The employer-employee relationship is being reshaped and the next generation of HR software vendors are helping employers attract and retain the best talent
At long last, companies are waking up to the reality that the talent they employ is their most strategic, and ultimately differentiating, asset. However, in a somewhat ironic twist of fate, attracting and retaining talent is more difficult than ever before, driven by near decade-low unemployment rates, the much touted Covid-induced “Great Resignation”, and global competition for increasingly diverse and inclusive talent. Employers are also facing hybrid work as the new normal, as well as a generational shift to Millennials as the dominant employee base.
The task for navigating these challenges is being laid at the feet of HR teams, whose responsibilities now span everything from driving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives and improving organizational health and wellness to reducing employee attrition and navigating hybrid work / the return to the office. All of this in turn necessitates a much more strategic approach, and has escalated the importance of People teams to mission-critical as organizations recognize they need to do everything in their power to hire, nurture, and retain top-tier talent.
At the same time, People teams have historically relied on a legacy stack of outdated and inflexible software tools (e.g. ADP, SAP Successfactors, Oracle HCM, and Ceridian) that have acted primarily as systems of record rather than systems of engagement built for a hybrid work-environment and focused on employee user-experiences and organizational ROI. These tools are unable to drive employee engagement and lack the functionality required to enable People teams to operate effectively.
Enter Next Gen People SaaS, the new-age of HR software tools seeking to empower People teams looking to align People operations with overarching company strategy.
These vendors are going after a massive market opportunity – Paychex, Workday, and ADP alone comprise $200Bn in market cap. That said, the market is not homogeneous, and the dynamics in each segment are nuanced. For instance, while the SMB market is largely greenfield (running many HR processes on paper and Excel), the enterprise market is rife with legacy solutions that are difficult to integrate with and thus organizations are left with tool sprawl, where a spaghetti-mix of 50+ different HR tools is not unusual.
We at TCV have been lucky enough to partner with next gen HR leaders including LinkedIn, Grupa Pracuj (the largest job board in Poland), Hirevue (AI-driven talent assessment and video interview platform), Perceptyx (employee surveys and people analytics platform), OneSource Virtual (Business-Process-as-a-Service vendor for the Workday ecosystem) and more recently Darwinbox (cloud-native end-to-end HRIS platform for Enterprise), and Humu (enterprise-grade digital training platform). In addition, we have also had the opportunity to both collaborate with and learn from a deep bench of People-team leaders across our portfolio, including TCV Venture Partner Jessica Neal, the former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix. We continue to believe there are enormous opportunities ahead in HR and expect to see innovation arise from every corner of the globe. Here are three of the major themes we believe will shape the HR-tech landscape in the coming years.
#1: HR products built for employees
While we are now used to frictionless, user-friendly tech experiences everywhere in our personal lives, the software tools many of us use daily in the workplace are clunky and counter-intuitive. Next Gen People SaaS is changing this paradigm by putting employee experience at its heart and, in the process, turning systems of record into systems of engagement, driving ever-higher ROI, as well as enabling flexibility with how employees engage with employers.
Best-in-class UX is required for Next Gen People SaaS
Superior UX enables employees to self-serve to a much greater degree, alleviating the administrative burden on People teams. Geographic and vertical context also becomes relevant. For example, offering a truly mobile-native and mobile-optimized (note: not the same as just having an app) UX in emerging markets and frontline industries can be critical in driving access and engagement across the full employee base. This is a key factor that underpins the strong momentum seen in companies like Darwinbox. Many new-age tools also monitor traditionally “B2C” KPIs (e.g. DAU/MAU, sessions per day), while also continuously A/B testing to drive better user engagement, thereby unlocking workforce insights that legacy tools with poor user uptake are simply unable to access. By utilizing Next Gen People SaaS, People teams can drive heightened employee engagement while also gaining meaningful insights in culture, sentiment, and employee performance.
Employing talent on its own terms
The days of inflexible, full-time, in-office employment are largely behind us. Companies have realized that, in the war to hire world-class talent, the ability to offer flexible employment (e.g. remote work from anywhere in the world, freelancing) can be a critical differentiator. That said, this creates enormous challenges for People teams, as running onboarding and compliant payroll and benefits across full-time and freelance employees in several countries is fraught with complexity. This has driven the rise of a host of new tools (e.g. employer of record, aggregated global payroll, end-to-end freelancer management tools) to simplify this process and alleviate companies of onerous compliance and administrative burdens. We believe these tools will further embed themselves into the core-HR stack of the hybrid workplace of the future.
#2: Talent is at the forefront of HR product innovation
The ongoing war for talent will dramatically reshape the HR tech-stack in the years ahead. Given the criticality of talent as a key differentiator, we expect to see accelerated innovation and the rise of best-in-breed point solutions (particularly for larger enterprises) at every stage of talent management process:
Professional networks, such as former TCV investment LinkedIn, have become staples of the HR toolkit. That said, there are further opportunities to enrich data from existing networks and build more advanced, automated searches powered by AI: e.g. aligning with an employer’s diversity and inclusion goals, helping to automatically elevate talent at the right stage in their careers, prior candidate rediscovery, etc.
Screening and recruitment
We are seeing two major, and often simultaneous, themes reflecting the growing war for scarce talent – 1) a pivot towards building candidate-friendly recruitment experiences vs. being employer-centric (as much as employers are trying to better evaluate whether a candidate is a good fit for them, savvy candidates are doing the same with potential employers); 2) a pivot away from interview processes focused on subjective individual assessments towards more quantitative, standardized screening that collects dozens of data points along the candidate journey to reach better, less biased recruiting outcomes.
Retaining and nurturing talent have become highly strategic areas for employers, exacerbated by the generational shift towards a Millennial employee-base. We have seen the rise of increasingly sophisticated solutions for engaging and training talent, including a focus on individualizing content delivery. For instance, TCV portfolio company Humu helps teams instill and develop effective workplace habits through the use of behavioral nudges. At the core of Humu’s differentiation is the focus on delivering the right content, to the right person, at the right time.
Although the supply of world-class talent in every department is scarce, nowhere is the effect of the war for talent felt more acutely than in R&D. As ‘technology’ has shifted from being a standalone industry vertical to a horizontal foundation that nearly every industry depends upon, demand for engineering talent has never outweighed the supply more dramatically. Given that analysts continue to forecast a global technology talent shortage of nearly 5M workers by 2030, we anticipate this will be a defining trend of the 2020s and will continue giving rise to engineer-focused talent solutions.
While we expect the proliferation of talent-focused point solutions to continue, at the same time, we expect to see other segments of the HR stack begin to rebundle. Many mid-market and enterprise People teams have experienced massive tool proliferation over the last years (some using as many as 50+ different HR apps!) and tool sprawl is now becoming increasingly challenging to manage. As a result, we expect to see many core HR tools (e.g. time & attendance, benefits etc.) naturally aggregate thereby providing HR teams and employees with seamless, end-to-end integrated workflows.
#3: The specialization (and verticalization) of HR
In spite of the fact that both employer and employee needs vary significantly by size, industry, and geography, many vendors historically have offered a ‘one-size-fits-all’ HR proposition. As a result, there have been a number of historically overlooked and underappreciated market segments that represent massive greenfield opportunities when innovators focus on them explicitly. Going forward, as we have seen with broader vertical SaaS over the last decade, we expect to see the rise of verticalized HR vendors who focus on a specific customer segment and offer a much deeper, more tailored proposition than a generic, horizontal platform. In addition to this, we believe there are clear parallels with our theses around the office of the CFO and SaaS as a network whereby the verticalization of HR also gives rise to the opportunity for vendors to offer a bundled solution which in turn can drive TAM expansion, improved retention, better unit economics, and a more strategic relationship with customers. Two major expressions of this that we are focused on are 1) the rise of SMB-focused platforms and 2) tool-building for frontline workers.
Rise of SMB platforms
People teams in SMBs have historically been notoriously overstretched, understaffed (or even nonexistent!), and undertooled. More often than not, the “core People” platform is pen-and-paper or an Excel spreadsheet that is error-prone, time-consuming to update, and only acts as a very basic system of record.
Increasingly, as SMBs are having to up their game and offer great employee experiences irrespective of resource constraints, we are seeing a new generation of arms dealers cater to this enormous yet enormously underserved market segment. Given the greater propensity for SMBs to purchase bundled solutions, we believe that vendors who can land with a mission-critical beachhead have an opportunity to expand their footprint and build a single-aggregated People suite for SMBs.
We see two primary beachheads into the SMB today – the central people data repository (“HRIS”) and Payroll (mission critical from day one). Companies in such a position have a unique opportunity to build an ecosystem of integrations with best-in-breed tools (e.g. for performance, engagement, training and onboarding, interviewing, etc.), further embedding themselves as the epicenter of the new SMB People stack, and potentially over time branch out and cross-sell other People modules and even financial services (e.g. insurance, expense management, etc.). As outlined above, this drives a multitude of benefits (ARPU expansion, improved retention, deeper customer relationship, etc.).
Given the sheer scale of the SMB base (e.g. SMBs typically represent ~50% of national GDPs), the market opportunity for even national or regional champions is enormous.
Building for the frontline
Despite the fact that nearly 2 billion people currently work on the frontline and nearly every organization employs a combination of desk-based and frontline workers, HR tools have historically catered primarily to longer-tenured, desk-based employees. That said, this is changing as organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of engaging their frontline workforce, in no small part catalyzed by the recognition of the critical role frontline workers played in helping navigate the Covid-19 pandemic.
The requirements of frontline employees can differ significantly from those of desk-based workers. As a starting point, many frontline workers lack access to a desktop (so being truly mobile-optimized and deliverable to a variety of endpoints is mission critical); they may not have a company email address (which has implications for security as well as means of communication); and they often have more flexible, shift-based working hours (which has implications for time/attendance/payroll). In addition, hiring, training, and onboarding may need to happen in a matter of hours, versus days or weeks for desk-based employees.
We are now seeing the rise of HR tools optimized to service the unique requirements of this historically underserved segment of the workforce. Going forward, mirroring the rise of vertical SaaS in the past several years, we expect to see continued specialization of HR platforms by worker type, which in turn is a stepping stone towards industry verticalization. As with the SMB opportunity, this could in turn drive opportunities to offer bundled HR solutions such as employee learning, time and attendance, and payroll.
What excites us
While great progress has been made modernizing the HR technology stack in recent years, the unprecedented challenges HR teams face when looking to hire and retain world-class talent are more pertinent today than ever before. We believe this will continue to create massive opportunities for problem-solving technology vendors across the HR stack, especially into historically underserved market segments. We at TCV are incredibly excited about what the future holds for HR tech and look forward to backing and supporting visionary teams building the seminal businesses of tomorrow across every corner of the globe.
 Future of Work: The Global Talent Crunch, Korn Ferry, 2018
 2020 Annual Report on European SMEs, European Commission; & “Measuring the Small Business Economy,” Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce, 2020