Stacey Epstein and the Importance of Connecting the Deskless Workforce

When you first meet Stacey Epstein, you may be struck with how comfortable she is in her own skin. She seems at ease, relaxed, and in no doubt of her own capacity to lead a large company that aims to make a big impact on the roughly 70% of the American workforce who don’t sit at desks all day for their jobs. Her company, Zinc, offers a unique communication tool to those workers and their employers.

Part of her comfort, she admits when pushed to talk about confidence, comes from growing up with a successful father who had no gender bias, a big brother whom she played with and around a lot, including at tackle football, and a strong role model in her teacher mother. Also, she says, “I understand how men communicate.”

We sat down with Epstein earlier this month to get the lowdown on her growing company, observations on women and leadership, the power of relationships in business, and her insights and tips for success.

 

Your company was born out of another company?

Yes, Cotap was an enterprise messaging product, making a texting tool for companies. They had great products but hadn’t seen much success in the market. I was introduced to the founder via one of the board members. As you know, my background is all sales and marketing. He thought it might be a great partnership. I basically took over the assets of Cotap and then used those to change the strategy and focus and build out a full communication platform, which we brought to the market as Zinc. It certainly was entrepreneurial and I do consider myself the founder of Zinc, but the core of the product was already built when I came into the picture.

How were you able to identify the things that had the most potential for saving?

As with most entrepreneurs, it comes out of experiences that you have in your life. For me, it came from my prior two work experiences. I was head of marketing at ServiceMax, they were acquired by GE for $1 billion in January. I was employee 15 there. ServiceMax focused on the field service industry—the guys in the white vans driving around to fix products in homes and offices. That workforce, which is a surprisingly large segment of our workforce, was traditionally neglected by technology. Before mobile devices, you would need to lug around a laptop and try to find connectivity. There were significant performance gains which could be realized for field service orgs, and that’s what we did at ServiceMax.

Prior to that, I ran marketing for a company called SuccessFactors, where I was also the original marketing leader there and built out the whole team. That company, which was acquired by SAP for $3.4 billion, focused on employee performance and tech to help companies measure and drive performance and engagement with their employees.

When I saw Cotap, a messaging product for companies, their business model was hoping to attract users to download and lean on freemium. But people aren’t actively looking for yet another messaging app to add to their phones.

I saw the product and thought, it’s so mobile first, it’s the way people want to communicate now. Quick and text based. I knew the user experience at Cotap would be very powerful for deskless workers. So, I kept that simple core user experience at the backbone of the messaging and focused the company on what we call deskless industries—hotel workers, retail, construction, anybody who isn’t spending any of their day sitting in front of the computer.

I changed focus of the company. We added more peer-to-peer communication features, an insights module to show communication analytics, and a whole top-down messaging component. Let’s say I’ve got to get a message to people in the field, a safety alert, or training info for instance. Broadcasts allow me to do that efficiently and effectively. I also changed the business model. Instead of trying to attract users, we’re now directly selling to the leaders of the organizations to help them drive business metrics.

Do you have a favorite client or client experience you like to point to?

One of our most recent customers to go live is a client called BlueLine Rentals, they have such an interesting story. They have over 130 locations across the country. They basically rent heavy construction equipment. Their delivery drivers, who are quite skilled workers, load and unload machinery, train the renters on how to use them and are not simply drivers. The CEO, who I’m a big fan of, believes that unifying his team and driving a positive culture is what impacts business results. He believes in investing in tech to connect everyone. He has this saying, ABC, which is not “always be closing,” but for him it’s “always be connecting.” Connecting with employees, drivers, customers.

So Zinc became a big part of their initiative and they just went live. They have about 2,000 delivery drivers and managers across the country all communicating in real-time. They are not just using peer-to-peer, file sharing, video, they are also leveraging broadcast to ensure communication. The CEO likes to do that a lot and he may send out a message to everybody. He can do that effectively because everyone has a phone.

What else have you learned about the deskless workforce?

Quite a few analysts have estimated this demographic to be 72% to 80% of the workforce. It seems high, but go walk around downtown and see how many workers there are not sitting at a desk. It truly is a big part of our population.

I wrote an article last year about how too many entrepreneurs and people in tech are just building tools that they can use, and that’s been a big problem. Engineers build tools that make engineers’ lives better, and finance people have great ideas for building spreadsheets that can help them.  But, the hotel worker has no one innovating for them.

Trying to get yourself into the mind of the buyer and the user of whatever it is that you want to create can help some of us in tech think about problems that the rest of the world can benefit from our solving.

How do you try to gain that perspective and get out of your own bubble?

My husband is a teacher at a continuation high school, which is basically a last chance high school for high risk kids. That is obviously a different world from most people working in high tech. Because of my experiences with him, I’m more able to open my eyes and look at what the rest of the world is doing instead of the rest of Silicon Valley (which is just trying to make the next Google). Empathy is such an important trait. Fortune did a survey of the Fortune 500 CEOs whether they consider themselves a tech company, and 71% of companies now consider themselves to be tech companies. Wal-Mart, for instance, now has a thriving online store. Tech is totally permeating our society. We can’t just think about white collar workers. Better tech can benefit everyone in the world.

How much do you think about the special challenges of being a leader who is a woman?

I think about it all the time, partly for myself and partly for my two daughters, who are 5 and 8. I want them to live in a world where they can do whatever they want. I want to do whatever I can to help create that for them. I also want to be a good mom.

I’ve done a lot of writing on women in tech, why we need more women in tech, how to raise your daughter to be a leader…

Generally, I feel privileged that I’ve never felt held back in what is traditionally a male field. I never felt like I couldn’t go be a CEO if I wanted to. Ironically, in the last round of funding Zinc did, both investors were women.

As I got further along in my career and started managing and taking on leadership roles, I’ve seen that a lot of women don’t feel the same way I do. They face harassment, and there are also times that women hold themselves back from lack of confidence. There is a wage gap, there is harassment, there is a confidence problem, there is bias against women.

How did you escape this lack of confidence you mention? Have you explored that?

I have, because if there’s a trick to doing it, then everyone can do it, right?  A lot of it was upbringing. I had a mom who was an amazing role model; she was a school teacher. And I had a dad who was a very successful businessman who didn’t have gender biases. I was also a tomboy and did a lot of sports. I used to play tackle football as a second grader. So, I was used to being in all-male, rough and tough situations. I understand the lingo, I understood how they communicate, so as I got older, I felt comfortable in those environments.

How do men communicate differently?

I think the biggest difference is that women like to compliment each other. “Oh, I love your new hair! That is such a cute outfit!” It’s funny how women, when you’re building rapport, a lot of it is done on compliments. And men give each other shit. I watch it all the time. My husband and his friends have this texting group. And it’s just men one upping each other and giving each other a hard time. It’s a totally opposite way of building a relationship.

To hang around men, you have to be able to hang in that environment, be able to not take it personally. I wouldn’t say to a male co-worker, “I love that jacket.” I’d probably say, “where in the world did you get that thing?”

Now, let’s take another look at this. I still have that whole incident in my head of when Trump told that Irish reporter she had a great smile. Now, that there’s a fine line between giving a woman a compliment to singling out a woman in a public setting for her appearance. People say, “come on, why can’t he give her a compliment?” But, it’s actually quite dangerous.

I was at a forum at a conference a few weeks ago and we had a roundtable and everyone was sharing experiences of times when they felt undermined in their career. There was a woman, I think she was a salesperson, and she said, “I’d worked months to get this meeting with really important clients.  I was there with my manager and since he was the more senior person, he went around the room and introduced everyone. And when he got to me he said, ‘This is Mary, she’s our eye candy for the meeting.’” Just absolutely shocking.

And she told us, “I know him, he’s my boss. I know he was not trying to undermine me. I think in his mind he was paying me a compliment for my appearance, basically what Trump was doing with that reporter, but I felt like nobody in the room thought I had anything smart to say. And as I’m getting older and my looks are going, I’m worried I’m not going to be as successful.” That’s the danger! Reducing a woman’s value to her appearance completely takes away from the intelligence and the impact that person can make.  

What’s the relationship between your tech advancements and your tech team? When you decide new functionality that you want, does that come from you, and the tech team makes it possible?

It comes in several ways. The client comes to us and says, “This is really great, but it would be even better if it did XYZ.” Certainly product revisions come partially from customers. It comes to me as ideas from talking to customers and understanding their business challenges. They may not have dreamed up a feature yet, but knowing their business gives me and my team ideas about how technology can make their lives easier. It became very obvious that communication isn’t just about peer to peer communication. There’s also “I’m a leader or trainer and I have info that my entire workforce can benefit from. And sending out an email newsletter is not going to reach anyone, because they don’t even check email.” That all came from us understanding companies’ needs.

Tell us about your latest round of funding. You raised $11 million. 

Having two women investors lead the round happened by chance. I certainly didn’t say to myself, I’m only going to talk to women VC’s. I talked to mostly men, just a small handful of women. GE Ventures led the round. Somewhere around a half of their employees are deskless workers. They are strategic investors, which means they only invest in companies that they think can benefit GE. So, I already had them at the top of my list, because I knew they would get it and understand what we can do, and it would also mean we could work more closely with GE.

I was introduced to Lisa Coca, who is now on our board, and her boss, Karen Kerr, who runs her team at GE Ventures. I also recently met the person who runs all of GE Ventures, a woman by the name of Sue Siegel. Basically, the whole line of management in the organization is women, which I think is very unusual in venture. In addition to Lisa completely understanding the vision, we sort of clicked and we got each other. We both move fast and have a lot of energy.

Did you compliment her?

She’s one of the most fashionable people I’ve ever worked with! . What is she going to be wearing this time, I always think? Now would I do it in a middle of a meeting, no. I do it when I walk to the lobby to fetch her. If I were a man, would I do that, probably not!

Another investor in the round was Hearst Ventures, the publisher. We were very late in the process. We were already in very deep. We were very close to getting a term sheet with GE Ventures. I was speaking at a conference and Darcy Frisch sent me a note on LinkedIn. She said, “Hey, I saw your name on the agenda for the conference. I looked up Zinc. I’d love to get to know you and have a coffee.”

I wrote her back and said, “We’re in final stages of fundraising, but I’d be happy to meet for coffee.” She came by Zinc one morning. We just completely clicked. She’d been doing a ton of research in “the future of work.” At the end of the meeting she said, “I’d like to invest. I know you are far in the game. Potentially we could fill out the round.”

I introduced her to Lisa. They loved that it was GE; that really validated the story for her. Then they came in adding $3 million to the round. There’s no question that Lisa and Darcy invested based on the business opportunity, but the process was smooth and fast because of the immediate relationships that all three of us had with each other.