Change might be part and parcel of any new executive’s job but Bill Veghte, CEO of SurveyMonkey since August, has had to more of it than most.
His predecessor, David Goldberg, a well-liked and much-respected figure in Silicon Valley, died unexpectedly while exercising on vacation in Mexico in May this year.
“Dave was a close friend of mine and part of the journey [as SurveyMonkey’s CEO] was making sure that was a mantle I could carry and his value systems were the same as mine. It is — to care about employees, to create a durable business, and be part of a role that impacts and disrupts technology,” Veghte told Business Insider, in an exclusive interview in the group’s new London headquarters.
Goldberg, who was married to Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, grew SurveyMonkey from a staff of 14 to more than 500 employees with a valuation of roughly $US2 billion.
Following his death, the online survey development cloud-based company snapped up Veghte from Hewlett-Packard where he served as COO and led the company’s enterprise group.
A Silicon Valley veteran, Veghte had worked at Microsoft for 20 years, focusing on Office and Windows. who previously worked at Hewlett-Packard. He was also college buddies and close friends with Goldberg for 30 years.
Any CEO taking over the role would have a tough act to follow.
“On a personal level because of the culture and people at SurveyMonkey, I instinctively felt comfortable from week one to week 16 where we’re at now. It’s a great group of people and I feel privileged to be part of it. The trickiest thing is grieving and that doesn’t stop. But it’s all about translating that grief into productive and constructive outcomes.”
‘Filling Dave’s shoes’
Since he took over the helm at SurveyMonkey, there have been some seismic shifts in the board.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg joined the board of directors of SurveyMonkey in July and HP CEO Meg Whitman joined just two months after that. David Ebersman, the former CFO of Facebook, also hopped on board, bringing the company’s board member total to 9.
“Sheryl and Meg are both incredible people. Sheryl is incredible, not just as a business leader but as a person,” said Veghte to Business Insider. “It has helped having Sheryl and Meg’s experience on the board while I figure out the next steps at SurveyMonkey.”
In the short space of time that Veghte has been CEO, it’s clear those “next steps” have evidently been to forge ahead with expanding the company in the UK and of course making sure all this employees are happy and that the period of transition is as smooth as possible.
Veghte has a lot of energy. Sitting down with him, it’s clear he’s passionate about pushing the company to continue to disrupt existing tech structures with its low cost services, fulfilling Goldberg’s legacy, and making sure the group’s transition under his leadership is as smooth as possible.
The latter goal is tricky, so he used a video message and a survey to connect with SurveyMonkey’s employees.
“One of the first things I did was to send out a video message to everyone in the company, I now send one out on a weekly basis. There are lots of types of communication, like emails and phone calls, but more of the effective types of communication is visual and not necessarily just words,” said Veghte.
“Employees are dispersed geographically and I came in, filling the shoes of a remarkable person, and the staff didn’t know me — so a video was a good way to communicate to them. The feedback has been tremendous and positive.”
He added that it’s not just about serious business, sometimes his video messages are “goofy stuff.” He wants employees to get to know him and vice versa and to fill part of one big team. For example, when SurveyMonkey employees were having a Halloween party, Veghte dressed up as a monkey and his assistant was a zoo keeper for his video message. Unfortunately, Business Insider wasn’t able to get a screenshot of that.
Another step Veghte took to make sure he was on the right track at the company was by putting his money where his mouth was about the company — he sent out a survey.
“One of the things that any great organisation would do is ask questions to staff and in turn you get back homework assignments. I asked them what do you love, tell me about the culture, where do you see the biggest growth opportunities, what’s standing in our way, what coaching and advice do you have for me, and where do you see my time best spent? Two weeks into my tenure and I had a range of homework assignments.”
He said that the results really helped him understand how he can make sure the company’s transition into his leadership run more smoothly and where the company could be best placed in the future.
“Employees said they loved the mission but there wasn’t as much clarity around our strategy. They saw lots of growth but didn’t know where to prioritise tasks or what was the most important to achieve the strategy,” said Veghte. “So, I took all the feedback away and communicated back 60 days later answering all their questions in a hands on meeting. When I went out with the UK team for dinner, I knew staff would study the video and the memo about the survey, but it was really fulfilling to hear them tell me exactly why the points were made.”
“It’s a very warm, friendly place — a place that people love the people they work with and with that comes an affinity with respect. Everyone has a common value system and are very much a team. We’re not mano a mano here.”
‘The UK elections? Oh, by the way, we were right!’
The strategy for SurveyMonkey in 2016 is clear — expansion.
The group, which went into the year with 415 employees and is entering the next year with nearly 700, has its eyes firmly set on the UK.
At the moment SurveyMonkey has 10 employees in London but Veghte points out the rows and rows of empty seats in the office shows how “committed” he is to Britain, in what he says is the second most important market for the group behind the US.
“The UK critical market in for us as over 2 million users are in Britain,” said Veghte. “In reality, when you saw what we did during the UK elections, it demonstrate what an incredible technology platform we have and what opportunities this could present to individuals, politicians, and businesses .”
“We are big disruptor. We have a high quality, much faster product at a much lower cost. It’s extremely competitive. We want to show people that it’s a good investment as the UK is under penetrated. It’s great for individuals, financial services, and for huge companies, it’s a great way to do brand tracking and concept testing. While I am pleased for our progress in the UK, it whets my appetite for so much more for businesses and individuals.”
“Oh, by the way, we were right when everyone was wrong [when it came to predicting who would win the general election]. [All the other polls] led to people making a lot of decision on inaccurate data and cost the UK taxpayers a lot of money.”
SurveyMonkey experienced a surge of acclaim as one of the only sites to successfully predict the Tory victory in the UK general election in May this year. Last month, the group hired Mark Blumenthal, the senior editor of The Huffington Post, to become SurveyMonkey’s first head of election polling.
But Veghte says that the adoption by businesses is also big draw for the company, not just being big in political research in Britain.
“The thing is, our company is so interesting because we are a bundled solution that is self-service. We just need individuals within big company’s that have a light bulb moment and use our product — that’s what we’re taking advantage of. We already have users embedded in huge organisations in the UK,” said Veghte. “I went to lunch with a good friend who is friends with the CEO of a large UK bank and apparently there are 253 people using and exploiting our tools already to get better service and experience for their customers.”
Naturally, when companies like SurveyMonkey grow and expand rapidly, market players start wondering when they will list on a stock exchange. The group last raised $US250 million in cash in December last year, sealing its $US2 billion valuation.
But regardless of whether the markets think SurveyMonkey is ready to IPO, it looks like the group won’t do it any time soon.
“I don’t think myself or Dave would think an IPO is a natural step for the company. There are a variety of ways to raise capital. SurveyMonkey is a durable business that generates cash. We’re durable for the long haul and we’ve got the cash and the balance sheet already. If we need the cash, we will think about what is the best way to go about it, but an IPO isn’t necessarily the best way.”
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