About Episode four

Every day was a school day for HR Manager Pip Youngman. In her desire to make her life easier, she brought her Kiwi ingenuity to the world and took the company global. Listen to the podcast to learn why hiring a diverse team is one of the best choices a SaaS company can make. 

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Episode Transcript

OS
Welcome to Growing Tech with Greg Williamson and Owen Scott. Today, we're here with Pip Youngman; Pip's an experienced technology company leader. She started her career in HR and strategy working for Westpac just over 20 years ago. And then she became the founder and CEO of Pivot software for remuneration and performance, a SaaS software company. What we're going to cover today with Pip is why she got into tech, what are some of the challenges that she's seen for Kiwi startups and the major constraints on growth.

GW
Great. Welcome. Nice to have you on, just first off, just want to dive in, background wise really. I mean, you're not a technologist, although you've learned a heck of a lot about technology, obviously over the years, but tell us a little bit about how you got into the people side of business.

PY
Well, thanks. Thanks Greg and Owen for the opportunity. I guess it is 20 years ago now, actually, 20 years ago this month we registered Pivot as a company. So, a lot's happened and I was thinking about that this morning. You talked about it being a SaaS company - we were actually a SaaS company before it had that name. Nobody actually knew that that's what it was going to be called. So, I spent a lot of time in my early years, trying to explain to people what it was, but I selfishly got into it because I was solving my own problems. So, I was an HR practitioner in a large organisation and continually using manual processes for some pretty big-people stuff, like the annual salary review process at Westpac. If you can imagine at that time - five and a half thousand people - and we did it all on spreadsheets. And when I say we, that involved something like, I think 75 decision-making managers, and they all had to have their own lot of data and make decisions about their own people. And then brought back to me at a central point for me to do a whole lot of number crunching and give them budgets and all of that sort of thing. So I was continually splitting up spreadsheets then putting them back together again, and that is a pretty big, risky process when you're doing that on spreadsheets. So, within Westpac, we sort of took a step towards automating that before it was anything to do with the internet. And it just got me really excited about what the possibilities were with technology. I got to a stage where corporate life was getting a little bit too constraining for me because I just got excited about things that I wanted to know more about, but my day time job was actually taking up too much time. So, I left Westpac and started doing consulting work in the area of sort of HR processes and remuneration and performance management. And I realised that every HR team that I was working with actually had the same problems. So I just started to investigate what there was around and it really wasn't a lot. So yeah, I spent my time in the early years bringing the money in the door in the consulting space and spending it building tech. So I was very lucky that I had a partner that was bringing the money in the door with a job as well, so it wasn't as far as putting our family livelihood at risk doing that. But yeah, that was kind of what got me into it.

OS
So tell us a bit about Pivot then. What did, what did they do and what are some of the insights you learned from that experience?

PY
Pivot was about solving this problem, this problem around processing lots of data in an easy and less risky way. So it was around the annual salary review process. And at that stage - that typical annual performance management process. I basically took the learning that I had from being an HR practitioner and created a business out of it. So sold the concept to organisations that had that same problem. We started off in New Zealand and I think probably the first six or seven years just focused on organisations in New Zealand. Then we got an opportunity to spread our wings to Australia. And then towards the end of my time at Pivot, we were actually in India as well. There were always big dreams about taking it a bit further. We were starting to investigate the opportunity of maybe Canada or the UK, however, you know, with a business, a technology business that you want to grow, it just eats your money, all the time. So yeah, 20 years of pouring money into it, I think it was just a realisation that to get it to go global we probably had to be in the new market. We would probably have to up-root some staff and sort of move there to get it going. So we just decided that that wasn't really what we wanted to do at that stage in our lives.

GW
Yeah. I mean, interesting story, you basically took it from YOU through to growing a whole bunch of people in the business and then selling it as a listed Australian technology company. I mean, an amazing journey, really. What were the biggest things you learnt out of it? I suppose, whether it's from funding or technology or people or sales, or what, what were some of the key themes out of the Pivot experience?

PY
Actually, every day was a school day for me. And I used to tell my team this actually, that I never started business thinking that I would be a leader of a team of, in the end, 28 people. I think they all relied on the success of the business as their income; we were supporting 28 families basically, and that part of it was what made me most proud, that we were creating this livelihood for people and it was the people side of things that I loved the most. And because we were only a small team, you know, we started off as me, then there were two people, then there were three, then there were five. And so we slowly grew to that 28 and you take every one of those people on your journey with you. And so I was very proud of the fact that in the end, the average tenure of people at Pivot was something like eight years of service. So we had people there when I left, sadly, leaving them behind that were actually there with me right at the start. So it's the people bit that I think every day I was learning something new about that. And I think working in a large corporate, you have to make policy around people and that policy is usually for mainstream and there's always people on the fringes. And I think a true leader is able to actually take policy and individualise that for their teams and I was lucky enough in that I had an organisation where I could individualise the employee experience at Pivot for those people. That's something that I'm pretty proud of, and I think that's probably why people stayed… is that they knew that this was actually a place that they believed in what we were doing in, and that treated them with respect. So yeah, people was my biggest learning, even though I spent my life sort of in HR, you know, I was in HR policy stuff, not in the real, you know, get down in the trenches with your people and live it every day. So I loved that. But then all of the learning, working with you guys, around marketing, I think that was probably my weakest point. And I remember you saying to me once ‘sack all your developers and invest in your marketing people’. So I know that we were always balancing the books and, bootstrapping, cause that's what we did. We were 100% owned and didn't bring in outside investment and you were always juggling as to where to put your money. And when you're a tech company, there's always new shiny things that come along that you go 'Oh it would be great if our product used that little tool' or, 'it'd be great if it did this'. So we were continually juggling our priorities, based on how much money we had to spend. So I'm getting pretty good at doing cashflow management and all of that sort of stuff and projecting out cause the way our model operated, our clients paid for 12 months, with a subscription in advance. And also the processes that we were managing was a cyclical thing. And typically organisations would start their process or would buy from us in the months of May - September. And then again February / March probably. So those were the months where we got all their money. I think we got 75 - 80% of our income in five months of the year. So for those non-income generating months, we had 28 people's salaries to pay, we had our marketing stuff to do, we had all of these things to invest in. So, juggling the box was a good learning for me as well. I learned how to work around that quite a lot.

OS
I wouldn't mind just going back to the people conversation a little bit, because obviously tech companies, you know, we need great technology and we need a heap of money. But also you sort of need the 'A' team. I just feel sometimes, particularly founders who come from a technology background to this people side, basically you're a little startup but you want to recruit and retain the best talent there is. What's some, I suppose, insights or some advice, to other startups around the people thing and how do you build this team?

PY
Yeah, I think, especially when we want to make really quick decisions and get people on board quickly, there's two things we've done in the past. One of them is, 'is this person, the exact skill fit that I need?' And that they'll start running from day one and therefore the investment I need to make in upskilling them is really only about the organisation perhaps. And they've got all the technical skills I need. There has been a tendency in the past for us to do that. And I think we're missing out on a great opportunity, by not broadening the scope a bit and say, ‘well, if I actually just invest a little bit of time in this person, one, they might not be your exact fit, but they will appreciate the input that you're giving them’. So you'll start getting it back from them as well. I think the more that you invest in them, and the other thing is being really clear about your diversity, and I'm not just talking about ethnic diversity, I'm talking about diversity of thought. Diversity in every single sense of the word, because when we are recruiting, when we are looking for people to join our team, we have a really strong, focus often on people like us. And you'll find that you end up with a whole lot of people like you, and you're not getting diversity of thought. So, you might not always recruit people that you want to go and have a drink with on Friday night or whatever, their just maybe not quite your cup of tea socially, but really think about what it is that they will bring to the table, as well in a week sense, and what different thoughts and ideas they'll bring to the table because that's pure gold. We introduced the scrum methodology with our software development, and that's a lot about fail fast, do little bits, have lots of discussions about reflection, what you can do better next time, all of that sort of thing. And those sorts of forced discussions and forced process that meant that small teams of people had to collaborate and feedback to each other on a very regular basis. I was just amazed at some of the ideas and the thoughts that people had, and it made me realise personally how narrow my thinking was sometimes. So, you know, I think that's really valuable. And if you're scared that you're not quite sure, always involve a recruiting process. Always involve in a wider group of people to help you decide if this is the right person. It doesn't actually have to be the person that they're going to report directly to. It might be somebody else that they might interact with regularly, or it might even be somebody external, to give you a view.

GW
So just to switch gears a bit and look a little bit at the marketing side of things, you mentioned it before, Pip, but Pivot was quite early on into this content marketing concept. You particularly had a lot of expertise around the problem that your customers were facing and we used that sort of thought leadership to drive the marketing. So, question really is how did you know that was effective for you? Or how did you measure the value of the funds you're investing in that marketing to give you the confidence to keep on going with it I suppose?

PY
Yeah, so, our sales process was often quite long, and so sometimes we had to be patient to see the results. But every single sale that we got, we could actually link it back to their first interaction or whatever. So, you know, the two of you were great at providing us with some metrics about how much we needed to have in the top of our funnel, to get us down to the bottom. And you know, I wanted every single person that heard about Pivot to just go, 'yes, can I buy it?' And so I was incredibly impatient around the time it was going to take to get this going. But the thing that I felt was when you sit down with your new customer and have the first workshop, and they refer back to a blog that they read of yours, or they went to the website and saw a case study and they could actually connect with us very quickly. So it contributed to the sales process. But most of all, I think it contributed to the relationship building that just made everything a lot easier as we went through. And we use this term in our storytelling and in the marketing process, and, that's another thing, we were kind of doing that without knowing we were doing it. We didn't have a name for it, really. We were just trying to get our own credibility out there so people would believe us.

OS
How do you balance? Because you had a sales team as well, you know, like it wasn't a SaaS product that people just bought through your website, it was a corporate sale and you needed some hands on. How do you sort of manage that sort of 'how much investment do I put into salespeople?' versus 'how much investment do I put into marketing?' to make sales more efficient?

PY
Yeah, if I had my time again, I would - especially in today's environment - spend more on marketing and less on that sales person, because there was a lot of time spent just trying to get that lead in those early days. And I think there's some statistics around now that talk about the fact that your actual customer you end up with have actually done a whole lot of research about you before you even touch a salesperson. So I think now our sales teams can be a lot more efficient, you know, even now in the work I'm doing now, one of the first things I do is go into HubSpot and see who's been interacting with my email marketing campaign and how many times they've clicked through to the website and things like that. But it just means that you can start the conversation a lot easier, rather than that old typical cold sales call, when you're trying to get somebody to answer a phone, which is actually what we did in the early days, and you think about how much time we spent on it. And actually, trying to keep a sales person motivated when, you know, probably 20 calls out of 25, they either got no reply or they weren't interested.

GW
Yeah, it's tough. So if you're looking back at the Pivot story, we've got a bunch of technology companies that listen to the podcast and try to work out, you know, back when you were starting the business, what's the biggest bit of advice you'd give them in terms of how they can get this thing going and growing.

PY
Probably I think that whole stepping away from your business for a couple of days, every six months, and really seriously look at, you know, is this still right for us in terms of where we said we were going and what we're doing, because you do get caught up in the day-to-day cut-and-thrust of what's happening. And one of the things that I know was a very big learning for me is, especially when you're a software as a service company and you're in a sales process and maybe you get the feedback that, 'hey, you haven't been chosen because we chose a company that had this particular feature', or 'we needed it to do this and your system didn't do that', there was a really strong tendency for me to want to turn around and then develop that one thing that we were missing for that one sale that we missed out on to add it in. And so that next time an organisation that looked like that would buy from us because of that. So you could get very, product focused, very quickly on a day-to-day basis in so stepping back and going, 'are we still hitting in the right direction?' 'Are we spending our money where we should?', all of that sort of thing. And also thinking about who is your next storyteller. So if you really want to grow your business, especially if you want to go global, I think, you know, I never counted myself as a salesperson, but because I could tell the story, because I could empathise with the problem they had and I could use real life examples, I think that gave us credibility very quickly and you need to have another one of those people, those sort of people as a backup. And I'm not saying recruit somebody like you, I'm talking about somebody that can empathise with the problem. So, HR, I see this all the time, HR tech companies, recruit tech people rather than HR people. So think about the domain problem you're solving. And they are your best customer relationship people, they are your best salespeople, cause you can always bring a techie with you in a sales meeting, but that's actually that whole storytelling and problem solving thing I think is what gets you the credibility. So there's probably two pieces of advice. I'm not sure.

OS
No, you're allowed multiple pieces, that's all good. So obviously you sort of got the Pivot story and that was really successful when you had a great exit from that and then I understand you had a couple of months in your garden and then you're off on other sort of business features. So tell us what your sort of projects are at the moment.

PY
Yeah, I've got a couple on the go, and one seems to take the back seat, probably more than it should, but I've got a little start-up on the go at the moment called 'My Village Family' around trying to create communities of people willing to help each other out with childcare. So in particular, it's the working families, and trying to get support for working families outside of the structured childcare arrangements that are around and at a different price point to a nanny or something like that, because a lot of working parents can't afford that. So it's about working parents collaborating and say, well, I have Wednesdays off so I can pick your kids up from school and take them to the after-school activities and things like that. So that's just in it's infancy at the moment. It's probably fair to say I need another co-founder person to help me get this moving a bit quicker, because there's another little shiny thing that I'm in on at the moment, and it's another HR tech thing actually. So a company from India - from a relationship that I had back in my Pivot days - are looking to bring their HR team to New Zealand and Australia. So they've asked me to spearhead that into this market. So it's kind of taking up most of my week, these days.

GW
Yeah. That's really interesting with the PeopleStrong, cause they've been very successful in the market, haven't they? And they're now looking to grow globally and… are Australia and New Zealand sort of the first major global push outside of India?

PY
It is although they accidentally ended up in the middle east as well, which is an interesting story. So in the way I remember at Pivot days I think we used to get maybe 30 or 40% of our new sales from people who we'd already built a relationship with and had moved on to another organisation. So people strong actually had 'round about the same time, ended up with two ex-customers ending up in the middle east and then wanting PeopleStrong in the middle east so now they've put a team there. So, they're in the middle east, and yeah, Australia / New Zealand as the next newest market, and it's been really interesting. Obviously, we are an Indian company with an Indian cost base coming into a market that's competing against predominantly American organisations. So we can be very competitive from a price point. And the organisations in India are way more complex than what we have in the Australian / New Zealand market, so the functionality of the software almost has to be pared back a little bit, and not show every single feature - we don't need it. So it's really quite satisfying to not have to push the product team to add a feature because most of them are already there. We just don't need them.

OS
So what are you, cause obviously your own business was an exporter and now it's round the other way, and they're trying to export here and you're helping them and observing them from there. So what are some of the things you're seeing that maybe they are struggling with or taken for granted or approached the wrong way that typical Kiwi tech companies would do that have similar issues?

PY
There's one thing that's very, very much the same and that's the storytelling thing. And I guess that was the reason why they decided to make contact with me is to see if I would like to have a go at this because they're very much the same, you know, their domain experts that've brought tech people in to build this stuff. So that's very much the same and the problems are the same - that we are solving - so the stories can be the same. What is different is that the markets that PeopleStrong is currently in are still doing sales the old-fashioned way, so are still doing the 'okay, make 30 calls and you might get three people answer it'. What is different in that market also is the use of WhatsApp as a marketing tool which I found really interesting and they might blast communications out to clients via WhatsApp. So, the interactions are direct with people rather than with organisations, so that's quite new. So most business people in their market are quite open to direct communication. So their mobile phone numbers are on databases everywhere. So they will get marketing calls on their mobile phones about business related stuff, and that's quite normal practice. So I've spent quite a bit of time describing the different market here and the way marketing needs to change for this market. And that's probably been what I've spent the last probably three months doing. So we've been focusing on content marketing and emailing campaigns and those sorts of things, social media...

OS
You know, it's always the same story, isn't it, just sort of underestimating the difference in that other market and you're seeing it because you're in the market and you know the difference, but obviously, as Kiwi exporters, we think 'market to the same' it's sort of the same issue.

PY
Yeah. Actually the other thing that is different, which we've just discovered as well as the expectation that even though it's software as a service, business to business software as a service implementations, the expectation is that your implementation people will still be with you and at your local customer location. So, a team will come in and implement. So, that's been interesting. It kind of wasn't a topic of conversation until we got to the point where we were looking at implementing here, and they were a little bit concerned about how they were going to get people out of India to implement. And I said, 'well, actually, we don't need to do that. We can do it all remotely'. So we have an implementation team here in the Australia / New Zealand market. When I say team at the moment, it's just one person, but they don't need to be with our customer, they can be on a virtual meeting and things like that. And customers are quite happy with that approach. So that's a difference as well.

GW
And do you think that's people, cause I mean, in the Pivot days, obviously you did do in-person implementation, but I think with post COVID and better digital tools and things, people are a bit more comfortable with that remote approach.

PY
Yeah. At Pivot, it was always the very first meeting, like the workshop of how do we want all this to work, was in the early days was a one, two or three day sort of workshop, and then we got it down to one day and then we got it down to three hours. So I think, where possible in this market, we would still do that, the one day workshop, just so you start to build those relationships and pick up things. You still miss out on that nonverbal communication when you're doing virtual meetings, so it is good to still connect personally when you can, but you don't have to do it for your entire hundred hours or 300 hours of implementation.

GW
Cool. Well, that really brings us to the end of the interview, Pip, thank you. I think we've got a lot out of it. A couple of really key things that are often overlooked and the technology game is the absolute importance of the people in the mix, which is really good to be reminded of that; And how much effort Pivot put in to your people as really a part of your differentiation is the quality of people. And then the other side is, I liked the way you described it as storytelling, which is all about connecting with the prospects around their problems and, and began to connect your solution to those problems and in a storytelling way, not a features and benefits technical way which I think is really key. I mean, you can use the digital tools to amplify all of that, but fundamentally it comes down to 'can I tell you a story that meets with the problems you're experiencing'? So, yeah. Appreciate your time. Thank you very much, and we look forward to seeing PeopleStrong and all your other ventures go gangbusters.

PY
Yeah, okay. Thanks very much, guys.

GW
Thank you Pip.

OS
Cheers Pip, see ya. Well, that was great. Good to catch up with a Pip again, we've known Pip for a long time with her Pivot business. What did you sort of learn out of that, Greg?

GW
Yeah I enjoyed it. It sort of reminded me how groundbreaking they were in a way. And they really got the idea of content marketing early; and cause Pip came from the business side, the people side, she really understood the value of connecting to customers and prospects in their own language. It's all the technology and all the digital stuff we do at the heart of it is that whole, solving the problem for the prospect.

OS
Yeah, the thing for me was the people, and that sort of learning around, you know, 'we all got a checklist and we're trying to get the perfect person, so we don't have to bother with onboarding and they're awesome on day one', but maybe just looking at some other values around the person and then you taking your time to train them and that builds loyalty, takes people on the journey, gets them involved in the company - it's just a slightly different approach and the proof is with Pivot is they built an absolute outstanding team. Hm.

GW
Yeah. Great. So that was an excellent session with Pip Youngman. And we've got another great podcast coming up - number four - with Serge van Dam, a technology entrepreneur in his own right. But also probably one of the leading people helping SaaS businesses grow in New Zealand does a lot of stuff directly with SaaS businesses and running programs to coach and help companies right throughout New Zealand. So really looking forward to having a chat to Serge and getting a few insights from him on growing SaaS businesses understanding where the sort of ecosystem is at the moment in New Zealand. So thanks for your time, really enjoyed it and we'll see you at the next one. Cheers.

 

Interested in learning more about growing your tech or SaaS business? Make sure you check out our blog which covers all things New Zealand tech. You can also subscribe to our podcast channel on YouTube, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

See you next time,

Greg and Owen.

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