“Commit to the Customer Segments That Are Still Unsatisfied”
Interview with Pipefy CEO & Founder Alessio Alionco.
Scaling operations is the biggest challenge any business will ever face. With so many things changing, it helps to have automation tools that you can control. That is precisely the pain point being solved by Alessio Alionco and his startup Pipefy. Unlike other workflow software, Pipefy is lightweight and geared toward non-technical users. It helps manage requests from stakeholders and make individual contributors more efficient. As Alessio puts it: “empower the doer.”
Alessio joined midstage startup coach Roland Siebelink on this week’s episode of the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. The two discussedPipefy’s huge success trajectory, as well as the company’s learnings and challenges along the way:
- Why it’s essential for leaders to “Go to the Gemba,” which is where value is created.
- Recognizing that changes take longer to implement as a business grows.
- Why a lot of competition is actually a positive and how to respond to it.
- Pipefy’s commitment to being a people-first company and what that looks like in practice.
- What it means to take care of the things “you don’t know that you don’t know.”
Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I’m a scaleup ally for tech founders. We have an even more impressive guest on top of all the other impressive guests we’ve already had: Alessio Alionco, the CEO and founder of Pipefy. And he’s joining us from Brazil. Hello, Alessio. What an honor.
Alessio Alionco: Hello. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me today, Roland.
Roland Siebelink: It’s an absolute pleasure. And I’m glad we can keep doing this while we’re all locked down in our respective countries, right? Pipefy, a company that’s already made quite a name for itself. For those that haven’t heard of it yet, can you explain in a few sentences what does Pipefy do, for whom, and how does it make a difference in the world?
Alessio Alionco: Great. Pipefy is a workflow software, especially for non-technical users. We make it really easy for managers to streamline execution of their teams and also to make that execution. We are really focused especially on helping managers manage requests from their stakeholders. We are quite popular with HR, finance managers, or customer operations professionals that need to engage a lot with external stakeholders like employees, customers, partners, by using portals, forms, and communication features to provide them a good experience, provide them a good service.
Roland Siebelink: Like service oriented departments? You mentioned HR. I think you mentioned finance people that need to deal with a lot of requests from either employees or outside stakeholders.
Alessio Alionco: Yes, exactly. If you’re scaling up and you manage internal or external stakeholders, we are one of the best solutions available today in the market. At least we can guarantee the fastest one because we’re really lightweight, intuitive, and easy to deploy. We try to include the max we can our solution to empower non-technical users, managers to be able to streamline that work without having to have skills about API integrations or advanced process notations and all those complex needs.
Roland Siebelink: Perfect. Compared to the experience that those managers had before, what would you say is the real pain that you solve with Pipefy?
Alessio Alionco: The main pain we solve is when those managers are scaling up. Because when you think about the maturity growth of a given process inside an organization, it starts really unstructured, on spreadsheets or in mailboxes or simple, lightweight, no-code task management apps. But as you start scaling up, the big pain of those managers is guaranteeing they’re going to provide a good experience to those guests and make sure they’re going to optimize their execution. Have a bit of control of what’s happening.
The main reason why our customers, they move forward with us, I would say, is two things. The first one is because we are a lightweight solution where non-technicals can implement. And this is an old big pain. We are really strong with mid-market enterprise customers. That’s where we really profit and focus most of our time and energy.
And multiple managers, they’ve been struggling because they open requests today to departments or trying to figure out the best tool to purchase and so on. And their requests and times last for months, if not years, in the backlog of their internal organizations, which is really bad for them because their satellite processes are not well managed over time. But it’s also really bad for IT because they need to focus on the big problems of the organization. And usually those companies have their original workflow solutions, the first generation solutions, but they are not flexible or intuitive enough for non-technical users to implement and use. And that’s exactly the problem we solve.
We have a huge long tail of small businesses using Pipefy. But actually, where we found our sweet spot, that’s exactly the long tail of mid-market and big organizations. I think every single department, they have a few dozens of processes. And those satellite processes in the organization, they do not get the same attention of the ERP solutions or the big industrial processes that every organization has. That’s exactly where we found our sweet spot in the long tail of those mid-market enterprise companies.
Roland Siebelink: It sounds like it’s also important to have enough scale on this side of the customer, for there to be a manager who has several people helping to process requests. It’s not enough if it’s just a one-person shop that is trying to manage requests for themselves, because then the spreadsheet might be equally efficient, I guess.
Alessio Alionco: It is. But there’s a few specific factors. Because what happens - imagine, someone running accounts payable. Probably, that person starts doing accounts payable, accounts receivable, procurement, and as a company starts to grow, from 50 to 100 employees and more, probably you have someone full-time doing accounts payable, another person full-time doing accounts receivable just for compliance reasons as well.
And probably to an individual contributor, or sometimes the procurement team is just a solo player there running for everyone. But even those guys, if you could improve how they receive the requests and automate the max we can, that process for that specific individual contributor, actually you are adding him super powers where probably you’ll be able to stay much longer with your team members in that specific team to save a lot of costs and free that time to have that team member to focus on other challenges of the organization.
That’s exactly the big change that’s happening in the market. In the past, more big companies acquired solutions to be more efficient and scale their operations. Today, even when you use a simple solution, actually, you’re getting more efficient. And we call that “Empower the Doer”, even those individual contributors, to be more efficient inside their companies.
Roland Siebelink: “Empower the doer” is what you said. I like that. That’s a great slogan.
And it’s a big contrast too. You mentioned your background where often a very strong anti-pattern is one group of people designing how other people should do the job, right? That’s not always been that effective. I find.
Alessio Alionco: Yes. And probably that’s one of the best lessons learned in the whole Lean discipline: learn over time. When we discuss about the lean tools, there is a common word called Gemba. Go to the floor. Go to where things are happening and really check the people that are in the frontline working because they really know what’s happening. And they really know, probably what are the best ideas to improve this process.
There are two types of consultants and usually they have the type of top-down approach, which is also a concern. But when you think in terms of, “Okay, what’s effective, what really works?” Breaking those big projects into these really small, fast, incremental improvements and making sure you’re in the Gemba. Listen to the real analysts, the frontline workers, because they know where are the pain points and the things that could be better.
Roland Siebelink: I think we have a common background also in focusing a lot on these organizations that are in high-scaling mode, right? Obviously, when companies are growing fast, it’s then when these managers need to learn fast and improve fast with better workflow software, for example.
What are some insights that you may have gathered in talking to your customers and seeing where their pain points are? What scaling companies do that makes them successful versus what do they not do? And maybe also some insights that you can share from within Pipefy itself?
Alessio Alionco: I think you need to understand there are different phases. For example when you’re a smaller company, culture, solve by consequence, behavior, spread through osmosis. You need to have specific systems in place to guarantee you have the right people with the right behavior.
Good will and hustlers work because if people just work a few extra hours, you have really smart people. Even if you do not have good processes, but the team is really committed to achieve those goals, they will be able to figure out what they need to achieve their goals in the end of the year and probably will be able to achieve your targets when you are small. As you grow and you need to orchestrate something that’s far more complex. Teams and so on, they are like a few changes. Any change you do, you take three, six months to see the impacts of that change. You need to plan much better.
Roland Siebelink: Let’s maybe move on a little bit to Pipefy’s success rate. It’s been a long while since you guys were part of the 2015 batch of 500 Startups, I believe, right? That’s a long time ago now. It must feel like a century ago. How have you guys fared since then? What have been some big milestones and where are you at now with what numbers you can share?
Alessio Alionco: It’s been a great journey. Today, we are almost at 300 people at the company with employees spread worldwide in Brazil, where we started, in the US, and other regions, some team members are globally distributed. We also have from small tech startups to big enterprise powerhouses like IBM, Coca-Cola, banks as customers. And we’ve been lucky enough to keep growing really fast and then keep investing on that growth.
Roland Siebelink: Briefly, Alessio, you mentioned the competition. You mentioned Salesforce, Oracle, Pegasus. How do you compete with these behemoths? How do you carve out a market for yourself in the face of such strong competition from people that have a lot more money at their disposal than you do?
Alessio Alionco: Great points. Usually, when people think about competition, they see it as a bad thing. But I have a different view. When there’s a lot of competition, it means a lot of money and a lot of buyers in the market. And when you already have first-generation competitors in that specific market and companies that already are at $1 billion-plus revenues, I can guarantee that you’re going to find a few subsegments of customers that are not satisfied. And they have specific needs. And the key in terms of positioning to compete with those incumbents and be successful is really identifying the segment of customers that are unsatisfied and have more specific needs and really commit to make them successful and double down on the things that you help their unique needs to be addressed.
In the case of Pipefy, it’s the combination of exactly those two things. First, empowering doers, non-technical users, providing something that’s really plug and play, best deployed, and something that a non-technical user can use. Focus on the request management by providing a good experience to stakeholders, which is HR, finance, and customer operations.
The combination of those two things, that’s exactly what allowed us to be really competitive, and even sell and make deals with companies that are also customers of those big vendors or sell to those big vendors. IBM, they are one of our customers and they have a lot of products that actually overlap with what we do. But that’s fine because for that specific type of product, we are specialized and they would prefer to move forward with us.
Roland Siebelink: Yes. It’s almost as if you have to find the courage to embrace being a point solution to really hone in on that target group where you know you have the best possible solution. Don’t you ever have founders or board members, for that matter, who say, “Are we not giving up too much? Should we not have a broader scope?” Has that been a discussion in Pipefy’s past?
Alessio Alionco: In the case of Pipefy, because we are a horizontal platform, we never had that problem. But I can easily see that happening. In the case of Pipefy, it’s just going to slice and dice. We have a massive market. Those three departments, they exist in almost every single company in the world. It’s really who can find the most popular use case. And we tackle those use cases for the next 12-24 months. And the moment we see we are reaching a limit in terms of pipeline generation or the chances are dropping, we just jump to the next use case and keep moving forward.
Roland Siebelink: I love that. And that’s so clear the way you positioned that. What I also learned from that, Alessio, and tell me if that’s right, that you combine an extreme focus on these doers and on these three use cases of HR, finance, and customer operations, with on the other hand, no particular focus on specific verticals, no particular focus on any specific geography. The whole world is your oyster. Is that right?
Alessio Alionco: Exactly.
Roland Siebelink: Such an experienced CEO, of course, you’re very used to pitching and proving all the positives about Pipefy, which I do want to come out of this podcast. But if you’re open to it, maybe you can also share some challenges that you see Pipefy has had or is still in a way coping with because the founder’s life is not all fun and games, right? There are some challenges we have to deal with. What are some challenges, if you’re willing to share, that you’re sometimes worried about or that you feel like Pipefy really needs to get better at?
Alessio Alionco: I would say at least two things we’ve been going through. The first one is when you’re growing fast, long-term, it means six months, 12 months, max. And you think that you structured in a great place because you are going fast. In the best case, it will last for six, 12 months. While we are going to achieve a plateau in terms of scale or efficiency, and in order to keep growing at the same pace, you need to rethink completely how you used to work.
Thinking and preparing for the next stage of growth with different types of processes in your organization. Thinking as well, the type of team you have to unleash the next phase of growth. It changes over time. It’s really common in startups, people see and think like, “Oh, this is the employee number two and three, and they stayed almost until the IPO of the company.”
And actually the truth is, yes, there are a few folks that stay. But every executive function in the organization, sometimes you need to change two, three times. I’m onto my third CTO because the challenges are different. Understanding those things is really hard because as an entrepreneur, you are always optimistic. And you think people will figure that out. It’s a fine balance.
The second one is culture. Like I said, when you think in terms of culture, when you’re at a small team with 10-20 people, you almost feel in the air how the team needs and so on. And as you start scaling up, it’s really hard because sometimes you’ll have four, three different levels of structure in your organization.
Roland Siebelink: Life was so much easier, right, in the early stage. Notwithstanding that, I did see you got an award or at least a ranking in America’s best startup lists from Forbes, right? What were some things that people highlighted about working for Pipefy that they really love?
Alessio Alionco: The first thing is - our value number one is - we are a people-first company. And we respect people’s uniqueness. And we wanna create a safe space to everyone where they feel comfortable to share their professional aspirations but also their personal aspirations. That’s something you already realize. Maybe the previous generation, no, but now people see their work as a way to achieve personal things they desire.
For older people, it’s being the best parent you can be to your kids. For other people, its travel. Respecting those desires and really creating a work environment where you balance those things and really help people to be successful and accomplish those things they want to accomplish at work or personally. I think that’s the most important for us at Pipefy.
Always tell, even in front of investors like, “Hey, our investors gave us a lot of money to generate them value. Our customers give us a lot of money to generate value as well. But who is generating all that value? It’s the people behind the business. It’s really important. The first thing is we are here to work, to create and be the best employer to someone. And the second most important thing is we are here to create the best company to be a customer of.
Roland Siebelink: I love that order. That’s very clear. And I’m sure your employees really are able to incorporate that in their work and understand why that order is so important, especially as they get onto the management and leadership track themselves, right?
Alessio Alionco: Yes, exactly. We make sure that we embed all the points of conduct that every team member has with the company, just to get a more flexible team, having good benefits. If you want to learn something or want to accomplish something professionally, we’re gonna figure out a project that’s a good fit for you. That’s a win-win if we achieve that, so we invest a lot of time on that.
Roland Siebelink: That’s excellent. Very good. I think this will be very attractive to people that might be interested in joining Pipefy. Are there specific roles that you’re really looking for in case certain listeners to this podcast are interested? Or a specific site where they can start checking out the roles that you have open up at this stage?
Alessio Alionco: Top of mind, engineering, front end, back end developers, data analysts and data scientists as well. And executive level, we are really investing in the go-to market this year, so we have marketing opportunities from content marketing, product marketing, performance, marketing operations, we have several positions open.
Roland Siebelink: And, of course, my closing question is always, the founders coming behind you, what would be some key learnings to impart to them?
Alessio Alionco: Advice number one, take huge care with the things you don’t know you don’t know. Really challenge all the time if what you are doing or what your team is doing is the right thing or the cutting edge of what you are doing. Probably, you’re managing something for the first time at that scale - if you do not know or understand how greatness looks like, it’s really hard to achieve that. How do you do that? Mentoring sessions with people that already went through that. Just by chatting, ask for help from your investors if you have investors because probably they already saw other companies going through that track and they can help a lot with that pattern recognition.
And bringing in professionals that already have that experience. I’m a big fan of working with consultants. We do that a lot to fast-track our learning and adopt those practices. And especially if you believe in your team. Sometimes you have someone that’s really high potential; they don’t have that experience to fast-track their performance. That’s exactly downloading a lot of knowledge by having those more seasoned professionals around. Big fan of that.
In plus, which is the second advice, is if you realize people are achieving their cap in terms of capacity to get things done and help you with scale, probably that won’t change. Your mission is figure out something where the chair is the right chair for the type of professional, where they’re going to be able to be successful, and they’re going to like what they do. I’m really proud that most of the changes I’ve made on my executive team, most of the folks stay in the company exactly because we divide and give someone a specific responsibility where they are unique, where they are really good, and where they can perform. And we make that chair left to someone else more experienced to come and help the company grow to the next phase.
It’s not that you’re going to move someone to a smaller role in the organization because as you are growing, actually that smaller piece will be a massive piece, much bigger. It’s really important for you to really figure out when people are achieving their cap.
You need to take huge care to really help them when you find they need help and really help the professional, figure out that actually it’s time to move on and bring someone more experienced in as you’re scaling up. And actually, that professional will have the chance to learn with someone more experienced. And also, you’re going to set up that person for success because they’re going to do something that they can perform, they are good at, and you’re going to help that person to be successful.
Roland Siebelink: Absolutely. I think that’s great advice, especially for that crucial stage right after reaching product-markets fit when the spigot is on and you’re overstressed with delivering on all these customer promises. To get more experience in and to know what you don’t know is absolutely - or “what you don’t know that you don’t know,” to put it in your exact words, Alessio - is absolutely crucial.
Thank you for that advice. I would say, overall, this has been a great interview. I’ve been so happy to have you on and share all your knowledge with us here.
People will want to find out more about Pipefy, where should they go? And is something specific for them to download or to look for when they go on the website?
Alessio Alionco: Pipefy does cloud solutions, so just visit our website. Sign up for your freemium product. You can use up to 10 users by processing almost all the features for free. Feel free to test. And also, can follow me on Twitter @alessioalionco. Sometimes I share things about Pipefy or about something that I find interesting. I’ll be more than happy to chat with anyone.
Roland Siebelink: Expectly . And we’ll also put all those links in the show notes for people that are listening here so that you have everything at your fingertips.
Thank you once again, Alessio Alionco, the CEO and founder of Pipefy. It was an absolute pleasure to have you on this podcast.
Alessio Alionco: Thank you. Thank you for the invite.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.