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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Nick Christman, Marketing Director, Namely
Episode: 155
Air Date: February 26, 2016


Nick leads marketing at Namely, the first core HR, payroll, and benefits platform that employees love to use. Namely powers 400+ innovative clients with over 60,000 employees globally. Headquartered in New York City, the company is funded by Sequoia Capital, Matrix Partners, True Ventures, and others.

Nick is an engineer turned marketer. Prior to Namely, Nick was cofounder of a different HR technology startup, which failed miserably. Before that, he worked for McKinsey and attended Harvard Business School—two places where he said much and did little.


Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good morning, and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser, and today we’re coming to you again from beautiful downtown Occidental, California. Our little village is where innovation got its start in the great state of California and we love to look at the old railroad tracks where it all began. Today, we’re going to be talking with Nick Christman, who is the marketing director at Namely. If you’re in New York City you’re familiar with Namely because you’ve seen taxicabs. If you’re in the rest of the country you may be just starting to hear about them. Namely is a core HR payroll and benefits platform that’s trying to shake up the market. How are you, Nick?


Nick Christman: I’m doing great, John. I wish I were out there in sunny California but it’s not so bad in New York this week, so I’ll take it.


John Sumser: Fantastic. Why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?


Nick Christman: Sure. As you mentioned, I’m currently the marketing director here at Namely and I’ve been here about 18 months, now. My path here’s been a little bit of a windy one. I was actually an engineer by trade but I gave up on engineering probably at exactly the wrong time. I graduated in the mid-2000s and at that point all the engineers were going to Apple, Amazon or Google; one of the big tech companies. I tried out an internship at Amazon. I had actually a really boring time. I just mostly played Foosball and waited for test cases to finish so I could go fix some bugs. I ended up giving up on it. I thought, “I don’t know who’s actually building the product here but it certainly isn’t me so I’d better go do something else.”


Little did I know the climate would totally change and being a great engineer is the perfect ticket to join any company you want and build the product and probably be pretty well compensated for it. I gave up on it and got in on the business side of things. After spending a little time in consulting, spending a little time in the telecom industry, I wandered my way into HR technology. I had founded a company that was trying to put org chart and company directories on the people’s phone and we thought, “That’s how you communicate with people in your day-to-day life.”


We’ve all had the pain of being a company and not being able to find people you need and figure out who they are and what their context is, “So, why don’t we put that in the phone where people can use it?” What I had found out painfully through that was I was wandering into basically a mobile version of an HRIS but we weren’t deeply function enough to be a true HRIS and we weren’t robust enough to be a communication platform like Slack. I ran smack into a wall and wasn’t really able to get any traction.


The wonderful upshot of that was that in that failure, as we wound down that company, I was introduced to Matt, who is the CEO at Namely, and when I saw what Namely was doing, they built the full HR payroll and benefits platform that supports what mid-sized companies need out of their core HR system and they also built and engagement layer that was solving a problem we were trying to solve. I thought, “They’re really on to something, here,” and I was lucky enough to … for Matt to give me a shot here and been loving it ever since.


John Sumser: That’s an interesting story. Now, you probably don’t have any way of knowing this but it’s my long-standing view that the hardest engineering that you have to do with a new product is marketing. It’s the most fickle kind of engineering you do. I think people might be astonished by, if they’re unfamiliar with Namely and if they’re listening from a market where Namely hasn’t hit yet, is that when you say you’re the head of marketing at Namely, it means that everybody around you, when you’re in a marketplace, has been bombarded with the Namely tagline and brand. How did you get to be so good at this if you’re a novice with an engineering degree?


Nick Christman: You know, John, I think sometimes, especially in marketing, which is such a new and ever-changing space, being new can be an advantage. What we’ve done at Namely is we looked at what was happening around us with marketing and I think that what we saw was that people were bombarding the digital space and I think as an engineer I get why you can … It’s highly targeted. You can find your exact customer. You can measure the exact cost per click; the exact conversation ratio, trace that down the funnel and feel like you have this great control over every aspect of your marketing. You can build content and that playbook’s been well documented by companies like HubSpot and through that you can increase your SEO ranking and you can measure that and show it to your boss and your board and feel good about it.


The problem is that that’s extremely crowded and everybody’s doing that same thing and when Matt and I looked at the space and saw everybody putting their eggs in that basket, we thought, “Every company needs HR. Every company needs payroll. Every company needs great benefits. Let’s take the alternate approach and use a brand-led approach in places that are surprising; that HR leaders would never expect to see a possible solution.” That led us to the approach you mentioned of getting our brand out there with a simple, clean message and using out-of-home advertising and using some other, brand-based media advertising to drive awareness and really just signal to people that we have a little bit of a different approach to HR if you’re interested in a platform that’s friendly and accessible and personal. Come check us out and we might be something different that fits.


John Sumser: Cool. Tell me a little bit about what you’re calling an engagement layer. What is that? What in the world does that mean?


Nick Christman: That’s a tough question. That’s a pretty loaded one. I guess when I think about engagement, I’ll move away from technology because I don’t think engagement’s really about technology; though technology has a role to play. I think it’s about how it feels to come into work. I don’t know about you, but I certainly worked at places where I dreaded going in there in the morning and I was … felt stress about dealing with different coworkers and I felt like the level of bureaucracy and … the level of bureaucracy to get anything done was overwhelming just trying to serve … add value to the company. I wasn’t excited and I don’t think I was doing my best work. I think that real engagement is that; is appealing. It’s hard to describe.


It’s really hard to do and it’s hard to measure but it’s the feeling that you’re coming into work feeling like you’re in your flow. That you’re really productive, excited and contributing to building a great culture. I think that there’s a huge premium on that in today’s workplace because employees have so many options available to them. Your best people have never been bombarded with more job opportunities; more of their network reaching out and trying to pull them into other companies and they’ve never had more power to go review you on Glassdoor and put your culture out there for the world to see. I think getting engagement right has taken a real premium in today’s workplace that customers have to respond to. The way they do it, they’re still figuring out and I think it really varies for every company.


What I would say is that I think most companies want to provide good experience with the technology they use. That employees feel like they should be using powerful tools and demand that out of their HR technology. I think most companies are trying to figure out some way to measure that engagement, too. Whether it’s through Pulse surveys or another mechanism, but then how do you actually solve it, really, I think depends on the company. I was speaking yesterday with a customer at a 400-person company out there in the Bay area and they were talking about how they have an 8-person HR department and 4 people are just dedicated to programs that drive engagement. Those range from manager training so that they have a lot of new managers and so those managers can really set up employees to understand the impact to their work, develop as people and feel like they’re learning and thriving in their environment to very culture-driven things like different groups and clubs that they want to enable.


For them, technology plays a supporting role that they want to provide a solution that feels in line with the culture that they’re trying to develop and provide the great employee experience but, fundamentally, the engagement they’re trying to drive comes from those programs. It comes from their people doing a better job and not just some technology, though it certainly supports it. There’s a lot in that answer but I think engagement is a really complex problem that all these companies are trying to figure out. They’re figuring it out in different ways. Does that match with what you’re seeing?


John Sumser: My sense is that we’ve been measuring engagement for about 10 or 12 years now and the numbers haven’t moved. That the national average of people’s engagement is wickedly low. I wonder if the fuss about engagement is just a management fad? If it’s something that all of this attention doesn’t solve, then maybe it’s a case that there’s a percentage of people who are going to be engaged and that maybe you don’t want to Dilbert the people who aren’t engaged to death with demands for better answers on surveys. Maybe some people just want to go to work. The idea that what they’re going to be is bug-eyed, smiley cult members whose entire existence is wrapped around their involvement with [inaudible 00:11:27], maybe that’s a little bit too much of business school and not very much of what it means to be a dad or a mom.


I wonder if we’re not headed towards a time where the conversation of engagement gets interrupted and we start having companies who respect the people who work for them rather than demanding slavish adherence to some greater principle that has the company at the heart of it? Maybe that’s ugly. Maybe that’s a brutal way of thinking about how people are supposed to be rather than something positive, but I’m always two or three years ahead of the marketplace. What I’m noticing is that people are spending money on this stuff and not getting anything for it.


Nick Christman: Sure, and I think what you hit on there was a really valuable point, which is that engagement … First of all, true engagement isn’t … yeah, it isn’t about survey results. It’s about how people feel in their jobs. I think, at least when we measure engagement internally at Namely, we really just ask one question: how likely would you be to recommend Namely as a place to work to a friend or colleague outside your networks? I think that what that’s meant to do is get at the fact that recommending your job, recommending the place that you work isn’t just about cult or culture or “Rah-rah” or wearing the company t-shirt.


It varies for every individual but I do think that at the core of that, it’s figuring out … and I think for any individual things like the quality of their manager, the ease with which they can get things done, the type of recognition they get, the type of company programs and “Rah-rah” stuff that they get to do, that some combination of those ingredients and probably a few others I’m not talking about can make someone’s workday where they spend 40 hours, if not more, can make that a little bit better or, if it doesn’t work, a little bit worse.


Companies who can figure out how to take a few … take little steps and listen to their people and what they truly want, which is individual, I do think that they’re better and better position that this market evolves because there’s more and more transparency into how effectively they’re doing that and more and more mobility for people to move and come join a company where that actually happens. I don’t know if the national … I don’t know if it’s focus can quickly move the national average but I do think that if you’re one company really focus on listening to your workplace and figuring out what matters to them, you can make some progress and there are better tools than ever to actually make an impact to your individual company. Does that sound fair? Do you buy it?


John Sumser: Well, so let me just throw another thing at you that it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on.


Nick Christman: Sure.


John Sumser: So much of the stuff that’s out there described as an engagement solution or an engagement platform or an engagement layer involves people checking in with their boss or their community on some sort of a routine basis. There’s a lot of that and the theory is if everybody knows how everybody else is feeling then everybody will get along better or something like that. Sort of the “Rodney King” approach to engagement. The reality is if you’re a great worker, the thing that is … the thing that is the biggest possible benefit is that your autonomy increases with your skill level, right?


That’s the way that a relationship with the relationship and an organization works, is the better you are, the freer you are. You have these tools now that demand check-ins for people who are being rewarded by given autonomy. What I see is in the name of engagement, we’re installing micro-management tools. The idea that everybody should be checking in all the time is one of the most insane culprits in that process. People don’t want to be surveilled. They don’t want to be. They don’t want to be under the microscope in that way.


Nick Christman: I certainly don’t like to be under the microscope that way but here’s what I argue and what I believe: I think that tool facilitate human prophecies out there in the world and that it’s a manager’s job to figure out the right way to manage each individual and that if micro management’s occurring, it down to the manager and not the tools around them. I think that while these tools can give you … they can ask people to check in most often or ask for more data out of them, ultimately, their use is going to come down to how managers and how HR teams act on that and if employees don’t require it or aren’t … or are just doing fine, there are pretty unobtrusive ways for them to keep going along their day and not engaging too much or not worrying too much about micro check-ins.


I think there are a lot of other employees, younger employees in particular from the millennial generation who we’ve all read about, that crave a lot of feedback and a lot of chances to hear how they could be doing better and developing faster and a lot of chances to give their opinion on what the company could be doing to better serve them. In some cases, it is useful for people when they have those opinions, to have a way to voice them and a way to bring them out that works. I think the way I think about it is that … Are you a soccer fan, John?


John Sumser: I am.


Nick Christman: Then, I’m sure you’re familiar with Sir Alex Ferguson, long-time manager of Manchester United. I think what his best skill was was what they call in England, “Man Management.” That’s the ability to … for him to figure out what really motivates each individual in his squad and bring it out of them. Sometimes, I think that was benching people and using the stick. Other times, I think it was the carrot and he figured out how to get the very most out of every individual in his squad. The way I see technology today is for a really great manager, you have new tools to get data out of people who … to get data insight, commentary and color out of people who want to provide it or who need to provide it or to whom you need to give a little bit of coaching or a little bit of a push.


For people who are doing a great job and don’t need it, it’s your responsibility to make sure that that barrage doesn’t overwhelm what’s working, which is that they’re just coming in, putting their head down and doing a great job, which is the best thing that can happen with an employee. I think tools are … they’re an extra option; that a good manager will use in the right way but I don’t think that … and the wrong manager will use potentially to micro manage, like you said. In some sense, good management and good leadership sits at the heart of all of that, I think.


John Sumser: Let’s just take that one step further because what I tend to see is while your theory is right about coaching a soccer team, what all software does is it rolls stuff up so that the next layer can see a single number, calculation to understand how well things are going. Let’s say you buy a tool that has check-in capabilities and the reality is that Sally is a great leader and she has bred a group of people who are extremely autonomous, and as a result, the number of check-ins is low. She she’s ranked against her peers, she’s got a 30 and everybody else has an 80. You’re looking for some HR purposes 20 managers across the dimension and the vast majority of managers have 80s. Here’s Sally with a 30 and that’s what the administrator sees. That the tool hasn’t been used by Sally in the way that it’s been used by everybody else. What are the actual odds that Sally is going to get manager of the year for not using the tool so much? Probably zero. Probably zero.


Nick Christman: Yeah. You know that’s a hard … I think that that problem that you’re mentioning gets at the heart of probably the hardest part of business, in my opinion, and that’s really smart judgment from leaders because I’d argue that if anybody’s being measured for manager of the year just based on a check-in or engagement score, that’s really not the right … You know, engagement, on some level, is an input, not an output. What I’d argue is that, as you’re looking at who should be manager of the year, the most important thing is the business outcomes that those different managers are producing. If Sally’s doing a wonderful job of producing that with a lower amount of check-ins, then a smart administrator will see that, in fact, because her team is performing so great, she doesn’t need these check-ins all the time and she’s being more efficient with her team’s time. I think that that’s the … but as you point out, if all you do is look at a score and use that to drive all your decisions, then you may fall into the trap that you mentioned.


What it really takes is judgment. Is talking to Sally about what’s going on; how she’s managing her team with the overall business results and how effectively her team’s able to perform and taking a full-picture judgment of that manager, which I agree, to get really smart, effective judgment is one of the hardest parts of any kind of leadership. Engagement is one input into that formula but the output is really the results that the team delivers in the near term and how they’re set up do that over the long term. I think that that’s … that you’re absolutely right. You can’t substitute an engagement score driven by a technology tool for having a real, on-the-ground, full judgment of how a manager’s performing. It just doesn’t work.


John Sumser: What a great, nuanced answer. How is Namely different from its competitors?


Nick Christman: Great question. Maybe just to provide a little bit of context on exactly where we’re playing. We’re focused on being the … a better core HR platform for the mid market. You really define that as companies 20 up to 2,000. I think that what we’re … the way we’re different is that we let … It’s really the impact we have on the companies that we work with. When an HR leader chooses Namely, they get to do less admin, less compliance work. Less duplicate data entry because we’re unified and deeply functional HR payroll and benefits solution so all that hard stuff like onboarding a new employee and dong their paperwork and setting them up in payroll, with Namely they use onboarding with eSignature. The data automatically is pushed to payroll. They elect their benefits in our enrollment portal; the deductions automatically are pushed over to payroll and they’re accurate. They’re ready to get that employee set up, put some goals in place and get them going. They do a lot less of that admin work, that compliance work like building ACA reports.


What they get to do more of is whatever they think will be valuable in their organization … so we equip them with tools to build goal setting, to build performance reviews or something more informal like ongoing feedback or, because they don’t have to worry so much about admin and compliance work, they can focus on the things they love to do. I think one of the best conversations I had was with the HR director at JW Player, another technology company here in New York City. She said, “You know, Namely’s like my other employee; they handle all of that low-level admin stuff and I get to focus on strategy and content.” As she said that she lit up and I realized that the strategy and content she’s doing may not be contained within Namely but it’s going to have a big impact on her company, no question. The kind of friendly employee experience that Namely provides is going to line up to what she’s trying to do culturally in her organization. I think that that’s what different about Namely. Does that make sense?


John Sumser: Sure, sure. Who’s the target customer?


Nick Christman: It’s a mid-sized company with 20 to 2,000 employees. Usually, they lead on the solution … The lead person their solution serves is the HR director, the VP of HR. Whoever’s leading that department. In terms of the company that are the best fit for Namely, it’s those that are putting the biggest emphasis on trying to drive culture, engagement and a better solution for their employees because in some of the design, the look and feel and the experience employees get with technology, that’s one area where we’re really different than any of the other competition. The second is just in the meat and potatoes, providing deeply functional, core software that actually automates all the things that should be automated and does it successfully every single time. That’s a flexible, configurable HR database, running payroll, filing all the taxes accurately every time and handling all things benefit from letting employees enroll to shipping data off to carriers to making sure that payroll deductions are accurate and up to date every time. That’s our focus customer.


John Sumser: Fantastic. We have blown through our allotted half hour. It’s been a great conversation. What should I have asked you?


Nick Christman: Hmm, you know I’m not sure but I guess one thing that I’d like to share is john, you’ve been working in the HR space for probably to the extent that you may have forgotten more HR things than any of us will ever learn.


John Sumser: It’s been a long-


Nick Christman: I guess one of the things-


John Sumser: -couple of weeks.


Nick Christman: Fair enough. One of the last things that I wanted to share, as somebody who’s relatively new to this space, is just how challenging and exciting we here at Namely see the next I don’t know how many years. I’ll say five or ten years for HR people. I think all this stuff we talked about: culture, engagement, retention, if you look at the Deloitte Human Capital Survey, it’s one of the top priorities that most companies list but to the point you made, it’s really, really hard to make progress against it. Given that it’s so important and given that employees are really customers today, the [inaudible 00:28:42] keeps demanding more and more out of HR leaders and at the same time the complexity … the amount of complexity and regulatory changes from ACA to Paid Family Leave to changes to time-off policies, the amount of complexity facing HR people is growing tremendously.


I think that the next five to ten years there’s a real opportunity that I see for technology combined with inspired, new HR leaders to rise above all of that complexity, to handle it smoothly and start to make a massive impact on the culture, engagement, retention. On people getting more excited to come to work and have an impact and doing … and when they do that, I think that has a true impact on companies. It certainly isn’t going to be easy but I think that the opportunity in front of HR leaders today is just really exciting and it’s fun to be a part of trying to build a better solution to make it happen. It’s certainly hard work but we love it. I guess I’ll wrap up on that if that sounds good to you?


John Sumser: Fantastic. Would you mind reintroducing yourself and letting people know how to get a hold of you?


Nick Christman: Sure thing. My name’s Nick Christman, the marketing director over at Namely. If you’d like to email me, my name is That’s spelled N-I-C-K dot Christman, C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-N, at Namely dot com. I’m on Twitter at @NickXman, N-I-C-K-X-M-A-N. If you have any questions or would like to connect, please reach out.


John Sumser: Thanks very much, Nick. It’s been great having you here. Thanks for taking the time to talk with the audience. It’s been a great thing. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio and we’ve been speaking with Nick Christman, who’s the marketing director at Namely. Interesting conversation. Tell your friends about it and we will see you here next week. Same Bat time, same Bat channel. Take it easy, now.

End transcript

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