Like many of us, Thomas Fien values his free time away. And after working for more than 20 years as a software development consultant, the 52-year-old San Francisco resident wanted to find a way to spend more time pursuing his passions for spearfishing, abalone diving and mushroom hunting. But he also needed to make some money, preferably on a flexible basis that would allow him to take advantage of a beautiful weather day and get outside on short notice.

But where could he consistently find jobs like that on a regular basis? Especially jobs that were both interesting and that paid well? The answer, he found out, was a startup based in town called Wonolo – which is shorthand for: Work. Now. Locally.

Through Wonolo, Fien quickly found a job doing usability testing for a local app development company. He followed that up by picking up a series of other gigs that included pulling and packing orders of various products, assisting a chef in prepping and serving a dinner party, tackling various office work, and testing and packing wearable fitness trackers and GPS watches.

“It seemed that almost anytime I was in town and available to work, there would be a job posted on Wonolo I could accept,” says Fien.

In other words, he had his dream scenario: he could find interesting work just about any time he needed it.

The Rise of the Flexible Workforce

The advent of the so-called sharing economy ensures that our world will never be the same as it was. Companies like Uber and Airbnb, which rely on the power of mobile technology to match supply and demand for things like transportation and lodging, have completely disrupted longstanding industries by giving consumers new options to choose from.

The sharing economy has also opened up new job opportunities to those still shut out of a warming labor market. While critics have pounced, noting that many on-demand jobs pay minimal hourly wages and lack benefits, tens of thousands of people have been able to flexibly earn money  they may otherwise have been denied the chance to make.

That’s a trend employers have begun to take notice of, as well. Many businesses see surges in demand during peak seasons and need to staff up, or down, accordingly. There are also the issues created when staff call in sick or take vacation time. Finding qualified workers to fill those spots, often on short notice, has long been a challenge to businesses in just about every sector imaginable. Message board sites and staffing firms can help if you’re able to plan ahead. But how do you find qualified workers literally at the moment you need them?

Enter Wonolo – a sharing economy solution where companies can post jobs that a community of pre-qualified workers can accept on a moment’s notice.

The business, which launched in May 2013, is the brainchild of AJ Brustein and Yong Kim. Its seeds were planted with the help of Coca-Cola, which selected Brustein and Kim to be part of its now two-year-old Founders platform, which provides startup capital to entrepreneurs interested in creating compelling solutions that companies like Coca-Cola and its partners can benefit from in big-picture ways.

“Our mission is to find and partner with rock-star entrepreneurs interested in solving some of the Coca-Cola system’s biggest challenges,” says Ross Kimbel, Coke's global director of innovation and entrepreneurship and one of the platform’s lead administrators. “But what we quickly learned is that these challenges aren’t limited to Coca-Cola."

While Coca-Cola provides capital and access to connections and other resources for the participants in its program in exchange for an ownership stake, the companies operate independently. The Coca-Cola Founders platform is currently building 11 companies in 10 cities around the world.

Wonolo app

Staffing on Demand

To get their start, Brustein, a marketer who previously worked at Coca-Cola for seven years, and Kim spent time talking to various people throughout the company – from bottlers and distributors to drivers and merchandisers – to understand their various pain points. The more they talked to people, the more often they began to hear a recurring theme: there weren’t enough people working at the right times, which was costing the business a lot of money.

A prime example of this was when retailers, after selling out of a Coca-Cola product, would call their merchandiser to come and restock the shelves. The challenge for the merchandiser is that they would already have their schedule set for the week. It was a huge challenge to drop a pre-determined route to address this unplanned restocking request. But every hour those shelves remained empty was a lost opportunity to sell more Coca-Cola products, something that was estimated to add up to more than $1 billion a year in missed revenue.

That became the "A-ha" moment for Brustein and Kim. They could connect workers with companies exactly when they needed them. “We wanted to provide a way for companies to deal with unpredictability,” says Brustein.

At the same time, Brustein and Kim were both parents and their wives wanted a part-time and flexible way to reenter the workforce. Only they didn’t know where to find those kinds of jobs outside the traditional staffing world, which was attached to something of a negative stigma, especially with younger workers. That proved there were talented and intelligent workers in the labor pool whom companies might not be aware of.

“We saw a great opportunity to connect people and companies on an on-demand basis,” says Kim. 

To date, Wonolo has helped connect some 2,500 eager workers – everyone from parents and students to more traditional job seekers interested in a “try before you buy” approach to landing employment – with more than 10,000 on-demand job openings. Those numbers promise to increase with Wonolo’s recent expansion into Los Angeles. They’ve also run test markets in small cities like Albuquerque, N.M., and Oklahoma City, Okla. The company plans to expand further, especially after it closes on a new round of funding from a team of investors including Coca-Cola.

Wonolo’s message is not only appealing to big corporations like Coca-Cola and its retail and foodservice customers, but it also resonated with other startup businesses who also struggle to fill part-time and on-demand positions – especially in hot labor markets like San Francisco.

Case in point: Rinse, is a rapidly growing start-up in San Francisco that provides door-to-door laundry and dry-cleaning services. Every day, the company deals with literally thousands of clothing items that are picked up, inventoried, inspected, and cleaned before being delivered back to customers.

“The key to providing exceptional quality and customer service as we scale is having the right people and processes in place to manage the operational complexity of our business,” says Ajay Prakash, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO.

The rub is that the workload (and team availability) can vary from day to day, and even shift-to-shift, which makes staffing up or down a constant challenge, says Prakash. That was at least until he discovered Wonolo. “Now we can plug in people on short notice at odd times for three to four hours while providing amazing customer service,” he adds. “That’s a need most businesses have had forever.”

Another key advantage that Wonolo offers, says Prakash, is that since the workers in the community are pre-qualified (they are also rated by employers they work for), he doesn’t have to spend the time, money, and energy going through a screening and interviewing process before bringing someone on board. Prakash has been so pleased with the quality of the workers he’s used through Wonolo that he’s already hired one of them on full time.

“And we’re totally open to doing that again down the road,” he says. 

2014 YIR Founders Wonolo 604
Wonolo co-founders AJ Brustein (left) and Yong Kim in their first office. The San Francisco-based startup is part of the Coca-Cola Founders platform.

The Future of Work?

While he hasn’t worked for Rinse, Thomas Fien, one of Wonolo’s early adopters, says that he’s enjoyed the experience for working for a multitude of companies he’s connected to through Wonolo. While he admits he wouldn’t want to work fulltime at all of them, he says the different jobs he has taken on have exposed him to tasks and people – include other Wonolo users – that he wouldn't otherwise experience. “It has been very interesting to see from the inside how these different companies work,” he says, noting that he has also earned a steady cash flow over the 15 months with Wonolo’s help. 

Fien considers himself a big supporter of Wonolo and he has recommended it to his friends. He also thinks it might be changing the nature of how all of us go about seeking work.

“I believe that the Wonolo approach is an excellent alternative for people to find work,” says Fien. “Personally, I believe that there is unlimited potential for growth into different locations and different types of work. Over the long run, I believe it could cut into traditional full-time jobs as a more flexible and convenient alternative for both the worker and the customer.”

Time will tell. But it does seem clear that the future of how and where we work will never be the same again.