Lydia Benham: The Speed of Innovation
Talking tech with an OKC app developer
Photos by Charlie Neuenschwander
The term “game-changer” is usually hyperbole, especially in the world of technology. With countless apps hitting the market every year, they can’t all be changing the face of the industry they target. Still, it does happen occasionally … however, when something unique comes along, in spite of its ease of use or obvious benefits, the change of thinking required to adapt it is often difficult to foster.
Lydia Benham, a Classen SAS and OU graduate, surveyed Oklahoma City to find what need she could meet with a tech startup. That approach was interesting in itself; why not just pursue the thing you studied in college (art, in Benham’s case)? In a very real sense, though, her polling of the city’s needs is much more strategic than starting yet another bakery or florist or gallery, all tasks that could utilize her creative side.
Instead, Benham created BlazeJobs, an online hiring app that connects employers with employees in high-turnover jobs like food service and retail. “We found out that the culture still has not adjusted to the immediacy of mobile apps,” Benham says. “They were still using signs on their windows or services like Craigslist.”
The app features a remarkably simple user interface and the ability to tailor personal profiles so that a sous chef or dishwasher need not be inundated with each other’s openings, and employers can plug in exactly what skills are required for a specific position. No wasting time scrolling through reams of employment applications or the hyperlink nightmare that is Craigslist. The rate of adaptation around the industry has been astonishing, including being selected for “Start Up Alley” at the 2016 National Restaurant Association’s annual convention.
Benham attributes some of the success to partnering with local restaurant groups for the beta version. “We were getting input from employers and we plugged those suggestions into the actual build, which means we created something they actually need,” she says. What happens, though, when an industry is not quite ready for something so innovative because they are bogged down in old ways of thinking?
“If you think things are moving fast now, just wait five years.”
You said user acceptance was one of your primary obstacles to success with BlazeJobs. How exactly was it a problem? “When you come into a market and you have something that really does change the way people do a common task, it creates the need to completely shift gears. We got rid of tedious steps and archaic processes, but that’s no good if you can’t get someone to download the app, which takes three seconds. We discovered that education and marketing only get you to a certain point, and then you have to get people to actually download the app. Once they do, they change their way of thinking.”
Did you encounter other obstacles in the OKC market? “Surprisingly few. Once we partnered with employers, we eliminated one obstacle – making something that no one needed – and then user acceptance. One obstacle turned out to be a benefit. When you work in technology, you do most of the work behind the glass, so to speak, but the culture of Oklahoma City is based on relationships. Coming from the tech world, the value of relationships was not something I factored, but now I have a relationship with the people I bank with, and we are partnering with Work Ready Oklahoma, a program to put financially vulnerable people back to work. Once we figured out that Midwestern model of building relationships like that, it opened so many doors for us.”
How did an art major end up in tech development? “I have a background in the arts, yes, but I like creativity at different levels, too. I like building things, combining people to make a team, pulling things together, sketching out ideas. One of the most exciting aspects of BlazeJobs was to see this international team come together in a locally focused community. We have contractors from here, Belarus, Buenos Aires and Nashville.”
What do you mean by locally focused? “The barriers to entry in Oklahoma City are very low because the climate for startups is excellent here. It helped that there is no one in Oklahoma doing what we’re doing, but we also discovered how focused people are on working with locals. Because I’m a native Oklahoman and my business is here, I was able to say, ‘Hey, this is something we put together. We’re local. We’re here, working with you.’ People in Oklahoma really respond to that because they love local and they love homegrown.”
Where is tech headed in OKC? “We will start to see a lot of high-tech solutions integrating software and hardware over the next three years that will simplify processes and create bottom-dollar savings for businesses. We are also moving into an age where the millennials will outnumber everyone else in the workforce, so adoption rate of new technology will start to increase dramatically. If you think things are moving fast now, just wait five years. We’ll all be scratching our heads and wondering what the hell happened. At least my grandmother will.”