A lot of technology companies claim to think different, but Joyous does actually run against the pack in at least three key respects.

It starts at the top, with a unique trinity of CEOs, and includes a decision to snub the usually beloved SMB market, and a contrarian take on the skills crisis.

When the Herald last checked in on the maker of HR and employee feedback software two years ago, it had a Green Party-style leadership structure, albeit with a family twist: The chief executive role was shared by brothers Mike and Philip Carden.

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Now it has added a third chief executive, Ruby Kolesky, who joined what is now known as the “CEO collective” five months ago.

The shared mantel seems to be working. The company won’t reveal financials, but Joyous has been doing enough well enough to just close a $15 million Series A raise, which comes on top of a $4m seed round in 2019 as early backers including Sam Morgan and under-the-radar investor Jon Kalaugher chipped in funds at what was then a $16m valuation (no post-money valuation was revealed today).

The round was led by NZGCP partner AirTree Ventures, which has offices on both sides of the Tasman and now has an 18 per cent stake in Joyous, Australia’s Square Peg Capital (12 per cent) and local venture capital outfit Icehouse Ventures (12 per cent).

This year has seen a boom in venture capital for tech companies, who have generally prospered during the pandemic – which, as Mike Carden puts, “The pandemic has created an appetite for transformation. Lots of large enterprises had to digitise lots of things quickly. And I think that that just woke them up to the fact that they could do lots of things quickly, and it was less daunting than they thought.”

And a lot of people want a part of the action as tech companies grow quickly amid the Covid boom.

“The investment community is super vibrant at the moment,” Carden says.

“We got a number of term sheets and civil advisor from international growth funds. But the fact we could actually raise our capital within Australia and New Zealand is something that’s quite satisfying for those of who’ve been in the industry for a while – because we know a few years ago, it just wouldn’t have been a thing.”

Joyous will primarily use its new funds for product development with a focus on data science, Carden says.

And that push will see staff numbers grow from 45 to 100 over the next 12 months, Carden says.

'You have to employ junior people, and develop them'

A lot of tech companies have been howling about pandemic border restrictions exacerbating an already keen tech skills crisis – particularly when it comes to important talent for specialist roles.

Carden says at a collective level, it’s a policy issue. There are pandemic issues with border restrictions, and our education system isn’t turning out enough software engineers.

“But at an individual level, it’s a different thing,” he adds.

“I would say our responsibility is the same that all tech firms have: You have to work out, early in your lifecycle, how you employ more junior people and how you develop them.

“I think there’s this kind of weird thing going on in some organisations where they’re like, ‘We can only work if we employ really experienced engineers’. But part of your role in the ecosystem as a developer is to employ junior engineers then turn them into senior engineers. And we’re really active on that.”

Another factor is making yourself attractive to new recruits and gaining a reputation as a great place to work, Carden says. He believes his company has developed that rep – and that, in part, that’s thanks to its willingness to develop talent. And once said talent is fostered, the trio of CEOs adopt what they call “a culture of radical autonomy” where employees are given sweeping powers to make their own decisions.

It appears to be working. While others are struggling to fill roles as the pandemic squeezes the tech labour market even harder, “we haven’t really had any challenges ourselves in adding engineers or data scientists,” Carden says.

Straight to the tippy-top

A lot of Kiwi software startups aim at the small-to-medium business market, or even sole traders. Smaller companies have simpler needs, so it’s easier to develop software for them.

But from the get-go, Joyous has generally favoured customers with at least 10,000 staff. Larger enterprises are more likely to have software to gauge the mood of their staff – then process results quickly – with easily-digestible dashboards for a top-level view and lots of analytics for those who want to drill further down.

It didn’t hurt that success from ventures meant the Cardens had no trouble attracting seed money, and could spend a full two years on product development before they went to market.

Marquee local customers Spark and Genesis Energy are two of the smallest firms on Joyous’ books. And although each is below its usual threshold, Carden says it helps to have locals onboard for feedback.

With its restructure toward “agile” – or cross-disciplinary, cross-department teams – Spark has been particularly fertile testbed for Joyous, Carden says. His pitch is that his company’s software can help with communication during such big changes in culture, helping to identify and resolve issues more quickly, and to “de-risk” big projects like, say, a 5G rollout.

Joyous’ features include natural language support. And by treating feedback as a conversation, not a funnel, leaders and teams can unearth issues and act together to create positive change, he says.

Square Peg cofounder Barry Brott, who has joined Joyous’ board, adds, “Joyous
is tackling open feedback in a new and innovative way by changing how managers and employees talk to each other. They’re building something of real consequence – giving workers a voice”.

Carden says joyous’ larger customers don’t want to be named, but they include Fortune 50 companies.

Joyous spent two years on pure R&D, then had one year of “experimental” revenue before its commercial launch proper over the past 12 months over which period the company has been signing “multi-million dollar deals,” Carden says. The focus is on growth over profit.

Three CEOs – what?

How does it work day-to-day, having three chief executives?

Carden says as a startup, everyone tends to do a bit of everything, but each also has functional responsibilities.

He looks after revenue. His older brother Philip handles technology and Kolesky product development.

Carden held a senior corporate role with HP’s New Zealand operation before founding HR software outfit Sonar6, part-funded by Sam Morgan, which was barely out of the starting blocks before it was bought by US company Cornerstone Ondemand for US$14m in 2012.

When Joyous was on the drawing board, the first thing he did was try to recruit his brother Philip.

The unsung older Carden is one of New Zealand’s most successful engineers. During a 10-year career with Alcatel-Lucent (now part of Nokia Networks), he became a senior vice-president and global head of the Franco-American company’s consulting services division that included some 30,000 staff and the famed Bell Labs.

Philip came onboard in February 2017.

Newcomer Kolesky was formerly product design director at AskNicely – the Auckland outfit that operates in a not dissimilar market to Joyous. Ahead of that, she held the same role at Vista Group.

Most of those who’ll join the CEO collective over the next 12 months will be in product development roles.

Carden says Joyous will expand its go-to-market capability, but, overall, he believes a good product should speak for itself.

“We’re not an organisation that believes it can build a great business by investing in monster sales teams or buying thousands and thousands of [Google] AdWords,” he says.

“We’re a product-led company. If you invest in your product, particularly your data science, the outcomes last for years. Whereas if you spend money on AdWords, the outcomes last a few hours.”

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