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Kutik on digital transformation: Why Zenefits sells no benefits!

Bill Kutik
HR Technology columnist Bill Kutik, as chairman emeritus, is at the 22nd Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Las Vegas, Oct. 1-4, 2019. Watch Kim Billeter, the new Americas Lead for EY HR advisory group (PAS), discuss the question: Why is Cloud adoption taking so long? Just six minutes for the current video episode of Firing Line with Bill Kutik®. Bill can be reached at [email protected].

Responding to its well-publicized troubles, Zenefits now has its third management team in two years. And they’ve done more of an “about face” with the famous small company HCM vendor than a mere “pivot.”

You remember Zenefits: the high-flying HCM vendor for small companies, once valued at a staggering $4.5 billion and called the “fastest growing SaaS company in history.” I first wrote about it in November 2014, just before venture capitalists created that valuation by investing more than $500 million when Zenefits had fewer than 500 employees and about 2,000 tiny customers, none of which were paying for its software.

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Storm clouds appeared on the horizon the following year.

Briefly, the company made its money selling health insurance to its subscribers. It had allowed its brokers to sell in states where they weren’t licensed, and some company employees used a software program to speed up state-insurance-licensing tests. Plus the office evidently felt like a frat house.

Zenefits launches Z2

With dangerous and expensive legal issues and so much money at stake, somebody had to fall on a sword or get thrown under the bus. That somebody was founding CEO Parker Conrad, who left the company.

His replacement as CEO, former COO David Sacks (of PayPal fame), spent almost a year focused on fixing compliance issues and reforming the culture. He led a company re-launch called Z2 (like Ver 2).

The tough changes, however, were left to the next management team announced in February. It’s led by two experienced executives, who know start-ups and that HR does not mean “home run”: CEO Jay Fulcher, a former executive vice president at PeopleSoft in the late Dave Duffield days; and Jeff Carr, who has worked almost continuously for HCM vendors for nearly 30 years. (He began his HR career as a young salesman at Dave’s company before PeopleSoft, Integral Systems.)

Jeff’s work history seems to have prepared him for this job: CEO at PeopleFluent, president of Saba, COO at Taleo, CEO at Motiva, president at RightWorks and EVP at PeopleSoft.

In July, Jeff recruited Kevin Marasco, who worked with him at Taleo and is widely recognized as the most creative marketing executive in HCM. Other executive hires include a new product head from Workday, along with a new CFO, CTO, CHRO, and heads of engineering and security. (Maybe the same janitor still works at Zenefits?)

The biggest change at Zenefits, of course, was its getting out of the insurance brokerage business, effectively cutting off its largest revenue stream and the reason for its name! But it is still retaining its sophisticated benefits software, continuing to offer functionality for FSA and HSA that many of its customers don’t have–at least not yet.

Transforming to the cloud

Clients that used Zenefits as their insurance broker are being transferred to OneDigital, which has 1,000 benefits advisors across the country and will use Zenefits’ benefits software. Other brokerage partners are being sought for what Zenefits now calls its Certified Broker Partner Program. Zenefits will still get its cut, but it won’t be on the bleeding edge of the digital brokerage business.

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Many have commented on the irony of Zenefits now embracing the insurance brokers it once tried to disintermediate. But that allowed it to become a pure software company.

Naturally, nobody gets the software for free anymore. The company spent the first half of the year migrating its several categories of clients–free (with insurance and without), and old monthly and yearly payment plans–to its new structure. Jeff says 70 percent of its customers have moved over.

That leaves Zenefits as a cloud company with about 10,000 clients–averaging 50to100 employees each–and a sharply reduced workforce reflecting its narrower mission. Its workforce was trimmed 45 percent, from 930 employees at the beginning of 2017 to 500 by year-end.

Although Zenefits likes to advertise itself as “All-in-one-HR,” it still lacks the modules that many HCM vendors before it (including Workday) wrote last: talent acquisition and learning. Small-company partners are available for those functions in its apps directory.

Nearly 50 companies are already in that directory, which Zenefits is trying to make like Apple’s Apps Store. The idea is the selection and integration of any application is as easy as pressing on an icon. I’ve long thought Zenefits’ competitive discriminator is working like your smartphone, not just looking like it. And experts agree that the future is not one system platform, but an ecosystem of vendors.

Zenefits always offered clients connections to payroll providers, but now offers its own system covering 47 states and the District of Columbia, with the final three states being finished. It includes federal and state tax filing, with other features under construction.

I was surprised when Jeff expressed his surprise that small-company prospects were so interested in payroll. ADP learned that 69 years ago!

For clients still outsourcing, Zenefits has developed Pay Connect, a bi-directional integration product aimed at small payroll vendors such as Intuit. Larger providers, however, are being approached. (Paychex is already using Pay Connect to migrate existing common customers with Zenefits.)

The future? Swim upstream, of course. Engineering is already adding roles and permission, plus variable workflows, so Zenefits can meet the needs of customers with up to 1,000 employees. Freed from the constraints of the brokerage business, Jeff believes Zenefits can scale to 500-employee companies today.

Back in February, PC Magazine did a “Software Showdown” between Zenefits and its closest competitor BambooHR. Zenefits won by a nose, so why not move onward and upward?