High Growth Startup, 0 Employees

An area I’m especially fascinated with is the future of work. Of course, the pandemic significantly broadened that interest through forced remote/virtual work and many discussions of how the office will change going forward. Last week I read one of the most incredible examples of a high growth startup scaling successfully with zero employees. Yes, no employees, eight figures of revenue, and almost a triple digit growth rate. So, how does it work? Let’s dive in.

No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees by Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gum Road, is fascinating. A few of the highlights:

  • Overarching personal goal for the founder is “freedom at all costs”, meaning he runs the business, the business doesn’t run him
  • No meetings — everything is done via extensive writing in tools like GitHub and Notion
  • Everything is managed as Tasks in Notion
  • No goals or OKRS, just a single North Star: maximizing how much creators earn (Gumroad is a platform for creators to get paid)
  • Product roadmap is public
  • Minimum viable culture with no “forced” socializing
  • Everyone is a contractor paid highly competitive hourly rates ($50/hr – $250/hr)
  • Hiring is done via a form, multi-hour unpaid assessment doing a hypothetical project, then a paid few-week trial
  • Internal document for all employees that shows hourly pay and hours worked
  • No perks — just cash and flexibility (no healthcare, no technology stipend, etc.)
  • Many of the contractors were found as they were already Gumroad users and part of the creator economy
  • “Anti-overtime” rate of 50% of the hourly rate if a person works over 20 hours in a week (goal is for everyone to work 20 hours a week or less)

Reading the post, several questions come to mind:

  • How doable is this without the amazing pipeline of potential contractors that are already in the community of customers?
  • What type of person values flexibility above all else? What approximate percentage of the population?
  • Does a digital, asynchronous-only culture matter over the long haul for continued success?
  • What does contractor turnover look like? How similar or different is turnover to normal tech startups at a similar stage?

The “anti-overtime” rate really gets me thinking as it’s a catalytic mechanism to align the internal expectations with the contractor‘s wallet. We’re here to work no more than 20 hours/week. If you need more time to do whatever, go for it, but it’s at your discretion and at a significantly reduced rate.

Thinking about contractors working no more than 20 hours week, it likely aligns with how much “real” work gets done in a normal 40 hour week. Time spent in meetings, going to lunch, socializing at the water cooler (virtual or otherwise), etc. likely isn’t “creator” time but does have social value and cultural importance. When it’s stripped away and time is only spent on the desired output, what changes?

Overall, No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees is an incredible read that feels like a new type of business where the working style fills an unmet need for some (many?) people. I believe the trend of contractors, freelancers, gig workers is only accelerating and a company like Gumroad is the logical extreme. The big question: when does something that seems extreme today become commonplace?

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