Be More Podcast: Zero to $700M in Five Years with Neil Ryland

Be More Podcast: Zero to $700M in Five Years with Neil Ryland

Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Neil Ryland, Peakon, a Workday company‘s chief revenue officer. Neil shares his journey of joining Peakon and helping to grow the business to where we are today.

Over the last five years, Neil witnessed Peakon grow from a small handful of people to an international and professional organization with hundreds of employees. In this discussion with Patrick Cournoyer, Neil shares that growing a business is a challenging journey that requires intense dedication, passion, and hard work.

Audio also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.

You want people to believe the impossible is possible. That’s your job as a leader to tell them that this is a story that will be on your CV that everyone in the world will know. But very few people will have been part of it. And this is not easy. If it had been easy, everyone would be doing it.

Neil Ryland

Find out more about Neil’s story with Peakon and how to grow a successful organization by listening to the episode audio or reading key takeaways and the transcript below.

Key Takeaways

  • Neil’s Professional Pathway.
    Neil began his professional career in sales. After, he joined the UK startup Huddle. There, he got the opportunity to go and live in the U.S. Neil eventually became a manager at Huddle and went on to run their global teams. Ultimately, he moved to Peakon, where he’s been working for the last five years.

  • Why Did Neil Decide to Join Peakon?
    Neil admits that joining Peakon was a brave step to take at the time. However, he enjoyed the people and felt that it was the right moment and opportunity to join the team to help build leadership development and careers. 

  • Impacting Company Culture.
    After joining the company, Peakon quickly doubled in size, added another office, and started developing plans for international growth. Neil was ambitious and came with new ways and ideas for doing business. He wanted to focus on getting people to see the value in the product so that they would want to put their money toward it.

  • Focus on Mentoring and Growing the Members of Your Team.
    In the beginning, Neil was looking for focused and disciplined people that could think outside the box. For him, it was crucial to set up the right mentality and set the goal of striving to become a world-class sales team. The next step involved setting up the structure for career and growth plans for every individual.

    Neil also states that a significant component of the Peakon business model focuses on supporting people and finding solutions from a business and cultural perspective.


Patrick Cournoyer: I have been looking forward to this conversation probably for about two years, maybe even longer than two years. Neil Ryland is Peakon’s Chief Revenue Officer, a very good friend of mine and colleague. Neil and I have had the opportunity to work together and have a similar journey, in many ways, at Peakon. I am incredibly excited to have this conversation with you, Neil. Thank you for joining the conversation. Neil: My pleasure, Turbo. The shared excitement is the same of what’s been a long-time coming opportunity to have this conversation with you. Patrick: We should probably start out with explaining Turbo because that is the first time on this podcast that we’ve used that name. Neil: The world needed to know. Patrick: That’s a very specific Peakon– I would say part of the Peakon culture that we’ve had since day one but, Neil, maybe we’ll start the story on where that came from. Neil: Yes, definitely. It’s definitely part of the culture. When Patrick and I joined the Peakon business back in the 2016, I think one of the names that quickly got associated with you, Patrick, was Turbo because we came into the business and realized there’s a lot to get done, a lot to get done quickly, and I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone manage to solve problems and get customers on board. Pretty much everything was done at turbo speed and you definitely warrant that nickname now that I think is part of the Peakon culture. Patrick: I appreciate that, Neil. We’re going to talk about the story, specifically your story, around how your career grew, a bit of your history before Peakon, and all about the past almost five years at Peakon, which is amazing to say, and the growth of the organization from very small handful of people when you joined and growing an organization, a business, a team, so many aspects of a startup, we will say startup, through those years, including international expansion and growing your team by 10 times the size. There’s so much that has happened over the past five years, so let’s start with a bit on your journey prior to Peakon. In a couple of minutes, how did your career unfold and how did your individual journey be realized? Neil: Get me to this podcast. When I get asked that question, I always say, the reason why I’m here is that I’m not as good at rugby, so my mum told me I was and therefore, had to find something new to do. I tried a couple of my own things, from personal training, a fun-filled business with a friend on trying to convert DVDs into digital format, and then quickly realized that, “Hey, look, my confidence wasn’t where it needed to be.” I got some good advice from my dad, my uncles, and good friends. That’s a key thing [unintelligible 00:03:42] for this is the power of my mentors and putting yourself out there to get to know great people that can give you advice, who had said, “Go and get yourself into sales, build your confidence up, build up your business acumen.” Through that, I was lucky to work in the first company that had some good managers. That company got acquired, then I joined a UK startup, Huddle, and again, got the opportunity to then go and live in the States. That’s where my leadership role started. I’ve always played sports and always found myself in roles where they’re so desperate to win that you start to galvanize people, so you naturally find yourself in leadership roles not necessarily by choice, sometimes it just happens. Then I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to be a manager at Huddle and went on to be– I ran the global teams there and then ended up at Peakon, again, through networking. Patrick: I love this idea around career success being centered around mentorship. We just had a whole season of the podcast around mentorship and I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations over the past few months about mentorship, so I definitely want to dig into that a little bit because that is also, I believe, a big factor in the success of– The organization that you’ve built at Peakon is around mentorship, growth, of focus on people, of focus on individual success and I know that’s a passion of yours, so we’ll dive into that a bit more. Let’s go back now to 2016, perhaps even 2015, because I’m not sure when the conversation started with you as far as joining Peakon, but tell us a bit about the decision process to join Peakon; young company, different country, headquartered in a different country. It’s definitely taking a leap, making a jump, so what made you decide to join Peakon? What inspired you? Neil: It definitely felt like one of those things like you suddenly are just doing a bungee jump. Everything is saying, “Don’t do it. Are you crazy?” I just worked my way up through the ranks at Huddle and got myself into a global role, had a fantastic relationship with the founders who’d been so good to me, but what I learned through lots of transitions at Huddle, [unintelligible 00:05:53] raised 50 million in terms of funding, we’ve gone through rapid scale, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. What attracted me to Peakon was what you said, which I was so passionate around. I knew when I had my team with me– I can tell you what it was and I can boast of it at this point but I knew we were invincible. It didn’t matter what the countdown was on the quarter, it didn’t matter what the product did or didn’t do, just things started to come together. I remember that– I hadn’t really experienced using engagement surveys or any of that. My mantra is a bit like [unintelligible 00:06:26] beating you over the head with, but I had those initial conversations with Peakon, and one, I fell in love with the people. I knew Kasper, he’s one of the founders, because he and his team built Podio and they were frenemies with [unintelligible 00:06:39] Microsoft, or trying. Therefore, I had this mutual respect for Kasper and what he had achieved and the success that he had going into Citrix. When Kasper explained to me that, basically, what they’re trying to build, what I can figure out how to bottle, I was like, “This could be something amazing,” because imagine if you could help leaders to capture that. It’s like a sport. When momentum’s with you, it’s amazing, you pull off the best shots, et cetera, and then all of a sudden, there’s a swing and it goes, and it was like, “We need to find some momentum here.” How do you find momentum? It’s the same thing as building a great culture. I think the way that Peakon was articulated made me feel like we can bottle that magic and find a way to help build leadership development and build careers that perhaps may have not been built before because we didn’t have the analytics behind that. Patrick: The product excited you and the people. You mentioned Kasper, one of our original founders. Let’s fast-forward a little bit until the decision point of joining the organization. You go through the process of meeting the founders, and interestingly, back then when you joined, there were only– On the senior leadership team, on the executive team, there were the four founders, and so you and me, that’s why we have a very similar journey, but we were the first two that joined the organization in a senior role joining four founders. How did you– You decided to join Peakon. Obviously, you feel that you clicked with the four founders. What was your experience like at the start? Again, few people, less than 20 people working at Peakon at the time. However, a strong sense of culture that you had just mentioned, this idea of the people and you were inspired to join. What was it about Peakon as an organization? Not so much as a product or not so much even as the potential of what the product could do, this excessive selling the product. What about Peakon’s culture, at a very young stage, appealed to you? Neil: That’s a good question. I actually think the culture was slightly different when I joined, maybe what I thought it was. Obviously, there’s lots of time we could spend on interviews and the levels of honesty in interviews, and that’s not to say the team weren’t honest with me, but I think there’s an interesting dynamic between when you have four founders, around what motivated them to do it in the first place and what they wanted out of building a business, because building a business is incredibly hard and it’s so important to get alignment. Obviously, mine is saying, “This is a super hot market but it sounds a bit like we’ve got an incredible product already. We’re early days and we’re going to build this thing and take it public, and it’s going to be a game-changer.” I was like, “Yes, I’m in. This is exactly what I want to do. I’ll help you guys raise some money. Let’s go big.” Then I think there’s an element of learning fast on, I don’t want to generalize too much, the Danish culture and a little bit perhaps of a Peakon culture existed, which was a bit more like, “Yes, we’ll do it in our time. It’s more important that it’s absolutely perfect than what it is to get it out to market.” Having come from the races of the building a disruptive tech business and if you don’t do it, someone else will do it, there was this bit of this clash, I would say, when we joined, Patrick, coming from commercial world of– Ultimately, if you want to build a business, you do have to make money. The best way to do that is to build a world-class culture because then you get the productivity that you need to be successful. Getting that right culture with the right people was definitely probably one of the first battles. It was definitely one of the toughest things I found in the first six months trying to build a very commercial-focused sales team that were driven around how do we become world-class, how do we get this put up to market meeting this everything has to be cross the t’s, dot the i’s in the product before you can even see it now. We alone are the customers. There was this big change that we had to go through to build a culture that would enable us to scale as it was now six of us from forefounders. Patrick: I think that’s a very important point to the listeners of this that are in this phase of starting up an organization, entrepreneurs that are listening to this and saying, “I really have an idea. I think that I can take a product to market and have it be super successful.” The idea behind this conversation is not only to hear your story and your journey, and the success that you helped and were foundational in for Peakon and getting Peakon to where it is today as part of the Workday family. However, I do think that there is this element at the start of an organization when founders make a decision to bring in external leadership to help drive an organization forward, to help make decisions, and to bring in alternate perspectives, that can be a tough phase within an organization. That can be a tough growth phase. As you said, you’re brought into the organization for a reason. You’re brought in to expeditiously build the business, and build the sales function and bring in revenue into the business. That phase, that step can be a hard one. What impact do you think that you had on Peakon culture when you joined? You said those first six months you were figuring out how to build a function. How do you think that you impacted those original days of building a culture? In those six months after joining, the company doubled in size very quickly and we grew into another office. We started building plans for international growth. A lot happened in those six months. How do you think you were able to influence the foundations of a culture of Peakon for the growth that was coming? Neil: There’s plenty to speak to probably. I think in some ways I will describe it like I came in with a baseball bat and started knocking things about and I remember one of the first off site was standing up and anyone who’s in sales or anyone who would know this story and I think [unintelligible 00:12:48] the second prize. [unintelligible 00:12:50]. I was waiting for tomatoes to be thrown at me. It was definitely, again, for mentorship, they’re paying. When you’ve joined this business, to steer it in the right direction to do something different, not to come into the business and be a yes person. To come in and implement a plan that you believe will help to scale this organization. A little bit of it was having a bit of belief. I think what I wanted to bring into the business was the acronym that I created around it is called WIT, which stands for ‘whatever it takes,’ and in the small print it says ‘to do the right thing’. Obviously, it ends up it’s WIT. My idea was that this balance of this drive and focus with the EA which stands for the excellence always of the product could actually be our secret weapon at Peakon. When you combine these two things together, and you can get them to run on the same track, that’s what the foundation of our culture could be. Finding that balance was probably where the impact was. I think in order to do that, you have to have a shock. You have to come in and say, “Do you know what? Work starts at 9:00, dress for the job you want, not the job you’ve got.” All those old phrases and sayings. It was to try to build this focus and discipline that we had all the right pieces for the jigsaw to build this business but we had to put them into the right places. I felt like we had the framework. We have an amazing market. We had a phenomenal founding team and we had this brilliant product that could go and win in the market but you’ve got to get the pieces in and that’s the go-to marker piece. That requires focus and discipline to get them in the right place. I think that’s what I tried to bring with this focus around how do we actually get people to see the value in this technology and want to spend money on it and that it will actually drive value for their business. I think that takes this whatever approach when you’re a startup because you’re competing in a very disruptive market. You want to sell and be behind something that you genuinely believe works and makes a difference. I think that probably the first 90 days will be hard because you’ve got to get this WIT and EA to morph into one thing that is called Peakon culture. That took, you know this, [unintelligible 00:14:57] Patrick, sat in those board meetings and senior meetings trying to find the alignment and level set for founders, two new executives that had joined to always stand behind a couple of statements and what we wanted to accomplish and what we wanted to set as the expectations of what it meant to be a Peakon. It doesn’t mean we have to be the same as much as the opposite. Foundationally, you all have to have the same core belief of what we’re trying to do. That’s what would allow us to have the right environment to go on to be successful and challenge each other in the right ways. Patrick: That brings up a really important point which is around your choosing people to join the organization at that point, that you know are going to be pioneers. We’re using the word pioneers of the culture of the organization because they’re joining again at a very young phase in the company. They’re joining because they see that there is a future, an individual future for them. They believe in the product, in the people that are already there, and in the vision, this vision and mission that the company had. I think Peakon did a good job of having this core vision and mission from the start and staying very focused on that for the past five years. We really have not altered that since you and I joined. I think that was a testament to the strength of what we originally built the product and the whole vision for the company on which, when I say we, those were the founders, we joined and very much believed in that and supported that. In the decision-making process of bringing people into the business at that phase, do you think that there are different aspects or abilities that you look for in those original hires as you’re building your function in the business, the sales function that the very important go-to market function knowing that there is a mountain of expectations to climb in the next year, three years, five years. As you said, there was a very clear path of where we wanted to get to. Going back to the question, when you’re choosing the people to join your team at that phase, what are you thinking about? Neil: Anything. He’s as daft as me, [unintelligible 00:17:10]. I do think the characteristics change, definitely. That’s because the further you go down the chain of scaling a business, there is still change ongoing going from 100 to 200, 200 to 300, et cetera, et cetera. You’re really looking for people further down the chain that are okay if I said, “Look. I need you to line up these knives and forks in a perfectly straight line. Just keep doing it over, and over, and over again and you’ll be successful.” When you’re starting, does anyone know where there’s any knives and forks? It’s very, very different. I think the traits that for me and again you probably hear me say this a lot [unintelligible 00:17:43]. The anagram is LAT and that’s loyalty, attitude, tenacity. I say that from– I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing people through my career and things that I totally pride myself on. I don’t think those traits are coachable. I don’t think you can coach someone to be loyal. I don’t think you can coach someone to have a can-do attitude. The same as tenacity. These things are either really important to you or they’re not. I think when we were building it, I was again lucky through the network that there was a guy called Luke that I picked up the phone too and I said to him, “Hey, we need to chat.” He was like, “Why? Are you leaving Huddle? I was like, “Yes.” He was like, “Where are we going?” Luke epitomizes LAT. He preempted my conversation and was like, “Where are we going?” and that he lives and breathes it. All the hires I think who have those traits have been successful in Peakon. They are so important in the early days because you don’t have a playbook. I might have the title of leading this house team on my LinkedIn but I don’t have the answers. No one’s built Peakon to 50 people. No one had built a Peakon sales team to four people at this stage. You wanted people that are going to come and sit in the room, demonstrate those traits to get to the next milestone, the goals that we set together. I wanted people to come in and, it wasn’t like the culture and the pioneers, I call them the guardians of the culture. What we set today is the first brick in a house that’s being built. If we get it wrong, we can trick ourselves but eventually, the house will fall down. If we set this right and get the foundations in place, we can build a palace. That’s going to come from the fact that this first brick that gets laid and we set those expectations and we never, ever drop them. You need people who are motivated and inspired by being that first brick because you then carry the weight of the rest of that house for a long time and you have to manage that. I think there are definitely traits and skills that you have to have in the early days of a company because it’s really, really hard. As you go further down the journey, there are different skills that you need as you go further. The bits that don’t change, the core, they set the tone for the rest of that journey. There’s definitely some traits that are different. Patrick: Just to talk a minute about Luke, that is a great example because Luke is still a member of the Peakon team. Luke has had an amazing career at Peakon, ended up as a vice president in the APAC region, built that whole region for us literally from the first significant deal in APAC and is still, as you said, part of your sales team, a cultural leader for Peakon has built an amazing, highly functional, highly successful team in a region that was a difficult region to start. Because we’re going to talk about international expansion in just a minute, but very far away timewise from your Peakon family, your work family at a time when how you interact and have the support of your peers in– I say in person, at the time, it was in person, in person is a bit different, but understanding what I mean by that, but that being able to have that at that phase of the company where we were, was incredibly important. Luke also had built many regions for us, he built the UK region as we grew into the UK. I absolutely agree with you on the fact that the people that you’re looking for in those foundational roles, and that’s such a great analogy about relaying the first brick, and we can either build the palace, or we can fool ourselves into thinking that we have this strong structure, and maybe we don’t. I’m glad you brought that up because that is definitely a cultural, not only just business success story but a cultural success story for Peakon. I think for any startup or any organization that’s thinking about rapid scale in the next couple of years, choosing the people that are going to be your leaders at the start, and investing in those leaders is important because you also have a very important focus on mentoring and growing those members of the team. Can you give us a bit of insight into how the team that you originally built some other stories of growth and retention within the business and success with that because you’ve had a lot of success with that? Neil: It goes down to the team, not me. It’s like the skill is hiring the right people, I think. Then you get out of their way and allow them to solve problems and do what you hired them to do, be world-class, set a goal to be world-class. I think just pretty much from that point of what’s the secret then to that growth. I don’t necessarily need one silver bullet for a lot of lead ones, but the cause was that I wanted to hire people that were like the Swiss Army Knife a little bit, but it was great focus and discipline on what we were doing, but I needed people that could think outside the box to solve problems. How we built that growth story was that the original six people that I hired, the thing I’m most proud of for those six people went on and built incredibly successful careers in Peakon and we’re at the business at the point of acquisition, it’s just mind-blowing. It’s amazing to see how well they’ve done. I think they were part of building what we call the sale mantra. I would say this around how do you keep talent. You can say as a leader whatever you want around what you want your culture to pay for there’s the people in the team that really decide what the culture is. We agreed on it together, we found a home truth of like, we want to be known as a world-class sales team, and I don’t want to be here if we’re not aiming to be the best, that was my input. Then everyone went around the room and said, “Okay, what do you think it takes for us to support each other to be like that?” We came up with a list of about eight things, and then we refined it, we came back to it, refined it, and you’re like, “I’ve got to spend more time cold calling doing this.” It’s like, we know how to do that, we’ll get there. But right now what I want to do is make sure, like I said, that the brick is laid perfectly, because if we get this six right, the next six we can get right, and the next six after that. That’s how this mantra lives today, it’s part of the process you had with work being an acquisition as like this is what makes our team so good, and I hope we can bring some of this into the new world. That’s a critical part, and on the basis of that we said, we wanted everyone to be the best version of themselves, and that’s what starts to drive some of that growth development. I think there’s a culture alone. The second part to it is that one of the advantages of joining an early-stage startup is you’re going to be thrown into situations that perhaps you wouldn’t be thrown into if you were going through a more structured onboarding program, and they both have their benefits, but when you’re thrown into the deep end, you’ve got two choices, you swim or you sink, and if you’ve hired right on lap, then they’ll find a way to swim. I think through that you naturally build this career progression. This has been a little bit controversial of me saying I don’t believe in mapping out specific career plans and growth plans, because obviously, you want to help people to get there. When people ask about that, I say, “It’s not my career, it’s yours. Tell me where you want to be, and then I will do everything to help you to get there. I can’t tell you what to do.” It was off that basis, we started to build the structure for saying, “Okay, well. We started to sell larger deals, which wasn’t the skills we believe you need to be able to be good at selling larger deals.” Okay, that becomes this type of role. Where are we now? What do we need to do? Who do you admire in that role at the moment? What are they good at? How can you learn from them? If we can do those three things, I can give you the opportunity to have a crack at this. You slowly then as you obviously scale the business that becomes more structured in our sales, for example, moving from a junior, or SDR, type role, BDR roles, and these development roles through to being very senior enterprise sales reps closing big, large deals. Then you start to create this framework where people know the skills that are needed underneath to be successful in each one. I think it’s making sure that you’re just clear with people, these are the things that you need to be great at, and if you’re doing these things, here are the opportunities that start to appear for you. I’ve always been a massive believer in hiring young, hungry talent to come in because again, I feel those people can excel, they’ve got the energy, they’ve got the motivation to want to do it, and there’s so many examples in our business from Sarah, Abby, Tony, Rachel, the list goes on, I know I shouldn’t mention on the podcast, but you can look up on LinkedIn. These people are incredible, because they joined those ranks, and they helped to basically build their own careers inside the Peakon structure. Patrick: We’re going to talk a bit now about growth because as you said, that is a big part of this phase that organizations go through. Hopefully, organizations have the opportunity to move from the startup phase to scale up. Looking back at the five years at Peakon, I would assume, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I would assume when we decided to do the international expansion, and to do multiple region expansion at the same time, that was probably one of the hardest points in the five years of Peakon. How did you know as an executive and part of the team that was deciding on growing internationally into all of these regions? How did you know that it was the right time to expand internationally, more internationally, I should say. Neil: There’s a couple of things that are very practical, and the one is a [unintelligible 00:27:03] is one of the founders, we coined this together around, like the metrics that matter, try to align ourselves around that. I think that’s the first part of not just international expansion, but to get right in that first couple of bricks, it’s like, are you measuring what really matters, or are you measuring vanity metrics, because a metric that matters is one that when you change it, you see the impact. I think that’s what’s critical in some of that decision-making. I think some of it is due to what you agree with in your home truths and the business of what way you want to take the company. I think if you’re a European business, and you want to get to the growth levels that Peakon aspired to be at, you got to crack North America, you got to find a way to get into that US market. We stayed about monitoring what was our success rate in those regions, selling from the hubs that we’re in at the moment. Then using the metrics that matter. That’s like the creation of the pipeline, for example, and the win rates of that pipeline in those regions, you can then start to build up a case of like, okay, how are we doing as our competitors? What does the price point typically look like in those regions? Where are we selling at a certain trend in industries? I think that’s what gives you the confidence to know there is a market there, some of our sales plays are working at the moment. My advice is test it where you are, we did this at Peakon. People always want the challenge because [unintelligible 00:28:24] hey, do you want to be the person that takes that break that culture and starts to lay the first one in the US, everyone’s hand goes up, especially when you hire the right people. In order to do that cost-effectively, one thing I think we did well in some cases and other things I reflect back and think if we’ve completely done a better job, and I definitely could have done a better job on some of these things, but you learn is to have those pod structures in place at the start. In the US, how do people work midday till 08:00 PM? Shift their hours, bomb a pizza in the evening and make it a fun thing. They work US hours, and they start to build up this momentum of selling into the US, or like we did in Germany, we had some of those selling to Germany from the Nordics, hubs here surrounded by other Peakon initially, before you throw eight people into an office and the expenses of all that and get the cultures wrong, et cetera. I think we use data a lot, and then also that’s what we used to raise the funding that allowed us to afford going into these markets. Some of them were just opportunistic, we talked around Luke, there was a good cultural Peakon story. I think that Luke’s married to a kiwi, and was having a baby and wanted to go home. He was obviously our best performing rep at the time, he’s a guardian of the culture, we’re like, why don’t we try and make it work in these, in Australia, can look at the data, what is the market look like? You got to be brave, you got to jump off, as the bungee jump, or you gotta make that jump and be brave. I think we did that, and as he said to me like Luke’s done an incredible job now building out a profitable business in APAC for us. Patrick: That’s probably one of my favorite stories at Peakon, was that we truly thought about our people and made a business decision based off of that, thought about the business decision, looked at the metrics that matter that you say look at what the viability was of growing the business there. But the original idea and intent of making the APAC region a region that we were going to be focusing on, originally, the idea was how do we help keep a very important person from a business perspective, from a cultural perspective in the business? Because we know that somebody– There were many people at the time in the business that we thought of as the guardian of the culture is a great terminology for that, that we knew that we needed to be successful. I love that story about making that decision. Most companies would not do that. I’m just being really honest. Most companies would not make a decision that wasn’t initially designed around how we do this and is this going to be the right decision? The inflection point was really around keeping a very important person in the business. I think that’s an example of the type of culture that made Peakon successful. In a relatively short amount of time, Peakon really grew very quickly and was acquired quite quickly in the grand scheme of business, but [crosstalk] Neil: Quite the ripple effect. I think. Patrick: Yes, I think. Neil: I think that’s the thing when you make these decisions that you can have negative ripples and positive ripples. I think the fact that we made work for Luke demonstrated to the rest– I don’t know how big the company was at that stage. Maybe we’d get to 50, 60 people. We were early to go– You don’t typically, “Right, we’re going to go Copenhagen, London, Oakland.” That is not a typical startup route, but we’d looked at the data, we believe we can make it work, we believe we had the right person to go and lead that team. The ripple effect for the rest of the team is seeing, “Wow, this company, one, wants to go places.” It’s cool that we’re now going international, and we’re backing this, making this big bold decision. Secondly, it gave us, one, belief around the fact that, “Hey, we’re keeping people like Luke in this business.” That created momentum and energy. We could’ve gone the other way. We might have had to make tough decisions if the business goals hadn’t stacked up, but actually, from getting the people right and the data, I come back to my wit and EA even in this situation, it created momentum for us going into what would’ve been the back-end maybe 2017, 2018 like early days. We learned a lot from that. Then going into Germany, France, the US, the other markets as well. Patrick: Let’s talk about some of the challenges. We’ve been talking about the positive, all of the things that have been successful. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the bumps in the road, but what would you say were some of the challenges that you faced and that the business faced as we scaled, particularly through 2018, early 2019, those were the 18 months of significant growth at the business? What were some of your challenges? Neil: Yes, the list’s probably long as my arm. I think a couple of one’s spring to mind immediately, which is, one, when you have the culture that we have around really caring is you really care about the people, you really care about the outcome. It matters personally. I think that is also what stemmed a lot of our success, but it also became our Achilles’ heel because the whole team rallied around the management team, but, obviously, as the business got to 60, 100 people, four offices, 6, 7 people cannot operationally do absolutely everything. You can’t have the executive team and this big gulf and a whole lot of amazing executors. You need more sergeants, for want of a better word. I think one of the chances that we had, Peakon was, one, letting go a little bit I think as ourselves and not keep getting in the weeds and doing that in the right way without damaging the culture, and that’s definitely a hard challenge to go through. Then the second thing I said earlier is that hiring is critical. I think we knew the right people to come into the business, who were going to come in and do a job and get on with it and believe that, “Yes, we’re on.” Then we’re trying to hire the VP level. I think we found that really difficult both in terms of trying to find someone that was a culture add, but also added perhaps the experience that we didn’t have as a leadership team to help us get to the next level. I talk about ripple effects, the same thing happens. You hire a bad leader, that has a ripple effect for your organization as well. I think that’s probably one of the challenges we had is getting that mix right on leadership and then also continue to scale, what the founders wanted, and keeping that team together, and knowing there are gaps now in our skillset and we do have to bring in other people is also tough when it feels like your baby and you’re letting it go. I think they were definitely some of the toughest times that we went through in terms of maturing from that start-up, grow-up, scale-up phase. I think growing up in the teenage stage is the hardest. That was a tough year that we had to come through. Patrick: A common theme with scale-up organizations is making the decision to bring in more senior leadership. When is the right time to do that? When is it too early? In conversations that I’ve had over the past year or two years with organizations that have gone through a similar path that Peakon has gone in, something I constantly hear is do it early, invest, be exactly, be brave, invest in that talent early, especially if you’re thinking about growing in one market, two, let alone three, four markets. See, this is what happens, and I think this is what happened with Peakon as well. When the momentum starts, it’s like a snowball. It’s going. It starts going to other markets. It’s building faster, faster, faster, and Peakon experienced that. There’s a lot of excitement in that, there’s a lot of success in that and sometimes it’s hard to take a minute and say, “What do we need in a year from now?” We need to start thinking about that today. It’s hard to think a year in the future, especially in a scale-up, in a start-up because you’re so focused on today and you have to take a minute and say, “I got to think about a year from now, two years from now and make decisions, particularly from the people perspective today,” and like you said, be brave, make those decisions early on because those can create some pretty challenging points. Neil: It’s like you need to put the acid tests in if you find yourself perhaps in my shoes still involved in deals that are below your average deal size, you’ve hired too late. If you find yourself doing all the enablement programs, you’ve hired too late. I think there are things you just need to check yourself on because you want to get ahead of that problem. I think that you’re right it’s so hard in start-ups because you look at Simone who is our CFO putting these plans together, she’s amazing, and you’re like, “Let’s think about what we’re going to need in a year’s time.” [unintelligible 00:37:11] Oh God, we will be three times bigger. That doesn’t feel real, I’ve got to hit the first quarter first. You have to. You have to give yourself the headspace to be able to do that, and you can’t if you’re still working on deals and trying to figure out– Our CEO is trying to get the Owler to work and the microphones to work in meetings. You’re like, “We’re not 15 people anymore.” You love it. That’s the challenge of when you built the business, you love all those things. You have to find a way to get that discipline and focus back and hire right. I would say one of the golden rules that I took away from those levels is that if you come up to any meeting and someone goes, “Yes, they’re okay,” that’s a no. It has to be, “They are exceptional,” and then you invest the money in it because they’re worth every penny when we’ve hired correctly into this business. Don’t scrimp on the pennies at the expense of the plans. I think sometimes in those early grow-up phases it feels expensive to bring those people in. If you believe in your mission and the goal of where you want to get to, then you need to invest in it and invest in a good version of it. Patrick: 100% agree with you. That’s very well said, Neil. We’re coming close to the end of the conversation, but an important part of this conversation is to discuss a bit about the acquisition experience. Five years ago when you joined Peakon, revenue was quite low when we joined. Neil: Right [laughs] Patrick: It was pretty much. In five years, really five years, we joined in October of 2016, less than five years, Peakon was acquired by Workday for $700 million. How did you experience that acquisition process? It was, I’m sure, quite an experience. Tell us about what your experience was. Neil: Yes, it is unbelievably exciting. There’s this huge sense of pride in being a part of something that’s had such an impact and a company like Workday would want you to be part of it and help them in their bigger mission. There’s definitely a feeling of excitement and pride, yes. You feel very proud about it, but with it comes the challenges of obviously trying to– When I joined the business but on a massive scale when we joined, you’ve got 10 people, 4 founders, view designers, and then you bring in two commercial people and you try to make it work, and there’s 10, 12 of you. Now, you’re trying to make that work with 12,000 people in a global organization with 250 people like it was from Peakon, and that takes a huge amount of work and effort. I think that the team has done a very good job, but how does it impact the team? It’s uncertain. It’s a huge amount of uncertainty and you have to draw on the experiences of when you start the business, which is also uncertain, no one can promise you tomorrow. That was what I tried to use at the sales team. Yes, there’s all these big aspirational goals of why work there required us. In the same way, we had aspirational goals to get Peakon to the stage and to become world-class but it starts with the first step, you can’t get to step nine unless you’ve taken step one. I think that was the reset that I tried to do with the team. Again, I’m supported by a fantastic management team around me to help me to build this and make these decisions but we did like a level reset with the team around, what are the next milestones that we need to hit. I think that was a critical part to getting people through the change where something you don’t know is an expense system, you don’t know how to get a discount approved, all those things that make sense, we’re all frustrated, right? We had to level set again, and thrive in the uncertainty, ride out this storm because the sun’s going to come out again, but you’re not going to see the sun if you don’t survive this and we reset that, to try to get people rallied around the uncertainty and to come through it as winners. I think if you can find the slight tweak on your mission and a new intrinsic motivation for people, the core lat traits, I think, for me, that was important. Again, I probably should have done that sooner with the team but luckily, through years of working with them, they gave me the benefit of doubt for not getting that right at the start and then when we did it, that’s remarkable since have joined the company have had to record quarters and that’s down to the team being outstanding in managing the uncertainty. Patrick: There’s one thing that’s consistent in business is uncertainty. Being able to weather that no matter what phase you’re at, in an organization, there’s been much uncertainty in the past five years. I think everybody that is listening, feels that sense of uncertainty but staying focused on the future. As you said, finding intrinsic motivation in today and what the immediate future has is, it is important for everybody to do, but particularly for leaders to inspire in their teams because if there’s one constant that we know is that change is absolutely the constant. If you look back five years ago, and you were to say, “Oh, we’re going to be acquired by Workday in 2021, and you will have grown to five significant or have five offices in regions around the world,” and if you think about some of those things if somebody told you that five years ago, I’m sure you’d say that that’s- Neil: Pretty soon. At the same time, I think what we both tried to do was and I think this is a key trait in leadership, you want people to believe the impossible is possible. That’s your job as a leader, to tell them that this is a story that will be on your CV that everyone in the world will know about, but very few people will have been part of. That’s again, like a driver, and this is not easy. If it was easy, everyone will be doing it, and yet you’re the selected few that have the opportunity to do this. Drawing again on some of those things to help through this phase and get back to, “Okay, we are in a storm, there’s a lot of uncertainty but there are some things we can control. We can control working hard, we can control being kind to people. Now we can control some of the focus of why we know people buy Peakon.” I think if you again, draw it back into those things, you can try to protect people from the noise, and get yourself through that difficult phase but it’s definitely not easy. It comes back down to a solid sales mantra and just being very, very clear on what you can control and then double down on those things to get people through it. Patrick: Neil, firstly, thank you for sharing your story, your perspective. You’re incredibly inspirational. You’ve been not only an amazing colleague but an amazing friend over the past five years. You have really been a part of how Peakon has had success in so many aspects. I just very much appreciate you sharing the story with us. I know the audience really appreciates the specific insights into successes, challenges, and how you individually succeeded and inspired a team to succeed because one of the things you always say is it’s about the team. It’s never about you. It’s about the team and that is incredibly inspirational and has been since day one. Thank you for everything that you’ve done with Peakon. I’m excited for a brilliant future as we go into this next journey, in this next chapter but just a very heartfelt thank you to you, Neil, for all that you’ve done and for sharing the story today. Neil: My pleasure. The feeling’s mutual. As I said we couldn’t have done it without four amazing founders and the people who have joined since then. It’s been an amazing rocket ship but I think everyone’s played their part and great to finally do this podcast with you. Patrick: I think we’ve been talking about it for three years. Neil: Very honored to finally be on it. Patrick: Thank you very much, Neil.


Author - Patrick Cournoyer

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