With 2,800 employees in over a hundred different countries and more than $300M in ARR, Deel is an incredible success story. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with their COO, Dan Westgarth, for this episode of Startup Success.
Dan shares his insights on global hiring and onboarding strategies, as well as best practices for building a successful team and maintaining a strong company culture.
- How startups can leverage the trend of hiring globally
- The importance of getting onboarding right
- How to build a global workforce
- Advice for early-stage founders around scaling & pivoting
Deel is the all-in-one HR platform for global teams. Dan is also the founder of Expansion Capital. Prior to his current role, he was the General Manager – North America at Revolut.
Kate Adams – 00:00:01:
Welcome to Startup Success. Today we have Dan Westgarth with us, operating officer at Deel, who I’m sure Deel is a company that many of you have on your radar. So I’m excited to have Dan here today. Welcome, Dan.
Dan Westgarth – 00:00:15:
Hey, Kate, how’s it going?
Kate Adams – 00:00:16:
It’s going great. Thanks for making the time today. Before we get into it, if you could give us a brief overview of your background and how you ended up at Deel, that would be helpful.
Dan Westgarth – 00:00:27:
Absolutely. My name is Dan Westgarth. I grew up in the UK, but I live between London and New York nowadays. Started my career at Revolut, fresh out of undergrad, where I led the international expansion into the US. And I joined Deel about three and a half years ago. The founders gave me the opportunity to come on as Chief Operating Officer when we were a tiny startup. It was a little bit of a strange role. Started out as a startup general manager, after COO. And today we run a business that employs 2,800 people in over 100 different countries.
Kate Adams – 00:01:00:
So let’s get right into that, because that’s amazing. I’ve read numerous things that Deel is one of the fastest-growing startups. You’ve been there for three and half years. That’s a long time in this sphere. Tell us about that explosive growth, what your role has been like. Just take us through that ride.
Dan Westgarth – 00:01:20:
Deel has changed a lot since we started the company. Initially, we started as a fintech platform that helped contractors raise invoices and then get paperless invoices. And we did it in a way that helped both the contractor and the companies comply with the labor laws. But the important part here is at our core, we’re a fintech company. And since then, we’ve pivoted and transitioned into a HR first position. And in that transition towards HR, we have engaged and launched an employer of record model, a PEO model, a US payroll model, global payroll model, HRIS model. So we’ve still got off fintech roots within the business and within the product, but we’ve changed significantly.
Kate Adams – 00:02:04:
Were you a part of those pivots?
Dan Westgarth – 00:02:07:
Absolutely. I think one of the reasons that I was interested in joining Deel and Deel was interested in me is because of that FinTech core, given my experience at Revolut. So I was very much involved in the setting up of that, but also the transition into HR. And why did we make those transitions and those pivots? It’s mainly to serve customer demand. So while we were very popular for contractors and small businesses at the start of our journey, we found those small businesses soon became medium-sized businesses and eventually enterprises. And then they wanted to hire full-time employees, and they wanted to have access to a comprehensive HR information system. So our transition has always been led by customer demand.
Kate Adams – 00:02:42:
Got it. So I have a lot of founders and VCs on the show, and they talk about coming to that realization and making the change and changing strategy can be very challenging. What were some of the challenges that you all faced that you overcame?
Dan Westgarth – 00:03:00:
So many challenges, and I’d say some of them were extremely challenging. I think the most important practice that we at Deel do is we take very small incremental steps and we iterate rapidly from step to step. So I don’t think any single person could have had the vision of where we have got to from the outset. That journey has been a series of very, very small incremental steps and a series of many fast iterations, iterations that have been led by our customers and iterations that have been led by our colleagues. I think to answer the question on what has been the biggest challenge, I think it’s building out processes, building out support mechanisms to detail the very sensitive and complex customer type. We’re dealing with people’s payroll calculations, salary, delivery, and companies’ human resource or human capital. There’s a very, very small tolerance for error, mistake and a very high bar when it comes to error resolution.
Kate Adams – 00:03:58:
That makes a lot of sense. And I like how you talked about customers there because I’m sure that aligns with your success, right? It sounds like you were. constantly making these iterations because of what your customers needed?
Dan Westgarth – 00:04:12:
Totally, yeah. I mean, it’s all customer-driven stuff. Even today, our product roadmap is still very much driven by customer feedback, and we change, adjust, iterate based on that feedback.
Kate Adams – 00:04:21:
And I’m guessing there was a lot of trust among the founding leadership team, right? Because… You know, when I talk to VCs, they always go back to, it really comes down to that initial leadership team, if there’s going to be success. Sounds like you all were pretty dialed in then.
Dan Westgarth – 00:04:39:
Yeah, and I think we’ve done a really good job at Deel is making sure that those trust mechanisms extend throughout the company. We work on a remote-first model. Some would argue that it’s hybrid nowadays, given we have offices in some large cities or clusters of people in some large cities, but it’s predominantly still a remote-first model. And with a remote-first model, you need to trust everyone within the company. And we have in our company several of the principles which are based around trust and care. And that’s trust within your colleagues and care with your colleagues and also care with the customers.
Kate Adams – 00:05:10:
I love that, especially the one around trust. So you’ve talked about this explosion, your role. Tell us about Deel, like the products you offer, the services.
Dan Westgarth – 00:05:20:
Sure, the fundamental purpose of Deel is to allow companies to onboard, hire, and manage an international workforce. So historically, we’ve seen companies do that in a single market. Perhaps we’ve seen multinational corporations do that across countries, maybe across the US or across the UK. And we’ve seen international corporations do that over many different countries. Today, we’ve leveled the playing field so a company of any size can not only hire across their country, but can also hire across the world. And to hire someone, you also need to be able to onboard and manage them. You need to be able to provide them with a really good experience. Deel was placed and positioned very well to have some level of product market fit in the pre-pandemic world. So during that time of the pandemic, we accelerated massively, not only in terms of customer growth, but also in terms of customer operations. We onboarded a huge amount of customers, and we ended up paying a huge amount of workers. And I think that that acceleration really early on in our journey played a really strong foundation for what has become a very large business today.
Kate Adams – 00:06:30:
I can speak on behalf of Burkland. We have a lot of clients that use Deel. You’ve really opened the door for international, global workforces. What are you seeing now? I mean, I know COVID accelerated things in that area, but what’s happening now for startups, the international outlook?
Dan Westgarth – 00:06:52:
I think COVID accelerated a trend that was inevitable, and that was companies were going to hire across the country and across border more often than not. I think in today’s day, we’re seeing a focus on skills rather than location, that’s in general. And we’re seeing more consolidation in systems. And we’ve seen that in other industries like accounting, ERP, banking, they haven’t really seen that in HR yet, especially in international HR. Systems are generally very fragmented. We’ve seen businesses have one system for the payroll in one country, they have an accountant doing the payroll in another country, then they have two separate HR systems. Maybe if they’re lucky, they have one common applicant tracking system or one common performance management system. You think about companies doing that over several different countries, many different countries, several different continents, it becomes very, very, very fragmented. And we have clients coming to us, publicly traded clients, blue chip clients that have entities in 20 plus countries. And they write out the list of software that procurement teams write out the list of software that they’re using to manage Payroll and HR. And the list can very easily be over a hundred names long. That’s a hundred vendors to manage, a hundred invoices to check, a hundred bills to settle. And there’s no interoperability between those systems. But Kate and Dan can’t even look up each other in the same directory. So we think that consolidation is what’s ahead for this market and we’re leading that at Deel.
Kate Adams – 00:08:21:
That’s exciting. It sounds like you’re really serving a need there. And then I get the process, the payroll systems, but you talked about too, that you have an onboarding system. And I know, you know, everything I’ve read, so much of employee success is around onboarding. And I’m guessing with a global workforce, there’s cultural issues. Talk to us a little bit about your onboarding solution.
Dan Westgarth – 00:08:49:
Yeah, it’s a pretty crazy area to be honest. Pre-Deel, it’s something that I hadn’t really put too much time into looking at. But if you think about the different rules and regulations in different countries and different cultures, they’re highly variable. And let me give you a couple of examples. For instance, if you’re an employee onboarding in Brazil, you have to undertake a medical exam before you can start work. If you’re an employee onboarding in Egypt, we need to certify your mandatory military service and documentation before you can start work. There are two examples of many different variables across the world. Leveling the playing field for the employees and the businesses that they’re working for and putting that all onto one platform is a big deal. It’s a big deal to set those expectations and ensure that people are being onboarded quickly, effectively, and within the prescribed timelines that are needed. That’s one part of it. The second part of it is, how do you get information to people? How do you ensure that you can get that information to them quickly, seamlessly, and without any interruptions? I’ve spoken to employees that have been through terrible onboarding experiences where they’ve literally been left without documentation and without things to do for six, twelve hours at a time. That’s such a bad experience. Everyone is looking forward to their new job. They sign up for their first day, they’ve told all of their friends, all of their family, and they’re ready to go. If they don’t have access to systems or documentation for 12 hours, that’s such a bad way to start a new experience. And that’s something that is also really meaningful to us.
Kate Adams – 00:10:14:
I’m glad you touched on that, because I know I personally have experienced that so much. And I think that’s common with startups. There’s not a lot of process in place. The access isn’t figured out. It’s not streamlined yet. On the show, we interview founders, and there were so many hiccups around onboarding in those early days. So I’m guessing part of Deel’s success in your growth as a company is because you’re using your own systems.
Dan Westgarth – 00:10:46:
Yeah, I think you’re totally right. Early on in our journey at Deel we had to hire a large amount of people in a very short period of time, and particularly and run the business functions like customer support, customer success, back with operations. And I recall one time in particular where we were trying to hire approximately 100 people in three or four weeks. So we would work with talent agencies and talent sourcing affiliates to fill the pipeline, a funnel of candidates that fit the requirements. And then we built the different systems that interview those candidates all the way through to sending out the contract and getting the contract signed, getting the person onboarded, and then getting the person paid. And we did it in such an efficient manner. And that really laid the foundation for some of our much later products, our Deel HRIS, which is in-market today, definitely follows some of the principles and some of the things that we learned in the early days of scaling Deel.
Kate Adams – 00:11:40:
That’s so interesting because rarely do you have a founding team. You know, they’re studying the problem that they’re trying to solve. They’re close to it, but to actually be doing it, using it yourself, going through hiring a hundred people, you’re so close to it. It makes sense that you would come up with a good solution. What about Deel’s culture now, this expanded global workforce. Any insight you can share to those founders listening that are headed down that path.
Dan Westgarth – 00:12:12:
Yeah, I can leave you with what I think is a pretty interesting concept. I travel an awful lot for business, but also for fun. When I go to a different country, I find people are different. I mean, if I go from the US to France, people are different. If I go from France to Morocco to China to Singapore, people are different. There are cultural differences. At Deel, we have internal colleagues from over 100 different countries, but all of our people are very similar. Now, isn’t that strange? Everyone’s coming from different backgrounds, different cultures, but everyone is subscribing to the same mission and working towards common goals. I think that really speaks a lot to the culture that we’ve developed and the people that we hire. The product of that culture is people that are energized and people that want to work towards the mission. Then maintaining that energy, maintaining that momentum on different products comes not easy. It’s never easy, but I would say there’s less friction.
Kate Adams – 00:13:05:
Interesting. I like how you put that. So how do you find those people? That sounds like it would be hard.
Dan Westgarth – 00:13:11:
It is ordinarily hard. I think it’s a little bit less hard for us, given we’re at the forefront of international hiring and international workforce management. There’s certainly a bias there that because we’re in the media for that reason, international folks are looking up positions with Deel. That’s also underpinned by the Talent Acquisition Strategy, or TA. TAs look for candidates all over the world. We have multi-country compensation strategy, multi-country benefit strategy. We’re able to hire everyone as if they were local. And we practice what we preach.
Kate Adams – 00:13:43:
That’s great. And do you find yourself in your role out in the field a lot? Tell us about your role, like where it’s taking you.
Dan Westgarth – 00:13:52:
For about one third of the year out in the field. So sticking with team members working through different projects. At this stage in the journey, Deel is above 300 million ARR, 2,800 teammates in over a hundred different countries. So this business just about runs itself. And it means that my team can go in and run different special projects which really move the needle for the business. And when we’re working on those special projects, we’ll typically go bring the key people and the key leaders together, sit down together and open something up and optimize it.
Kate Adams – 00:14:26:
Nice, I like that. So we always wrap up the show with just some general advice for founders. I mean, you’ve been with Deel for three and a half years on the leadership team. Anything that you can offer to the founders listening who are in those early stages, as you know, it’s extremely challenging. You’re not sure what your trajectory looks like. Anything you can share with them.
Dan Westgarth – 00:14:54:
Here are a couple of things. So the first one is probably for a little bit later than super early startups, when you’re 20, maybe 100 people, one of the things that really helped us at Deel was the concept of “show me.” So if somebody had an issue that they couldn’t resolve, something they’re working on, they couldn’t figure it out, we would say, hey, show me. With the developer, maybe share your screen, let’s go through your code. If you’re a designer, let’s see the design you’re working on. If you’re an operations person, let’s open up the macro, let’s understand what’s going on. And that show me concept doesn’t really directly fix the issue, but it provides deeper conversational prompts, which help fix the issue and help resolve the issue. That’s something that we still practice to their Deel and it’s worked really well. The second thing is you can have a lot of infrastructure when it comes to data, business intelligence, so very elaborate systems, which provide great insights into what’s going on, but you can often find what you need to find by looking at public review sites or speaking to the very angry customers. Phone them up, see what’s going on, see why they’ve had a bad experience, probably going to give you a much quicker way to the root cause than studying a ton of dashboards.
Kate Adams – 00:16:01:
Okay, I like both of those. First of all, I love that “show me.” But then second of all, I do hear people on the show talk about, talk to customers, but I’ve never heard talk to angry customers, but that makes perfect sense. Right, you’re going to get right to where you need to iterate. That’s great. So thank you, Dan. So if I’m listening and I want to find out more information about Deel, where do I go?
Dan Westgarth – 00:16:27:
Kate Adams – 00:16:28:
Great, great, excellent. Thank you so much for your time today. I mean, it was really fun to hear about your journey and the explosive growth and what you offer is really unique. And I can tell you’re poised for continued success. So thank you.
Dan Westgarth – 00:16:44:
Thanks so much.