Bill Trenchard has every right to be excited. He's running a growing company that he believes in — a company that is helping change...
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Bill Trenchard has every right to be excited.
He’s running a growing company that he believes in — a company that is helping change the nature of work.
This high-tech veteran has surrounded himself with bright engineers, including some who’ve already changed the world once by working on the Netscape browser.
“They really feel they’re doing a great thing again,” Trenchard says.
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But sitting with Trenchard in a conference room in Palo Alto, I can’t help thinking about the double edge of technology. Sure, we’ve made dizzying strides in Silicon Valley, changing the way people communicate, shop, network, invest and, yes, work.
Our bias is that all progress is inherently good. With innovation comes a better world. Sometimes we are blind to the human costs.
Trenchard is chief executive of LiveOps, a company that has developed a way to build customer call centers one household at a time.
Because of LiveOps, when you call the 800 number to order Jack LaLanne’s Power Juicer (OK, maybe you don’t call), you could end up talking to an at-home mother taking calls in her spare bedroom. Same goes for products like the Bun & Thigh Roller and the Ronco Rotisserie Oven.
The LiveOps system routes the calls around the country to more than 5,000 independent contractors sitting at home computers with broadband connections. Trenchard sees all upside.
Most of the LiveOps operators are mothers with preschool and school-age children. They have the chance to stay home with their kids and make money on the side. They can choose their own hours.
And, Trenchard says, call-center work being handled by LiveOps operators might have moved to India or elsewhere if a low-cost way to do it in the United States didn’t exist.
For companies with something to sell, LiveOps means no more need to build call centers filled with employees. In fact, it means no need for employees at all.
This isn’t just LiveOps. For years, great business minds have shifted the cost of doing work from companies to individuals. On one edge, outsourcing has flourished. On the other, wages have fallen, health benefits have shriveled, pensions have disappeared.
So listening to Trenchard, I marvel at our ability to innovate. But I worry about the extent to which our economic engine is outracing our social needs. I wonder whether our ability to take care of people will ever catch up with our ability to make money.
In fairness, Trenchard isn’t pitching LiveOps as a way to make a decent living. The work makes for a good second income. Or for some, a necessary second job.
Those taking calls for products like the Miracle Blade slicer are one-person businesses. They make 25 cents a minute while they’re on the phone. (With bonuses for upselling, operators can make up to $25 an hour, Trenchard says.)
Because they’re independent businesses, the operators don’t receive health benefits, sick time, vacation time or retirement benefits. The costs of doing business — phone, computer, connection — are all theirs.
Sure, it’s great that a mother or a father can work from home. But wouldn’t it be better if families could find decent child care that wouldn’t consume every penny from a second income? Wouldn’t it be great if there were plenty of jobs that paid enough to support a family on one income? Wouldn’t it be great if affordable health care were guaranteed, no matter the job?
Impossible, you say? Maybe. But imagine what would happen if the minds conquering the global economy turned their attention to the worries of those doing the work.
Just think of the possibilities.
Mike Cassidy is a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.