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.

Sep
06
2019
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APIs are the next big SaaS wave

While the software revolution started out slowly, over the past few years it’s exploded and the fastest-growing segment to-date has been the shift towards software as a service or SaaS.

SaaS has dramatically lowered the intrinsic total cost of ownership for adopting software, solved scaling challenges and taken away the burden of issues with local hardware. In short, it has allowed a business to focus primarily on just that — its business — while simultaneously reducing the burden of IT operations.

Today, SaaS adoption is increasingly ubiquitous. According to IDG’s 2018 Cloud Computing Survey, 73% of organizations have at least one application or a portion of their computing infrastructure already in the cloud. While this software explosion has created a whole range of downstream impacts, it has also caused software developers to become more and more valuable.

The increasing value of developers has meant that, like traditional SaaS buyers before them, they also better intuit the value of their time and increasingly prefer businesses that can help alleviate the hassles of procurement, integration, management, and operations. Developer needs to address those hassles are specialized.

They are looking to deeply integrate products into their own applications and to do so, they need access to an Application Programming Interface, or API. Best practices for API onboarding include technical documentation, examples, and sandbox environments to test.

APIs tend to also offer metered billing upfront. For these and other reasons, APIs are a distinct subset of SaaS.

For fast-moving developers building on a global-scale, APIs are no longer a stop-gap to the future—they’re a critical part of their strategy. Why would you dedicate precious resources to recreating something in-house that’s done better elsewhere when you can instead focus your efforts on creating a differentiated product?

Thanks to this mindset shift, APIs are on track to create another SaaS-sized impact across all industries and at a much faster pace. By exposing often complex services as simplified code, API-first products are far more extensible, easier for customers to integrate into, and have the ability to foster a greater community around potential use cases.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.40.51 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Billion-dollar businesses building APIs

Whether you realize it or not, chances are that your favorite consumer and enterprise apps—Uber, Airbnb, PayPal, and countless more—have a number of third-party APIs and developer services running in the background. Just like most modern enterprises have invested in SaaS technologies for all the above reasons, many of today’s multi-billion dollar companies have built their businesses on the backs of these scalable developer services that let them abstract everything from SMS and email to payments, location-based data, search and more.

Simultaneously, the entrepreneurs behind these API-first companies like Twilio, Segment, Scale and many others are building sustainable, independent—and big—businesses.

Valued today at over $22 billion, Stripe is the biggest independent API-first company. Stripe took off because of its initial laser-focus on the developer experience setting up and taking payments. It was even initially known as /dev/payments!

Stripe spent extra time building the right, idiomatic SDKs for each language platform and beautiful documentation. But it wasn’t just those things, they rebuilt an entire business process around being API-first.

Companies using Stripe didn’t need to fill out a PDF and set up a separate merchant account before getting started. Once sign-up was complete, users could immediately test the API with a sandbox and integrate it directly into their application. Even pricing was different.

Stripe chose to simplify pricing dramatically by starting with a single, simple price for all cards and not breaking out cards by type even though the costs for AmEx cards versus Visa can differ. Stripe also did away with a monthly minimum fee that competitors had.

Many competitors used the monthly minimum to offset the high cost of support for new customers who weren’t necessarily processing payments yet. Stripe flipped that on its head. Developers integrate Stripe earlier than they integrated payments before, and while it costs Stripe a lot in setup and support costs, it pays off in brand and loyalty.

Checkr is another excellent example of an API-first company vastly simplifying a massive yet slow-moving industry. Very little had changed over the last few decades in how businesses ran background checks on their employees and contractors, involving manual paperwork and the help of 3rd party services that spent days verifying an individual.

Checkr’s API gives companies immediate access to a variety of disparate verification sources and allows these companies to plug Checkr into their existing on-boarding and HR workflows. It’s used today by more than 10,000 businesses including Uber, Instacart, Zenefits and more.

Like Checkr and Stripe, Plaid provides a similar value prop to applications in need of banking data and connections, abstracting away banking relationships and complexities brought upon by a lack of tech in a category dominated by hundred-year-old banks. Plaid has shown an incredible ramp these past three years, from closing a $12 million Series A in 2015 to reaching a valuation over $2.5 billion this year.

Today the company is fueling an entire generation of financial applications, all on the back of their well-built API.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.02 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Then and now

Accel’s first API investment was in Braintree, a mobile and web payment systems for e-commerce companies, in 2011. Braintree eventually sold to, and became an integral part of, PayPal as it spun out from eBay and grew to be worth more than $100 billion. Unsurprisingly, it was shortly thereafter that our team decided to it was time to go big on the category. By the end of 2014 we had led the Series As in Segment and Checkr and followed those investments with our first APX conference in 2015.

Plaid, Segment, Auth0, and Checkr had only raised Seed or Series A financings! And we are even more excited and bullish on the space. To convey just how much API-first businesses have grown in such a short period of time, we thought it would be useful perspective to share some metrics over the past five years, which we’ve broken out in the two visuals included above in this article.

While SaaS may have pioneered the idea that the best way to do business isn’t to actually build everything in-house, today we’re seeing APIs amplify this theme. At Accel, we firmly believe that APIs are the next big SaaS wave — having as much if not more impact as its predecessor thanks to developers at today’s fastest-growing startups and their preference for API-first products. We’ve actively continued to invest in the space (in companies like, Scale, mentioned above).

And much like how a robust ecosystem developed around SaaS, we believe that one will continue to develop around APIs. Given the amount of progress that has happened in just a few short years, Accel is hosting our second APX conference to once again bring together this remarkable community and continue to facilitate discussion and innovation.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.10 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Apr
03
2019
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Rippling raises $45M at $270M to be the biz app identity layer

Parker Conrad’s last startup, Zenefits, drowned in busy work. Now with Rippling, he wants to boil that ocean. Instead of trying to nail one thing then expand, “very counter to conventional wisdom, we took on something that’s a lot broader and more ambitious.” That meant spending two years with 40 engineers working in stealth to build integrations with nearly every popular business tool to combine HR, IT and single-sign on services. The result is that when you hire an employee, Rippling onboards them to all those services in a single click. Goodbye, busy work. Hello, gateway to the enterprise app ecosystem.

The past few years have seen a Cambrian explosion of startups building specialty software for office productivity and collaboration. But that’s left customers struggling to get their teams set up on all these fragmented tools. As such, Rippling had a very good first year on the market with rapidly growing revenue. So when Rippling went out to raise money, Conrad was signing term sheets in just over a week.

Forty-five million dollars. “I know that rounds are bigger these days, but still, for a Series A, that’s pretty substantial,” Conrad tells me with a wide grin over coffee at San Francisco’s Four Barrel. “We want to keep doubling down on the engineering, investing and putting more money into R&D, so we have real product advantages and technology advantages over other players in our space, even though a lot of them have been around a lot longer than we have.” The Information‘s Zoe Bernard had reported Rippling was raising at least $30 million.

Rippling’s round was led by Kleiner Perkins and its enterprise guru Mamoon Hamid. As Conrad tells me, “Many of the metrics you use to evaluate SaaS companies were invented by Mamoon. He really knows his stuff. He’s also just a really great person.” Kleiner was his dream partner for Rippling. “I remember when I was in high school, Kleiner Perkins was the only VC firm I’d ever heard of. When I was a little kid, I thought ‘Oh that’d be cool some day.’ ” The round was joined by Initialized Capital, Threshold Ventures (formerly DFJ) and Y Combinator.

A source confirms the round was a stunning $270 million valuation. Hamid was also skeptical about Rippling trying to integrate with everyone before launch. But, he says, “What was a concern a few years ago is now something we like about the company.” After getting pitched so many piecemeal enterprise solutions, it suddenly clicked for Hamid why customers would want “one stop for everything. You need an independent party to be that glue layer.” 

Typically, enterprise software is an unglued mess. Apps don’t talk to each other, so when you hire a new employee, you have to manually add them, their role, their team, their manager, their permissions and more to every single tool your team uses. There are HR systems that control payroll and benefits, IT systems that determine what equipment you’re issued, productivity and collaboration apps like Slack and Dropbox and department-specific tools like Salesforce or GitHub. Conrad believes manually updating these with each hire, fire or promotion is the source of almost all administrative work at a company.

The willingness to slog through office chores rather than strategically nullify them is why Zenefits grew so fast, then suddenly hit a wall. What can be begrudgingly brute-forced at 50 employees becomes impossible to manage at 500 employees. That’s why, he says, “We don’t want to have anything that’s not software end to end in the product.” If it requires a client to call Rippling’s operations team for help, it could be built better. That maniacal focus actually allowed Conrad to temporarily hold Rippling’s only role responding to user complaints, which he also credits with propelling rapid iteration. The CEO wants to remain in that mindset, so he still lists his job title on LinkedIn as “Customer Support.”

Conrad seems to have convinced investors that though he was pushed out of his $4.5 billion-valuation HR startup Zenefits, he was more responsible for its rise than its fall. Conrad had built a script that allowed Zenefits staffers to stay logged in to the study portion of their insurance exam. Conrad insists it played no part in helping them study for or pass the certification test. Still, regulators got involved, leading to his departure and a combined $1 million SEC fine for him and Zenefits. The desire to speed things up was another symptom of busy work draining the company’s time.

There were also culture issues, with Zenefits once having to tell employees not to have sex in the office stairwells. A more measured pace and a deeper commitment to diversity are a few other ways Rippling hopes to avoid the culture troubles of Conrad’s last venture.

Rippling only truly began hiring more than engineers when it came out of stealth a year ago. Now the startup has established two lucrative business models. First, it earns reseller fees from other enterprise tool makers when people buy them through the Rippling gateway. Any developer with a well-established brand becomes an integrated Rippling partner. It’s not going to try to out-build Zoom or Mailchimp. “As Rippling is successful, what I think it can do is bring a lot of customers to these other businesses. If you can bring down the marginal cost of adding an N+1 business system, there’s a lot less hesitation about adding products.” Customers want more utility, just without the headache.

Meanwhile, Rippling develops its own in-house versions of undifferentiated parts of the HR and IT stacks, like PTO management or commuter benefits. Customers aren’t loyal to a brand in these areas yet, so it’s easy for Rippling to swoop in. And it can charge a similar rate, but beat competitors on convenience because its homegrown systems integrate directly with Rippling’s source of truth on employee details. Upstarts in the single-sign on space like Okta and LastPass claim to be identity layers, but are really just password managers. And their early growth has spurred SaaS companies to build API endpoints on which Rippling’s version RPass can piggyback.

For a while I thought Slack would emerge as the enterprise identity provider because chat is such a ubiquitous need that it could be the start of a cross-app profile. But HR and IT are an even more foundational layer, and Slack doesn’t feel like a natural place to gather employee details like Rippling is. “For slack, communication and collaboration in general are a big enough opportunity to not let identity get in the way of the core business there,” says Hamid.

Now with Rippling’s business revving up and plenty of cash to fuel the engine, Conrad tells me his biggest concern is hiring the right people. “The really challenging thing in a company is when the headcount grows too quickly. I’m making sure we don’t do things like more than double headcount in a 12-month period,” he tells me. While Zenefits was a mad blitz for scale, Conrad has tried to bias Rippling toward action without being so impulsive that the company makes mistakes. “It’s never easy, but we’re not yet at the scale where things become really scary. We have a little bit more time to hit milestones. We’re growing at a healthy clip, but nothing that’s straining things in any way and we see that because we track our NPS very closely,” he says of trying to run a business at a more livable pace while being an active dad, too.

Luckily, Zenefits taught him how to avoid many of the pitfalls of entrepreneurship. Conrad concludes that he’s happy to have gone from “playing video games on impossible mode versus medium mode.”

Oct
10
2018
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Zenefits’ Parker Conrad returns with Rippling to kill HR & IT busywork

Parker Conrad likes to save time, even though it’s gotten him in trouble. The former CEO of Zenefits was pushed out of the $4.5 billion human resources startup because he built a hack that let him and employees get faster insurance certifications. But 2.5 years later, he’s back to take the busy work out of staff onboarding as well as clumsy IT services like single sign-on to enterprise apps. Today his startup Rippling launches its combined employee management system, which Conrad calls a much larger endeavor than the minimum viable product it announced while in Y Combinator’s accelerator 18 months ago.

“It’s not an HR system. It’s a level below that,” Conrad tells me. “It’s this unholy, crazy mashup of three different things.” First, it handles payroll, benefits, taxes and PTO across all 50 states. “Except Syria and North Korea, you can pay anyone in the world with Rippling,” Conrad claims. That makes it a competitor with Gusto… and Zenefits.

Second, it’s a replacement for Okta, Duo and other enterprise single-sign on security apps that authenticate staffers across partnered apps. Rippling bookmarklets make it easy to auth into over 250 workplace apps, like Gmail, Slack, Dropbox, Asana, Trello, AWS, Salesforce, GitHub and more. When an employee is hired or changes teams, a single modification to their role in Rippling automatically changes all the permissions of what they can access.

And third, it handles computer endpoint security like Jamf. When an employee is hired, Rippling can instantly ship them a computer with all the right software installed and the hard drive encrypted, or have staffers add the Rippling agent that enforces the company’s security standards. The system is designed so there’s no need for an expert IT department to manage it.

“Distributed, fragmented systems of record for employee data are secretly the cause of almost all the annoying administrative work of running a company,” Conrad explains. “If you could build this system that ties all of it together, you could eliminate all this crap work.” That’s Rippling. It’s opening up to all potential clients today, charging them a combined subscription or à la carte fees for any of the three wings of the product.

Conrad refused to say how much Rippling has raised total, citing the enhanced scrutiny Zenefits’ raises drew. But he says a Wall Street Journal report that Rippling had raised $7 million was inaccurate. “We haven’t raised any priced VC rounds. Just a bunch of seed money. We raised from Initialized Capital, almost all the early seed investors at Zenefits and a lot of individuals.” He cited Y Combinator, YC Growth Fund, YC’s founder Jessica Livingston and president Sam Altman, other YC partners, as well as DFJ and SV Angel.

“Because we were able to raise a bunch of money and court great engineers . . . we were able to spend a lot of time building this fundamental technology,” Conrad tells me. Rippling has about 50 team members now, with about 40 of them being engineers, highlighting just how thoroughly Conrad wants to eradicate manual work about work, starting with his own startup.

The CEO refused to discuss details of exactly what went down at Zenefits and whether he thought his ejection was fair. He was accused of allowing Zenefits’ insurance brokers to sell in states where they weren’t licensed, and giving some employees a macro that let them more quickly pass the online insurance certification exam. Conrad ended up paying about $534,000 in SEC fines. Zenefits laid off 430 employees, or 45 percent of its staff, and moved to selling software to small-to-medium sized businesses through a network of insurance brokers.

But when asked what he’d learned from Zenefits, Conrad looked past those troubles and instead recalled that “one of the mistakes that we made was that we did a lot stuff manually behind the scenes. When you scale up, there are these manual processes, and it’s really hard to come back later when it’s a big hard complicated thing and replace it with technology. You get upside down on margins. If you start at the beginning and never let the manual processes creep in . . . it sort of works.”

Perhaps it was trying to cut corners that got Conrad into the Zenefits mess, but now that same intention has inspired Rippling’s goal of eliminating HR and IT drudgery with an all-in-one tool.

“I think I’m someone who feels the pain of that kind of stuff particularly strongly. So that’s always been a real irritant to me, and I saw this problem. The conventional wisdom is ‘don’t build something like this, start with something much smaller,’ ” Conrad concludes. “But I knew if I didn’t do this, that no one else was gong to do it and I really wanted this system to exist. This is a company that’s all about annoying stuff and making that fucking annoying stuff go away.”

Mar
06
2018
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Justworks raises $40M to build a simpler business operations suite

 Isaac Oates runs a startup that’s looking to be a complete suite of operational tools like human resources and payroll for businesses — but he and his team initially didn’t get why users kept asking better reporting tools over and over again. It’s indicative of the constant push-and-pull startups and founders face when having to juggle the hopes and dreams of their own… Read More

Aug
23
2017
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Lumity raises $19M to simplify employee health care choices

 As companies get bigger and bigger, their needs are going to change — including, probably most importantly, their options for health care as their employee base expands and the costs of those plans start to balloon. But the end result is that employees could be presented with a confusing set of plans to pick from without a whole lot of guidance. There’s where Lumity comes in.… Read More

Mar
14
2017
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Zenefits founder Parker Conrad takes another crack at HR onboarding

 Parker Conrad’s last venture at Zenefits didn’t end so well with his departure as CEO and the company having to re-orient itself. But he’s once again starting a company that will figure out how to build an employee system of record and management, starting off with smoothing out the process of on-boarding employees and focusing on other major life events for those… Read More

Jan
31
2017
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Zenefits launches new tools for employee compliance and looks to simplify pricing

zenefits documents app Zenefits today said it would be introducing new pricing tiers in an effort to simplify them, as well as add new tools for HR managers to ensure that employees are getting their documents in and they are compliant with regulations. The new tools — and pricing — are another way that Zenefits is trying to differentiate itself as an all-in-one platform for managing employee records… Read More

Oct
05
2016
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Zenefits makes licensing compliance app available for free in the Salesforce App Exchange

disrupt_sf16_david_sacks-3705 Zenefits announced this week, it was making a licensing compliance app it created in-house to ensure its sales people are properly licensed to sell insurance in a given state, available for free to anyone to download from the Salesforce App Exchange. Last winter Zenefits was sailing along providing HR services in the cloud for small and medium businesses when a bombshell hit. Buzzfeed… Read More

Sep
13
2016
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CEO David Sacks on moving on from Zenefits’ troubled past

disrupt_sf16_david_sacks-3714 Zenefits at one point was one of the fastest growing software companies in the world, rocketing to a $4.5 billion valuation in 18 months. It was on track to generate tens of millions of dollars in annual recurring revenue. Then, everything went south; regulators started investigating the company, and its CEO Parker Conrad was fired from the company earlier this year. In short, it’s been… Read More

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