By Francesca Paris
If you’re a local business searching for employees, Localwise may be the place for you. If you’re Starbucks, look elsewhere.
Localwise is the creation of UC Berkeley alums Benjamin Hamlin and Maya Tobias. It’s a job board for local businesses in Oakland and Berkeley, but it seeks to be more than that: its website describes it as “the start of the work local movement.”
Since its inception in January, only local businesses, non-profits and households around the Bay Area are eligible to advertise on Localwise. The platform aims to bridge the gap between job seekers and owners of small, local businesses. Jobs advertised on the site range from full-time positions to internships and gigs.
Hamlin and Tobias’ goals stem from their shared passion and enthusiasm for local business. “Our mindset is that local business is a catalyst for positive change in a community,” said Hamlin, who grew up helping his parents, residential architects based out of their attic, measure homes. Tobias’ upbringing included summers packing boxes for her family’s local balloon factory. Their careers as entrepreneurs started early: Hamlin ran a catering company through high school and his undergraduate years, and Tobias sold custom jewelry in high school up through business school.
Hamlin met Tobias in the MBA program at UC Berkeley, where they both studied social entrepreneurship and worked on a team that helped run the Global Social Venture Competition. Friends before they were business partners, the pair have found that they work well together because they have share the same philosophy about local businesses that anchors all their decisions and “permeates the company and everything we do.”
The start-up originated as a business-to-business recommendation service, in the same vein as Angie’s List, but with local merchants as opposed to consumers rating other local merchants.
When that didn’t take off, the entrepreneurs pivoted and decided to focus on the job-board model, initially helping students find local jobs and local business owners find students. “It’s ridiculously hard to find your first job out of, or even during, college,” Hamlin said.
Berkeley City College is one of the schools that Localwise has partnered with. The school’s Career Information Center lacks the resources to connect students to part-time jobs outside the college or teach them how to present themselves in an application, Hamlin said.
“There’s no one helping these students present themselves to employers to get jobs,” said Hamlin. “Not just to start off a career, but also just to get money to pay for school.” So Localwise stepped in: Hamlin and Tobias have spoken in classrooms, tabled on campus and even offered a resumé writing session.
“Many of our students want a part-time job,” said BCC’s Career Information Center coordinator Paula Coil, “so it’s a good thing to have employers who are pre-screened.”
Other schools that the company parters with, including UC Berkeley, have their own career centers, but those centers find it more difficult to connect to the local economy, according to Hamlin. Additionally, those career centers are not necessarily appropriate platforms for certain job advertisement, like babysitting jobs, and Localwise aims to fill that gap by advertising all local jobs, including one-time gigs.
Along with BCC and Cal, Localwise partners with College of Alameda, Laney College, California College of the Arts, Mills College, Holy Names University, and Bauman College.
Now, however, Localwise is expanding its focus from colleges to the entire community.
Its fiercest competition in the field? Craiglist.
Craiglist channels hundreds of job ads per day in the Bay Area alone — and it charges $75 per ad posting. “The problem is,” Hamlin said, “if you’re a local business, you post on Craiglist and then Uber posts 20 times and you’re off the front page immediately.” His solution? Don’t let Uber post in the first place. Localwise, he said, seeks to be a better, more trustworthy version of Craiglist that focuses solely on jobs.
There are currently no charges to post or respond to an ad on Localwise. Eventually the startup will introduce a fee of $50 for business-owners to post job ads. Applying for jobs will remain free, Hamlin said.
“We think we can deliver a better product for less of the cost,” said Hamlin. Though Localwise’s staff is just Hamlin and Tobias and a handful of interns based out of SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s start-up incubator, the company vets every job that comes through the platform. Because the site has an actual human checking the postings, the thinks “people will give more to the process on both sides.”
Kristine Seinsch has used Localwise to hire several employees for her two businesses, the Jazzcaffè in downtown Berkeley and ACT Catering. Before using Localwise, she hired through word-of-mouth and Craigslist, which required her to “weed through a lot of people,” she said. Seinsch found that applicants on Craigslist would regularly send their resumés regardless of qualification and miss scheduled interviews. She said she likes that Localwise is smaller and less well known because she gets the “perfect number” of applications and finds that applicants who come to her via Localwise tend to be more serious.
“With Localwise, I feel like I can grow,” Seinsch said. “Like we can grow together.”
Hamlin and Tobias have also been inspired by what they see as the innovative spirit of the local businesses around Oakland and Berkeley. Much of their work involves leaving their office and stepping into the community to talk with local business owners, forging partnerships with them and learning about their challenges.
They are compiling data about local businesses and are making it public, like in their tips section, which reflects advice from over 100 local business owners around the Bay Area. Over 800 businesses have Localwise’s round, blue sticker in their window, a physical marker of how invested Hamlin and Tobias are in the community.
At the end of the day, Localwise is “not just about hiring,” said Hamlin who adds that the startup has spent a grand total of just $5,000 since it launched, and describes the company as “mission-led’ as much as anything else. “There’s a community here we want to shed light on. We want to be a celebration of how local businesses make Berkeley and Oakland awesome.”
Francesca Paris, a summer 2015 reporting intern at Berkeleyside, is a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.
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