Former Vice President, Strategic Accounts
Former Vice President, Strategic Accounts at Unily
This executive has been working in and around the field of technology for "employee experience" for over three decades. He spent just over a year at Unily as Vice President, Strategic Accounts where was involved in reorganising the sales and marketing organisation and repositioning Unily's product. Prior to this he was involved with enterprise SaaS business Social Chorus as Executive leader of the EMEA operations. The executive has also held a number of senior roles at Microsoft, Path Intelligence and Movvo.Read moreView Profile Page
Disclaimer: This interview is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a basis for investment decisions. In Practise is an independent publisher and all opinions expressed by guests are solely their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of In Practise.
I’d love to hear about your background, how you got into Unily’s SharePoint world, and what you’re up to these days, broadly, before we go into more detail.
Absolutely. I’ve been in and around what we would now call employee experience for a long time. In the 90s, I built an intranet at Lehman Brothers, and I was quoted in the Financial Times as having built the first intranet in the city of London, which was a bit grand. But ever since then, I've been in and around that space of technology in general. Then in 2017, a friend of mine – I used to work at Netscape – Gary Nakamura, the CEO of a company called SocialChorus, asked if I would launch Europe for them. That was me getting back neck-deep into employee experience again for the first time in a while.
He wanted a European presence as part of a funding round he was doing. As we got into what the environment looked like and what the addressable market looked like in Europe and the Middle East, it quickly picked up speed. I spent a lot of time on the business strategy for executing an employee experience startup in the European marketplace; a lot of time in San Francisco. It was really fascinating. I'm sure we'll talk more about the mobile, kind of Instagram, version of that play, and how that fits. Seeing SocialChorus and Dynamic Signal getting into bed together right now changes that landscape.
When we shut down SocialChorus in Europe, the company was so close to bankruptcy it's incredible where they've got to from now. Henry Kravis, from KKR, owned them, and he was desperate to sell out. The short version of that is it broke down, they ended up dumping 60% of the workforce and we closed Europe. But they’re back on their feet now and in good shape. At that point, I did the rounds. I spent quite a lot of time with Facebook. I had a good look at a couple of the other mobile players, particularly Beekeeper, but also Smarp, and Staffbase.
It's a different model, but WorkJam is gaining popularity, but it seems like they are different as they have a lot of their own apps that they push through for scheduling, payments and other things.
Did the SAP product have a name similar to WorkJam?
I think so.
Was it SAP Jam? I wonder if that's a buyout of that? They weren't a player when I was in that space. That must be very new. SAP Jam was, I guess, a dying player at the time, and something that they tried, really staff-based, became the front end of most of the stuff they were doing. But no, I don't know them well, at least. I got into bed with Unily. There was someone I knew from the old days from the bank, BNP Paribas, called Jo Skilton. She’s the chief commercial officer there. It was around a strategic repositioning of Unily. Unily, Beezy, and Simpler and, I wouldn’t include LiveTiles in that, but those companies, and to some extent LumApps, are in many ways the same company. They have 200 employees, probably between $20 million and $30 million a year. They've got either a big bet on Office 365 or Google Workspace as a platform, and they've all got between 80 to150 customers. As you said at the top of the call, that can't continue. It doesn't make any sense. Potentially, Viva blows all of that up, but it’s difficult to see.
I think trust and confidence in Microsoft as a comms platform is quite low. I think the only way Viva wins is if – as a lot of people are predicting – the collaboration end rather than the comms end becomes how people access services like that. Particularly with Slack as part of SalesForce, that's a reasonable perspective. To say, within my Slack environment or my Teams environment, I'm going to access stuff like personal development and training and benefits and wellbeing, and all that stuff. Then I guess Viva becomes prominent, and companies like Unily and others probably fade away. I'll go into some detail in a minute about what we built while I was there, which was getting a mobile channel to work and getting a different approach around sales.
Being an Australian tech firm is tough; however many offices you own and open, it's already difficult. I know LiveTiles is in the middle of the wheelhouse you’re working on but what they did that was interesting was they equipped big teams of SharePoint developers with a continuing role inside the enterprise. In contrast, LumApps, Beezy, Simpler, Unily, all of those players would be like, you don’t need developers anymore. That was the pitch. This is an intranet. It's a service. You've just got to configure it. It's a single pane of glass on everything inside the enterprise, and so on; different play. LiveTiles never looked to me like their transaction value would be in a place that made it super sustainable in the very long term, but it wasn’t intimate enough with what they were doing.
The idea of components, pieces and fragments of code that you plug together was the journey on which most of these companies have been. Unily, for example, when it was called BrightStarr, was a straight-up SharePoint consulting firm. That was probably the first five or six years of its life. Over the course of those five or six years, they had developed a lot of code, a lot of the best ways of integrating different bits of Office, bringing other bits of technology used around the business into one place. How to do the social pieces that WorkPlace did a good job of with groups, communities, newsfeeds, and those kinds of bits and pieces. They'd said we've got all of this; we're going to pull it off a SharePoint backend and build it as a standalone Azure function and came to market with it.
It did very well for a while; really big projects. Up to when I was leaving, the biggest program that I'd been working on, personally, was basically how could you turn on something as complex as EY, the consulting firm which had 400,000 users? Unily was good for that because I wasn't trying to do any code. I was supporting languages and different interfaces and turning something on that could act as a layer above many, many different enterprise systems that people were using and doing a pretty good job of what people had the rights to and permissions to.
Whereas if I’d been using other products, potentially LiveTiles, there would have been quite a lot of coding and dev to do in there, depending on the environment you were landing in. But what's the most helpful thing I can do on the call, from your perspective?
I think that’s super helpful, and I think as I understand LiveTiles’s journey, the original LiveTiles product, was a skin that went over SharePoint in terms of prettying it up. Making SharePoint sexy, I think, was their original slogan. Then Modern came, and that forced them to provide more than just a nice user interface. That's when they kind of went on an acquisition spree. They bought Wizdom. They bought CYCL. I think with those products, it was more about functionality and a different content management system. Now you have Microsoft announcing Viva. My understanding of Viva, and LiveTiles understanding as well, is that in many ways, Viva is just a repackaging of what's already there, and they haven't actually addressed the issues, which are that SharePoint itself is a poor content management system for comms workers. For somebody managing comms at a 400,000 person organization, there are many things; it’s prettier to use Modern, and Viva has some cool stuff, but they don't address the main issues that a comms employee might have. I'm curious what your thoughts are on that.
Let’s unpack that a little bit. If I looked at the market as a whole, there have been multiple whole areas of functionality arriving in one place. All of the players have come from one of them, and they've tried to put the clothes on of the rest. There's a comms platform, I guess a classic intranet piece, which has been evolving and has arrived now. The word intranet is kind of derided. People go to sleep when you say that word out loud, so usually, you say digital workplace and things like that. There are collaboration platforms and all of the Slack or Teams pieces. There are social and all of the Facebook Workplace things, and there's mobile. And everyone will say, oh, I can just turn the other ones on, and Microsoft will say you can do all of those from one place.
The piece you've just touched on, which is the experience of the communicator, is a critical problem for a lot of those platforms. Microsoft; awful. Having the web forms that I can fill in, a heading, upload a photo, put some text in, and so on, hasn't evolved inside SharePoint or Viva, as far as I can tell, since, like, 1995. The experience is pretty much the same. If I compare it to the one area that SocialChorus won on, and it's extraordinary to me that other people didn't pick this up, was the experience of the head of comms. For instance, with some projects we did there, like Vodaphone, which has 130,000 employees and operates in 150 countries, it's about the ability of the head of comms to see what is going on across the enterprise as different things are rolled out.
So it ended up with a kind of calendar view where I could see three-dimensionally, using the interface, what was going on, and all the different operating divisions and regions; what kind of comms were going out, what was in video, what was in links, what was a story, what was an announcement, and so on. There were many analytics coming back to me about how different people in different parts of the organization were responding. But also, I wasn't trying to land eight things in one day, whereas there's no concept of that in most of the platforms that I've seen since. Certainly not in Unily, certainly not in LumApps, and definitely not in Microsoft. It's a critical fail because, in general, it's still the head of comms making decisions, except when I'm buying Microsoft. One of the downsides of being corporate affairs or internal comms is that I tend to get what I'm given as far as platforms to use. So IT has said, hey, we've done an enterprise license agreement with Microsoft, and we've bought Windows and Office 365, and they gave us SharePoint Modern. And they probably gave us Teams, so that’s what you’re going to use for your global internal comm strategy.
So, for most of those companies, there's a pretty easy entry point. Well, there's an obvious open door, which is to come and point out to the person that's the global head of internal comms that look, everyone else at your level in the business has their tools. You go and talk to the guy that runs finance, and he's got everything under the sun that he's using to run the company. You talk to manufacturing; they've got ERP systems or warehouse management or whatever it is. You talk to sales guys. They've got CRM and all this other stuff. The person at internal comms has probably got Outlook, and they're still sending a bunch of emails to people around the business, and they’ve got Teams. And maybe they’ve got SharePoint Modern, although the experience of using those platforms is not great. That usually means that I'm reaching a very small number of people inside the company, and I don't have any analytics to demonstrate what I'm contributing.
So when I go to the board meeting or meet the CEO, I don't have much I can show. I can't get to most people in the company because when they're at their desk, they don't look at their laptop for anything other than the work that they're doing. They don't go browsing the intranet. The only chance I’ve got to get to those people is to get to their cellphone, and if I get to their cellphone, presumably they've opened the SharePoint mobile app, and as with a lot of those apps, all they do is immediately close it again.