Melissa Strawn is the founder & CEO of MyPeopleNow, a platform where people buy, sell, and exchange services and unique experiences. As a mother who has struggled with illness, she was frustrated by inflexible employers who didn’t allow her to structure her work around the other parts of her life. At MyPeopleNow, she and her employees enjoy being able to work whenever and wherever they work best. We discussed how and why she values flexible work, and what it’s like running a remote team.
How was your working experience before you started your own company?
My background is in inside sales. I kept moving up the ranks. But in my early to mid-twenties, I started struggling with bulimia. Trying to make work and illness work, I ended up going on disability three times.
What really sucked was I felt perfectly capable of working on some days, and other days, I was a wreck. I didn’t have the flexibility I needed to do work when I could do it. I inquired about working at home, and was always given the answer that we needed the team in the office.
It was unfortunate for me personally, as I was a single mom of two kids, and it was something I could do. I was not given the opportunity to work the way I knew I could.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
During one of those periods, I came up with the idea of my company. I was at home, this was 10 years ago, and I needed help with statistics and I knew I
Did you implement flexible work policies at your company?
Yes. One of our employees is 100 percent home-based. He’s a graphic designer, and we have only met him twice. He has done incredible work for us for a year. Our front-end developer is also given the freedom to work wherever she is.
My husband is my principle engineer. We both work whenever—we have 5 kids so we have to be flexible. Someone is always getting sick.
Flexible work doesn’t mean we are always working. Our downtime is equally important.
Have you struggled to balance being a founder and parent?
It took some time to get there. For the first year, I got sucked into the idea that you have to get really big really fast. My health and my relationships suffered. Everything just started to fall by the wayside.
Then I thought, wait a second, who is telling you that you have to scale really fast? That’s just the narrative out there. I realized you don’t have to do it that way.
My mother said you always thrive when you do things your own way. It took a while for me to do it differently, but I have given myself permission to decline events. None of the events have childcare, even though they could.
In the future, I see work life balance as incorporating children back into the picture, by having onsite childcare, for example. You don’t have to not see your kids for a nine-hour stretch. Having a one-hour break during the day is OK. We just have to dream these solutions up and start making them happen.
Have you faced any challenges running a remote team?
Sometimes I worry if I am sharing enough. Is the one hundred percent remote team member aware of where the company is as a whole? That takes a constant level of awareness and effort to reach out to him.
Video conferencing helps. We also offer every helper on our platform video functionality so they can work remote, too.
The work product has always been just as good if it is done remotely. My only concern is camaraderie and building the culture. As we grow, we will have to build that. I think having virtual get-togethers will be important to doing that successfully.
Are you committed to continuing to have work flexibility personally?
Whether this particular company works or doesn’t, I will never go back to the traditional 9-5 corporate environment. Having an eating disorder like I did is a mental health condition – my mental health was very affected by needing to be in a particular environment
I remember when I worked at Zillow, I lived across the street from my office. I watched my kids get off the bus from my office window, and I couldn’t go get them and see them. Starting a company was flexibility for others, but also for me. And I would never throw that away for anyone.
I do better work this way. In the corporate environments, there was a fear that people aren’t actually going to be working. That level of distrust is evinced in the company all the way down, and it really affects your desire to work hard when they don’t trust you.
At MyPeopleNow, we have a philosophy of trust, and when employees are trusted, they know that, and they do way better work. I have other founder friends who say their remote employees aren’t working hard and I say maybe it is because they know you don’t trust them. It has worked wonderfully for us, and we have never had a bad experience.
Do you have any fears about financial security and your company failing?
My in-laws think it is so risky, they think we aren’t actually working when we say we are. To them work is work for a company. I don’t know, for me, I grew up in extreme poverty. I have already been to the bottom so I am not afraid. There is no way to fail here, there is no way to lose. That is literally how we are doing it.
How do you see your own company contributing to the future of workplace flexibility?
I read 57 million Americans are participating in the gig economy. I think the gig economy has been great but there have been some unintended consequences – lack of healthcare, lack of benefits, and lack of community.
I have driven for Uber, and hosted on AirBnB, and one of the things I thought was missing was community. We are used to having office birthdays and water cooler conversations. I am convinced that the gig economies of the future can build community into their marketplace. The gig economy of today is a bit nameless and faceless.
We are starting to share the stories of people on our site and to explain why they are doing the gig, and why they need remote work. So people can get to know one another.
In the gig economy, it is also often the have-nots serving the haves and we created a Karma Point system to encourage a sense of reciprocity. It also allows people on disability, like my brother, to earn social capital in the manner of a loyalty rewards program, without affecting his benefits. We also want to eventually make it possible for people to use their points for benefits like insurance and time off.