Podcast Ep 113: Workvivo co-founder and CTO Joe Lennon talks about how the scaling Cork business became a pioneer for employee engagement.
Cork is home to a growing coterie of young businesses that are already making waves globally. You could think of Pat Phelan’s Sisu Clinic expanding in America, or the global success of Teamwork as a productivity platform for businesses the world over, not to mention how UCC spin-out Keelvar is helping giants like Coca-Cola overcome supply chain complexities.
And then there’s Workvivo, a young company that could be synonymous with the world of work in the coming decade.
“It’s not just about retaining people, but how do you actually create a culture where people feel like they’re making a really positive impact at work and they feel really connected to the place they are working. And that’s where it all began”
Founded by John Goulding and Joe Lennon, the Douglas-based company has developed an internal communications platform to increase employee engagement.
Workvivo has since won the backing of Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan and is creating 100 new jobs in Cork.
Joe Lennon talked with Thinkbusiness about the highs and lows of entrepreneurial life and how starting Workvivo with his former colleague was a turning point in his professional life.
A kind of magic
The interesting thing about the business is the two founders previously worked together for several years at a company called Core HR. Lennon had left to found his first start-up SubWoofer and unfortunately it didn’t work out.
“I was in a place where I didn’t really have any interest starting another company. To be frank it was a tough journey. John was coming off the back of a very different story; he had stayed on at Core HR and became its chief executive and guided it through to its acquisition by a US private equity company.
“But the second we caught up there was an energy there and we knew we just wanted to collaborate on something. We didn’t know what it was, all we knew was that we wanted to collaborate on something.”
Bonded by mutual respect, the founders wrote down their founding principles. “We knew it was going to be a software company, we knew it would target mid-to-large enterprises rather than SMEs and we knew we wanted to have a crack at it and enjoy it.
“And we knew that we wanted to validate whatever we were going to build in America before we ever really launched. So that’s exactly what we did.”
Numerous ideas were tested and jettisoned. “We knew there were problems in the HR space around recruitment, talent management and performance management and our own experiences after we left our previous roles was around employee engagement. That was where it was all going?
“It’s not just about retaining people, but how do you actually create a culture where people feel like they’re making a really positive impact at work and they feel really connected to the place they are working. And that’s where it all began.”
Lennon and Goulding’s timing was impeccable. They weren’t to know a global pandemic was just around the corner that would also spawn a workplace revolution centred around remote working, hybrid working and the resultant upheaval known as the Great Resignation as people wanted more from their working lives.
The pressure is now on HR managers all over the world retain talent by keeping employees engaged and excited. You could say Workvivo was born for a perfect storm.
Speaking with ThinkBusiness, Lennon’s foray into entrepreneurship, although not initially successful, was formative. “I learned a lot about myself, probably more about myself than I’ve probably ever learned in any other period of my life and you know it was just an 18-month window. One of the things I learned was that I never wanted to be a CEO.”
At his core Lennon is a product person. “When I met John again we started floating the idea of working together and it just clicked. Between the two of us we knew we had all of the ingredients you need to get a successful software business off the ground. John can articulate a vision incredibly succinctly and people get it.”
Work’s new centre of gravity
I put it to Lennon that Workvivo is like the glue that keeps colleagues and companies communicating. “The phrase we like to use is ‘centre of gravity for community and organisation’. There are tools everywhere for different kinds of communication, from real-time chat to video conferencing. But how do you bring that together in a cohesive way?
“We’re more people centric in the platform rather than being necessarily content centric or technology centric. And I think that’s been critical to the success of the platform, especially when we go to prospective customers and show them the platform – they instantly get it and can see what it’s going to do for their organisation.”
The shift to remote working and hybrid working had already begun before the pandemic. “But it was taking like 10 to 15 years to happen. And it probably would have gone on like that for another 10 years before we would see the rate of change that we saw in the space of the first three months of the pandemic.”
But rather than just solve immediate problems, the rapid transition created a new set of problems around keeping people on the same page in the midst of a range of tools and channels. And interestingly, traditional channels like emails and intranets, remained afloat in a sea full of other islands like Slack, Teams, Trello, Monday.com and others.
“For us it was about how do you create a contextual experience to each individual person where it’s actually stuff they care about.
“It’s about creating experiences that makes people’s working lives easier and to the extent where they feel in control of it and want to own it. And those two things have aligned very closely and played well into our favour. We’re building technology and we’re focused on the future of work and how an employee experience is actually going to look.”
I put it to Lennon that having the founder of Zoom Eric Yuan come aboard as investor months before the pandemic must have been a great vote of confidence for the founders of Workvivo? “When we first met Eric we didn’t know what to expect and we weren’t looking for an investor. We were just happy to meet him because Zoom was massively successful. We were thinking maybe Zoom could be a partner. So we told him our story and what we were trying to do and what our purpose was. And his question at the end of that conversation was literally ‘how do we invest?’. And that was that.”
It’s hard to really describe the world we are in as post-pandemic just yet, and many organisations are still working and operating remotely and expect to do so for the foreseeable.
Values and purpose
Lennon believes the future of work isn’t so much about location or organisational theory. It’s about motivation. “I think people like to know that what they are doing is having a meaningful impact, that what they do moves the needle in terms of how a company is doing or the direction the company is going in. And they want to be able to see that directly and I think that is one of the things we’ve been able to deliver with Workvivo.
“One of the things that comes through is how it shines a light on values and purpose. It is about creating a positive environment and positive experiences. People like to congratulate colleagues on successes and they are linking it back to the values of their companies in terms of what they are trying to achieve.
“Yes the Great Resignation is a big thing. But what we are seeing is companies really start to look at themselves and ask why would someone want to leave here. What is our culture, do we have a strong and open and transparent culture or is it a very closed culture where people don’t feel connected?
“That has definitely impacted where the product is going and where the company is going next.”
Growing Workvivo into a strong and successful business is one thing. For Goulding and Lennon it is about building a strong company out of Cork. “I love it here and I love working from here. The pace can be slower in that you’re not stuck in traffic every day, but we still have access to everything that we need. We can hop on a flight and be in central London within an hour and a half.”
One thing that’s missing from the Cork ecosystem, Lennon believes, is a closer entrepreneurial community within the city as many of the young businesses are scattered around the suburbs and county of Cork. “But a lot of investment is happening in the city right now and we’re starting to see a shift back into the city.”
But he also realises it’s a fine balance and doesn’t want to see Cork fall into the same housing and affordability issues as Dublin.
In conclusion, Lennon says Workvivo is focused on growing its team and its core product. “We have plenty of growth to achieve yet and we’re building our team and continuing to invest in our product It’s about how can we make this particular product be a successful as we possibly can.”