Learn “the craft” of product management and transform your business, Lisa Reeves, CPO, Zenefits

Startup Victoria’s Growth Club gives scaleup founders access to real world experience on building a high-growth business, from successful founders, technology executives and investors. 

This December, Growth Club members had the opportunity to hear from the incredibly experienced and exited founder, investor and tech executive, Lisa Reeves. 

Lisa has been in tech since the 90s, beginning her career at the German software behemoth SAP, where she worked for over a decade. She has since worked at a number of other software companies in executive roles, including as Co-Founder and CEO of GridCraft, which was acquired by Workday in 2015.

These days, Lisa is part of the executive team at the Silicon Valley HR scaleup Zenefits, where she leads Product, UX & Strategy.

She joined Zenefits as a part of a completely fresh executive team in 2017, tasked with resetting the business after they got themselves into hot water with a licensing scandal, an infamous cowboy culture and VC spending gone wild.

This Growth Club, Lisa talks about “the craft” of product management, and how she used it to reform their product and turn things around for a company that was in dire straits. 

A Silicon Valley redemption story 

Zenefits was one of the fastest growing software companies in Silicon Valley until 2016, when the company was upended by a scandal that threatened the future of the company.

Before then, Zenefits had been held up as a Silicon Valley success story. It was blessed with rocketing growth, raising over $500 million in their series-C round of funding. 

Zenefits was disrupting the employee benefits industry. They gave fully-featured employee management and payroll software for free, then made their money selling employee benefits to employers. 

All of that changed when Zenefits was charged by several US legislators for operating without the proper licenses to sell insurance and then by the SEC for misleading investors. The future that had looked so promising for Zenefits suddenly looked a lot less bright. 

Four years on, Zenefits has a completely new C-suite team at the helm, with almost 50 per cent fewer staff than they had at their peak. 

They made their comeback by dramatically transforming their businesses culture, structure, and, incredibly, even their product. 

Zenefits is no longer a benefits broker, having pivoted to delivering their software – previously given away for free – as their core product. Today they offer a true software platform including HR, Benefits, Payroll, Performance, Engagement and Wellbeing. Now the customer can bring their own broker or can use one of the company’s certified broker partners.

The new Chief Product Officer to drive this massive transformation was Lisa Reeves.

The craft of product management

Zenefits had to completely transform if it was to survive. 

Lisa says that this transformation was accomplished by leveraging the unique skills of people from diverse professional backgrounds – who she calls “domain experts” – and showing them how to apply that expertise to the craft of product management. 

The craft is a holistic approach to developing products. 

Under Lisa, Zenefits applies the methodologies of scrum and agile, managing a cohesive vision for the product across the company through product management leaders. 

These leaders not only grow the product through strategic vision, product research, market trends, product best practices, and customer data collection such as NPS. They also empower people within the organisation to bring their own unique and varied skill sets to the product management process.

“What we took were some of the folks that were in more operational roles but aspired to be a product manager,” she says.

“We brought them in as associate product managers – we knew that they had the domain expertise – and we taught them the craft.”

For your business, this might mean facilitating movement between sales and marketing, or between product and engineering, to cross-pollinate those departments with new knowledge and perspectives. 

In Zenefits’ case, this approach was used to capitalise on the benefits industry experience that they had built up over the early years of the company. They were able to use their deep benefits domain experience to build knowledge of that industry into an HR platform that better met the needs of their customers.

Applying the craft to solve a product problem

When Zenefits left the brokerage game, it meant shifting focus to their free-platform and turning it into a sustainable business.

The free model meant that Zenefits’ customer base was made up of a lot of very small businesses, sometimes with only a couple of employees, which also meant very high churn.

How did they make that change? 

“We totally retooled the offering for the sub 50 employee company,” Lisa says.

Instead of exclusively focusing energy on trying to drive larger deals, which have a long sales cycle, Zenefits focused on improving the experience for smaller customers who liked to buy and set-up on their own.

“We retooled the whole experience, going from the point of hitting our website, into a 14-day trial and then converting over to paid. It is now pretty much self service.”

Transitioning existing customers from a free to paid product was another challenge, managed over a two-year period. 

“We gave them archive capabilities and other ways that they could access their data,” she says, saying that it was important for customers to “know they had plenty of transition time.” 

“It was a carefully managed transaction, over a long period of time and for us it was really about showing the value.” 

By taking care of the smaller customers first, with a focus on adding value to their experience, Zenefits ensured that these customers would benefit from Zenefits’ offering with minimal need for support. 

This freed up the team to focus more of their capacity developing up-market features for larger customers with more sophisticated requirements. 

“I’m really happy with the way Zenefits evolved. We were pulled upmarket and to larger and larger customers.” 

Lisa Reeves on Moving to Freemium

A renewed Zenefits

Of course, it can be a massive challenge to completely pivot a product at the best of times, let alone after the company had just downsized by almost 50 per cent. 

Lisa and her team at Zenefits have been able to do it through a leadership that has not only focused on building a great product, but reforming the culture and how teams work with one another. 

Through this process Zenefits has transformed their business, and their reputation. 

“I would say there’s now a lot of respect for our customer focus,” Lisa says. 

“There’s no one at Zenefits, no matter how senior, that isn’t willing to pick up a phone or hop on a Zoom call to offer customer care. We’re very hands on to make customers successful.”

“I think that kind of leadership really starts at the top and works it with its way down the organization.”