Interview with Joseph Fung (TribeHR)
TribeHR is a social human resources management tool for small to medium businesses.
I interviewed Joseph Fung, TribeHR co-founder to find out more. This is the hundred and tweentieth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Joseph!
How would you describe TribeHR in under 50 words?
TribeHR make HR frictionless and fun for both employees and managers. It’s the first and only Social HR Platform to offer a fully integrated suite of tools – you can use TribeHR to run your entire HR process from a careers page to performance reviews.
You co-founded TribeHR with two colleagues: Jesse Rodgers and Stephen Heron. How did you meet and what roles do you each take?
Jesse and I met at a workshop where, with a group of local entrepreneurs and executives, we explored a number of business ideas. Jesse and I clicked over one particular thread – the impact of social tools on HR – and continued digging into it after the workshop. We soon after folded Stephen into the conversation (I had worked with him before at my previous startup) and things took off from there. With just the three of us, our initial roles were pretty stereotypical for an early-stage startup: Stephen took point on customer relationships, Jesse on product design and I was the lead on development.
What made you decide to start working on TribeHR?
If I had to distill it down to a moment, it would have been during our first customer development interview. You see, the original motivation behind TribeHR was very employee-centric – the run-of-the-mill HR processes people follow so often leave employees feeling powerless, and we imagined a world where employees have far more control over their own information and HR experience. This was a lofty and admirable goal, but did not necessarily imply there was a business to be made. Our early interviews with prospective business customers, however, were so strongly positive that we quickly realized that the frustrations felt by employees were perfectly mirrored by managers. It was that realization – that we would be able to build a solution that solved the pain on both sides – that really kicked us into gear.
Who came up with the name?
The naming process came out of a session that was run with the early team (there were 7 of us). Although it was a collaborative effort to pick the name and characteristics, the original suggestion came from Jesse.
What’s perhaps more revealing, however, is what spurred us to pick the name – we were lined up to demonstrate our earliest prototype at a DemoCamp when we realized that our project codename, Flypaper (think “attract and hold onto the best talent”), didn’t carry the best connotations. We had little more than a couple of days to pick the new name, update the product, and redo our site before the demo. The name was definitely a case of delivering under pressure.
What technologies have you used to build TribeHR?
Our core is a PHP+MySql stack, although we have deployment and helper scripts in Ruby. Our core app is hosted in a private cloud environment, but we use AWS for some storage, development and testing components. For continuous integration, we use Jenkins + Git + Capistrano + Puppet, plus some nice homebrewed translation layers from Gherkin to SimpleTest.
What was the most challenging part of developing TribeHR?
It was, and continues to be, the UX design process. When you are literally re-designing legacy HR workflows to be more employee-focused, you end up iterating frequently over very beefy UX challenges. Since we see the UX as a critical component for long-term success, I don’t see our workload lessening on this front any time soon.
Has your initial vision changed since launch?
Although the long-term vision has barely deviated, it is fair to say that our understanding of HR challenges and its marketplace have become more nuanced. First, we have a much better appreciation for the specific pain points that employees and managers deal with on a daily basis, and we now do a much better job at monitoring in-app activity, and using that data to inform our design process. Second, since our launch, the demand for mobile solutions in the HR space has continued to grow, and so our roadmap has had to evolve to accommodate.
Last year was a busy year! You raised $1m in seed financing from Matrix Partners, were named one of Canada’s 20 most innovative companies by CIX, and were the “judges’ choice” in the Talent 2.0 category at the Under The Radar event in Silicon Valley. What are the main factors that have gotten you to this point?
I don’t think I could point at any one thing, but if I had to narrow the list, I’d point to a lot of the usual suspects:
1. We came to the problem from the customers’ perspective and built a tool they wanted,
2. We put thoughtful design at the top of our development priority list,
3. And we assembled a team that iterates quickly and values data-driven decision making
Building an incredible product typically isn’t hard because of some esoteric algorithm or proprietary magic – it’s hard because of the diligence and determination required to stick to your guns on delivering a product customers will want and use. We’re lucky in that we were able to build a team that understands this.
Do you have any new features in the pipeline?
2012 is going to be a very exciting year for us – we launched v1 of our application in 2011 and we spent much of the year ensuring we had the minimal viable product properly fleshed out. Now that we’re beyond that step, 2012 will be all about building on those successes – you’ll see a doubling down on our social features as well as additional data-driven features. For example, the first of these was launched in February this year, when we added in the ability to link employee performance to company values – I can’t give specifics, but you’ll see more exciting work like this.
What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?
This is a particularly difficult question as the list is far too long for me to get down. However, if I had to pick the lesson that I was most surprised to learn, it would be that the right board does wonders for a business and CEO. It’s generally recognized that the board holds the CEO accountable, but what’s not always appreciated is that a great board will help a CEO focus, grow, and think. With TribeHR I’m fortunate enough to be working with spectacular board members, and every time we meet (in a board meeting or otherwise) they help me focus on what matters for the business, find new areas of professional development, and look at problems in new ways.
Has TribeHR got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?
Absolutely – what’s most satisfying is that we see more and more thanks and kudos from the employees of our customers. The purchaser of our software is typically a business leader or HR professional, so it’s incredibly uplifting to see their employees take to Twitter, Facebook, or even email to say great things about TribeHR. That being said, every time we blow through a milestone, we raise the bar so our expectations are a moving target.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor?
In 98% of our customer installations we’re replacing MS Excel or nothing – that’s a formidable challenge. You could actually say that our biggest competitor is apathy or the status quo. What’s extremely exciting to watch, however, is the difference the social component makes – when deploying an HR system the administrators are the most active users (as expected) but what’s fascinating to watch is that by the time a company has been using TribeHR for 4 or 5 months, the average employee is busier than the average administrator. We’ve built a system that creates a self-sustaining culture of recognition and employee ownership – that’s something Excel can’t give you.
With your background in startups, what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?
Talk to customers. This simple suggestion applies at all stages of the business. I see too many startup founders get excited by an idea and start to execute before speaking with the people that will (hopefully) eventually buy their product. When we started TribeHR, we started with the goal of talking to 100 potential customers – the approach helped us frame our product and our business in ways that saved us months of iteration and changes. Similarly, I see too many founders get early traction, then staff up and hire sales people, essentially giving themselves permission to stop talking to customers. This is a quick recipe for losing sight of the market, and needs to be avoided. Above all else, talk to customers.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
Get me on a roll and you’ll end up hearing me talk about “small data” – I can’t do justice to how exciting this space is.
Historically, the biggest barrier preventing HR from making strategic decisions was access to the right information in a timely manner, and while one might think the solution is to dig through a big data set, the real insights come from a narrow and highly diverse data set. Because we can connect your hiring sources, to performance, salary history and engagement, we can help our customers uncover incredible insights.
This approach, taking a big-data analysis perspective to a small and diverse data set, lets us do things like recognize the quiet underdog that is quietly making a massive impact, or identify potential engagement issues before they hit a breaking point. We build HR tools, but small data means we’re actually in the business of helping managers be better managers.
Can you convince the reader to start using TribeHR in under 50 words?
Rather than having me persuade you, just give it a spin! The best way to make that decision is to start a free trial – the signup is a two-field form, and I know you’ll be blown away with how fast and fresh HR can be.
Finished reading? Check out TribeHR!