Polly’s CEO Looks at Products that Succeed Under the Radar

Remote Learning

Transcript

Mark:

Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Pfeffer. Bilal Aijazi is my guest today. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Polly. They have an engagement app that was purpose built to work in the environments of solutions like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. We’re going to talk about the company’s priorities, the potential of applications like this one, and how they’ll be good to use on this edition of People Tech. Bilal, thanks for coming in.

Mark:

One of the things that I’ve noticed about Polly is you talk about working in the environments like Slack and Teams and what have you, do you only distribute through those kinds of solutions or do you have other mechanisms as well?

Bilal:

So we call each one of those areas that we work in surfaces. So Slack and Teams are definitely key surfaces for us and more recently Zoom as well. But we recently launched the ability to actually take a Polly with you anywhere on the web and get those responses and get your feedback anywhere where work is happening. And so for us, we view each surface as a unique opportunity to drive specific types of feedback based on what’s happening in that workplace. But we are continually expanding the surfaces that we operate on. And ultimately for us, that means enabling feedback anywhere where work is happening.

Mark:

Can you give me an example of that, how you pair the work and what’s happening there with the information you want to collect?

Bilal:

Yeah, absolutely. So I think all hands tends to be a really great type of scenario for us. So whether it’s an all hands or a town hall, something where you need feedback from a lot of people and you want it kind of before, during and after the meeting and there’s key phases in how that feedback is collected. So just to give you an example, if you’re a Slack or Team first organization, you can send your Polly out to a channel that you might have, that’s dedicated to the all hands. So we here at Polly, we have in all hands channel where every month, before our all hands be able to collect questions gather topics and that kind of thing. And then you can just take that Polly that you’ve been running in Slack or Teams create a link out of it and share that live during the Zoom or Teams conversation that you’re having.

Bilal:

But again, given the world of remote, not everybody may be able to join that all hands live. Some people may be watching the recording. Some people may just be looking at the transcript afterwards, and you still want those people to be able to participate and have an opportunity to have their voice be heard. So you can keep that link open for some time after the all hands and enable capturing feedback on the full cycle. So that’s an example of a workflow that transitions from an asynchronous channel based communication to a synchronous meeting, but then goes back to asynchronous as people are consuming it in different forms.

Mark:

All this talk about the flow of work makes me wonder about companies who have spent crazy amounts of money to build an interface, to build a user experience. And now there’s companies like yours coming along. You want to wrap into other systems, not build your own way. What do you think, is this a movement that’s got legs? Do you think we’ll see more and more companies basically working with integrations as opposed to their own environment?

Bilal:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think if you think about the field of software, that’s actually been a long term secular trend in software generally. Right? And so both my co-founder and I started our careers at Microsoft working on Windows. And Windows was kind of the same thing, right? You’re not building a UI from scratch, you’re building it on the Windows operating system. Same after Windows, I went on to become a mobile developer and in mobile you’re building on the interface that Android and iOS provide. And so I just view Slack and Teams and these other surfaces that we operate on as the new operating system. They are the new way of enabling like an OS of work. And we are the first generation of apps that are operating on these new operating systems. And so I think, in a way, what we’re doing is not new at all. It’s a story that we’ve seen over and over again in software, it just happens to be a different surface and a different operating system than we’re typically used to.

Mark:

And do you have any particular kind of company that likes you, that likes to use you? Meaning any particular sectors or size.

Bilal:

Yeah, no. I we’re actually really, really broad, as you can imagine from the user base on Slack, teams and Zoom, they tend to be used from 10 person shops all the way to a hundred thousand plus size companies. And that’s true of us as well. We have both a self-serve and an enterprise business. And on the enterprise business, we’re serving Fortune 100 customers and doing that at scale. And on the self-serve side, people check out with a 10 person team. And so for us there isn’t really a sweet spot in sector or size. I will say that we tend to lean towards companies that are a little bit more forward thinking in their digital technology adoption. But the pandemic has changed that, so that almost everybody has been forced to accelerate their adoption curve. And that’s really changed the market for Polly as well.

Mark:

Well said.

Bilal:

Well, I think things like Slack or Teams were somewhat inevitable over the course of the last five years. Our company’s seven years old. And when we started seven years ago, we started on the thesis that messaging was going to be the default way of communication in enterprise. And that was just kind of based on what we were seeing in the consumer world. Right? If you go back even a decade, texting had become the primary way that people communicate with each other, especially in the younger generation. And so just kind of fast forward that, and as people joined the workforce, we imagine that something like texting would happen in the workplace environment. But the pandemic just accelerated that trend to go forward, I think, five or 10 years faster than it would’ve otherwise.

Mark:

I want to look backward a little bit. You got your first investment, I believe, in 2016?

Bilal:

Correct.

Mark:

A lot’s gone on in the business world since then. How did it impact you? Did you have to shift your business plan, your roadmap? How did you keep up?

Bilal:

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a couple of distinct phases for Polly since 2016. And generally for the business world. Early 2016, you actually saw the SAS flash trash. If you remember that was a big compression of SAS multiples that happened during that period and there was a little bit of a worry that SAS was on its downward trend. LinkedIn sold in that period for what it turns out was a great deal for Microsoft. But these kinds of things that are happening in the public market, they generally are companies that are at the seed stage, tend to be pretty well insulated from them. So we weren’t paying as much attention there, but it was something that was kind of circling in the background.

Bilal:

For us during that period, that was also the same year that Teams launched. And again, we were focused on continuing to expand the number of surfaces that we work on then as now. And for us we were just continuing to invest there. Now, I think that the real change in the business really, and the real rocky period was 2020. Because the early, the beginning couple of months of 2020, everything was going as normal. March, April, there were some real concerns around what the long term future of the economy would look like. And then as it turned out for us, we started to see a lot more usage as people went to work remotely and started to deepen their usage on Slack and Teams. And so we quickly realized by the May, June timeframe that no, we actually have to change how quickly we’re investing in the business and how we’re adjusting our capital expenditures.

Bilal:

And so 2020 was a little bit of whiplash. It was trying to figure out basically what’s going to happen in the market. But I think overall, as we saw play out just the long term trends on remote and asynchronous work generally have just been accelerated over the course of the last couple of years. And I think just the general attitude and the general ability for remote work to be an acceptable way of working and with both its pros and its cons I think has changed the game, not just for us, but for business productivity software in general.

Mark:

So you must see an awful lot of data.

Bilal:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Mark:

So what are you seeing right now that strikes you as interesting?

Bilal:

So I think that we’ve been expanding further and further into the world of meetings. So we started out if you recall, on Slack was kind of our first surface and Slack was very much channel oriented and chat oriented. And then Teams kind of has both the chat component and a meetings component. And more recently we’ve been in Zoom. And so we’ve been thinking a lot about how meetings impact your productivity, how meetings can be made better and who are the kinds of people that meetings impact most disproportionately. And so for us, that’s really, it comes back to ways that you need to reorganize the business around remote because the number of meetings that you have fundamentally changes.

Bilal:

So let’s take a step back. In the the pre-remote world, you could just tap your colleague on the shoulder and have a quick conversation and get aligned without having to call a meeting and go walk physically into a meeting room and do the formal whole getting time on the calendar thing. Those kind of interactions are harder and harder to come by and especially as more and more of a start jobs in a remote environment where you don’t have that social currency to just tap somebody on the shoulder or DM them in Slack, Teams or wherever it is, those kinds of interactions end up becoming meetings in a remote environment if you’re not very careful about it.

Bilal:

And so what Polly enables you to do and what we have been seeing more broadly, organizations that are thoughtful about remote doing, are trying to use structured mechanisms of feedback, trying to use documentation, trying to use processes to avoid having those kinds of interactions turn into meetings, or when they do turn into meetings becoming more productive. And you can do that through ways of like crowdsourcing agendas having regular status check-ins through an asynchronous tool and basically take away some of that synchronous meeting time. Because that ends up being a drain, not just on individual productivity, obviously because you’re taking time away from focused work and moving it into meetings. But it’s also just more draining. Right? The whole idea of Zoom fatigue and the cost of meetings and the tax of meetings being higher in the remote world is very much true.

Bilal:

And it happens to occur at the same time that meetings are increasing because of remote. And so you have this double whammy of meetings are more taxing on the individual. And we also end up having more meetings. And this is particularly acute for middle management. For people who are, who are managers of ICs or managers of managers. And they end up doing a lot of the coordination work that needs to happen in an organization. And so each one of those touch points of coordination that maybe you could have avoided becoming a meeting before now is becoming a meeting. And again having, for example, an automated Polly that goes out on some regular cadence to capture status on your project so that you don’t have to turn that into a meeting is a really effective way of cutting that back and overall improving the quality of life of the people in the organization, especially the managers.

Mark:

So how do you see the next few years panning out? How do you think they look for you?

Bilal:

For us, yeah. I mean, we are incredibly bullish on these ways of communication becoming even more solidified over the course of the next few years. It is loud and clear, we’re hearing from the workforce that flexibility and the ability to do hybrid or remote is a key part of how people think about the value of their work life. And so having an early lead on these platforms and being in most cases, the first app and the first integrated native app on these platforms, I think just puts us in a position of continuing to understand how these platforms evolve, continuing to understand how remote work is evolving, and continuing to drive towards solutions that enable you to capture better engagement and enable more asynchronous work.

Mark:

Well, thank you very much for stopping back today. It’s been great to talk with you.

Bilal:

Absolutely. It’s been great to talk with you as well.

Mark:

My guest today has been Bilal Aijazi, CEO and co-founder of Polly. And this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of Recruiting Daily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs visit www.evergreenpodcast.com. And to keep up with HR Technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Pfeffer.

Image: iStock

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