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The 33rd in our special series of interviews with leaders of unicorn companies recorded in partnership with European PR Agency, Tyto, and their Without Borders podcast.
Russell Goldsmith and co-host, Tyto’s Senior Partner, Holly Justice were joined online from San Francisco by Larry Gadea, Founder and CEO of the workplace platform Envoy. Founded in 2013, the company reached unicorn status in January 2022 with a valuation of $1.4 billion.
Larry explained that Envoy built a workplace platform that’s designed to make good experiences within the workplace fun and easy when thinking about efficiency within the working environment. There is a strong focus on analytics and getting all the different systems hooked up and Envoy is front and centre in this space.
In his heart, Larry has always been an engineer and when everyone else was at school he was at home on his computer writing different scripts and that’s where he got into reverse engineering of software. He developed a skill set that eventually ended up being useful when Google launched ‘Google Desktop Search’. He used this to make it search his ‘WordPerfect’ files which caught the attention of Google and resulted in Google asking Larry to build that for them in addition to a host of other work. He ran into an issue as he was 17 at the time and couldn’t leave Canada due to visa issues. However, Larry eventually made it work and he was at Google for 4 years after which he joined Twitter when they were only around 40 employees and he brought lots of ideas to them in the 3 years he was at the company.
He noticed Google had a very buttoned-up system around their meeting rooms, around space management and around mapping. So when no one was in a meeting room they released that room and allowed new people to book it so they had a different way of detecting room usage and had a whole visitor experience put together. This made him think why Twitter wasn’t doing the same thing as they would let anyone walk in with no security. He ended up building the original version of their visitor management products and it took off everywhere. Envoy today has got 6,000-7,000 customers and almost 20,000 workplaces around the world active with that technology.
The next step is bringing this concept of businesses being more thoughtful and efficient when they have products to operate their workspaces. Following Covid, many people are now working from home and some are also heading back to the office a few times a week on certain days. Therefore, organisations might now struggle to know how many car parking spots they need, how much food they need and how many meeting rooms are free – data that can all be provided through analytics. So Envoy has been building products to grow the company in a way that can keep building products to help their customers that they will be using increasingly more often as they start to head back to the office in increasing numbers
When the Covid pandemic hit, 60% of workers still showed up to work so places like warehouses and factories still operated. Envoy made it their mission to create innovative and interesting products to help the workers who were still going into work so they can create a great working environment for them. For a company that sells visitor products and workplace products, the pandemic wasn’t good for them but they turned it to an advantage as there were still workplaces operating. So the executive team would figure out what these workers need from them and what can they build to get themselves out of this.
Larry explained the number one takeaway from the companies that have not returned to the workplace is for them to be clear about what they want from their employees. They have massive office spaces and many people aren’t coming to work for various reasons such as the long commute or they’re afraid no one will be there. He thinks companies are confusing people by encouraging them to go in without directly telling people to come in as they are afraid to say it and allow people to know the rules. Companies need to understand that their employees won’t quit just because you told them that there is a policy to ask people to come to work.
Larry can envision a future that’s focused on building a great employee experience that is both effective and efficient. Companies are looking to downsize either their workforce or office space (or both) so are no longer signing 10-year leases but maybe they’ll use an extra meeting room in a nearby office or use their extra desks and space. He suggests that if there was a market space where people could be listing their free office space, that would be very interesting and this is the direction he can see the company moving towards – WeWork is doing a great job bringing consistency to this at the moment.
What Larry noticed about working at different companies is that along the way you meet lots of people who asked, ‘If you ever start anything, let me know’. So during the years, he’s been working Larry has written up a spreadsheet of all his key contacts and influencers on his career, giving the listeners this advice that he has taken from someone else over this time. Then when he started this company he reached out to get some funding from these people. He mentioned Andrew Chen from Andreessen Horowitz and Matt Murphy, Asif Hurgi, who have been running companies or have been right by them who have inspired him along his journey.
Larry works with employees who are very experienced in what they do and have experiences from all types of different walks of life. He likes to surround himself with people who have seen things and people who are resilient. He believes he was given the gift of being resilient which he explains is a form of gift that is very tough to deal with. For a founder or entrepreneur resilience is one of the most important skills to have as it shows a want for the future and that they’re excited to scale and ultimately change the world.
He gave advice on building skills in great people as well as great innovative products. Especially when you have a small company, you have to be focused on building big, new, exciting things for the world. It is so easy to get into autopilot mode.
Larry goes on to tell a personal story of how he thinks this resilience has been embedded into his personality – a case of nature versus nurture. He continued by explaining his back story of being born in Romania which wasn’t an easy ride, and he was in fact smuggled out of the country due to his parents doing ‘under-the-table’ jobs. His dad was picking berries and his mum was cleaning houses getting ‘under-the-table’ money which they were prohibited to do. Eventually, his dad got a legitimate job with the Canadian Government and that’s where he grew up. There is a form of resilience there and also his early interest in engineering and computers helped guide this as well.
Perception of the company on becoming a unicorn
Larry begins by understanding a unicorn will always get more attention and he finds it easier to hire, gets the partnerships and gets the conversations they want. A ‘super cheat code’ almost to get what you want. Many companies become unicorns, and he believes Envoy have just started on their journey. As there’s lots more they want to achieve as they aim to continue to serve customers whilst creating revenues that have resulted from providing their customers with value and solid products that they’re happy with.
Larry states software is only software, meaning anyone can copy and clone it and resulting in them pretending it’s another company’s work. So, he walks into the business with the knowledge that to survive you have got to build quickly. Larry turned his back and looks around his office stating all the things around him which he could have ideas about building; software to open and shut blinds, speakers, ventilation ideas around voting on phones for the temperature, or a monitor for when the plants need to be watered. The list could go on but what he was explaining is that every office has problems that can be solved which is exciting for them.
At Envoy they use to do a podcast series called Envoy office hacks which found employee hacks to office life hacks. One which he spoke about was that with a work coffee machine, they had one when you keep pressing the button the coffee would get lighter and lighter. So they put a scale on it so it would notify the manager when it needed to be refilled when there was a third left.
It’s very important for their companies to know, they’re all in this together as every company is trying to do whatever it can to keep on moving despite economic uncertainty and the changing environment.
It’s also acknowledged that this is important to do internally as well so, every week, they address the company with what’s going on in the news and what the journalists are writing about to remind people of current affairs. Especially hearing it from the founder can feel comforting to the employees seeing his reaction. He is very present and transparent in his communications even when he does end up saying ‘dumb things’ the more he speaks to people, so transparency has an apparent downside. That’s why a lot of people aren’t that transparent because it’s limited communication which has the less likely effect of messing up. To build a good rapport with stakeholders it is essential to speak to them regularly to maintain that relationship and keep that constant communication.
When first asked about the culture at Envoy, Larry says it’s about creating a great experience with themselves, employees, customers and the products they build. It’s about standing out and building products intentionally differently to be able to get ahead of trends. They want to be in the workplace to find the key issues and pain points that face employees in every other workplace.
The culture they adopt is the mindset of being understanding and wanting to work with people to move quickly and fast to create products before their competitors do and so, not missing out on opportunities. There are values that drive how Envoy is run and they communicate these through ‘show and tell’ and really repeating the values until people are sick of hearing them! For Envoy, a work culture that uses offices is important for them to employ people who are up to work in the office which will limit conflicts as they like working together.
If Larry makes a mistake, he will always open up about it as it happens to everyone. It also gives his employees a sense of knowing that he is only human which is important to not just be the buttoned-up version of yourself all the time. He sees it as an advantage to be more human, it helps to stand out in the corporate world. Being honest and speaking your mind can be rare nowadays but it builds trust and communication.
Larry gets very excited about the different products and understands that anything can happen to a company at any time. People are constantly accusing companies of things that could have an impact on their business operations and they always want to talk to the CEO so he gets pulled in a million directions about many different things. He allows his people to take control and it can be empowering for them as they have fun with it and learn different tactics and discover new ways of communicating better externally. He talks a lot to investors which is another massive opportunity where it’s easy to stand out in a way that’s very trusting.
Building confidence is so important and speaking with the company to look at analytics every single day can build up that confidence. When speaking to external companies it’s all about being genuine, walking in, and telling them exactly what is wrong with the company’s operations and how Envoy can help them. Many companies get into the routine of only saying the good things about their company but nobody admits the faults. They state that they’re perfect but only growing 5% a year and their finances are terrible.
The biggest communication challenge that Larry has to tell is that he can be very blunt about things when he wants to get to the point of something. He isn’t afraid to let people know the bad news so that they can then move forward and deal with the issues at hand. He thinks that a lot of people don’t have the context to understand a lot of news. Larry assumed everyone had the context for the different decisions being made however, they don’t. They use Slack which has many channels which are open to join for everyone but some people are tight on various other deadlines so they want to do their own thing. He understands that they don’t all need to understand the context for everything they’re working on.
There is an unlimited amount of things Larry would tell his younger self but one piece of advice in the forefront of his mind is to just continue repeating yourself. To repeat yourself all the time until people literally tell you ‘I’ve heard this about 20 times right now, you can probably stop repeating it’. That’s when you can stop repeating it. He’s learned throughout the years people are never fully engaged, they’re on their phones or daydreaming so repeating is important. They might not read your email or slack message. He understands that can be a tough challenge for anyone.
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