An interview on flexible work by The Female Founder’s Network, sponsored by Invoice2go
Well… 2020 was a doozy, that’s for sure. Now that we’re coming to the end of the year we can all take a deep breath and think about how to move forward into 2021 with a new outlook, particularly in the way that we all work.
Let’s be very clear – we’re not brushing off the struggle and tragedy that many people experienced over the last year – but we do want to set it aside for a few minutes and focus on the positives. Namely, the widespread adoption of remote and flexible working policies that have given many people a glimpse of what life could be like without lengthy commutes or mandatory office hours, and more time to spend with family.
Stephanie Reuss and Victoria Stuart, Beam’s co-founders, have always been advocates for both part-time and flexible working environments but find themselves in a serendipitous situation now that the whole world is honing in on this very topic. They’ve worked for years to become experts in flexible working so it seems appropriate to dive into their story and hear about what they’re doing to help companies find their way through this hairy initiative.
The Female Founder’s Network, sponsored by Invoice2go, recently interviewed Steph and Vic about their journey to becoming experts in flexible work, and how they’re helping businesses form functional remote working frameworks in 2021 and beyond.
Listen to the full podcast here or for those who prefer to read, we’ve transcribed it below. Enjoy!
Nat – Intro
Hello, everyone and welcome to the female founders network, a podcast brought to you by invoice to go. I’m your host, Nat and I’m joined by my co host, Sylvie. Hey everyone, record our show and the Fourth Street studio in downtown Sydney, Australia. But we bring guests from all over the world. So you’ll hear people from the US the United Kingdom, Europe, the Asia Pacific, anywhere that we find women who lead and inspire others. This is a great podcast for women who are navigating business ownership, leadership or just life. Each episode should connect you with someone else’s story, but also leave you with practical tips and advice that you can use in your own life and in your own business. Hi, guys, today we’re speaking with Stephanie Ruess and Victoria Stewart, the co-founders of beam
Steph and Vic have not only created a marketplace for highly skilled and experienced professionals to find part time work, but are also shaping the way companies can adjust providing a flexible working culture.
We hope you enjoy the episode. Hi, guys. How are ya?
Steph & Vic 1:07
Good, thanks for having us.
So you guys are both in Sydney as well – Sydney, Australia. But we are all recording from different locations today. How good is technology?
And I guess technology is one of the things that has helped you start Beam Australia, which is a marketplace that connects qualified and experienced professionals with work opportunities that are part time but also flexible. Is that right?
Yeah, so that’s absolutely where we started. But we’ve really evolved over the past four years since we set it up. And absolutely, technology was the only reason we could we could start what we did. But we’ve really evolved into just being really passionate and developing an expertise in flexible work. So we sort of developed a number of solutions, technology platforms and a new one that we’re just actually going live with today. It’s a super exciting day!
And yeah, that really sort of brings together that business performance with people’s need for flexibility, which has just absolutely been explosive over the last six months, obviously.
Yeah, you know, this is fascinating, because we talked to a lot of women who have families, and then we talk about their journey, starting a business and we’re like, ‘what was the impetus for you going out on your own?’, and they’ll say, ‘I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t do my job and be a mum, you know?’ This is like all over the world. It’s a global problem.
It’s worse in some countries than it is in others, but flexible work is such a huge thing now, and people have other non-COVID times priorities besides just making money, they want to see things and experience life. It’s so interesting. So what made you guys start this business? Like, tell us how it happened?
Well, it’s really interesting, because exactly what you just explained is really the impetus for us starting our business, but the angle we took was more around there has to be a better way. And we just saw so many people around us falling out of the workforce, because they couldn’t find that flexibility that they needed. And either they fell out and started businesses or they fell out and just couldn’t find other work. So they, I guess, stopped working.
So we thought long and hard around how we could provide new opportunities to people, and I guess where we landed was that we wanted to create an environment where businesses could tap into this incredible talent that had been essentially excluded from this traditional, full time, 40-hour workweek workforce. And what was really interesting, though, was that as we went to market, we realised super quickly that it’s not just women and parents who have been excluded, it’s people who have a side hustle, that want to work just four days or three days a week. It’s people who are looking after sick or elderly loved ones. It’s people who are professional athletes that need to work, work around their schedules. And, you know, all sorts of different reasons. Even you’ve got students that are working part time that need to work part time as well. So, very quickly, we were able to gather that there are people that work that need reduced hours in a week and we wanted to be able to provide more employment opportunities to those people.
So that’s essentially the impetus for for why we started and then it became I’m really clear that – you’re right – it’s not just an Australian problem. It’s a global problem. And we wanted to help businesses to implement flexible work, because that seems to be quite a big barrier for organizations at the moment. Making flexible work, work within an organization has not been easy in the past and that’s why we’re going down the path of supporting businesses in that that space.
This is what I find really interesting is that you’ve described your talent pool, which is so much more diverse than just mums with kids looking to get back into work. There’s so many different people. But I’m really interested to know, what was your or what are you finding that businesses are demanding from this space? Do you find that businesses want more part time opportunities and labor? Or do businesses just want people full time?
Our big lofty goal is to democratise flexible work so that it’s available for absolutely everyone, and no one should be excluded from being able to ask for or to figure out a way to do their work flexibly so that they can do whatever it is that makes them really happy and fulfilled in addition to work. I think that makes us all better workers.
But what do employers want? Well, four years ago, I think what we found – to be completely frank – is that most large organisations really just want people to work full time. And that’s understandable, because the traditional way of building workforces and high performance organisations was to get people to work more. And all of the systems and infrastructure was sort of set up for that model for success. What was seen as sort of a groundswell over that time, and even definitely before that, but I guess people didn’t really have a voice. I think now, we’ve really seen a groundswell of the best talent saying, ‘I don’t want to work that way anymore.’
And the nature of work has changed. So many things have been automated that in order for a company to be successful, they really need the smartest minds and the highest skills and capabilities. It’s less a matter of how much time they’re working and more a matter of what skills they’ve got and what they can contribute to the growth of an organisation. We’ve definitely seen smarter, more progressive organisations thinking about ‘how could I do work differently, so that I can attract the best talent, make them engaged, and give them what they want more broadly than just the work?’ It’s definitely been a transition from ‘why would I do that to?’ to ‘Okay, I want to do that. How do I do it?’
And changing from a kind of company point of view of not time spent but productivity and output?
Vic & Steph 8:09
Mm hmm. Yeah, definitely.
That’s a big shift. And I think we’ve talked about part time here, but it’s all forms of flexible work that can improve with that freedom to work in the way that they need to. So it might be that someone’s working full time flexibly, it might be that they’re fully remote, it might be that they’re just changing out their week in some way to adapt to what they may need to accomplish personally in that week. Or reduced hours as well. So, yeah, it really needs to cater to all forms of flexible work. The challenge for businesses, as Steph was saying, is really how do you give everyone in that organisation the ability to manage from top level, right down to an individual.
I think it’s interesting, you guys were talking about an attitude shift and a cultural shift – what I’ve seen is it’s investing in people who don’t have traditional work situations, whether they’re mums and want more time with their kids, or dads want more time with their kids or, want to travel or whatever – it’s not a charity. If you don’t invest as a business, creating flexible work situations, you’re gonna lose top talent now. So, I think all businesses, or a lot of businesses out there, are just waking up to that fact. People are not replaceable as much as we hope that they are. When we lose a good team member, it’s really hard to replace that talent. It sucks to lose talent because you’re too inflexible of a workplace.
It’s just a complete waste. It doesn’t even make sense economically.
Yeah, it doesn’t.
The interesting thing is that, even a step beyond that is that, first of all, there’s a recognition that you need to actually really engage with what you’re talent want. But secondly, actually flexible work can lead to higher productivity. Yeah. So even more advanced organisations are thinking about how can I actually take this moment in time, and take what we’ve been able to test and learn as an organisation, and retain the best bits of it to increase engagement, discretionary effort, productivity, and focus – a really ruthless focus – on the highest priorities and things like that.
But it doesn’t just happen by itself. So this is one of the underlying foundations to the work that we do is that we actually need to equip people to be able to execute on that. We can’t leave it in the hands of the gods to say ‘let’s work flexibly – let’s just see how that works for us.’
We have to give people the tools to do anything new, right? Human beings are really habit driven, and if someone has been in an office, and now they’ve had a life change, and they need to be not in an office or whatever, you’ve got to establish whole new habits. Same for businesses – businesses are even worse, harder to change them a lot of the time.
So am I understanding this correctly. So you’ve got this marketplace that can connect people with part time work opportunities, but you’re also educating companies as consultants to make part time and flexible working more available? So therefore, you’re kind of sort of infiltrating businesses to get your marketplace more work….?
You’re like the ultimate moderators!
The demand for flexible work is so much higher than the supply. So we have been doing that consulting… Vic, do you want to tell them what we’re going live with today or…?
Nat & Sylvie 12:06
Yes! Tell us! Heard it here first, everyone!
What we want to be able to do is, I think one of the biggest challenges of enabling flexible work is just working out what work is being done in an organisation. And one of the big challenges for teams or managers can be just visibility of what work is being done. And then once you have that visibility, it’s about how do I design work better? And how do I ensure that people are working on the highest value activities or tasks? And how do I ensure that, from a team perspective, we are working as optimally or as productive as we can. So essentially, this tool is giving that visibility and insight into how each individual in the team is working, and the ability to change and adapt each person’s role to not only how they need to work, but also to ensure that they’re working on those highest priority and most productive outcomes as well. So essentially, it’s a work design tool.
So one of the things that we love on this podcast, and that we’ve had really great feedback on is that we have a kind of advice and tips section of every interview where people share their learnings or what they’re doing with businesses. And I think you’re the first marketplace that we’ve had on as guests so far. Obviously, now you’re launching this new kind of feature product where you are doing a cohort test, is that something that you have been doing throughout launching Beam? Like, what’s your advice on launching a marketplace and getting it to market effectively, and making sure that what you’re actually offering is going to work?
Yeah, such a great question because it’s never straightforward. I think anyone who’s started a business, it’s pretty clear that what you start with is not what you end up with. It will continue to evolve over time. So I think our thing was to sort of start small and see how it’s working. Not necessarily pilot, but you know, just go to market and just test is there a market there? And that’s what we did with the marketplace. We were able to validate that. Over time, you learn that there are other needs that either your business can pivot towards, or that other businesses might come in and you know, you might pivot away from or whatever it might be. Even for us it was continuously learning around what are the barriers that prevent flexible work from being implemented successfully in organisations. So we’ll continue to pivot and expand around supporting businesses and providing products and solutions in this space.
Our advice really would be to start small, listen to the market and adapt as required. And also maybe add to what you’re doing to provide alternative solutions to people or to businesses or whoever it might be that, you know, allow you to expand your offering. It’s continuous learning, listening, and adapting.
That’s really great advice. How have you found your first customers and the people that you’ve been testing these ideas with?
I think it comes down to people that you kind of know, initially. It’s going to be people that you know, and that you trust that they’ll give you honest and direct feedback. Someone once told us that your first hundred customers will come from either people you know or one degree of separation from them. And that once you have 100 customers, you’ll have learned a lot. Then you can kind of go out more broadly. It’s always a really awkward thing to ask friends and family and so on to help you out, so I think it’s really just, if you’re working on a product or a solution that you’re really genuinely passionate about, which I think for most people you have to have that side of business going, you’re just talking about the issues, and, you know, people want to support you as well.
That’s really good advice. I love the fact that the first hundred customers can come from people you know, or just like a 1% removal. That’s definitely true. But it’s also a good way to start!
Absolutely. And you’ll never forget who those people are, as well, who are giving you their time and endorsed you. Iit’s been those people that you can kind of lean on, but also use as examples as to how it’s worked for them, and being those case studies. But really, they are so critical, and it’s just so important for a business to have those friendlies that can support the growth of the business.
Do either of you have a technical background? How did you create your website?
I took on more of a product management role, but certainly we’ve engaged technical partners for our initial product, and now we’ve brought all of our tech development in house. We have a team of tech developers that are developing all of our products. Then from our perspective, it’s just, again, ensuring that we’ve got a product that meets the market needs, so that that’s between Steph and I, just ensuring that the product is continuously pivoting and making those big changes to ensure that it is a sound solution for what the markets really require at this stage.
Yeah, that’s awesome. My other question is, obviously, you just said that you take more of the product management role – how did you both kind of split the responsibilities? And do you think it’s easier to have a business partner, or there’s some problems that sometimes happen when you have shared decision making?
Oh, my God, it’s such a good question.
So, I could not do this by myself. No way. I think it is one of the absolute pillars of any success that we’ve had so far is that we’ve got a wing woman. You know, just a business partner, someone to ride those highs and lows. Look, it’s a roller coaster. It is an absolute roller coaster and being able to sort of pick each other up when you’re on the, I guess, the ride down, that’s really important. But also when people talk about even in, you know, research and everything – more research just came out the other day about having diversity in leadership, and obviously, they’re talking about large organisations and having different perspectives -but on a business like this, where we need to make so many decisions and, and so on, just being able to have two heads on it, and to be able to have healthy sort of constructive debate about it, is important.
Obviously, we have the (maybe it’s not obvious), but we have the most incredible team. I can’t tell you we just miss daily, just talk to each other about how lucky we are that we do on our team. It even makes me feel emotional to think about it, and just how much they contribute to that thinking and the strategy and just always trying to be better and to listen and to respond to you know what people need.
But how do we divide it? Right? Bad at actually answering questions. So we sat down with a bottle of wine, and wrote up the way that we would work together. So there’s a couple of things right, and this actually goes right back to the the new product that we’re launching, but we talked about what what we would do. And then we also talked about how we would work. So it’s a very natural thing that Vic would do the product and tech and so on, because she’s got a background in that, but then she also has the commercial background, which is amazing as well, so but I only had that, so I don’t know.
Then we talked about, okay, who’s going to do governance, where we neither of us really come from a finance or a legal background, so Vic took on that, and then, you know, so we just sort of said, ‘let’s start with this kind of split and then we’ll just see how workload is’ and stuff like that. And we obviously do a lot of stuff together still.
I was gonna say, clear accountability is so important when you are splitting responsibilities because if there’s not that clear outline of who’s doing what, and who’s accountable for it, then things can get lost. Then that’s how miscommunication happens, and that’s how relationship breakdowns happen.
That’s right. I think, as Steph said, we’ve got those clear accountabilities, but the recommendation as well, along the way has been, you need to be able to come together with a small overlap in some areas and we definitely have that overlap, which has been so important for us to be very aligned on even just that area. Right? So that we’re clear. We haven’t got two different skill sets that we cant kind of come together and agree on a general direction, and strategy, etc, for the business. So that has been really critical and really valuable as well – really great advice, but also really valuable for us to be able to work really well together. And I think we went into this knowing very well, we were best friends, and we can remain best friends as well.
But, you know, it’s always fraught with danger, isn’t it, going into business with a friend or, family, etc. We’ve been really clear from the beginning as well – friendship first, and the business come second. We’ve agreed that we’ll park decisions or if someone vetoes on one decision, then that’s vetoed by all of us. So, you know, it’s just really important for us to be having those conversations up front, being really transparent, and ensuring that we’re on the same page at all times, so that we don’t create that chasm between us – that big divide. It’s been really amazing the way that we’ve worked together and completely agree with Steph in saying you cannot, whether it’s a mentor, if you are hitting a business yourself, or you know, someone that you can lean on, it’s just it’s so important to have someone to be able to work with and be able to have that continued support.
I definitely agree. I think listening to you, and that you didn’t just sort of like frame that as advice, but I think it’s actually really good advice for anyone that is listening, that starting a business with a friend or a partner or family member is to actually outline everything in writing and have those conversations up front and not just think, ‘oh, yeah, we get on well, so it’s all gonna work out nicely.’ There will be situations you have to agree like, ‘no, this is what we said beforehand. This is our company constitution,’ and just have that as a separate thing to your actual friendship as well.
Specifically, we talked about what are the worst case scenarios. So what’s the worst case scenario in a day that we disagree on something? What do we do in that situation? Like, what’s the process we’re going to go through? But also what happens if someone gets sick or burned out? Or all those things – and what would we do in those situations.
And then I think the other thing if we’re talking about what we’ve learned, that other people might be able to benefit from, is just those alignment of values is so important, and when it’s a startup, the business values kind of do start with your personal values as well, because it’s just such a personal thing, I guess. But just writing them down and making sure that we’re really clear on what those company values are that you’re going to hold sacred. And sometimes I think company values can come under the like, fluffy bracket, but when you’re a small and growing business, it’s critical to say, here’s what we hold at the highest, so when you are in that situation where you’re like, something’s broken, or something’s not working, or things seem to be going in the wrong direction, or what have you that you can come back to that and say, ‘what are the things that are important to us? Okay, let’s put things in perspective.’
Great advice. What’s been the biggest challenge so far for you with Beam?
I’ve had no challenges. [sarcasm]
That’s all gone perfectly! [more sarcasm]
Yeah. I mean, it’s so easy to start a business… [more sarcasm]
And keep it going even when you don’t feel like it… [more sarcasm]
Um, what has been the biggest challenge? I mean, look, I think COVID has been hard. It was a really tough period, and no doubt that’s been the case for thousands, if not millions, of businesses around the world, and despite the fact that we’re still here, and in some ways it has been beneficial for us, let me tell you that time, when we no one knew what was happening in the world around March, April, and we all went into lockdown, and we didn’t know how it was going to be there. We didn’t know what was happening from an economy perspective, and we couldn’t have foreseen where we were standing today here in Australia, (which is in a really good position, or certainly a better position than I think many people anticipated) – that was really scary, and really challenging. And I think for us, it certainly was a time to really dig deep. And we had to strip back and do many different things. That has been not only challenging from a business perspective, but I think more importantly, an emotional perspective as well. It just comes back to, again, what Steph said earlier around this team – couldn’t have asked for a more incredible, more understanding and loyal team throughout this space. So yeah, it’s certainly been a challenging time. But I think with all those things that we’ve put in place around, what are our non-negotiables, what are our values? How do we get and then putting in place good strategies, etc? I think that was that’s really what got us through. But yeah, it’s, it was a hard time.
Let’s say aside from COVID, one of the biggest challenges for us has been what we took to market initially, in terms of the talent marketplace, which is still amazing, and, you know, we love it, but it’s, yeah, it’s sort of much more established now. When we took it to market, we assumed that because this is a really practical solution that made so much sense to us, the people, everyone would get on board. But we learned that, while there’s so so much talent that want to work that way, that businesses weren’t really on board. And so there was a lot of education that needed to go into just generally educating the market on why this is a really smart idea of your business and how it works and, and how you implement that and so on. And that’s challenging, because that’s a sort of investment that doesn’t really pay off immediately, or potentially not ever. Right. But yeah, I think just believing in what you do, and sort of doing that, you know, makes it easy.
Sometimes it’s harder to be too far ahead of the trend. Like sometimes you have an idea and you’re just like so far ahead of where the market is that you have to kind of slog it out and wait for people to catch up with you a bit.
Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a huge, huge challenge. And we certainly know people and organisations who have tried earlier than this right back at the start of the 2000s. And even earlier, where they’ve seen that people have needed it and just, unfortunately, the timings been really out as well, even back then. But knowing that there’s still incredible talent that that needed opportunities. So our purpose is really to create more work options for people, and if we can do that, that’s not to exclude anyone from the workforce, it’s actually to create more work options and more job opportunities out there. And so if we can do that, and we can capitalise on a this moment in time when everyone is rethinking how work can be done, then that’s going to be an incredible outcome from a social and economic standpoint.
Well, thank you guys so much. It has been lovely talking to you.
Steph & Vic 30:43
Likewise, thank you for having us.
And thank you for being ahead of the trend! Starting the movement!
I think everyone’s there now but just figuring out how to how to do it and how to make it a longer term benefit to you know, both talent, but also businesses too.
So if there are people out there looking for part time work or employers looking to hire part time employees or flexible employees, how do they find your site?
So they can go to beamaustralia.com.au and get in touch. .
Beautiful. Well, thanks so much, guys. Go enjoy the sunny day.
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