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Facebook Workplace’s Julien Codorniou on turning companies into communities

Director of Content, Intercom

John Collins

@jaycee001

“Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Facebook’s mission statement has been examined everywhere from college business case studies to the hallowed halls of the United States Congress.

It’s easy to connect the dots between mission and product when you consider the social media behemoth’s more than 2 billion worldwide users. But as the college-dorm-room startup matures, there’s a fascinating twist to be found in the way it applies its new mission to Workplace, a B2B startup within the (former) startup.

As Workplace’s global head, Julien Codorniou has been spending the past few years exploring how to make his department align with Facebook’s mission while executing an entirely different business model that relies on companies promoting community within their workforce.

Julien, who previously directed business development and partnerships at Microsoft and is on the board of French media giant Le Monde, was perfectly poised for a conversation at the SaaStock conference in Dublin that ranged from the different missions within Facebook to why he’s betting big on chat.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Workplace believes that by giving a voice to everyone and reducing the distance between the HQ and the front line, great things happen to employee sentiment, engagement, productivity and automation. That’s why they’re trying to turn the company into a community.
  2. Different products require different visions. Whereas Facebook’s overall vision relies heavily on third-party developers having access to user data, Workplace wants to be the app that’s connected to all your other apps and a highly curated marketplace that has the best SaaS applications in the world.
  3. Email isn’t dead, but superior tools are emerging, like groups that allow one company to share documents with another with time to review – or inter-company chat where a lot of people can look at an issue simultaneously and discuss it in real time.
  4. One innovation behind Workplace is its News Feed-based algorithm, which has been fine-tuned to respond to work use cases. If an employee needs to step away for vacation and doesn’t want to be disturbed for a week or two, they can count on seeing the most relevant information when they return based on many signals: who they work for, who they work with, the groups they’re interested in, the people they’re following and more.
  5. It’s important to find your niche. Once you know exactly what you do well – what you do better than any competitor on the market – you can accelerate. Until you have that, optimizing for monetization doesn’t make a lot of sense.

John: Julien, you’ve been at Facebook for around eight years in a variety of different roles; could you give us a b of background on how you got to your current position?

Julien: Indeed. I joined almost eight years ago now from Microsoft, where I spent six years. For my first five years at Facebook, I was working with mobile app developers and gaming companies like King or Supercell or any developer willing to use the Facebook platform to bid or grow or monetize their applications.

When Workplace became a real thing at Facebook, I was in London. Because I had a background in SaaS, I had the opportunity to join the team. You really have to think of Workplace as a SaaS startup within Facebook. We’re doing something that is quite different from what Facebook does with a very different business model, a different product, but the missions are very much alike.

Workplace is about connecting people. It’s about creating communities. It’s about turning companies into communities. I saw we had the opportunity to do that in London and to do something that will be new for Facebook, in the same way that AWS was a new business model and product line for Amazon and a bet that paid off very well. I decided with a few of my colleagues at the time to join the Workplace team and to create our own startup within the company, with a lot of support and a lot of assets to leverage.

John: How would you define the problem that Facebook Workplace is trying to solve?

“We want to change how companies are run by giving everyone a voice, by turning companies into communities”

Julien: We turn companies into communities. We try to connect everyone in the company, not just people who have an email and not just the knowledge workers but literally every one. We have some customers like Walmart, a company with 2.5 million people, where the CEO and the CIO have that vision to give a voice to everyone, to connect everyone in the company and put them on the same network for the first time.

When you connect everyone – when you give a voice to everyone, when you reduce the distances between the HQ and the frontline or between different offices – we see and we believe that great things happen to the company in terms of employee sentiment, engagement, productivity and automation. That’s what we do. We turn companies into communities and we try to give a voice to everyone and we see that it really changes how companies are being run.

John: A lot of people define you as collaboration software, and obviously you do have overlap and functionality with things like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Atlassian Stride. What’s your differentiator?

Julien: The main difference, especially in our growth model, is that Workplace as a business and as a product doesn’t really grow one user at a time or one team at a time. We literally grow one company at a time. When companies choose Workplace, they launch it to everyone in the company. For example, we launched at AstraZeneca (a large pharmaceutical company) six months ago. On day one, we had 70,000 employees using Workplace.

We launched at GSK (another pharmaceutical company) in July. They brought 140,000 employees to the platform. We launched at Grab in Singapore: 5,000 employees in one go. It’s quite a unique go-to-market strategy and quite a unique way of serving our customers. There’s no shadow IT, and there’s no land and expand, but I think the value of the product is really to connect everyone. As opposed to the companies or the products you’ve mentioned, we grow one company at a time, and I think this is what guarantees the adoption and the retention we have today on the market and also the success we’ve seen especially with the Fortune 500 companies.

John: Is there something about the products that gets that usage on day one? Is it because people are familiar with Facebook?

Julien: It’s a big part of the pitch. At the end of the day, 2 billion people know how to use Workplace. There’s no training needed. If you know how to use Facebook or Messenger or WhatsApp, you know how to use Workplace on day one. But there’s also the fact that on day one you don’t have two build your network. You know your colleagues will be there, your manager will be there, your peers will be there, the CEO will be there.

The network is already here; you don’t have to build it, because of the way the product is being deployed by our customers and so immediately you can start working, being productive, engaging with people that you have to work with every day or even sometimes with people you don’t even know. If I post something in French on Workplace you will see that in English or in Japanese if you’re in Japan. It creates a lot of connections, a lot of productivity opportunities that might not necessarily be happening in the workplace before.

John: Is the goal to kill email?

Julien: No, I don’t think it’s a very sexy goal. We would not attract any employees or any client by telling them we want to kill email. We want to change how companies are run by giving everyone a voice, by turning companies into communities, and that’s the mission. Again, we believe that when we do that great things happen to the company. As I said employee engagement – employee sentiment, employee productivity – has an impact at the end of the day on the top line or the bottom line of the company. That’s what we’ve seen consistently in the last three years since we started building the business.

Turning the playbook upside down

John: You’ve said in the past that you made every mistake possible when launching and going to market with Workplace. What do you think you got wrong?

Julien: There are not many people at Facebook we can go to and say: “Hey, tell me how to build the SaaS business and a SaaS product. Tell me how to win IT departments, how to win legal department, how to talk to chief security officers, or how to build the SaaS brand.” I’m talking about respected SaaS brands like Box or Intercom, which is another good example.

When we started, we thought Workplace would grow, in a way, like those companies: one user at a time, one team at a time. You land and expand, and then you upsell and sign the big deals. Guess what? It did not really happen. What happened is that we had big companies – more than 1,000 to 5,000 people – reaching out to us directly through their CIO and chief communications officers. Sometimes the CEO herself or himself was telling us they wanted Workplace for everybody in the company as fast as possible, even for the people who never had an email before.

We did not see that coming, so we pivoted quite fast. That’s one of the mistakes we made. When I started, for example, and as I was building the sales team, I did not realize you could not ask the same sales people to qualify the leads, to close the leads and to deploy the companies. We made some mistakes, but we learned very fast and hopefully we don’t make them twice. Facebook is a company where we like to see people trying new stuff. As long as you keep trying, as long as you keep iterating, and as long as you find your niche and keep investing there, all of that is okay and it’s part of the pleasure and I would say the pride of building something new in a company like Facebook.

John: Most SaaS startups generally start at the smaller end of the market and then have to move upmarket, but it sounds like the upmarket came to you guys.

Julien: Yes, we turned the playbook upside down, to be honest. we have a lot of Fortune 500 companies. I mentioned Starbucks, Walmart, Heineken. RBS was our first customer. We launched at Chevron in the US two weeks ago with 70,000 employees. We launched at Cirque du Soleil which is an amazing example. When you work at Cirque du Soleil, by definition you don’t have a PC and a desk every day when you go to work.

We also see traction now in a lot of fast-growing tech companies like Booking.com, like Intercom, like Spotify, like Grab, who also need to use Workplace. Not to connect everyone – because everyone is already connected in the company – but to keep the culture and to scale the culture as they grow. When you need to hire one, two, 10, 20 people every day, when you had people in different time zones speaking different languages, how do you keep the same culture you had when you started the company?

We are going from having an enterprise business to having a mid-market business to investing in an SMB business. Ultimately, the product works for every company. That’s the beauty of Workplace. It’s not just for retail or airlines or telcos. It works for everyone in the company, in every company, in every industry. With our go-to-market strategy, as you said, we turned the playbook upside down and we’re going from the enterprise to mid-market to SMB.

John: It sounds like you learned quite a bit about how to actually structure your sales team and who does what.

Julien: We’ve read a lot of books. I highly recommend Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross. We also talked to a lot of SaaS entrepreneurs and SaaS companies. We like to compare ourselves, we like to study best practices, and we love to learn and to try new things. Again, it’s part of the pleasure of building something new within a company like Facebook.

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Different visions for different products

John: One of Facebook strength’s as a company is its platform, which allows third party developers to come in and create their own applications and services that access Facebook data. You worked on the platform team – was that the vision in the early days?

“We want Workplace to be the app that will be connected to every other app you’re using”

Julien: It was the vision of Facebook, but the vision for Workplace is actually very, very different. We do have integrations with some apps. We have a marketplace today with 50 applications, but the truth is that we want Workplace to be the app that will be connected to every other app you’re already using. Usually these apps are Office 365, G Suite, Box, OKTA, Netskope, Salesforce, etc.

We want to be the app that will be like the Switzerland of IT departments, making every other app work better together in a way that is integrated and mobile friendly, while Workplace becomes the place of discovery and distribution of what’s happening in other applications. For example, at Facebook we use Quip, which Salesforce acquired. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t open Quip.com or the Quip app on my phone – but I do open Workplace, and in a group with my team someone will have shared a document in Quip (or a link from quip). So we’ll have a nice preview of that document in Workplace, and we click on it, it will take me to Quip.

I think that’s the type of partnership and user experience we want to give to our employees and clients. It has to be so easy, so simple, so integrated that you don’t even feel you’re going from one app to another, and I think the News Feed on Workplace does a very good job of driving the discovery and the distribution of other applications. My goal is make sure that if I look at the top 100 SaaS, all of them are natively integrated with Workplace. It’s not an open marketplace for everybody; it’s a closed highly curated marketplace where you will find the most respected SaaS companies and the most used SaaS applications in the world. It’s very different from what we did with Facebook.

What’s similar, though, is the ambition to build an ecosystem – to build a Workplace economy – of service integrators, of resellers, of ISVs, of independent developers building apps for their colleagues, employees or customers. But that’s what we’re heavily investing in, and we have a big partnerships team now working from PWC to companies like Revevol in France, Enablo in Australia and Paychex and Slalom Consulting in the U.S. We don’t want to be on that journey alone; we want to build an ecosystem and foster and stimulate a very vibrant Workplace economy and a Workplace ecosystem. That’s very similar to Facebook co-principles.

John: The approach sounds very different to Facebook, because I think Facebook was all about having a really good API so that people could plug into – but it sounds like you’re actually going out and targeting the top companies and presumably building some of these integrations yourselves.

Julien: Yeah, we work with them, but if you look at the native integrations we have with OKTA or Box or Office 365, it takes a second to connect them to Workplace and to start noticing significant engagement. That’s why we have so many customers who use Box and Office 365 or G Suite and OKTA and Workplace because we want to be the one app that connects all these apps and makes them work better together.

Betting big on chat

“How do you make sure you give your employees tools that are as fast as mobile and as nice as the tools they can use in their personal lives?”

John: Recently at Flow (your dedicated Workplace conference), you announced a big upgrade to the chat features of Workplace so people can now start chats, calls and videos one-to-one or in groups. I suppose it’s a bit more like Messenger or WhatsApp, certainly from the outsider’s view. Why bet so big on chat specifically, when Facebook has already got quite a number of chat tools?

Julien: Workplace, I would say, is a group-first product. We realized, based on the feedback from our customers, that you can use groups and Workplace chat with your colleagues every day, but no company is an island. You have partners, you have clients, and you have agencies you have to work with. You have many people who do not work for the same company that you have to work with every day. Two years ago, we introduced a concept of multi-company groups, which is like a bridge between two companies. When I work with my friends at Intercom, we never send each other emails. We only use multi-company groups. Our customers told us groups are great if we need to share a document, if we need to give time to people to comment.

But if you need to spend time on something that a lot of people have to look at almost at the same time, why not chat? Why can I only use chat with my colleagues? I also want to use chat with the people I have to work with who don’t work for the same company. That’s why we introduced last week the concept of multi-company chat, so that if I need to talk to one person at Intercom or just two people at Intercom, I can do that directly using Workplace chat. It’s not just for my colleagues, it’s also for the people I have to work with every day who do not work for the same company but need quicker interactions than you’d usually find in a group.

John: And video clearly is a part of that.

Julien: That’s a big investment for Facebook, as you know. Live is definitely one of the top applications that people use at Workplace. It’s one of these things we inherit from the investments that Facebook is doing. There are many companies – many groups on Workplace – where we see managers live-streaming from a mobile device in a remote place of the world. It’s the new way of working.

It’s not just about tech, it’s about pictures, it’s about videos, it’s about live video, and it’s even about 360 videos as we’ve seen with some of our customers. If you find a new way of working, we need to support new formats and match the behaviors and the patterns that we see in people’s personal lives.

Spanning time zones

John: I think one of the criticisms we’ve seen of tools like Workplace and Slack is that they’re becoming ubiquitous everywhere. And particularly if you have a team that’s across time zones, it becomes difficult because you’ve got interruptions, or you’ve got people pinging you at all hours of the day and night. Is that something you have to just advise customers on the best way to use it, or are you addressing it at the product level?

Julien: We do, but I think the main difference is that when you open Workplace, you basically open the News Feed. I think the News Feed does a good job of telling you what’s important for you right now. If you leave Workplace for two hours, two days or two weeks, you’ll come back to Workplace, and I can tell you will have the most relevant thing for you at the top of the News Feed.

You don’t have to worry about the noise. News Feed (and all the investments we’ve been making in what we call the “Work Graph”) does the job of filtering the noise. If you don’t want to be disturbed by someone who is sending you messages when you’re traveling or not available, we introduced last week a “Do Not Disturb” function on Workplace. You can snooze notifications, and then people know that you cannot reply to them right now or for the next two weeks. Because Workplace is a product based on News Feed, we optimized the News Feed of Workplace for work-related usage that filters the most relevant things for you depending on many signals: who you work for, who you work with, the groups you’re interested in, the people you follow – and that will be there every time you go back to the app.

John: I think other collaboration tools are definitely not as useful when you return from a week’s vacation in terms of trying to catch up.

Julien: It’s a big engineering challenge, and as we said, we are leveraging a lot of investments that Facebook has done on the Facebook News Feed but adapted for Workplace and the work usage.

John: You mentioned the challenges sort of having to sell into IT departments and CIOs and people like that, which maybe is not as familiar to general Facebook users – but I suppose those end users want these kinds of tools, too. Is that power shift from the head of IT to the end user something you’re focusing on as well?

Julien: I think it’s a plus for the head of IT to know that there will be no training needed, but it’s equally important to show them how we manage our infrastructure, how we build our data centers, and how and why we obtained all the security certifications that we have today: SOC2, SOC3, ISO 270001. All these things that help us to be able to sell companies like GSK and AstraZeneka or banks like RBS, DNB, Sun Life and Scotia bank.

We did not have these certifications when we started, because Workplace was a product for Facebook itself. Facebook has been Customer Zero for Workplace – and the only customer – for many, many years. As we were proposing the product to other companies, we also had to make sure we would obtain all the security certifications and compliance certifications they would expect from companies like Box or OKTA – and that they would also work with the ecosystem of partners like Netskope and Wiretap to make sure we would be the best possible place for them to put their company’s data.

It’s a plus to know that people know how to use it, but I don’t think this is what drives the growth we see today on the markets. It’s really the fact that it changes how companies are run, and that’s something a lot of executives and a lot of CEOs are very passionate about. How do you attract the new generation of talents? How do you keep them? How do you make sure you give your employees tools that are as fast as mobile and as nice as the tools they can use in their personal lives? What happens when you give a voice to everyone? That’s really what we’re going after.

Unlocking a new business model

“Once you have people telling you that they could not work or they could not live without your products, it means you can accelerate, but it takes time to get there”

John: While the UI might be familiar, I suppose the whole business model is brand new for Facebook. Facebook’s never charged for software before, right? I think that’s something that a lot of our listeners are also facing. Maybe they’ve got a free product, and they’re now trying to charge for it. What would be your number-one piece of advice for SaaS companies looking to move upmarket and to start charging enterprise customers?

Julien: It’s important to find your niche and to find product market fit. Once you know exactly what you do well, what you do better than any other competitor on the market, once you have people telling you that they could not work or that they could not live without your products, it means you can accelerate, but it takes time to get there.

Until you have that, optimizing for monetization doesn’t make a lot of sense. That’s why so many companies are still trying to find it. It took us time for us to find it – more than a year, I would say. But once we found it, we had the confidence of knowing we could build a business on top of a product that had very significant adoption and retention and user sentiment. One of the things that I think illustrates this vision is something we introduced last week at Flow. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Safety Check on Facebook?

John: Where you say you’re safe after a disaster?

Julien: Yeah, exactly. We introduced Safety Check for Workplace last week. If something happens (and unfortunately things do happen) and you want to know whether a team of employees or a group of employees or if everyone or employees are safe or not, you can use Safety Check and defines events on Workplace and reaches out directly on chat to the people who might be in danger. That should be able to clear within the minutes who’s safe, who’s not and who needs help. I think this something only Facebook can do. This is because we’ve done it for Facebook and for hundreds of millions of people before. Again, when we deploy Workplace, it’s top-down and wall-to-wall, so we have everyone in the company. It would not make sense to do that with 14% of the company or 20% of the company.

Bridging these types of experiences and that value proposition on top of the network of professionals and companies inside Workplace is something we’re very passionate about. This is the value our customers also find, and this is why they are happy to pay for the product we give them. I hope they can see that, just like when you use Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp, you feel that the product is getting better, faster, nicer all the time. You can almost visually notice the updates we make to the product all the time.

Beyond Facebook

John: Outside of Facebook, you’re pretty active in investing and advising as well. You’re an investor in The Business of Fashion, which I think is probably one of the hottest media startups around and began pretty humbly with an email list. What made you want to invest?

Julien: I got involved through my friend Frederic Court, who’s the founder of Felix Capital and invested in The Business of Fashion. I got the chance to meet him and the CEO of Business of Fashion about six years ago. If you meet him and let him talk, you’ll walk away wanting to ask, “Can I invest in your company? Whatever you do I want to be part of it.” That’s how it happened.

As you can probably see, I’m not a fashionista (laughs), but I love entrepreneurship, and I love media in general. I’m a big believer in high-quality content people will pay for, and this is exactly what Business of Fashion is doing. They found their niche. They started in a very scrappy way, and I think what they’ve built today is a remarkable brand and an excellent team. It’s a global brand that  people from the fashion industry go back to every day, but I would say the reason why I invested in the company is because I was fascinated – and impressed – by the founder.

John: On the other end of the spectrum, you’re also on the board of the French media group Le Monde, which is a pretty old-world media company. What do you think your experience of Facebook can bring to companies like Le Monde?

Julien: It sounds like a different world, but actually the discussions we have at Le Monde and the discussion we have in the Workplace team – or probably the discussions every SaaS company has today – are very similar. It’s all about distributing content on many platforms like web and mobile, monetizing, driving adoption, driving acquisition at the lowest possible cost, driving lifetime value.

I think the challenge Le Monde had when I started there (and this is really a personal investment nothing to do with Facebook) was how to go from a world where you make most of your money by selling newspapers physically and ads within the newspapers to a world where you have to sell digital ads and digital subscriptions in a way like Netflix or Spotify or any other SaaS companies are doing. That’s why it was very interesting.

Of course, Le Monde is a fantastic brand. I grew up reading Le Monde, not every day, but almost every day. It’s incredible to have the opportunity to help Le Monde try to become a digital-first company and to go from the business model they had 20 years ago to the business model a lot of companies are embracing. It’s a mobile-first (mobile-only, sometimes) with mostly recurring subscriptions a la Spotify, a la Netflix, and that was something I was very interested in. At that time, the discussions we had internally were very similar. The shift to mobile, the shift to subscriptions – especially with our gaming partners – was very similar.

John: Julien, just to finish up, what’s next for Workplace, and what’s next from you?

Julien: Next for Workplace, we have to keep scaling the business. We have a lot of people to hire. I think as of today, we have more than 60 open roles just for sales and partnerships across many, many locations. We just opened offices in Paris, in Tokyo, in Australia, and we opened in Sao Polo 18 months ago. We need to scale, we need to continue investing in our product, investing in the ecosystem, in the workplace economy. It’s a fantastic journey, and we’re very grateful to be able to be part of it and to have the pleasure of working with our customers and our partners every day.

Again, on Monday we may work with banks, on Tuesday we can end up having a discussion with an SMB, on Wednesday we talk with a reseller, on Thursday we may talk with a Fortune 500 company trying to reinvent how they work – so what people can expect from us is 1)  humility because it’s new for Facebook, and we think of ourselves as a startup, 2) passion for customers and our partners. It’s passion for what they do every day but also 3) ambition, because we do have the ambition to connect 3 billion people on that platform: basically everyone who is employed with a working mobile device. I can’t think of any other SaaS company that has that ambition.