When coronavirus lockdowns forced businesses to shutter and pushed millions from their jobs earlier this year, Francesca Chia had her work cut out.
Within days of Malaysia introducing movement restrictions in mid-March, mirroring much of the rest of the world, the Kuala Lumpur-based entrepreneur was onboarding and finding jobs for thousands of workers in need of new income.
"In one weekend, we trained the equivalent of a month's worth of workers," Chia told CNBC Make It.
The 32-year-old is the co-founder and CEO of GoGet, an on-demand work platform that connects businesses and consumers with verified gig workers for flexible tasks like deliveries, catering and admin.
Under the pandemic, the six-year-old company has seen its network of gig workers — known as GoGetters — almost double to 20,000 amid surging demand for casual work. Meanwhile, its suite of ad hoc services has proved essential for its almost 300,000 independent users and 5,000 business partners, who include multinationals like Ikea and L'Oreal.
"We could not ever be more timely as a solution than we are right now," said Chia, whose growing platform was one of the few to receive special approval to continue operating under lockdowns.
"With GoGet, we were able to create more flexible jobs while ensuring the city was still connected," she said.
That vital role has not gone unnoticed by investors, either, who this month pumped $2 million in Series A funding into the company to support its continued growth in Malaysia and beyond. But it's a far cry from when the self-professed "accidental entrepreneur" started out in 2014 with co-founders, Tai Fung Wei Tan, now 32, and Muaz Jema Khan, 30.
An accidental entrepreneur
The Northwestern University grad, who was 26 at that time, was working 80 to 100-hour weeks as a consultant in the capital of her native Malaysia.
The little reprieve she and her friends enjoyed for long hours was eating local dishes like nasi lemak (a dish consisting of fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf) over lunchtime. But with free time in short supply and delivery services then limited in the congested city, they were in a bind.
So, seeing the rise of gig platforms in the U.S. and Europe and the proliferation of smartphones in Southeast Asia, they decided to do something about it.
"When you're in a meeting, there's someone actually at your favorite food stall, eating or queueing up," the former consultant at Boston Consulting Group said, describing the so-called 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of people tend to concentrate among 20% of local businesses. "We said what if you could send a message to the nearest person and pay them (to run that task)?"
"That's how the beginning of GoGet started," said Chia. "We believed in crowdsourcing and connecting the city in a whole new way."
Soon the trio set to work building a tech-enabled platform to connect workers to quick, flexible tasks, learning to code and self-funding the project from the start.
Fixing a 'broken labor market'
It was a process Chia dubbed "unlocking hidden inventory" in the city. But what she wasn't prepared for was the type of inventory she would find.
"What shocked me was who came through the door," said Chia, who would personally onboard and train each applicant in the company's early days to understand their motives for joining (a process which has since been automated).
Rather than the typical troop of students and temp workers, Chia was met by a broad range of sign-ups, from new mothers unable to find regular work to full-time bankers looking for extra cash to fund their everyday expenses.
That highlighted to her a broader issue that would set the founders on a mission to remedy what they saw as a failed jobs landscape.
"The pain that we saw was this broken labor market," said Chia. "There were people who genuinely wanted to be included, but they did not fit into this typical 9-to-5 box."
Honing in on Southeast Asia
Like other crowdsourced job platforms, the promise of GoGet is on-demand, flexible tasks for both workers and users. Users are charged a fee for each task, from which GoGet takes a small commission and the remainder goes to the GoGetter.
But, said Chia, where her platform differs from others like TaskRabbit and Upwork is that it offers inclusive work for even lower-skilled workers, who represent a large portion of the Malaysian workforce.
"In the U.S. or developed nations, you have a larger chunk of the nation being middle-to-high-skilled, so the labor market is very different in terms of landscape. The gig platforms that come out suit that market. But in Southeast Asia, 70% is really low-to-middle-skilled," she said.
To that end, GoGet offers work across two main buckets: Business, which focuses on logistics, sales and marketing, operations and admin services for commercial clients; and home and life, which is tailored toward individual users who need help with ad hoc tasks such as pet care, household chores, shopping and event planning.
A growing industry
That focus has been especially vital during the Covid-19 pandemic, as social distancing measures and mass layoffs have forced many people from their jobs and sparked new demand for services. In May, unemployment in the Southeast Asian nation hit 5.3% — a figure which has since dipped to 4.7%.
Kuo-Yi Lim, co-founder and managing partner of Monk's Hill Ventures, the Singapore-based venture capital firm which led the $2 million investment into GoGet, said the platform has offered a new solution for a rapidly changing workforce.
"The nature of work is being redefined as companies and workers seek both flexibility and fit. This trend has been accelerated by the pandemic, as businesses are transforming in response and require a more elastic workforce," said Lim.
Chia said the team plans to use the funding to meet growing demand in Malaysia and potentially new markets in Asia. It will do that by investing in technology, sales and digital marketing, and expanding its team, which still today stands at just 15 — a figure unchanged since 2015.
Protecting gig workers
Still, gig work platforms are not without their critics due to the perceived lack of protection they offer workers. In the U.S., apps like Uber and Lyft remain in a contentious battle with the Labor Department over whether they should classify drivers as contractors or employees.
For GoGet's part, the company provided additional remote training during lockdown to help workers cope with new requests such as digital payments and residential deliveries.
It's part of Chia's wider ambition goal to provide a comprehensive support package for workers, which today includes savings and insurance, as well as qualification badges and the ability for users to "favorite" their preferred GoGetters.
"We always wanted to make sure that people didn't start associating gig work to low protection. For us, gig work was the thing we wanted to protect. That's why we entered this," she said.
To that end, the company has been working closely with the Malaysian government for the past five years to bring about more security for gig workers.
"My belief is that the more we protect and bring benefits to the workers, and provide similar benefits to full-time employment, the more this type of work is solidified as a fundamental option for people to choose," said Chia.
Earlier this year, the government extended its social security benefits to include more self-employed people working in informal sectors such as food delivery and household work. Under the wage subsidy scheme, gig workers can receive protection against injuries and illnesses obtained while working.
And Chia's hopeful, in that, Malaysia can become a global standard-bearer.
"I do hope the Malaysian government sets that standard," she said. "It would be amazing because genuinely this is a job creation platform, so for the government, this should be something that they want to care about: We create jobs for the nation."
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