IVP’s Future Of Work Podcast: Humu Co-Founder Wayne Crosby on Making Work Better Through Science and Machine Learning

Welcome to a special edition of IVP’s Future of Work Podcast. In this series, IVP investors talk with experts from the fastest-growing companies and discuss the ins-and-outs of the future of work in the ever-changing environment.

In our second episode of a three-part series, IVP Partner, Cack Wilhelm, talks with Humu Co-Founder and CTO, Wayne Crosby, about the future of work. This conversation comes at a time when organizations are moving online more quickly to match the changing world.

Before Humu, Wayne spent ten years as an engineering director at Google receiving the “Great Manager Award” in 2012 for his leadership. He joined Google through the acquisition of Zenter, the Y Combinator-backed presentation software startup he co-founded in 2007 (that became Google Slides). Wayne led product and engineering teams at Amazon and Go Daddy, and is also the VP of Technology at his local elementary school.

IVP invested in Humu’s Series B in the spring of 2018 to accelerate the expansion of the platform and help the company scale across countries, companies, and cultures. The goal? Higher productivity, lower attrition, and happier, more capable employees at companies across the globe.

Some key takeaways from our discussion with Wayne:

We All Want Happiness

“Because it comes as no surprise that a happier employee is the more productive one that retains longer, is more innovative.”

Humu creates behavioral change technology to increase productivity and happiness – in real-time. Using short, personalized coaching moments, the product improves organizational health and ensures business continuity. They rely on research that uses words like happiness and translate the research into processes that align more closely with business outcomes such as retention, productivity, and innovation.

Transformation of Work Through Machine Learning and AI

“There’s something fundamentally human about work.”

We, as humans, want to come together. We want to belong. We want to contribute to something that’s bigger than ourselves. AI systems development is just starting. Today, we see tools that are helping to do specific tasks. In the future, successful companies will use technology to mimic humans behavior in the workforce. We should empower people to think more creatively, a task humans are known to execute better than technology. And machines are fantastic at doing rogue and complex tasks. If we look at where artificial intelligence and machine learning is going, many jobs will automate. Work is not going away for humans, it’s evolving and transforming the future.

Humu Provides COVID-19 Resources to Improve Remote Work Habits

Humu’s mission is to make work better for everyone, everywhere. As part of that, they’re providing email nudges that help employees form better habits for working remotely and tips to best communicate with colleagues in this changing environment. Individuals can sign up for Remote Work Nudges here.

For organizations, the company is providing a Crisis Resilience solution with 3-month packages of nudges that make it easy for enterprises to offer resources to help employees. These tools develop better resilience skills and remote work habits, especially given today’s stressors of an uncertain future.

At its core, Humu reconnects and reminds employees of a company’s shared values, a tool critical and helpful at a time like now.

More from the full conversation in the transcript is below.

To hear more, listen on iTunes or SoundCloud.


Narrator: Welcome to IVP’s Future of Work Podcast. In this series, we talk with experts from the fastest-growing companies and discuss the ins-and-outs of the future of work in the ever-changing environment. If you like what you hear, consider following us on SoundCloud or subscribing to our podcast on iTunes. Thanks, and enjoy the show.

Cack Wilhelm: Welcome back to a special edition podcast on the future of work. In this episode, I will talk to Wayne Crosby, who is currently the co-founder and CTO of IVP portfolio company Humu, and I think most interestingly, known as a co-creator of Google Slides back in 2007.

Cack Wilhelm: Okay, well, Wayne. Thanks for joining us today. I’m afraid if I leave it to you to introduce yourself, that you’ll gloss over a lot of your impressive backgrounds, so I’m going to take a stab. Just to take a quick minute of your highlights, then I’ll let you talk, I promise. So your undergrad, you are a computer science degree and then followed by a handful of software engineering roles in the post dot com bust really starting, you know, the early 2000s. My guess is in 2007, you threw caution to the wind and you entered YC, Y Combinator, and you started your company, Zenter, that was later acquired by Google and very notably became Google Slides. Then a full decade at Google in engineering, which I think directly led you to where you are at Humu today. So I’d love if you could start and just take a minute and share what Humu does in just a few sentences and then we can go from there.

Wayne Crosby: [Of course, so Humu nudges our people towards better habits. The goal is to unlock the potential of the individual, thereby making the whole of the organization better. And we do that through a mix of really understanding how people make decisions, meaningful economics, and how we can help influence those decisions to make better decisions for themselves and their organization. And then, through machine learning, helping be able to understand what is the right time in the right context to be able to deliver a very targeted message to help them make better decisions.

Cack Wilhelm: Great. Yeah, I think a lot of what you shared really ties into this theme of, I’m sure, what you’re thinking about a lot and talking about a lot and what we’re trying to cover on this podcast, which is the future of work, you know, the future of business as we know it. Maybe we can just take a step back in time and we saw the data-driven revolution in operations with Six Sigma. Then we saw the marketing move from, you know, it was really content and PR toward a more data-driven approach. And from what I can tell now, we’re seeing the very same with people operations with HR. Maybe you can tell us, you know, how people ops at Google and now at Humu has been central to that move toward being data-driven and answer this question of, you know, are we moving from intuition-based to being more data-based?

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, absolutely. I think you draw a lot of good parallels there. I like to think that a lot of the parallels between the marketing industry and kind of where we are with regard to some of the data-driven decisions with people instead of organizations. So if you think back to, you know, pre Google, AdSense, and targeted advertising, a lot of that was based on intuition and understanding. You know, you go to a campaign manager and you talk to them and you say, you know, I want to sell this thing and, you know, they might run us billboards, run some ads, maybe buy a Super Bowl ad, and at the end, go back and say, you know, did it work? And oftentimes they turn around and say I don’t know, you tell me. Are you selling more? And so if you fast forward to today and you have a marketing campaign that you want to run, and the agency that you’re working with isn’t running an a/b experiment to understand how you’re going to maximize your output that’s not an agency that most people would want to work with. And I think the thing is happening inside of transitions today, which is a lot of these decisions that are being made, we see companies spending a lot of money. They care about their employees, they’re trying to do the right thing. We’re working with one company that spent over $2,000 a year on employee development. And if you ask them what did they get for that, they kind of shrug their shoulders and say, I don’t know, it seems to be working, but I don’t know. And I think that there’s a transformation that’s happening right now in terms of let’s understand, how are we spending that money to help our people? How do we know that we’re getting a really good return on that investment that we’re both leveling them up and the organization is being successful? And with everybody obviously wanting to spend money in the most effective way and you want to try and make sure that you’re getting the most of the money that you’re putting in. And so if you can start to understand where is the biggest impact that you can have in order to help people to try the best outcomes for them in the organization, then you get to have a more data-driven decision around how am I going to deploy these resources to help our people. And that’s really what we’re starting to see in these organizations, in an HR space a lot right now where people are moving from their intuitions feel to more of a deeper understanding of not only is it spending money effectivly, but also we’re starting to understand how is it that we can actually encourage people to do the right things to get them to where they want to be?

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah. You mentioned machine learning or ML in your intro to Humu, so is Humu one of the first companies to create a structured data set sitting behind some of these people decisions because I would think, you know, part step one before you can really nudge or inform people of what they ought to be doing, you need some baseline.

Wayne Crosby: Yeah. So I think the way to think about it is pretty much for any machine learning model what you’re trying to do is, you have an outcome that you’re trying to affect and you’re trying to predict what is going to actually help that outcome the most. And so in using the advertising analogy again, the outcomes that you care about are, am I actually getting clicks through those ads. Inside of organizations, that thing that you’re actually trying to maximize our behavioral changes to actually incentivize the right behaviors. Because it comes as no surprise that a happier employee is the more productive one, retains longer, is more innovative. So all of these good things that come, but all that starts from understanding the psychological constructs that actually create an environment in which an employee feels like they belong and they have a lot of trust in everything else. And so those are the outcomes that we’re really trying to drive inside of organizations. And we work at a couple of different levels in terms of doing that.

Cack Wilhelm: So let’s talk about that, because I think in your original messaging, there was a lot more about this, you know, quote-unquote, happiness. Happiness in the form of joy and also happiness in the form of meaning, of trust, of empowerment. You guys seem to have shifted away from happiness as a term and you focus on other nomenclature. Is happiness just too fluffy, or was it not resonating with the buyer?

Wayne Crosby: I think happiness is an important psychological construct and it’s not the happiness that we talk about where you’re whistling through the halls, but it’s that happiness of feeling belonging and fulfillment and contentment, you know, really being excited about showing up every day and giving your full self. And so I think that’s still core to what you’re trying to drive, but from a company perspective and aligning with other organizations, there’s a lot of different ways that this ends up manifesting. Companies have different values, but most of them are built on top of these core psychological constructs. And so what we’ve done is take a lot of the underlying research that uses words like happiness, but also be able to translate into things that align more closely with business outcomes such as retention, productivity, innovation, things like that.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, interesting. And that relates to culture. You know, also looking back like the 80s and 90s, that is the 1980s and the 1990s, you saw this rise of corporate culture in a lot of the material that students cover in business school. That was all very inward-looking. The corporate world seems to have moved to be sort of default open. So you have Glassdoor reviews, on LinkedIn and you can see who works where. You have really high-quality journalism exposing the likes of WeWork in a way. This would all suggest culture really matters. So sitting where you sit at Humu, what do you guys think about culture, culture being more external?

Wayne Crosby: Oh, absolutely. I think there’s been several instances in the last couple of years where you see cultures that aren’t their best selves that end at manifesting in a pretty dramatic negative impact in these organizations. So an obvious one is if you look at where Uber was at and the negative impact of press cycles that they had with regards to their own internal culture, where people were getting to the point where they were even uninstalling the app. Now, I think the new leadership is coming in and they’re trying to address that, but, absolutely, culture has an impact on your end-users. And also not only that but also on your organization and your own internal health and productivity. So some of the things that we’ve been able to do, even in situations where you think culture isn’t as important as when you think about tech workers and things like that, that, you know, culture obviously is one of those things that in Silicon Valley we have an opinion about, like what culture looks like. But if you look at some of the hourly workers like at a call center, that culture is also still super important and you can actually try some pretty meaningful changes inside of organizations if you help them cultivate the right things. So one of the examples that we saw is in companies that we worked with is, so we established a baseline, we understood where they were, and then we started to actually deploy nudges for their call center and over a period of six months. What we saw was actually an 8 percent productivity improvement in their call center workers because of the nudges and the way that we were starting to incentivize different behaviors and align those with, not only what they’re looking for from their teams, but also in terms of the business impacts that we’re trying to drive.

Cack Wilhelm: That’s super cool. I think sitting in Silicon Valley, the future of work often seems very focused on knowledge workers, so I was impressed to read in your press releases, you’re covering non-tech. You mentioned some 50-year-old manufacturing companies, truck drivers, you just explained this, this example with call center. What are some other examples of working with hourly workers and shift workers and how nudges work in that scenario versus a knowledge worker scenario?

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, there are different populations, but it turns out that one of the things that I spent a lot of time on before I started Humu. I knew I wanted to do a more mission-driven startup as my second startup. And one of the questions that I had really was if we look at where a lot of the artificial intelligence and machine learning is going, I think that a lot of jobs are going to transform and are going to become systems and automation in place that can do jobs better than what our existing human workforce can do. And so it really caused me to reflect on, well, what does that mean if we end up creating all of these systems and can do it better. And as I reflected on that, the conclusion that I came to was that there’s something fundamentally human about work. We as humans want to come together. We want to belong. We want to contribute to something that’s bigger than what we can build with our own two hands. And for a lot of us, that’s work. And so I don’t think that work is going away, I think it’s going to transform as we look forward. But because of this fundamentally human aspect of it, I think it’s here to stay and so as that relates back to the labor force, the vast majority of jobs that are out there are hourly work, they are not knowledge worker jobs. And so how can we help them in terms of understanding what it is that drives them and how do we make that work more meaningful and how do we continue to bring that population of labor along and create clear work environments for them, even as we’re going through this transformation period.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, no, that’s interesting. I mean, because right now we have people on manufacturing floors fulfilling apparel orders for Patagonia. But tomorrow we’re going to have people overseeing those robots on the same manufacturing floor, and the robots are going to be the ones fulfilling those goods. From your perspective, do you have insights either from your customer base or just viewing the shifting landscape of what jobs you think will emerge and which jobs will fall away?

Wayne Crosby: Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of things here. I think that it’s not a huge leap to think about truck driving jobs are going away or even a lot of the car service people jobs going away because you’re going to see autonomous vehicles come into the market. You’re going to see those start to transform. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think that, if I think about A.I. systems and what I want to do, we shouldn’t be building A.I. systems that drive like human truck drivers, we should be building systems that actually drive better, that’s healthier and safer, that’s more efficient for everybody. But those jobs do need to also go somewhere. And I think where the companies are going to be most successful are going to be when they start to think about the human aspects of how can we actually use our labor force to do what humans do best. One of our customers is this fast-food chain and we work with them, they’re fantastic. They really care about their employees; they care about their customer service, they want to make sure that they’re not only taking care of their employees but their customers having a good experience. And one of the things that we’ve seen and we help them understand is we saw the turnover quite a bit of people between Thanksgiving and the new year. And so we were able to actually help them do that analysis, and understand why people were turning over. And they were trying to do the right thing by closing down a lot of their shops during the holidays to make sure that people could spend time with their families. But that ended up causing financial stress on those employees. And so we were able to actually work with that company and help them understand why that was happening. And they were mostly just leaving to find other jobs during that time in order to support their families. And so we worked with them to find the right model, to say, look, if we pay them holiday pay during these times, you can spend time with your family, and in the end, the business still ends up ahead because you’re able to get in on the tighter spending in the new year, be able to retain that workforce, and you don’t have to retrain your population to come in. And so it’s a win-win for everybody. And not it’s just a really satisfying experience to kind of work through with those organizations. And so I think that there’s still going to be a lot of hourly jobs in the future, but like I mentioned, the nature of those things will change over time.

Cack Wilhelm: It’s a really impressive insight. I’m sure it was no small feat to suss that out of a lot of data. You mentioned something I just want to touch on because I think it’s a unique insight, just this idea of robots trying to do things how people do them, versus robots, doing, you know, achieving a task in an optimal way. Maybe you’ve been at Google long enough to witness like self-driving cars and the proper way to do artificial intelligence. But that seems like something that step one might be, yeah, just mimic humans and step two might be doing it better.

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, I think that’s how some people are approaching it. I think that generally, AI systems are still quite a ways off. I think that we’re going to see a lot of very specific AI systems come into existence over the next several years. It already has started to come in, that are helping to do specific tasks. And what that does, is free us up to be able to think more creatively and be able to think about bigger picture things as opposed to being stuck in a routine jobs, that are more manual and rogue. And we should be empowering people to think more creatively, that is what humans do best. And machines are fantastic at doing rogue things. So let’s let them do that too.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah. So Humu, I mean, if you put it in sort of GDP terms and labor productivity, are you trying to influence more individual labor productivity, or are you also focused on sort of the aggregate work hours worked? You know, if labor productivity is GDP over the labor force, like, are you trying to reduce or increase the denominator, or is that TBD?

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, so my hope is that we’re not reducing any labor forces. It’s where a lot of these companies have large labor forces. Our target market is large enterprise. And what we’ve been able to demonstrate, specifically with like our manager effectiveness product, is that if you imagine that your bottom 50 percentile managers actually started behaving like your top 10 percent managers. Right? Like what does that do for your organization, what does it do for your people? How impactful could that be for you? And it’s not about making things necessarily more efficient from the labor market; it’s more about how you do more with what you have, not reducing the labor work, right? It’s more about how do you do more with what you have to really celebrate what people can contribute to the organization.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, that’s cool. And what you failed to include is that you at Google, multiple years, were named one of the top managers at the company, which having done some primary research, I understand that to be a very prestigious award. So you know from experience. Yeah.

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, it was a great experience. I think Google is an amazing company, and I had a wonderful time being there for a decade and watching it go through all of its transformations. And I think they were the tip of the spear for a lot of things, with regards to how to think about data in internal operations. And Laszlo has been a fantastic co-founder as we worked through those different things and lessons learned there that we’ve been able to take to the next evolution.

Cack Wilhelm: Yeah, no, so cool. So I want to ask you one last question, because you are uniquely positioned to answer this, which is, you know, as the creator of Google Slides, it was 2007, so you are very prescient in terms of this idea of like collaboration and workforce productivity in 2007. So what’s the 2030 trend that we aren’t thinking about as it relates to the sort of people analytics, HR, future of work, given your knowledge from Slides in 2007?

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. I think, um, Slides is a little bit of in a productivity suite is where we started because we saw that we had a huge need to be able to be more collaborative and actually have a tool that helps us be more collaborative. As I look forward, what I see is somewhat of a post-apps world. And so what I mean by that is there’s already an app to do everything that you want to do, and so what is the ideal product experience that you’re trying to build for organizations? It oftentimes isn’t another tool. It’s about how you connect people, how you – I’ll back up one second. If you want to actually create the best product experience, it’s the one that integrates with your existing workflow that feels super lightweight, but that has some measurable impact inside of your organization in your work. And that’s what we’ve built with these nudges. They’re very lightweight. They are able to integrate with whatever communication channel you’re using inside of your organization. And it helps create and foster a much more productive, innovative, and collaborative work environment. And so as I think through the evolution of the tools that we have and the direction that we’re going, we’re going to be moving into a much more of a streamlined experience in terms of meeting the user exactly where they are, understanding the context that they’re in, and then be able to give them exactly the right piece of information at the right time to help them do their job even better.

Cack Wilhelm: Sounds great. I look forward to that future. Well, awesome, Wayne, thank you so much for being our guest today. We really, really appreciate it.

Wayne Crosby: Yeah, me too. I really appreciate it, too. 

Cack Wilhelm: Thank you to everyone today for listening. And I thoroughly hope you enjoyed our discussions.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to IVP’s Future of Work Podcast. You can learn more about us on IVP.com or join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting @IVP.