Don’t get a big office. People usually think that they “go to work”. As if the office is “work”. It’s not. And by having a small and not too flashy office you can get people to understand that what you are building is work. The rest of the stuff around it is just stuff.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alok Alström, CEO and co-founder of Appjobs, a Swedish startup founded in 2017 with a mission to help people work better through apps and belong in the future of work. 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 joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
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 in working for 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 also focuses on how people who want work could almost “stream” work to their smartphones on demand. The core idea behind AppJobs was simple: to match people who want flexible work through their phone with apps like Uber, Deliveroo and Rover in the city that they’re in.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I’ve always believed in our idea to improve the experience of people seeking work through apps. The hardest challenge in the beginning was understanding the needs of the job seekers and balancing that with the need of being operational, strategic and external to get funding and inspire others to believe in the company’s vision. It’s challenging starting your own company and this is the first company I have founded so I’m very grateful for Bertan, my co-founder, who had prior experience in starting businesses.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’ve always wanted to positively impact the lives of others. I learned from my mother who not only raised me and my sister mostly on her own but also worked full time while voluntarily helping exposed groups such as transgender people in India.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Appjobs is still in it’s development stage and has yet to reach profitability. But seeing how hard work pays off, how each month our membership grows, our revenue grows and we deliver more value to workers is a strong motivation. I’m convinced we’re on a very important journey for the future of work. We have 50 team members spread over 11 countries in 3 continents and we can see a very clear trend that more people are starting to work remotely. It’s not a coincidence we’ve grown to 2 million members during our first 3.5 years. We’ve all worked hard, but our success is not only because people want flexibility, it’s also because organising work in that way is more cost effective for companies in the long run.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson 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.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Appjobs is a two sided platform. On one side is for people looking for gig jobs and on the other side matching those people with companies looking for people to hire for shorter gigs. This could be for things like delivery tasks or longer projects such as coding or copywriting. We are exploring this new, young eco system called the gig economy and everyday we learn new ways to improve our products for members and companies.
We also established the Future of Work Institute with the idea to make the labor market more transparent and comprehensive for everyone; from politicians making legislation to the individual wondering what the gig economy is.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Over my 15 years of experience as a manager, I have had a whole host of different situations thrown my direction — many of which have been quite challenging. This has taught me more about how I handle difficult situations as well as taught me my limits. Nowadays, I never push myself over the limit because I know my personal limits, which is important for any working person. For me, spending time with my son has always been the best way to relieve my worries and stresses. I’ve also learned during the years that it’s good to communicate with others if you’re in a stressful period: this helps in keeping connected and keeping one another safe.
Also, even though I’m notoriously bad at it, I recognize the importance of taking time off completely. At Appjobs we don’t have a formal vacation limit, instead you are free to take vacation when needed as long as you and your manager can work around it without losing track of your KPIs. My hope is that this will make the team take vacation days when they feel like they need it or after stressful sprints.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had many great teammates, advisors and friends who’ve given me support and experience over the years and it’s impossible to share one story that changed everything. It’s been a journey and I’m still very keen on having people around me who are willing to challenge my opinions and develop myself as a person. If I would only be able to mention one person it would probably be my mother because she’s always allowed me to be curious and try things however the level of craziness and still today I think one of my greatest capacities is being curious and I’ve got that much from her.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
A couple of years ago I started a scholarship at my old high school for the students with highest academic achievements, with the goal to encourage kids in the suburbs to take their studies seriously and to show that hard work pays off. When I was younger I always helped out by volunteering in different organizations, unfortunately I don’t have that much time today but I try to financially support the organizations I am passionate about.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t fall for the temptation to raise the valuation of the company too fast.
We’ve managed to keep it reasonable thanks to sound advice from peers and I’m very happy about that now. I see many entrepreneurs who end up with very difficult targets to reach due to valuations that have risen too quickly and too high.
2. Show a lot less tolerance for underperformance of team members in early stages
We all want to give people a second chance and as a leader I want to work with people to help them grow and improve. The tough reality is that early on you just don’t have the buffer to prioritize this.
3. Treat your co-foundership like a marriage
“For better or for worse” right? Yes, I’m super happy that I stumbled on Bertan as my co-founder of Appjobs. We have realized that we are not only each other’s business partners but also emotional support in ups and downs.
4. Don’t listen blindly to all the advice you’re given
There are a lot of people (mostly investors who don’t invest) who want to tell you how to do things. Even though their experiences are valuable to listen to, remember that they accumulated them in another time and another place. Ultimately you have to decide what makes sense for you.
5. Don’t get a big office
People usually think that they “go to work”. As if the office is “work”. It’s not. And by having a small and not too flashy office you can get people to understand that what you are building is work. The rest of the stuff around it is just stuff.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
If you want to connect with me, I am pretty active on my LinkedIn. I post a lot about the latest updates on AppJobs and the gig economy. If you are interested in the Future of Work and those insights, I would highly recommend checking out the Future of Work Digest newsletter from our Future of Work Institute.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!