Anonymous app Blind gives tech workers a 'modern union'
Dec 4, 2019
Anonymous app Blind gives tech workers a 'modern union'
Workers blow-off steam about salaries or scandals in Softbank-backed venture
YIFAN YU, Nikkei staff writer
December 04, 2019 12:03 JST
TeamBlind got its start in South Korea but soon set its sights on the U.S. market. PALO ALTO, U.S. -- WeWork's failed IPO was a nightmare for SoftBank, which invested nearly $10 billion in the co-working space provider that went from a valuation of $47 billion to, according to some, nearly zero. But WeWork's woes turned out to be good news for another SoftBank-backed venture: TeamBlind. As rumors swirled in October that WeWork's proposed public offering was in trouble, its employees flocked to Blind, a social networking app created by the South Korean startup specifically for workers to share information about their company and working conditions anonymously. In less than a month, the number of WeWork users on Blind doubled and is now over 2,000, according to TeamBlind. Since entering the U.S. market in 2015, Blind has become a favorite forum for employees of some of the world's biggest tech companies, and while most of the posts are innocuous -- requests for job advice or tips on salaries, for example -- they can also be explosive. In 2018, a worker at Lyft posted that employees at the ride haling company were using a backdoor in Lyft's software to track their partners or stalk passengers they were attracted to. Within a month, sign-ups from Lyft had doubled as current and former employees rushed to share their own stories on Blind. After the posts were picked up by mainstream media, the company launched an investigation into the matter. Employees embrace outside WeWork corporate headquarters in Manhattan on Nov. 21. Blind has seen an influx of users from the troubled co-working space startup. © Reuters
Founded in 2013 and initially focused on the South Korean market, TeamBlind's U.S. push has benefited from a fast-growing tech industry rife with scandals ranging from user privacy invasion to toxic work environments. Now, with backing from SoftBank, the startup is looking to expand its foothold in the U.S. even further and turn profitable "soon." The idea for Blind was born when co-founder Sunguk Moon was working for South Korean search engine giant Naver in 2009. The company had an internal chat board where employees could anonymously discuss work and life issues. But according to Moon, Naver shut down the platform after employees started using it to talk about sensitive topics. Seeing an unmet need for anonymous communication, Moon and two other colleagues quit their jobs and founded TeamBlind in 2013. Their first batch of users were their former coworkers at Naver. Signing up for the platform requires a valid company email address, and there are both company-specific channels where employees from the same workplace can interact, and a public channel open to any registered user. TeamBlind's first big break, in 2014, came from a bag of nuts. That December, the daughter of Korean Air' s chairman was flying out of New York when she became enraged over how she was served a bag of nuts. After berating the flight attendant, she forced the plane to return to its gate. The "nut rage" scandal eventually made global headlines, but details of the incident were first shared on Blind. The incident raised the app's profile almost overnight. More than 40,000 employees at LG Electronics and more than 15,000 at Samsung Electronics have signed up, according to the company. "If you work for a big firm in [South] Korea, you probably know about us," said Kyum Kim, another co-founder and head of TeamBlind's U.S. operations. That success spurred the Blind team to aim for even bigger markets. By some measures, Silicon Valley has become a country of its own over the few past decades. The big five tech companies -- Facebook, Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon -- put more than 1 million people to work between 2000 and 2018. If the area was a country, it would have the second-highest per capita GDP in the world, just behind oil-producing Qatar. But while the tech firms have grown in size and power, the culture of openness that such companies were once known for has started to fade. "Some U.S. companies are structured in a way that has caused limitations in transparency within the company. Sometimes it's not intentional, it's just because the company is so big," Kim said. "There's a lot of information not being shared within companies like Google and Facebook, but the employees are seeking out to that information to navigate between jobs," he added. To break into the U.S. market, the team took a low-tech approach. In early 2015, Kim and his team spent weeks posting flyers in the parking lots of Amazon and Microsoft at their Seattle headquarters. This was enough to get the first few hundred seed users, which, the company says, has expanded into over 1 million users across 2,000 different U.S. companies in less than two years. Blind's push comes at a time when the U.S. tech companies are tightening their control on internal information flows. In November, the New York Times reported that Google had enlisted a known anti-union consultancy for advice "as it deals with widespread worker unrest, including accusations that it has retaliated against organizers of a global walkout and cracked down on dissent inside the company." Soon after, the search engine giant fired four employees for what the company said were violations of its data-security policies. "As all industries modernize, you are not going to unionize the same way it used to be," said Sherman Li, partner at SoftBank Ventures Asia, which led a $15 million investment in Blind last year. Based in Seoul, SoftBank Ventures Asia is the early-stage investment arm of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. "Blind is the only way right now you can organize at companies like Google, to discuss things like what happened to that canceled weekly meeting," Li said. Fear of retaliation from management has been one of the main factors driving employees to use Blind, according to Li. Amid such changes, Blind has become more than just a place for workers to vent. It has also become a way to spur companies to act on uncomfortable issues. In 2017, a former Uber employee said in a blog post that several women at the company had reported a manager for sexual misconduct but no action had been taken. Within the month of that post, Blind said, users from Uber nearly tripled. Discussion of the incident quickly kindled a debate about the company's "toxic" culture and the broader "Me too" movement in the male-dominated big tech firms. "Blind is doing what has to be done at this time of age: It's adding transparency and reshaping the work culture in the U.S.," Li said. Not all companies love the idea of a platform where employees can air workplace issues. Uber and Tesla, among others, have tried to block staff access to the platform by blocking verification emails from going through, Blind said. Another way to restrict access is to block the app on company networks, a measure Tesla briefly took in June. TeamBlind has tried to win over companies by portraying its app as a human resources tool. "You are not going to find out what your staff is thinking through an annual survey. At Blind, you can gauge the sentiment among the employees on a daily basis," Kim said. "Some company management may view that negatively ... but I think what really sets Blind apart from other anonymous social networks is that the platform really allows transparent feedback about the company and helps them improve company culture." Just shy of six years old, the startup has yet to turn a profit and says growth will remain the top priority for the next year or two. TeamBlind has already started generating revenue from posting targeted job replacements and other advertisements to highly skilled and paid tech workers. In the future, Blind said it expects to generate revenue from other business segments such as paid career consulting. "It's not a capital-intensive business model and is not burning a lot of cash. ... We expect to be profitable soon once the platform and community development are done," Li said. After last year's capital injection led by SoftBank Ventures Asia, Blind said it is well-equipped to tackle the next targeted market in the U.S.: financial institutions, which are hiring more and more tech workers as the industry goes digital. TeamBlind is also planning to bring the service back to Asia via countries such as Japan and Singapore where big U.S. tech firms have set up offices and are hiring engineers to expand in the region. "We are following wherever the tech talents are going," said Kim. Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia
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