Reshaping the Staffing Experience for Small Businesses
One of the most difficult and unavoidable challenges for small businesses is staffing. According to the Megaphone of Main Street: Small Business Jobs Report, 63.4% of business owners mention “hiring the right talent” as their number one problem. Tighter budgets and limited resources exacerbate this concern. Furthermore, shifting trends toward flexible work schedules from the impact of COVID-19 are making small businesses think more strategically about their hiring models and the associated expenses. What if there was a way to get access to skilled talent at a fraction of the cost while ensuring the much-desired employee autonomy and flexibility that the growing gig economy has created? This is the solution Reinforcements, a Kellogg start-up by founder Ashely Thurmond Abraham, provides. Ashley’s passion for the small business ecosystem birthed Reinforcements – a marketplace that matches local businesses to fractional staff to fill critical gaps in their workforce. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ashley about her founder’s journey, and the impact fractional staffing could have on the small business landscape.
Assessing the Hiring Pain Point
As part of an independent study during her first year, Ashley conducted market research focused on addressing the pain points of small businesses. After speaking to over 30 business owners and hiring managers, it became clear that hiring staff for a few hours was a consistent problem that needed to be addressed. While large institutions had enough labor hours to hire an army of freelancers and consultants, smaller businesses typically needed fragments of work. Support could look like hiring an admin for 4 hours a day or a bookkeeper for 10 hours a week. These opportunities did not attract skilled gig workers who were looking for longer commitments to limit the number of projects they took on at a time. This mismatch in the labor market for small businesses meant that the unassigned roles at a company were disbursed to other members of their staff, causing burn-out or inefficiencies. Reinforcements is changing this imbalance by making fractional staffing more accessible to small businesses than it has been in the past. Smaller companies who are looking for a few hours of coverage to support their operations can now hire for exactly the skillset and time needed.
Market Positioning & Initial Targets
Reinforcements will be positioned as a small business staffing partner, launching in the local Chicago and Evanston area to test the two-sided marketplace model. Job seekers and employers will be matched through a custom algorithm that optimizes schedules and skillsets. Payments will be handled through the Reinforcements platform and revenue will be generated from the mark-up added to negotiated hourly rates. The team is still testing the solution, but from the traction received by the outreach, customer-service-oriented businesses such as restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries will make up the first employers on the platform. Currently, retirees, who tend to have the most amount of flexible time, represent a majority of the workforce.
The Founder’s Journey
Prior to Kellogg, Ashley started her career in education, citing her experience as a teacher as the breathing ground that developed her passion for entrepreneurship. Working at schools with limited resources, she became an avid problem solver, coming up with unique ways to address the concerns of students and the administration. In the DC area where she grew up, she became fascinated with local business ecosystems, and her interest in serving small businesses preempted a pivot from education into policy.
At Kellogg however, she started her entrepreneurship journey by taking advantage of the resources provided by the Garage at Northwestern – an interdisciplinary innovation space and community for students at Northwestern University. The Garage operates 10 impactful programs focused on startup incubation, student development, and offering funding opportunities. At the Garage, Ashley joined two separate accelerators geared towards women and minorities and was accepted to the entrepreneurship-in-residence program. The Residency program is a quarterly startup incubation program with exclusive access to resources and workspaces. As well, her team was accepted into the New Venture Launch class, the final class of Kellogg’s entrepreneurial series designed to help students navigate different stages of starting a new venture from discovery to development to launch.
In her year and a half at Kellogg, she piloted two separate business ventures (one healthcare and the other policy-focused) before Reinforcements came into fruition. With the resources and network provided by the Garage, Ashley has been able to grow her team with interns and team leads from other Northwestern departments.
Building out the matching algorithm to launch the pilot is the Reinforcement team's next milestone. In addition, each job on the platform is being vetted for feasibility based on the skillsets of the retiree workforce. The team is building out policies and protocols to ensure that the product creates an equitable space that factors in job safety and compensation data for both sides of the marketplace. As well, they’ve also launched their survey to gather market data about the talent shortage for small businesses.
If you are interested in learning more about Reinforcements, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.