‘We’re seeing competition heat up quite dramatically in communications tech’

14 Jul 2020

Joe Lennon. Image: Workvivo

Workvivo’s Joe Lennon discusses the ‘drastic increase’ in focus on internal comms in recent months, how his company is responding, and why flexibility is important for tech teams.

Joe Lennon is one of the founders of Workvivo, a Cork-based company that is developing workplace communications tools. The business has been expanding in recent months and raised €14.7m in Series A funding in May.

Lennon has a background in tech, previously working for CoreHR and Vearsa. He founded a music start-up in 2015, before joining forces with John Goulding to start Workvivo in 2017.

‘We’ve seen organisations large and small shift how they fundamentally operate almost overnight’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m chief technology officer and co-founder of Workvivo. We’re an internal communications software platform that helps companies to create a better relationship with their employees.

I’m responsible for the product management, software engineering and technology strategy in Workvivo. I like to get my hands dirty and am never happier than when I’m delving deep into the code myself.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I find that the best way to keep on top of things is to keep lists, and to keep them short. I try to map out the next day, week and month in bullet lists of no more than five items each.

I bounce between old-fashioned pen and paper and using a simple notes app like Bear or Apple Notes for this. I’ve tried many times to use apps like Things and OmniFocus, but found I spent more time managing the tools than anything else so always end up back with the basics.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

It’s fair to say that the events of the past few months have led to a drastic increase in focus on internal communications within companies.

We’ve seen organisations large and small shift how they fundamentally operate almost overnight, and platforms like ours have gone from being important to the business to now being mission-critical for their efficient operation. This is of course a positive, but it also adds an increased pressure as companies have a stronger reliance on our product than ever before.

We’re also seeing the competition in the space heat up quite dramatically in recent months –  the demand for solutions in communications technology is incredibly high right now, and this is driving a lot of innovation and the forming of new start-ups.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Our sector is probably one of the only ones which has grown due to Covid-19. Not only are we seeing significantly higher demand for our products, but we’re also seeing a major change in how quickly customers want to move through the selection and implementation process.

Large enterprise organisations that previously would have taken many months to make a decision to purchase are now doing so in weeks – or even days in some cases.

One major opportunity we’re capitalising on is a shift in focus that we’re seeing in the market. Companies are increasingly looking beyond the one-size-fits-all solution from a traditional big vendor, preferring to use multiple best-of-breed solutions from smaller vendors instead. Integration with the major platforms across the ecosystem is a defining pillar of our product strategy.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I started Workvivo with my co-founder John Goulding back in 2017. Prior to this, we worked together on the executive management team of CoreHR, an enterprise payroll and HR software company.

When we started Workvivo, we set out a number of guiding principles that would shape how we built the company. One of the earliest decisions was to build the first version of the product in tandem with real, paying customers. Rather than go into stealth mode for 12 to 18 months and launch an unproven new product to the market, we instead injected ourselves into a handful of fantastic companies, all of whom went on to become our earliest customers.

It was from our earliest meetings, feedback and reviews from Morgan McKinley, Staffordshire University, Trigon Hotels and Voxpro that we really learned what a product needed to do to help companies to improve employee engagement.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Before starting Workvivo, I founded a music software company, Subwoofr. I went against all the advice and warnings that people gave me – that making money in music is hard, that raising money in music tech is even harder, and that I was crazy to start a company in a sector I had virtually no experience in.

There were a lot of things I learned through this experience, but I learned more about myself and what I wanted from life more than anything else. I also learned that it’s okay to make mistakes, but also the importance of adapting so as not to repeat them. People often glorify failure as a rite of passage founders must go through, but the truth is that failure is incredibly debilitating and can have a significant negative impact on your mental health.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By getting out of their way and letting them do their job. In my view, a leader should pave a pathway, and then let their team walk it for themselves. I also believe in hands-on leadership – you set the best example for everyone else if you are in the trenches with your sleeves rolled up and working hard on things they can relate to.

The nature of software engineering is that the effort to output ratio is not always linear – sometimes an engineer will be super productive and get through work many times faster than ‘normal’. Other times they will be completely out of flow and struggle to be productive at all.

This can be challenging to manage when you have looming deadlines, but if you are working with good people you should be able to be flexible and understanding about how they work, and give them the time and space to do it in a way that works for them.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Yes, definitely. One problem I see with diversity is that many companies are primarily concerned with the optics around diversity, rather than deeply caring about the underlying problem itself.

I really admire Twitter’s approach to diversity and inclusion. They’re not perfect and they’ll freely admit that, but you get a strong sense that they really do care. A big part of this is transparency – they’ve set open targets for 2025 that at least half of their global workforce will be women and that at least a quarter of their US workforce will be under-represented minorities. They publicly publish their progress regularly.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I worked very closely with Mike Murphy for many years at CoreHR – he is now the chief executive of MakoData. It was Mike who put his faith in me to move into a management role at CoreHR despite being in my early twenties, and his approach to leadership very much influences my own today.

My motto is to be a solution person, not a problem person, and that very much stems from the time I worked for Mike. Finally, he taught me how important it is to have a laugh and enjoy your work. If it’s not fun, then what’s the point?

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, is a great book
  • Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson has been the bible for a remote workforce long before Covid-19
  • Stripe have a publishing company, Stripe Press, that has some excellent books on various topics – The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming is a great example.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I recently invested in a 38-inch ultra-wide monitor and it’s been a game changer for me. Software-wise, I usually have a ton of developer tools open all day long – Visual Studio Code, iTerm, TablePlus, iOS Simulator and Google Chrome Developer Tools.

We use GitHub for managing our source code and code reviews and it’s fundamental to how we operate as an engineering team. We also regularly use a great product called Tuple to do remote pair programming, as well as Zoom for more traditional conference calls and team meetings.

As for resources, I usually keep up to date by checking Hacker News daily. I also spend far too much time on Twitter.

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