The founders of a new Australian startup that aims to improve workplace communications have an ambitious goal: to build the next Atlassian or Culture Amp.
And if anyone has insight into what it takes to build unicorns in the HR and workplace tech space, it’s likely to be Jon Williams and Joris Luijke.
Williams is one of the co-founders of Culture Amp, while Luijke was previously vice president of people at Atlassian and Squarespace.
Together, the pair founded Pyn one year ago, and this week announced the startup has raised US$2.21 million ($3.1 million) in seed funding from a number of high-profile investors, who also have links to Atlassian.
The funding round was led by Silicon Valley-based Accel Partners, and Accel general partner Rich Wong is joining the Pyn board.
Wong led Atlassian’s US$60 million Series A round 10 years ago, and is investing in Pyn alongside Skip Capital, the investment firm of Kim Jackson and Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar.
Atlassian president Jay Simons also participated in the round.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Luijke says the funding came about after he and Williams explained their business to Wong during a sushi lunch, at Wong’s invitation.
“Rich reached out to us — we had just built a prototype,” he explains.
“He said, ‘you’re on a winner here, you’re the team that can make it happen, you’ve got deep experience in the field’”, Luijke says.
“He said he invests in both founders and ideas; ideas need to be big enough, and founders need to be capable enough.”
While Williams says the pair had initially planned on bootstrapping Pyn, the opportunity to work with Wong was too good to pass up.
At the same time, the founders also shared their plans with Kim Jackson and Scott Farquhar, who were excited about the idea and that Wong was going to be involved.
“Then it was a natural step for them to get involved as well,” Luijke says.
“And during one of our customer visits to San Francisco, we caught up with Jay [Simons], who I would come to for advice all the time at Atlassian, and he said he’d love to invest too.”
“Employees are screaming out for clarity”
Pyn aims to improve workplace communication by marrying together traditional corporate and HR communications with marketing techniques, such as personalisation, scheduling and automation.
The idea is that at key moments in an employee’s work, such as their first day or when they get a promotion, Pyn helps their employer send them highly relevant and targeted messages to help in that moment.
The technology integrates with other communication tools such as Slack, Workday, Salesforce and Zendesk to collect data about when employees need information, and what information they need. At the same time, the product also allows employees to control how they receive the messages.
Luijke says Pyn has a number of “early adopters” already using the tech, and while it is still early days, “it’s really promising to see the interest from customers and people using the product”.
While Pyn is not strictly designed for only remote teams, the widespread shift to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic has strengthened the need for personalised, targeted communications, says the founder.
“Obviously, the complexity of work and communications with workers has really become more difficult with people working remotely,” he says.
“If you think about the average company leader, they don’t have people sitting next to them anymore. For them to know what’s going on with employees, and communicate all the information they need, it is so much more important.”
It’s about giving people the “right info at the right time”, he adds.
It’s also the case that employees may be feeling overwhelmed by the volume of communications they now need to shift through, Luijke says, but for the most part, these communications are generic and not tailored to individuals’ circumstances.
“Employees are screaming out for clarity; there’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment,” he says.
Employers that use the Pyn system are given access to a library of content to use when sending out information to employees, which they can then edit.
Luijke gives the example of when someone becomes a manager for the first time. The company’s HR system would show this person now has direct reports, and one of the first things this person might need to do is have one-on-one meetings with those direct reports. Using Pyn, the employer could access content relevant to this new manager, and then customise it to suit the particular circumstances.
Pyn is also making some of this content available for free to companies currently working remotely, via a “Make Remote Work, Work” pack, which is available on its website.
Big challenge, big opportunity
Pyn is itself a small company — alongside Luijke and Williams, the company employs two engineers in Sydney (who are also ex-Atlassian) and a third employee in San Francisco — but the founders are looking to grow the team.
“We want to hire some folks … and we’ve been contacting a bunch of folks from San Francisco who are Australian,” Luijke says.
“With the situation in the US, they are looking back to their home country with promising eyes and thinking maybe we should come home.”
The founders didn’t necessarily intend for Pyn to be a remote workplace, but the company is currently operating that way by default. It does mean they are learning more about the product they are building, Luijke says.
Being able to spend time focusing on getting the product right, and working with an early cohort of customers, is something that is made possible by the seed funding, Williams says.
Having Wong involved was “one of the biggest parts” of taking on the investment, the founder says, but it also means the team doesn’t need to “chase customers”.
“We bootstrapped Culture Amp, so it can be done, but this means it is more flexible,” he says.
Reflecting on his time at Culture Amp, Williams says while scaling the startup was “not easy” in any sense, it was a process he enjoyed.
“I had a great time building Culture Amp and want to do it again,” he says, when asked if the goal with Pyn is to emulate Culture Amp and Atlassian’s success.
“Part of my motivation to do it is to see what actually counts and what doesn’t count.
“When you’re scaling up, it’s hectic, and you don’t always get to reflect.”
For Luijke, the motivation comes from the opportunity to flip the traditional methods of HR on its head.
“For me, there are a whole lot of departments [within organisations] that are proactive in the way they work, but more often than not, people and culture is reactive,” Luijke says.
Human resource departments are “inundated” with requests from different parts of a business and employees are always seeking more clarity and more training.
“What this tool allows us to do is become more proactive in serving the needs of the organisation, and that’s very exciting to me.”
“This problem area is so big, it touches every employee,” he adds.
“With a big challenge comes a big opportunity for us too.”