UnionBase.org is bringing the labor movement into the 21st century by creating a virtual hub where workers can find, join, and learn about unions. Founders Larry L. Williams Jr. and Louis Davis applied Lean Startup techniques to create this singular portal, which connects workers to labor organizations by industry, state, or union name.
In an Ignite Talk for the 2015 Lean Startup Conference, Williams explained how UnionBase’s success came in part from the founders using Lean Startup techniques. They tested an MVP, for example, and established metrics that place value on the connections UnionBase is creating along with the amount of revenue the site is generating.
Before co-founding UnionBase, Williams was a college student working multiple part-time and temp jobs in Washington, DC. In 2007, he worked as a temp for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Joining the organization granted him benefits he’d never received before — things like vision, medical, and dental insurance. The experience sparked in Williams a sense of purpose moving forward: he wanted to help labor unions foster economic justice for marginalized groups.
Williams came up with the idea for UnionBase after spending hours sifting through the books that keep track of local unions. He realized that there wasn’t an efficient way for, say, a worker to just hop online to find a union in his or her area.
He began work on the country’s most comprehensive labor union database with a simple MVP —which was basically the UnionBase logo and a search field for local Teamster organizations by state. Once Williams built the prototype, he approached several people with his new business idea before connecting with Louis Davis, a buddy from school. Davis agreed to listen to the pitch, but Williams said he asked for two tasks to be completed first. Williams would need to learn web development (through General Assembly in New York) and he’d have to read The Lean Startup.
Williams completed these tasks and the co-founders applied Lean Startup methods from the onset. They created an imperfect MVP, enabling them to be first to market. They also used validated learning with early adopters to project what the demand would be for each feature they created, such as a basic search with nearly every union in the country listed.
Williams and Davis also held regular “pivot or persevere” meetings.
“We would stop ourselves after a few weeks of working on a feature and say, ‘Is this something we need to keep working on, or do we need to move on to another project?’” Williams said.
These meetings also doubled as landmarks for the co-founders to stay on track.
“If we didn’t meet a launch that we expected to make, we’d ask, ‘Why didn’t we make this? Did we set goals that were too lofty? How do we improve so we meet the next launch?’” Williams said.
Williams confessed that working with a co-founder who is a pragmatist isn’t easy when you’re the visionary in the company.
“[I’m] in danger of dreaming forever without actually accomplishing much if I don’t set specific benchmarks. [Davis] is more realistic,” Williams said. “The biggest challenge was to set aside time from our lives and our priorities to do something that started as my dream but didn’t become [Davis’] dream until later.”
Now that the founders have a shared vision for UnionBase, they’re able to focus on markets that would be well-served by their product. Williams said he sees a real opportunity in reaching the people who are contracted by the big “sharing economy” companies such as Lyft and Taskrabbit, for example.
“People are being turned into independent contractors as opposed to employees, which comes with a whole set of disadvantages: there are fewer benefits, you can be let go at any moment, etc.,” he said. People like the freedom but the downsides usually don’t hit them until they need healthcare, vacation time, or sick time for a child, he added.
Williams sees the potential for labor and management to collaborate with the new, human-capital-intensive companies. Work is already being done to bridge this divide, including a recent deal between Lyft and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
UnionBase is also exploring the idea of hosting educational content for its community.
“[We want] to create videos that are educational and explain to people what unions are, why they should join them, how to join them, and encourage progressive conversation,” Williams said.
He’s particularly interested in reaching web developers and media workers—people in industries that aren’t typically organized, but have the potential to be because they employ high concentrations of Millennials. According to Williams, unionized Millennials make an average of $10,000 more per year annually than their non-union counterparts.
In the end, Williams said, the labor movement needs to be more progressive in reaching new audiences.
“There needs to be a new strategy centered on technology, inclusiveness, diversity, equity, and education,” he said. “People need to know their rights and they need to know the benefits of being a union member. Hopefully Unionbase.org will be at the leading edge of that movement.”
Want more? Learn about the Lean Startup methodology on http://2015.leanstartup.co/