Built from the ground up with Dan Rogers: The story of Peakon, a Workday company

Built from the ground up with Dan Rogers: The story of Peakon, a Workday company

Now that Peakon is officially part of the Workday family, it’s the perfect time to share more about how the company got started, what drove its success and what comes next. 

Helping Patrick tell the story is Dan Rogers, one of the co-founders of Peakon, and its Chief Product Officer. Dan has been at Peakon since Day 1, had the original idea for the Peakon product, and has been an integral part of Peakon’s evolution into a global organization.

Peakon would not be the same without Dan Rogers. In this intimate discussion with Patrick Cournoyer, Peakon’s Chief Evangelist, Dan shares Peakon’s origin story, how Peakon has evolved over the past six years and his vision for Peakon’s future as a Workday company.

It’s important for people to come to work, be themselves, and add value to the team in their own unique and distinctive way.

Dan Rogers

Key takeaways:

  • Feedback at work was broken. Dan used to work in growth at Qype, a review site for businesses… or you could say: a feedback site for businesses. This got Dan thinking about the role of feedback within businesses, and not just for businesses. At that time, as an employee you may have received feedback once or twice a year from your manager, but you were giving and receiving feedback continuously on the consumer side of your life.
  • Why Dan & Phil decided to start Peakon. Whilst working at Qype, about seven to eight years ago, along with another Peakon co-founder and now CEO, Phil Chambers, Dan noticed two future emerging trends in the workplace: a shift in focus from acquiring employees to retaining them… and an explosion in the availability of data and analytics.
  • Dan’s selfish reason for building Peakon. As Dan progressed in his career he found himself spending more time building and developing teams. At this time, Dan was consulting with another business and was invited to a new project management tool that he had never heard of… this baffled Dan: why were there so many tools for managing projects effectively but no tools for managing people effectively?
  • What change was Dan and the other co-founders trying to make in the world? Dan recognised that 90% of people had jobs they disliked, whilst at the same time managers didn’t have guidelines to help them work effectively. Dan wanted to build a product that would help to increase employee job satisfaction and assist managers in making their employees more effective.
  • The core driver behind Peakon’s success. Dan shares that the #1 factor that has driven Peakon’s success is their approach to people. He states that employees need to have fun when coming to work, but also be professional and responsible. Dan also shares how Peakon has been effective in creating a space for weird ideas, arguments and their resolution. This is reflected by the Peakon value: Serious, not seriously
  • Dan’s vision for the future of Peakon as a Workday company. Despite the Workday acquisition, Peakon’s focus will remain on embedding continuous listening and feedback onto customer organizations. This focus has and will give Workday access to a rich set of profile feedback data to greatly enhance the employee experience and engagement of Workday customers. Peakon also remains committed to helping Peakons (Peakon employees) become more successful and realize their potential.


Patrick: Peakon is becoming a part of the Workday family and we are incredibly excited. There is so much synergy between our two companies and the future is bright for what we can accomplish together. My guest today is my colleague and friend Dan Rogers. Dan is one of the co-founders of Peakon and he’s the chief product officer. Dan has been at Peakon since day one. Actually, Dan is the person that had the original idea for our product. He has been an integral part of growing our organization into the global company that we are today. Peakon would not be what it is without Dan Rogers.

We are going to talk with Dan about the early days, how Peakon has evolved over the past six years, and his vision for the future as a Workday company. Dan, thank you so much for joining the conversation today.

Dan: Thank you, Patrick, very excited to be joining you today. I’m really excited for our chat.

Patrick: Great. We have so much to cover. Obviously Dan, you and I get to work together on a daily basis, but I’m excited to share your story to the world. Let’s go back six years, probably even longer than six years. Let’s talk about how and why you decided to found Peakon originally.

Dan: It was a confluence of quite a lot of factors. I think it did really start probably seven or eight years ago. Even if you can argue, it started a bit before that when Phil and I first met, and actually that leads me on to the first factor. Phil and I originally met working for a company called Qype and Qype was essentially the European version of Yelp and Qype was your way of reviewing bars, restaurants, retailers, that kind of thing.

I think what was interesting about Qype and what we could learn from the experience was that reviews are a form of feedback. I think when you think about feedback, a more holistic level, it’s really been the driving force or one of the driving forces in the consumer internet. If you think about eBay’s based on reviews, which is a form of feedback. Facebook is based on likes and comments and things like that, which are a form of feedback. Uber is very contingent on reviews and ratings, both of drivers and passengers. There’s just very pervasive amount of feedback in most people’s consumer lives.

Thinking back, if we rewind say before we started Peakon, it seemed really obvious to me and obvious to us that feedback was really broken at work. You had feedback being an integral part of almost everything you do in the consumer side of your life but when it came to work, you may get feedback once a year from your manager, or you’ve got the opportunity to give feedback once a year from an annual engagement survey.

That seemed like a very unbalanced situation. That was the first factor. I think the second factor was in my roles prior to Peakon, I’d spend many, many years focused on customer growth, and ultimately that boils down to two things. It boils down to acquisition and retention. You acquire customers and then you have to retain them. I think what I realized over my experience is the really important side of the equation is retention.

Retention is so important for many reasons. Firstly, regardless of what you do, whether it’s hiring people into your company or acquiring customers for your business, word of mouth is probably going to be the biggest channel. It’s very hard for you to ever drive significant word of mouth if you don’t retain your customers because retention is obviously intrinsically linked to whether people liked your product service or liked to work for you. Really solving that retention piece is key to hitting the acquisition piece as well because you can’t really acquire people in an effective way if you’re not retaining them and keeping them happy.

Then following on from that, who you retain should really inform who you acquire. By that, I mean it’s really important to understand who are your good customers, who are the effective employees in your organization and how we can acquire or hire more people like that. Then lastly, your ability to retain customers and your ability to retain employees really sets the limit on how much you should be invested in acquisition. If you can’t retain people, you shouldn’t be acquiring people because you’re just pouring water into a leaky bucket.

As I was working on that customer growth side, it really occurred to me there were very similar parallels between building a team and building the customer side of the business. Ultimately, the customers, you have to acquire and retain them; employees, you have to acquire and retain them. Obviously, I was progressing through my career becoming more of a leader, having to build teams and seeing acquisition on the employee side be a real challenge. Yet when you look to- as I’ve seen building teams and seeing that a lot of companies were still very focused on the acquisition piece. A lot of the HR thinking was focused around the acquisition piece, but there was not a lot of focus on retention.

Then having worked in startups for a long while, I think both Phil and I were at the forefront of seeing this changing relationship between employees and work. If you see, startups tend to skew towards younger employees, and it seemed very clear that there was a movement of people coming through the ranks in business where they wanted a different relationship to their employer. They didn’t want to live in this top-down world where they were told what to do all the time. They wanted to live in a more flat bottoms up world where they could actually have an impact on their work.

Then what was also interesting about that is you could start to see that feeding into changing attitudes with leaders, as well. Obviously, as those millennials got older and switched from being employees to being managers and leaders, not only was the relationship between what an employee wanted changing but also the relationship between how these managers think about their employees was also changing. I think that’s obviously very clear now in how a lot of companies are run and how a lot of managers think about running their teams, but it wasn’t that obvious 8 or 10 years ago.

Then the final big factor or trend was seeing the explosion of data and analytics everywhere. I started my career working on financial services software, which is obviously very data-driven. Then I really moved more towards customer and product analytics, and it really struck me that there was a gap on the employee side. I thought what was really interesting about that is that if you work on customer analytics, one of the key challenges is getting the data in the first place.

Analyzing the data is not necessarily hard, but getting customers to give you rich data on what their preferences are, what they like about something, what they dislike, that’s often the biggest hurdle. Obviously with employees, if they’re sitting in the same room with you or they’re working in the same company with you, it occurred to me that that was a much easier problem.

Surely getting good data on the employees is going to be a lot easier than getting good data on your customers because they’re sitting right there with you. That I found really interesting. To bring that all back together, there were a lot of trends that went behind the founding of Peakon. There was this trend for feedback, the trend around changing workplace relationships, and this trend around data.

Patrick: Dan, definitely can hear that there was some fundamental challenges and issues that inspired you to want to drive change within work and the world of work. What specific aspects of the world of work or the world did you want to change when you thought about founding Peakon?

Dan: I guess these ideas that we’ve just been talking about, they’ve been bubbling away in my head for a while. I think sometime around 2013 or 2014, I was doing some advisory work for someone and they sent me a link to login to a piece of project management software I’d never heard of. That really just tipped me over the edge. I just thought, „Why are there 1,000 products to manage software, but none to manage people?“ That was really, I thought, „Okay, now is the time to act.“

In terms of changing the world, I had a selfish need, which I would like something that would help me manage people as I’m progressing through my career and becoming more of a leader. Then alongside that, my lived reality, if you want to call it that, was that most of the people I knew hate their jobs. Not many people like where they work and I think you and I are extremely fortunate to have jobs that we really enjoy, but that’s not true for 90% of people. I think that seemed to me, there was a way of connecting those two things, which was management is hard. Most people aren’t trained to be managers.

I personally had a need for some tools or products to help me manage people more effectively and most people hate their jobs so it was a way of connecting those two things together and saying, okay, we can build a product that helps me as a manager and also improves working conditions for people, makes employees enjoy their jobs more and gives employees advice and so on.

Then I think it can be hard sometimes to find a business that makes money, can treat its employees well, can treat its customers well, and doesn’t negatively impact the environment or society. Quite often when you start businesses, someone loses in that equation, whether it’s like the employees get paid a bad wage, or you’ve built a business but it hurts the environment, or maybe the customers don’t get a high-quality product.

It seemed to me that those two problems, like not having something to help me as a manager and people not enjoying those jobs, we could solve those in a where— it’s a big problem, so we can make money. We’re going to improve working conditions for people, or we’re going to actually help managers and it seemed like a formula for a business where no one would necessarily lose out.

Patrick: That’s how the original idea of Peakon was planted, I guess?

Dan: Yes.

Patrick: How did you think about actually making it all work and coming together and the actual product? Can you tell us a bit about that process? I have all these ideas of like, we know what we want to do. We know the challenge that we want to tackle. We know the change we want to make, but then now we have to do it somehow with the product. So how did you get to the original ideas on how the product would look?

Dan: That is two parts of that story. The first part is, I did an MBA in the late 2000s and one of the things that I found really interesting about that MBA was the organizational psychology and people management pieces. I think a seed had been planted all the way back then that really resonated with me because it, again, going back to the people not being traded as managers, it was really interesting in that MBA, that a lot of the stuff we were taught in terms of organizational psychology, what really motivates people intrinsic-extrinsic motivation, it was counterintuitive to both what you experienced in the workplace, but also the conventional wisdom.

It was a bit like a light bulb going off when I went into those organizational psychology classes and that oh yes, that’s really how things work that I used to think about managing things. That was part one. The seed had really been planted back then and then part two was I have this personality trait where it’s really important for me to understand things from first principles when I don’t understand something, I really go to every endeavor I can to actually understand it.

Basically, I left my previous job in the summer of 2014, and then I took a month or two out to go on a long bike ride because I’m really into cycling and then I essentially spent the rest of the year just doing research on, okay, how is this product going to work? What are the fundamental factors behind how you motivate employees, retain them? I read through probably dozens or hundreds of academic papers and mess, just a lot of research.

Then that really fed into some early prototypes. Essentially took all of that research and positioned myself basically as a consultant where I said, „Okay, before we build this, I’m just going to go out and try and collect data from a couple of companies, analyze that data and then give my recommendations back to the leaders in those companies.“ That was really where it started.

Patrick: Dan, what other type of approaches or initiatives have stood out to you over the past six years that have been very focused on the team that works at Peakon?

Dan: The first one I’ll talk about is our value of serious, not seriously and ultimately, we all need to have fun when we come to work, when you’re trying to do something really, really hard, which building a company like Peakon is super hard, whether you’re the founder or the engineer it’s a difficult job for everyone. I think it’s really important that you can enjoy the [chuckles] ough and the smooth if you want to call it that right. That having fun at work, in my opinion, increases your ability to endure the times when it’s not very much fun, right? If it’s always a grind, you’re just going to give up and quit.

I think that „serious, not seriously“ value was its key ingredient. „Fun“ has been really important in how we’ve managed to scale the business. Then I think the serious part is really important, which is like Phil and I have worked in very large organizations, as have you, as with a lot of the other leaders at Peakon and when you’re selling an extremely fundamental product, which I think Peakon is to very important and large customers. You’ve got to have that; you’ve got to go over and above in professionalism and how you actually handle that and that’s the serious part as well. We’ve obviously all had experience at doing that. „Serious, not seriously“ is something that’s super important for me.

Then one last point around that is that I think in order to come to really good decisions, you have to have creative tension and in order to have creative tension, you have to have a few things. You’ve got to create space for weird ideas and you’ve got to create space for argument and resolving argument because if there is no debate about something, then either people don’t care or you’re going to come up with a vanilla answer to the question. I think that also plays a big part in this serious, no serious values, allowing for weirdness and allowing for mechanisms to handle creative tension and that kind of thing.

I think all of these values have been really important, but I think the one that I am really passionate about is this idea of being you and being more. It’s become a bit of a cliché now maybe if you bring yourself to work, but I don’t think it was when we originally set the value. I think it’s really important that everyone feels like they can come to work and be themselves and add value to their company or their team or whatever it is in their own unique and distinct way because everyone is unique and distinct.

Then I think the more pieces that you’ve– I really believe a lot in Angela Duckworth’s theories around grit and perseverance and that kind of thing. For me, that’s a super important part of how you build a successful company or build a successful career and individual level. If you think about maybe three factors in life, that is intelligence, hard work, and luck. In my opinion, you hear a lot further with hard work than you can necessarily with intelligence. There’s no value in being intelligent if you’re not willing to make use of that intelligence by working hard and doing something.

I think that relates to grit and perseverance and determination and all of those other things. I think you see that when Neil joined the business as chief revenue officer, what they were trying to do was really, really hard, but there was a huge amount of determination and this notion of being more and persistence, peace resistance, that really helped them succeed. I think ultimately being more than not only enables you or your team or whatever it is to be successful but then it also connects up to self-actualization and actually personal, psychological reward to the extent that you actually feel okay, I’m moving forward, I’m becoming better. I’m achieving something and so on.

Patrick: Dan, you talked about how much Peakon has evolved over the past six years as a product. What are a few of those points of evolution with Peakon as a product that stand out to you?

Dan: I think the first one is around the idea of a feedback loop and particularly training and action. The original mission of Peakon was basically the subject of the mission statement was really insightful. They provide the insights for; I think everyone’s reached their full potential. What we found over the course of the first few years of Peakon was that providing people the insights alone wasn’t going to necessarily solve their problem.

Going back to that initial discussion around jobs to be done, and I think it was probably around the autumn of 2017 Phil and I did a series of interviews with our top 20 customers and essentially what we were asking those customers was „What’s preventing you from adopting Peakon more fully?“ By adoption, we were primarily talking about running the surveys more frequently so shifting from say annual to quarterly or monthly and driving more manager adoption.

What transpired from those interviews was that our customers agreed that they needed to move more frequently and they agreed with delegating it to managers and driving manager adoption. However, the managers were saying, we don’t know what to do with these insights. It connects back to the earlier discussions around being a tool to help managers. What we realized is that there was a need to go beyond just insights and provide training and suggested actions as well and sounds obvious now.

I think because a lot of the market’s gone in that direction probably doesn’t sound as fundamental as it was at the time, but that was a really fundamental change at the time to the extent that we didn’t even know whether it was going to work. We thought, are we sure that we want to be connecting, training into Peakon. That was not obvious in 2017. We decided, okay, we’re going to test this out. We’re going to hire some people to build micro-courses inside Peakon that will actually help these managers understand the insights that are surfacing in Peakon, and then take action on them.

Obviously, over the last four years, that’s become conventional wisdom to the extent that I think pretty much everyone in the market now does it, but that was really an innovation that started at Peakon, an innovation that we weren’t entirely sure about at the time. I also think it’s something which we’ll probably come on to, but it’s incredibly exciting in how for instance, Peakon and work they can work together on. Being able to scale learning is not something that Peakon can do on its own because that’s an incredibly difficult problem to solve.

We’ve got our own problems to solve, but that’s a problem that Workday has already solved so connecting people onto Workday really will take that to a new level. I think that was the first fundamental change in the product. That’s now reflected in our mission statement as well which is now around driving change and not providing insights. Then I think probably the biggest change after that is something that we’ve been working on since last year, which is this idea of essentially making employees a key stakeholder and employee engagement.

Again, this seems obvious when you talk about it like that, but it hasn’t been obvious in how employees have been treated in the history of employee engagement before Peakon employee engagement was really an HR thing and then I think Peakon made it a management thing, but really employees have there been a third stakeholder after HR managers in their own employee engagement, which when you reflect a bit is insane.

Surely employees should be the key stakeholder in their own engagement and Peakon had historically moved more in that direction than other people had through functionality such as conversations so employees really have a need to have their voice feel heard and being able as a manager to go into Peakon and reply to employees is a really good way of letting employees know their voice is being heard.

Similarly, acknowledging their comments is also another great way of enabling employees‘ voices to be heard, but actually going properly, diving in at the deep end and saying, „Actually, did you know what? We’re just building Peakon now for employees as well, they’re going to have a login. They’re going to have a dashboard. They’re going to be able to collaborate with their manager on actions. Potentially though they’re going to have their own insights and training courses as well.“ I think that’s a real fundamental shift in how we think about employee engagement and how probably the world thinks about employee engagement as well because it’s not really how it’s done these days.

Patrick: Dan, we’re going to wrap up a bit here and talk about what is your vision for the future of Peakon as a Workday company?

Dan: I’m really excited about the future. I’m really excited about embedding continuous listening and continuous feedback throughout the employee life cycle and really taking this idea of moments that matter to a new level by combining the rich employee profile data that Workday can provide, which with the rich employee feedback data that Peakon can provide and doing this will enable employee experience and employee engagement at a whole new level.

Then I’m also really excited about how we democratize these insights by providing them a manager, an employee level. Over the last couple of years, Peakon has been very focused on manager and employee dashboards, which we call total activation. I think combined with Workday, again, we can take this to a whole new level because that unified experience will be much richer. Manager’s engagement, insights, and engagement actions from Peakon can live alongside their other tasks in their Workday portal and that’d be a much better experience for a manager.

Patrick: All right, Dan, we’re coming to the end of the conversation and we just have one more question for you. What are you most proud of with Peakon?

Dan: Many years ago, I remember we had that discussion about what we wanted to see out of Peakon and I think one of the things is making Peakon a place where other people could develop and make themselves successful. I think as you get more experienced in your career and you become successful yourself, more success at that level does more personal successes and super motivating. What is really exciting is to see other people become successful.

I think that is a bit of a natural transition is as you get older and I think that’s what I’m most proud of is all of those people that I’ve seen join Peakon as an intern or join Peakon in a particular role and then rapidly progressed into some other role or join Peakon and leave and create their own startup. I’m really proud of those people as well. I think what I’m proud of is the combination of all of those individual successes and I think that’s also what really excites me and motivates me, is seeing other people be successful. I think that’s what I’m proud of.

Patrick: Dan, thank you. First off, thank you for your passion over the past six-plus years, thank you for your leadership and for creating this amazing organization product but as you just said, creating this amazing opportunity for so many people around the world, working for Peakon to just experience what we’ve experienced, a pretty amazing future ahead of us as well.

Just a very heartfelt thank you from everyone at Peakon for founding being part of that team and for building what Peakon is today. Thank you for sharing your story with the world, because it is a story that is definitely to be told and one that I know everybody listening is going to be very thankful for hearing. Dan, thank you for spending time with me today and cheers to a very exciting future.

Dan: Thank you Patrick, it’s my pleasure.


Autor - Patrick Cournoyer

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