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Software for the Workforce Silicon Valley Forgot

Could you be good at your job without great software?

To Silicon Valley and the greater corporate world, it’s hard to imagine doing one’s job without great software. Technology is one of the main drivers of our efficiency and arguably our success. But to the nearly 3 billion other people around the world - the people who do not work at a desk - the technology that we in Silicon Valley have come to expect is severely limited, if it’s available at all.

This Deskless Workforce makes up 80% of the global workforce (with 113M workers in the U.S. alone). These are the workers in factories, fields, stores, and construction sites who are vital to our everyday lives. Yet, for the past several decades, software providers have primarily catered to desk-bound workers’ every whim (and large IT budgets), while the massive Deskless Workforce has continued to operate with paper processes and outdated systems.

"It's very easy to lose sight here in Silicon Valley because we see technology being used all over the place, every single day. What I saw 20, 25 years ago is still the case in many parts of business, particularly in the deskless world."

What has driven the deskless software market gap?

The lack of software for deskless workers hasn’t stemmed from a lack of availability of technology. Mobile devices, necessary for deskless use cases, are now available even in the most remote corners of the globe. What has been holding back software innovation for the Deskless Workforce has been empathy and a true understanding of just how differently this part of the working world operates. Their workflows and software requirements are different from the deskbound world -- and can vary significantly from industry to industry. These needs aren’t always easily understood by those on the outside. The Stanford-grad-turned-founder or the software engineer at a tech startup is therefore less likely to know what to build for a deskless worker.

A new breed of founders are changing the game

However, as tech-savvy millennials rise in the deskless ranks, we’re starting to see a new crop of founders. They don’t fit the typical stereotype of an entrepreneur. Instead, these founders are stepping up from the front lines of their respective industries and bringing new ideas on how to solve pain points they have experienced themselves. 

Ryan Chan was a young Process Development Engineer at a manufacturing plant. After discovering machine failure and resulting downtime was the largest bottleneck to the plant’s output, he petitioned for approval to purchase software to help the plant’s maintenance crew track and manage broken equipment. But Ryan quickly discovered the team wasn’t using it. It was a hard-to-use application built for a desktop environment. However, maintenance work is a deskless job.

One day after talking to a maintenance company manager who expressed frustration with the new software, Ryan had an ah-ha moment. “The least tech-savvy users who were always in the field were being given the most difficult to use software that you had to go into an office to use,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense.”

Ryan felt he had uncovered a massive deskless software opportunity. He taught himself to code on nights and weekends and never looked back. Over the next two years, he built UpKeep, a mobile-native app that allows maintenance teams to create work orders, photograph damaged and repaired equipment, work from a shared task list, and instantly communicate with each other without ever having to touch a keyboard. Because Ryan’s product was built by someone who truly understood the needs of maintenance workers, it caught on quickly. Today, UpKeep has more than 160,000 registered users from small businesses to large enterprises, including McDonald’s, Marriott, and 

Technology changes our lives in many ways. The direct effects are obvious, but the indirect effects are also important. Applications like UpKeep make people more efficient, but they also have a meaningful impact on workers’ quality of life. “The one thing that keeps me going,” Ryan says, “is hearing our customers tell us how much their lives have changed. They’re able to communicate with each other and work more effectively and efficiently. As a result, they can get home on time to see their families. It means they have less stress in their lives.” Those of us in deskbound jobs have received these benefits from software for decades. It just makes sense that the same should be true when great software is deployed into the deskless world.  

Across the spectrum, employee turnover in deskless professions is quite high and job satisfaction is low. There are a number of reasons for this including work/life balance challenges, wage dissatisfaction, and a low level of enjoyment of the job itself. Further, deskless workers want to feel their efforts are valued and are contributing to their company’s success. While great software can’t help address every one of these issues, it can go a long way toward helping employees get their jobs done on time, allowing them to enjoy their jobs more, and enabling them to better understand the impact of their work.

In fact, across the industries that employ the most deskless workers - agriculture, education, healthcare, retail, hospitality, manufacturing, transportation, and construction - more than 89% of IT buyers plan to increase spending on technology for deskless workers in the next year. This is great news for Ryan at UpKeep and other entrepreneurs who are building software for the deskless market.

"The one thing we've seen in every single one of those industries is even though some are further behind, they are all growing year-on-year in terms of desire and interest in deploying more technology.”
"The one thing we've seen in every single one of those industries is even though some are further behind, they are all growing year-on-year in terms of desire and interest in deploying more technology.”

For more than a decade, Melissa Wong, Co-Founder & CEO of Retail Zipline, worked with deskless retail workers at companies such as Gap Inc. Melissa saw a huge disconnect between the product and marketing strategies that a retail company’s headquarters would create and how their stores would carry them out. This led her to create Retail Zipline, a retail-focused software solution that streamlines communication and task management.  

“Stores would get too much information in too many places, and it was common for floor associates to be assigned work via word of mouth from their manager,” Melissa says. “Stores can’t truly deliver their best customer service if communications are broken, or worse, forgotten. I set out to help all levels of retail by making it easy for each worker to see exactly the information they need to see.” 

The traditional way of communicating new product and promotional information to stores has been to send dozens of items to each store weekly via snail mail and email. With Retail Zipline’s software, a retailer’s corporate team can disseminate the right information at the right time to the right people, with integrated task mangement, store feedback and reporting. “By giving their associates direct information they wouldn't have had access to otherwise, easily referenceable anytime, anywhere, they feel more connected to the brand and can deliver a better experience for their customers,” Melissa says. Retail Zipline’s solution is delivering impressive results. One major retailer reported saving $20M a year after implementing Retail Zipline, while another claimed that associate execution increased by ~65%.

A call to arms

Globally, businesses spend ~$300 billion each year on software. Nearly all of the spend goes to applications that serve deskbound workers. Yet, 80% of the workforce is in deskless jobs. Additionally, evidence is mounting that software for deskless workers drives meaningful productivity and employee engagement improvements. It feels inevitable that billions of dollars will eventually be spent each year to bring great software to this large and important part of the working world.

We call upon those who understand deskless workforce use cases to create new solutions that help solve the problems that these workers face. Not only are there large companies to be built in this market, but there are workers lives to change. You have the power to create a transformational shift in the way the world works. If you’re passionate about this opportunity, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out to us at