We talk with Ben Peterson, cofounder of BambooHR about their HR software, what their culture is like, and what the future of HR looks like.
Jacob Shriar: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe and today I’m with Ben Peterson who’s the co-founder of BambooHR. Ben, thanks so much for being here with me.
Ben Peterson: Well, thanks for having me.
Jacob Shriar: Awesome. Really so excited to learn more about BambooHR, what you guys do at the company, maybe a little bit about the software itself. I don’t think you guys need a background and some context. Everyone watching this video should know who BambooHR is. It’s pretty popular software, massive list of customers, really, great, great, amazing customers. If you can, maybe, let’s just get started with very, very quickly, high-level, a bit of background about you and how you started BambooHR and the progression over the last six years, if that’s okay? Very, very quickly.
Ben Peterson: Yeah, you bet. We’re kind of just a bunch of technology nerds over here, to be honest. My background is just back in the day working for Omniture. Actually, that’s where I met my co-founder doing some other start-ups. Efficiency is a big deal in software and making sure that you’re building something that’s meaningful. It’s really complicated. You know you hear about spaghetti code and other things that we’re trying to avoid and applying those principles of building, project management, and growth to HR to solve problems. In our experience, we saw huge inefficiencies in HR with some of the paper work, frankly, and how they were tracking data.
We had actually talked about it like this, you’ve got your CFO and companies give their CFOs all the tools in the world that they would need to be a good CFO, so all their financial software and everything else. But it’s not very often that HR is given those same tools, so we wanted to create tools for HR to be better. To free them up to do meaningful work and make the whole experience of HR and the employee much better. In 2008, my partner and I sat down in a room with a white board for three months and just mapped out a whole bunch of different things and chose HR software because of the impact that it has. It just makes all the difference in the world to companies when they can actually have true employee engagement.
So many companies give lip service and there’s actually a lot of statistics that you guys have put out in your infographics around companies saying one thing but the reality is that they do something different. We’re amongst those who don’t just give it lip service and want to really have an impact on the employee experience.
Jacob Shriar: Awesome. Yeah, that’s great. You mentioned something briefly in your answer about how it’s a little bit broken the way that they do things in HR. I’d love for you to dive deeper in that. I want to get your opinion on these things. Can you talk to me a bit about what part of the process is broken? What are they doing wrong? And I guess part two to that answer is if you want, what should they be doing? How should they be doing these things?
Ben Peterson: Great question. It’s interesting in the small of it because there’s not this great, big standard way of doing things. You’ve got your catering company in Texas, you’ve got your private ambulance service in Canada, and you’ve got tech firms. There’s not a standard way, but the consistent way has been using spreadsheets to track data. What happens is, they’ve got different, what we call, data silos, where so so-and-so has the benefit data, so-and-so has the training data, someone’s tracking all the feral data, cobra data, and all the data is in different systems. Trying to go and coordinate and keep all that data up to date and duplicates run rampant for HR, so the thing that they’re doing wrong, it’s not necessarily I’d say, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong,” it’s just that there’s definitely a better way.
As companies grow and that becomes more and more complicated and more and more complex, two, three, four, five employees, you can do it all in a spreadsheet. Ten, fifteen, twenty employees, that’s kind of a pain. Thirty, forty, fifty employees, it’s ridiculous, right? A hundred employees, two hundred employees. We’ve even talked to companies with 1,000 employees and they’re still tracking their data in spreadsheets and every office location has a different version of a document. So just the complexity around the data and keeping it clean and maintaining that data in multiple silos is a big step back and look at where they have all their data and calculate all the time spent taking care of it.
I laugh all the time; an executive will walk in and they’ll say, “Hey, I need this report.” HR scrambles to get all the data, they checked it, double checked it, triple checked it and there are still errors in it because it’s just, frankly, impossible to have that much data and not have errors. So that’s kind of one of the things that we looked at when we started the company and said there’s this huge gap between the spreadsheet that wasn’t built for HR. It was created in 1989. Then you’ve got this enterprise, this heavy enterprise software that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that small medium businesses can’t afford, nor do they need to, so this mentality around what’s just right for the small medium business, what gives them the flexibility, and the customization.
We’ve got companies tracking everything from compliance tracking all the way to what’s your favorite candy bar, so the ability to customize and track things in the system and have it all in one location, secure. Security is another big deal where you’re locking your closet door; you’re locking all your paperwork in a filing cabinet. You’ve got employees using different apps, all kinds of problems where you have data security issues, so solving that for companies as well. Small medium businesses, they’re not security experts. They can’t be expected to keep up to pace with all of the challenges along those lines, so all of those things are kind of the right way getting it in one spot, making it accessible. You shouldn’t have to take three weeks to run a report and get the right data. It should just be a click of a button.
It should be in one central repository. We call ourselves the center of all truth, right? Where of all the different data silos that you have, at least you can trust and know, and frankly trusting data is a huge issue, you can trust and know that at BambooHR, your data is true. That’s kind of how we solved the problem and how we define it as well.
Jacob Shriar: Nice, yeah great answer. That makes a ton of sense. Yesterday I was watching a video. It was you and your co-founder giving a talk at a university class, an entrepreneurship classroom. It was a great talk. It was pretty entertaining. It seemed pretty informal. But towards the end, you said something that sort of hit a nerve with me realistically and I wanted to have a chat with you about it. You mentioned something about basically warning the university students that they should watch what they put on Facebook that employers are looking out for these things.
You told the story about a team that came to see you and you went and did a bit of research on Facebook and you saw that the CTO has either posted a photo of him being really drunk or wrote something like, “Oh, hey, I’m so drunk,” and obviously you said, “How am I supposed to either invest in you guys or spend some time on you guys with that kind of attitude.?” I’m wondering it’s an honest question, it’s an interesting discussion, interesting debate. Should companies really be looking into Facebook pages and social media? Is it their right? Is it their business? Or is it none of their business and if I’m a good employee, what I do on my spare time is not important to you? What are your thoughts there?
Ben Peterson: I think it’s a great, great question. There’s a ton of complexity around it as well and a lot of different ways to approach it. In the context of that specific story, that was around an investment, right? An individual coming and requesting funds to grow a business and watching that behavior, you ask yourself, does it matter what that CTO does in his spare time and how he behaves? Does it matter? I think the answer of does it matters, absolutely, it matters, who a person is that you’re going to invest in. From an employee standpoint as well, you’re also investing in an employee and the employee is investing in you. You talk about work life balance, separating the work and life. Personally, I look at it differently. It’s just a life balance. It’s who you are.
That’s kind of the culture we have here at BambooHR. It’s life balance and personal life comes before work life always. It’s just more important. I say frequently, family first. We have a real culture that we’ve formed around that balance, right? You’re at a start up in its first year and no one is sleeping on their desks here, no one is working 70 or 80 hours a week because that’s not the most important thing. But as you look at the type of person that you want to work with and be engaged with and have passion around, things like integrity, character, passion, honesty, they’re all important. Now does it matter that someone got drunk? Is it more to it than that? Possibly, right. Does it matter? No, for all intents and purpose, no it doesn’t matter.
But how they present themselves, what things are important to them, the way they behave, and the way they treat people is critical. It’s not like you look at one thing from an employer standpoint. It’s not like you look at this one specific aspect of a person because none of us are perfect. People are messy. We’ve all got issues, strengths, and weaknesses. The challenge of the employer is to map those strengths to the company and what you’re trying to accomplish being aware also of potential weaknesses and helping those weaknesses become strengths. Getting a picture of the whole person is important. It’s not the only thing you look at. I also would flip that question to you and say, from the employee standpoint, what is the true intent of the employee going in to work at a place?
We know that there is incredible turnover all around the world with employees. It’s hard to find great talent. Employees are in a spot where they can find great work in a lot of different places. But their intent is not to go to a place and then quit. Their intent is to go and to contribute and to add value to a company and to be fairly compensated for their efforts, but I don’t think the intent of an employee is to deceive and be who they’re not. I would think personally, that there would be a willingness to say, “Yes, this is who I am. Am I the right person to be here?” You don’t want to be somewhere that you’re not. They don’t want to be somewhere where they shouldn’t be. I guess there are two ways I look at it. When an employee comes and sits down to talk to us for a potential position.
I’m not just thinking to myself, can this person fulfill this role for us, but I also think can we fulfill the role for this person. Are we going to fulfill what you need, Jacob? You know what I mean? There’s this two way street. Is there a perfect answer around should you or shouldn’t you and the privacy issue and hey that’s personal, you shouldn’t be aware of those personal things. It’s none of your business. Sure, absolutely. But if I’m going to interview for a position, I’d want them to know who I am. There are things that I don’t want them to know. But if I’m putting things out there on Facebook for my neighborhood to see, for the whole world to see, should they not be able to see it as well if it’s there? Part of the issue with the students was you’re going out there, be smart and be professional because no matter what, it reflects on you.
If you come into an interview and I start asking you questions that you answer in a way that shows you’re not a fit and that’s really who you are, then you’re not a fit. So I think looking at the whole picture is difficult and certain things are important in different roles, right? Are you trusting this person who on Facebook might imply that they lie that they cheat, and they steal, and I’m going to put them in a position of trust with financial data or empower them to move funds? There’s more complexity around it, I think, than they appear. At the same time, I’m not a big fan of pettiness and people whining about different stuff. If you want to work here, who are you really?
Let’s go to work kind of a thing. “I don’t even know who I really am or whatever.” I’m like, “Well, don’t come.” But it’s never just one thing that we look at. It’s a whole package. And again, no one is perfect that everyone has their holes. It’s a challenge to map talents to both needs that you have and the people component, because again, people by nature are just messy. Long answer to a short question, but I hope that helps a little.
Jacob Shriar: No, it did. That was a good answer. For sure, it’s a very interesting question. I don’t know if your answer was right or wrong. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, to be honest. It’s a discussion that I have a lot internally with some coworkers. The root of our discussion, or the real theme, is do you need to be two different people? Do you really need to have a personal life and a profession life? Or can you blend those two? Do you need to kind of be the suit and tie and act all proper when you’re at work? Or can you talk the way you would normally talk with friends when you’re at work? As an employer, do you want to set up a culture where you’re encouraging everyone to be themselves? I don’t know. Like I said, it’s an insanely tricky question, insanely tough question. We talk about this stuff all day long, literally.
I don’t think we’ve ever come up with the answer, in all honestly. I don’t know. The original question that I asked you, I’m kind of on the side of A, you won’t be able to get the full, total picture just looking at my Facebook page so it might be a very twisted view, what you see. Maybe my friends and me, we like to go out and drink so there happens to always be drunken photos of me. There aren’t, just FYI, but it’s possible. And you said it in your answer, you hit it right on the head, the ideal situation is to get the whole picture of the guy. What are his skills? What are his flaws? I mean, everyone has flaws. Everyone gets drunk too. I’m sure me and you both have had nights where we’ve gotten, you know. Like I said, I’m rambling at this point, but it’s a very, very tricky, very interesting question. I wanted to ask you about it because you had kind of brought it up. Anyways, it’s not worth rambling on about it.
Ben Peterson: I think that you’re right. I think it really just depends on the role, the position, and the person. Again, people are complex. Personalities are unique. A lot of really talented people. Different strengths and weaknesses and trying to map that to a position and recruit for a role that’s important. As an employer, I would think I’d want to know everything I possibly could about who I’m picking.
On the flip side, companies do sometimes a bad job of putting their best foot forward. What’s the message that they’re putting through to the world saying here’s who we are when they say one thing? Say, we care about the employee, we’re going to treat you right, and then it’s the complete opposite and they’ve got 50% annual turnover. The employer wants to find out about the employee, frankly, employees could do a lot more, candidates could do a lot more diving into learning about the culture they’re about to join, about the company that they’re going to join and companies can hide that as well. It’s a two way street.
Jacob Shriar: Yeah, that’s actually a really good point. That’s why I’m such a big fan of a website, for example, like Glass Door, where you can really get a nice review from people into what it’s really like there. LinkedIn’s a good tool. But you’re right; people should be doing a better job. It’s not fair to place all the blame on the companies. You’re right; a lot of companies have buzz words galore. Every company is innovative. Like you said, they should probably be a little more honest and truthful about who they are if they want candidates and employees to be honest and truthful about who they are. Anyways, let’s move on. I want to learn more about the culture at BambooHR. I want to learn more about what it’s like to work there. Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the cool things you guys do? What’s the happiness level like? What’s the culture there like? What’s it like to work there?
Ben Peterson: When we first started, first of all, product and the customer experience is the priority here. There’s a lot of passion around making sure that that experience for HR, even the name BambooHR, it’s flexible, it scales, it’s used in many ways, fastest growing plant in the world. There’s also this kind of feeling around the word “bamboo,” kind of the sense like bring calm and peace to chaos type of a feel. The culture is reflective of that. We started to get this feedback from companies and we didn’t go out and raise millions of dollars and go market, market, and market. We grew kind of organically and we find ourselves with all of these great, great companies. Everybody knows who they are, the Pinterest of the world, the Fabs.
We started getting all this feedback, so one of the things that we thrive on, we call it Bamboo Love. On our blog, we share customer comments. I don’t think you’ll find another HR software out there with more online feedback, just sharing with who we are and how we serve the client and what we do. A lot of how we measure our happiness is around that customer love and growth and making sure that we continue to focus on that. We also spent a lot of time and made a mammoth effort, frankly, to create our brand values and our voice and making sure that the employees all know what that is, sharing the brand book with them around our mission. We set people free to do great work. It’s not just HR that we impact, but we impact the employee too and you think around the pain that an employee has.
The employee is the customer of HR. It’s a lot of pain in just trying to get information from HR. How many paid vacation days do I have? When do you need my benefit information? How do I complete this training? There’s a lot of time that’s being wasted in the back and forth, so empowering the employee to do a lot of those things on their own. So we kind of empower the whole company to be better and more efficient. Here’re a couple of our brand values. Enjoy quality of life, that’s important for us, grow from a degree [SP], be open, assume the best, and do the right thing. And being open and assuming the best, again, it’s hard to be in a work environment, you’re not perfect, you make mistakes, and you’re going to get told, there’s a better way to do that so being open and being able to admit mistakes, for example.
Here’s one thing that we do. We have what’s called the “Oopsie Email”. If we make a mistake, and this actually came from a book that I recommend called “The Checklist Manifesto” and it was a guy who went into hospitals and realized that a lot of the errors that were made that caused people to increase mortality rates, extended stays at hospitals, it was just these simple mistakes, like washing hands or going over what the procedure was, where you need to cut, just simple things that everyone knows. They’re really simple and everyone knows, but they just weren’t doing them. They would have these checklists and part of that would involve sharing mistakes so that everyone in the organization knew the mistakes that were being made, added them to the checklist, and avoided those mistakes in the future.
Just this simple process of having a doctor be willing to listen to a nurse around this order or check, check, we’ve got all these things taken care of. The impact was phenomenal. Along that line of sharing mistakes so that they’re not made again, we have the “Oops Email.” So someone will make a mistake, a code gets uploaded and there’s some bugs, something happens, or a marketing piece goes out with the wrong messaging to the wrong people or just anything that happens, mistakes made, internally, anything. They send out an “Oops Email” that says this is what happened, this is why it happened, this is what I did, this is what I should have done, this is what I learned, etcetera, this just goes to the whole company. It’s really interesting. At first we kind of wanted to invite that behavior so we would do it.
So now we get those unsolicited where the employee themselves are sending those out and everybody learns. People feel free. Nobody walks around with a bulls eye on their back like, “Oh crap, if I make a mistake, I’m going to get fired”, but no, if I make a mistake, I can share it, and we’re all smarter for it. It’s just kind of, just one little thing, one little habit, and kind of rolls and extends along a lot of different paths. It impacts morale and it changes the way people think. Another thing we do is we don’t limit the amount of time that our support reps are allowed to spend on the phone. So they might take 45 minutes to an hour with a client trying to solve a problem and help. They don’t feel pressured to get off of the phone, take care of it real fast, and churn and burn.
That’s had a good impact too because they know that our clients come first and we care. I shared some of the values and character traits that define us as people and define our brand. We’re human. We’re simple. We try and create and design really simple software. We try to keep our internal processes simple. We don’t want to add complexity to something that doesn’t need it. We’re very inclusive and a lot of flexibility in how we solve problems. Then, the third thing is not just how we communicate with our clients but how we communicate to each other internally. We’re candid. We’re conversational and we’re confident. We’re caring and frankly sometimes we’re just playful. We like to have fun as well. We definitely, definitely try to live the brand at Bamboo.
I think it always starts with the culture you’ve started from the day you opened your doors. I don’t think that this is something that will ever end or we’ll stop talking about. All the data is there to support why this is important but some people just don’t do it because it’s intangible. People are worried about driving revenue and new product innovation and all those other things. They’re also important but I think that they forget that this is the foundation of that is the culture of the company. We’re pretty thoughtful about it. Yeah. I hope that answers your question.
Jacob Shriar: Absolutely, yeah. Wow, it sounds like such an incredible place to work. That’s really, really great. My last question for you, before we go, and this is something that I really want to get your opinion on because I feel like you would have a really interesting take on it. You’ve been in the HR business for six years now. There’s been a ton of change, I guess, in the last six years, much more focus on company culture, much bigger emphasis on engagement and happiness levels, a lot more research coming out on this and that. The whole HR industry itself is getting bigger, better, smarter, etcetera. I’d love to get your predictions about where you think this is going and the future. What do you think the future of HR looks like? It’s a crazy question. I apologize for such a wild question but I feel like you would have an interesting take on this one. What are your thoughts?
Ben Peterson: That’s a great question. So traditionally, the enterprise is quicker to adopt technology. They’re just more tech savvy. Part of the disruption that’s occurring is where the Hyatt costs, historically, have shrunk so much and you’ve got so much more accessibility to great technology that HR is becoming smarter and smarter and smarter. I remember early on I had a call with a head of HR and I explained what we did and the response was, “Well if you do that, what will I do?” And there was this kind of fear of “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” It was interesting because I know that HR people did not go into HR for data administration and data entry and pushing paper. They went in because they care about people.
I think as that technology triples from the enterprise and what we see now on our growth, obviously, it’s there. We’re here. There’s technology to pretty much do and automate every part of HR from e-signatures that we do on on-boarding all the way from hire to fire, all the way through extermination, it’s there. The technology is there. Companies are more and more adopting that technology. I think the role of HR is going to change. It’s actually going to be what it was meant to be: to focus on people, to focus on culture, strategically impact the business as it grows, mapping out roles and responsibilities, training, and employee engagement. You guys have some great info graphics over there about bad bosses, good bosses, bad employees, and good employees.
If you take HR and their talents and say I want you to focus on, the next six months we’re going to train our managers. Imagine the impact that that’s going to have on the business. The data, the big data is going to tie the behavior to real dollars. There’s a challenge with HR and I think is one of the reasons that a CFO may not look at it that closely, because there’s a challenge in tying the role of HR with dollars. What impact does this have at my bean counter? What impact does this have on my balance sheet, income statement, or financials? I think in the future, you’ll find data that’s going to back that behavior up. HR will never ever be able to handle data entry again because they’ll never have to. It’ll all be automated and streamlined. They’ll actually have a much more enjoyable role, in my opinion. You’re going to see across the board, you’re seeing change now in performance.
HR, hey we’re doing annual performance review in 360. Well those don’t work. HR hates them. Employees hate them. Managers hate them. We talk about goals once and you hear about it again at the end of the year, never brought up in between. We’ve seen big companies drop performance reviews. We’ve seen monumental shifts in everything from benefits and how they track to manage benefits to time sheets. It’s just getting better and better. As long as HR keeps up to take advantage of those that make sense, you’re going to read a best practice paper, that doesn’t mean that that’s the best practice for your organization. HR is going to get much better at really specifically defining what their needs are, meeting those needs, and getting incrementally better, better, and better.
I love the attention on the space because the impact is big for everyone especially employees, especially the quality of life of employees, and businesses will just be better. I think that you’re going to see technology change a ton, but I think you’ll see a lot of emphasis in HR on learning ways rather than figure out how to move data around or run a report. They’re actually going to be able to truly develop and engage employees and engage people.
Jacob Shriar: Very, very interesting. Hopefully that prediction comes true. I guess we’ll end it here. But honestly, Ben, I just want to thank you so much for taking some time to chat with me. This was a lot of fun. There were some tough questions, some good questions. Hopefully we can do this again sometime soon.
Ben Peterson: No, my pleasure, Jacob. Thanks for having me, man. I appreciate it.
Jacob Shriar: All right, great. Take care.
Ben Peterson: All right, bye-bye.
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