Apr 21, 2024

Working with The Olympians: Inside Traba’s Intense Culture

The $200 million industrial staffing platform is disrupting a big, unsexy market. It’s doing so with a work ethic that has captured attention and courted controversy.

Artwork by 
Illustration by Harol Bustos
Back to all

Brought to you by Airwallex

Airwallex was built with a single purpose in mind – to create a world where all businesses can operate without borders and restrictions, and by doing so, propel the growth of the global digital economy.

With our proprietary infrastructure, we take the friction out of global payments and financial operations, empowering businesses of all sizes to unlock new opportunities and grow beyond borders.

Over 100,000 businesses globally including brands such as Brex, Rippling, Navan, Qantas, SHEIN, and many more use our software and APIs to manage everything from global payments, treasury, and spend management to embedded finance.

For more information on how Airwallex can help you simplify your global payments and financial operations, get in touch with our team today. Read The Generalist’s full deep dive on Airwallex here.

You can listen to an audio version of The Generalist on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

If you only have a few minutes, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about Traba.

  • Sweat equity. Traba runs one of the startup world’s most unique, unapologetic cultures. The $200 million staffing platform modeled its standards on China’s “9-9-6” schedule, which expects employees to work from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week. While it has relaxed its policies as it has grown, Traba still counts an “Olympian work ethic” as a key cultural value.
  • Attacking a broken market. If you were designing a market ripe for disruption, it would look quite like global staffing. It is valued at around $600 billion, highly fragmented, and slow to adopt technology. CEO Mike Shebat recognized the opportunity in the space while working at McMaster-Carr and saw the poor reliability existing staffing companies provided. Traba is attacking the opportunity, bringing a tech-first approach to the light industrial staffing segment.
  • A pragmatic product. CTO Akshay Buddiga’s team has built a functional, intelligent platform serving businesses in need of workers and the workers themselves. Traba’s technology seems to offer a step-change improvement over incumbents, providing greater visibility, control, and reliability. It also benefits workers, who can discover jobs and get paid much faster.
  • Hitting fast forward. Traba’s solution has found a ready market. In a little over three years, it has approached $7 million in annualized revenue, growing 465% year-over-year. Impressively, it has managed to increase its contribution margins while doing so, hitting 66.2% at the end of last year. There’s a reason why elite investors like Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures have capitalized the startup.
  • Trillion-dollar dreams. Mike Shebat does not want to build a billion-dollar startup. He says, almost as a statement of fact, that Traba will become a trillion-dollar company, joining the ranks of players like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Nvidia. It is an audacious claim with slim odds, but one that says much about the company’s ambition.

A few days before I was scheduled to visit Traba’s office, I texted a friend to cancel our dinner reservation. I told this friend, the founder of a successful New York based company, what was keeping us from steak frites, bone marrow, and perhaps a vodka martini.

“I am writing this case study on a company called Traba that implements a Chinese-style 996 schedule,” I texted, explaining that I was slated for a late-night office visit at the same time as our dinner.

He responded quickly: “There’s no way this is possible in NYC.”

That disbelief was the very reason I’d been keen to study Traba, after hearing CEO Mike Shebat on a podcast. Speaking to 20VC’s Harry Stebbings, Shebat had proudly championed his startup’s long hours, “Olympian” work ethic, and mission to build a $1 trillion business. Despite having no previous interest in Traba’s market of light industrial staffing nor familiarity with Shebat’s career, I found myself intrigued by his rhetoric. He was saying something profoundly obvious in one respect – that building an extraordinary company takes extraordinary work – but also transgressive. There are few more efficient routes to an internet argument than to eulogize the 80-hour week.

In 1997, McKinsey published “The War for Talent,” an assessment of the increasing competition for skilled workers. In the 27 years since its release, the contest has intensified, with the fiercest fighting taking place among tech’s ping-pong tables and cereal bars. We may call it a war, but it is a combat defined not by hardship and deprivation but inducements and abundance. The Apple engineer biking along velvet lawns, the Google PM puttering away in their “20% time,” the Meta designer enjoying a bowl of lightly candied ginger – these are the images piped to us from tech’s frontline. Though perhaps exaggerated, they reflect the consensus strategy of the past decade: to win the best talent, you must offer the most luxurious perks and best “work-life balance.” Demand too much and you risk losing the cerebration and sweat of the employee you worked so hard to convert.

Traba is taking a different approach. While peers and forebearers emulate the decadence of a banal, patronizing Rome, Shebat is aiming for something closer to Sparta. Intensity, effort, sweat – these are not the unsavory byproducts of building a company; they are the end, in and of themselves. “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things,” the poet Ranier Marie Rilke wrote. Above all, this seems to be Traba’s pitch: tech’s best talent wants a mountain to climb, not a nap pod.

It has invited its fair share of criticism. Any time Traba’s culture is mentioned on social media, a catalog of outraged commentary follows. The more hysterical suggest that Traba’s expectations are “bordering slavery” – a great affront to those actually forced to work against their volition rather than by choice in a decent if unflashy Broadway office. Others insist Shebat’s methodology must lead to unhappy employees, high turnover, and burnout, as if it were a law of the natural world.

As someone who spent a miserable, braindead year working 60-plus hour weeks at a law firm (a light jog by investment banking standards), I, too, felt some skepticism. Could a startup promising punishing hours attract and retain great talent? Could they convince employees to sit at a desk 12 hours a day surrounded by the world’s most hyperactive city? How much of Shebat’s patter was a marketing ruse, a sort of machismo, the commercial equivalent of a college classmate that brags about the number of all-nighters they pulled during finals week?

Beneath any apprehension, however, was another sensation: excitement. Even among the startup world’s many bold CEOs, Shebat stood out for his brazenness and audacity. As much as his declamations might have been the signs of a skilled showman, they could have just as easily portended a founder with the uncommon ambition and grit needed to build something truly special. I had to find out which of those stories were true.

On a bank holiday Monday in February at 7:00 PM, I stepped off an elevator and into Traba’s office.

“I didn’t know that was humanly possible.”

Over the past quarter of a century, few have had as successful an operating and investing career as Keith Rabois. Since starting at PayPal as an Executive Vice President at the turn of the millennium, the Khosla Ventures partner has founded, managed, and invested in a slew of billion-dollar businesses, including LinkedIn, Square, Faire, Opendoor, OpenStore, Affirm, Ramp, and DoorDash. It is a track record that marks Rabois as one of the most gifted pickers of his generation.

As a result, when Rabois says that Mike Shebat might be the most persistent person he’s ever met, my ears prick up. This is a man who has counted Elon Musk and Vinod Khosla as co-workers. He has invested in Patrick and John Collison, Max Levchin, and Tony Xu. None are renowned for their wilting personalities or Wonderbread spines.

Why? I ask Rabois. What is it about Mike?

Mike Shebat was born in Northern Virginia, straight into a competition. “I have a twin brother, Chris. He was six minutes older, so he’s the eldest son and I’m the second eldest,” Shebat said. Though just a few hundred seconds separated him from his brother, Mike spent much of his childhood feeling like he trailed by a much greater distance. “My brother was very good at any sport he did, he got into the Gifted & Talented program in elementary before I did. My parents put us into basketball, soccer, baseball, football – all the sports – and he always outshone me. As a young child, I developed a chip on my shoulder.”

Talking to Shebat in the present day, such stories seem incongruous with his imposing, broad-shouldered presence. Though he is quick to smile and easy to speak with, he has an aura of inherent competence that makes him seem like a character lifted from an Ayn Rand book – Hank Rearden with an Equinox membership. It is impossible to imagine him struggling, especially athletically.

The one place Mike stepped out of his brother’s shadow was the swimming pool. His success owed at least as much to his desire to surpass Chris as natural aptitude. “My dad brought me to the YMCA one time and he was like, ‘Oh, you could actually be a good swimmer.’ So I basically went all in on swimming. I was waking up at 4 AM before school, swimming constantly. I became a really good swimmer and broke records on my summer league team.”

Even that narrow spotlight, earned with endless laps, didn’t last. Though Mike eclipsed his marginally older brother in the pool, his younger brother soon surpassed him. “I was well regarded as a pretty great swimmer. But then my little brother became an amazing swimmer.” John Shebat would go on to become an NCAA champion at the University of Texas and compete at the Olympic Trials.

Though Mike Shebat’s brothers provided direct competition, his parents provided the need to compete in the first place. “[Mike’s drive] does derive from his family, primarily through his mother,” Rabois said. “She set the foundation very strongly when he was young that there’s a right and wrong way to do things. There’s a Shebat family way to do things.” If a young Mike forgot to make his bed in the morning, his mother wouldn’t let it sit until he got home. “I have memories of my mom literally coming into school and taking me out of class to go make it,” Mike told me.

That’s not to say that Shebat’s father was a soft touch. Mike described him as delivering a “hard edge” and demanding “very high standards.” Afternoons were filled with one hour of piano practice, one hour of reading, and zero hours of screen time. From an early age, the Shebat children were expected to take care of their laundry and help clean. “I was raised with no excuses,” Shebat says. “It was a very disciplined environment.”

Upstaged by his siblings athletically, Mike directed his competitive energy toward school. While that helped him stand out in high school, receiving admission to the University of Virginia, he hit his stride during his years in Charlottesville. After recreating the rigid schedule of his childhood, Shebat found scholastic success naturally followed. “I was like, ‘Wow, I can get straight As if I just put in the inputs and focus.’” For Shebat, it validated a broader philosophy: “Inputs drive outputs. You don’t just get outputs in a miraculous way. You have to do things consistently, not give up, and eventually, you can outwork the competition.”

If industry was the central premise of Shebat’s outlook, it was swiftly followed by uncompromising ambition. When it came to his professional goals, Shebat showed an unwillingness to take no for an answer and a talent for finding alternate routes to his desired destination. As a junior at UVA’s Arts and Sciences school, he was dismayed to discover that his dream employer, Goldman Sachs, didn’t recruit for its investment banking practice at his school. Rather than look at other companies, Shebat learned of a Goldman trip to hire from the university’s Commerce School, finagling himself an interview.

Getting in the room was the easy part; the real challenge would be out-competing the many business undergraduates who had spent weeks preparing. “I could just tell by the lay of the land that I had to find a way to get noticed,” Shebat recalled. “I also know that in highly competitive environments – like getting an internship or building a startup – you have to be different than the middle of the Bell Curve to stand out. When you leave an interview, [recruiters] can probably say three sentences about you, and if they’re very similar, you’re just going to blend in.”

Years later, that lesson would stand him in good stead.

To separate himself from the pack, Shebat put his economics major to good use, discussing the differences between the discipline’s Austrian and Keynesian philosophies. He sealed his pitch by emphasizing that if Goldman bet on him, they wouldn’t regret it. “Before I left the room, I was like, ‘Look, if I were to leave you with something, it’s that I promise you I will deliver. I’ve delivered in anything that I do. I will do whatever it takes to succeed here.’” Shebat spent his summer on Wall Street.

In the end, Shebat didn’t last long in high finance. He joined Blackstone after graduation but quickly yearned for a more hands-on career. “I was like, ‘Ok, in order to develop as a high-potential leader, I need to learn how to manage people, I need to learn how to motivate and inspire people.’ I wanted an environment that was heavily operational, where I could learn all the different parts of the company. That’s when McMaster-Carr reached out.”

McMaster-Carr is one of the quiet giants of American industry. Though unheralded in tech, the 123-year-old private firm sells 700,000 products, from pens and paper to air-powered nail guns and welding torches. As much as McMaster boasts an impressive breadth of supply, its depth is even more remarkable. It does not simply sell screws; it sells 78,576 “Fastening and Joining” items, searchable by thread size, length, material, finish, head type, hardness, tensile strength, and about a dozen other dimensions.

Shebat’s stint at McMaster gave him a taste of what it meant to be a builder, albeit at a larger, less nimble incumbent. More importantly, it introduced him to the light industrial staffing market. When an enterprise customer placed a large order with McMaster, the supplier spun up temporary teams to manage the fulfillment process from packing and labeling to lifting and loading. Rather than try to find short-term workers themselves, McMaster relied on staffing agencies.

In theory, these companies should quickly and reliably source laborers and place them at companies that need them. In practice, Shebat discovered a different story. These businesses were neither fast nor reliable. It was routine for agencies to take seven days to hire a team, making it difficult for clients like McMaster to respond to customer demand swiftly. When agencies finally managed to assemble a team, it was usually heavily understaffed, with an industry-wide “fill rate” of just 46%. Meaning that if McMaster was looking for a hundred workers, the data suggested they would receive just 46 of them for the job.

In the years to come, Shebat would learn that industrial staffing’s deficiencies ran down to the bedrock. “There’s no system of record,” he said. “There’s no way to invite back workers, there’s no way to vet the workers' skills. Can they stack fifty-pound boxes? Or are they more attentive to detail and want to do more labeling and things like that.” The market was broken, but McMaster-Carr wasn’t the company to fix it.

By 2016, Shebat was ready for a new challenge. Ever since taking an undergraduate class at UVA that encouraged students to build “a fake company,” he knew he wanted to start a firm of his own. But for the first time in a while, he wasn’t sure of the best next step. Should he go to business school and expand his network? Or try his hand at a faster growth startup?

Though unsure of his desire to get an MBA, Shebat threw himself into the process with trademark intensity. When I asked Keith Rabois why the Traba CEO was the most persistent person he’d ever met, this was the anecdote he pointed to first. “He took the GMAT seven times,” Rabois said. “I didn’t even know that was humanly possible,” chuckling as he shared the anecdote.

As it turns out, Rabois was wrong. Mike Shebat didn’t take the GMAT seven times, searching for his best possible score. He took it eight. According to Shebat and several test prep websites, that is the lifetime limit. “I got a better score every time!!” Shebat said via text. “Went up over 250 points from start to finish. Leave everything on the field and pull every single lever possible to succeed. That way no regrets.” As Rabois said of Shebat’s GMAT prep, “That’s pretty much how he approaches everything. Once you see that characteristic, you start seeing it everywhere.”

If you were a hyper-intense Blackstone alum with a minor in ambition, there were few better places to go in 2016 than Uber. If you had to choose a year as Uber’s pinnacle, this was it. This was the Uber of Travis Kalanick and toe-stepping; the Uber that courted Saudi Arabia and left with $3.5 billion; the Uber slated to win food delivery and autonomous driving; the Uber before #DeleteUber, the Holder investigation, and Dara Khosrowshahi. It was, simply put, the Uberiest version of Uber. For a brief moment, it seemed the best way to traverse the globe was by black car.

When a recruiter reached out to Shebat, he quickly jumped aboard, joining the insurgent Uber Eats division. Over the next five and a half years, Shebat witnessed the company’s hard-charging culture, operational excellence, and management of extreme turbulence. He delivered iPads in the Texas heat to try and onboard restaurants to the Eats program, moved to Mexico and Brazil to launch international markets, and learned to set his sights ever higher. “[I remember when I met] Travis Kalanick, I asked, ‘What kind of books are you reading?’ And he’s like, I’m reading about Rockefeller.’ I was like, ‘That’s so inspiring, he’s dreaming big.’”

Shebat worked relentlessly. “I love what I do, I don’t really see it as work. Even when I was at Uber, I worked all the time. Because I enjoy it, I enjoy trying to get better.” Shebat’s enjoyment extended to the most stressful aspects of the job. “What better way to learn than to be thrown in and have to solve problems every day. Kind of like a math professor – a math professor without any problems to solve is not a very happy math professor.”

A variable compensation package spurred his drive. “From Travis, another thing I learned is I remember being so motivated by knowing you can either make no bonus or like a crazy high number. It was all meritocratic,” he said, describing how Uber reviewed performance data to categorize employees in one of six zones. “If you get slotted in zone six, you could make real numbers, like six-figures. Zone five, it was a big drop to like $30,000. Then zone four, it’s like $15,000, then zone three – then it goes into almost nothing, like $5,000 or $2,000. That’s a huge spread. But because of that, everyone wanted a zone six and would work really hard for zone six.”

While Shebat ultimately didn’t introduce that system at Traba (“we don’t have huge numbers of people…and that system did have its flaws”), it provided an interesting lesson on aligning and motivating a large workforce. By 2020, he was ready to take those lessons and apply them to a challenge of his own making.

“May I have the definition, please?”


Standing in front of the microphone is a boy in a white polo emblazoned with the National Spelling Bee badge. He is thirteen but looks three years younger.

“Alopecoid,” a man in a tan suit intones toward the stage.

“May I have the definition, please?”

“Like a fox, vulpine. Alopecoid.”

The child ponders, glancing at his feet. “Alopecoid. May I have the language of origin?”

The boy is Akshay Buddiga, an eighth grader from Colorado Springs. He has come to the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, not merely to compete but to win. Since seeing his older brother seize the title two years prior, he has sworn to himself that he will equal the feat. After finishing a disappointing eighth in his state the year before, this is his last chance.

Agonizing pauses punctuate that question and those that follow. Then something happens. Buddiga’s eyes go wide and suddenly he is pitching to his left, out of shot, tumbling onto the stage floor. “Oh my god!” a worried voice exclaims. “We’ve never seen this before,” the announcer says, “The poor gentleman, the young man, apparently has fainted on stage.”

Buddiga cuts short concerns, rising quickly and stepping back to the microphone. He begins to spell: “A-l-o-p-e-c-o-i-d. Alopecoid.”

Twenty years on, Akshay Buddiga reflected on that moment and what was going through his mind. “I was going back and forth between two ways to spell it,” Traba’s Chief Technical Officer said. “And I ended up locking my knees and fainting. I fell down, I got back up, and I was like, ‘I’m just gonna go and spell it. Whatever happens happens.’ So I went back up and spelled and they didn’t ring the buzzer, so I knew it was right.’”

In the end, Buddiga would finish second in the tournament, falling short of his goal. But in the years since, his fall and recovery have become a part of Spelling Bee lore, re-airing on ESPN and attracting hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. It also neatly encapsulates Traba’s other founder. Though Buddiga cuts a milder figure than Shebat, there is no doubt he shares similar intensity and perseverance.

During my early interactions with Traba’s founders, Buddiga said little and yet there was a kind of eloquence in his silence. When he spoke, he did so with the poise of someone who spent much of their life studying the English language’s long tail. Though much of Traba’s previous coverage focuses on Shebat and his ambitious goals, Buddiga is indispensable. He is a “genius” by his co-founder’s estimation, and the key to ensuring Traba succeeds as a true tech business rather than a modernized staffing firm.

Buddiga’s journey from Spelling Bee sensation to tech CTO followed the path of many an overachiever. He attended Duke University after shining in high school, beginning his time in Durham as a biomedical engineering major. At least in part, that focus was an attempt to carve a career distinct from his father, an experienced network engineer. The slowness of the younger Buddiga’s chosen field eventually dissuaded him from pursuing life in a laboratory, guiding him toward the more rapid, iterative world of software. A Master’s in Management Science & Engineering at Stanford allowed Buddiga to strengthen his skills and add business acumen.

A Product Operations role at Zenefits followed, where he got to experience the benefits and drawbacks of hockey stick growth. “The company had just raised a Series B and was scaling insanely fast,” Buddiga recalled. “At the time, it was the fastest-growing B2B company in Silicon Valley history or something like that. It was a boot camp for hyper-growth, essentially.” His 16 months under founder and then-CEO Parker Conrad left him with an appreciation for startups and the intensity it took to win. “After that experience, I was like, ‘Startups are great.’ They’re a kind of insane experience to go through.”

If Zenefits was about speed, Buddiga’s five years at Fanatics focused on scale. He joined the sports apparel manufacturer and retailer to help it rebuild its tech stack from scratch to enable global scale. “It was a really interesting technical opportunity,” Buddiga said, though he knew it wouldn’t be a permanent resting place. When the CTO asked Buddiga during the recruitment process where he hoped to be in five years, Buddiga responded, “I want to start a company.”

By 2020, he and his team succeeded in their mission. “We accomplished all the goals we set out to do – we went global, did multi-language and multi-currency, launched in Europe and Japan, did all that stuff,” he said. Buddiga’s successes at Fanatics set him up to take the entrepreneurial leap he’d forecasted in his interviews. It is an indication of his methodical nature that he did not rush to take that next step.

In late fall that year, Buddiga took a solo hike in Marin County, an idyllic patch on the west side of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. He used the walk to clear his head and ask himself what he wanted from his life. “I journaled and wrote some stuff down,” he recalled. “I basically thought about it from the regret minimization perspective. [I asked myself,] ‘If I look back five or ten years from now, or even from my deathbed, which of these options am I going to regret more? If I start a company and it fails, am I going to regret not working at an early-stage startup somewhere?’ I was like, ‘Not really, because I’ll just join another one.’” It was November 3, 2020 – election day in America. A day of decisions.

Traba's founders Akshay Buddiga and Mike Shebat in Miami (Traba)

Becoming an entrepreneur is not as simple as choosing to be one. If Buddiga were going to fulfill his ambitions, he would need an idea and, perhaps, a business partner. To accelerate the process, he joined On Deck, an online accelerator and provider of virtual courses. It immediately delivered. In the days leading up to the program’s kick-off events, participants were encouraged to post introductions in Slack, outlining their professional backgrounds and ambitions. “Everyone is writing these long, amazing breakdowns,” Buddiga remembered. “All these super talented people – crazy backgrounds, amazing experiences. People that have started a company, sold companies.” As Buddiga scrolled, his fiance watched over his shoulder, silently assessing. When he reached a post written by someone named Mike Shebat, she stopped him: “This guy’s a winner. You should definitely talk to him.”

“The whole space is literally broken.”

Shebat didn’t rush his departure from Uber. Before taking a swing at entrepreneurship, he would ensure he was as prepared as possible. During the sourdough and sweatpants days of the pandemic, Shebat decided it was time he learned about venture capital. “I took a Kauffman Fellows class. And then I also read a book called Venture Deals. Honestly, I think there was probably too much detail in both of those.”

He also began digging into the market he’d observed at McMaster-Carr. Was the industrial staffing process really as broken as it had appeared to be? And even if it was, could a generational company be built to address its many ostensible problems? The more Shebat learned, the greater his conviction grew.

He discovered that hiring was, indeed, a large and acute problem. In 2022, the global staffing market was estimated at $648 billion. Despite some dips, the segment grew at a compound annual growth rate of 4.2% between 2008 and 2022. (The available figures for 2023 appear slightly more variable and less reliable.) The US market was estimated to be worth $219 billion in 2022, with the industrial segment pegged at $37.1 billion. In the years before the pandemic, staffing supplied job opportunities for 16 million Americans – experiencing a downturn during lockdown.

Companies like McMaster-Carr spent millions of dollars a year on temporary industrial workers, relying on legacy providers. He found a slew of staffing agencies clearing a billion dollars or more in annual revenue, indicating the market’s size and fragmentation. An independent report suggests that as many as 60 companies earned $100 million or more in revenue from US operations. The industry’s three biggest players – Randstad, Adecco, and Manpower – comprise a mere 12% of the market.

In Shebat’s view, these companies had managed to clip nine-figure earnings with sub-standard offerings, failing to meet customer demand and insufficiently vetting workers. “The real thing that makes you good or bad [at one of these jobs] is like, ‘Can you show up to work on time? Can you actually work hard while you’re in the facility? Can you not get in fights with people? Can you be polite, have a good attitude? Can you lift heavy things? Do you have attention to detail?’ [There’s] a lack of control and transparency.”

The system worked little better for the temps themselves. “There used to be a dynamic in the United States where you go work for Pepsi-Cola and you’re there for 30 years and you get a pension, you can retire. That’s just not how things work anymore,” Shebat said. “There’s not really a career path. You’re stacking boxes until you don’t. And then maybe you can manage others.”

The lack of information about temporary workers hurts not only businesses but also the workers themselves. An excellent reputation putting in the hours at one warehouse isn’t transferred to another, making it difficult to rise through the ranks or earn rewards for your efforts. It’s also difficult to know what a given environment will be like before showing up. “Say you find out this warehouse facility down the block pays more, you show up, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so hot in here.’ They don’t turn on the air conditioning, the supervisor’s selling drugs, someone is doing shady things. It’s really hard. Long story short, the whole space is literally broken.” Mike Shebat joined the On Deck program in 2021 to bring his idea for a tech-forward light industrial staffing platform to life. He would call it Traba.

After meeting in the early days of the On Deck program, Shebat and Akshay Buddiga approached the possibility of partnering up with reasonable caution. Buoyed by the adrenaline of a new idea, it is easy for founders to pair off too quickly, jumping into a marriage doomed to fail from the beginning. To reduce their chances of a future divorce, the pair talked through their different ambitions, working styles, and decision-making processes. They walked through potential black swan episodes and edge cases – how would they handle them?

In the course of their dating process, the topic of work ethic arose. What did they expect of each other? What did they expect of themselves? “Both of us were very much aligned that this [business] was going to be the primary focus of our lives,” Buddiga said. “In order to build something massive that’s going to make a huge impact on the world, you need to put everything into it.” Though they didn’t have neat slogans to summarize their commitment, the message was clear: Shebat and Buddiga would build a generational business or burn themselves to cider trying.

It was finally time for Shebat to leave Uber and Traba to raise a seed round. With typical farsightedness, Shebat had begun wooing venture capitalists months earlier. After downloading an Airtable listing of active investors in his new hometown of Miami, he started reaching out to them, setting up meetings. Not all were productive.

“I did meet with a lot of investors before I met with Keith and a lot of them were not that nice,” Shebat recalled. “I’d meet with one of them, he’d give me homework to do, it was a weird environment. Then he'd whisk away in his BMW down to Brickell.”

Shebat’s outreach to Rabois, then at Founders Fund, proved much more productive. It also offers an example of what a good cold outreach strategy looks like. “I went to Keith’s Twitter,” Shebat said. “Top of funnel for any sale is, ‘Who is my customer?’ I saw that he’s really into Barry’s and I’m really into Barry’s too. So I reached out to him on LinkedIn and instead of being like, ‘Let’s get coffee’ – I’m sure he gets reached out to for coffee every day – I was like, ‘Let’s do a Barry’s class.’ And, of course, he would say yes because he goes every single day.”

After sweating through squats and bicep curls, Rabois and Shebat went to a coffee shop to talk. The then-Uber employee played the long game. “I never really mentioned Traba, I just talked broadly like, ‘Hey, what do you do for work?’ Just getting to know him better. I never really pitched Traba until like six months later.”

Over the following months, Shebat built a friendship with Rabois and broadened his venture network, attending industry events in Miami. “I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “This was early 2021, Miami was open and a lot of venture capitalists and people were in Miami. That’s how I met Katherine Boyle (then an investor at General Catalyst, today a General Partner at a16z). Then I was invited to Peter Thiel’s house for dinner at some point. I got to know these people at a high level without really pitching.”

Shebat with investor and advisor Peter Thiel (Traba)

What would Shebat say at these events if he didn’t discuss his idea? “When I was introducing myself to people, I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in product at Uber, but I’m going to be building something big eventually. I’m not going to talk about it right now. But that’s basically where my head’s at.’”

Shebat’s preparation meant that when it was time to raise, the process moved swiftly. Rabois remembered his response when Shebat walked through Traba’s deck at their next coffee meeting. “My first reaction was a great sigh of relief,” Rabois said. “You’re friends with somebody and they’re alluding to starting a company and hopefully they're going to work on something interesting. But you don’t always know.” Thankfully for both of them, that wasn’t the case. “The first draft was extremely strong.”

Four points in particular resonated with Rabois, outside of the tenacity and seriousness he’d already observed in Shebat. Firstly, Traba was attacking a large market – “significantly larger than my intuition or anyone’s intuition,” he said. Secondly, large businesses had been built in the space, but all seemed “defective or broken down.” Thirdly, none of those players had significant market share. And finally, Shebat’s time at McMaster-Carr and Uber meant he had the ideal resumé. “As soon as he connected the dots for me, I was like, ‘Ok, this is a great market opportunity and you’re very well suited to do this.’”

In July 2021, Traba raised a $3.6 million seed, co-led by Founders Fund and General Catalyst. Not long after, Shebat and Buddiga enjoyed a moment of sweet revenge. The venture capitalists with the BMW that had strung them along for months arrived at the Founders Fund office one day to find the pair ensconced in their work. “He walks in and he’s like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Shebat recalled. “And Akshay and I are like, ‘Oh, yeah we got an investment from Founders Fund.’” Faced with an obstacle in his path, Shebat had found another, better side door.

“Dream Big”

Before I can even get into the elevator, someone from Traba has introduced themselves. They’re returning to work after a short trip to grab food or perhaps a final boost of caffeine. We chat for a moment as we ride up to the fourth floor.

It is 7:00 PM on President’s Day and the office is full. Employees sit or stand at their desks, gently illuminated by a purple neon “Traba” sign. I do not want to oversell it. It is not some frenetic, boiling cauldron of Hufflepuff energy, sales team striking a gong, engineers arguing over a vertical monitor, a sole product manager karate chopping through a stack of bricks. It is an ordinary scene, except for the hour. People are working, there is brisk chatter, meetings fill a few of the rooms.

I am in the place for no more than thirty seconds before several employees come up and introduce themselves, full of friendly energy. For a moment, this throws me. Why are they so prepared? Has Traba constructed this tableau for my benefit? Have I walked into a Potemkin startup?

Such is the writer’s ego. There are no signs of trick walls, and if this is a performance, the performance seems to be: build a great startup for the next twenty years or more.

For the next two hours, I sit in a conference room and talk with Mike Shebat and Akshay Buddiga. We walk through their latest board deck, cultural tenets, and stories up to this point. We discuss the investors they have worked with and how they rely on them. They are frank with their numbers and how they operate. For fifteen minutes, Shebat recounts a recent all-hands meeting in which he explained why Traba had let a few underperforming team members go. In several of these moments, I am struck by how crisp a communicator Shebat seems to be, finding a way to compress complicated trade-offs into clear, persuasive language.

Traba's office celebrating hitting $5 million in annualized revenue (Traba)

Afterward, I am given free rein to wander through the rows of desks. The engineering team walks me through a few products; I speak with them about their journeys to and at Traba. At 9:30 PM, I leave, the antithesis of a Traba employee: last in, first out.

Though Buddiga and Shebat committed to work at maximum intensity when starting the project, they didn’t have to define Traba’s cultural values until it was time to make their first hire. Once again, Founders Fund served as the location, though this time, Traba’s leadership brainstormed from the firm’s San Francisco office. “Before we put up a job description, we needed to align on our values,” Buddiga said. “The values we’re going to set for the company and that the people we’re going to hire need to actually commit to. And that’s when we wrote them down.”

They decided on four primary values:

  1. Dream Big
  2. Olympian’s Work Ethic
  3. Growth Mindset
  4. Customer Obsession

If you are a naturally skeptical person, this will not strike you as a particularly inspired quartet. None would be out of place on a motivation poster from the 1980s, set in front of a stunning mountain vista or soaring eagle. You can imagine a senile self-help guru muttering these phrases to himself in his old age, right after telling the toaster to buck up its ideas.

Traba's controversial "Big Four" values (Traba)

But the mark of a good cultural value isn’t originality or elegant wording. It’s how it sets norms and drives behavior. By this measure, Traba’s values may be the most successful of any company I have studied at this stage. Shebat and Buddiga have found language that galvanizes action, promotes hard work and big swings, attracts investors and deters poor cultural fits. Who cares if they aren’t novel?

As much as Traba’s values matter, the expectations and ambitions that come with them count just as much. Each of the company’s Big Four ladder down into clear tenets, explanations for why they matter, and examples of aligned behavior. To have an “Olympian’s Work Ethic,” it is not enough to simply work hard; you must “play for the front of the jersey,” “move fast by nature,” and “put the time in – especially in-person.”

It’s this final tenet that has attracted most attention. In Traba’s early days, the company explicitly asked new hires to commit to a “9-9-6” schedule, meaning team members worked from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week. It has introduced greater flexibility in the three years since without losing much of its intensity. Today, employees are expected to work in-office for at least 60 hours a week, arriving no later than 9:15 AM. However, if you want to head out early one day to meet up with friends and stay late the next, that is no longer verboten. If travel keeps you from hitting the 60-hour threshold one week, you should plan on working 12+ hour days to catch up afterward.

These requirements have proved controversial. As tech’s talent war has heated up over the past couple of decades, workers have begun to expect greater flexibility and fewer demands. While “work-life balance” is a concept that holds little weight in high finance, management consulting, white-collar law firms, or medical residencies, it is something of a sacred cow at large tech companies and even some startups. Candidates at Google, Meta, or the latest hot Series B recipient are wooed by the promise of good perks and reasonable hours. Though there are undoubtedly very hard-working people at these companies (I know several), there also seems to be more space for well-educated loafers, surfing the surplus of time, space, and snacks. HBO show Silicon Valley went as far as to build a character around this stereotype: Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti, who spends his days drinking Big Gulps on his employer’s empty roof.

Nelson Bighetti, a symbol of Silicon Valley's sloth (HBO)

The result is that any time a company challenges these norms, it faces an inevitable backlash on social media, cries of slave-driving and soul-crushing. On its face, this is a strange response to the reality of building a startup. By definition, startups are the most fragile of enterprises. The odds are that they will die. Only through ingenuity, sweat, and luck do some stay alive. Why should that process require fewer than a litigator learning their craft or a surgeon in training?

It becomes even odder when Silicon Valley’s culture of employee ownership is factored in. While the McKinsey consultant may clip a significantly better salary than the PM at a Series A startup, only one has a stake in a business that might appreciate 1,000x and whose work directly impacts the likelihood of that happening. The odds may be against you, but if you are optimizing for upside, there are fewer better opportunities. As Ryan Delk, founder of edtech Primer and friend of Shebat’s, said, “Anyone that says you don’t have to work hard to build a startup – they’re lying.”

Startups were not always seen as relaxed landing spots. For several years, renowned investors like Mike Moritz have been calling attention to the declining working standards in Silicon Valley. In a 2018 Financial Times op-ed, he exhorted American startups to emulate the work ethic and frugality of their Chinese peers. “In recent months, there have been complaints about the political sensibilities of speakers invited to address a corporate audience; debates over the appropriate length of paternity leave or work-life balances; and grumbling about the need for a space for musical jam sessions,” Moritz writes, recapping various Silicon Valley gripes. “These seem like the concerns of a society that is becoming unhinged. These topics are absent in China’s technology companies, where the pace of work is furious.” Coming from someone who closely observed the ascendance of many of the Valley’s great businesses, those words have particular weight.

Though Moritz’s alarm arrived in 2018, Keith Rabois believes the rot set in sometime around the mid-2010s and the release of the Social Network, David Fincher’s film chronicling the Machiavellian rise of a young Mark Zuckerberg. In the wake of that movie and the broader industry changes at play, becoming a founder and working in tech became “cool,” bringing in tourists lacking the oddball fanaticism of previous generations. “We’ve regressed as an American culture in terms of willingness to pursue ambition, generally speaking across society,” Rabois said. The result is that Traba represents an outlier in the current environment but less so when compared to the great companies of previous years – PayPal, for example. “On an absolute scale, Traba’s work ethic might be slightly below that of PayPal. [PayPal was] in the top 1%, but [Mike’s] in the top ten basis points [today], because the culture has changed.”

The result of Traba’s anomalous standards is that it is explicitly not a fit for everyone. Every job has trade-offs and these are theirs: you will earn less than you might have among the Fortune 500 but receive generous equity grants, you will work with highly motivated peers but have little to no social life, you will get little structure but considerable responsibility, you will give it everything you have but that may still not be enough. If that sounds like the life you want, fantastic. If not, no judgment.

Rather than convincing candidates to embrace its intense work ethic, Traba does the opposite. “We anti-sell them when we give an offer,” Shebat said. “It’s like, ‘Look, I’m going to anti-sell you really hard, I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t join.” By being unapologetic about the company’s culture and walking through its trade-offs, Traba keeps attrition low. “If you join, every single person here ends up loving our offices. They’re like, ‘Great! The people are a lot smarter than I thought they would be, everyone’s really collaborative and really good.’”

For people like Head of Finance Jessica Xu, Shebat’s warning about long hours was exactly what she wanted to hear. Before joining Traba, Xu worked as an investment associate at Softbank and at South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang as CFO of its food delivery division. After those high-octane experiences, Xu sought a startup with the same intensity as the Asian leaders she had backed or helped build. “I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ I’m a very intense worker and I think over the last few years, I’ve just come to accept that I’m a little bit of a workaholic. And so when I work with people, especially at a startup, you want to work with people who all want to win.”

Product manager Owen Mahoney had a similar response after hearing about Traba’s expectations. “For me, it was definitely attractive. And I think if you talk to a lot of members of our team, it is one of the things that is very attractive. It’s a kind of self-selection of “Alright, I want to work hard.’”

Naturally, Traba does have some turnover. “We did have people that joined – not that many, a couple – being like, ‘[Working like an Olympian] sounds good to me, but I’ve never done it before. Let’s give it a shot.’ And then they’d be like, ‘Oh, everyone actually works a lot. It's a huge commitment, and that’s not going to work with me,’” Shebat recounted. “So we did have a couple people decide in the beginning [to leave]. The sooner you find that out, the better for both parties. That person can go look for another job.”

I wondered: who tended to be a fit for Traba’s culture? Had Shebat or Buddiga observed any patterns? “People that like the American flag tend to do well in environments like this,” Shebat said, pointing to the massive flag draped across the red brick of a Traba meeting room.

Really? “It’s actually a bigger thing with Varda and Flexport. Ryan Petersen and Delian [Asparouhov] have also said they put huge American flags [in their offices] and it's like garlic for the worst types of people. I don’t know what it is,” Shebat admits. “Maybe some people see it and think ‘Oh, that means the American Dream – if I work hard, I can do something.’ And whether [other] people look at it and they’re like, ‘It’s an unfair system’ – like it almost bleeds into how they think about their job. I don’t know what it is.”

Traba's American Flag, a subtle hiring filter (Traba)

As well as warding off international vampires, Traba’s culture attracts former founders. “We definitely have a few people who have either started a company previously or were early at a company,” Buddiga said. “They’re attracted to Traba because they’re like, ‘Oh, this is a rocket ship taking off. I want to join and be a part of that journey. Because it didn't work out for me on what I tried before but I still have that fire.’”

These facets amount to a culture provocative enough to capture attention, differentiated enough to filter talent, and sufficiently magnetic to its target audience. Ryan Delk summarized the genius of Traba’s approach: “Mike realized he could build a brand that was contrarian among the masses, but consensus among the top 1% performers.”

“Just go do it.”

A couple of days after my evening visit, I returned to the office for a product tour. By then, I understood the problem Traba was solving and the improvements it offered compared to traditional staffing firms. Using Buddiga and Shebat’s platform, manufacturers like American Nitrile – a maker of blue rubber gloves used by medical professionals – accessed vetted talent faster and more transparently. Rather than limping by with half the workers they’d asked for after a seven-day wait, Traba averaged a 96% fill rate with a turnaround time of just 6 hours. How?

Traba operates three core products, each playing a role in delivering impressive, superior service:

  1. An ops console
  2. A business portal
  3. A worker app

The best way to understand the impact of these applications is to telescope inwards, telling the story of a market, a company, and a worker.

Because Traba deals with real workers in the physical world, it opens up markets geographically. To operate effectively in Texas, it must recruit businesses with staffing needs and workers looking for shifts. To deliver on its promises, Traba specifically needs a surplus of reliable laborers, enough to fill a shift at close to 100% capacity in 6 hours or less. It’s structurally similar to how companies like Uber have expanded.

To start, Traba gets to work securing demand. While existing clients from one state may have operations in another, smoothing the path, much relies on cold outreach and hard graft. Read Egger, Traba’s Head of Growth, led the Texas expansion. He outlined how they moved into the market and some of the lessons learned in the process. It illustrates Traba’s culture in action and the upstream work required to make a successful shift happen.

“We just flew to Austin, started knocking on doors and cold calling people. I closed my first business honestly from dumb luck,” he said. After securing that business, Traba’s growth in the state stalled, prompting a discussion between Egger, Mike Shebat, and Luis Lasso De La Lastra, Head of Operations. “It was like, ‘You need to step it up, and why aren’t you selling more,’” Egger recalled. “Of course, my first reaction was, ‘I’m not a fucking seller.’ I didn’t say that. But then I was like, ‘Ok, that’s bullshit. Just go do it.’” Over the following weeks, Egger retooled Traba’s sales process. “I decided the way we pitched was absolute trash.”

He realized that because of the low trust businesses had for traditional staffing firms, the benefits Traba promised – 100% fill rates, no lock-ins, 24/7 support, top 1% of the workforce – came across as another pie-in-the-sky fantasy, a pitch not to be taken seriously. “Our sell went from being a sales-y sell to an operations sell. The other thing sounds like everything else. I realized I just need to talk to these people and tell them like I’m an engineer, ‘Here’s how I’m going to work with their business.’” The switch worked, with eight new customers joining the next month – three of whom are now among Traba’s top ten clients.

Traba's fill rate (Traba, HRZone)

In tandem with securing demand, Traba signs up supply. “[We look on] every type of job board you can think of,” Egger said. “Calling workers, asking them if they have family or friends that want to work. Getting them to refer to other workers. Going to different events and seeing if people want to sign up for Traba. We have some targeted Google ads that are really good for that too, looking for light industrial workers. It’s all these levers. [But] you’ve got to call every single person if you want to [convert people.]”

Launching a new market can be a grueling process but exciting for a certain type of person. “I made the choice that I did not want any help [launching Texas]. I wanted to do it completely alone,” Egger said. “[The process] made me realize that I am not too good for any task on this planet, including calling workers convincing them to go to a job, processing pay at two in the morning, setting an alarm for 4 AM to drive to an event center. I was working 120 hours per week.”

As Traba’s tech has developed, the process has become easier. Egger witnessed that change part way through running the Texan gauntlet. “I got to see our tech develop. It went from the second month where I was near tears on four hours of sleep seven days a week, borderline manic. And there was one where I was sleeping 50 to 60 minutes a night. And then, all of a sudden, a couple of months in they started pushing out new updates to our tech and it started becoming more doable, more possible.”

Though improvements to all three of Traba’s core products helped lift Egger’s load, the ops console was particularly important. As the company has matured, it has added tooling to programmatically vet, coordinate, and contact workers.

For example, Traba uses an AI bot to talk to workers and ensure they meet the requirements of a given job. In the past, those calls would have been made directly by someone like Egger. If a client needed more workers at the last minute, he also would have had to call around directly. Now, Traba relies on a tool called “Bugle” that makes it easy to segment the worker base and send an SMS blast, push notification, or automated phone call to the most suitable candidates.

Traba's ops console helps automate the staffing process (Traba)

Traba uses AI voice startup ElevenLabs to make its calls sound as human as possible, as Akshay Buddiga explained. “We generate a voice message that pulls in information about the company, the role, everything else. It’ll say, “We have a role at Drop Foods as a production laborer that starts at 6 AM. If you’re interested, we can send you more information, just press ‘1.’ It’s trained on one of our operations folks so it’s more of a human-sounding message, almost like a voicemail.”

The improvement in Traba’s technology has given it increasing leverage. While it took Traba a year to fill its first 100-worker shift, Egger shared how, when launching Arizona, the team successfully filled a 150-worker shift just four days after entering the market. In that same time frame, Traba signed up 2,500 workers. Not that it came easy. “I locked myself in an Airbnb for four days, just hammering Celsius and candy,” Egger said.

This is how a new market is made: through sleepless nights, energy drinks, cold calls, and scaling technology. Stories like Egger’s either ignite your blood or send you sprinting to touch grass. Whatever your response, this is how Traba’s business begins.

Once Traba signs a client, it doesn’t take them long to onboard onto the business portal. “It’s pretty fast,” Buddiga said. “You go through the signup process, you tell us your location, what type of work you do. You know, ‘Am I a product facility? Am I a 3PL? Am I cold storage?’ Once you enter all of that, you create your account. You can invite your teammates to your account to get set up. And from there, I can just go ahead and book a shift.”

As part of setting up a shift, employers will share more information about the facility and job requirements. The range of companies that rely on temporary labor means there can be considerable variability in environment and staffing needs. “For example, we work with a customer that bakes all the biscuits for Popeye’s,” Buddiga said. “Millions of biscuits a week. So one of their facilities is pretty hot because it’s industrial baking. And then the other facility is actually pretty cold because it's doing all the deserts and stuff like that.” Including these kinds of insights, alongside details like language requirements, the necessity to lift heavy objects, or experience using certain equipment ensures a good match between business and worker.

Once those details are added, Traba works to staff the necessary shift. The business can participate in this process if it likes, inviting workers it’s “favorited” previously. Otherwise, Traba will push a job posting out to its worker base, starting from the most suitable and highest-rated workers. The result is that a business automatically gets the best available workers for the job at hand.

As a shift approaches, the client can send messages to scheduled workers asking questions or sharing further information. Chat between businesses and workers is time-gated, available only for a short period before and during a shift.

On the morning of a shift, businesses can monitor the number of confirmed workers and their location. Are they heading to the facility? Does their current ETA put them on time or late? Do you need to put out a blast for last-minute replacements? Knowing this information can make a considerable difference, allowing the client to adjust how they tackle the job in question. Traditional staffing agencies offer none of this visibility.

Once workers arrive, they check in via a kiosk, with their app, or directly with a supervisor. During a shift, businesses and on-site supervisors can track where workers are within the facility, reducing the likelihood of truancy.

The business portal empowers customers to book shifts and monitor workers (Traba)

At the end of the shift, supervisors rate each worker and provide free-form commentary. Traba uses this feedback to make better matches going forward. If a company wishes, it can “block” a particular worker, ensuring that they won’t be matched to one of its shifts in the future. Traba uses computer vision to pull data from timesheets directly into the portal, automatically detecting any discrepancies in need of review.

Clients can see upcoming shifts with a neat calendar view and book new ones as needed. They can also review high-level worker metrics. How many shifts has someone worked for you? How does that translate into hours? What is their overall rating? For customers like American Nitrile, this information is invaluable. “We track our metrics very closely every week,” CFO Andy Roos said. “Overtime was always a problem for us. We didn’t really have any ability to manage that with [other] agencies.” The result was that American Nitrile ended up with too many temps working at a higher hourly rate. They’d only discover the issue at the end of the month when reviewing the bill from their staffing agency.

One of Traba's customers, American Nitrile, a maker of rubber gloves (American Nitrile)

Once they implemented Traba, American Nitrile could monitor workers’ hours and performance much more closely, changing their staffing process. “[We just made] it more rule-based upfront. Like, ‘Hey guys, if great people are starting to look like they’re going to hit that 40-hour peak – but they’re loving it and we’re loving their work – then let us know. And maybe we can give them a full-time offer because they’re probably a great worker. But rather than paying them time and a half, let’s supplement them with a second person. [With Traba] we can do that – set those rules up front and then see on a daily basis in the app that it’s in compliance, rather than getting it in an invoice a month later.”

Adding even greater visibility is a focus for Traba, especially as it looks to win more enterprise customers. “The biggest thing that we’re pushing for this year is going further upmarket, so we’re closing larger customers and bigger deals,” Buddiga explained. “Part of that means these customers have different needs. If you’re more like, ‘Hey I’m operating in Houston and I have three facilities, a few supervisors, and an AP person’ – Ok, that’s fine. But now it’s like, we’re closing a national deal, and you’re across eight different states and 12 different locations. And you’ll need 25 people accessing this and you have different types of personas. It’s like, ‘I have my VP of Operations that wants to analyze what my productivity and labor spend is in Texas versus Florida.’” Soon, Traba hopes to offer businesses a way to track output per facility, feedback on supervisors, workforce quality, workforce retention, and perhaps a dozen other metrics. “One of the bigger things we’ll be building out in the next few months is reporting and analytics functionality. Because that’s what some of these larger customers with more complex needs want to see.”

Traba’s worker app appears to be its most fully featured product. It is a one-stop shop for finding shifts, managing them, and getting paid.

Potential workers start by downloading the app and filling out their profile. That includes adding details about their skills and experience and available equipment. They also agree to a background check via Checkr. Workers can add relevant certifications, such as a forklift driving license, to supplement their profile and make themselves more attractive to employers. If they plan on applying to jobs that require lifting, they can record a video of themselves lifting a heavy item to demonstrate their suitability.

An in-app “Training Center” offers modules detailing “Good Manufacturing Practices” or particular packing techniques. Though not a formal certification, Buddiga noted that clients frequently prefer workers with “GMP” training.

Once onboard, workers see available shifts and can sign up for them, provided they meet the requirements. If a shift is full, they can sign up as a “paid backup.” Backups stay available in case of a last-minute cancellation. If a shift stays full – no problem, you get paid $35. It’s a nifty innovation from Traba that keeps fill rates high and serves both customers and workers.

Workers can find shifts and get paid through Traba's app (Traba)

Before attending a shift, Traba provides the worker with the exact location and several reminders. The morning of, workers receive a push notification asking for final confirmation, which activates location tracking. As long as a worker has a good reputation on the platform and there aren’t any unusual behaviors during the shift (for example, leaving the facility for an extended period), Traba pays workers minutes after they clock off.

Any anomalies are detected using Traba’s fraud detection feature, “Warden.” “It basically takes a lot of the past data we’ve accumulated and the cases we’ve done things that are abnormal, like they’ve left the site or one worker has a significantly different clock in or clock out time than the other workers on the shift,” Buddiga explained. “It’s basically taking all these signals and saying, ‘Is this abnormal? Should this be flagged for review?’ Because of all that data, we can get an extremely high level of accuracy to say, ‘This person should be paid out, this person should not paid out.’” Buddiga hopes an upgrade named “SuperWarden” will increase Traba’s accuracy even further.

This “Instant Pay” is a huge benefit for workers and strongly incentives them to remain in good standing, arriving on time and earning positive reviews from employers. Workers who show up late, receive poor reviews, or wander off lose access to “Instant Pay” but can earn it back.

To further incentivize useful behavior, the app includes a “Bonus Center.” Workers receive a bonus every time they refer someone who completes three shifts. It’s proven to be an extremely effective channel for acquiring high-quality laborers. “If you are a Tier 1 worker and you refer someone, it’s four times more likely that person will be a Tier 1 worker as well,” Buddiga said. Historically, Traba has also offered bonuses for arriving on time consistently (a nice way to ensure a new customer has a great experience) or for completing a certain number of shifts with one client.

After walking through the sweep of Traba’s product with Buddiga, I was impressed by its scope, efficiency, and pragmatism. It will not win a design award any time soon – there are no trendy gradients, bespoke fonts, or elegant illustrations. But it has been thoughtfully, intelligently put together. Everything has a clear purpose, fulfills a real job, meets a demand. The proof is in the numbers.

“How do you scale the cult?”

“I definitely think the first time I heard it, I was a little surprised. Because I’ve actually never heard any entrepreneur just state so boldly that they’re going to become a trillion dollar company.”

If you were to pick someone who might have heard a CEO make such a daring claim, Jessica Xu would make a good bet. Her former employer, the Softbank Vision Fund, was notorious for soliciting (and financing) the world’s most outrageous, audacious startups, from Uber to DoorDash to Flexport to WeWork. “[I had people] trying to pitch very big, but this was another level,” Xu said.

The entrepreneur in question was Mike Shebat. Almost as frequently as Shebat speaks about his company’s outspoken work culture, he states with deadpan inevitability that Traba will crash the trillion-dollar club. In some sense, this is the yin to Traba’s cultural yang, the carrot that justifies the stick. Yes, you will give up your nights and weekends, the message seems to be. But know this—we are swinging for nothing less than the moon.

At the start of my research, this was one of my main questions: How seriously should I take Shebat’s claim that Traba will be a trillion-dollar business? Is this a real possibility or a clever marketing ruse? I wanted to ask this of Shebat, Buddiga, Traba’s employees, investors, and myself.

Before evaluating the possibility of Traba reaching a thirteen-figure valuation, let’s assess where the business is today. Traba’s last round, a $22 million Series A-2 led by Founders Fund, valued it at $200 million.

It was significant for a couple of reasons.

Externally, it functioned as an anointing. Historically, Founders Fund has chosen one company in which it has particularly high conviction to kick off a new vintage. Past selections include Facebook, Affirm, Rippling, and Anduril. That the firm chose to launch “FF8” by reinvesting in Traba put it in elite company and marked it as a breakout. “Traba is our best portfolio company,” Peter Thiel said as part of the announcement. “It’s going to be massive so we are tripling-down.”

Internally, it validated Mike Shebat’s fortitude and competitive streak. Though he is keen to stress that he and Traba have excellent relations with all of their major investors, the Series A briefly tested those bonds. It started with a nice dinner, during which Founders Fund floated the idea of a pre-emptive financing round.

“I went to this lavish dinner with Brian Chesky. And Brian was like, ‘Keith’s the man.’ Then, I was told a valuation like, ‘If you raise, you could probably get to like an $80 million valuation.’ Which I thought was egregious for our revenue at the time. But I agreed with it, then at the last minute they were like ‘Actually, $50 million.’ I was upset by that because I thought it was a waste of my time as a founder.”

Why did that happen? “For a variety of reasons, I abstracted myself [from the fundraising process],” Rabois said. “Because Mike and I are very close, I didn’t want to get in the middle of negotiating the investment – it’s just a fool’s errand. So I deferred to other colleagues at Founders Fund about what the appropriate terms would be.” Founders Fund provided no further comment on the matter.

Around the time Founders Fund revised its offer, Rabois introduced Shebat to Samir Kaul, a General Partner at Khosla Ventures. Rabois explained why he’d made the connection to begin with. “I was actually having a board dinner with Samir about a different company, OpenStore, and Samir was complaining about how the culture had changed and people generally in their twenties were too entitled, they didn’t really want to work. They don’t have dedication, they’re all focused on what’s in it for them. As he was explaining his animosity toward a whole generation of people, I said, ‘You know Samir, I’ve got just the founder for you.’”

It proved a savvy match. “I met him at the Setai in Miami, we had breakfast together,” Shebat recalled. “I could tell he was really knowledgeable, an incredible investor. He would definitely look at things from a different angle than the current cap table. So when he gave me an offer, I was like, ‘This is a great offer.’” It didn’t hurt that it demonstrated to Founders Fund that if the firm wished to change its terms, Traba had other options available to it. Though the Founders Fund encounter ignited Shebat’s strategic thinking and competitive energy, he emphasizes that it didn’t reduce the esteem with which he held the firm and its partners. Founders Fund participated in Series A, led by Khosla Ventures, at a valuation of $120 million.

When it was time to kick off FF8, Founders Fund moved quickly to rectify its mistake, albeit at a price. “Founders Fund didn’t have the ownership target they wanted,” Shebat said. “So they ended up paying $200 million when they could have paid $80 million.”

Ultimately, it is a testament to Shebat that he stood fast when it would have been easier to accept a subpar offer, and it is to Founders Funds’ credit that they recognized their misstep and quickly corrected it.

The encounter doesn’t seem to have left either side with scars. “Mike has excellent investors – Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund being the most important and material investors and the most active,” Rabois said. “Both funds are ecstatic to be working with Traba, with Mike and Akshay.” The bond between Rabois and Shebat is especially tight, with each of them calling the other a close friend.

As for the Founders Fund team, Shebat holds no ill will. “I personally respect everything they represent. They are all brilliant investors, and I consider them close friends. It’s just business. In the same way that they want the lowest price, I want the best terms for my employees.”

Traba’s $200 million valuation is impressive for a company yet to reach its fourth birthday. Its traction goes some way to explaining that figure. In Q4 2023, Traba logged $1.73 million in revenue, up 465% year-over-year and 72% quarter-over-quarter. That put it on pace to approach $7 million in annualized revenue.

Traba has scaled revenue fast (Traba)

As Traba has grown, it’s also increased its contribution margin, scaling it from below 0% to 66% in 18 months. (Because of the methodology Traba uses to calculate this figure, Shebat said its gross margins are actually even higher.) When Jessica Xu first saw these metrics during the recruiting process, she was stunned. “I’ve seen a lot of marketplaces, given that I invested into a lot of e-commerce businesses back in the day, then also running a food delivery business where you’re operating a three-sided marketplace. The margins are so thin. There’s really not that much margin available to go around. So when I saw Traba’s margins, I’m like, ‘Are these real? This is pretty insane, even for a mature company. To see it a Series A startup is a little bit unbelievable.’”

After joining, Xu quickly learned that the numbers were, indeed, as good as they looked – and getting better at a rapid clip. “It’s not like there are more skeletons in the closet. This is a real business model. The money is there.”

Maintaining these margins is critical to Traba’s trillion-dollar quest. The market cap for large staffing companies like Randstad or Adecco tends to be a fraction of their revenue because of their lower profit margins and high operational intensiveness. Randstad has a $9.1 billion market cap from $24.4 billion in 2023 revenue; Adecco’s market cap is $5.3 billion from $24 billion over the same period. If Traba plans to eclipse these businesses by orders of magnitude, it must justify being valued more like a tech company. Naturally, its margins are critical in making that case.

There are other encouraging signs. In addition to adding new customers, Traba is increasing the revenue earned from existing buyers. The average customer delivers 5x their initial revenue after a year of using the platform and 10x after two years. This is a sign of a business in rude health, rapidly becoming a one-stop shop for buyers and growing enough to meet their demand. There is a reason why, according to Shebat, his investors from Founders Fund and Khosla have informed him Traba is in the “top 1%” of Series A companies.

That doesn’t mean a $1 trillion valuation is even vaguely in sight, of course. A $200 million valuation is impressive for a Series A firm, but it is just 0.02% of the way to Traba’s ultimate goal.

To get there, Traba will need to expand upwards and outwards. It is already moving upmarket, seducing enterprise clients like Red Bull, but it represents a relatively new motion. As Buddiga mentioned, these customers have more complex requirements and take more time to close. Traba will need to keep expanding its feature set and strengthening its core.

Expanding geographically will be critical to serving big enterprises. So far, Traba has pushed into 13 states, with more on the way. It has refined a playbook that seems to be working extremely well – Rabois noted that new markets are “on par or exceeding previous cohorts.”

In time, it intends to operate internationally, a challenge that will draw on Shebat’s experience spinning up Latin American markets at Uber Eats. Winning foreign business is far from impossible, but it is also not easy, requiring compliance with different cultural, regulatory, and business norms.

While Traba seems intent on winning the world, it also wants to move beyond light industrial staffing into other segments. Businesses like Randstad, for example, offer their services across hospitality, retail, call centers, and many other sectors. There is plenty of road before Traba needs to decide which segment to attack next, but it will have its eyes open to these opportunities.

Given the product they’ve built to date, there are also clear ancillary revenue streams available. Currently, Traba primarily earns money by placing a premium on the workers companies hire – typically around 37%. If a client wants to use Traba’s tech platform and hire from another staffing firm, Traba applies approximately a 15% markup on those outside hires.

Shebat notes that Traba doesn’t seek to undercut competitors. “We actually win over customers despite not competing on price,” he said. A slide from a recent board deck showed how Traba had gone head-to-head with a competitive firm for three clients. Each time, Traba had won despite charging a higher price. It indicates that customers recognize the unique value Traba provides and are willing to pay for it. “It’s more important for [clients] to complete their tasks and get the product out of the facility than to nickel and dime on staffing,” Shebat said. “They’d rather pay for a superior experience than have a low fill rate because they were too stingy.”

Over time, Traba may be able to add SaaS and payments revenue to the mix. Its business portal is increasingly powerful and offers impressive visibility to clients. It’s easy to imagine an enterprise-grade tier that involves a reasonable subscription fee, delivering a reliable source of revenue. Because Traba is in the flow of funds and has granular information on businesses and workers, it is also positioned to offer financing products and other financial services. These may distract from Traba’s core but are good options.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Traba faces as it scales is retaining its unique culture. “Every super intense culture is going to have some micro explosions at some point,” Founders Fund General Partner Trae Stephens said. “You have to control those micro explosions and channel them into further growth.”

Keith Rabois shared a similar sentiment, referencing a theory from Peter Thiel’s book Zero To One. In that book, Thiel argues that “The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults.” Traba, with its fanatical work ethic and quasi-numinous belief in becoming a $1 trillion company, fits the bill. “So, you have a cult,” Rabois said. “The question is: how do you keep scaling the cult every 10x? Because you have to keep the tenets of the cult, you have to have the correct selection. That tends to get harder to preserve as the company scales.”

For now, at least, Rabois isn’t worried. “Mike and Akshay – they’re very intentional about what they’re building. They’re constantly thinking about how to refine what they do. So it’s not just, ‘What we did last year we’re going to do more of.’ They’re constantly thinking, ‘How do we evolve the company? How do we evolve our culture? How do we evolve our ambition to hit the next set of milestones?’”

Will all of Traba’s big dreams, Olympian work ethic, and varied opportunities amount to $1 trillion?

The matter is painted in broad strokes in discussions with leadership, employees, and investors. They refer to the colossal size of the market, the extent of its brokenness, the quality of the team, the uniqueness of its culture, and the speed of its growth. We discuss the importance of having a mountain to climb, a star to chase. Elon Musk tells the world SpaceX will “Occupy Mars.” Is this so different? And given the many valuable stops on the way, does it matter? SpaceX has yet to touch down on the Red Planet, but a recent secondary sale still valued it at $180 billion. If Traba reaches that dizzying height – or even a fraction of it – investors and employees will have plenty to cheer.

The vagueness of the trillion-dollar discussion is not a criticism. Given Traba’s stage, it would be more concerning if Shebat unveiled a fine-tuned masterplan: add 20% of the staffing market, $50 billion in SaaS revenue, a dollop of financial services, a pinch of in-app purchases, and voilá! A trillion-dollar company. There is such a thing as false precision.

Businesses of such size are not born that way. They rely on skill, strategy, and effort – but also luck and timing. Jeff Bezos could not have predicted his online bookseller would become a cloud computing giant, nor could Jensen Huang know his graphics chips would be used to power the artigfdgdfficial intelligence revolution. These companies reached their current height by constantly adapting, innovating, finding the next great opportunity before their peers.

Above all, this is what Traba seems to be saying about itself: we are not afraid to try. There is a little madness in saying so, a little religion. But it is a virtuous madness, hubris laced with honey. By believing it is possible, it becomes more so. You aim your sights higher, push harder, settle for less. You work until the offices around you close their doors, until even New York’s coffee shops have shut for the evening, until the elevator requires a key to operate and the hallway gets a lonely feeling, and you walk out into the late, blue city night.

The world has no quota for trillion-dollar businesses. More can and will be made. And it is no crime to believe you can build one.

The Generalist’s work is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, business, investment, or tax advice. You should always do your own research and consult advisors on these subjects. Our work may feature entities in which Generalist Capital, LLC or the author has invested.