Connect Spotlight: Oyster

Posted: 4 Feb 2021

When it comes to tech startups, Tony Jamous exemplifies the impact-led, laser-focused entrepreneur who starts with the product and is driven by scale. We highly value these attributes at Connect, so when we got wind of Tony’s newest idea, we were all ears. (Get Pietro’s behind-the-scenes scoop on why we decided to invest here.) Now, Oyster has raised a $20 million Series A led by Emergence Capital (original backers of Salesforce and Zoom), and is well on its way to achieving both growth and impact with Tony at the helm.

Oyster sets out to make hiring, paying, training and supporting globally-distributed teams an easy and hassle-free experience for everyone involved. Behind it all is Oyster’s mission: to help upskill and hire talent from around the world, reduce income inequality, and support less privileged communities while solving global companies’ employment needs at scale. We’re amazed at how far they’ve come in such a short time, and loved our intimate chat with Tony about the company’s beginnings, inspiration, and beliefs. Enjoy the full interview below.

Pietro: Tony, you’re a seasoned entrepreneur. What made you want to start Oyster? When did it all shape up for you?

Tony: It all started around mid- to late-2019, because I wanted to found another company. My previous company, Nexmo, grew fast and exited in 2016, and I wanted to get back in the game. I was certain that whatever company I would start would be a globally distributed company. Nexmo was partially distributed — we hired people in 30 different countries — and it was very challenging to deliver a great employee experience across so many jurisdictions. We wanted to treat everyone as a first-class employee regardless of where they were based. So I was looking for solutions: how can I build a globally distributed organisation at scale and effectively? I couldn’t find any. The more I dug into that problem, the more I realised that it was possible to use software to streamline and scale distributed hiring across all countries.

I thought to myself, why me? Why should I do this? I could invest in companies that are doing something similar. That’s when I realised that by making it easy to hire someone on the other side of the world, we could change people’s lives. We could truly impact areas of wealth and brainwave inequality. Let me give you some stats around that:
90 million jobs are expected to go unfulfilled in the Western world in the next ten years. That’s a $10 trillion economic impact, according to BCG.

At the same time, 1.5 billion knowledge workers — people that can work from anywhere with an internet connection — are entering the workforce in the same period of time, mostly in emerging markets. If we could build a platform that pierces this cross-border employment issue, we could potentially change the world. I couldn’t turn my back on a chance like that.

PB: A business with purpose, we love it. How does this purpose reflect in Oyster as an opinionated product? What does that mean to you?

TJ: I think the first opinionated aspect is whether you can really combine impact with growth. Typically, companies who want to do good will dedicate a percentage of their profit to charity, or they’ll create a nonprofit. In our case, we’re saying yes, there is a way to align your business model with your impact. You don’t have to pick.

Here’s an example:
At Oyster, we’ve developed an upskilling programme for remote work. We find great talent in emerging economies and make them remote-ready.

That’s actually the programme’s name, Remote Ready. We then help them find jobs with great companies in the Western world. We benefit from that because it generates business leads for us, but at the same time, we’re creating opportunities for people in certain areas of the world. We’re aligning our growth with our impact.

The second aspect is that the employee experience is merely an afterthought in most cross-border HR facilitator businesses. By challenging that and putting the employee experience at the center of everything we do — benefits, onboarding, software — we’re spearheading a departure from the traditional ways of the HR professional services industry.

PB: That brings us to our next question. You’re relatively new but you already have some stalwart fans. Why do you think customers and employees love Oyster?

TJ: I think they are very surprised that it can actually be easy to hire people on the other side of the world. They come to us imagining it’ll be a nightmare; there are all these different labour laws, payroll regulations, compliance issues.

Then they go to our platform and all they need is a name, an email, the country of residence, and the compensation of their team member. They hit ‘hire,’ which triggers the process, and a few days later that person is employed.

Our customers are shocked by that. They say, “is this real?” “Is this possible?” and they come back to hire more people. Another reason is they know we treat their employees as first-class no matter where they live. That’s something we take very seriously, whether it’s the onboarding process or the benefits we provide, and that’s why they love working with us.

PB: A frictionless, delightful experience, what more could you ask for! How would you describe the product culture at Oyster?

TJ: We focus on shipping often and iterating. We work backwards from customer pain points. And we think about how we can add value for each feature we launch, then try to launch them as early as possible. With these kinds of principles, we’re able to really drive customer-driven innovation in the business and continue to delight our customers as they use our platform.

PB: We touched on the question of impact earlier. How important has that impact piece been for you?

TJ: It’s actually essential to everything we do. It’s existential. We are a mission-driven company that just happens to use software to make the world a better place. By looking at things this way, we put the impact agenda at the center of all our decision-making.

That means the people we hire are mission-aligned: they come to us not only because they want a great career, but also because they want to make a difference. Our pricing is mission-aligned: we have a cheaper price for emerging countries because we want to encourage North-to-South employment corridors. Our product is mission-aligned: we’ve realised, for instance, that the main mode of employment in many emerging countries is not full-time employment, but contractor work. So we launched the contractor modality to continue to facilitate these North-South interactions. Even our go-to-market strategy is mission-aligned: we focus on upskilling people on remote work in emerging economies and connecting them with great companies that want to hire diverse and distributed talent around the world. Last but not least, our investor base: we’ve made sure to add mission-driven investors to our cap table. Connect Ventures is a great example of that. So is Emergence Capital, our Series A investor; they invest in tech that is changing the world, such as Zoom.

So yes, impact is at the center of everything we do: the people we hire, the product we ship, how we price our product, how we go to market, and how we raise money.

PB: What is the big vision you have for the future of Oyster?

TJ: Our vision is to become the world’s largest employer in the next ten years, without having any employees. Think of Airbnb, the biggest hotel company without any hotel rooms. Uber: the biggest taxi company without any cars. That’s our vision for Oyster, in the hiring space.

As we realise that vision, we want to change how the world of work works. It’s not just about facilitating payroll and employment contracts, it’s about enabling companies to successfully build distributed organisations.

From training people to work remotely to assuming a more inclusive leadership style, these are steps we all need to take as we transition from a more centralised world of work to a more distributed one that’s going to make the world better.

Beyond creating career opportunities, we’re also thinking about our impact on the environment and on communities. We want to make it possible for a Nigerian professional, for example, to stay home and have a great job. You can spend the money you make in your community and use your experience working for companies in Europe and the US to create local entrepreneurship opportunities. What’s preventing Nigeria from having its own Silicon Valley? That’s our grand vision, to change how the world of work works for a better world.

PB: Cheers to that! As a serial entrepreneur, what are you most proud of in your journey so far? What mistake has taught you the most?

TJ: What I’m most proud of at Oyster is the speed at which the team has achieved product-market fit. Obviously, the wind is blowing in our direction as the world increasingly transitions to working remotely. Despite having immense pressure to deliver on the business, we were able to quickly align the team and enable them to find product-market fit in less than five months.

My best lesson comes from Nexmo, my previous company. We were an API company building communication applications, and we built the best product in the industry, by far. We had all the elements and positive customer feedback, but what we lacked was good product packaging. That made me realise that the best product does not always win.

Product marketing and positioning are key; if your product is great but it’s not marketed right, people simply won’t know about it.

This time, with Pietro’s and Connect Ventures’ help, we’re embracing Category thinking and the Category Design framework to let the market learn what problems we solve and why Oyster is different.

PB: Thanks for the shout out about Category Design! We’ve been on this journey with you for the last year or so, and it’s been an absolute privilege. What would you say is the most valuable thing Connect has done for Oyster so far?

TJ: My experience with Connect has been really positive. I was constructively challenged by the team to go beyond, to go further, to rethink our strategy. The whole team — not just Pietro — brought examples from other companies, use cases and best practices that helped me reevaluate some important parts of the strategy. They are also hands-on: Pietro sourced and helped recruit our first Head of Product and first Product Manager. Plus, Pietro is a SaaS expert; he helped me navigate many elements of the Product and GTM strategy.

Connect has also helped me think continuously about the future of the business: how do we fundraise, who do we fundraise from, how do we optimise our cap table not only from a company standpoint but also from a mission and impact standpoint. This kind of support has been invaluable.

PB: So good to hear. One final question: what is a software product that you just can’t live without?

TJ: These days, it seems like Notion is taking over my life. At Oyster, we use Notion everywhere. As a distributed company building super accessible and user-friendly knowledge bases, we need a way for people to be effective across time zones and asynchronously. I even use it at home, with my family. I’m basically in Notion every day, and it seems to be going well so far.

We’re with you! We’re obsessed with it too. It’s been such a joy and so inspiring chatting with you. Thank you, Tony!