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What happened when the “anti-Uber” hired an ex-Uber CTO

When Hello Alfred CEO Marcela Sapone hired a former Uber employee as CTO, she asked her engineering employees to articulate their values in a code of conduct.

What happened when the “anti-Uber” hired an ex-Uber CTO
Hello Alfred CEO Marcela Sapone [Photo: courtesy of Hello Alfred]

Hello Alfred, the personal concierge service that assists city dwellers with in-home services like laundry and groceries, is setting its sights high. The New York-based startup already operates in nine cities and now, with another $40 million in the bank, has plans to expand to 25 cities. Hello Alfred is “a human service with software behind it,” as CEO Marcela Sapone puts it, so to support its next phase of growth, the company needed to invest in its technical infrastructure. Enter Chris Haseman , Hello Alfred’s first chief technical officer and a former director of engineering at Uber, where he was tasked with building and leading Uber Eats.

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“The issue is that their culture is the antithesis of ours.”

“We had to find an executive who has seen growth, and when you look at what Uber did–600 cities in six years–there’s just no other,” Sapone says. “It is the only example of offline, online hypergrowth. The issue is that their culture is the antithesis of ours.”

Hello Alfred CTO Chris Haseman  [Photo: courtesy of Hello Alfred]
Haseman is indeed an unexpected choice for a company hailed as the “anti-Uber.” Since day one, Hello Alfred has sought to create “good jobs,” hiring all of its home managers–“Alfreds,” as they are called, a nod to Batman’s loyal butler–as W-2 employees with benefits. (Sapone notes that all employees, from Alfreds to engineers, now receive the same benefits.) Alfreds, who make about $20 an hour on average, according to Sapone, and “we’re hoping that over time we can pay even more.”, are given hospitality training through the “Alfred Academy” and have access to other vocational training and professional development through ongoing workshops.

When Sapone and her cofounder, Jessica Beck, launched their company in 2014, they couldn’t figure out how other on-demand startups would make money before they scaled. “We were really looking at how to build a sustainable business,” she says. “For us, it turned into if we’re going to have an employee or contractor, how do we ensure that once we give them a job, we can employ them for as long as they want to be at the company?” Despite making a decision that investors might have bristled at, Sapone claims Hello Alfred is operationally profitable. “In doing what was for us just business sense, we had also stumbled on a human aspect. We actually were orienting the entire business around the employee. From our perspective, these were our customers. If we gave them the right training tools, support, and relationship, they would provide a great customer experience. And it just felt better.”

Creating a code of conduct

So employees were understandably wary that Sapone was bringing Haseman into the fold. “They were, at first, a little bit fearful of having someone from Uber join,” she says of the company’s engineers. The team wanted to clearly articulate their company culture to Haseman –and to any future employees–so Sapone asked them to do exactly that. The result was a code of conduct that both codified Hello Alfred’s engineering values and could serve as a hiring guide going forward.

The document outlines who Hello Alfred is engineering for (“We design software for people, whether they are colleagues or customers, with consideration and empathy for their concerns and experiences”), how the team communicates (“We reach clarity and consensus by talking candidly and listening openly to one another”), and the company’s long-term outlook (“We build for enduring value and sustainable business growth, not short-term gain”).  Sometimes, Sapone says, that may mean assuming “technical debt” and taking a more difficult path to make things easier for the Alfreds. “So [our employees] put this together and wanted to sign all their names and hand it to Chris and say, ‘Chris, this is our culture. How are you going to evolve it from here?'” she says. “But this is it. You don’t get to totally rewrite it.”

“Compassionately ruthless”

Haseman , for his part, says one of the things that attracted him to Hello Alfred was the company culture and, now, codified set of engineering values. “A lot of this is exactly the kind of environment I want to build and tune and improve,” he said of the document. “So I think the changes that I make to this will be largely incremental. Reading this was, to some extent, even inspiring: How do you survive the chaos of a startup and still think about humility and how to build value rather than extract it?”

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Since joining the company last month, Haseman has also tried to put employees at ease with open communication–something Sapone also insisted on when she hired him. (She still describes Haseman as “very Uber.”) “I’m just super open about my time [at Uber] and what sort of principles evolved out of that for me,” Haseman told me. “I think it’s just being transparent with them and talking about what it was really like. At any large tech company, there’s the view from the outside and the view from the inside, and there’s always a decent amount of cognitive dissonance there.”

Sapone added that she tried to home in on what Haseman learned from the experience because there are “so many good people” at companies like Uber. “It’s so unfair that a certain strand or group of people take your legacy away,” she says. “These people were working really hard to build something they really believed in. So I try to bring it back to the personal level and say, ‘You’ve seen a really crazy thing. Have you taken the time to reflect on how that happened, and how you would do it differently a second time?’ Chris has that.”

And one thing Uber and Hello Alfred definitely do have in common is that they’re both businesses with stakeholders and customers. “You have to be principled, but you also have to be kind of compassionately ruthless–this isn’t a charity,” Sapone says. “We have a fiduciary duty to our investors to build value. But I also think about it as a community duty to save as many small businesses as possible and create as many good jobs as possible.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Alfreds make an average of $25/hour. They make $20/hour.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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