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Employees that don’t sit at a desk comprise a 2.7 billion-person-strong portion of the global working population. Yet despite being 80 percent of the workforce, these “deskless” workers have thus far been overlooked by the technology industry both in terms of funding for and creation of companies addressing their needs. However, that’s about to change. Since it’s an area my firm has been looking at closely for the last couple of years, we surveyed more than 100 companies earlier this year and reviewed the results of several years of venture financing to better understand the deskless workforce. Our survey results show an increasing awareness of deskless employees’ needs, a corresponding increase in technology platforms that can serve those needs, and a growing willingness by VCs to invest in companies serving the deskless market. The convergence of these trends creates a perfect storm of opportunity for entrepreneurs.

The 2.7 billion deskless workers worldwide are concentrated in eight industries, and their numbers break down as follows: agriculture employs 858 million of them, education 226 million, healthcare 148 million, retail 497 million, restaurants and hospitality 122 million, manufacturing 427 million, transportation and logistics 189 million, and construction 265 million. According to our survey, a significant majority of decision makers in those industries see a real and growing need to empower deskless workers through technology. In fact, 82 percent of respondents plan to increase spending on deskless workers, with 100 percent of transportation companies reporting plans to increase spend, 91 percent of manufacturing, and 83 percent of retail planning on increasing their deskless technology expenditures; on average those planning to increase their spending said they would do so by 31 percent. Their chief reasons for investing in new tech for deskless employees? Thirty-three percent of respondents said productivity increases, 23 percent wanted to improve the employee experience, and 21 percent cited a desire for cost savings.

Investment increases pave the way for entrepreneurs

Established and new technologies are being increasingly deployed in deskless industries, providing the opportunity for entrepreneurs to develop solutions that can improve the way deskless workers perform their jobs. Among surveyed companies, adoption of mobile is at 94 percent. And newer technology is gaining popularity too: Nearly 30 percent of companies surveyed are using wearables, and another 40 percent plan to use them. An astonishing 100 percent of construction companies already use drones or are planning on adopting them.

While currently only 1 percent of venture investment goes toward companies providing deskless worker technology, the category has recently begun to capture multiple waves of venture funding as it takes advantage of new platforms, such as drones and wearables. In the past five years, several dozen U.S.-based startups with offerings dedicated to the deskless workforce have netted nearly $3.5 billion in funding.

How to tackle the opportunity

The opportunities to address the unmet needs of the deskless workforce are likely among the largest to come along in decades. If population size is a worthy proxy, then deskless worker technology could be 4x the size of the current technology market, which is focused almost entirely on desked workers (20 percent of the population).

Entrepreneurs may be understandably eager to seize this opportunity. However, before taking on the challenge, they should know that building a deskless workforce company is different than building one that services traditional software users. Here are some things to keep in mind if you are an entrepreneur thinking about this market:

Vertical versus horizontal. Many deskless application areas are better suited to a vertical (industry specific) approach rather than a horizontal (industry agnostic) approach. In my experience, vertically-focused applications often win when competing against companies using a horizontal strategy. This is due to those applications being purpose-built to solve customers’ problems more effectively — and also due to the fact that their messaging resonates better with customers.

My advice: Think carefully about whether the customers you plan to serve would benefit from an industry-specific offering. If they would, consider whether to build a vertical deskless application for that industry. If you still decide to take a horizontal approach to your product, you may need to quickly deploy industry-specific functionality and marketing in order to compete with vertically-focused players.

Usability. All enterprise software is becoming easier to use. That said, there is a premium on usability when it comes to deskless workers. Deskless workers are often operating in distracting environments and are using their hands to get work done. They don’t always have the ability or patience to navigate through a complex product.

My advice: Optimize for making the most important actions and information accessible in your product in a highly intuitive way. This may mean paring the user interface down to something that seems on the surface to be overly simplistic. You may want to invest more heavily than a deskbound company would in user experience testing at the initial design phases of your product.

Go-to-market. Though deskless technology is deployed remotely, most decisions are still made top-down from headquarters. More than half of buying decisions are made by the C-suite, 38 percent by mid-level managers, and only 11 percent by the end user. This causes an interesting dynamic where the technology purchased is rarely used by the decision maker. So while go-to-market strategy must focus on the top, in order to be successfully deployed and adopted, product design must focus on the end user’s needs, surroundings, capabilities, and preferences.

When it comes to pricing, freemium product offerings, which often work well to upsell software for deskbound workers, is much harder to implement in deskless environments. Individual users in the deskless world often have limited spending authority and have less influence with key IT decision-makers. As a result, I have seen more deskless companies use top-down go-to-market strategies to land customers early in their lives.

My advice: Find someone to join your company early on who has experience with top-down selling. Ensure that your marketing efforts are tuned to help support a top-down approach. This can be a harder and more expensive strategy to get started but may be necessary for many deskless products.

Entrepreneurs can change how deskless employees work

The deskless workforce is a vital part of our economy, and the jobs its workers perform are too complex and varied to be replaced by machines or computers any time soon. Decision makers increasingly have a vested interest in providing deskless workers with tools to simplify and enhance their jobs, and investors are starting to see there’s huge demand for those solutions. The emerging market for deskless workforce technology provides entrepreneurs with an unprecedented opportunity to build products and companies that can change how the vast majority of the world’s employees work. I’m excited to see what the next few years will bring!

Kevin Spain is General Partner at Emergence Capital.

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