Building Big Businesses by Prioritizing People
Aneel Bhusri is the chairman, co-CEO, and co-founder of Workday, and a former managing partner at Greylock. But despite his accomplished resumé, he says, “There’s nobody that comes pre-built to be a CEO.”
So how did he get there, and what signals to him that someone has what it takes? Number one, Bhusri says: “Do they have a compelling vision? Do they truly have a vision — not an idea, but a vision? Can they paint a picture of what their company and their product and their markets can look like? Number two: Do they attract great people?”
Those two pieces — a compelling product and the ability to find and retain great people, both embedded in clear company values — are the building blocks for Bhusri, who co-runs a company originally built for HR that’s now on its way to $10 billion in revenue. Because while company culture matters for your workforce, it also matters for keeping work.
When asked about the Great Resignation, Bhusri doesn’t mince words: “If you don’t have happy employees, you’re not going to have happy customers.” And happy, truly listened-to customers are what keep businesses booming and innovating at all levels of scale.
“There’s nothing that’s more powerful in enterprise — assuming you’ve got a great product, you’ve hired the right people — nothing more powerful than a happy customer,” says Bhusri. “If you stay close to your customers, they’ll tell you what to build. They’ll tell you what’s missing. They’ll tell you what they really need to solve their business issues.”
Bhusri spoke with Greylock General Partner Sarah Guo as part of Greylock’s Iconversations series. During the discussion, Bhusri shared his advice on finding and hiring people who share the company’s values, retaining employees through opportunity and education, and what he’d study if he were starting college today.
You can watch a video from the event on our YouTube channel here, and you can listen to the conversation on the Greymatter podcast here:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Iconversations. I’m Sarah Guo, a general partner at Greylock.
Today, I’m honored to welcome my friend, mentor, and former leader, Aneel Bhusri. As an extraordinary triple threat of technologist, leader, and investor, he’s the chairman, co-CEO, and co-founder of Workday. He’s also a former managing partner at Greylock, and he really co-led Greylock’s reinvention into a leading Silicon Valley–based, software-focused venture firm. He [also] remains a valued advisory partner with us.
At Greylock, he invested in entrepreneurs, driving fundamental innovations in SaaS identity with Okta, flash storage with Pure, big data with Cloudera, and many others. Aneel’s the reason I’m in venture capital, having recruited me almost a decade ago, for which I am eternally grateful. And he’s the single leader whom I’ve seen most consistently focus on innovation and culture in my career.
Aneel, thanks so much for being here. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. Let’s dive in.
It’s good to be with you, Sarah. Yeah, let’s have fun.
Workday is clearly one of the most important software companies of today: $75 billion worth of market cap, over $3 billion of subscription revenue — en route to $10 billion — and 50-percent-plus of the Fortune 500 as customers. It’s also a company that’s committed to using its influence and resources for positive impact.
It’s taken you a huge journey to get here. I want to start by backing up a little. The company really exists today because of the relationship you and your co-founder, Dave Duffield, formed almost 30 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about the beginning and how that led to where you are today?
I met Dave in 1992. I was a summer intern at Norwest Venture Capital, working with this guy named George Still, who continues to be a mentor and is on the Workday board.
And then as I was finishing up school — I really liked Dave — I was going to move back to New York and go into venture capital. This was 1993. And I ran into George at a Burger King of all places. And he said, “Go talk to Dave.” So I talked to Dave, he took me out for a beer. PeopleSoft was an emerging company at the time. It wasn’t huge, but it was public, and Dave was a legend already.
The fact that he took me out for beer, I immediately wanted to work for him. I thought, “Hey, I’ll learn a lot from this great leader. I’ll do HR software for two to three years. I can’t see doing HR software for that much longer.” And 30 years later, I’m still in HR software.
But we started that friendship back then, and we’ve been together now coming up on our 29th year. And I just feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with a great leader, a great human being, a great visionary [and] entrepreneur at such a young age. Having him as a mentor definitely shortened my learning curve in many areas.
You were working for Dave at PeopleSoft, and you moved quickly up the ranks there. What were some of the key learnings? What did he teach you, or what did you teach each other, on the product front, the culture front?
I’d say a lot of it was about values and running a company based on a set of values. And when you go back to the ’90s, that wasn’t a popular thing. Being a great place to work was not on everybody’s radar. So Dave was pretty unique that way. He always led by example.
At that time, everybody was talking about the customer being number one. And he said, “No, employees are number one.” And to this day, I remember his famous quote, and I use it all the time: “I’ve never met a company that has happy customers and unhappy employees.” It just doesn’t work that way.
If you don’t have happy employees, you’re not going to have happy customers.
He focused on innovation, on having fun, on integrity. And we really ran the business on those values. And today those are exactly the same values we have at Workday. It’s changed because the world has changed so much in how we use those values. But I learned a lot from him [and] that perspective.
The other part was, in the tech world, if you don’t keep innovating, you ultimately become irrelevant. And so he was a relentless innovator, pushing and pushing and pushing, and he was the first CEO I’d worked for.
And so, as I’ve been working with him and running Workday for the last 15 years, I’d have that same relentless push towards innovation.