Jun
17
2021
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Gusto makes first acquisition, buying Ardius to expand into R&D tax credits

Free money from the government sounds like winning the lottery, but the reality is that most tech startups and even local retail businesses and restaurants can potentially qualify for tax credits related to research and development in the United States. Those credits, which is what helps tech giants keep their tax rates to near zero, are hard for smaller companies to receive because of extensive documentation requirements and potential audit costs.

So a number of startups have been launched to solve that gap, and now, larger companies are entering the fray as well.

Gusto, which started off with payroll for SMBs and has since expanded into employee on-boarding, insurance, benefits and other HR offerings, today announced that it is acquiring Ardius, a startup designed to automate tax compliance particularly around R&D tax credits.

The Los Angeles-based company was founded by Joshua Lee in 2018, who previously had worked for more than a decade at accounting firm EY. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Ardius will run as an independent business with the entire team transitioning to Gusto.

The strategy here is simple: Most R&D credits require payroll documentation, data that is already stored in Gusto’s system of record. Ardius in its current incarnation was designed to tap into a number of payroll data providers and extract that data and turn it into verifiable tax documents. With this tie-up, the companies can simply do that automatically for Gusto’s extensive number of customers.

Joshua Reeves, co-founder and CEO of Gusto, said that the acquisition falls in line with the company’s long-term focus on customers and simplicity. “We want to bring together technology, great service, [and] make government simpler,” he said. “In some ways, a lot of stuff we’re doing — make payroll simpler, make healthcare simpler, make PPP [loans] and tax credits simpler — just make these things work the way they’re intended to work.” The company presumably could have built out such functionality, but he noted that “time to market” was a crucial point in making Ardius the company’s first acquisition.

Tomer London, co-founder and chief product officer, said that “we’ve been looking at this space for a long time because it kind of connects to one of our original product principles of building a product that is opinionated,” he said. In a space as complicated as HR, “we want to be out there and be an advisor, not just a tool. And this is just such a great example of where you can take the payroll data that we already have and in just a few clicks and in a matter of a few days, get access to really important cash flow for a business.” He noted that tax credits is “something that’s been on our roadmap for a long time.”

Gusto works with more than 100 third-party services that integrate on top of its platform. Reeves emphasized that while Ardius is part of Gusto, all companies — even those that might compete directly with the product — will continue to have equal access to the platform’s data. In its release, the company pointed out that Boast.ai, Clarus, Neo.Tax and TaxTaker are just some of the other tax products that integrate with Gusto today.

Of course, Ardius is just one of a number of competitors that have popped up in the R&D and economic development tax credit space. MainStreet, which I last profiled in 2020 for its seed round, just raised $60 million in funding in March led by SignalFire. Meanwhile, Neo.tax, which I also profiled last year, has raised a total of $5.5 million.

Reeves was sanguine about the attention the space is garnering and the potential competition for Ardius. When it comes to R&D tax credits, “whatever creates more accessibility, we’re a fan of,” he said. “It’s great that there’s more awareness because it’s still under-utilized frankly.” He emphasized that Gusto would be able to offer a more vertically-integrated solution given its data and software than other competitors in the space.

While the pandemic particularly hit SMBs, who often lacked the financial wherewithal of larger companies to survive the crisis, Gusto actually expanded its business as new companies sprouted up. Reeves said the company grew its customer base 50% in its last fiscal year, which ended in April. It “turns out in a health pandemic and in an economic crisis, things like payroll and accessing health care are quite important,” he said. Gusto launched a program to help SMBs collect the government’s stimulus PPP loans.

The company’s main bases of operation are in San Francisco, Denver and New York City, and the company has a growing contingent of remote workers, including the Ardius crew, who will remain based in LA. While Reeves demurred on future acquisitions, Gusto’s focus on expanding to a comprehensive financial wellness platform for both employees and businesses would likely suggest that additional acquisitions may well be in the offing in the future.

 

Sep
30
2020
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Gusto is expanding from payroll into a full suite financial wellness platform

When we caught up with Gusto last year, the small business payroll startup had just raised $200 million and was launching a new office in New York City. Over the past few years though, Gusto has also been accruing new features outside of its original payroll product, features that redefine the borders between payroll and financial wellness, and in the process, are blurring the lines of the classic fintech market map.

Today, the company announced a slew of new offerings that it hopes will give employees better financial and health options through their employers.

The most interesting one here is a tool the company is calling Gusto Wallet. It’s an app and collection of products for employees paid through Gusto that basically acts as a mini bank and financial health monitor. It offers an interest-bearing cash account (called, appropriately enough, Cash Accounts) which can also divert a small slice of each paycheck into a user’s savings, similar to products like Acorns and Digit. Cash stored in the account earns 0.34% interest today, and you can also get a Gusto debit card to spend it.

Gusto’s app gives you access to financial services and wellness tools. Image via Gusto

For employees, what’s interesting here is that these services are offered essentially for free: Gusto makes money on its payroll services from employers as a software subscription fee, and so it offers financial services like these as an inducement to keep employers and employees engaged. Gusto hopes that this can keep debt low for employees, and also offer them more financial stability, particularly as businesses open and close in the wake of COVID-19.

In addition, Gusto Wallet also offers “Cashout,” which can accelerate a payday ahead of time based on the pay history of an employee. Rather than securing a high-cost payday loan, the product is designed to help users smooth out a bit of their income if they need their paycheck a bit ahead of their actual direct deposit. It’s also free of fees.

Gusto CEO Joshua Reeves said that “One of the biggest problems is people are oftentimes living paycheck-to-paycheck — they’re either not saving money, or they’re getting stuck in debt accessing things like overdraft fees, or credit card debt, or payday loans.” The hope with Gusto Wallet is that its easy availability and low costs not only attract users, but leave them in much better financial shape than before.

What’s interesting to me is placing these new features in the wider scope of the fintech landscape. It seems that every week, there is another startup launching a consumer credit card, or a new debt product, or another savings app designed to help consumers with their finances. And then every week, we hear about the credit card startup launching a new savings account, or the savings app launching an insurance product.

The math is simple: It’s very, very hard to acquire a customer in financial services, and it’s so competitive that the cost per acquired customer is extremely high (think hundreds of dollars or more per customer). For most of these startups, once you have a customer using one financial product, much like traditional banks, they want you to use all of their other products as well to maximize customer value and amortize those high CAC costs.

Gusto is an interesting play here precisely because it starts at the payroll layer. Banks and other savings apps often try to get you to send your paycheck to their service, since if your money resides there, you are much more likely to use that service’s features. Gusto intercepts that transaction and owns it itself. Plus, because it ultimately is selling subscriptions to payroll and not financial services, it can offer many of these features outright for free.

Reeves said that “This is a future that just seems inevitable, like all this information right now is sitting in silos. How do we give the employee more of that ownership and access through one location?” By combining payroll, 401(k) planning, savings accounts, debit cards and more in one place, Gusto is hoping to become the key financial health tool for its employee end users.

That’s the financial side. In addition, Gusto announced today that it is now helping small businesses set up health reimbursement accounts. Under a provision passed by Congress a few years ago, small businesses have a unique mechanism (called QSEHRA) to offer health reimbursement to their employees. That program is riven with technicalities and administrivia though. Gusto believes its new offering will help more small businesses create these kinds of programs.

Given Gusto’s small business focus, this year has seen huge changes thanks to the global pandemic. “It’s been an inspiring, challenging, motivating [and] galvanizing time for the company,” Reeves said. “Normally, I would say [we have] three home bases: New York, SF [and] Denver. Now we have 1,400 home bases.” That hasn’t stopped the company’s mission, and if anything, has brought many of its employees closer to the small businesses they ultimately serve.

Gusto team, with CEO Joshua Reeves on the left of the second row. Image via Gusto

Feb
17
2020
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Rippling starts billboard battle with Gusto

Remember when Zenefits imploded, and kicked out CEO Parker Conrad. Well, Conrad launched a new employee onboarding startup called Rippling, and now he’s going after another HR company called Gusto with a new billboard, “Outgrowing Gusto? Presto change-o.”

The problem is, Gusto got it taken down by issuing a cease & desist order to Rippling and the billboard operator Clear Channel Outdoor. That’s despite the law typically allowing comparative advertising as long as it’s accurate. Gusto sells HR, benefits and payroll software, while Rippling does the same but adds in IT management to tie together an employee identity platform.

Rippling tells me that outgrowing Gusto is the top reasons customers say they’re switching to Rippling. Gusto’s customer stories page lists no customers larger than 61 customers, and Enlyft research says the company is most often used by 10 to 50-person staffs. “We were one of Gusto’s largest customers when we left the platform last year. They were very open about the fact that the product didn’t work for businesses of our size. We moved to Rippling last fall and have been extremely happy with it,” says Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft.

That all suggests the Rippling ad’s claim is reasonable. But the C&D claims that “Gusto counts as customers multiple companies with 100 or more employees and does not state the businesses will ‘outgrow’ their platfrom at a certain size.”

In an email to staff provided to TechCrunch, Rippling CMO Matt Epstein wrote, “We take legal claims seriously, but this one doesn’t pass the laugh test. As Gusto says all over their website, they focus on small businesses.”

So rather than taking Gusto to court or trying to change Clear Channel’s mind, Conrad and Rippling did something cheeky. They responded to the cease & desist order in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter.

Our billboard struck a nerve, it seems. And so you phoned your legal teams,
who started shouting, “Cease!” “Desist!” and other threats too long to list.

Your brand is known for being chill. So this just seems like overkill.
But since you think we’ve been unfair, we’d really like to clear the air.

Rippling’s general counsel Vanessa Wu wrote the letter, which goes on to claim that “When Gusto tried to scale itself, we saw what you took off the shelf. Your software fell a little short. You needed Workday for support,” asserting that Gusto’s own HR tool couldn’t handle its 1,000-plus employees and needed to turn to a bigger enterprise vendor. The letter concludes with the implication that Gusto should drop the cease-and-desist, and instead compete on merit:

So Gusto, do not fear our sign. Our mission and our goals align.
Let’s keep this conflict dignified—and let the customers decide.

Rippling CMO Matt Epstein tells me that “While the folks across the street may find competition upsetting, customers win when companies push each other to do better. We hope our lighthearted poem gets this debate back down to earth, and we look forward to competing in the marketplace.”

Rippling might think this whole thing was slick or funny, but it comes off a bit lame and try-hard. These are far from 8 Mile-worthy battle rhymes. If it really wanted to let customers decide, it could have just accepted the C&D and moved on…or not run the billboard at all. It still has four others that don’t slam competitors running. That said, Gusto does look petty trying to block the billboard and hide that it’s unequipped to support massive teams.

We reached out to Gusto over the weekend and again today asking for comment, whether it will drop the C&D, if it’s trying to get Rippling’s bus ads dropped too and if it does in fact use Workday internally.

[Update 2pm Pacific: Gusto’s PR representative Paul Loeffler claims that “This is common business practice in maintaining a brand”, says that for Gusto “A core, but not exclusive focus, are small businesses”, and admits that “as Gusto itself has grown to become a large-scale company, we have different needs than many of our customers and transitioned to Workday.”

Finally, he declares that “We’re excited to see more companies create new solutions that make it easier for businesses to take care of and support their teams” despite theatening to sue one that was. If Gusto itself grew out of Gusto, an ad asking if its customers are too seems wholly accurate.]

Given Gusto has raised $516 million10X what Rippling has — you’d think it could just outspend Rippling on advertising or invest in building the enterprise HR tools so customers really couldn’t outgrow it. They’re both Y Combinator companies with Kleiner Perkins as a major investor (conflict of interest?), so perhaps they can still bury the hatchet.

At least they found a way to make the HR industry interesting for an afternoon.

Jun
21
2018
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Disrupting the paycheck, Gusto’s Flexible Pay allows employees to pick when they get paid

People should get paid for work they have done. It’s a pretty simple principle of capitalism, but a principle that seems increasingly violated in the modern economy. With semi-monthly paychecks, the work an employee does on the first day of the month won’t be paid until the end of the third week — a delay of up to 21 days. That delay is despite the massive digitalization of bank transfers and accounting over the past few decades that should have made paychecks far more regular.

Gusto, a payroll and HR benefits provider focused on small businesses, announced the launch of Flexible Pay today, a new feature that will allow its payroll users to select when they receive their income for work already completed. The feature, which must be switched on by an employer, will cost employers nothing out-of-pocket today. The launch is limited to customers in Texas, but will expand to other states in the coming year.

As Gusto CEO Joshua Reeves explained it to me, a kid mowing lawns in a neighborhood has a much more visceral connection to income than the modern knowledge economy worker. Cut the grass, get cash — it’s that simple. He also pointed out, with irony, that terminated employees experience much better payroll service than regular employees: they have to be paid out on their last day of work outside of the standard paycheck schedule. Reeves and his team wanted to offer that flexibility and convenience to every worker.

Flexible Pay allows users to choose when they get paid, outside of typical paycheck schedules

The key to this new feature has been Gusto’s increasing data about small businesses. Gusto now serves 1 percent of all small businesses in the U.S., and it has comprehensive access to its customers’ financial and payroll data. With integrations to time sheet services and proper risk modeling, Gusto is able to predict exactly what salary a worker has already earned, and can front the money at minimum risk to itself.

One major challenge for Gusto was how to reconcile the books of the employer with the irregular paycheck schedules desired by employees. Gusto handles all the logistics transparently, including tax withholding, so that for employers, the paycheck distribution looks and feels “normal” on its books.

That means that Gusto is effectively loaning money to companies, since it is paying payroll in advance. Gusto is funding those loans off its balance sheet today, but over time, the company expects to create a financial facility to underwrite the product.

For Reeves, Flexible Pay is “the right thing to do.” He believes that this new level of flexibility will empower workers to control their financial lives. In the long run, as more users get habituated to the product and its convenience, he hopes that the feature will draw other employers into using Gusto based on employee demand.

The unfortunate reality in the American workforce is that huge numbers of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, by some counts as many as 80 percent. A bill can come due just a day or two before a paycheck hits, but without cash in a checking account, people often have to resort to predatory financial products like payday loans or high-interest credit cards in order to make ends meet. Flexible Pay is one step in the right direction of fighting for workers to get the money they justly deserve.

Mar
16
2018
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Small businesses love free stuff, so Gusto is giving them free HR Basics

Gusto, formerly ZenPayroll, is the rare startup unicorn that has stayed relatively mum on its product and growth — its last press release, for instance, was more than a year ago. The company’s core offering remains payroll for small businesses, and it has been working to expand its customer base across the nation, including having its CEO, Joshua Reeves, go on a tour of the country to visit SMBs in an RV.

Now the company is opening up a bit on its recent progress. Gusto has just hit 60,000 customers nationwide, or roughly 1% of all employers in the United States, according to the company.

The company is also working on new products. One challenge small businesses face is getting access to high-quality, yet affordable, software, particularly in HR. “Small businesses actually get that people are the core more than large companies,” Reeves explained to me. “In a 10-person company, you know everyone, your customers are your neighbors, but they never really had access to high-quality software.”

Gusto is hoping to fill that gap, announcing the beta launch of a new product it’s calling HR Basics. The product offers a suite of tools for small businesses to handle the quotidian tasks of HR, including managing vacation time, compiling employee directories and improving the onboarding of new hires. Most importantly, the product is free, and doesn’t require a credit card or a bank account to sign up.

Reeves believes that Gusto has two purposes: to offer “peace of mind” to small business owners around areas like compliance that can lead to negative enforcement actions, and to provide software that can help companies become “great places to work” that are more focused on community. Reeves is particularly passionate about the latter point. “Even the terminology ‘human capital management’ — humans are not capital, humans are not resources, they are people, thank you very much.”

One particular area of focus for HR Basics is around onboarding. Gusto is hoping it can move all HR paperwork online, so that everything required to officially onboard an employee can be done even before the employee walks into work the first day. With that out of the way, Gusto can then focus on helping companies create the right corporate culture. For instance, the product offers a “Welcome Wall” where other employees can write cheerful and encouraging notes for a new employee to make them feel like they belong at the company from day one.

The Welcome Wall is designed to encourage new employees joining a company

This new product is free for businesses, and Gusto obviously hopes that it creates a funnel of potential customers who will eventually sign up for its payroll service and full HR platform, which charge around $6-12 a month per employee based on the specific plan that a business chooses.

One interesting commitment Gusto is making according to Reeves is that an employee’s profile on the platform will be a lifetime account. If an employee moves from one company to the next and both use Gusto, all of the preferences and other data required to administer HR should work immediately.

That portability mattered less in a world where employees spent decades at a single company, but now that employees often switch employers as often as every year, the repeated savings of time in the transition can be quite significant. Longer term, Gusto sees that sort of portability as critical for facilitating the changing nature of work in the 21st century.

Gusto, which was founded in 2011, is now entering middle age, and the company has 530 employees across its San Francisco and Denver offices, according to Reeves.

Update: Added the number of customers Gusto currently has.

Aug
07
2016
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HR 2.0 is the poster child for the next wave of SaaS innovation

shutterstock_157573751 The path for SaaS domination of a market segment has historically followed one of two routes: bringing previously offline workflows online, or moving on-premise software processes online. In short, SaaS would take over segments that previously were not SaaSified. Yet, the current wave of HR SaaS innovators the past few years is proving that there can be more to the story. Read More

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