Kerranna Williamson, founder of vāga, a new remote working platform that connects workers with workspaces—like airbnb for nomadic professionals—is one part nomad, and one part entrepreneur. This explains her new Silicon Harbor startup, now at home in the Harbor Accelerator. She has recently found her way home to Charleston after years of traveling around the United States and Europe in her natural habitat of remote entrepreneur. She managed research, advocacy and prevention projects for Fight Corolectal Cancer. She was an MCAT coach and consultant, and also worked for the French biotech startup, Neolys Diagnostics. Finally, right before returning to her old stomping grounds, she graduated with an MBA from EMLYON Business School in France.
Having worked remotely for most of her career—after she decided to leave medical school for the world of research—she ran into a problem. No matter where in the world she found a space to work it was incredibly inconvenient. She busied herself making cost comparison spreadsheets of available workspaces throughout cities she visited. This approach was both time consuming and costly.
While in business school, Williamson used a class project as an opportunity to tackle this universal problem among remote workers, and the seed was planted for vāga, a workspace sharing platform designed to bring remote workers to the space they need anytime, anywhere. Williamson’s goal, she said, “Is to bridge the gap so that access is no longer an issue.” The only parameter for users—both renters and landlords alike—is that it is a short-term rental. Workspaces range from offices and conference rooms, to commercial kitchens and warehouses. Remote workers are spared the headache of tracking down affordable space, and landlords are saving on overhead by filling up unused space.
Users create a profile and post their workspaces or space needs and make the suitable connections. The platform has a contact feature built in because many people want to communicate before going forward with the agreement. The whole process from search, to communication, to monetary transaction can happen in one place, in a few simple steps. It’s like airbnb for workspaces.
The rise of remote working is a testament to the connection between lifestyle and productivity. Thirty-four million Americans currently work from home, a number expected to rise to 63 million by 2016—that’s 43 percent of the population. Scott Berkun’s list of 100% Distributed Teams, will surprise you. Why are companies taking this step? Large corporations have done the research, and found the model successful in raising their bottom line. IBM found that their teleworkers are 50 percent more productive than those working on-site. Cisco saves $227 million annually by allowing their employees to work remotely.
So why exactly are employees more successful when they work from home? Stanford University Professor of Economics, Nicholas Bloom and graduate student James Liang of Ctrip, conducted a controlled study. They wanted to compare productivity and employee satisfaction between those working remotely versus those in the office. Bloom and Liang found that remote workers were 13.5 percent more productive, reported higher levels of job satisfaction and were less likely to quit than their office counterparts. Ctrip saved $1,900 per employee over the course of the nine month study.
Williamson’s own experience working remotely is precisely what she credits as giving her the conviction that got her accepted into CoHort2 of the Harbor Accelerator. It’s the look born from the taste of self-motivated success, and a hunger for problem-solving. She has lived the inherently entrepreneurial remote working lifestyle. What drove her to work away? She loves to travel and always dreamed of being able to work productively from anywhere. Williamson learned early, she said, that “I’m most productive in my work when I have the freedom to choose my work environment.” Working remotely has given her opportunities to collaborate with people and companies she may not have otherwise. Her personal experience proves the statistics right and she pursues a game-changing technology for the world of remote working.
“Vāga,” she said, “is my gateway to pursuing business opportunities in the world of remote working.” Only a born entrepreneur would chose starting their own company as a gateway. Before CoHort2 began back in July, Williamson thought she would plug away on her own for a few more months before applying to an accelerator, but the advisory team talked her into starting and taking advantage of the support system. She weighed the options and said, “The best decision was to jump in.”
Williamson feels that her first business is her personal minimum viable product. She’s proving to herself that she can in fact be an entrepreneur. When you hear her talk about her business, it’s clear that she already is. Williamson wants to be an entrepreneur because, as she said, “I like problems… I like that it’s fast-paced, and I like having people that will give me criticism and feedback. I think the hardest part for me is balancing it out… and wearing all the hats.”
Now that the vāga demo is up and running and users are signing up daily—thirty and counting so far—Williamson is moving past the difficult part of her many jobs. With very little background in tech, the project management aspect of setting up the platform was a challenge. Luckily her pitch in front of the Harbor mentors landed her the consult of Jack Russell Software CEO, Tom Wilson, who thought his background would benefit Williamson. Wilson suggested that Williamson leverage Amazon mechanical turk—a work-for-hire model, which allows a project manager to get many routine tasks completed by qualified workers. “Going from idea to business without being able to go in and build it myself has forced me to really figure out what exactly people need and want. How can I meet those needs now? And when I build the platform how can I fill their requirements,” she said. She is encouraging users to make the platform their own, thereby crowdsourcing the development features as she tests the service.
Williamson hopes that by using her demo to prove her concept locally, that she will get the funding she needs to build her dream platform and scale vāga beyond Charleston. Wilson believes that Williamson’s biggest challenge will be in marketing her product to renters, as well as branding vāga as the de facto service. This, however, is the hat she’s most excited to wear.
Another quality funders often look for is a level of conviction that goes beyond attachment to the ideas that you start with. If you’re going to succeed, you need to be agile in every area of your business. Williamson is leveraging her user base because she knows, and in fact hopes “the product is going to change from the vision of what I want,” she said. It’s about what the users want.
Building a business from scratch is inherently risky, and Williamson remains unfazed. “I love the idea that I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow, or even by the end of today,” she said. If there’s anything that points to success it’s passion, and Williamson is not lacking in this category. “I’m validated everyday because I absolutely love it, and it’s working,” she said.
Williamson has what it takes to put vāga in the hands of the world’s mobile workers, and it’s exciting that Charleston has first access to the free platform. If you currently work remotely—or dream of doing so—check out the platform to see if it has the kind of space you need. If not, contact Williamson and tell her what you need. If you’re someone who visits Charleston a lot, get out of the coffee shops and hotel lobbies, and get comfortable in a professional space. Consider a new approach to work where you aren’t tied down, and show your bosses the numbers. Remote work is coming, and vāga will be its facilitator.