This week I had lunch with a dry-witted, incredibly smart Michael Gruen. Our conversation ran the gamut from love, to technology to mattress sales. He’s a fascinating guy and probably one the most entrepreneurial (although you’ll see he doesn’t love that term) people I know. We don’t see each other often but whenever we do we tend to gravitate towards each other. I think it’s our love of nerdy and techy things.
How do we know each other?
We met at some point in the last 5 or 6 years. Something related to social media…We were at a “Tweet-up” at MTV back when you [Marissa] worked there. That’s maybe not the first time we met but around the time we met. There was also a “Tweet-up” at the original Shake Shack…I forgot that Tweet-ups were a thing that we actually participated in. Anyway I’m sure Matt Knell [I used to call him the godfather of twitter] introduced us at some point.
What do you do?
I work for a startup called Work Market. It’s a software system for managing freelancers in the Enterprise. The job I was hired to do was called “Growth Hacker” and those are air quotes. When you work for a startup there’s a lot of attention paid to getting the trains to run on time and not a lot focused on growth. So I spend much of my time doing competitive research assessment, analytics and data analysis and I think about how we would be able to grow our business to the next level. It started more as a “how do we grow our user base” question; but that’s not the real value proposition of the business. We’re expanding rapidly and I imagine that my role will shift dramatically over time.
Why do you do it?
I used to focus on entrepreneurship. But after a personal disruption I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to start another company. But at the same time I realized I could take some time and learn from some really smart people about how they do things. Also their business pretty much fits into my vision of where the market is going. And I’ve had long-term ideas about what the labor markets do. Like when I graduated I had this great degree and a great skill set and was a top candidate by any stretch of the imagination. But no job seemed interesting or attractive to me. So, I imagine that to be increasingly true for future college grads. That means that the normal industrialized system is probably coming to an inflection point as to how people work.
I’ve been batting that around for a while now. I built a legal document company called Paperlex and the idea behind it was that if people were doing more freelance work and contracting more rather than traditional w-2 employments, there’s a greater liquidity need in being able to get one person to do business with another. The way you do this is you make the toolkit unified and simplified so when you do business with someone it’s not a whole drawn-out process. You do this business under the standard de-facto template. It’s the gold-master template for this kind of exchange, everyone agrees to it and maybe an additional rider. You’re only worried about the differences and not the meat of the agreement. So, if you can do that, you can create business on a more liquid basis. Work Market dovetails really nicely into that. In fact, I found out about Work Market while I was building Paperlex because I was looking for a freelance marketplace to attach myself to. Interestingly enough, I’m user 600 something of the 80,000-90,000 user accounts we have now.
[I asked Gruen if he considered himself to be an entrepreneur] The problem I have with the word “Entrepreneur” is that it’s often code for “Unemployed.” I would say that I’m a business person before I say entrepreneur. I almost built a business with this guy who used to say “an entrepreneur is someone who takes resources beyond his control and turns it into something meaningful and large.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
My dad had a flippant answer for this which I really appreciate which is that I want to be a philanthropist. I like it, it makes a lot of sense. It assumes that you have enough money to actually help people. The reason I’m working at this company is that I feel like I can make a real impact in the way work gets done. Most people sitting around us right now probably have w-2s as their main source of income. That’s how we generate wealth right now. I don’t think that’s going to be the case soon. If that’s true, how can we empower an entire generation of the workforce to re-engineer how the workforce is structured to make sure that everyone is not necessarily economically better off, but happier. And I realize as a capitalist that doesn’t necessarily translate but I also believe that happier people spend more money on things that make them happy and things that maintain that happiness. And that’s experiences, not just things. That’s art, that’s culture, that LUNCH.
What’s something I don’t know about you?
He told me something pretty good but unfortunately I promised not to share that with you. So he left me with this little nugget instead:
I can solve a Rubik’s cube. I once had a world record in solving a Rubik’s cube. I held it for about 15 minutes before someone else broke it.
So there you have it. He has a very sensible take on what he does. He’s extremely practical and knowledgeable about the business world and his vision of where it’s going. I’m sure his next business endeavor will be significant and I can’t wait to see what he does next. For all of us unconventional workers out there, I’m glad there are people like Gruen doing what he does. For now, all you freelancers and business owners out there should maybe check out Work Market.