“Needing to be physically close to get good work done is a thing of the past”: Interview with Happeo’s co-founder and CEO Perttu Ojansuu

Before the coronavirus crisis, not many teams had to worry about how to communicate strategy, KPIs, or just interact socially; it was just a no-brainer of meeting at the office. Obviously times have changed, and team leaders are being forced to think deeper about how to engage their staff, whether employees continue to work 100% remotely, flexibly, or back at the office.

Happeo (2017) is a fast-growing HRtech startup based in Helsinki, whose mission is to make work a happier place. Its portal (which now integrates with GSuite) puts everything employees need to know about the company in one place. From business priorities like strategy and KPIs, to channels for each department (e.g. HR channel with all HR documents), to kind of a private social media just for your company (with a company news stream, interactions and more), it keeps team members engaged on all fronts. 

Having seen a shift to remote working coming for a while now, and working across 4 countries themselves, we spoke with Happeo’s founder Perttu Ojansu to get some of his insights on the post-corona work world, the future of HRtech, how they closed their funding round just a few weeks ago and his tips for team happiness.

Hello! Thank you for joining us Perttu! Let’s start with some obvious questions. With many startups working remotely right now, have you seen a boom in the need for employee communications technology? 

Thanks for having me!

It’s not just startups that work remotely now: every company in the world is. Having customers of all shapes and sizes, from 100 person companies to companies with tens of thousands of people, we have experienced first-hand how the need for employee communications technology skyrocketed after the start of the pandemic.

As an example, one of our customers had rolled out their Happeo platform to 5000 users, right before the corona crisis. That’s around half of their total organization. Within four days of corona being declared a pandemic, they decided they needed to roll out the platform to the remaining few thousands of employees. 

The internal communications revolution has only just started and the need for new technology will increase even more. The pandemic has shown we need to change the way we work and that the idea of needing to be physically close to get good work done is a thing of the past.

How else has your startup been affected? 

This is one of the biggest outbreaks that humankind has faced, and companies need to do everything they can to prevent loss of life. We did what we could to ensure the safety of our employees early on. Remote working is in our DNA, since Happeo allows companies to work and communicate from anywhere in the world. True to that, our entire company has been working remotely since March, and business continuity wasn’t affected in the slightest. Happeo firmly believes that remote work will be the new normal in the post-pandemic world. 

To make sure our customer base isn’t affected by the huge load that we have been facing for the last months, we’ve paid a lot of attention to how Happeo scales with demand. For the past year we’ve been fine tuning our services in order to respond to high loads and peak loads. Interestingly enough, our systems get faster the more they are used.

As you’re working on making work a happier place, do you have any tips for founders on increasing happiness in their teams? What have you done at Happeo for example? 

Happiness comes from small things. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Also, it’s everyone’s responsibility. Not only management or HR. As a tip to other founders I would recommend the following three: Activate, Engage and Celebrate.

Everything starts when a new person joins the company. At Happeo, we want to make sure everyone feels welcomed and that they feel they belong to our culture. We do this by welcoming new people online, together within Happeo. What follows then is a maelstrom of GIFs, and a smooth onboarding process that we’ve set up as an e-learning course. Basically: by using online tools, we activate our (new) employees as well as we could offline. 

Secondly, engagement – it’s important to listen to everyone’s input and use that knowledge and expertise to shape the strategic direction of the company. Even if it’s small areas, those will end up making a difference over time. One simple example: our monthly payroll date was always the last day of the month. Because of our open feedback culture, we received input that changing this simple thing would make everyone’s lives easier, because the bills come in a few days before the end of the month. Like I said, happiness is in the small things, and I would have never known it had our people not felt safe to speak up.  

Important to mention: before any town-hall or meeting, the first place we discuss anything, is in our own Happeo platform. We do that because that makes discussion searchable and asynchronous. You don’t need people to be there to discuss it with you, they can give their input at their leisure, in their timezone.

Thirdly, we celebrate our wins together – during COVID this has been online. We leave time for a normal discussion that would normally happen at the office. I recommend doing these online. If a person has a birthday or anniversary we recognize those moments in our Happeo platform, but also in the physical world by mailing them a gift. It’s small things that make work a happier place. 

What do you predict for workplace trends and HR tech in the next 5-10 years? 

At Happeo we see three major changes happening.

First of all, a globalization of talent pools will take place due to a permanent decrease in the need for people to be in an office together – this has already been happening in major tech hubs around the world, and it will grow exponentially. 

Secondly, CEOs all around the world have started measuring what really matters, instead of solely focusing on revenue gained. Business units with “soft returns”, such as HR or Internal Comms will form an integral part of the business strategy and decision making. Happeo allows you to effectively measure the effectiveness and engagement of your Internal Communications efforts, and the importance of engagement is becoming increasingly clear now that everyone works remotely. Even when the returns are soft, they can be significant. 

Lastly, we’ll experience an increased fluency in digital communications. Water-cooler talk just doesn’t scale. Companies are starting to understand how their online communication contributes to a collective knowledge archive. See, what’s communicated in a company’s internal environment, stays in that environment – so it’s searchable at any time. Imagine a conversation you just had with a colleague, one that changed the way you do sales forever. What if every sales colleague was privy to that conversation?

What do you think will be the biggest workplace struggle going into the future? 

I think our current struggles are fluid and will change over time. At the moment, the biggest challenge I’m seeing is how to maintain the work-life balance for employees. Parents are working together while also trying to take care of their kids, and homeschooling them. Many organizations are struggling with finding the right amount of work, and structuring our new definition of “work”. 

Some companies are investing in digital punch cards. To me this is unsustainable and not the right way forward. Work and life are both part of a person, and the two should always be in balance. It doesn’t matter how long someone sits at their desk, in the office or at home. What truly matters is the value that a person adds to the company. In the upcoming years, every company will focus on outcome, not output. COVID-19 is just accelerating that shift. 

You recently raised funding during this global pandemic. How was the process, and do you have advice for other startups raising at the moment? 

A Series A fundraising round typically takes several months to be closed. We started the fundraising process before the corona outbreak and finalized it during the pandemic. The key to making any fundraising process a success, during or outside a crisis, comes from clear communication. The investor needs to believe in the founding team and they really need to understand the company vision and mission. Organizations that can prove they can bring the business forward, even through this crisis, will get funding. It’s important to have slides explaining how the impact of COVID changes your industry and how your company is actually going to help with that.

In our case, our investors believe that Happeo is one of the key players that disrupts the intranet industry, building post-pandemic internal communications solutions. The increase in sales and activity on our platform, from a daily average of 500,000 messages to 2.5 million in the first quarter of this year, helped create extra confidence to continue this mission together.

What has been your greatest challenge as a founder, and how did you overcome it? 

One of the big challenges was to fine-tune the company vision. Earlier, we focused on building integrations to other SaaS platforms – it was something many of our customers wanted (and still want), and something investors really liked. As time went by, we came to the conclusion that building integrations is not a good ultimate vision for the company. After all, it relies entirely on working with the status quo and optimizing it. Not changing it and disrupting it completely – something that every Happster deeply desires.

The vision we launched in 2019 brought the whole company together working towards the same goal – helping every company build a happy digital culture. That is something that resonated with both our customers and investors. It hasn’t stopped us from making more SaaS integrations, but those are a means to an end – and the end now is a vision that everyone in the company relates to.