In today's episode, I speak to Anna Maybank, co-founder of Break Room, a platform with a mission to improve working conditions for low-income jobs by creating transparency, sharing salaries, working conditions, and employee ratings publicly. Break Room has raised more than 7 million dollars in funding from the likes of Pro-founders Capital and North Zone, has about 65,000 members and more than 600,000 jobs rated on its platform.
[00:00:00] Maiko: In today's episode, I speak to Anna Maybank, co-founder of Break Room, a platform with a mission to improve working conditions for low income jobs by creating transparency, sharing salaries, working conditions, and employee ratings publicly. Break Room has raised more than 7 million dollars in funding from the likes of Pro-founders Capital and North Zone, has about 65,000 members and more than 600,000 jobs rated on its platform, and I'm really glad to have you on the show Anna, thanks for joining me.
[00:00:30] Anna: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:00:32] Maiko: So let's start with your personal journey, you've spent some time in the social impact space and you could even say you've been like among the pioneers in the social impact space, at least here in the UK because you co-founded Bethnal Green Ventures, which I think at the time I was probably the only kind of really social impact focused accelerator or fund out there. Tell us a bit more about your personal journey and how you got into social impact?
[00:00:54] Anna: Yeah, sure. I've had quite an unusual journey into entrepreneurship, I suppose. So, I graduated university not knowing what I wanted to do and my journey into this actually started by being a researcher for a book that was all about how technology was changing society.
So this was the mid 2000s and was a lot of desk research about Wikipedia and, multiplayer online games and the ways that technology at that point was changing how society functioned. And that really taught me about the power of the internet and the first iPhone was just coming out and there was this renewed interest after the dot com boom in how technology was changing stuff and the idea, that you could build products and services from scratch and build companies without making change through sort of traditional institutions or traditional ways of doing things, just really appealed to me. So there seemed to be this huge opportunity to make the world a better place using software and that research job sort of opened my eyes to that. And that's how I initially got interested in the idea that not only could technology make the world a better place, but also business could do that too. .
[00:02:16] Maiko: Got it, I got into social ventures and social impact in 2017, so I mean, I got way, way, way later than you got into it. And I can only imagine, I mean, even in 2017, it already seems like decades ago and the whole perception was quite different. But in 2008, I assume, like if you said social impact and business, everybody thought of CSR departments. and not even that maybe?
[00:02:39] Anna: Yeah, not even that. You're making me feel very old.
[00:02:42] Maiko: Sorry for that, 2008 is not that long ago, but it's like just crazy how this space has developed, right?
[00:02:49] Anna: Oh yeah, absolutely. So, at that point in time I co-founded something called Bethnal Green Ventures. So Bethnal Green Ventures now invests in technology businesses that have a social or environmental mission. When we started that, the fundamental reaction was like, Oh, this is just work that charities do.
Like, there was no understanding of the idea that startups could have a social purpose and we were really inspired by Combinator in the US and really part of the genesis for Bethnal Green Ventures was taking the kind of YC model and trying to apply that to companies that had a emission.
But yeah, it was a super strange thing to do at the time, and it has been incredible over a kind of 16 year period to see how there has been an industry created around this and how I think we are starting to see some cultural norms around how we think about business change, and that's really exciting.
[00:03:45] Maiko: Absolutely, and you were managing director of Bethnal Green Ventures for a couple of years after co-founding, and then I think you did an MBA and then you embarked on the founder's journey after that startup that you eventually sold to Conde Nast. So give us a bit more about that journey as well?
[00:04:00] Anna: So the genesis for Bethnal Green Ventures was really how do we use technology to solve social environmental problems when there's this gap between people who have the technical skills to build stuff, and people who have an understanding of, the problems that might be solved.
And it was all about bringing together those two groups of people and then supporting them to start businesses. Through doing that, I met a lot of people who were starting companies and I was just very jealous of them and what I was more interested in through the Bethnal Green Ventures journey was my experience of starting that.
And I knew I wanted to do that again, but I wanted to start my own business that had a purpose. And so I got a scholarship to go and do my MBA in the US, I wanted to learn from the US I spent two years out in the, Bay Area in Berkeley and then I came back and was a co-founder and CEO of a company called Poetica.
So Poetica, somewhat of a tangent from what we've been talking about, but Poetica was a collaborative text editor that you could install into other products and together with two co-founders. I raised a seed round that helped build the product and ultimately sold that to Conde Nast in 2016.
And then my journey from there to break room was really the one of my co-founders at Poetica James, who's a designer, he and I knew we wanted to start a business together again, we knew that I had to have a social mission at its core and we knew we wanted to work with our third co-founder at Break Room, Tom, who's an engineer.
And the genesis behind Break Room was really the three of us knew we wanted to start another company. We wanted to look for the biggest problem that was overlooked, and our answer to that was just before the pandemic, but our answer to that at that point was, the tech industry is talking about how work is changing and the, you know, it's all gonna be kind of gig economy and low income work is gonna be automated.
And we just didn't believe that narrative. We were like, how can we make jobs that are at risk of being commodified by technology into good quality work. And so we spent a bunch of time trying to understand what the problems and experiences were of people who are working on the frontline in retail logistics, health and social care and hospitality, and understand like what are the problems that you have in your day to day working experience and what would you like out of work, and us understanding those problems was how we came up with the idea for Break Room.
[00:06:27] Maiko: Got it, wow. So you already started with a blank slate. You were basically looking out, okay, what are the biggest problems out there and which ones of them are neglected by anybody else and then you were quite structured to kind of then zoom into that issue or how did that process go?
[00:06:42] Anna: So yeah we, started Break Room from this unusual perspective of like, what's big problem we could try to solve. And, the way that we approached that was to just go and talk to lots of people who had the problem that we cared about because my days of working in retail are way behind me.
I worked in retail as a student. I worked at a call center when I graduated briefly, but I didn't have the current problem that we were trying to solve. So we basically started by going and listening to lots of people particularly in retail about their current experience of work. And we did, a lot of face to face interviews, but we also set up a survey that we distributed through Facebook about what people wanted out of their shift patterns specifically.
And we got lots of people who started to answer this survey about their shift atoms and realized that the reason people were answering the survey, was because they wanted to know what everyone else was saying about their jobs. And we realized that actually whilst we'd done this as a sort of user research exercise, people who were contributing were doing it because they wanted to know, am I getting a fair deal at work or am I being ripped off, I have no idea. If you take pay, for example, pay is something that you, people just don't talk about even between close friends. And so we'd sort of unlocked a way of helping people share this information anonymously, and we realized that the thing we thought was some user research was actually a product. And that was how it went from big, terrifying idea to come up with our first product.
[00:08:13] Maiko: Yeah. And we'll talk about the specifics of how Break Room works, and I think what I find interesting in your mission is you know, if you look at archetype of the tech founder tends to be kind of upper-middle class white male founders solving upper- middle class white male problems very often. And, there is a platform called Glassdoor out there, but I think it tends to focus on kind of white collar work and, these type of jobs generally.
So how did you approach that initially to say, okay, well, you could have solved your own problem as well, it wasn't quite your own problem, you know, how did you kind of decide to do that and how are you solving it now with Break Room?
[00:08:51] Anna: I actually think it's really important that people don't just solve problems that they personally experience, and that was part of what we set out to do, because that's part of the reason as you say that the tech industry is dominated still by white guys solving white guy problems, and we knew that to do that we had to like go beyond our own experience and listen to our users.
So today, Break Room is a job comparison site that helps people find a better place to work. So the way that it works is, come to the site as a job seeker, you take a 30 question quiz that's all about your previous experience or your current experience of work. It covers four areas pay, hours, team and management.
And from the answers to your questions, we give you a score route of 10, and we used the data that you provided to compare your job to everyone else who was taking the quiz and contributed their information and then we use that information to help direct you to a job that might be better for you.
So to date, we've had more than 270,000 people take the break room quiz to compare their job, we cover about 2000 different UK employers, we have about 150,000 people who are, finding a job through Break Room a month, and the genesis of all of that was, again the quiz at the heart of that.
So the first thing we built was the quiz that helped you diagnose your current experience of work, and then we used that to work out, okay, how do we use the information that people are sharing to compare their jobs in order to build a way for people to actually find jobs that are higher rated across the categories that matter most to them.
[00:10:35] Maiko: And then the business model for you at the moment, is it mainly the recruitment aspect of things or what's the core of your business model?
[00:10:42] Anna: So we intend to make money from employers who pay to claim their Break Room profile and understand how to improve their current jobs and also to recruit through us. So it is a combination of a data product that lets an employer understand, okay, these are the areas where we're doing well in comparison to our competitors, and here's how we could improve. And then we're also building ways for employers to directly add their jobs to the Break Room platform and to recruit via us. So you can think of us as a recruitment product, until like the last few months, we've been completely focused on building a great platform and experience for workers.
And now we've reached a certain, scale where we can produce something that's of interest to employers. We've just started to build out an employer product, but the core of our business model is charging employers for the information and support that helps them improve their jobs and hire better people.
[00:11:39] Maiko: Got it, I'd like to zoom into the problem a bit more actually, and what you already talked about a little bit has really. I think what I would see as a new class society or divide in some ways where, especially with Covid, a lot of people in our tech bubble and so on, really benefited in some ways it's like, okay, we're all working remotely now, you know, I'm getting paid well, my parcels and my food just magically arrives at my door, everything is great we're so flexible, etcetera. And then on the other hand, there's this whole economy of enabling this and Amazon driver delivering my parcels and delivering my food, right? So, how big do you see this divide and what do you think is one of the most critical things to do to kind of, close the gap there and really take everybody into the bright new future hopefully?
[00:12:29] Anna: I think you put that really, really well. 80% of people across the world do not work at a desk. They're not working an office nine to five. So break room is for most people who have a more normal experience of work than people working in the tech industry. And I think because so many people in the media industry obviously also are office workers, we are like massively ignoring this huge, you know, normal people's experience of work, like everyone else's experience of work.
I think, if you look at the data that we've collected the most striking thing to me is still the fact that and I think this really underlines part of the problem we're trying to solve is that 77% of people who use break room tell us that their head office doesn't understand what's going on on the front line. Which mean like, that's just a reflection of the divide that we've just talked about, right? And the problem, I think that Break Room is trying to solve. The areas that I would pull out that really need rethinking I mean, first of all, we have to talk about pay.
Pay is a huge, huge problem. We've just done a cost of living survey with our users and half of them are saying they're looking for a new job in the next three months, and 70% of those say that the cost of living increase is the main factor in them looking for a new job, more than 70% of people haven't received a cost of living pay increase this year, and pay is like the number one thing that needs to change for the workers who use Break Room. But then I think the second thing that we should really talk about, is actually about flexibility. So as you said, there's so much in the news about what flexibility looks like for an office worker, but flexibility for someone who doesn't work at an office and who's working shifts is different.
And to give you an example, 45% of people who use break room report that they get their schedule for work less than a week before they do that work. That makes like organizing your life incredibly hard, and from an employer's perspective you probably say, Oh that's a flexible job but actually what that is, is a job with really short shift notice of when you are working and is perfectly possible and some data showing that it is desirable for companies to offer flexible shift patterns that are flexible from the perspective of a worker. So, you know, give you enough notice of shifts, give you options for when you would prefer to work, let you change them if you need to change them.
And I think that flexibility piece, second pay is really the thing that feels like low hanging fruit for employers to change, and we give us better parity between, the flexibility that office workers have started to enjoy seeing that translate into flexibility that works for frontline workers too.
[00:15:14] Maiko: Do you see a shift in how frontline workers are treated over the years? I mean, to me from as an outsider, it seems like a few years ago, it was, probably even worse, where like they were like often seen as just something that can be swapped easily, okay, if you go then whatever we'll just get the next person in.
And I think some of these places you know, if you think about parcel delivery and food delivery have a massive turnovers, so I think they swap out their stuff like regularly just by the turnover of staff. So it's kind of this mindset of, okay, we have this abundant supply, but then I think in the pandemic that kind of assumption was kind of proven wrong as well, right? Where, you know, suddenly some companies had to kind of raise their salaries and improve working conditions, etcetera, because there's not an abundance supply, right? Do you see that trend or where's the trend going? Is it kind of generally improving like frontline workers getting more leverage over their employers?
[00:16:10] Anna: I think anecdotally that is starting to be true in some sectors. we're at this unique point in the labor market post pandemic, where we've got the highest number of job vacancies on record. So in the UK that's since the 1970s, and for example, been talking to care companies recently who are just finding it so difficult to staff people. There are 110,000 vacancies for care workers in the uk and they are trying to work out how do we improve jobs in order to make our jobs more attractive, and how do we find the right people to fill those roles? We're still, as we talked about before, we're still not seeing the kind of movement that needs to happen on increasing pay so again, more than 70% of people we recently surveyed said that they're not getting a pay rise to meet the rising cost of living. I think anecdotally from employers I'm talking to, that they are desperately trying to work out what they can do in order to solve this labor shortage that we currently have.
And obviously we are in the UK we've started to see more strike activity by unions, and I think that is also related to the current nature of the labor market. I can't see us filling for example, 110,000 care vacancies in the UK quickly or easily frankly. And so I think we're a historic moment where the power of frontline workers in the labor market have shifted and I suspect companies are trying, but haven't yet caught up with that.
[00:17:37] Maiko: And with Break Room, I assume the fundamental principle behind it is really increasing the pressure on companies that aren't paying well, that aren't treating their work as well, giving their workers the leverage to be able to report this back and make it transparent for everyone to see, so that also the companies that actually do pay well and do treat worker well obviously have a advantage in recruiting. If somebody looks for a job through your platform, they will see immediately how well the company is rated, how well the job is rated. And how far have you seen like success stories already from that where either kind of companies that maybe previously didn't pay well and didn't have a great work experience looked at a score on your platform and like, Oh, we gotta do something about this, even if it's just out of selfish motivations of getting enough workers recruited. And how far do you see like workers having more leverage on using your platform?
[00:18:31] Anna: We are quite early days for that. We've just started working with employers, but what has been interesting is I think we are starting to work with more employers who have a poorer score than you might expect. You know, I thought when we started doing this, the early adopters would be the well rated employers and actually, the employers who are reaching out to us in particular are people who are not scoring so well, and they really wanna learn what they're doing wrong and how to change, and that's part of what we want to help them with. But I would say that Break Room is, we're not just trying to increase transparency for workers, we also believe that good quality jobs are good for business and to date, there is no real way of employers easily measuring and comparing the quality of the jobs that they provide. And part of what we are doing is creating the world's first data set that is crowdsourced from people doing those jobs, that helps a company measure the quality of their work.
And into the future, what I really wanna see is us being able to prove that a company with a higher Break Room rating with data that shows they are a better quality employer, being able to map that to better financial results and better financial outcomes for a company.
Cause I think we've known, for a really long time, intuitively that better quality jobs results in better business outcomes.
But it is very hard to find data that backs that up, and that is part of what we are trying to do and crowdsource. So, I believe that there is a mutual benefit for both employers and employees in better quality work, and we are here to help unlock that mutual benefit for both sides.
[00:20:16] Maiko: Love it, I'd like to extract a few lessons learned from your entrepreneur journey. You've been a founder three times, so to say, Bethnal Queen Ventures included. So, I'm wondering like, what has been like one of the biggest lessons that you had to learn as a founder in your journey, that's been kind of difficult in the beginning, that you've had to learn the hard way? Anything that comes to mind there?
[00:20:38] Anna: I think it's an oldie but of goodie, always remember to keep talking to the people who are using your product. As you grow a team, as you have a product that's starting to work, it is so easy to forget that you have to keep doing the hard work to go and talk to your users. And I know everyone always says this but, that is my main piece of advice and like every time we've taken a misstep or every time something has been hard, it has been because we have not gone back to first principles and says, What's the problem we're trying to solve? Who has that problem? How are we solving it? And I would also say every time you get stuck, you always get unstuck by going back to first principles and then asking the same questions again, and going and talking to the people using your product or talking to people who have the problem that you're trying to solve.
[00:21:28] Maiko: What's worked best for you to make this a routine and not something that you only do once, you know, you can't avoid it anymore? I think that's the challenge, right? Of everything that's going on in the business. So million things going on, and, talking to a customer, I think in my experience with working with so many different startups it tends to be, in theory it's a high priority, but in reality there tends to be all kinds of other priorities that need to be taken care of. So how do you kind of implement that into your daily life? Is there any kind advice you can share on that?
[00:21:59] Anna: Loads of different ways, it's changed over time depending on the stage of the business. So at the beginning it was basically all that we did, and the way that we did it was we worked out what time of day people were least busy, and we went into shops and talked to people in shops.
Same with hospitality venues, we did our own kind of use of research, participant recruitment through Facebook ads, we ran our own survey, which is how we came up with a product idea in the first place. So right at the beginning it was basically 100% of what we were doing all of the time.
And it was like that for quite a long time. When we built the first version of the product, it was also built into the product, we built ways of letting people give us feedback into the product. Talking to a user always feels like you have to go and sit down face to face and talk to someone. You should do that, 100%, but there are lots of different ways that you can get really quick and dirty feedback, even if it's just like putting a box on the website that someone could type into and a prompt to get them to do that.
So, as we had a kind of early product, it was built into the product in a bunch of different ways. As we started to grow that product, we did more and more social media and that is a great way of talking to your customers. So, we are basically two people in the business who are just spending all of their time talking to people on TikTok, about their jobs and about the Break Room product.
Every time we ship a new significant feature, we run a user research session. Our goal is to do one of those once a month where we actually, we use a research agency to find three participants who exactly match the kind of person who finds Break Room most useful and we do that on at least a monthly cadence. I think my point here is there are lots of different ways of doing it and It was, Yeah, definitely 100% of my time at the beginning is less than 100% now, but it's still it's something that we've like baked into everything and like all of our product development work basically.
[00:23:46] Maiko: Got it, and how big is the role still of kind of face to face conversations? As you said, there's like many ways of collecting feedback, I think sometimes it's easy to hide behind a survey, obviously at a kind of a bigger scale you have to rely on these things you can't just talk to every one of your users, but do you kind of still make a point of talking to people in person?
[00:24:07] Anna: Yeah, totally. I actually think the pandemic's been really useful for that because, all of our employer user research was done on Zoom. And actually we found that much easier with user research, like when I started building products, I know a decade ago all the user research we did was in person and you wasted a lot of time with people not showing up and it was just much more difficult to organize that if you were gonna do kind of formal user research.
And now, we use a tool called Look Back. Look back, allows us to like show them a product and ask them to show us how they search for a job and we can walk them through that and see what they're doing on their phone. I I think Zoom and the changes during the pandemic has actually made some of the kind of face to face talking to users, even if you're not in the same room as them, like so much easier. So, highly recommend, setting up sort of stuff that's not in person as well, but it's like talking to a human being and seeing their face.
[00:25:01] Maiko: Yeah. What I find interesting with your model as well is really how I think you can really change the perspective in which ways we can improve living standards for people in society, right? I think in the past or even now, like a lot of people are probably convinced that the only way to improve working conditions is to campaign for, you know, minimum wages and things like that. And there's nothing wrong with that necessarily, Right? I'm just wondering, like in the meanwhile, while we wait for maybe more regulations to come in to set the standards higher for those sectors. There is actually room for companies like yours to come in and actually put this pressure on employers and, come up with a real solution without having to sit and wait and campaign and hope that politicians are gonna change something. Kind of like, your ethos as well is like, okay, we just gotta sort it out and not wait for things, or do you also see yourself in between campaigning for the course that you're following, but also building a solution? How do you see your role?
[00:26:04] Anna: Oh, an interesting question. Well firstly, I think change doesn't come from one place, it comes from lots of places and we need unions and we need campaigners, but we also need products like Break Room and we need companies to realize, which I think they already do realize the quality of jobs matters for the health of their business.
It's not just cause it's the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. I think one of the reasons that the impact driven and mission driven world that we now are talking about and work in, I think one of the reasons that exists is because people were frustrated with the rate of change that government and traditional institutions were creating.
And technology offered an opportunity to speed up that change and like technology has created bad outcomes as well as good. You know, the beginning of my career, I think we were super, it was really naive looking back, like the idea that I think, you know, there was a point in time where it felt like the tech industry was changing the world only in a good way.
And that has become, very clearly not the case, right? Technology, is morally neutral. We can choose what to do with it and unsurprisingly, humans choose to do both bad and good things with it . But I think part of the trend towards mission and impact driven businesses is because technology created a new opportunity to create change outside of traditional institutions and organizations and that's certainly what excited me to get into this space in the first place.
[00:27:46] Maiko: Got it. Let's talk about the future. The last question for you is if you imagine the world in 10 years from now, how does the world look like if Break Room continues to succeed? How do you imagine it?
[00:27:58] Anna: Great question. I believe that the future will see businesses start to value and measure the impact of the quality of their jobs in terms of improving business performance. So in the way that ESG ratings have started to see companies measure their carbon footprint and their environmental impact and see that as both a business opportunity and a business risk.
I think companies are going to similarly think about the quality of particularly their frontline work, but work as a whole, as not just a cost to the business, but a opportunity to make more money, be more productive and I want break room to be one of the sources of information and data that proves that better quality jobs are not just better for workers, but also better for companies.
And that to me is what 10 years future of work and future of what we are doing looks like. And obviously the result of that is better quality work for everyone and improved living standards and a more equal society.
[00:29:14] Maiko: Can't wait for that, thanks Anna very much for joining me today and talking through your journey and advice and the amazing product that you've built. I suggest everybody to check out the product as well, especially if you're in those industries and hospitality, retail, delivery, etcetera. This is some, really good resource, so thanks Anna, appreciate it and I'll see you soon.
[00:29:35] Anna: Thanks so much for having me, it's been a pleasure.
[00:29:37] Maiko: Thank you.