The “White Hot” HR Tech Market, Why Focus Should be the Focus, and the Big Themes in Human Capital Tech Going Forward

In conversation with Josh Bersin

There’s a lot of money floating around the HR tech start-up scene currently, as you will hear if you tune into a recent podcast I joined—the Joshbersin.com podcast from internationally-recognized analyst, educator, and thought leader in the global talent market, Josh Bersin.

The valuation environment and the size of investments in the category has heated up considerably. The workplace is arguably one of the biggest tech markets of them all—we’re talking about two billion people who go to work every day and who need to be engaged, assessed, challenged, nurtured, and developed. That means the potential for systems to support them and the people leaders in the organization, and to help automate processes, as well as glean insights from data.

TCV has a strong track record in the space, having invested in HR tech leaders like LinkedIn, HireVue, and Perceptyx, as well as The Pracuj Group, the largest job board in Poland. Over the last two years with the pandemic and several other sociological flashpoint events occurring, there’s been a lot for employers, employees, and chief people officers/CHROs to handle. Simultaneously, there have been substantial advances in relevant technology and software. I was looking forward to sharing our perspectives on the booming and continuously evolving HR technology sector, and the role and direction of current investment in it.

Key Takeaways

There’s a lot of money and a lot of enthusiasm. There is about $2 trillion of dry powder in private equity and venture and crossover fund coffers out there, so a lot of risk capital is looking for a home. Investment activity in the HR tech sector has exploded, particularly over the last few years, and we don’t see the round sizes shrinking anytime soon. Indeed, as noted in a recent Pitchbook analysis, global HR tech funding has ballooned to $9.2 billion so far this year which is 130% greater than the total for 2020:

Source:  https://pitchbook.com/news/articles/venture-capital-human-resources-tech-valuations, October 21, 2021

That enthusiasm has a definite ebullience factor in terms of what it contributes to valuations and round sizes—seed series, A, B, C, D, pre-IPO, all rounds are higher than they were years ago, and you see companies with significant capital war chests. We expect more acquisitions of smaller companies by larger companies that have raised significant capital as a little bit of economic Darwinism takes place. The firms that have raised massive rounds will clean up and consolidate some of their smaller competitors, in addition to investing in organic growth. 

“Focus is the focus” is a good long-term philosophy. Our discussion moved on to the importance of having the right people in place for each phase of a company’s evolution. Challenges may multiply as a company grows bigger, but there are more resources available to employ a greater calibre of talent. Being clear about the goal is paramount. Human capital technology category leaders find success focusing on their core strengths and extending into adjacencies versus too dramatically expanding their offerings into unrelated avenues. TCV portfolio company HireVue is a great example with its core lineage in pre-hire video interviewing, but added capabilities in interview scheduling, psychometric assessments, coding challenges, and recruiter assistant/candidate engagement SaaS.

Our experience tends to be that the best companies do a few things extremely well, and there is merit to “focus” being the focus. On the path from eight figures in revenue to nine figures in revenue, what a company says “no” to can be as important as what it says “yes” to. Part of our job as investors is to help entrepreneurs with some of those lessons learned and pattern recognition from other companies’ evolutions.

The HR software ecosystem is growing. Looking ahead to the “hot spaces” in the HR tech sector, I highlighted the expanding role of Chief HR Officers (CHROs). Over the last two years (and pre-pandemic), the CHRO role has become far more strategic and operational versus perhaps more historically administrative, and compliance oriented in nature. This is creating significant new opportunities for technology. For instance, growing transience in the employee base has a bearing on the role of pre-hire technology. Upskilling and reskilling is surging in importance, as the workplace changes, and employers take stock of the key skills required for their organizations as well as employees taking stock of how they want their careers to progress.

Employee experience (EX) is another area of significant emphasis particularly given some of the changes that the last two years have brought. Josh and I concur about the huge potential around EX, noting we can expect all sorts of tools, platforms and systems coming onto the market with vendors like TCV portfolio company Perceptyx leading the way. I was struck by his observation that the new companies are more AI-enabled, more skills based, and better able to accommodate the emerging creator economy. This is based on the concept of a creator platform for HR, where employees build content for each other, and HR and managers build content for employees. As Josh says, “I believe there’s a ‘TikTok of HR’ space out there.”

Josh predicts a rising generation of vendors that are going to be platform and data vendors that are equally savvy about the external job market or skills or industry data, and their systems are going to be faster and better than less data-rich HR software tools. 

Josh and I agreed that the HR software ecosystem is growing, becoming more robust, and that the runway is very long given the size of the total talent market and the opportunities and challenges of the present and future. What a great conversation with a genuine HR tech guru—I really enjoyed it!

To learn more, tune into HR Technology: The Investor’s Perspective. Conversation w/Nari Ansari

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


TripAdvisor: Elevating People Functions to Business Partnership

Part 1: Aligning HR with Business Strategy

When Beth Grous joined TripAdvisor as Chief People Officer, the popular travel platform was growing rapidly, with 40+ locations around the world. Beth quickly moved to develop Human Resources (HR) as a strategic partner for business functions, so that the team’s initiatives would more directly support company objectives. In this first part of a two-part conversation, Beth talks with TCV GP Nari Ansari about how she re-oriented her team for business partnership. She also explains how her team manages the employee journey within TripAdvisor as strategically as the company manages its customer journeys, so that recruiting and retaining talent is both systematic and flexible for an increasingly diverse workforce.

***

Nari Ansari: First off Beth, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us. It was great seeing you at TCV’s East Coast CHRO event in New York with portfolio company people and talent leaders. We had some great conversations and wanted to share a few topics with a broader audience.

Beth Grous: Absolutely. Great to speak again.

Nari Ansari: Let’s dive right in, starting with TripAdvisor. What does the company do?

Beth Grous: I think most people who have traveled, or know someone that’s traveled, are familiar with TripAdvisor. We are the world’s largest travel platform. We help about 490 million travelers every month plan, book, and get excited about having the best trip of their life. We’re a global website, and we also have a mobile app that helps travelers browse more than three-quarters of a billion reviews and opinions on over eight million restaurants, accommodations, experiences, airlines, cruises, and so on.

Nari Ansari: When did you join? What motivated you to jump onboard?

Beth Grous: I joined TripAdvisor in September of 2015. I’ve been a review writing member on the TripAdvisor platform since 2006 so I was a long-time consumer of the brand and loved it. When I got the call about the job, I thought that it would be a unique opportunity for me to take the HR skills, experience and capabilities that I had, and intersect them with a consumer brand that I have a lot of passion for.

Around the same time frame there was an increasing recognition at TripAdvisor that with 2,500 employees, and the company growing globally, we really needed to elevate the people function to work in partnership with the CEO to execute more strategically against our business and talent priorities. And so that was very exciting for me as well, thinking about the potential impact I could have.

Nari Ansari: Absolutely. You’re titled Chief People Officer, so what areas fall under your responsibility?

Beth Grous: That’s a great question, because my job description is perhaps a little different than most heads of HR.

As Chief People Officer, I have all the traditional HR domains:

  • HR business partners
  • Total rewards (compensation and benefits) and HR systems
  • Talent acquisition (our recruiting engine)
  • Learning and organizational development
  • Equity, diversity, and inclusion

In addition to those more typical functions, I have a few other areas of responsibility, including our global real estate portfolio and office experience for our 40+ offices worldwide, and our social impact function, which is a combination of both our TripAdvisor Charitable Foundation and our employee volunteerism and giving activities.

Nari Ansari: Since you became Chief People Officer, how have you established the HR team as a business partner to the rest of the organization? What steps did you take, what lessons did you learn as you industrialized the function, and what advice would you have for other HR leaders of growing tech companies out there?

Beth Grous: When I joined, I looked around and I said, “There are some places where we have real strengths, and some places where we need to fill in some blanks.” Probably the biggest shift we made was to build out an HR business partner (HRBP) function – we wanted to shift a portion of our team from being more focused on tactical day-to-day priorities to taking a pro-active focus towards business objectives and working with their counterparts throughout the organization. That shift in focus meant that some people stepped up to develop their skills and to work differently. Other team members transitioned out of the organization and, also importantly, we had a few members join from the business side.  It was a significant shift to staff and organize this HR business partner team.

Nari Ansari: That’s an impressive shift. Tell us a bit more about the role and skill set of HR business partners.

Beth Grous: The members of our HRBP team are expected to have a deep understanding of the business—financials, strategy, and how each business function aligns and interacts to execute against those objectives. I encourage the HRBP team to frame their day-to-day work by asking the question: “How am I working with people at all levels of the organization to help drive the business forward?” Much of this learning happens on the job—and our business leaders are very supportive of sharing their expertise. It has been an important shift for us, because with this knowledge and understanding, they can then support the business most effectively: defining the right organizational structure to support strategy, ensuring that we are hiring and developing a diverse and talented group of employees across the organization, and aligning rewards, as some examples.

I am fortunate that I work for a CEO and with an executive team who greatly values the input of our people and human capital team on matters not just related to HR domain areas, but also matters related to the overall business. This has been exciting and fulfilling for me and my team.

Nari Ansari: That’s great. I think what’s top of mind for many company leaders and talent leaders is retaining exceptional talent. You talked a bit at our recent TCV CHRO event that TripAdvisor very methodically thinks through, manages, and monitors the customer journey and that you and your team symmetrically are methodically thinking through, managing, and monitoring the employee journey as well. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like for your 3,600 plus TripAdvisor team members today spread across 40+ offices?

Beth Grous: I’m going to make an obvious statement here. If you retain and engage more of your workforce, you have less of a need to recruit people…

Nari Ansari: Right.

Beth Grous: We recognize that those two things sit in a very healthy and logical balance. We also recognize that turnover in and of itself is painful. You lose institutional knowledge. It’s disruptive to teams. It slows throughput. It slows innovation. We’re only as good as the people that we have working in the right teams and right configurations to execute against our business objective. We think a lot about how to make TripAdvisor a great place to work, to encourage not only retention, but also to drive engagement and satisfaction. Just like our sales team thinks about the “customer first”, we think about how we can put our employees first. That also means that we are taking their views into account, so it’s not just about delivering “HR services” to our employees but having a dialogue with them. This aligns with our brand, which is all about transparency and providing honest and constructive feedback. For example, we know that what makes a company a great place to work likely means different things to different people. To someone early in their career, that might mean, “I get to have a lot of different experiences and I’m promoted pretty rapidly.” To someone in a different phase of life or with different interests or needs, that might be that an individual wants a lot of flexibility in terms of the hours when they work or the places where they work. We encourage flexibility, and we also have office spaces with many different places where people can get away from their desks if that helps them work more effectively. We think about our workforce just like TripAdvisor (and many consumer-facing companies) think about their customers, recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all. That does not mean that we can necessarily be all things to all people—but we try hard to listen, learn, and discern what’s most important to our workforce, and meet our employees’ needs, as long as it makes sense for the business. 

I believe that there are some things that transcend all employees, regardless of role, experience or tenure. Employees want to come to work at a place where they understand the business objectives, they understand the strategy, and they know their role, how their role ladders up to executing against that strategy. So as a company, we spend a ton of time being transparent about those elements – we do that through company town halls, through company meetings and through various forms of communication. Communication is so important, and I don’t think we can ever do enough of it internally! We’ve found it critical for our employees to understand the business context and importantly, how they fit into that context, so that they can be most successful—and therefore we can be most successful as a company.

Nari Ansari:  That makes a lot of sense. I do think that having a much more rigorous multi-faceted view of your employee base is becoming critical for companies of all sizes and in all industries.  And I also think open communication across the organization is important, particularly when it feels like change is the only constant these days.

Another trend – and transition – we are seeing is that HR is becoming more tech and data driven to deliver on human capital and business goals. We’ll talk more about this in a follow-up Q&A and address other topics that are top of mind for today’s HR professionals and tech companies, including HR’s role in successfully executing acquisitions. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and I look forward to our next conversation.

Beth Grous: My pleasure!

###

The statements, views, and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies. For additional important disclaimers, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.