Its all over the “Benefit” news. Patrick Conrad has resigned as Zenefits CEO this past Monday and is also off the Board. One more startup, that too a unicorn where the founder and CEO bites the dust, having let go for various reasons. What’s ironic is, that a CEO who is known as aggressive, brash and outspoken hasn’t said a word yet on the latest turn of events.
The reason quoted for what transpired is “Compliance”. Due to insurance sales done over the past couple of years, through unlicensed sales agents on behalf of Zenefits, state regulatory bodies are coming down heavily upon the company. As a result, David Sacks, the COO of the company for about a year, has taken on the reins as CEO and is trying to assuage investors, clients, insurance carriers, employees and regulatory bodies by letting go of the current CEO and re-inventing the organization as one that will change intrinsically from a culture standpoint, to be an organization that is compliant and will grow in a mature manner.
There has been quite an interest from the investor community in Zenefits. For a company that grew from zero to $1M in 8 months and then, to $20M by next year, it has attracted a lot of attention. With huge investments flowing in, the last being about $500M in May 2015, the expectations were poised to rise. With that kind of money in the kitty, what is there to hold back? $100M in revenues by Jan 2016 was the target that came out, perhaps a little too aggressive, knowing that scale is important but there is the need to give time to set processes in place to form a strong foundation for that growth.
With the commitment to hit $100M in revenues by Jan 2016, and $500M to tap into to make that happen, the management of Zenefits set into action. Among other roles, a hiring spree of sales staff was on. However, what lacked was putting the infrastructure and processes in place to bring the right kind of staff, provide them the needed training and ensure they conducted themselves in a compliant manner.
Its not just Patrick Conrad that is liable for Zenefits’ current issues, but their entire management team. Of course, Patrick may have stepped down taking responsibility as the CEO or may have been the fall guy, but, David Sacks was around as COO for an year leading operations, finance and product. Having been brought in for his seasoned experience, he came in to help manage a company that was in hyper growth mode. The Sales VP, Sam Blond who ran the sales organization is also as responsible.
Josh Stein has been appointed this week as the Chief Compliance Officer by David Sacks. Why did it take so long to bring in a Compliance Officer? Everyone in the company knew they were in a highly regulated industry. It was basic. As hiring began to meet the ambitious revenue target, why wasn’t a Compliance Department put in place? Why were the checks and balances that are so innate to the health insurance business ignored?
The $100M in revenues by Jan 2016 was perhaps very aggressive, given the lapses in the organization to get there. However, all is not lost. It’s a matter of a few more months before Zenefits hits the target, going by its business model, given that it fixes its way of doing business and keeps in the good books of the state regulatory bodies. However, it’s not the magic number that should matter anymore. What should matter is the need to have a sound sales management infrastructure and related processes in place including compliance, on which the organization can continue to build. Once that is established, reaching any targeted revenue number within a meaningful timeframe should not invite so much attention.
Recent history has shown that startups are allowed to make mistakes and then, correct themselves. In many cases, they have stood up to conventional laws and helped reshape them, in light of a new economy. Zenefits has shown the same in case of Utah. In other cases, the law just cannot be ignored or broken.
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