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Apple Alum Ron Johnson Is Giving His Employees The Best Of Both The Gig Economy & Traditional Employment

The retail impresario has a new company, Enjoy, that looks like Uber for electronics–but really wants to reinvent the labor market.

“We have to create the best buying experience you’ve ever had.”

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One senses that these words have tumbled from Ron Johnson’s lips more than once in his storied career. After all, he helped Target transition into “Tar-zhay,” and then joined Steve Jobs and company to create the most successful retail concept of all time: The Apple Store. The one blip was his 2011-2013 stint as CEO of JC Penney–but as he says, “Even as hard as Penney’s was, my whole career has been a blessing.”

Ron Johnson, CEO of Enjoy

The one thing Johnson had never done was launch a startup–until now. Enjoy, Johnson’s new “personal commerce” platform, launched Wednesday in New York after officially opening for business in San Francisco just a week ago. It’s clear from the broad smile he wears easily and his long, passionate answers that Johnson is having as much fun as did in those early days with Jobs, picking out tables on which to display Apple’s products.

Enjoy is what Johnson describes as a third way to buy goods, rather than through physical stores and traditional e-commerce. Enjoy sells a select set of consumer electronics—GoPro cameras, DJI drones, Sonos home speakers, Specialized motorized bikes, select HP and Lenovo notebooks, and as of this coming Tuesday, AT&T smartphones—and when you purchase an item through Enjoy’s site, one of its Experts hand delivers it to you and spends as much time as it takes to help you get up and running to, um, enjoy it. This concierge service, which Johnson (the creator of Apple’s Genius Bar concept) is quick to note is not tech support, is free with purchase–and the price of the goods are the same as buying them anywhere else. “This is about getting the most out of your new product,” he says.

Talking about the business model that lets Johnson pull this off puts a distinct twinkle in his eyes. He’s hand-picking the brands he wants to sell, including devices like drones because even the most experienced gadget nerd can benefit from some one-on-one flight instructions. “This is not just for, like, your parents,” he says. Because he doesn’t spend any of his margin on physical space or sophisticated back-end logistics, Enjoy can put time and money into training its Experts. Device makers like Enjoy because this hands-on training can help reduce returns, and they are working with Enjoy to encourage customers to use their products in specific ways. GoPro, for example, wants people to share the footage they capture on the cameras, so when a customer buys a GoPro from Enjoy, an Expert comes to their house and shoots and distributes a video with them.

Johnson sees a lot of opportunity to be the seller of choice for connected home devices—or any situation in which a smartphone acts as your remote control. Although he doesn’t come out and say it, he’s taking a very Apple-like approach to the market, selling high-end, high-margin products with a high-touch approach that may pay dividends down the line. Already Johnson offers a standalone $99 Expert visit to help customers with a previously purchased product, and he hints that more Enjoy services are yet to come.

A startup, even in today’s frothy environment, doesn’t raise $30 million in its first round of funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, and Oak Investment Partners with just an “Uber for the Genius Bar” pitch. Johnson is also selling the idea that he is reinventing the labor market. “The product is one of our people,” Johnson says proudly. Unlike most on-demand startups, Johnson is hiring full-time employees–but the twist is that he is offering the benefits of being a salaried employee with the purported advantages of being a contract worker. That means Experts get equity and benefits and are part of a team from “day one,” Johnson says, while also getting to “name their hours, location, and adjust their hours in real time and have the freedom of mobile employees.”

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Johnson gets particularly animated describing this vision, relating how the dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, challenged him and his team to decide whether they were building their company for their customers or their employees. “Everyone knew,” Johnson says. “We’re building it for the Experts.” Enjoy is hiring well-scrubbed creatives pursuing a personal dream like “actors, pastry chefs, musicians”—people, he says, “with the best EQ you’ve ever seen. They’re unbelievable at human connections.” Enjoy gives them a flexible job while they pursue their passion. “We can create jobs with tech, not eliminate them,” Johnson says. It takes a while, but Johnson finally lays his cards on the table, revealing what must be on the slide that gets venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen hot and bothered: “We want to change the way people work. Electronics is just the beginning for personal commerce.”

Johnson mentions health care as another arena where he can bring this new model, and suggests there are many others. Installing your Sonos system is merely a prelude that gets you comfortable with the idea of having an aspiring pastry chef in your home creating an experience around something you’ve purchased.

How it works

Johnson, 56, has clearly fallen hard for startup life and creating something from scratch. After JC Penney, Marc Andreessen told him to take a year off and do nothing. But in his first month as a free agent, he was getting “10 requests an hour,” many of them from startups. He decided to make himself available, for no money, and he spoke with the likes of Jawbone, Airbnb, Sonos, Instacart, Dropbox, and Box. “Startups are filled with believers,” Johnson says. “There are no constraints. It’s liberating.”

Later, when I ask him what he’s learned since he launched Enjoy, he talks about letting go more and doing his best work by inspiring others to do their best work–but then pivots to admit, “The best thing about running a privately held company is that you don’t have to be in a hurry. We’re building this company one visit at a time. At Penney’s, we went way too fast. Everyone agrees that we had the right idea, but we moved faster than we could learn. Enjoy is another step in a really wonderful work life.”

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