Back in late 2016, I wrapped up the sale of my last company, Platfora, to Workday. We were privileged to work with so many innovative enterprise customers who looked to us for a way to democratize analysis of big data. The incredible Platfora team built something special and have grown it into a key part of Workday’s offering, which makes me so proud.
After Platfora, I took some time off to recharge, and then started thinking hard about another problem businesses need to solve to be more efficient and competitive. I found myself coming back again and again to the experience of employees trying to do their best in any large organization. Through generations of technology (e.g. office productivity tools, email, team collaboration, chat & IM, video conferencing) we’ve seen technology support employees, but also shift patterns of work in unanticipated ways. We’ve also seen line-of-business apps and process management evolve, from clunky terminal and client-server apps, to SaaS platforms that blend needs for custom configuration with modern user experience and machine learning practices.
Yet, when you really talk to employees, you get a sense that the level of difficulty is continuously being ratcheted up. One theme I consistently heard was that employees feel like ‘human routers’ just trying to stay afloat as they balance three critical facets of their job:
• I need to get X done. E.g. I need to develop a proposal, plan a product launch, order a new laptop, handle a legal review request, get my code reviewed. Some may be solitary activities, but most involve some mix of my team, people/teams elsewhere in the org, and applications or systems I’d need to navigate. Some are free-form but many require ‘knowing the way we do things here’ – from phases of work and deliverables, to knowing which apps or portal to use, to the stakeholders that need to be activated along the way.
• Someone else needs Y from me. E.g. My boss needs a project update, I need to provide marketing support for a launch, I need to share a summary of a sales meeting, I need to review and sign off on a team’s system architecture. These requests typically come in via email, Slack, or some task management system, or via a more structure app or process engine. The challenge is keeping track of them and prioritizing them, managing the back-and-forth dialog and progress updates, and then actually performing the work (which itself becomes an instance of facet #1).
• I’m waiting on Z. E.g. I’m waiting for my laptop to get fixed, I’m waiting for feedback on my proposal, I’m waiting on my sales reps to update this quarter’s deals, I’m waiting on the response to my paid-time-off request. These dependencies create mental load, and come up in countless contexts spanning my direct colleagues, other teams/departments and/or app or systems. Classically this is either completely adhoc – i.e. I have to manually chase things up via email or Slack – or for more heavily used requests channels I’m forced to create a ticket and wait for some anonymous person to respond.
What's Really Going On
The biggest insight for me was that there were really two types of work going on here.
Firstly, there’s the work we do in a team, amongst people we know. It is flat, unstructured, and we use tools like Slack, Zoom and Asana to connect and stay organized.
But teams and departments aren’t islands. They serve and perform functions for the organization, and for its employees and customers. Marketing, finance, HR, IT, sales operations, product, and countless smaller and larger teams all do their part. It is at the interface between teams/departments and the rest of the organization that the problems really manifest. Employees are overwhelmed by the challenges of navigating through orgs, systems and processes to get things done. Their interface into teams/departments is either completely adhoc and unmanaged, or they are forced to interface via a ticketing system which is invariably opaque and inflexible.
This is where companies will break or thrive in this new era. The cost of this kind of friction and coordination overhead is unsustainable as we leap into a more distributed and digital-centered work style. Teams and departments will be judged by the service experience they deliver, and the efficiency with which they deliver on them. There's enormous potential to use technology to achieve both goals -- more seamless connection and self-service automation from the employee side, and the rich tools, guiding automation and integrations that make the job of those within the team easier and consistently high quality. And yet today, most teams are barely at the starting gate, expecting humans on both sides to do all the heavy lifting manually.
The new expectation will be that teams and departments can efficiently deliver great service experiences to employees, customers, teams and departments. That's why we are building the world’s first Work Engagement Platform for Teams.
In January 2020 I founded the company with support from a world-class list of investors -- Vertex Ventures, March Capital, Pelion Ventures, Salesforce Ventures and The Hive. We began to assemble a superb team of engineers, product managers and designers who shared a passion for this mission. Then, COVID-19 appeared. For all of the chaos it has introduced, we were incredibly fortunate with both our funding timing and our focus area. With the support of our investors, we have cash in the bank that allows us to hire up without having to worry about fundraising again until at least late 2022. We have the opportunity to hone the product with early customers, without near-term revenue pressures. Most importantly, we have the opportunity to sharpen our mission to help companies reinvent their work model for the new world.
We fundamentally believe that work will never be the same. We can all start to see how companies are going to become more distributed and embrace remote work. The next phase of acceptance is that all companies need to redesign themselves as online-first, and view their offices as flexible additions that can be used and experimented with as conditions change over time. This is an incredibly resilient posture for the companies that achieve it – i.e. whether COVID-19 dissipates quickly or remains with us for longer, they can adapt, leverage remote work opportunistically, while strengthening the online core of the company. That will be the new battleground, and that is where we will play a unique role in helping forge this new better model.
We will be operating in this new model right away. We've left our beautiful Redwood City office behind and fully committed forever to a remote-by-default model. In-person work will still be a valued option as the climate better allows it, but in our model it is always secondary to the work we do online. To ensure we never lose sight of that, we mandate that everyone works at least 50% remote, and we’re going to strive for a 50/50 balance of team in the SF Bay Area vs distributed remotely in convenient time zones.
We feel privileged to have the opportunity to be in a position to help companies worldwide find a new and better shape of work. We welcome you to reach out if you’d like to learn more. We’re actively hiring engineers, designers and product leaders. And I’m excited to share more of our point of view with business leaders, including discussing your interest to become a charter customer to share this journey.
- Ben Werther, CEO & Founder, Bellhop