Werk.Co.: Meet the Ambitious Women and Co-Founders
July 01, 2016 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
One year ago, Annie Dean and Anna Auerbach both had great lives on paper: fancy jobs, good friends, wonderful husbands, and adorable toddlers (Jack and Asher, respectively). They were ambitious, smart, and successful. And they were completely exhausted. “I was beyond overwhelmed,” says Dean, now 30, who gave birth to her second son, Walt, last July. This past spring, she and Anna harnessed their collective frustration to create Werk, a company that matches high-achieving women with high-level flex-jobs and part-time work.
Here, we talk to them about partnership, advice from their mentor Anne-Marie Slaughter (the game-changing author of Why Women Still Can’t Have It All), and what it’s like to literally live and breathe their jobs (right now, they’re sharing a house—and a babysitter—while they grow their business).
How did you two meet?
Annie: I spent six years as a lawyer in corporate real estate, and when my second son was born, I realized I couldn’t spend another day doing that job. I had so much creative energy that I wasn’t using, and I had to find an outlet. So while I was on maternity leave, I called all my friends and said, “I want to meet the smartest women you know. I want to know what they’re doing.” And my friend Sarah recommended that I talk to Anna. It turned out we had a lot in common, in terms of our interests and life experiences, and she told me about this idea she’d been sitting on for about a year—the concept for Werk. I hung up the phone and was like, “What do I do now? I really want to start this business with her!”
It sounds like an awesome first date.
Annie: Exactly. I was so nervous. I was like, “Does she like me enough to want to work with me?” But then we had another conversation, and within a week we had a business model and had started recruiting advisors. We made a ton of progress in a very short period of time.
Anna, how did you get the idea for Werk?
Anna: When my son was about a year and a half, I was navigating the challenges of balancing work and motherhood in a very demanding job. I also observed that many of my friends were feeling forced to “opt out” of the workplace because they couldn’t find a way to merge their vision of motherhood with their careers. I knew there had to be a better way to reconcile professional ambition with caregiving, and that’s what sparked the idea. I started talking about it with my husband, and I couldn’t really let it go. One night last year, I brought it up again while we were out to dinner, and he did the thing where he put down his fork and knife and said, “Seriously, either you start this company, or you stop talking about it.” I think I needed that tough love.
How do you picture the Werk woman?
Annie: I used to feel that I was playing a character every single day when I was at work—I would go to the office and become a different person who I didn’t even like. I remember sitting at my desk in that law firm, feeling so lost and exhausted, and whenever I think about our woman, I remember those moments. I want our customer to be in a position to be her whole self at her fullest level of potential. And that means creating a new set of rules for her to play by.
Was there a moment when you knew you were onto something with this idea?
Anna: There was something really special about that first phone call with Annie. But what really made me leap was our first conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter, after which she said, “You have my support, and I’d love to be your advisor.” She had all these hard questions for us—not critical, but just trying to push our thinking. She talked a lot about the substance of the work that women want to be doing, and how to stop some of the disenfranchisement that happens when women get off their career track. We discussed the social challenges and the structural issues that women are up against, and it convinced me that we were really onto something.
How does the business work, financially?
Annie: It’s a revenue-based business model. Companies pay for the opportunity to post a job, and it’s a very low-cost, high-value service to them. Customers will pay a small subscription fee—basically the cost of a latte a month—to have access to these postings. And the plan is to add more services as we move forward.
What about people who aren’t mothers, but who are looking for flex-time jobs?
Anna: We want this to be a platform for women who identify as having caregiving responsibilities, or other competing life responsibilities. This is a massive—but untapped—market. Statistics show that women who “opt out” actually want to keep working; they just need more flexibility.
Annie: I think there’s this huge misconception about what it means to have a flexible job. People think that it’s not ambitious, but that’s just not true. The women we serve are so talented, so energized, and so motivated to do good work. Our primary goal is to rewrite the rules for how these women create value for companies.
In terms of your own work, what’s your secret sauce for productivity?
Anna: Caffeine, and short bursts. I’ve found that I can only work productively in two-to-three hour increments. My other secret sauce is organization—my email, Google Drive, and computer files are very orderly. If you don’t waste time finding things or keeping track of them, it makes you so much more productive.
Annie: I need to start the day with a “clean desk”—meaning that I need to get all small tasks off my plate the night before, and organize my day in advance so that when morning comes, I can jump right into my most challenging task. A lot of the work I do is creative, and it’s hard to drag it out of yourself sometimes.
You are physically sharing the same house right now—it’s like the Werk Compound. How do you build in breaks?
Annie: There isn’t a lot of down time with young kids and a growing business, but we both try to sneak in “time off” every day. Lately it’s been a lot of cheese plates and Wolffer rosé. We listen to the WQXR opera channel, and our place is always organized and clean. A dream weekend day would be coffee that I have time to drink while it’s hot, and the paper edition of the New York Times—in one piece, without Jack taking all the sections apart and getting ink all over his hands.
Anna: For me, relaxation is often exercise, or some binge television (Game of Thrones! House of Cards!) with a glass of wine. It’s also easier to relax when you take yourself out of your day-to-day environment, so my husband and I try to always have a vacation on the horizon—and quick weekend trips in between.
How are you different, and what happens when you disagree?
Anna: We’re actually the same Myers-Briggs type, which is funny. But we both have to wear two hats all the time, because our business has two sides—the companies we work with, and the women we help them find. In general, Annie is a much more artistic thinker, and has a bigger vision in terms of how to build a brand and community; whereas I’m better at strategy and operations. I think it really helps, because we can toggle between our vision and ideas as well as business aspects. We have conflict and we debate, but there’s no whining. Whatever it is we disagree on, we’ll hash it out; and ultimately, it leads to a better answer.
Annie: Not just a better answer—the best answer.
Anna: Right. Because we’ve flipped every stone.