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Startup Spotlight

Build Back Better for the Gig Economy with Herb Coakley, CEO of Courial

March 31, 2022

· 10 min read
Danielle J. Harris
Danielle J. Harris Managing Director, Engagement & Innovation

At Elemental, we don’t believe in tinkering on the edges, and seek companies passionate about tackling the real meat of a problem. That’s why we selected the gig-work innovation startup Courial for Cohort X. Courial is a last-mile courier service for everything that’s empowering gig workers nationwide with a people-first approach to technology and reducing GHGs through its efficient routing algorithm and electrified vehicle incentives.

Our streets are the circulatory system of our cities, and they are changing rapidly. In what’s becoming the new normal in many cities, cars idle outside our favorite local restaurants, clogging up neighborhood streets, and increasing travel time for emergency response vehicles and public transit during already busy traffic times. We’ve become accustomed to who knows how many vehicles stopping abruptly on our block at all times of day. And everyone getting more deliveries at all times of day comes at the cost of increased transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s frustrating and occasionally you want to give an earful to whoever is behind the wheel. But when seeking to understand this problem in San Francisco for the late Mayor Lee, I was shocked to find gig drivers face a dilemma: risk receiving another pricey citation and impending road rage or get kicked off the app and ultimately lose your livelihood. Stressful, right?

The cracks of the gig economy have been exposed, leaving many immigrant, BIPOC, and low-wage workers at the mercy of big tech.

Over the years we’ve seen photos of gig workers marching to the doors of some of the biggest names in tech, and issues around working conditions for gig workers prompted the most expensive ballot initiative in California history. The ballot initiative proposed a blanket approach, turning the entire contractor classification on its head rather than addressing gig workers’ unique labor challenges. The cracks of the gig economy have been exposed, leaving many immigrant, BIPOC, and low-wage workers at the mercy of big tech. Meanwhile, the effects of the pandemic have shifted our behavior for the long-term as on-demand delivery, once a convenience, has become the default for many households.

So I was completely enamored when I met a former startup founder and gig worker with a big heart, Herb Coakley. As the CEO and Founder of Courial, Herb believes that instead of changing laws or expecting certain well-known companies to change their stripes, “we can redesign this system better.”

I recently spoke with Herb about how, since demand for gig-based service is not going away, this is the moment to get it right by enabling people to work with dignity and reducing the GHG emissions from so many cars idling on our streets.

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Herb, I remember when Harry first connected us and told me you were a former gig driver, I was juiced because I just knew Courial would be different. And it was! Can you share some of the driver pain points you wanted to design out when you created Courial?

As a gig worker, there was a lot I didn’t like, but whenever we were huddled together waiting for orders I started to see consistencies in our complaints. And that was the beginning of the idea that we can build something better.

One issue at the top of everyone’s mind was the gamification algorithms, the way these big companies use technology to force you to stay on their platform. You feel like you’re on a hamster wheel, responding to pings, hustling to make bonuses and driving around for hours without even knowing where you are. Everything is synchronized in such a way to put you in a trance-like mindset to keep you on their platform.

Another issue was transparency, where it always felt like they were hiding the ball. They would show you as little as possible about the offer, and most of the time you had no idea where the drop off was until you accepted the offer. That was a huge complaint because being a gig worker is essentially running a small business, and the more information we have, the better decisions we can make for our businesses. So my goal was to build something that also had complete transparency.

Herb Coakley talking with coworker

The final piece was about community. Any opportunity we had to congregate as gig workers, you got the sense that no one was talking to anyone all day. We were in our cars, in these little silos following this technology all day, not really interacting with anyone. So whenever we met we would just light up, talking about where we were from and what issues we were facing. And when you got your ping and left that small moment of community you felt physically and emotionally recharged from the human interaction of like-minded people.

That sense of community was so important in building Courial, creating a place where gig workers felt like they belonged and were an integral part of the platform.

You made a really conscious decision for Courial to opt towards greater driver control and enabling drivers to set their rate and work area, which is obviously great for the workers. Can you share the business rationale for that decision?

One of the reasons the market leaders have struggled so much with profitability is because their churn rates are so high. And the churn rates are so high because of the dissatisfaction of the gig workers.

Not to oversimplify it, but from a technical point of view the technology to do this type of thing is not very complicated. Our idea was that since the technology doesn’t define you, it has to be about the relationship with people. We’re finding that creating a space where gig workers feel more comfortable and appreciated, where they have more information and can make better decisions, they perform better.

That creates a much better relationship between all the stakeholders, and also helps us become known as the place to work if you want to do gig work. While the market leaders have to spend huge amounts of money to attract and retain workers, our turnover is near zero and we’re onboarding over 1,000 new drivers per month, all based on word of mouth because gig drivers are so excited about the type of company we are building.

Courial delivering a bottle of wine

With so many different delivery platforms, can you share who Courial’s customers are and what exactly are your couriers delivering for them?

Courial was created to be a service that allows anything imaginable to be brought to you. At first, I focused heavily on the B2C (business-to-customer) relationship — we’d deliver a sandwich, or a bottle of wine you want to send to a friend, medicine from the pharmacy, or a dining room table. But we’ve been surprised how much businesses see even more value in Courial’s service. For example, we partnered with EZ Cater, an on-demand catering company that was fed up with the process that they had in place for delivery with some of the market leaders. They liked that we were a startup and were doing things differently with favorable business practices. And as we continue to surpass what they need, they just give us more and more work.

If you start with human kindness, and then you add technology to smooth out the edges, you create a much better product.

We’re receiving more interest from enterprise companies that see an opportunity to evolve their current courier needs and benefit from the advancements in delivery. I’m excited to see how we can continue to push the model with different types of deliveries. For instance, we had a company deliver a rocket engine because we have Courials (our courier partners) with access to semi trucks on the platform. We’re committed to delivering anything — from a set of keys to a rocket engine — because the process is identical so long as you have the proper tools to get something from point A to point B.

There’s also an opportunity for organic marketing there as our B2B (business-to-business) customers often come with a lot of customers already. They’re just looking for somebody to take the product from point A to point B. When our Courials make those deliveries, they’ll talk and tell them about who we are and then they’ll start ordering stuff from us outside of work. So the B2B side of our business is actually fueling the growth of the B2C side.

Elemental is known for its commitment to climate action and a delivery company isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think about climate. Can you share how Courial is centering climate in the business?

One thing we’re doing is providing higher wages to our Courials who use electrified vehicles, so they get to keep more of the delivery economics. We understand that the future of gig economy work has to be centered around better global solutions and we want to minimize our carbon footprint. What better way to do that than to incentivize our drivers to switch to electric vehicles?

Courial driver standing by EV

On the technology side, we’ve created an efficient algorithm that allows not just for smart routing and matching the right people in the right area for the right deliveries, but also communication between everyone along the lifecycle of a delivery, which means the courier, our live dispatch center, and the customer all have transparency into the order. Nobody else does that, and it means that our Courials don’t get lost as much and don’t have to wait long to pick up deliveries. When you look at what’s contributing to congestion and inefficient driving, there are a lot of gig workers out there running back and forth trying to find their destination and time their orders just right. Our algorithm and communication integration cuts down on that.

I think it’s really great you offer a support center for drivers. I regularly pepper my drivers with questions about their operations and am shocked by how challenging their role is. I imagine if you’re not a gig driver, you can’t fully comprehend how comforting it is to have Courial’s support center with its level of communication.

Let me share some feedback we got from one of our Courials, who said that our team is friendly, helpful, and actually human. That might sound simplistic, but it’s so important that they feel that they’re interacting with humans, not robots. She also said, “It’s extremely rare and incredibly refreshing to partner with a company that communicates and supports their drivers.” That word “partner” meant everything to me.

I’ve discovered what I’ve been calling “gig work PTSD.” A lot of our Courials have worked for the market leaders for some time. So when they come to us, they’re immediately suspicious and often very, very angry. But after working with us that mindset turns around completely in the way they interact with us, with each other, and with clients.

Human kindness is so often overlooked. But if you start with human kindness, and then you add technology to smooth out the edges, you create a much better product, and a much better relationship for everyone involved with the delivery.

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