“Find your passion”- Interview with Personio Co-Founder and CPO Roman Schumacher

Personio, an HR-tech startup based in Munich, Madrid, London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, is on a mission to make HR processes as transparent as possible. The result is to allow HR to focus on what matters most – people and strategy. Founded in 2015, the company is now valued at over €5.7 billion – making it one of Europe’s most valuable unicorns. 

The innovative company is rapidly growing, with over 1000 employees. Beyond this, it’s a company that aspires to fuel positive social impact and drive change. To this end, the Personio Foundation has been launched as an independent and not-for-profit organisation that will offer financial and business support to NGOs and social enterprises working in education and climate action

We sat down with the Co-Founder and CPO, Roman Schumacher to find out more about his personal story in launching and nurturing a successful unicorn company, how European businesses can (and why they should) endeavour to improve society, and what’s next for the firm. 

Personio was founded in 2015 and in 2021 joined the European unicorn club. Can you tell us about the journey of founding Personio? What were the original aims and ambitions?

The inspiration to start Personio evolved after one of our friends, who at the time was Chief Technology Officer of a company with 100 employees, was having trouble organising people data and payroll processes in basic spreadsheets. It was clear there was a need for a dedicated HR software for SMEs, and that companies were struggling to manage all of their people data efficiently. We wanted to fill this gap and create a service that freed up business owners and their HR teams to focus on the important things: their people. This was how Personio was born.

What were the main challenges you found along the way?

We were all young first-time founders, with limited experience of being employed ourselves. Growing Personio has been a true continuous learning experience, and one that has required us to seek out and reflect on difficult feedback to change how we operate for the better. For example, as we grew I had to take a step back from a deep involvement in product development. I had to learn how to let new hires take on the task and not be a micromanager!

Thinking about the product specifically, we saw strong demand for all-in-one software which we went to market with initially. Then, we had to heavily invest in and balance maturing existing functionality with new expansions and offerings. Today we’re in a position where we have the team to both improve what we have and build new things to create additional value, with our all-in-one platform still at the heart of what we do. 

Personio is currently based in Munich, Madrid, London, Dublin, and Amsterdam. How does being a pan-European effort support the company? Can you tell us more about how you are approaching growing globally? 

Our mission has always been to be the leading digital HR platform for SMEs across Europe – and operating across Europe means we have a really strong sense of the pain points and struggles that SMEs in each market have. It also allows us to find the best talent from across the continent to help drive us forward. 

But, growing quickly across so many markets can also impact company culture. At Personio a huge priority of ours is to ensure we maintain a positive culture across all of our offices. Although we’ve grown from a company of 20 to over 1,000 in just seven years, by embracing the change, reflecting on where we’ve come from and listening to feedback no matter how uncomfortable it may be, our company culture has grown and developed alongside our business growth.

What tips do you have for building a solid team?

To build a strong team you’ve got to get it right from the beginning. It’s important for startups to decide who they are as a business and what their vision is for their company and culture – what kind of business do they want to be? What kind of people do they want to work with? By laying strong foundations and reviewing these as a company grows, employers will be in a strong position to build a solid team. But, as well as written values, there are also unspoken ones that can also have real impact. The most amazing thing about our team is that whenever I meet someone, it’s a friendly and enjoyable experience. This makes Personio a really great place to work. 

“Finally, offering a token of your appreciation can go a long way in boosting individuals’ confidence, team morale and overall efficiency. Particularly in an ambitious environment where we tend to focus on what can be improved rather than what’s already going well. Whether it’s as simple as a coffee or a box of doughnuts for a team, the bottom line is people want to feel appreciated. Similarly, fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility is important to drive growth and empower colleagues of all levels.

Personio recently launched their Personio Foundation – an independent and not-for-profit organisation that will offer financial and business support to NGOs and social enterprises working in education and climate action. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

When we founded Personio, we made a commitment to set aside 1% of the company’s equity for good causes, and embedded ‘Social Responsibility’ as one of our core company values. Personio Foundation is founded on this commitment, and is the latest in a number of initiatives by Personio to give back to society. We didn’t know where our journey as a business would take us, but we wanted to make sure we were taking action on the issues that matter the most to us. Now we’re in a great position to give back.

An independent and not-for-profit organisation, the Foundation will offer financial and business support to NGOs and social enterprises with a focus on education and climate action, two of the most pressing issues facing the world today – with Covid-19 having wiped out 20 years worth of education gains, and climate change goals significantly below target.

How and why can European businesses do more to actively improve society and drive change? 

Now, more than ever, the world needs innovative solutions and purposeful people to actively help improve society, and European start-ups have a responsibility to make these changes. My advice would be to find your passion. One business cannot change the world, but if we all work on making small shifts, we can create a big difference.

As part of this, businesses must encourage change from the bottom up by encouraging their staff and customers to do what they can. At Personio, we encourage green behaviour amongst our employees through simple day-to-day things, such as offering local and sustainable meals to eat at Personio’s cafe as well as eliminating single-use plastic and providing reusable to-go containers in our offices. We run a scheme that rewards our customers for taking action on their carbon footprint with an immediate discount on our services. 

What is the long term vision for Personio, what’s next for the company?

With 1.7 million SMEs with 10-2,000 employees, the vast majority of which (70%) have not yet digitised their HR processes, there remains significant potential for us to expand in Europe. In 2022, we’re looking to continue to grow at a very ambitious rate, with the aim to have 1.5 million employees managed in the tool by 2023. 

We started Personio with a mission to democratise HR software for SMEs. This year we’re focused on driving this faster, by building in workflow automation more commonly seen in enterprises. People Workflow Automation makes things even easier for HR teams. For example, when a new employee joins the company, the creation and assignment of their necessary accounts will automatically be triggered, and so on. This gives time back to HR teams to focus on strategic issues, and also reduces their reliance on other teams, such as IT, to get people related tasks done.

What first got you into entrepreneurship – what’s your founder story?

Myself and the other co-founders met at CDTM. It was there that we learned the tools to entrepreneurship, e.g. how to write a solid business plan or fundamentals of fundraising. This, alongside the fact I enjoy working in small groups towards a joint goal with a high degree of ownership, is what got me into entrepreneurship. Together as a team we worked to create the first version of the product and we haven’t looked back since!

What trends or predictions do you have for the HR tech space over the next 5 years?

At the start of the pandemic we saw businesses of all sizes rushing to digitise in reaction to remote working, with SMEs now using an average of 40+ applications, many of which relate to people processes. But, quality is more important than quantity. The fragmentation of processes and applications leads to wasted time, delays and missed opportunities for both employers and employees alike. Looking towards the future, automating people processes across applications and teams in an organisation will be essential to improve productivity and performance.

For example, as HR teams invest more time in talent issues amidst a tight labour market, they must rethink and refocus their activities. Automation of common people related tasks can pick up some of the strain, as can better collaboration between internal teams. We live this ourselves. Our People & Workplace team at Personio includes HR, internal IT, and Office Management. Coordination and smooth people processes between these teams has only become more important in our work and contributes hugely to our overall impact.

What advice did you wish you had known when starting Personio?

I believe it’s important to learn from experience and make mistakes that help you develop along the way. However, it’s also important to listen to any advice you’re given, and to follow it closely. For example, it’s no secret that hiring and HR in general is really important. But, very few have taken this as seriously as we did. We trusted those who advised us and used their knowledge to our advantage, creating a company we truly believed in. I don’t believe that you need an MBA or a degree to start a business. You can only really learn how to found and build a company by jumping in the deep end and doing it yourself.