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Anyone in the service and retail industries will tell you missing a single work shift can throw a whole month into flux. Rent becomes a little tighter, groceries a little more expensive, and stress a whole lot higher. Canada-to-Seattle startup Shyft is working to eliminate that headache by introducing a mobile scheduling app that lets workers swap shifts and adjust their availability from their smart devices. As Seattle’s debate over secure scheduling and the impending $15 minimum wage heats up, 30-year-old cofounder and CEO Brett Patrontasch has his eyes on handing employees the power to respond to work demands in real time.  As told to Kade Krichko

Paint with Numbers

I was studying business at McGill University in Montreal, and in my third year I started a company called Scholars at Your Service, which is a painting franchisor that helped college students around Quebec and Ontario run residential painting businesses. Six years later, by 2012, we’d built it up into a $2.5 million-a-year business that employed 50 to 70 franchisees and about 250 painters. It was a great business, but it was hard to scale.

Angel Investment Education

I didn’t think of myself as a techy person. But I wanted to get into cool new things, so I started angel investing in companies coming out of the Montreal startup scene. One, Oohlala Mobile, is a campus engagement platform that helps campus administration connect with their students over mobile platforms. Helping them scale became my education in mobile. It was there that I realized what these guys were doing with university students had a clear parallel to baristas and fast food employees.

Coffee on the Go

My first take on solving this problem was to build a product that would help national brands communicate with their frontline workers on mobile. Like, let’s help McDonald’s send push notifications to shift workers so that they can tell them to smile at the customer or to sell a limited time offer. I met our CTO, Daniel Chen, at University of Toronto, then we added our current director of growth, Chris Pitchford, and lead mobile developer, Kyle Liu, to build this product, but I had only thought about it from an employer’s side. Coffee Mobile helped us realize that we’d built the project upside down. This should be for the employees, not the employers.

Shyfting Gears

About a year ago, we launched Shyft in Toronto. We wanted to focus completely on user needs, so Chris and I spent three or four months in shopping malls across the greater Toronto area, speaking with thousands of shift workers to show our product and get feedback—what they liked, what they didn’t, what would make them want to use this.

The Next Level at the Right Time

Our early launch allowed us to build enough traction to get into [the business incubator] Techstars Seattle in early 2016. During that time, we grew our user base by 400 percent, and now we have really strong user accounts with McDonald’s, Starbucks, Old Navy, and a few other big names. Little did we know when we came to Seattle that we would be at the forefront of the $15-an-hour wage and secure-schedule movement. It’s the epicenter of what we’re focusing on. I’m not going to lie and say this is a social mission. But we all have to go to work to do something, so why not go to work and create some change?

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