important to remind those you care about that you are there for them, even if you cannot be there physically. Loneliness is something that many people are unfortunately facing and it can be detrimental in the long run: it is important we check in on those around us.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
While we cannot forget all the difficulties we have faced, we think the gig economy will continue to grow. Recently, the Appjobs Institute surveyed 1,400 of our members and around 90% of them are seeking a new source of income. The gig economy has so much variety that while demand changes in one sector, other sectors may see an increase in demand. Unlike the traditional ecosystem, the gig economy and Appjobs ecosystem can more easily adapt alongside rules and regulations. We anticipate that in the post-COVID economy, people will be able to work with more flexibility and be able to work for themselves, which rebalances the power in the system.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
It is likely that after this pandemic, we will have to create a new normal. From working remotely to reduced and potentially more expensive travel, there will be many amendments society will make. When the world is hit by a critical juncture such as this pandemic, we have two options: we have the chance to change what isn’t working, or keep on with old but trusted patterns. We have noticed that during the pandemic, people have begun turning to the gig economy. Post-COVID, people will still have lost jobs, families to feed and have to follow any new government restrictions. With the opportunity to freelance and work from home as well as work for yourself, the gig economy is providing opportunities that are all inclusive.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have been listening to the needs of our partners and members and developing new services accordingly. In particular, we have implemented new ways to collaborate more effectively with partners and help them make the most of their experience with AppJobs.
The gig economy hosts vast potential and I believe this is only the beginning. Due to the low fixed costs and ability to hire on demand, the gig economy will be a great advantage to companies. I am certain that our platform, Appjobs, will be needed in the post pandemic economy. However, we need to make sure we are prepared to face the second wave and remain a constant when the first wave is over.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Personally, I think that by having a business model that is easily scalable will be crucial in survival and receiving funding from investors during these turbulent times. I know I cannot predict the future, and I know as much as the next person, but I think we have turbulent times ahead with each sector facing its own set of challenges.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I remember at one of the first jobs I had, my manager quoted Kirkegaard: “our only hope in overcoming anxiety is by embracing it with open arms.” This struck a chord with me and still remains relevant to me today. In the professional roles I have had over the years, I have not only been responsible for the business but also the people who make up the business. It is impossible to always achieve perfection, so the best thing you can do is embrace the challenges and fears you face. It is important to learn the tactics on how to best handle the fears you face so that you can build on them and use them to your advantage.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If you want to connect with me, I am pretty active on my LinkedIn. I post a lot about the latest updates with AppJobs and the gig economy. If you are interested in the Future of Work and those insights, I would highly recommend you check out the newsletter from the AppJobs Institute.