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How an on-demand startup is capitalizing on the freelance economy

Morris Gelblum and the Sweeps team - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

The Sweeps team

In 2009, San Francisco entrepreneurs Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp began building a transportation startup that would become one of the most powerful players in the on-demand economy: Uber.

Around the same time on the opposite coast, then-UNC Kenan-Flagler student Morris Gelblum (BSBA ’10) was developing an on-demand company of his own: Sweeps.

The idea stemmed from an assignment for one of Ted Zoller’s entrepreneurship classes. Zoller challenged students to identify an everyday problem and use their business knowledge to develop a solution. Gelblum came up with a way to solve two.

At the time, his company, Sweeps – which he co-founded with his mom, Mary Lou, in 2006 – was a Raleigh-based cleaning company. Zoller’s class inspired Gelblum to pivot. His new vision for Sweeps was to create a marketplace to connect Chapel Hill’s overflowing talent pool of college students and recent grads seeking flexible, part-time work with members of the community who need help with various, often impromptu jobs – from cleaning and moving furniture to web development and event planning.

Gelblum reinvented Sweeps in 2010, leveraging technology to automate processes and offer a seamless customer experience, making the company an early player in the on-demand economy. His commitment to providing flexible, custom-tailored job opportunities for college students – long before workplace flexibility became a trending topic – also differentiated the company from the start.

As Sweeps has grown, so has its leadership team – which now includes fellow Tar Heels Bryce Holcomb (BSBA ’13) and Charlie Hobbs (BA ’10). In 2016, the company was named Best University Born Business of the Year by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

We sat down with Gelblum to learn more about how Sweeps has benefited from offering unique value propositions for customers and employees.

Sweeps was built to provide flexibility job opportunities, which are in high-demand among today’s workforce. What inspired your commitment to workplace flexibility?
I started Sweeps because I knew firsthand that between classes and other commitments, it can be difficult – if not impossible – for college students to hold down a full-time job.

Given that our intent was to create jobs for college students, flexibility was a necessity. But beyond that, the workforce is shifting to a freelance economy. The idea of working a 9-to-5 job that you stay at for 30 years is changing. Work-life balance and work-life integration have emerged as trends in the workforce. Flexible work opportunities are a necessity for college students, but I also think the concept will be adopted much more broadly.

From a personal perspective, it’s very important to me and my team to love what we do and do what we love – it’s one of our core values at Sweeps. For us, that means living where we want to and working the hours we want to. I like to work late at night. Others like to get up and work really early. If one of us wants to go exercise at 3pm, we’re okay with that. Bryce and I are spending the summer in a little surf town in Sayulita, Mexico. Before that, we were in Winter Park, Colorado. And before that, we were in North Carolina with Charlie for a company retreat.

We harness a lot of tools that allow us to run the company from anywhere in the world. Having that flexibility means we’re generally excited to get up and get to work every day. It’s a big part of what we do.

How did you become an early player in the on-demand and service economies?
We reinvented Sweeps in 2010, which I think was before the term “on-demand economy” was coined.

We were lucky in that the timing of our launch coincided with advances in technology and a surge in the popularity of smart phones. Our labor pool – college students – also happened to be early adopters. We leveraged technology and built an automated system that dispatches Sweepers as soon as a new job comes in.

Our concept is similar to Uber. But instead of getting a taxi on-demand, you can post a job you need done immediately – from having a sub delivered to your door to helping you move. As soon as you post a job, an email and text notification goes out to Sweepers in your area. Over 1000 active Sweepers are available to compete for each job. We match you with the best person based on their reviews, skills, availability and experience. When the job is complete, we automatically charge your credit card.

By introducing a unique solution to a common logistical problem and leveraging technology, we were able to be in the on-demand economy at an early stage.

How has Sweeps differentiated itself from other part-time employers that hire from the same talent pool?
For job-seekers, there are several factors: flexibility, a customized work experience, high wages and the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of roles.

We purposefully built Sweeps to provide valuable opportunities for college students. Each Sweeper is able to custom tailor their work experience by determining when, where and what kind of jobs they work. We also really try to make the experience about more than hourly jobs. For many of our Sweepers, this is their first – or one of their first – jobs. We help educate them on best practices that will help them throughout their career – things like showing up on time, dressing appropriately, being polite, etc. We’d love for Sweeps to be a foray into someone’s career.

Money obviously helps, too. Every Sweeper earns at least $15 an hour and can earn more from travel and equipment bonuses and tips.

The community aspect is also very important – we hear that on nearly every survey. Sweeps is an online-to-offline platform. That means that you’re actually meeting someone to do a job. You’re meeting customers in their homes, you’re meeting other college students on jobs. Your customer could be a professor or an elderly member of the community. These relationships are often quite valuable. They can lead to everything from new friendships to networking introductions. We find that the community aspect is a big bonus for our Sweepers.