People over profits

Why do people work?

Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith asserted in his 1776 book “The Wealth of Nations” that people work to get what they want: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

He described the opposing, but complementary forces of self-interest and competition as “the invisible hand” of the marketplace: the beef, beer and bread have to be good enough and the service friendly enough that people will pay for them.

One person who does not buy that 18th-century argument is 21st-century entrepreneur Morris Gelblum.

“I think there are flaws in the argument that people are always driven to pursue profits out of a purely selfish motivation,” he said.

It is possible, Gelblum said, to create a business that, while guided by the invisible hand, can also be shaped – and moved – by forces of the heart.

“People can make rational business decisions with emotional and social factors as part of the equation,” Gelblum said. “What I think is kind of fascinating and exciting is that my generation is starting to get that.”

And he points to his own start-up company – Sweeps –as proof.

An idea born from practicality

Admittedly, when Gelblum started his company eight years ago, making money was the only thing on his mind.

That was because of the not-so-invisible hand of his parents, who insisted that he work instead of being given what he wanted.

Gelblum’s father moved from Philadelphia to Chapel Hill as a teenager when his father, Morris Gelblum, joined the faculty at Carolina’s law school. Morris’ father attended law school and worked for more than 25 years as an environmental lawyer in the State Attorney General’s office in Raleigh.

His mother, a child therapist who earned her Ph.D. at Carolina, passed down the penchant for business she learned from her father in the small town of Wadesboro.

“I think being in a small town inspires people like my grandfather to be creative about how they earn a living,” Gelblum said. “I didn’t grow up in a small town, but my mom did and that had everything to do with the way she raised my brother and me.”

With his mother’s help, Gelblum filled a notebook with business ideas, but the concept for Sweeps surfaced for practical reasons.

His mother’s office needed cleaning, so Gelblum began cleaning it. Then he branched out to houses in his Raleigh neighborhood and began knocking on doors and mailing postcards to solicit more work. Soon he was hiring college students from nearby N.C. State to handle the load.

Gelblum and his mother met with a lawyer to draw up the legal papers to form a limited liability company when Gelblum was only 17.

He continued to operate Sweeps after he enrolled at Carolina in 2006, but the idea to expand the vision for the company did not come until his senior year when he took an entrepreneurship class taught by business professor Ted Zoller.

By then, Gelblum had come to appreciate the assortment of skills Carolina students possessed that his company had never put to use. At the same time, he understood that his customers had many more needs around the house than a janitorial service.

What might happen, asked Gelblum’s five-person student entrepreneurship group, if Sweeps found a way to match students’ skills with customers’ needs?

“People have asked me, ‘Did you always think you would be an entrepreneur?’ and my answer has been, ‘I’m really not sure,’” he said.

But by the end of that class, he knew. Every class he took during his final semester was focused on launching his expanded vision for Sweeps.

Zoller eventually put Gelblum in contact with Jim Kitchen, a local entrepreneur working with the University and town to expand incubator space for student start-ups. For now, Sweeps’ home base is 1789, the incubator Kitchen opened last year on Franklin Street.

Culture of social entrepreneurship

By design, Sweeps is a virtual company that allows customers to submit an online job request and the amount of time the work will require. Sweeps then uses emails and texts to reach the more than 300 Sweepers currently on active status who bid for the jobs.

Sweepers perform tasks ranging from moving to mowing, designing web pages to videography. Many have been called upon as tutors and coaches to help schoolchildren and adults in various areas, from chemistry to French to baseball.

“The services we provide are continually expanding and evolving, but it is our customers who are doing it,” Gelblum said.

Recently, for instance, a job request came in to find someone who could French-braid a flower girl’s hair, and Gelblum has pictures from the wedding to prove how well the task was performed.

No matter the job, the company charges $25 an hour, and Sweepers earn an average of $15 an hour, including tips, Gelblum said. The hourly charge also covers the costs of liability insurance and worker’s compensation.

Since 2010, more than 500 Sweepers have completed more than 2,800 jobs and in 2013 the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce named Sweeps its small business of the year.

“Just by word of mouth,” Gelblum said, “Sweeps has spread throughout the Triangle, with Sweepers coming from universities throughout the area.” He is also making plans to expand the company throughout the state, and eventually the country.

There is no money for marketing that could grow the company faster, in part, because Gelblum is hesitant to bring in outside investors who might not share the company’s core values: putting people over profits.

Exactly how he is going to achieve that remains a work in progress, but Gelblum said he has been influenced by the culture of social entrepreneurship that has spread throughout the Carolina campus and the town.

“For these companies,” Gelblum said, “profit is seen not as an end, but a means to finance creative new solutions to attack intractable societal problems here, and around the world.”

One such example is ABAN (A Ban Against Neglect), a startup co-founded six years ago by 2009 Carolina alumna Callie Brauel that now has more than 25 employees, 20 apprentices and three interns working on two continents.

Brauel was inspired to start the company while studying at the University of Ghana in 2008. She was disturbed by the homeless children living and sleeping on the streets of Accra, the same streets that were littered with millions of plastic bags used to supply pure water critical to the health of Ghanaians.

ABAN used the bags as the raw material for new up-cycled products that homeless young women in Ghana could create to generate income for themselves and their children instead of resorting to begging, stealing and prostituting to survive.

Recently, Gelblum called in Sweepers – free of charge – to help label 2,000 products that had arrived from Ghana for sale.

Gelblum said he considers it part of his mission to look for opportunities like that, both large and small.

For example, one of his Sweepers wants to be a social worker and serve the state’s growing Hispanic population. Every Thursday, she tutors children from homes where only Spanish is spoken to help them learn English.

“We are happy to absorb that cost in order to support such a reciprocal need,” he said.

In a way, it goes back to Smith and a passage from his 1759 book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that seemed to challenge the cold calculus behind the market’s invisible hand: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

One way or another, Gelblum said, that principle of spreading happiness – for his customers, his employees and the community at large – will always be factored into his company’s bottom line.

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By Gary Moss, University Gazette

Published July 10, 2014.