TriNet wants to help the CEO I should be, not the CEO I am

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 23, 2014

From The News Desk

Late last week, I met with executives from TriNet to talk about their new software releases, designed to help make product oriented CEOs (like me) into actually functional CEOs qualified to, yunno, actually run businesses and be trusted with millions of dollars. Pando isn't a TriNet customer, but I know a little about them since they sponsored some of our events.

I don’t know if this bodes well or not for TriNet’s efforts but, as I watched the demo and talked to them about their shift in strategy towards more flexible a la cart products, I started to become convinced that I was a way worse CEO than I thought. Their latest application to come out of private beta this week is called "Perform" and focuses on performance reviews. They're in essence trying to automate something I don't even do. I mean, I think I tried those once and have some goals for my team sketched out on a sticky note somewhere. I suck.

I’ve long believed that software shouldn’t be designed for the people we wish we were, but the people we are. (I actually ripped that off from an interview with Sequoia Capital’s Roelof Botha.) This is why I tend to be short on fitness apps, budgeting apps, and general make you better apps. And sadly, I’m usually right in my concerns. We all know we have shitty habits and don’t necessarily need software to remind us about it.

Put another way: The reason fitness clubs are such great businesses is that you are locked into paying for a set time and most of us never go to the gym as much as we hope when we sign the contract. So it's all upside for the gym. But in an app/Web world, engagement is what counts. Getting all gung ho after New Years and then going back to your old habits is good for offline health and fitness; bad for online health and fitness.

But there’s a difference between the consumer you and the work you. If I neglect to floss daily, well, only my dentist will be pissed. If I (keep) neglecting to keep performance records of my team, Pando could get sued or worse. I simply can’t be the “real me” and be a CEO. I have to be the better me. Or I just don’t deserve the job.

And that's what I like about TriNet’s approach: It’s somewhere between the you that you read about in management books and the you you actually are. Case in point: Anyone can add performance notes on the fly about an employee -- even a social media like “thumbs up” on a sales presentation. You can make these private or public; all positive, or positive and negative-- thus, customizing it to your culture, an optimizing for community or total honesty. And when you go to do a quarterly or annual review all of those many little data points are there.

What would make it eight jillion times better: A mobile app so I could enter things like this on the fly. I’m typically in a line somewhere or traffic when it occurs to me that say, Nathaniel Mott, has been doing a particularly great job of late. TriNet executives say one is coming soon, likely next quarter. It probably should have been prioritized. It’s the only reason I’m not using it right now. Because there’s already too much other shit commanding my attention when I’m on my laptop. I know I won’t take the time to write thoughtful notes about each employee. I just won’t.

For TriNet, this launch is more than just an add on to its existing services and tools that help CEOs be less-shit/ more-compliant CEOs. It’s another step towards a pretty mega-change in strategy to entrench its position as a newly public company. And-- in a quirk of today’s markets-- it’s so far a public company that has neither outrageously surged nor disastrously tanked.

TriNet was historically about outsourced accounting and HR services for small and medium sized businesses-- frequently high growth ones in the Valley. Its main competitors are names like ADP, Insperity and Paychex. But the market is muddying with the broader cloud explosion. Advisor -- a startup-friendly accounting firm that Pando used to share offices with-- has recently spun off its services division to focus on becoming a product company, while BackOps has raised in excess of $8 million to organize an army of moms to do your accounting.

Meanwhile, Workday -- which has absolutely had its way with HR competitors at the cloud enterprise level-- could always move downstream to smaller companies.

TriNet-- like others-- has been wrestling with whether it should stay long on services (inexperienced CEOs like me need handholding) or go all in on super intuitive software (it scales!) or some mix of the two. TriNet decided to do both, and acquired tiny ExpenseCloud back in May 2012 to make it possible. (As Pando’s Michael Carney sleuthed out first.) This release is another fruit of that deal, with former ExpenseCloud CEO Eric Sikola leading the division.

TriNet has previously released cloud-based premium/freemium software modules around HR tasks like travel booking (Jesus, does Pando need a better system on that one too…) and expenses (which we handle through Expensify just fine.) There are other cloud apps for tracking billable hours and an online libary of courses. And this is an interesting one: It offers a “marketplace” for full-service TriNet customers that allows them to get deals on everything from professional services to MacBooks. More is coming.

From a marketing perspective, this is as much about the funnel as it is about holding off future software-only competitors. Steve Apfelberg, TriNet’s VP of marketing, notes that a typical sales cycle for TriNet services is about three months. But these try-before-you-buy modules are easy to pick up in a matter of hours. To wit: After decades in business, TriNet has about 9,000 full service customers, making up some 240,000 employees across them all. The cloud services have about 10,000 companies using them already.

As soon as Perform gets a mobile app, I’m going to try it. Let’s see if software designed to make me a better CEO can do better than an app designed to make me, say, floss more or balance my checkbook regularly.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]