How Ryan Sanders co-founded BambooHR
The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
Fifteen years ago, Ben Peterson and I co-founded BambooHR for a singular reason: we wanted to work together. With the exception of our spouses, we were best friends. Regardless of our ventures’ success, we knew our friendship would endure.
We had previously collaborated at two other companies, including one that Ben owned and subsequently sold. I remained there for an additional year and a half after his departure. During that period, he persistently proposed the idea of venturing out to build a company together. Our initial partnership worked well because each of us possessed distinct areas of expertise—Ben excelled in sales and marketing while I focused on product management.
Eventually, his persistence paid off. Without a concrete business plan, both of us found ourselves unemployed and sharing a 100-square-foot office in Provo, where we brainstormed ideas on a whiteboard. Our ideas spanned various sectors from potential businesses to social media, advertising and even domain names we owned. This brainstorming process continued for weeks.
As time passed, my need for a steady income grew increasingly urgent. It had been a substantial amount of time since I had last received a paycheck.
One outstanding idea
We settled on the idea of entering the HR software industry. Ben’s propensity for thorough research gave us the confidence to pursue this path. The earliest version of BambooHR came into existence in 2008.
Initially, our focus was on providing human resources software for adult daycare facilities and other companies serving individuals with disabilities. The name we initially chose was “Human Services HQ.” After a year, it became evident that no one could remember our company name—including our clients, potential customers, and even my wife. This posed a significant problem.
After dedicating a year to developing HR software, we secured our first customer using the product for free in December, followed by our first paying customer in January. It was evident that a rebrand was necessary. A Virginia-based company assisted us in this endeavor, suggesting a name to replace the forgettable one: BambooHR.
I immediately embraced the new name. Bamboo has been used worldwide for centuries. It embodied qualities such as being green, flexible and renewable.
Upon adopting the Bamboo name, the response was immediate. Everyone remembered it. An early pivot made all the difference. Furthermore, we decided to concentrate exclusively on creating human resources software for small and medium-sized businesses.
Just knuckle-headed enough
BambooHR faced formidable competitors, such as ADP and Paychex, which had been in operation for 40 to 60 years. Nevertheless, we believed that we could provide a service that companies would love—one that delivered genuine value and prioritized customer care. We drew inspiration from companies like Zappos, which excelled in customer service and aimed to replicate a similar experience in a B2B environment.
Ben and I were audacious enough to think we could achieve this by either localizing these services in Utah or by surpassing the larger competitors, enhancing traditional HR processes that people generally despise.
Many employees have a visceral aversion to HR software. We learned this early on. We take pride in having transformed HR software into a delightful experience, one that people love rather than merely tolerate.
In fact, I remarked in jest that we wanted people to leave work for the day and discuss BambooHR at home. Who discusses software with their spouse or children? But it happened. We checked in with a husband-and-wife business team on the East Coast, and they answered the phone, saying, “Hey, it’s the Bamboo guys. We talked about you last night in bed.”
We had become a topic of pillow talk! A true success!
No paychecks for three years
The initial three years of BambooHR were financially challenging, as neither of us took a paycheck. We had some savings and made the unconventional decision not to seek outside funding. Bootstrapping with our own resources meant that we had to be extremely budget-conscious. We had to make tough decisions, which ultimately served us well. Today, BambooHR is a profitable SaaS company, and we continue to fuel our growth with our own revenue, defying the trend of raising multiple rounds of venture capital.
By avoiding an influx of capital, we experienced fewer distractions. At times, I grew emotional, worrying about whether we would survive, but our decision not to seek external funding allowed us to control our destiny.
This decision necessitated a heightened focus on building an exceptional product, and we were committed to being disciplined about it. In hindsight, it was a wise choice. We subsequently brought in partners and talent who instilled a product-first mindset in the company’s development.
BambooHR was never solely about making money. If that had been our sole objective, we could have sold the company and rewarded ourselves handsomely long ago. What we aspired to create was an outstanding product and an exceptional workplace. Our goal was to establish a lasting company and a place where we genuinely wanted to work.
Revenue can be distracting and can lead to short-sighted decisions. In the world of SaaS, many choose to follow established playbooks that they believe are foolproof but might not align with their goals. Instead, we employ toolkits that enable us to challenge assumptions and frequently take a different path.
Our guiding principle has always been to do what is best for Bamboo. That’s the lens through which we make decisions.
Balancing friendship and business
When we first embarked on this journey, Ben had recently sold his previous company. I believed that, in this new joint venture, it was my turn to assume the role of CEO. However, both of us desired that position, creating an awkward scenario for me. I tend to be introverted and risk-averse, while Ben is direct and straightforward. I knew he cared about our friendship, but we had to engage in a difficult conversation.
For a while, a cartoon hung on the wall of Ben’s cubicle depicting two beaten-up individuals sharing the same thought bubble: “I’m the CEO, you know.” It was a fitting representation.
In the end, Ben became our first CEO. This experience compelled us to address our strengths and weaknesses, dispelling early assumptions. The transition was short-lived, as our primary objective was to do things correctly. We didn’t care about being right, but we were determined to always do right by our customers.
When we eventually brought an investor on board, he incessantly probed us with questions. Are you effectively recruiting talent? Are you shaping this business to reach its full potential? In many cases, we realized that we were lagging behind, and he helped us recognize that. We were hiring too slowly and thinking too short-term.
Contractors evolved into early employees, and our workforce remained relatively stable for several years. We had to be deliberate and make the most of the team we had. It was a painful lesson, but it ultimately paid off. Today, we employ just over 1,200 individuals.
In late 2019, Ben and I made the joint decision to step back as co-founders and bring in a new CEO, enabling us to operate in fresh and exciting ways.
An early rule we established was that if anything jeopardized our friendship in the business, we were committed to selling or shutting it down. Friendship took precedence over monetary gain. I maintained a similar agreement with my wife: if the stress and anxiety grew overwhelming, or if we believed the business would not succeed, we would cease operations. My marriage held greater importance than being an entrepreneur.
Fortunately, Ben and I navigated the challenges and strengthened our friendship. Thanks to him, I have become a better father, husband, brother and son. It may sound cliché, but he challenges my thinking, which is unique in a business relationship.
Co-founder relationships can deteriorate rapidly due to disagreements about the company’s direction, cultural values or revenue concerns. Many factors can strain that partnership. I wish every founder had a co-founder for the potential it unlocks. It’s often said that company founders or CEOs can feel isolated in their roles. Fortunately, we have never experienced that.
"If your sole focus is on making money, it's not a motivating reason to get out of bed. Discovering your purpose carries substantial power. It becomes invaluable during the tough times businesses inevitably face, whether you're curled up on your living room floor, worried about meeting payroll, surviving a pandemic or losing a key employee you believed would never depart. It serves as your guiding star."
Defining our mission
One thing I wish we had done earlier was define our mission and values. It wasn’t formalized until several years into our journey, but it has since become foundational to everything we do. Having clarity on our standards, which can be translated into action, has been transformative.
At BambooHR, we were determined to make a meaningful impact on the world, leading us to our mission of “setting people free to do great work.” This mission resonated deeply with us and guided our actions. If we had established it from the outset, it would have accelerated our progress and provided a clear measure of our success.
Having a well-defined mission and values serves as a filter for all decision-making. These values cannot be borrowed from other companies; they must be tailored to the market you serve, the talent you aim to attract and the mission you pursue. While inspiration can be drawn from elsewhere, attempting to copy and paste values into your business will result in mere words on a wall rather than a genuine purpose that underpins your efforts. A real vision transforms the way you hire, promote and even part ways with employees.
A turning point
Following our name and branding change, we attracted influential early customers and tech luminaries such as MailChimp, Pinterest and Atlassian. Servicing these companies felt like a stroke of luck. In some instances, they were even willing to collaborate with us to enhance our product.
Sales began to flow steadily, and we achieved strong customer retention. From a team perspective, we started bringing in exceptional individuals at all levels. The market signaled its approval, as did our existing customers, many of whom expressed their willingness to work with us. In just a few years, we began receiving inbound interest for both investment and early acquisition.
While this outcome may have been inevitable, we had no interest in being acquired. In many ways, we still felt as though we were just getting started. The exciting part was just beginning. Why end the party prematurely?
For the longest time, we preferred to chart our course independently. However, in 2012, we welcomed a small local investment firm, Sorenson Capital, into our ranks. This decision presented us with new challenges and provided some breathing room. We no longer had to fret over meeting payroll.
Jim Collins, the author of “Great by Choice,” coined the phrase “the 20-mile march.” He posited that companies that successfully weather turbulence commit to consistently performing well—akin to crossing the United States by covering 20 miles a day, every single day. We maintained the discipline to show up every day, stay focused, listen to our customers, deliver outstanding products and understand how we met their needs.
Our journey to the 20-mile mark never felt like a monotonous slog. It was exhilarating. Sometimes, we looked at each other and said, “Maybe we’re almost a real company now.” We felt poised to truly break out and make a significant impact on the world, yet we weren’t quite there yet. The balloon continued to expand without bursting.
Fifteen years into this adventure, we are nearly there. I relish the feeling of not having arrived just yet.
A few words of advice
First, choose your partner wisely. I am a fervent advocate of having a co-founder. It can be incredibly challenging to undertake this journey alone. Understand who your partner is, their desires and their goals. Ensure that your visions align before moving forward.
Second, define your mission and values. If your sole focus is on making money, it’s not a motivating reason to get out of bed. Discovering your purpose carries substantial power. It becomes invaluable during the tough times businesses inevitably face, whether you’re curled up on your living room floor, worried about meeting payroll, surviving a pandemic or losing a key employee you believed would never depart. It serves as your guiding star.
Third, always maintain a mindset of continuous learning. This has been pivotal for us. We are willing to converse with anyone. Maintaining a constant sense of curiosity is more enjoyable, and it ultimately leads to greater success.