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Chad Halvorson couldn’t find his schedule, so he built a $100 million company

October 13, 2018

A visit to When I Work Inc. and CEO Chad Halvorson last week filled at least half a notepad, touching on everything from strategy and financing to the imminent rollout of a new software product for this young company.

The only thing that was really missing was any hint of startup drama.

When I Work is one of the states highest-profile software companies, with so much potential that its last round of equity capital in 2016 came at a price that reportedly valued the company at more than $100 million.

And when talking with its levelheaded CEO and walking around the facility you didnt see signs of chaos, like employees crowded around someones backyard picnic table that got driven downtown and temporarily pressed into service.

What you didnt hear from Halvorson was how much still needed to be figured out, including who would fill key jobs or where the money would come from that would get the company to break even.

Money and talent are among the things that Halvorson and his company have figured out. Now at about 140 employees, When I Work is looking at adding 20 or so new employees in the next year, a far slower pace of hiring than a couple of years ago, after its latest round of financing.

When I Work should be comfortably cash-flow positive in the first quarter of next year, Halvorson said. Money is not a problem, with more than half of the $24 million in venture capital raised so far still unspent.

Halvorson describe the last couple years as heads down with little effort to seek attention. Whats brought his head up now is the realization that the company has reached some important milestones.

Its main product, also called When I Work, is used by hourly employees on smartphones to sign up for shifts and find out when they have been assigned to work.

Currently more than 1 percent of the 74 million people in the hourly workforce in this country use When I Work, and Halvorson expects the number of workers using it to grow by about 50 percent this year.

More than 100,000 hourly workplaces are now using this technology to make their worker schedules, too. By Halvorsons calculation, one out of every 10 hourly employees has used When I Work on at least one job.

When asked about revenue, Halvorson tried to be helpful without giving out the private companys sales. A reasonable guess seems to be around $30 million.

When I Work just reached another milestone of sorts, too, by signing a 10-year lease for its headquarters on the fifth floor of the 106-year-old Ford Center across the light-rail station from the Target Field baseball stadium in Minneapolis.

The company is also, this week, launching a new product called Hire, a simple (and elegant, based on a quick demo in the office) tool for people to apply for hourly jobs and have the hiring manager track the applicants.

When I Works customers altogether hire more than 30,000 new employees every week, Halvorson said, even more as the holiday season gears up. Its a messy and cumbersome process for many small businesses. And being slow is a disadvantage in a tight labor market, as workers often take the offer that most quickly gets them to a first shift.

That all seems like a lot of progress for a company that five years ago was pretty much unknown except to its first customers, who had found it online. When I Work burst into view in 2014, when it first raised capital from professional investors to fund its growth.

The company had gotten its start, depending how you define start, either in the late 1990s or about 10 years later. During that long hiatus, the basic idea for the business hadnt changed one bit, not since Halvorson as a teenager in Thief River Falls grew frustrated that he had to go into the break room of the grocery store where he worked part-time to see his upcoming work schedule.

What he really wanted to do was open an internet browser at home and occasionally hit refresh until the schedule popped up. And that seemed so easy to do.

It didnt turn out to be easy. Halvorson restarted work on his idea late in the last decade as home internet access had gotten much more common. And when the iPhone appeared in 2007 he knew smartphones would make this process even easier.

But as he put it, It wasnt until 2014 that I really started to connect the dots on how big the market was and what the potential opportunity was.

Larger software companies selling tools to manage workforces, from reviewing job performance to hiring, had largely left When I Works market niche alone. Thats both because online shift work scheduling is not an easy problem to solve, Halvorson explained, and because small business owners are both cheap and not easily reached with marketing pitches.

When I Work created a product that solves a real problem that lots of huge companies could never build themselves, said Casey Allen, Twin Cities technology entrepreneur and software conference organizer. When I Works go-to-market strategy was bottom-up. It started with hourly workers and then worked up to managers and then up to organizations. Big companies dont know how to do that.

That would seem to make When I Work a great acquisition candidate in the HR tech market, but companies looking to be acquired soon probably dont sign 10-year office leases with extra space to grow. When asked about it, Halvorson sounded confident good opportunities will arise if the company continues to solve problems for its customers.

To be here with almost 2 percent of the hourly workforce being employed by our customers is pretty exciting, he said, and not necessarily an achievement he would have once predicted for the fall 2018.

But its motivation, he added. If we could do that, why cant we do 10 percent?

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302

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