Brynne Kennedy, Founder of Topia, on her vision to empower a global connected workforce.
What motivated you to start Topia?
There were three things that got me started. Up to that point I had been working in finance, moving all over the world and it was really painful. Secondly, I saw three mega trends that were changing the very nature of what work is and where it happens; globalisation, changing demographics of the workforce and AI disruption. And lastly I believe that we are stronger as a global society when we are better connected and we each have more opportunities to interact with people from different cultures to help us understand different perspectives. And so I wanted to build a company that combined those three different things and that was the motivation for setting up MOVE Guides, now of course called Topia.
What was the vision for the business and how has that changed?
The vision has been consistent; to empower people at companies to move between different locations. How we have delivered on that vision has evolved, but the fundamental principle remains the same.
Personally I am motivated by the fact that I want the world to be more connected and empathetic. I want everyone to have their eyes open to different cultures and perspectives --- global mobility does this. Over the years, I’ve also developed a personal mission to help women, as leaders and individuals. Whether that’s by simply being an example of a successful female Founder and CEO, or whether its through experiences I share with women at Topia and beyond, it’s always on my mind.
What inflection points have shaped the business along the way?
We typically sell to very large and prestigious customers, mostly public companies with more than 5,000 employees, so every major customer we win is an inflection point for the company to celebrate! A lot goes into each customer we partner with, across many parts of our business -- it’s a true team effort. In the early days, it often felt like each customer was make or break!
Funding rounds have been massive inflection points. They made me consider the future and the strategy for the business in a very critical way.
But the biggest inflection point was 18 months ago when we decided to “double down” on our technology platform. We saw increasing demand in the market for this, and decided that we were uniquely suited to connect all of the service providers and enterprise software that touches global mobility, including relocation, tax, immigration, HCM, payroll, finance and more. On top of these integrations, we saw that we could unify data about mobile employees and build really amazing applications around workforce planning, administration, employee experience and payroll and benefits administration for mobile employees. This is a totally untapped space in the current HCM landscape and a rapidly growing need for companies.
To do this, we decided not to provide any of those services ourselves, but work closely with strategic partners. We also decided to rebrand - introducing our new identity of Topia, and our new software suite in early 2018. We acquired Polaris, another software company in our space, based in Seattle to accelerate our software roadmap. Polaris added many things to our company and technology, but one of the most important is the proprietary tax engine that now underlies our software suite.
What impact have the people you’ve employed had on the business?
Hiring is the hardest part of building a great business. Like many founders, I’ve done some of it really well, and some of it poorly. The leadership team we have today is fabulous, and each of them has had a significant impact on the company.
Two people of our earliest leaders have left a hugely impactful stamp on Topia:
In the early days, Rachel King, our VP of People in London, was one of two most impactful hires. She worked with me on building our early culture, designing the organisation, developing the people strategy and helping me as a leader. She had a huge impact on the company and me personally.
Steve Giles, our VP Engineering, was one of our first ten hires, also in London. He’s still with the company and is now based in Seattle. He has been incredibly impactful, built the engineering team in London and then a restructuring of that team and then moved to Seattle to lead our engineering efforts here and lead our combined team with Polaris.
What are big challenges on a business on a personal level?
I don’t want to be cliched, but it has been challenging professionally and personally to be a female Founder and CEO. Five years ago I had a vastly different view -- but since then I have seen first hand the biases and abuses that can happen to female leaders at work and at home.
Before then, I always thought that this topic was a bit too “hyped-up” by the media and that I just needed to work hard and keep my head down and focus on building the company, and we didn’t need policies or dialogue to address these problems. As I got older and reflected on my experiences leading Topia and my marriage with my ex-husband, I’ve realised its real, that there is a significant level of conscious and unconscious bias and abuse that goes on, and is mostly unspoken.
There are many positives, however. Firstly, I have had the privilege of working with Jos White and the Notion team for five years. During that time, Jos has been an incredible partner on our Board, mentor and friend. I can think of many other men who also have been. These should be great examples for others to follow!
At the macro level, in the US we’ve seen some incredible gains in government recently, but we still have low numbers of female representation across government, academia and media. While there is a lot of positive work going on, in the world of business it’s even worse - women received just 2% of VC funding in 2017 and there are single digits of female founders at our stage! There’s a long way to go in a lot of areas. So, I have become much more vocal about this, which I didn’t ever expect.
In some ways it's not surprising. In 1870, African Americans got the right to vote in the US under the 15th Amendment, however women did not get the right to vote until the 19th Amendment in 1920, and many states didn’t actually ratify this until as late as the 1970s and 1980s!
There is a lot of positive change going on, but almost every day there are things that happen that really give me pause.
What has surprised you in a good way, on your journey?
There are many things that have surprised me, but one of the best has been the commitment and resilience of our team and customers as our business has grown and changed. For any start up, especially those selling into enterprise, there are ups, downs and changes along the way. 95% of our customers have stayed with us for the last five years, and many of our employees have contributed to our growth and changes, showing incredible commitment to one another, our customers and our mission.
Who or what inspires you?
At a meta level, I am inspired by people who are great unifiers. So much of our world is divided; and when companies go through changes divisions naturally ensue. Topia operates in an industry with a lot of legacy overhang, and so the ability to bring together diverse opinions and viewpoints is really important to me.
Personally, my mother inspires me most. She is a local entrepreneur in Western Massachusetts. She has been a small business retailer for more than 40 years (one of the longest in our area!), she is a cancer survivor and also gave up a huge amount of her time driving me to gymnastics competition across the US as I was growing up! She really set me on an entrepreneurial path and inspires me to keep going.
If you could go back to when you started Topia, what would you say to your younger self?
I have given this a lot of thought. One of the great privileges leading this company, has been the opportunity to reflect on the challenges I’ve faced and to really think about society, the business and myself. So what I would say is “You must put much more emphasis on the values of the people you recruit, versus their experience”. A misalignment in values can be detrimental, very fast. The values you hold dear, and the type of organisation you want to build is incredibly important.
I was a gymnast growing up and it was tough. I believe you can create Olympic Champions in a healthy and supportive environment, not the abusive one I grew up with. And you can create wildly successful organisations that are healthy, with happy and positive employees.
The next time around I would be much more militant, ensuring everyone I hired from the top down was really committed to building not just a successful organisation, not just winning the next big deal, not just having fun, but to building a healthy organisation that took care of its people. We haven’t always been able to do that well through our growth, and it’s been a big lesson for me.
The other thing is that I would probably say is to spend more time planning before launching things. I have a lot of passion for our vision and in the early days sometimes made decisions too quickly and reactively. So one thing I now tell myself is to think each decision through more carefully, and to establish better models for decision making.
What advice would you give an entrepreneur, just starting out on their journey, and considering taking VC funding?
I think it’s the same as I would give any entrepreneur hiring their team, which is “look for values fit in those you hire”.
I was a first time entrepreneur when I set this company up. In the early days I was honoured when people wanted to join the business, join the Board, or to invest, and I wasn’t as disciplined as I should have been or as attuned to values fit as a key element for every person.
Today, we have a great team with strong values fit across all of our levels and huge diversity built into it - in nationality, gender, socio-economic background and more. This is something that took a while to get to and I am incredibly proud of. But, I am still our only female board member. I think this was miss on my part.
Sticking to what you believe in, no matter your age, experience or gender, is all important. A lot of people used to say to me “You’re a first-time founder and CEO. You really need this or that.” I found it difficult, at points to not be insecure about my inexperience and decisions, and sometimes I put too much emphasis on other people's’ views and experience above my own.
So my advice is, stay true to values fit and it will build a great company and partnership with your investors. I found that with Notion. Jos White has been a valuable, constructive and unbiased board member and Notion as a firm insightful and supportive.
Just one last anecdote, When we restructured in London, we needed to lay off quite a few great people and Notion was an incredible partner in helping those affected find new roles in the Notion portfolio. It was incredible! Look for the values in your VCs as much as your leadership team and employees.