HR tech is evolving quickly — more acquisitions are on the way

Globally, HR technology is massive space, spanning everything from recruitment to performance reviews. One source pegs the value of this market at $400 billion. In the past two years, venture capital and private equity investors have poured close to $2 billion into this market, with more than $900 million of that in the first seven months of 2017.

With so many new entrants emerging to attack individual segments, the incumbents will have to defend their positions in an increasingly competitive space. And so, already well underway, an era of inevitable HR tech consolidation will soon be in full force.

So far, 2018 has seen some massive HR tech acquisitions. Recruit (already owners of recently announced a $1.2 billion acquisition of Glassdoor, the popular company/jobs “review” site, making it one of the largest acquisitions so far this year. Earlier this year, ADP acquired Workmarket, a software solution enabling the freelance economy for companies including Yahoo and the New York Times, and staffing agency Adecco acquired popular technology training academy General Assembly for over $400 million. And, in early June, Workday announced its first HR acquisition of the year: internal mobility solution Rallyteam.

Larger enterprises are finally waking up, realizing that their younger, more nimble startup counterparts are innovating. And, unsurprisingly, they’re approaching the HR tech ecosystem with an “eat or be eaten” mentality.

This typical “old meets new and subsequently acquires to stay relevant” narrative arc is not the only reason I think we’re now due to see more HR tech acquisitions than ever before.

Key macro trends also underpin HR innovation, changing how we as a society think about work. If you think about HR tech as a “stack,” there are universal categories that define each step of an employee’s journey.

Broadly speaking, there is: (1) Recruitment, (2) Onboarding, (3) Learning & Development, (4) Payroll & Benefits, (5) Performance Management & Feedback, and (6) overall Human Resource Information Systems (“HRIS”). There are, of course, further subcategories within each, followed by sub-subcategories; yet as they exist today, specific verticals within the stack are fairly commoditized. The best opportunities lie outside these realms and are also the areas where the HR tech world has seen the most innovation vis-à-vis new startup formation.

Recruitment is the first area worth mentioning. One trend that has emerged here in the past few years is the rise of the freelance “gig” economy, and mobile workforces more generally. With the “Uber”-ization of everything, the ability to always be connected regardless of location, and rapid globalization, it’s no wonder people no longer have to work within the confines of a 9-to-5 role or physically be in an office to be productive.

I am super excited by technologies that enable working with freelancers, or attracting and retaining talent that exists via remote or mobile workforces. The more prominent startups here range from Toptal (a seasoned, pre-vetted freelancer marketplace) to Hackerone (hacker communities “for hire”) to Slack (the new standard for team productivity and communication). This is an HR category that comes with many nuances, though, and it is important to differentiate amongst factors such as vertical-specific versus general platforms, closed versus open marketplaces, enterprise versus SME clients, skilled versus unskilled workers, and long-term projects versus short-term gigs.

Companies in Europe doing interesting things in this category include Side and Comet in France and Gronda in Germany. These are three different freelance platforms for distinct use cases and types of workers. Side is an on-demand platform that taps into student networks for easy tasks, while Comet tries to attract more skilled technical talent via an all-encompassing freelancer “OS” (i.e. community, events, and suite of enabling tools and services). Meanwhile, Gronda caters to the hospitality industry alongside its social media channel, which showcases talent and establishes credibility.

The other part of recruitment I find compelling revolves around how better to use data to attract talent. How can companies go beyond the standard CV to attract and understand candidates while keeping them engaged at every point in the journey? Startups like Heyjobs in Berlin are capitalizing on the rise in programmatic targeting to profile applicants better, while Entelo is using AI to source passive candidates (i.e. those not actively searching for a new role) on a global scale.

Once applicants apply for roles, there are other technologies that can add value at every subsequent step of the applicant lifecycle. Teamtailor in Sweden and Beamery in the UK are two of my favorites here. While the former takes traditional applicant tracking system (“ATS”) technology to the next level by helping employers create branded sites for superior candidate experiences, the latter is building an applicant CRM platform to optimize for candidate re-engagement and marketing for future jobs.

Another exciting part of the HR stack ripe for innovation is culture and engagement. Historically, companies have overlooked this component given its nebulous definition and the difficulty of measuring concrete ROI. Yet with an increasingly millennial workforce and (as alluded to previously) more opportunities for employees to freelance or switch companies, firms can no longer afford not to take employee sentiment seriously. After all, for most positions, the cost to find and train a brand new employee will be more than what it takes to keep an existing one happy, motivated, and engaged. Companies like Cultureamp and Glint are leading the charge here, providing real-time feedback tools for employees at all levels coupled with actionable insights and analytics for managers. In Europe, somewhat similar solutions are now emerging, including Peakon in Denmark and Jubiwee in France. While each tackles employee engagement somewhat differently, the shift to seeing employees as a profit maximizer, rather than as a cost item, is universal.

With half of 2018 already behind us, one thing is clear: Technology-driven trends and innovation will only continue to transform the future of work. With this change will come acquisitions — the inevitable industry consolidation, and of course a reshuffling of old and new. Yet this is precisely where the opportunity exists. Fresh HR tech startups can be a part of this. They can and will be heard by the large incumbents. They can and will effect change.

Julia Qiu is Associate Partner of Mosaic Ventures, a London-based Series A-focused fund.


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