Payroll Hero’s Mike Stephenson talks about company and culture building

Amazon Web Services (AWS) plays a profound role in helping the startup eco-system globally as well as in ASEAN. The AWS cloud platform powers many of the most successful startups, and the AWS team in the region works closely with numerous startups. Pieter Kemps drives a variety of activities with startups, accelerators, and Venture Capital firms.  In the Founder Series, Pieter interviews founders and CEO’s of successful startups on key topics that are relevant for startup founders, entrepreneurs and the wider startup community.

In this episode, Pieter speaks with Mike Stephenson, Founder of PayrollHero, a startup that is known for its ability to attract the best engineers through the concept of “Adventure Engineering”. We thought this showcased a great example of company and culture building in a startup, which is the topic of this interview.

PK: Mike, can you tell us something about yourself and how you are involved in PayrollHero?

PayrollHero is the fifth technology focused company my partner Stephen Jagger and I have started. In the last 13 years, we have exited two startups, pivoted one startup  and closed another. In 2000, Stephen and I set up our first business and our journey has taken us through a few different industries and all over the world.  Our latest venture, PayrollHero was born out of our own need that we identified with a previous startup.We came to the Philippines in 2008 to setup an outsourcing company. The goal was to offshore our customer service for another software company of ours and we figured that getting into the outsourcing business was the right move at the time. The financial crisis was in full effect and we saw an opportunity to help companies cut costs while still growing their businesses by outsourcing customer service.  For three years I lived in the Philippines, building out our outsourcing company and it was that experience that allowed me to see the need for a time, attendance, scheduling and payroll solution.  The platforms we were familiar with in Canada and the U.S. were not available here. So I pitched the idea to Stephen that we build out a prototype on our own, as an internal product to our business. We showed other Southeast Asia business owners our tool and they all expressed an interest in using it within their businesses.  It was those early conversations and market validation that helped us decide to get into the payroll, time, attendance and scheduling space for Southeast Asia with the goal of being the market leader.

PK: What exactly is PayrollHero and how has the company grown so far? What has been the role of talented developers in your startup’s growth?

PayrollHero disrupts workplace sadness around the globe with a patent pending orchestra of happiness disruption. PayrollHero provides a time, attendance, scheduling and payroll platform built for web and mobile. It is targeted at companies with many employees that work on time schedules – think retail, fast food chains, call centers, etc. With PayrollHero, an employee takes a self-portrait with our Team Photobooth to clock in. This has two purposes. First, it brings an element of fun to the workplace for the employee and, second, PayrollHero uses the employee’s face as the biometric to eliminate ghost employees and buddy punching, a real issue with these types of jobs. PayrollHero offers a transparent, data rich experience to both the employee and employer. Here is an overview of how PayrollHero works.

The importance of a talented team is huge. We launched an engineering-focused office in Whistler, Canada, a year ago that is home to some seriously smart, cool and experienced engineers hailing from France, England, Australia, U.S., India, Canada and the Philippines. This incredible diversity has been the key to our success.

PK: Many companies in this region complain about the challenges of finding employees, especially strong engineering talent. What is your experience with PayrollHero?

There is a challenge worldwide for finding “A” players.  Startups everywhere struggle with finding and retaining top level talent.  We struggled with it in the Philippines to the point where we made a drastic decision and opened a second, engineering specific office in Whistler, Canada.  While it is not ideal to have our team split up, we have found that using technology and adjusting how our team interacts has made it a real success. Plus, we coined the term #AdventureEngineer to explain how we work. This really spoke to a huge subset of engineers from all over the world who were looking for exactly what we were offering and hence, has allowed us to attract talent more easily.

PK: Adventure Engineering sounds like an interesting concept. Can you tell us more about what it is and how it works?

We focused a retreat on discovering our shared core values. These values define how we make decisions; what to chase and when to say “No”. Adventure Engineering is defined as “An unusual and exciting experience or activity built around a flexible work schedule”. Check out this video to learn more.

Essentially, Adventure Engineering is built on the concept of “work hard, play hard”. For our engineers, it means a combination of work, learn, travel, outdoors, health and all of that built around flexible schedules. We allow our engineers to work out of our Manila office parts of the year, and out of Whistler, Canada’s main ski resort an hour out of Vancouver for the rest of the year. The use of Scrum means that work is managed around tasks and it doesn’t matter from where or even when these tasks are worked on, as long as they complete in time. Snowboarding during the day, coding in the afternoon and evening? No problem. But get the job done. That flexibility and combination of adventure, fun, and great results is what Adventure Engineering is all about.

PK: Many people focus their early days on Product and on Funding. I see pitches for customers, and pitches for capital, but never for employees. What is your view on the importance of company & culture building for startups?

We feel that having that right team is a key to achieving the big goals we have set out for ourselves. And, to stand out amongst the noise we knew we needed to have a compelling offer to attract top level talent. We have found pay is only one of the things employees are looking for.  The right challenge, the team, the environment they work in, and the tools they use all contribute to a happy workplace.

As an example of what I’m talking about, outside of our Adventure Engineer offering, we work to provide the right desks, chairs, rig, monitors, etc. for our team.  We spend our money on those items and not on things that don’t matter.  Walk into the Manila office and you will see garbage bags for curtains to keep the sun out.  Curtains would not help us make PayrollHero better. We just needed something to block the sun.  In Whistler, the walls of the office are not even painted.  But everyone has their own Herman Miller chair, dual monitors, etc.  The tools and the focus on things that matter are far more important and are a part of our culture.

PK. Finally, is there any advice you can share that could benefit other startups?

Understand your core values and empower your team to make decisions independently based on them.

PayrollHero leverages EC2 for their web and app services, and uses Amazon RDS for their managed MySQL database. Amazon S3 is used for storage and CloudFront for Content Distribution. They have built a Highly Available architecture across multiple Availability Zones using Amazon’s Elastic Load Balancers, as well as Amazon’s queuing service (SQS) and notification service (SNS).