Uber For Frat Boys: How Bellhops Is Capturing Untapped Collegiate Labor
The gig economy — familiar to the underemployed across America — has hit college campuses. But are these undergrads ready for the outside world?
"Your succulent game is on fleek," Sean Christian, a rising senior at UC Davis and proud Theta Xi, told me in my living room on Sunday. Christian, along with Stephen Goode Jr., a 19-year-old rising sophomore at UC Berkeley, was there to help move me and all my belongings 10 blocks north to a new apartment in Oakland, California. I had hired them through Bellhops, a Chattanooga-based startup that aims to harness the underutilized labor pool of college undergraduates by allowing people living nearby to commission them as amateur movers.
Goode and Christian arrived at my house, separately, in nearly matching outfits; exercise shorts, athletic socks pulled halfway up the calf, sneakers, and T-shirts bearing the names and logos of their respective universities. The only difference was that Goode was wearing the bright green sweatband that bellhops are known for, while Christian — who, despite being Team Captain, had only done two moves before — hadn't received his yet. The fact that he was sweatband-less clearly upset Christian, but luckily Goode was able to locate a second in his car. Crisis averted.
As part-time contract workers picking up tasks from an app, bellhops can't be mandated to wear a specific uniform on the job. But, as Goode told me, training videos sent out by the company suggest that, while bellhops aren't required to wear the sweatbands, it definitely feels like they should.
Having the young men parading around in matching T-shirts and exercise gear contributes to the all-American college athlete look that Bellhops seems to want to emulate. That brand is perhaps best embodied by Barnabas, the company's shaggy-haired, polo-wearing cartoon mascot who was, apparently, based off of Michelangelo's statue of David. Barnabas serves as a model for aspiring bellhops. Though the company isn't huge, in order to keep supply and demand in balance, only some select applicants get to join the platform, so interview videos matter a lot.
"They have a specific kind of person they're looking for," said Christian.
At face value, Bellhops makes a lot of sense. College students are strong, easy to find, have irregular swaths of free time, and always need beer money. They also typically aren't looking for full-time jobs, or the benefits that come with them; for example, most students receive health insurance from their schools or parents. They are an inherently transient, ever-replenishing, relatively cheap labor supply.
"It's a transitional job," CEO Cameron Doody told BuzzFeed News. "It's not a career."
But putting young adults — and in some cases, teenagers — whose lives are dominated by college athletics and frat parties into professional situations with no oversight and little support is a risky proposition. The company says that the people skills and responsibility it requires of workers help prepare students for careers post-graduation. But what if it's also perpetuating a culture that is perhaps best left on campus?
The idea for Bellhops came to life on the campus of Auburn University; originally, the focus was solely on moving college students. The company came of age in Birmingham, Alabama, where Doody and his co-founder Stephen Vlahos expanded it to cover off-campus moves — typically jobs whose size and difficulty places them just above what the average person might be feel comfortable doing herself, but just below what would merit hiring fully professional movers. In November, the company raised some $6 million in Series A funding from investors including Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian and Chris Sacca's Lowercase capital.
Despite having spent the last three years at a tech incubator in Tennessee — the company culture still bears the markings of having been conceived at a public university in the South. It keeps a pontoon boat on the Tennessee River to help recruit engineering talent. Applicants are asked to submit videos of themselves doing push-ups. Here is a video of their office staff celebrating a positive Yelp review:
"The culture is a super-big portion of how we do things," said Doody.
Nearly 80% of the Bellhops office staff is male, as are 99.6% of applicants to be bellhops, according to Doody. Bellhops typically apply to the company after hearing about it through friends, many of whom are recruited via college athletics, ROTC, fraternities, or other social clubs.
It's a good strategy. At Bellhops, playing on similarities and shared culture is one of the few ways (besides the pontoon boat) that the company can get talented engineers to move to Tennesse. Doody described using LinkedIn to track down Southern prep school graduates who went on, often post-Ivy League, to get jobs at companies like Facebook or Google. These people, he said, are much more likely to consider relocation to Chattanooga and a career at Bellhops.
The company is working to shift the gender discrepancy across its workforce. Part of the problem, Doody wrote in an email, is that the pracitce of promoting especially talented movers to full-time directors has severely limited the diversity of the Bellhops talent pool. "With the majority of our bellhops being male, you can see the natural trend as we have grown from a small company," he wrote. "We are starting to even things out now that we are searching for more qualified candidates that don't come directly from our platform."
Bellhops has a ratings system that allows both users and fellow bellhops to review each other based on punctuality, effort, attitude, communication, and moving skills. While moving skills probably has little real-world application outside of the gym, Doody says these other categories are universally high-value. "Effort, attitude, and punctuality are some of the most important skills you can bring to an entry-level job," he said. In fact, some bellhops have actually used their testimonials and ratings in grown-up interview settings. At least one Bellhops alum landed an engineering job that way. Inspired by this trend, the company set about building a new product meant to help bellhops share their reviews with potential future employers. Called living résumé, this feature fulfills the same role as, say, a letter of recommendation from a college job.
The living résumé is another way in which the Bellhops community mirrors Greek life. Yes, fraternities are about friendship, communal living, and partying, but they're also about creating a pre-approved network for sharing opportunities later in life. New college graduates often find their first jobs through fraternity connections, a leg-up in life that sometimes compounds a pre-existing privilege. Right now, Bellhops looks more than a little like another insular, exclusive group for distributing opportunity among the few.
The idea that a person's ratings on one platform could potentially translate to another platform — or IRL — wasn't invented by Bellhops. There are other companies trying to create a numeric standard for trustworthiness by compiling cross-platform reviews, such as Airbnb reviews and Uber ratings. The hope is that the score can help users make faster inroads in new communities that they join. Bellhops has the same idea, but for transitioning from campus life to the real world.
While I appreciate the eagerness of undergraduates who are just looking to get their foot in the door, I am also glad that no record exists of how I performed at my first summer job in college. If bellhops can get jobs out of college based on their ratings, it seems like a short and slippery slope to, say, high schoolers including Yelp reviews on college applications. While school grades are one thing, the idea of a single figure that defines how good of a worker you are is a fraught and powerful idea — just ask anyone who's ever struggled to improve their credit score.
After my move was finished, my two bellhops and I stood around in my kitchen drinking water and chatting. (I almost offered them beer before remembering that they're not old enough to drink.) They described the awkwardness of the application process, sitting alone in their bedrooms, recording a video on their phones that would prove they had the right personality and attitude to represent the Bellhops brand.
I asked each of them what they thought of the idea of a living résumé. Goode, who said in his application that he's known for his big smile, thought the idea made sense. He's a chatty, gregarious, confident kid, which he probably knows will read well in reviews. But Christian, the older bellhop who had arrived late and without a sweatband, was more skeptical. "I wouldn't put this on a résumé," he said.