Inside the Hive: A Conversation with Honey Co-Founder and CEO Rachel Kaplowitz
Rachel Kaplowitz is the CEO and co-founder of Honey, an enterprise-level intranet solution. Honey gives employees a simple, central location to find all of the company information and resources they need from day one. Honey embraces user-focused design and believes in empowering every workflow, and they’ve been hard at work making things easy and accessible since 2012.
We caught up with Kaplowitz to chat about knowledge management, the art of the pivot, and that sweet stuff that results when your hive is working properly.
The excerpts below have been shortened for brevity.
Tell us a bit about your background; how did you get here?
My story is atypical for a tech CEO—I majored in creative writing in college and went abroad for a year afterward. When I came back I jumped into the nonprofit world as the Head of Events for a non-profit organization for almost five years. I was in charge of fancy $1,000/plate galas and worked with people like Matt Damon and Steven Spielberg. I was introduced to amazing philanthropists who were able to change the world from being successful and became interested in being on their side of the table. That inspired me to go to business school.
After business school at NYU Stern, I joined a Techstars startup as Head of Sales. I didn't fit into the business school paradigm; I wasn't interested in going into investment banking or consulting, or in putting on a suit and applying for the same job everyone else was applying for. I took a leap of faith and it was an amazing learning and work experience. It opened the doors for my startup life.
After that, I met my now co-founders, Chip, Alison and Jason, at a digital agency, Huge. Honey was an idea that preceded me. Chip and Jason were playing around with the idea of reinventing intranet and doing it better with some other folks at Huge. I fell in love with the preliminary concept, which looks little like what Honey is today. I’ve dealt with the brokenness of knowledge management throughout my career, saw the opportunity, and moved into the position of CEO and led our spinoff from the agency.
What was it like scaling from a tech start-up to a global design agency?
After Condition One ended, it was a bummer. I wanted to start a family and wanted something creative but a little more secure. I applied to Huge for a biz dev role. Aaron, the CEO of Huge at the time, actually pulled my resume out of this nice career path I had planned for myself and threw it into this big, scary, ‘I don't really know what we're doing over here, but this girl could be a good part of the story.’ He re-routed me to Chip, Jason, and Alison and the beginnings of Honey came from there.
Honey is almost five! How has the company transformed over the years?
It's been a journey! To give some milestones in that five-year timeline... five years ago, in 2013, we were building out an idea and weren't even sure it would be a company. Huge had been hired for years to build out custom intranets for Fortune 500 companies. The process of creating an intranet was so outdated, and we saw such inefficiency in that. At the same time, Huge itself was 1000 people across eight offices, with nothing outside of chat and email to keep everyone connected. There was no single place to access case studies, nor information on any of the clients we've worked with—it was crazy! We were our first customer.
We saw early traction and decided to take the plunge and spin-off from Huge in 2014, raised seed in 2015, and had a couple customers willing to get on the phone with investors. If you were following the internal comms market at the time...in parallel, a tiny little startup called Slack came out. That changed everything.
We flatlined for a little while people jumped ship and went to Slack. We were like ‘What do we do? Where do we fit in? What's relevant? What are we excited about building?’ We had amazing customers that stayed with us that helped us dive into what our product did differently and well, and how we could be delivering value, not only for the people who stayed with us but also for the people who left in anticipation for what they would need down the road.
That’s when we embraced this awkward, awful, old-school word ‘intranet.’ In 2016, as we developed new messaging. Initially, we didn’t change much of product—it was just how we positioned our sale and we saw it start to resonate. Since then, we've seen incredible growth and even reactivations—customers have come back that use Slack, but are looking for a place to organize formal company information, for things like HR policies, announcements from the IT team, quarterly reports, messaging around switching to new platforms… all this tends to get lost in Slack, and companies need ways to prioritize and archive.
The thing I thought was going to kill us ended up being one of our biggest drivers of growth. The worst day looking back played a critical role in our success and opened up so many opportunities I never expected.
You’re one of four founders, what has been your experience as a team?
We’re all experts in own domain. Usually, founders are strong technical founders, or come from a really strong sales background and are looking for a partner to fill out the rest. The four of us came together as this amazing completed puzzle really, deeply knowing those four things that have been the foundation of our business—strong, secure tech; incredible, engaging design; authentic, consultative customer support, and smart, scalable growth. Those things have been so critical, so having an expert in each has set us up for the success we’ve seen.
Also, four is a really fun number! Our seed investor, Point Nine Capital, is based in Berlin, so we have traveled internationally together. Some of our best work and ideas come out of those trips and just being on the road. When we roll into our founder conferences, full of inside jokes, people come and tell us ‘I wish I had this with my founder or my leadership team, how did you guys build this?’ Going through the crazy experience at Huge together, deciding to bite the bullet and spin-off and leave our cushy agency life behind to take a bet on this—we all made that decision together, and that has been a big bonding experience for us.
The downside of four people in a room making decisions is exactly what you’d expect. Sometimes we’re slower to come to a final decision because we so deeply value all our perspectives. It’s not just an employee giving feedback, it’s a founder, who is not just influencing the product, or customer experience, but the entire vision and direction of the company. Ultimately those decisions are more formed and thoughtful than if I were to make them on my own in a vacuum.
What advice would you give as a mom/founder?
I’m a founder, a mom, a human—it's hard to do all three at once. There are definitely times when I’m working past 10 p.m., or on the weekends, and there are other times when I’m postponing a sales call because I’m at my kid's home from school sick. It never feels like the exact right time to do any of those things. But, when you go to sleep at night and you know it’s what you want to do. Whether that's starting a family or a company, do it!
You're going to figure it out and you need the right people to support you, whether that's your family or your partner. I'd be lost without support at home. And at work—you’re not in it for a quick win, there's no such thing as a quick win. You're going to have to deal with your co-founder for five, ten-plus years. You're starting on a journey, so make sure you're picking the right ones.