Staffing Industry Spotlight: Lee Willoughby, Co-founder of Bubty

In this interview on Ascen's Staffing Industry Spotlight series, Lee Willoughby, co-founder of Bubty, discusses his journey into the staffing and contingent workforce industry and his passion for direct sourcing and talent pools. Lee shares his personal experiences, from reconnecting with childhood friend Ben to co-founding Bubty and shaping its mission. He shares the importance of direct sourcing as a dynamic sourcing channel, driven by technology and branded marketing to engage workers effectively. Lee predicts the continued evolution of direct sourcing alongside changes in the labor market, showcasing his dedication to transforming the industry through innovation and personalized talent engagement strategies.
June 30, 2024

Mickey: Thanks for sitting down for me. Why don't you start by telling me who you are and what you do?

Lee: It's a very good question. Well, I am Lee Willoughby. I am the co-founder of Bubty, and I think I'll zoom in on that. What do we do? Bubty is a white-label talent platform technology focused on the freelancer side and contingent side of businesses.

We help companies better manage their whole hiring process when it comes to contingent workers, and I'd like to say “hiring process” because it captures the whole workflow. When I say sourcing or paying, then it's very siloed to one and isolate it.

But Bubty actually tends to be an experience platform. On the worker side, we help companies better engage with their workers by having an amazing white-labeled platform where workers can engage with their brand, and by doing so, we allow them to achieve different types of solutions such as great freelancer management, compliance, and payment.

And on my side, I don't know what I do in the company, I do a bit of everything I suppose.

I post a lot on LinkedIn. (Laughs)

Mickey: And what is your title at Bubty?

Lee: We don't do titles!  No, actually all of our employees have titles except as founders. We are just founders and that's actually we've been talking about this. We might need titles and we're at that point where we're becoming a serious organization where it would make sense for us to have titles.

They know us as a person really well, if I would say what my role is, it's mostly on the on the commercial, distribution side of the business: Who is Bubty, how do we get Bubty in front of the right people? What are we in the solution? What are we trying to achieve and how do we build a greater business? And then, on the other side of the coin, what my role is is a lot around the passion for changing industries. But that always comes from practicing what you preach version because I always believe that you have to start internally. And when we started Bubty, I really just wanted to build a company differently.

I wanted to build a company that was changing people's lives internally and externally, but internally, I focus mostly on making sure everybody is just a happy, healthy, mentally strong person inside the organization, doing what they love and making sure that our culture stays aligned in that ultimately leads to growing our business.

Mickey: I want to come back to some of the things you're saying in a minute here, but I want to go back in time here. What led to you getting into the staffing and contingent workforce industry? How did that lead to Bubty?

Lee: Yeah, good question. So, I have to go way back, but Ben (Schriel) and I, we were friends when we were, like, eight years old. We were really good friends, and our sisters were in theater school together Ben and his family lived on the other side of the city. But the theater school was next to my house.

When our sisters went to theater class, our moms would go drink coffee, and Ben and I would have to go join them. We were forced to play together outside, play soccer on the streets, and all of that stuff. And then, after our sisters left school, we didn't see each other for 10 years.

One day, I was in an open workspace, and I saw Ben and recognized him. I started asking what he was doing. At the time, I was a marketing commercial freelancer and building strategies and doing all that stuff and Ben was actually building his own development agency of freelance tech developers.

So, I’m like, well, my clients need software, and your clients need marketing. Let's work together. Then, we started this marketing and tech agency, and that turned into this freelancer staffing agency. It's a very natural flow of starting an organization, and we started staffing freelancers for large organizations. Then, we started building a talent pool in an Excel sheet and started building a Slack channel to engage with them.

We started to have some success with that, and we realized we needed a system for it, but we couldn't find a system at the time. There was nothing out there.

But Ben can build anything. So, he decided, well, why don't we build something ourselves?

So we did, and we had great success with building that and then we hit the light bulb moment of “hang on, there's going to be so many more companies out there with the trend of freelance and contingent work growing and growing. More and more companies are going to need software like this.”

Instead of being one technology or one agency competing with all the other agencies, why don't we become the most exponential and sell to the agency and become the technology behind all of these agencies?

And that's that was the origin start of Bubty.

Mickey: Very cool origin story indeed and amazing how childhood friends can come together to start something amazing. Now, tell me about the name Bubty. It's kind of a unique name, kind of cute, kind of fun. But what is the name Bubty, where did it come from?

Lee: Well, someone I actually had a meeting yesterday with someone who told me I need to come up with a better story because the story is a little silly. He said you should say that instead of your mom's drinking coffee, they drank bubble tea or something like that to make it heartwarming.

But the story goes that actually, one of those first versions of the agencies was on the marketing side, and the company name was Build Your Brand. So, it's focused on building your branding with the unlimited amount of freelancers that we had at the time. So, we broke out to Build Your Brand without the “your” with just UR as in your brand. And it became Build Ur Brand, shortened to Bub. So, when we text each other we would be like, “oh what do we got going today for Bubty?

We needed a domain name, but there were no three-letter domain names in the world, so we were just trying catchy things. Then we bought a bunch of domain names and sat on them for a week.

And they're like, Bubty was really catchy. And that stuck. Yeah, we're going to stick with that.

I hate the descriptive. I hate a tech company name that's descriptive. I get it for if you're an agency or I get it for your Google ranking, or if you're in consulting, I get it.

But if you're building a cool tech company, I kind of like it when the name is nondescriptive, so I would hate it if Bubty was “freelance management system dot com” or “talent platform technology dot com.”

I don't know if that would have made me excited because I believe I wanted to build a brand next to the fact that we were a tech company. So yeah, that's stuck and stayed with us.

Mickey: Now that’s an awesome naming story. You always wonder how companies come up with names. So, obviously, you're very passionate about this space. You're passionate about direct sourcing. Tell me, why are you so passionate about direct sourcing and talent pools?

Lee: Well, when I first entered this industry, I felt like an outsider. The reason I say that is that I think we're among the youngest people entering this industry. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean it in a good way, and we came from a different perspective.

Maybe a perspective of a new generation, maybe a fresh look on contingent workforce programs, maybe a fresh look on how I would change this industry. One of the first things that we were fascinated about was the bureaucracy, the pain, and the number of companies that were learning with today's technologies and tools. It seemed easy to achieve.

For example, when Ben or I built our freelance workforce in our own talent pool, I think we built a pool of five to 10,000 people that we would find and scrape, that we would get in a pool, activate, and work on in less than six months.

I was so confused that there was such a hole. At the time, this felt like a whole facade of an industry. Obviously, you get to know and understand why certain processes exist, and I still do. So that was one reason.

The other one was the changing of labor. So, with with the 9 to 5 going, I felt there was much more. I'm very output-driven SOW-driven. You do this type of job, you deliver me this value, and you get paid. That was an amazing thing, like how I see the future with the contingent workforce rising.

So, I thought it was time for a change. Then the thing that I just organically was dragged into, and I didn't even know there, was a term for it: direct sourcing. And then coming from build your brand perspective using your own brand to utilize hiring.

So, those things together led me to believe that it's easy to build a talent pool. Why is nobody doing it? There needs to be technology out there that can help you achieve this. And why are you paying so much money on all these things that can be solved quite well nowadays with technology?

Mickey: Well, you know we struggle as an industry to put a definition on a lot of things, and I think you're talking about a very clear definition of what direct sourcing is, your talent curation mixed with branded marketing and recruitment marketing, talent pools, and quick access to be able to independently go in and apply directly for roles, wrapped around technology and finding your niche there.

I think that's just a cool story of this one little component within contingent workforce. Direct sourcing.

Lee: I mean, it's in the word I always say direct sourcing is a verb. It's not something you achieve, it's something you're doing.

Mickey: When you talked earlier, you said it's an experience. I think that's a key point is it's an experience, and your technology is an enabler of that experience, it sounds like, would you agree?

Lee: Exactly. So, for me – What tools do you need to achieve that? To me, direct sourcing is to use your own resources and technology and your own brand that you leverage to build a pool of people and that's why direct sourcing works so well for contingent.

Otherwise, you would call it RPO or whatever you would call it, but it's contingent – attaching these people that are not working for you all the time, that are dancing around your organization and grabbing their attention and their engagement, giving them a great experience because that was the whole reason why we exist, right?

Because existing tools out there, HRIS systems, ATS systems, CRM systems are not built for the contingent workforce and the freelance workforce.

They weren't built originally for that because it didn't exist as much back then as only the last few years that has it become this big thing with the gig economy and the freelance revolution. It’s only been a few years where that's been a thing. And I feel like we are focused, fully focused on that side of the industry. We don't even want to touch the other side of the industry.

We want to help companies build that, and the company I was fascinated by that achieved that so well at the time was Upwork, how they utilized technology, their brand to build a pool and independent contractors and a pool of freelancers to then build in a circular hiring motion cause that's what it is to me. That old-school linear process works really well for direct hire. That doesn't work for freelance, you want to create a rehiring ecosystem because you’re going to need these people on and off on projects.

Mickey: Yes, redeployment is a key piece.

Lee: Yes, redeployment is a key outcome of direct sourcing. So, you need technology. And I was like, well, every company needs their own internal Upwork. So, they need technology for it. That's why I'm so passionate about what we do.

Mickey: I love it! So, do you think direct sourcing will replace other talent engagement models or do you just see it being another lever that can be utilized in talent engagement? What do you think?

Lee: Direct sourcing is a sourcing channel. Sourcing channels are going to evolve with the type of worker. Direct sourcing is an organic wave of adding another sourcing channel Technologies are going to allow us to change sourcing channels.

Look five to 10 years from now. What we can do with AI and working online and digitally, the jobs that are going to arise online are no longer going to be physical jobs – labor is going to change. So, the way we're going to hire beyond direct sourcing, there's going to lead to even more things, more things to come that we don't even know yet. But Direct Sourcing is one of those sourcing channels that, yes, it does eat out of other sourcing channels.

We've seen it last five years as the numbers that I said, staffing's gone down, they talk about the economy, but something they don't talk about is where’s that volume shifted to, where is that volume? Has that volume perhaps shifted to somewhere internal hiring somewhere?

So yeah, I think as work changes, so do sourcing channels and direct sourcing is a natural organic flow of change.


Very Fascinating point of view, Lee. I want to thank you for taking the time to share a little bit about your history, the story of Bubty, and your views on the industry. This was great!


Thanks for having me!


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