Workplace

How Julien Codorniou built an enterprise software startup inside Facebook

The head of Facebook’s Workplace tool is leaving after 11 years. The product, which now has 7 million users, has had a wild 2021.

Julien Codorniou

Julien Codorniou is the latest in a string of leaders who’ve decided to leave or phase out of Meta in recent months.

Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As a parade of executives have announced plans to leave Meta (formerly known as Facebook), employees know exactly where to look for the customary farewell “badge posts”: on the company’s Workplace platform.

Julien Codorniou, the head of the company’s Workplace service, left two weeks ago after almost 11 years with the company. Workplace is a collaboration tool similar to Slack or Microsoft Teams that other companies can use for messaging, group discussions and knowledge storage. It was adapted from the Workplace platform Meta built and uses itself.

Codorniou is the latest in a string of leaders who’ve decided to leave or phase out of Meta in recent months. Crypto head David Marcus announced he was leaving last Tuesday. CTO Mike Schroepfer said in September that he was stepping down, and Fidji Simo, head of the core Facebook app, left to be Instacart’s CEO earlier in 2021.

Codorniou has been with Workplace since its beta launch in 2015, building on his early-career experience from the business side of Microsoft. Before that, he had worked on Meta’s gaming team. Workplace went on to be a success in the enterprise space, particularly going after frontline workers in large companies. That success was somewhat surprising given the general distrust that a social media network could build a secure workplace platform. “Very sophisticated security is mandatory," an analyst told Computerworld in 2016. "I am not sure that [Facebook] has put an emphasis on this.”

That skepticism didn’t seem to faze customers, as the tool reached 7 million paid users in May. But Workplace has not been immune to the renewed scrutiny Meta faces after whistleblower Frances Haugen unleashed scores of revealing documents she obtained from Meta’s internal Workplace forum — a tough look for a product aimed at security-minded enterprises.

Still, Codorniou told Protocol that Workplace’s customers haven’t wavered. And he didn’t link recent Meta controversies to his departure.

He’d been thinking about leaving after his 10-year anniversary with the company. After he was approached by London VC firm Felix Capital, where he was already an adviser, he decided to try his hand as an investment partner. “We’re bringing someone who has run a business that gets to 7 million users across the world,” said Frederic Court, founder and managing partner at Felix. “That experience is very valuable to add to our team and for our current and future portfolio.”

Codorniou spoke with Protocol to reflect on his time at Workplace and his next moves. He spoke about the process of building Workplace’s credibility, the platform’s relationship with customers and the kinds of companies he wants to invest in.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You’ve been with Workplace since its inception in 2016, right? And were you leading it from the beginning?

Since day one. I mean, since the day we decided to bring the product to the market, which was in 2015. And I joined Facebook a few years before, but I was in charge of the business function. So sales, marketing, finance, everything, everything go-to-market related.

How did you first become involved with Workplace?

I was lucky. I just happened to be in London, where the product was being built. And I also was one of the few people at Facebook who had enterprise software experience. I used to work at Microsoft before. We knew we had a good product that we were using internally. So when Facebook was looking for someone to try and see if we could sell it to other companies, I think it was at the right place at the right time. I was happy to do it, after my first journey at Facebook.

It seems people were a bit skeptical at first. Like how can a social media network build a tool for the workplace?

Yeah. It was the same thing when Amazon announced AWS and when Google launched the G Suite [now known as Google Workspace]. When you're known for being a B2C company, monetizing with ads, when you start to diversify, people always ask questions. But the challenge for us was to build that credibility, especially with the IT people and HR people and people who buy enterprise software, coming from a very different world. And so we had to build that credibility, one customer at a time and one security certification at the time as well. To get everything people expect from us as a vendor.

(After the interview, Codorniou said people really started taking Workplace seriously when they signed Walmart in late 2017. Walmart brought 2 million employees onto the service.)

What made the product so successful?

We built Workplace in a very unusual way. Most of the SaaS startups these days, they go bottom-up, land and expand. They go after the SMB market, and then they try to go up-market. I think with Workplace, because we wanted to prove our credibility and earn it, we went the opposite way. We started direct sales. We went after the biggest or the most respected companies on the planet. Like Walmart or Starbucks or Heineken. And the game was to go down-market and to stop depending so much on direct sales, but also to build more self-motion, and to build an ecosystem of partners who could sell for us or deploy Workplace for us.

I would say it's a very unusual or maybe old-fashioned way of building a SaaS business. But that's where we found product-market fit very fast.

In the past five years, how do you feel Workplace has changed and matured and what impact do you feel you personally had on it?

Accidentally, we found an amazing opportunity, which is the opportunity to connect frontline employees. And I'm talking way before the pandemic. We thought Workplace would be adopted or would be bought by companies like Facebook. Tech companies where everybody has a PC, a desk and a great Wi-Fi connection.

But actually, very early on, companies like Walmart or Heineken or Starbucks said, “We want to connect everyone.” People in the field, frontline employees, they don't have a desk, they don't have an email, they don't have a PC. They've been overlooked by traditional IT vendors, because IT's expensive, it doesn't work on mobile, and it's not user friendly.

So people started asking for Workplace to do that, which we didn't think of. We thought we would have to compete against Slack or Microsoft. We didn't realize we were going after a market where there was no competition, which is the frontline market. So we try to use Facebook superpowers like the familiarity, the importance of video, the newsfeed groups and chat, but also to go after next-gen IT deployments like the ones I've just mentioned.

And of course, the pandemic accelerated all of that. The Great Resignation, which is everybody’s obsession, is forcing companies to think more about employee engagement, employee sentiment, making sure everyone, truly everyone, for the first time, is equally connected and equally informed. I think Workplace does that very well.

A lot of people have zeroed in on Facebook’s own Workplace usage in recent months. Particularly the “radical openness” and transparency espoused there. Turning to Workplace the product — is transparency and openness part of your messaging on that end too? And something you hope sticks?

It really depends. Because you have some customers where every group they have on Workplace is secret and only one group that is public. Every company can use Workplace as they want to. Everything could be open, everything could be closed or half of each. But I think Workplace is adapting itself to the culture of the company, not the other way around. We never sold Workplace and said everything has to be transparent for everyone all the time, from the M&A discussions to the earnings reports. You choose where to put the balance.

At the end of the day, it's really about the culture of the company. And it's true that Facebook has a very open culture, and saw making sure that everyone was equally informed as being a very important competitive advantage. We never saw Workplace as something that does that, but we wanted to be able to provide options to the people buying it.

Have there been customer concerns about security or other issues related to Frances Haugen leaking documents in recent months?

No. Because people know on Workplace, you can decide if a group is open or secret or closed. If a group is secret, no one can see anything, you don't even know the group exists, right? If the group is open, everybody can see everything. So, again, it depends on the buyer to choose what they want, and to control how they want to use Workplace.

Some companies are very open. Some companies have been using Workplace in a very unusual way where every group is secret, especially holding companies where they have a few brands or agencies, or they have two companies competing against each other. Workplace does that as well.

Where do you see the platform going?

Workplace was the first, and for a long time, the only SaaS business within Facebook, but now you have many more. You have business messaging with WhatsApp Business and Messenger for Business. You have Portal for work, you have Oculus Business. I think you've heard about that company we'll acquire or we're trying to acquire called Kustomer for $1 billion.

Workplace has proven that Facebook can build and sell IT stuff to IT buyers, HR buyers or marketing buyers. It was not easy when we started but now we're not the only one.

In your new role at Felix, are you going to be focusing on enterprise tech?

I'll do gaming because that's what I learned that I know very well from my early days at Facebook. I will do gaming and enterprise tech. Enterprise tech because I've talked to thousands of SaaS buyers and IT buyers across the globe in the last five years. So I think I know what they like, what they don't like, what they're frustrated about, what they would love to buy. So I want to do the things I understand. I'm not a marketplace or an ecommerce investor. I don't know anything about that. But SaaS and gaming, those are the two things I know. I have a network.

Generally, what are you most excited about and hoping to accomplish?

I'm excited to learn a new job and to be the newb in the room, because I haven't been the newb in the room for a long time. And I'm excited to see if someone with my experience can be helpful and can be a good investor.

I was lucky because I joined Facebook when it was very small. So I've seen the ups and downs, the IPO and all of that. There are many things I've learned from that. Hopefully I can share these learnings with the companies I will invest in and with the people that we meet, but of course it's a new job.

I'm not a finance expert, I'm an operator, and I need to learn the job and I'm going to ask a lot of stupid questions probably when I start. But I know if you're building a SaaS business or gaming company, you might as well raise money from someone who has done it before as well.

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