Where Have All the Workers Gone?

The October employment report was released last Friday, and it told a familiar story: the US economy is still suffering from labor supply issues, even with the pandemic (mostly) in the rear-view mirror and the Fed trying to apply the brakes via rapid rate hikes. As I noted in a fraction blog post last week, the professional workforce of the future is actually shrinking, hit by declines in college enrollment and legal immigration. Let’s dive a little deeper into the present situation – how many workers should we expect the US workforce to have right now, where are the missing workers, and what’s to be done about it?

The BLS October 2022 data showed a labor force participation rate still 1.2% below February 2020 levels. Population growth since that time implies a labor force that should be at least 3.2M workers larger than it is today – so what happened?

Early Retirements – Departure of the Boomers: -2.4M workers

The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimated that 2.4M additional workers retired early from the start of the pandemic through Q2 2021. Subsequent analysis by the Washington Post indicates that retirees are returning to work – but only at levels found in 2019, so this doesn’t make up for the pandemic era losses.

COVID Deaths and Long COVID: -2M Workers

Per Statista, just over a quarter million working age Americans have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic, further reducing the workforce.

COVID’s larger impact is through the impacts of long COVID – the Minneapolis Fed and Brookings estimate that 1.8M FTEs worth of work have been lost due to long COVID job loss and work hours reductions.

Lack of Immigration – Trump + COVID: -1M workers

This Census chart tells the story – changes in federal immigration policy and the closing of borders during the pandemic led to a huge loss in immigration. 1.5M less immigrants, with a 65% labor force participation rate, equates to a loss of roughly 1M workers due to changes in immigration flows.

The US added 1.5M less immigrants over the five year period from 2017-2021 than it over the previous five years (2012-2016)

Summing It All Up: 5.4M Workers Missing

The latest JOLTs report shows 10.7M job openings – 5.4M more available workers, when added to current unemployed (6.1M) would make for more available workers than jobs. That’s the opposite of the current 2:1 ratio of jobs to workers!

Alas, we can’t wave a wand and undo the damage of the pandemic, and many early retirees are happy with their new lives. Immigration is beginning to rebound, and will make a long term difference.

Short-term, we’ve got to make do with the workers we have – and that’s why I believe that fractional work is the future. Fully utilizing the surplus capacity of the existing professional workforce in America would add 4M FTEs to the labor market, almost fully replacing the 5.4M lost. In the coming weeks I’ll delve deeper into the fractional workforce and how it can help.

The Future of Work is Here!

I’m excited to announce the launch of fraction.work on ProductHunt – upvote fraction.work there to help us gain exposure and change the future of work!

Readers of this blog know that I like to focus on big macro trends. The macro trend here is incontrovertible – working age populations are flat or dropping in every developed country on Earth. We keep hearing that the robots are coming, and that automation will take all the jobs – meanwhile US unemployment is back near all-time lows, despite a Federal Reserve moving rapidly to force a recession.

There’s only one solution: expand the labor supply. And the fastest way to do that is to tap into the millions of American workers willing to work more, or to keep working part-time.

At fraction.work it’s early days, as we are focused for the moment on fractional software developers. But in the software field alone, I estimate that there are 500,000 additional workers available on a fractional basis. McKinsey’s research shows that over half of all jobs can be done in a remote or hybrid fashion – fractional work opens the door to millions more employees filling open positions we can’t otherwise seem to fill.

To: Old-fashioned CTOs who think software development can’t be done part time

As I work to build my new startup fraction.work, I’ve come across the Availability Objection more than once. In essence, it’s some variation of “there’s no way a part-time developer could EVER be effective on MY team!”

In my latest post on the company blog, I outline how availability is a silly objection to fractional work for modern software development organizations. Of course if you’re still insisting all of your employees go into the office 5 days per week, perhaps you’re not modern enough to try this just yet…

Long story short, any CTO or VP of Engineering with a clue knows that half of a senior software developer’s time is worth many times that of most full-time junior developers (whose productivity is actually negative when they first start). So why wouldn’t you consider hiring fractional senior developers to help build your team out?

My experience as a fractional software developer

I started fraction.work earlier this summer, based on my experiences as a fractional software developer earlier in my career, and my experience hiring fractional developers while running HiddenLevers.

Those experiences guide me to believe that there’s a huge market for long-term, part-time software development work (that’s how I define “fractional” software development). We’ve seen fractional CFOs, CMOs, and GCs, but the adoption of this approach has been much slower at the individual contributor level and in particular in technology roles.

This is ironic because software development is more amenable to remote work than any other role – witness the explosive wave of offshore and nearshore development since the pandemic normalized remote work! Employers oddly feel more comfortable working with someone who half a world away and who may not grasp nuances of cultural difference, than working with someone in the US who is available 30 hours a week?

I know this isn’t really true – but many companies have a mental block when it comes to part-time work. As part of normalizing how effective it can be, I detailed the experience on the fraction.work blog – I hope you’ll follow the story there!

The Great Labor Shortage – A Problem Worth Solving

Originally posted on the halftimer blog here.

The US needs workers. Millions of workers. The need existed pre-pandemic, but has reached a crescendo now, with a record number of job openings (11.5M vs 7M pre-pandemic) and almost 2 jobs available for every unemployed worker. The roots of this problem run deep – contrary to the typical media narrative, pandemic-era retirements and immigration shutdowns have created much of the current situation. But some industries were near shortage in 2019, before the pandemic turned life upside down.

Software is one of those industries – in recent months recruiters have resorted to more and more desperate measures to acquire talent. The industry lately feels a bit like a merry-go-round for HR departments, as they push harder and harder, only to find they are just spinning in place as one developer joins and another one goes. This zero-sum recruitment game can’t be fixed with better recruiting practices, or better HR platforms, or better retention strategies. Just like the housing market, supply is the only fix! Enter gig platforms like TopTal and remote work platforms to encourage offshore team building. Those help, but each comes with its own set of challenges – how do you continue to build your core US team when there just aren’t enough workers?

When I built HiddenLevers, I made a pointed decision to bootstrap – so we had no room to waste capital. We began hiring developers on a half-time basis, while letting them retain their full-time jobs (prior to HL I did side contracts as a developer for years, so this was a natural step for me). This turned into a huge win-win: we got access to senior developers with capacity, and they monetized their free time without the hassle of constantly switching gigs. About a third of our development team was halftime over a decade, with a zero turnover rate (several of them switched their day jobs but stuck with us throughout).

Fast-forward to the present – as an entrepreneur considering what’s next, it occurred to me that this model could work at scale. Based on our research, half a million developers could take on halftime work [1]. Adding the equivalent of 250k developers to the US workforce would fill 60% of expected demand [2]. And of course this doesn’t just apply to developers – millions of Americans in other professional jobs could participate, filling huge gaps in the US workforce. I’m excited to start down this road, with a mission of normalizing the idea of working 0.5, 1, or 1.5 jobs in the professional world. This kind of flexibility will empower the workforce and help solve labor shortages in the years ahead. Hit me on LinkedIn, at praveen at halftimer.co, or via our site to learn more!

[1] There are almost 5M Americans employed in “Computer and Mathematical” positions, with adjacent fields like UI/UX design and product management swelling the numbers further. In interviews with hundreds of developers, we’ve found that almost 40% are interested in halftime positions (in addition to full-time work). Our screening and interview process has shown that about 1/3 of interested developers have the combination of technical and self-management skills needed to be effective as a halftimer. Based on these metrics, there may be a qualified pool of 500,000 halftimers across the United States.

[2] According the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 400,000 additional software developers will be needed by 2030 – 60% of this could be covered by tapping the spare capacity of the existing workforce via halftimers!

Bootstrapping vs VC – a Founder’s Comparison

How does a bootstrapped exit compare to a VC exit, from a founder’s perspective?

TL;DR A VC-backed company will have to exit for 4-10x the valuation of a bootstrapped company, if the founders are to have an equivalent payout.

The above infographic (click to see the full version) does an excellent job illustrating the general stages of the startup company life cycle, except that most end in failure or acquisition rather than IPO. The percentages on the original graphic are dated and I’ve updated them above. The general point remains – each capital raise reduces founder equity in return for powering future growth. But the actual math matters – let’s take a look at some sharper numbers:

  • A typical VC-backed startup goes through four rounds prior to exit, where founders’ equity is reduced by 15, 25, 25, and 25%, with another 5 points lost to the options pool shuffle, advisors, board members, and other hangers-on. The four rounds are the seed round, Series A, B, and C.
  • The options pool shuffle is a clever trick VCs employ to capture a bit more equity. Advisors and board members often command 0.5 to 1% of the company each as well.
  • The compound impact of this at exit: founders’ + employees’ equity at exit totals 30% (a range of 20-40%). If we assume 2% in exit transaction fees and 8% fully diluted to employees, that’s 20% to the founders at exit.
  • Using the same assumptions, a 100% bootstrapped company has only the final 10% in exit transaction fees and employee compensation, leaving 90% to the founders.
  • The math above is daunting: 90% vs 20%! This tells us that founders should go the traditional VC route if they believe that it will enable them to exit at least 4-5x larger than the size of a bootstrapped exit. I’ve validated these basic numbers in conversations with a number of founders, and while the particulars will vary, the general guidance holds. Many founders give up too much, and end up as low as 5% at exit.
  • This assumes that your company can get somewhere without funding, which may not be realistic.
  • Bootstrappers trade time for money to an extent, if growth is ever constrained by lack of funding.
  • When choosing whether (or how much) to raise, consider your total addressable market. If you’re in a profitable niche, bootstrapping may be optimal. If your TAM is greater than $10B, go raise money.
  • There’s an intermediate option – raise, but raise wisely. Bootstrap your MVP, raise after you’ve got something repeatable, and raise all you can that one time. If (and when) I do it again, I’ll strongly consider this option.

Here’s a sample of Real-Life Exits:

  • GrubHub founders Mike Evans and Matt Maloney each held about 2.6% of GRUB at IPO – this degree of dilution is unfortunately common.
  • At the other extreme, David Barrett owned 47.7% of Expensify at IPO – proving that with judicious use of capital, dilution doesn’t have to be extreme.
  • The founders of Toast (TOST) collectively owned about 17% of the company at IPO. This was worth $5.1B at IPO, but has fallen 70% since, with share lockups preventing a true exit.
  • Mailchimp was the king of bootstrapped startups, going from 0 to $12.3B at acquisition, and succeeding in a space while competing against startups equipped with $100M+ in funding. Had the Mailchimp founders’ ownership been similar to Toast, Mailchimp would have had to sell for $74B to net the same founder outcome!
  • Private exit data is harder to come by, but Riskalyze saw the founder and CEO holding roughly 16% at exit to private equity (this was not a complete exit, as the PE firm bought a majority stake but kept the team onboard).


Why HiddenLevers Never Raised Capital

When I started HiddenLevers and roped in my cofounder Raj in late 2009, we talked about what success looked like. We thought success would be running the company for a year and selling it for … two million. We thought we could demo our cool new portfolio stress testing technology to major brokerages and just have one of them snap it up! Naive – but also a comical underestimate of the value we could create.

It took us about a year to reach a semblance of product market fit, which occurred when we found the RIA space – independent financial advisors understood the value of using HiddenLevers for their end clients. Over the course of 2010 we had been researching addressable markets, and one thing I’m proud of is the quality of the TAM modeling we did at that time. A decade later it was still essentially accurate – we were in a highly profitable niche space, with several hundred million in total addressable market for the financial advisory space. Here’s the spreadsheet from September 2010 – row 12 is where the business ended up thriving.

We looked at that TAM and worked top down and bottom up – from the bottoms-up perspective, we set a make or break goal of 100 clients by July 4th 2011 or we would fail fast and shut down. From the top down perspective, I calculated – what kind of business value results from capturing one percent of this audience?

Looking at the business from both perspectives, a few things became clear:

  1. We were able to use trade shows, email marketing, adwords, and press coverage to grow profitably, and it wasn’t clear that investor capital solved a problem – we had free cash flow to reinvest.
  2. If we did raise capital, the scale of our addressable market damaged our chances of a successful founder exit – diluting your stake works if it’s in pursuit of a massive market, but poorly in a niche.
  3. Successful expansion outside our niche might require capital, but growth within it did not.

In 2020 we reached an inflection point – to sustain our growth, perhaps it was time to finally raise a round so that we could expand upmarket, build out an enterprise sales team, etc? It was this inflection point that caused us to reach out to the M+A market – the early growth phase of the company was complete, and we felt that it was better to join forces with a more mature organization than to try to build that organization ourselves.

For a business like HiddenLevers, bootstrapping fit perfectly. The math I outlined up top held up well, and it’s quite possible that taking capital would have actually hurt our exit outcome. But if I ever try to build something to conquer a big market (over $10B TAM), I’ll do it the “normal” way – with investors.

Schools-Over.com – Find High Value College Programs and Escape the Debt Traps

I last posted about a business idea for an automated college counselor, one which would guide students to make better college and career choices. I can now announce that Schools-Over.com has launched in beta, and attempts to deliver on that goal!

School’s Over currently provides two core features: a search feature for high-value degree programs, and a comparison tool enabling students to enter their current admissions offers to see which offers the best lifetime value*.

Much of the data for School’s Over comes from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard program, which has built a solid application for exploring the DOE’s newly released data on graduate salaries by college program. School’s Over uses this data and extends it by projecting salaries for the 70% of programs lacking salary data. School’s Over also projects total Lifetime Value for each degree, so that students know at a glance whether a college program is worthwhile, or whether it’s a debt trap.

With the beta launch we’ve taken an initial step toward providing automated guidance counseling – please try it out and give us your feedback (use the green feedback button onsite).

*Lifetime value for a college degree is defined as the NPV over a 45 year career, taking into account the cost of tuition, the opportunity cost of lost wages during college, and the net after-tax difference in wages realized by graduating from a particular college program versus simply going to work after high school. The discount rate used in the NPV calculations is the average federal student loan rate, currently just below 6%.

Business Ideas VII: GuideMe

Idea: GuideMe – an automated guidance counselor that helps students make better college and career choices

MVP: Too many students in the US leave college with too much debt and no realistic career path – in part because guidance counseling is a luxury at many American high schools. GuideMe will help fill this void, using students’ interests and strengths to show each student the college or vocational programs that will help them achieve their goals. GuideMe will also help students evaluate admissions offers to determine the best choice in terms of career ROI, taking into account both costs and future income.

Market: US high schools average one guidance counselor per 500 students, leaving most students with no career guidance except what’s available via friends, family, and the internet. In this vacuum there’s a tremendous opportunity to help students and families make better choices, with better careers and less debt the end results.

From a business model perspective, students and high schools have limited resources, but employers have a substantial recruiting need, and a successful app could funnel qualified candidates into positions at a far lower cost than traditional means of recruiting. There are over 150M working Americans, 100M of whom lack a college degree. The vast majority of that 100M employees might benefit from vocational training and placement services – almost 50% of employees change jobs annually. If the value of placing an employee is conservatively estimated at $1000 (versus the 20-25% of salary typically paid in white-collar recruitment), this leads to a total addressable market as large as $50B. [1]

Idea Score (0-10 scale): 8 points

Feasibility of MVP / Market Entry (out of 2): 2

The GuideMe MVP would leverage data on salaries and tuition published by college programs in order to determine career ROI, adjusting each career path for projected future changes. Much of this data is either publicly available or can be licensed, but it may need to be refined newer or non-traditional careers.

GuideMe would then determine the highest ROI programs for a student, based on their GPA, test scores, and interests. Virtually all of the data needed for the MVP is publicly available, though career ROI estimation algorithms vary – given my experience building HiddenLevers, this should be a competitive advantage.

Revenue Market Size (out of 4): 4

As noted above, the total market opportunity in the HR recruitment space, taking into account only the under-served vocational market, is conservatively estimated at $50B  per year.

GuideMe’s principal issue is that the initial platform rollout is devoid of any revenue generation plan – users in the cost-conscious student market are unlikely to adopt a paid guidance product. GuideMe instead intends to roll out a full-featured free product, while developing a placement product for employers requiring specific skillsets. GuideMe will be well positioned to match capable students with employers, enabling higher volume placement at a lower cost to businesses.

The challenge in building a two-sided marketplace style product is well known, but the returns to success can also be extraordinary.

Difficulty, Barriers to Entry, and Competition  (out of 2): 1

Many sites and apps exist to provide guidance in aspects of the college decision process, but none  provide comprehensive career guidance, and none utilize the concept of career ROI.

Existing competitors like MyKlovr are attempting to solve aspects of this problem, but appear to be focused on paid software approaches, which will limit growth potential. There is substantial risk involved in building  a free guidance product, and then working to link it to employment placement, but this approach is likely to capture the largest number of users in a space where massive scale is possible.

Riding Hype or a Trend (out of 2): 1

At present there seems to be little focus on this market – but if scale can be achieved among the 20M students in US high schools, then building a funnel to employers should become relatively straightforward. Very little has been done to improve the functioning of the middle of the US job market in particular – the rewards are too small for traditional HR firms to work hard at placing a plumber. Automation is the key to unlocking the scale potential in this market – and early career guidance is the key to bringing large numbers of candidates to market.

 

[1] Public companies like Randstad, Adecco, Robert Half, and Manpower show that valuations in the $5-10B range are possible in this sector.

Business Ideas VI: Run My House

Idea: Run My House – manage all your household services from a single app

MVP: Running your own house sucks – even if you outsource tasks like yard service, gutter cleaning, pest control, and cleaning, it’s still a challenge to deal with numerous service providers by inefficient means like phone calls. What if you had an app that enabled you to simply check off the service subscriptions you desire, and to take pictures to show problems needing resolution? Even when homeowners work with their existing service providers, there are major communication inefficiencies – not to mention the difficulty in acquiring good providers in the first place!

The difficulty with an MVP in the home services market is chiefly a business problem – a substantial percentage of home service work is performed in the informal economy, and as a result it’s highly fragmented. As a result this business is best attacked in a single test market to start, as providers need to be secured across all major services in order for homeowners to realize value in the service.

Market: The combined household market for home cleaning, yard service, pest control, gutter cleaning, and related scheduled services exceeds $100 billion per year, and including non-scheduled maintenance the total market may exceed $500 Billion annually. This market is currently incredibly fragmented, in no small part because there are limited economies of scale in providing most of these services.

Unfortunately for the consumer, this leads to a terrible experience. If Run My House can capture a 10% fee for delivering volume to providers, while keeping the cost to consumers static, it should be possible to capture meaningful market share. With a total addressable market greater than $10B, there is true unicorn scale possible in this market.

Idea Score (0-10 scale): 7.5 points

Feasibility of MVP / Market Entry: 0.5

Building an MVP for RunMyHouse could be daunting, given the number of service providers that must be secured before the service becomes compelling. This sort of “full-stack” startup, providing a complete service rather than just software, has larger potential but also substantially greater risk and capital requirements. Typically it makes sense to attack individual metro areas individually, starting with a beta market and working through challenges there first.

A simpler alternate MVP might simply help homeowners organize communication with existing vendors – perhaps by providing the software for free, with vendors selling their services via the app. This Zenefits-style approach (the give-away-the-software part, not the HR disaster) could enable rapid expansion at lower cost.

Revenue Market Size: 4 (out of 4)

As noted above, the total market opportunity in the residential space is several hundred billion per year – a 10% take rate implies a true addressable market size of 20B+. Numerous public players in the home services and home sales space (ANGI, Z) point to the possibility of a unicorn valuation for a successful player.

Difficulty, Barriers to Entry, and Competition  (out of 2): 1

A large scale b2c rollout of this sort would likely require substantial funding. HomeJoy was a substantial failure in this space, showing that giving away services at negative margins can take even well funded startups down. Handy, its largest competitor, has since worked hard to get to profitability, underscoring the risks of the home services market.

Taking a software-only approach could lower the risk of rollout, but substantial marketing spending would still be required to get customers and providers onboard.

Riding Hype or a Trend? 2

Bringing fragmented, illiquid, hundred-billion dollar markets online has been one of the key success stories of the last 20 years of the internet. Home services has been among the final frontiers because of its deep fragmentation, but Uber and ride-sharing proved that change will come to even the most glacial industries.

Business Ideas V: BestUse

Idea: BestUse – analyze real estate through the lens of local zoning and code to determine best use, and identify underused properties

MVP: The process of identifying promising opportunities in real estate is largely a manual one today. Real estate investors and agents scour listings and property records to determine where opportunities to convert an old office into multifamily housing might exist, for example. BestUse would automate this process by using machine learning to compare zoning laws and potential uses to identify underutilized properties. A minimum viable product would involve targeting a particular metro area to analyze local zoning and building rules there in detail.

Market: BestUse has a likely path to market very similar to HiddenLevers (my current concern). The advantage of selling high value software in a niche market is that initial clients can be acquired very quickly after alpha release – the moment HiddenLevers portfolio stress testing worked in a minimal way for a professional audience, client acquisition amongst investment advisors began. With BestUse, real estate investors might quickly embrace a technology that enables them to identify “diamonds-in-the-rough”, properties currently languishing in a sub-optimal use.

The downside with this approach – the total addressable market tends to be limited: if real estate investors are willing to spend four to five figures per year for this capability, the total addressable market might be in the billion dollar range – enough to build a viable business, but not enough for a highly scalable growth path.

Idea Score (0-10 scale, up to 2 points per question): 6 points

Feasibility of MVP / Market Entry: 2

An MVP for BestUse would require a non-trivial initial effort to acquire needed real estate data and to plug in the appropriate analytics on local real estate codes. Actual market entry would likely follow a pattern similar to that for other niche analytics products – get in the hands of paying beta customers and iterate. This is a proven model with much lower risk than launching b2c oriented products.

Revenue Market Size or Eyeballs: 1

If the market is confined to analytics tools used by the commercial real estate industry, then the total addressable market is likely to be subscale (no unicorns here). A high margin $10M revenue business is possible, but getting past this to the next level is a key concern. Since the same sort of analytics is used in commercial real estate appraisal (an $8 billion market), adding this and related capabilities might push the scale a bit – but it’s not clear how to get to a $10B addressable market.

In a Growing Market? 0.5

The real industry is very mature, with growth rates unlikely to exceed the overall economy.

Difficulty, Barriers to Entry, and Competition 1.5

BestUse requires a combination of knowledge of real estate investing with technical modeling capabilities, providing a modest barrier to entry. The need to analyze zoning rules further raises the bar here.

Startups have started to appear in this space – Skyline is using similar analytics to partner invest in properties, an approach which might lead to greater overall market potential. Bowery Valuation is focused on automating real estate appraisals, a naturally related market.

Riding Hype or a Trend? 1

Applying advanced analytics and machine learning to any niche generates interest at the moment – but this is not a particularly innovative or new use case.