Auckland startup Multitudes has raised $2.4 million of seed money to develop its software for measuring culture and performance.
The round was led by hot Australian venture capital outfit Blackbird Ventures, which recently set up an NZ subsidiary to further its joint investment activity with Crown agency NZ Growth Capital Partners, and has previously been seen pumping money into Kiwi outfits from Chicken-Free Chicken maker Sunfed Foods to customer satisfaction software maker AskNicely.
Other investors included former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao and Jon Williams, co-founder of Culture Amp and Pyn.
A post-money valuation wasn't disclosed. (A December 2 Companies Office update shows Blackbird now has a 20 per cent stake in Multitudes - whose largest investor is founder and CEO Lauren Peate with a 76 per cent holding).
Valuation is, in any case, a bit moot at this embryonic stage of the startup's life.
Multitudes has spent the past year molding a beta version of its software, used by a small number of local customers whose feedback has helped shape development.
The idea is that while there's lots of software to benchmark the productivity of today's digital workforce, a measure of cultural performance is needed too, to put it into context - because a positive culture helps build productivity, while negative or toxic culture undermines it. And by analysing feedback - including how often it's given, or not, and how frequently, Multitudes can also reveal trends or blindspots.
For example, early customer StoryPark - a Wellington maker of learning support software for early childhood educators - found members of its senior engineering team was doing a lot of good mentoring work with junior staff but suffering from a dearth of feedback for their own work.
It's not all touchy feely - Peate was formerly with the notably hard-nosed Bain & Co - but there is an emphasis on constructively sharing results.
Construction industry quality-assurance software maker Conqa has been another beta customer.
There, Multitudes uncovered that the number of questions initially spiked after the company took on new staff for a new project, but then sunk away.
After Multitudes data was shared with staff, the number of questions asked - a key tool for problem-solving and learning - jumped 60 per cent over the next two months.
Staff were encouraged to ask and answer more questions, but also to do some in a more constructive, and open and conversational way.
Peate says Multitudes has engaged Auckland University academic Dr Kelly Blincoe - who has expertise in both software development and diversity and inclusion and other "human elements of software engineering" - to advise on indicators of whether questions, and other feedback, are heading in a positive or toxic direction.
"Culture is what allows us to have consistent and repeatable performance," Peate says.
Peate says the seed round was over-subscribed, putting Multitudes (of which she is the sole director and majority owner) in the happy position of being able to pick-and-choose between potential investors.
"We went with Blackbird because their reputation preceded them," Peate says. Other founders said the Aussie VC outfit went above and beyond in terms of supporting early stage companies.
What are Peate's plans for the $2.4m? She says she's already been on a hiring spree.
Its four-person crew has just been expanded to six, with more on the way.
There are plans to move out of beta, and push into Australia and the US in the works.
There will also be an expansion of focus. Up til now, Multitudes has focused on software development staff, using data drawn from the popular programming collaboration tool, Github.
Next year, it will broaden to analyse the productivity and culture of everyday office drones by drawing data from Slack - the messaging, discussion, file sharing and collaboration tool that has just been acquired by the giant Salesforce.
Peate acknowledges that measuring productivity and culture in today's white-collar jungle is tricky, given many work across a mash of tools in the same office, with the likes of Slack, Microsoft Teams, Atlassian's Trello, Google Docs, Zoom, customised software and Facebook's various business collaboration tools often jostling shoulders as people skip between platforms for different projects (to give a real-life example from a certain newspaper publisher).
Slack will be just the first of many tools that Multitudes integrates with, Peate says.
The Stanford grad and consultant to Fortune 500 companies and startups decided to move to New Zealand five years after meeting her current partner, a Kiwi, while they were both working in the Middle East.
After arriving here, she set up Ally Skills NZ, which runs workshops for forward-thinking organisations to "make equity and inclusion a reality". Ally continues as a sister company to Multitudes.
Peate's new company's overseas expansion will be virtual, at least initially, due to the pandemic - which, while obviously hindering travel and face-to-face sales, has proved a boon overall.
The CEO says the first lockdowns hit as Multitudes was beginning its first customer pilots.
She feared the worst but it turned out the coronavirus increased demand. Managers were keener than ever to measure staff's productivity and culture as workforces scattered to home offices.
Most pundits are picking that some form of hybrid working will persist after the pandemic, which will suit Multitudes just fine.
Should employers monitor staff
While Multitudes' productivity-measuring is designed to be shared with staff, a lot of work monitoring software is more covert.
A recent study by AUT Professor of Human Resource Management Jarrod Haar, who oversaw the first major survey of remote workers in the age of Covid, found that resentment of keyboard-surveillance tools could actually depress productivity.
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said such tools were within the law, but stressed that employers were obliged to disclose which monitoring measures were in place, and for what purpose - and to stick to that purpose.
More broadly, Edwards said employers should not use monitoring "just because they can".
"Instead they could look at other ways keeping in touch with employees working remotely and gauging their work progress," Edwards said, echoing Haar's mantra that it's better to "check in with" than "check in on" staff.