I talk to Chieu Cao, the Founder and CMO of Perkbox, a company on a mission to increase employee happiness and wellbeing.
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[0:20] Maiko: In today's episode I'm talking to Chieu Cao, co-founder and CMO of Perkbox, the UK is fastest growing employee benefits providers. Perkbox is on a mission to build a better society one relationship at a time. The company does that by promoting health and well-being among the employees of their customers. With some studies finding that up to 80% of people are not engaged and happy at work, the company has recently launched Perkbox Insights with a goal to improve employee happiness by measuring employee engagement on a daily basis. Perkbox is backed by prominent investors such as the founder of property search engine, Zoopla, and Draper's Bry. It's great to have you on the show.
[00:57] Chieu: Thanks for having me.
[00:58] Maiko: Thanks very much. What's the mass of problem Perkbox is trying to solve?
[1:01] Chieu: So, we believe that there is a big problem in the marketplace. People spend, if you look at an average person's life, they have their personal life, which, you know, occupies a lot of the time, they spend effort, and they do, there are lots of products and services out there to help them. But when you look at people's work life, and the level of support they get, it is very fragmented. And people go to work and they're demotivated and management, some of them try their very best, but really do need a bit of help, motivating, engaging and in providing a better work experience. And so, at Perkbox, we believe that we everyone deserves a great work, experience work life. So, we try very hard to help management do that. So, one of the tools that we have recently launched is Perkbox Insights, it's a very simple to use Insight to allow management to give what we call post surveys, these weekly, small Q&A type of questions, easy to digest, easy to understand. But important is with Insights, it allows people to, tell the manager what's on their mind on a regular basis. And that really helps management, tailor the experience, work experience for their staff.
[2:13] Maiko: And if you look at Perkbox mission, obviously there's been a lot of employee benefits solutions out there and you guys obviously bring some innovation with the technology you're using, but focusing on the mission, what makes you a mission driven company? Or how do you think you're different from a lot of other companies out there that might solve a similar problem or trying to solve it?
[2:32] Chieu: Yeah. So, the mission well, it really starts with my co-founder and sort of myself, how we feel about running this business, we truly feel that we want to have a mission lead business, it just comes from the inside. And as that grew and progress, we realize that this is something that we need to talk about, we need to make it real. And so, that became a clear part of what we do and how we run our business. And the mission, that business for us feels very natural.
[3:00] Maiko: When you first started with Perkbox, what was exactly the problem you observed and are you trying to solve, what was the starting point? And how did it evolve from there?
[3:09] Chieu: Well, so we, when we started this, we didn't know that the problem is as big as it is, to be totally honest. We've pivoted a few times, so Perkbox, the company started in 2011, it was only in 2015, that the brand Perkbox came to be and the proposition that we have really crystallized.
[3:28] Maiko: You used to be called Huddlebuy right?
[3:29] Chieu: Absolutely yes. But Huddlebuy is a platform to help business owners access discounts, and what have you; still helping business succeed. But with Perkbox, we really focused on the employee, the work experience. So, that really made it really clear to us that that's where we operate. And how we found out that it was actually a place to spend more time and to build the business around is that these business owners were asking for perks for their staff. So originally, we were giving business owners access for themselves and their own family. And they realize you know what these discounts you give me, I want to give my staff and that splintered off and go, hold on, let's just give this a new brand, let's talk about this in a better way. And so that's how Perkbox came to be. It was consumers asking us for it.
[4:15] Maiko: So, what's the impact you're having on employees besides, okay, I got a good deal, I worked for this company that's using Perkbox, I get a good deal on stuff, that's nice. But what's the impact and how do you measure the impact that you have on those employees and what you're trying to achieve there, in terms of is it you're trying to make them happier or you're trying to save the money? What's the main thing?
[4:36] Chieu: Sure. So, we launched with perks as a key part of what we have, our vision is much greater than that, we believe in enhancing the whole employee experience, the total employee experience where perks is only a small part of it. We of course, with Insights, launching, we can measure that, right we can see from by poll surveys, the before and after effects of changing management. So, perks is only just a conduit, a tool that a manager can use. It doesn't replace good management, I think that's important. And obviously, we add other tools, like recognition and coddling to a variety of services in the future that looks at the whole work experience, the whole employee experience and solving that. So yes, it is important to start with something and we're known for perks at the moment, but I think what we really want to be known for in the futures is really enhancing the employee experience, so to allow management to show that they care about their staff. And if they show that they care about the staff and offer the services that staff would like, productivity, all the great things, success comes as an output.
[5:40] Maiko: And that's where Insights comes in as well, right? So, I used to work in a big corporate, we got these quarterly surveys, we never really knew what happened to them after we filled them out. If anything happened, there was like a big message on the intranet, how happy everyone was, and everything was great. And I think with Insights you're trying to close that feedback loop much faster, I think a daily update or something like that even, how does that solution different? How do you make a difference with employee engagement there?
[6:10] Chieu: Sure. Absolutely. That's a really good question. So, our philosophy at Perkbox is to be really employee centric. So, we want to build products employee would use and start from there. So, for Insight, we ask the same question, what kind of insight, what kind of study reports would allow employees to be really engaged, will elicit the best response? Not just responding because in the past, I used to work for companies like Microsoft, and Amazon Yahoo, where you just do it and it's like one huge survey, 50 questions. By time you get to question number 30, you know what, I can't be bothered, I'll just say whatever, you know, just to get it done with. So, is it truly transparent? Is it truly to measure employee sentiment and feelings? That could be questionable. So, we looked at what really bugs employees, and what really makes employees not engaged with these surveys and try to fix and that solution that we've come up with is to make it more approachable, make it genuine, transparency, is really important. But the most important thing is to show that they're being heard and whatever they say, management will be held accountable, is transparent, that things can be done and fixed. There's no point in having these big surveys and goes into the ether, comes back six months later and it's like, you know what, I forgot to actually answer that question. You know, so we want to make it really, modern, in that sense. People expect transparency, rapid response, agile management, really, that's really what we're looking at.
[7:39] Maiko: So, the response is directly visible to the employees as well, or--?
[7:44] Chieu: Absolutely. So, there are different ways in which these services can be managed, it can be summarized, it can be reported back, aggregate or sort of, but the key bit is, it's anonymous. So, we want to make sure that the management, the employees feel that they can say what they need to say, without anything else, you know, any unwanted kind of repercussions. But what's really interesting about this insight, is not just the ability to transfer insights and information from an employee to the management, it's what management can do is this information. So, on the admin panel, they do have a lot of responses but we, what we do is we allow managers to log into our knowledge pool. So, it's helping managers be better managers, instead. So, to say, for example, get a score of X out of Y or a low score on a particular area, career progression, or salary negotiation, whatever, we'll give them tips on how to manage that, we'll give them links, we'll give them best in class ideas so they can be better managers. So, we can't assume that every manager knows what they're doing, right. So that's probably one of the problems and that's we realized. So, let's help both sides of the equation, make it easy for employees to access and feel that they can say what they need to say, and know that the response would be answered. But also make it easy for managers to act on this information, and to report on, to share, to talk about, to be better managers. So, I think that's really what we're discovering and hopefully, from what we've seen, so far, the pickup has been really good, the response has been really positive.
[9:22] Maiko: How does it look like to make it actionable for manager. So, from my experience, for example, the past that the managers had very strong KPIs to transform the organization, which usually means letting go of some stuff, then getting new stuff, getting these skills in, like changing a lot, which obviously creates a lot of friction and can create a lot of unhappiness within the staff. So, if I'm a manager of such a company, and then find out, okay, my staff is unhappy right now. What sort of tips, what sort of advice do you give them, then?
[9:54] Chieu: Sure, I think the first stage is identifying that there's a problem. I think that is a big hurdle that most managers don't even know. So, measuring the problem to the degree and understanding where the problems are, is the bulk of what we can serve right away. Solution is more complicated, there's a whole industry built around career management consultancy, and how managers to need to manage their staff based on certain situations. So, we don't profess to be experts in that, I mean, we will bring in partners and what we have, we're a technology company, but we're not management consultants, just to be clear. We do allow information to be stored there so they can start jumping off and finding out where, it's a starting point, I'd say, for what we want to do. But we want to highlight where the problems are, and they can start drilling down a bit further from there.
[10:44] Maiko: Looking at founders, some founders actually listening to this podcast that are a bit earlier in the journey than you are. And I interact with a lot of founders that are looking to start impact driven startups, they have really this vision in mind of how they can change the world. When you first started out, what was the advice you wish you had, back when you started?
[11:05] Chieu: Wow, so good question. We didn't have an easy journey. We started in 2011, we pivoted three times, three different business models until we found something that worked. We had to say, you know, you have to stick with it, you have to be resilient, have a sense of you know, confidence, but also stubbornness to kind of get past roadblocks. Because you don't have all the answers don't expect to have answers and one of the biggest lessons I've learned from others and advice I've been told, is to be resourceful, look for the answer, you may not have the answer. And knowing who to ask, where to go and being really good at that actually helped us a lot. So, resourcefulness is really important and to have as an entrepreneur.
[11:51] Maiko: So, through those pivots, have you been in a situation where you're like, at the brink of giving up? And how did you get out of that? How did you get into the mode of okay, no, let's not give up, there might be still something that we need to find?
[12:04] Chieu: Sure, I have a ton of questions, I like answers, I was told stories about that. So, I'll tell you one story where I think it was the second pivot where we were, so we started out as a Groupon for business, you know, kind of daily deals type of thing that didn't work. And we pivoted to sort of lead gen model for all the big businesses like Pitney Bowes, Sage, what have you. So, we had a community of SMEs and so we were pushing out leads, campaigns for these big companies. And that's how we made our money, more in an agency style. And that was doing okay, we're making of, you know, some money per lead. But what we realized is that it wasn't enough. And that was about a year into the business and we were really burning through a lot of our cash. And at one point, we were down to three months left, in terms of money, so we burn what was 15,000 pounds, roughly in a month to pay our stuff and we had 45K in the bank. So, we're just looking at each other and say, goodness, this is it. This is it, that the air is going to run out the room, and we're just going to be out of breath. There's nothing left.
[13:11] Chieu: And that was hard and what we did was, we just kept going. And we secured a big deal with various other big companies like IZED or what have you. And we struck on a big campaign that really allowed us to, to care, a few hundred thousand pounds, that kind of helped us reach our next milestone, which was securing a much bigger deal with the likes of Worldpay, and what have you, these big enterprise deals, to help build a platform for them. So, that became, our sort of, the pivot that we did, we became a solution provider for large companies, like Worldpay. So, that really was the story of this resilience and just plugging through, we didn't know what we were doing. Honestly, we just knew that we had to keep going, keeping staff morale up was really key. And I filtered out a lot of people, because we tell them, like you're not joining a company with an easy ride or a clear future at all. But what you can expect is a lot of fun, it'll be like a roller coaster, so if you'd like to hang in there and kind of join us for this ride, it's great. And so, we made it and some of those people are still with us today. And that's one of the things I'm really proud of, to go through these journeys. And, there's no such thing as an overnight success, I have to say, it is about, you know, finding your way. And it's only, you as the entrepreneur, the owner of the business that can really do that. Even if someone gives you great advice, it's only great advice if it's successful, right? Otherwise, it's just conversations that people have. And it's only yourself that can really go through and test it out.
[14:51] Maiko: What approach did you take? Did you talk a lot to customers to understand what they really needed? Did you just kind of try to push different products? Did you do like the traditional Lean Startup approach? How did you actually try to validate what you ended up doing?
[15:05] Chieu: That's a good question. So, my co-founder, sort of, his background is more biz dev and sales, my background is marketing. And we both share a love for product. So, we naturally lean more towards selling and getting understand of what the marketplace wants and positioning ourselves first, before building. And that was something that was really helpful for us. Because what we didn't want to do is over engineer something that the marketplace didn't want. And that's one big lesson that I'd say for everyone, pre-sale, you know, sell the dream, you know, get a letter of intent, do what you need to do to mitigate that risk of building the wrong product. Worst thing is to have a product that's built, you invested resources, and nobody wants it, to the degree that you want. There could be some early signals but that's not enough to run a business. So, be really careful about what success looks like. So, when we launched Perkbox, the marketplace drew us in. Like, we realize that in the SME space, there's no one providing a solution like Perkbox, you know, up to finding the employees, but nobody's serving them. They're busy business owners, wanting something to serve their staff, to motivate their staff, and here is Perkbox, great human facing friendly brand that serves their need, technology driven, easy to use, and the market pulled us in.
[16:23] Chieu: So, I think that was a great lesson of just positioning and testing, testing and positioning, very lean, like you say, don't over engineer you over engineer later. It's only now that we have a CTO, and we wish we had it sooner. But still, it's surprising how much we've gone through and succeeded just selling on a basic product that the need is there. So, you got to find your path but don't risk over investing, manage your costs, that burner will kill you. And you don't want to panic and once you start panicking, you make rash decisions and you can't think straight. So, just always hold on to whatever money you have, hire people, outsource as much as you can. I mean, I have a whole checklist of hacks if you want to do, it's a list for another podcast, but happy to help anyone who wants to talk about more about this. But we had to be resourceful and that's really what it is.
[17:15] Maiko: And you mentioned you just hired a CTO recently, is that correct?
[17:19] Chieu: That's right.
[17:20] Maiko: So, how did you all start then, with a non-technical team and having to build some sort of digital product?
[17:26] Chieu: It's hard, it's really hard. And we had to pay within our technical debt, pay our dues in a way, because we were just adding on features on top of features and the old code base, it's a monster, it's like spaghetti code, all over the place. So, it got to a point where, if you imagine all these different pivots that we had in past, we were just laying on code on top, our foundation wasn't stable. But we couldn't afford it because we didn't know what we wanted, either. So, in a way, had we gotten some who's really purest, he would have been pulling his hair out, God figure out what you want, and I'll build for it. The problem is we didn't know what we wanted. And so, in a way, it’s kind of worked out for us, because now we know we want, Brian Shields, XYahoo, we used to work together at Yahoo, incredible man, he knows his stuff, to build something that is robust, scalable and fit for global expansion.
[18:21] Chieu: So, that's the kind of stuff that you bring in the right people, at the right time, in a way, that worked out to our favor. Yeah, so you know, look behind the scenes, it was a mess but we actually we presented a great product solution, we made sure the customers got what we promised. And even though, you know, it was not great code, it got us to where we needed to get to and that was part of managing costs. We could have easily said hey, look, we're going to slow down everything, rebuild the code and you know, years ago, that would have probably killed us, in terms of the burn rate, right. So, we just kept going and chasing the revenue, the next stage of our development, until we know now that this is the right position that we have, this clear product market fit, this really double down. So, in the last few months, we've moved from, we grew from 30 engineers, to over 60 engineers, incredible testament to Paul and his team, in terms of recruiting great talent, selling the story, the vision. And people are joining us, not just because it's great work, it's the great vision that we say we want to do.
[19:24] Maiko: So, in the early days, did you just have a bunch of developers in-house or did you actually outsource some of development and trying to manage it?
[19:31] Chieu: We just, we didn't have many to begin with, I think that's it. We had a few external, but they're not agency so we'd never use agents, and we had remote workers, but they were all part of the business. I think we felt that was important. So, we kept our IP close to us. And it was hard as well to do outsource because I think we didn't know what we wanted, like I said, and in the charges are normally like, if you have an agency saying you guys, you know, for every change, we're going to start charging you. So, we had some really resilient developers who really stuck with us and made the changes that we need, just to make it work.
[20:07] Maiko: Of course, since then, you've come a long way. We've talked about some of those things that you're launching, we talked about Insights and we talked about your mission and your product now, which is quite refined and very far away from what we just talked about, like very defined and very clear. If you're looking at the next 10 or 20 years, what's the sort of world you're trying to create with Perkbox? Well, what are you trying to contribute to, in terms of a big movement in the world that Perkbox might help realize?
[20:34] Chieu: Yeah, good question. So, we, like I said before, at the very beginning, we're a mission driven business. I truly believe that everyone deserves a great work life, a great work experience, and the workplace is where we're going to start, we want to make sure that employees have access to the best benefits and services, and that managers can get them as well and use them in the best way possible. We believe that, you know, life is too short, you know, you don't want to go to work hoping to go home, right or waiting to come home. Because you're so tired of work. And it's not, it's not fair, I think. And so, that's our view of the world and really and that message has this resonated so much with a lot of people who, especially with millennials, current coming online, occupying over 30% of the workforce now. They expect more from the management, they expect more from the business, they expect businesses to have a clear mission and vision. And having, you know, great services, benefits most deserves, not just the financial needs, but the emotional, physical well-being are our basics. They're no longer the things you get when you join a Google or a Facebook, right. Every business should have it. I think that's really what it boils down to. We're trying to democratize access to these great services to our businesses and we realize that business owners are very busy, so we try to help them get this and use this in the best way possible. And we believe the whole world is really the ambition that we want to tackle, we want to give this everyone.
[22:08] Maiko: Thank you very much for joining me today and thanks for sharing your journey, the ups and downs of it and I wish you all the best for the next hundred years.
[22:16] Chieu: Thanks, Maiko, pleasure, thank you very much.