“The real way to add value to employees is a sense of connection and belonging to the company”: Interview with Workvivo’s CEO, John Goulding

‘Company culture’ and ’employee engagement’ were already elusive and opaque concepts prior to the pandemic, when people worked side-by-side and face-to-face. Now that many people are working mostly online, these concepts are more important than ever. How do you create ‘company culture’ for your remote workforce? How do you keep employees engaged?

Workvivo, an employee communications platform, has taken on this mission. Founded in Cork, Ireland in 2017, Workvivo is designed to excite, engage, and connect an entire company by combining the power of a social network, intranet, and employee app into one familiar digital experience that employees love.

In May 2020, Workvivo received €14.7 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Tiger Global, who have invested in companies such as LinkedIn, Airbnb, Stripe, Uber and Square, with participation from Frontline Ventures and continued support from Enterprise Ireland. This is the second round closed by the startup, following on from their seed funding late 2019, bringing their total raised to around €16.1 million.

We recently spoke with CEO John Goulding about Workvivo’s approach to achieving true employee engagement, the challenges they are facing, their long-term goals and plans to scale, as well as John’s entrepreneurial story – from studying nuclear physics at University  to startup CEO.

What first got you into entrepreneurship? What is your story?

I started out on a quite different track, studying nuclear physics in University, but I was quickly drawn to people-oriented businesses and the exciting world of tech. After years of working in HR tech on the CoreHR platform side, I realized the big problem to solve, the real way to add value to people and impact their working life was beyond productivity or more features and integrations. It is deeper. It is about achieving true employee engagement and a sense of connection and belonging to the company, its culture, its values, my fellow colleagues. A lot of HR and comms tools create a lot of noise, but this gets overlooked and in the absence of an office footprint it suddenly became everyone’s #1 problem.

I like solving problems. Real problems that make people’s lives better, and I am big on HR tech as work is such a huge part of our lives, but the actual workplace experience is insufficient to say the least, for the most part. I knew that a lot of it can be gapped through technology if we are able to look at it differently than anybody else.

With my co-founder Joe Lennon, I set up Workvivo to improve the employee experience. I previously served as CEO of CoreHR, an Enterprise Payroll & HR software suite, which had annual revenue of almost US $40 million (around €33.5 million) and was acquired by JMI Equity in December 2015. Prior to joining CoreHR in 2007, I was Senior Director of Global Support in EMC (now Dell EMC), leading 400 engineers in Boston, Cork, Tokyo, and Sydney, servicing 1.2 million customer events per year.

If you are to describe Workvivo in one sentence, how would you describe it?

Workvivo is a new breed of employee communications platform designed to (radically) increase engagement and make staff happier at work.

Workvivo’s tagline: Communicate. Connect. Engage – which has been the most challenging to implement into the Workvivo platform/product?

The most difficult part of any communication platform is to get real engagement or buy-in from its users. This is, without a doubt, where everyone else keeps failing. Younger employees do not want to use these legacy clunky intranets and communications tools. What ends up happening is that you broadcast updates, but people are still generally disconnected and emotionally isolated, now more than ever. We have purposely made Workvivo very grassroots-driven to encourage participation from all employees – whether you are the CEO or an entry-level new joiner. Top-down communication will not foster a sense of community or connection within organizations. Our platform allows staff to connect in a familiar social way. Employees on the platform can post, link to organization goals, read company content or announcements, recognize others in ‘shout outs’, upload photos, videos or live streams and create micro communities (e.g. local running club, dog loving community).

Workvivo was founded in 2017. How have your objectives and goals changed since the company has grown?

We founded Workvivo because we saw the chronic engagement problem that was costing companies millions every year and preventing good teams from reaching their full potential. Turnover of staff was a concern for businesses everywhere and we wanted to create a platform that remedied this problem. There was great demand for Workvivo in its first years and our customers were blown away by how the levels of engagement and communication increased within their organizations. We were experiencing overwhelming demand by everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies with different use cases but the same gap to bridge. We work with companies from 50 to 50,000 employees across many different sectors: from tech and professional services to hospitality and banking.

We could never have predicted this pandemic and all the effects it has had on our workplaces. Workplaces will never look the same again and will have to become digital-first. Everyone has been adapting rapidly to meet the changing circumstances we have faced. 2020 was about getting internet connections and Zoom accounts set up at home. In 2021, CEOs will be turning their attention to long-term sustainability of their company goals, values and culture as their workforces remain distributed. The top-level objective will be to create a digital workplace that works – where people are easily informed, connected, and engaged, no matter where they are working from.

Our goal is to keep up this rapid growth we have seen over the last year. Everyone now understands that platforms like Workvivo are crucial. Our platform is extremely effective at getting employees involved and we have some Fortune 100 companies deploying it across their global organization. We want to bring Workvivo to all employees and make work a happier place.

What differentiates Workvivo from its competitors?

Workvivo is not another top-down intranet or communications tool that people prefer not to use. It is designed for employee engagement offering companies the oversight they need while at the same time offering the employee the freedom they desire.

Traditional intranet and internal comms tools never actually work. They tend to be clunky, rigid, and poorly adopted by users. Workvivo replaces your legacy intranet, communications tools, and employee app with one central platform that employees like using.

Workvivo is designed for engagement. It is built to foster communications from the grassroots up, like a social network – simple, transparent, fluid – giving employees a voice to really engage, explore and work together. The result is unrivaled (natural) adoption rates.

Streamlining all your communications in one place, Workvivo gives companies more control and governance, but at the same time, it offers employees a familiar consumer experience that ‘just works’ with the freedom to share and consume information the way they choose.

What would you say is Workvivo’s scale up strategy and what makes it work for Workvivo?

First comes growth then comes scale. We first need to seriously grow the product and engineering teams. Workvivo is a platform, meaning the experience consists of multiple areas where we need to excel (e.g., our employee app, intranet, document sharing and HR directory). Then we need to increase our commercial team to be able to deal with higher demand.

The scale strategy will have to do a lot with:

  • Integrations with other tools, platforms, and productivity suites
  • Developing our partner/channel strategy
  • Internationalization/localization of our product and team
  • True thought leadership: helping to mature the market, defining the category, and increasing inbound demand.
  • Strategic business development and alliances with other (supplementary) players allowing us to elevate the overall value proposition.

What is your long-term vision for Workvivo?

We want to become the central hub of the new digital-first workplace. Workvivo should be a centerpiece of the workplace tech stack along with other great platforms like Zoom and Slack. We want to develop and grow with our customers and respond to their needs. We are constantly evolving our features based on feedback. Workvivo is a hub for all you need in the workplace. Physical office spaces will become secondary and we are the platform where everyone can come together and access every work tool they need.

How did you finance Workvivo up until this point? Do you plan to achieve additional funding in the future?

We bootstrapped for the first two years before receiving seed funding from Zoom founder Eric Yuan in 2019. He comes from this space and really understands the problem we are trying to solve. Last year, we raised our Series A funding from Tiger Global, Frontline Ventures and Enterprise Ireland. We have no plans to raise capital now. The HR tech market is one of the hottest spaces right now and disruption is well underway.

How has the current pandemic affected Workvivo? What do you say are the greatest lessons/realizations from the current situation?

The pandemic has had a positive impact business – wise. Workvivo grew 200% from the start of the pandemic to the end of last year as companies shifted to remote work. It accelerated what was already happening in this space, workforces were moving in this direction and becoming more distributed, but the pandemic accelerated the trend 5-10 years. It has highlighted that this is an industry that is here to stay, even when things go back to ‘normal’.

What company leaders are realizing as the last year has progressed is that communicating and engaging with employees on more than a transactional level is necessary for long term success and that a platform like ours has graduated from ‘nice to have’ to crucial for teams if they want to survive.

As an entrepreneur, what has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

I should have started a company sooner – maybe I did not have the confidence early enough. Every day has been a great learning experience with Workvivo, and I just wish I had started earlier.

Do you have any advice for first time founders?

Focus most of your time on winning and looking after customers rather than trying to win investment. Investment will come from happy customers and product-market fit based on truly listening to customers. We see too many entrepreneurs overly focus on winning investment as the measure of success.

What do you think will be the next big digital transformation in the next 5 years?

I think it is obvious that the workplace will never be the same again and the world will continue to reimagine optimizing how we work, how we recreate human connection digitally and how we plan to fit work in and around our lives. I think there will be a much stronger move to asynchronous and to things that help establish that emotional connection in a digital way. The recent resurgence of audio and podcasting for me is a leading indicator of this.