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isolved raises the (right) issues

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer October 5, 2022
Summary:
HR solutions vendor isolved had a recent event that really put the company’s differentiators on display. It was like a scavenger hunt with customers, partners and analysts accumulating all of the cool things that set them apart. In a Fall season full of unoriginal, derivative vendor events, this one stood out to me.

HR

If I had attended isolved’s conference AFTER the HR Technology Conference, I would have thought that the isolved folks had come up with much of their content and themes from the latter’s show. But, the isolved event preceded HRTech by a week or two and it has been eerie looking over the slides and notes from that event. My pleasant conclusion is this: the isolved folks really are tuned into the HR software market and the challenges their customers and prospects face. They were preemptively raising all of the right issues and concerns for today’s HR solutions buyer.

There were discussions regarding the continued skills shortages, quiet quitting, great resignation and more. There were practical discussions re: best uses for advanced tech in HR solutions.

There were also a lot of customers for this event - a challenge for many software vendors regardless of their catering to enterprise-class or SMB clientele. Today’s software conferences have to check a lot of boxes to get firms, especially SMBs, to approve the travel, conference and other costs for their people to attend. Add to this, with so many firms understaffed these days, few can afford to free anyone up for the better part of a week to attend a software show.

The customers I spoke with had a couple of common characteristics. Many were there specifically to check out new modules or capabilities that they haven’t previously purchased. But let’s be clear on this: they are there because they like what they have now, a lot, and came looking to get some more. I rarely (almost never) see this with enterprise-class vendor events. At the latter, I hear a lot of groans/carping and see a lot of eye-rolls.

Yep! These customers were a different bunch.

Who is isolved?

Charlotte-based isolved, (nee Infinisource) was founded in 1986 and was focused then on helping firms deal with COBRA.  Around 2012, the company was marketing itself as a HR solutions suite provider for small-to-medium sized firms.  Now, “More than 35 years later, isolved is still one of the largest providers of such benefits nationwide.”

The company’s product line and services have grown through a combination of organic and inorganic growth. The benefits side of the firm was significantly bolstered via a series of acquisitions that added a number of HR applications to the solution mix. These new capabilities allowed the company to cross-sell to its massive customer base.

Some of the more notable acquisitions the company closed included:

  • Trendata and Givful in 2021
  • Sage Payroll Solutions in 2019
  • Qqest (TimeForce time and attendance) in 2012

Crunchbase and other sources have more details on these deals. What some of the public deal databases may not report are some of the nearly 12 ‘network’ acquisitions that isolved has closed in the last three years. These acquired firms were resellers of isolved solutions.

isolved was acquired by Accel/KKR over a decade ago. The buyer, Accel/KKR, is different from the PE firm KKR in that it is fully focused on growth companies. Will Accel/KKR be looking for a liquidity event soon on this investment? A lot of people at the show seem to think an IPO is imminent. Should that happen, I would recommend readers consider what can happen when a material change of control occurs.

isolved today

One of the interesting things in software is that enterprise-class vendors aren’t the only big solutions providers out there. The slide below gives you a taste for how big and far isolved has come.

slide
(isolved)

Today, isolved sells a relatively complete suite of HRMS applications that are mostly designed to serve smaller and mid-sized businesses. Given the product line’s completeness and growing depth of functionality, we should expect to see them move more upmarket in time (more on this below).

The company also has grown its channel partner network over the years. That’s key as these firms help keep isolved’s cost of sales and customer acquisition costs low. And the channel has done well in cross-selling new or additional products to these customers. There was another growth angle present in customer and isolved conversations. I could summarize it thusly: “We don’t just help companies, we help companies grow”. That sentiment is interesting as it:

  • Shows that the vendor isn’t trying to wallet-frack its prospects/customers right out of the gate. This is a patience game that they are playing and it appears to be paying off.
  • is clearly an aspirational aspect to isolved’s culture and marketing messaging. They want to help customers and not pillage their customers’ bank accounts like many other vendors do.
  • Signals, directionally, where the product line will continue to go: up market and functionally broader.

Going vertical

isolved announced its first vertical: health care. This is a space where they’ll likely encounter Infor and Workday among others. The healthcare space is huge and isolved should have no problem finding many niches to burrow into. Healthcare also has tons of practitioners who are not part of a major firm. My dentist and one physician I use certainly fit this description. These organizations need solutions that are laser-focused on their industry-specific HR, benefits, payroll and other related needs. A generalized SMB tool won’t cut it.

I spoke with one of isolved’s healthcare customers. This was a large non-profit health care provider with operations in the Midwest US.  This organization started with isolved’s Payroll product. It then implemented, in turn, Time and Attendance, Benefits Administration, more employee self-service functionality, Onboarding, Applicant Tracking, COBRA administration, Learning Management and more applications are in the process of being implemented.

This customer was not very interested in offboarding functionality, but was rather keen in getting/using better predictive tools to stem potential attrition. That seems very logical and understandable given the times.

This customer also indicated her certification and license management needs are currently supported via another vendor’s solution. She also volunteered that their practice operates without paper. If some paper does appear, it gets scanned immediately as all of their records are now digital. Employee self-service was key to eliminating paper with their internal processes. It was refreshing to hear about such sophisticated, digital business practices from a clearly mid-market firm.

Branding

You couldn’t escape isolved’s branding. It was ubiquitous. Everything was pink (their website’s that way, too!).

You couldn’t escape the branded swag either with much of it in pink, too. I somehow got handed some playing cards and a straw hat at the show (It was Nashville, folks!). But if any customer went back to their employer without a t-shirt, stress ball, etc. then they must have been playing hooky!

Seriously though, isolved was telling people: “It’s not where you work but the outcomes (you deliver)”. That is actually a nice customer branding to promulgate and so much better (and experiential) than the usual, self-absorbed, large-enterprise vendor dreck (e.g., “We are the only enterprise-class, full suite, hybrid, scalable solution running on our proprietary database that needs a small army and several million dollars to get implemented”.)

Culture

I also got some 1:1 time with isolved’s Chief People Officer Amy Mosher. I learned that they are trying to create a unified culture within the company. I get it. The company contains people from a number of acquired entities, has hired a lot people from other firms, etc. Simultaneously, the company wants to promulgate new ways and metrics for implementing its products (see below).

What I heard was:

  • It’s hard to create a single, uniform culture when people are working from home or have come from recent M&A deals
  • Growth (organic and inorganic) will continue to challenge the company’s culture. For example, the firm has grown to 800 employees in last 20 months
  • A key culture requirement is to find and groom employees with a good ‘change dynamic’
  • The employee experience is something the Chief People Officer watches closely. We had a free-wheeling discussion on this as the CHRO of one of her competitors does a horrid job of this.
  • isolved “drinks their own champagne”. (That’s correct. They don’t “eat their own dog food” – an expression other vendors use to describe how they use their own software.) If their own software is not delivering the EX it should be, isolved wants to know and correct this.
  • isolved is rolling out a lot of product training to the isolved staff. They believe a more product aware staff is able to help customers be more successful and happier.
  • Shifting culture also means shifting metrics. Old metrics like products sold and revenue numbers are being replaced with new metrics like product downloads and demos given
  • isolved wants people to be living their values (and is hoping they align with isolved’s). Where this isn’t happening, isolved is moving some people out. Specifically, people with bad or ill-fitting cultures have been counseled out of the firm

The analytics discussion

I spoke with isolved’s Predictive People Analytics Product Owner Tom McKeown about analytics. Tom was the former CEO and founder of TrenData HR, a firm isolved acquired in 2021.

It turns out that you have to approach analytics differently for mid-market buyers than you do for large enterprises. Mid-market buyers don’t necessarily have the talent to design, populate and maintain custom analytics or those using complex advanced technologies (e.g., smart analytics or analytics that recommend new courses of action based on the results of the analytics).

It turns out that data visualization is a key capability that mid-market analytic solutions must have to get market traction. And, apparently, mid-market firms want analytic tools whose data, insights and actionable capabilities reside on smartphones, too.

isolved’s key analytics focus will be to provide insights to help companies scale (quickly and effectively). Scale/growth is the key buyer value in this discussion.

Some of isolved’s analytics solutions use Bureau of Labor Statistics and Salary.com data to marry up with a customer’s own data (in aggregate).

Since I couldn’t resist, I asked, “But don’t mid-market firms use spreadsheets for this?” I got a great response: “Spreadsheets may always be with us because they are like cockroaches – they’ve survived ice ages, dinosaurs, meteor impacts and more.”  That was the quote of the day for me.

Customer success

My colleagues at diginomica and I are getting quite tired of vendors talking our ears off about their Customer Success initiatives. These conversations are quite embarrassing as few vendors can back up the platitudes with real customers we can talk to. Seriously, how can a program be a success if no one is allowed to shout out the value it created?

To that end, I button-holed a number of customers at a different vendor’s recent event and asked them how they liked that vendor’s software. The answer was almost always a variation of: “The product I like, but the implementation, much less so”. When I mentioned that to that vendor’s customer success executive, he said it was due to either third parties that implemented the solution and/or was an old implementation.  Yeah, right.

I particularly cringe at Customer Success executives who believe that a fast/rapid implementation is the key to value delivery and customer success. I’m not going to litigate this issue here but suffice to say that too much customization is as bad as none at all. Some things must be taken into account for each customer.

Imagine my surprise when I spoke with an executive at isolved who was definitely more focused on the ideal business outcome for the customer, not the speed to get something implemented. Fast isn’t always the right or fully useful way to go. isolved is on the right side of this issue.

My take

This was a great event for customers and analysts alike.

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