November 24, 2015
Zenefits’ Problems Are Real but Not Fatal
by Alan Katz
Insulted by the Zenefits CEO, brokers may revel in his pain but should still take seriously the threat the company represents.
Zenefits has hit a rough patch. Given the insults the company’s CEO, Parker Conrad, has heaped on brokers, the schadenfreude percolating through the broker community is understandable. Yet declarations of Zenefits’ demise are premature.
Zenefits raised $500 million in May at a valuation of $4.5 billion. At the time, Conrad claimed the company was “on track to hit annual recurring revenue of $100 million by January 2016.” That was then.
Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Zenefits is falling short of its earlier revenue projection. According to the Journal and Business Insider, through August Zenefits’ revenue came in closer to $45 million, and the $100 million annual revenue figure is likely out of reach. In response, Zenefits is reportedly instituting a hiring freeze and imposing pay cuts. The latter step is cited as a reason at least eight executives left Zenefits.
In light of the news, in August or September Fidelity Investments reduced the value of its Zenefits investment by 48%, estimating the company was now worth about $2.34 billion. That’s a seismic event: In May, Fidelity thought Zenefits was worth $4.5 billion. Just five months, later Fidelity thinks this was being a tad optimistic… if by “a tad” we mean “$2.16 billion.”
In an interview with Business Insider, Conrad admits Zenefits is unlikely to keep his promise of $100 million of recurring revenue this year. However, he claims Zenefits continues to hire (although not as fast as in the past) and is happy with its revenue growth — “more than $80 million of revenue under contract” (which, it should be noted, is not the same as saying “we’ve taken in $80 million so far this year,” but maybe that’s what he meant). Conrad also asserts that Zenefits is getting “closer and closer” to being cash flow-positive, although he doesn’t expect it to get there until 2017 at the earliest.
Missing his $100 million commitment and having to address the subsequent fallout is no doubt adding to Conrad’s stress levels. Because Conrad went out of his way to insult community-based benefit brokers on Zenefits’ way up, the joy that brokers are taking in his discomfort now is to be expected — and is arguably earned.
Should brokers assume Zenefits is no longer a threat, however? No. It is still bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. According to what I’ve heard, only about 60% of this revenue comes from commissions. An ever-increasing portion of Zenefits’ revenue flows from fees earned by selling third-party services or its own non-commission services. Zenefits launched its own payroll service, so its non-commission revenue will continue to climb. Zenefits may not be valued at $4.5 billion any more, but it is still valued at more than $2 billion. And while no CEO is happy when a serious investor marks down his company by nearly 50%, Conrad says Zenefits won’t be out raising money anytime soon. As a practical matter, the impact of the devaluation on Zenefits is minimal.
In short, Zenefits is sticking around.
But I predict Zenefits is in for a rough time. Direct competitors like Namely and Gusto are raising money and stepping up. Community-based brokers are increasingly leveraging technology. (Full disclosure: Im co-founder of the company launching NextAgency, software that will help brokers level the playing field against Zenefits, so I’m delighted to point out this trend.)
While new initiatives like the payroll offering will create revenue streams for Zenefits, they also carry significant risk. Current partners will view Zenefits as a potential competitor. Management will be distracted from the company’s core business. New skills and expertise need to be acquired. There’s something to be said for focus, and Zenefits may be losing its.
Schadenfreude is German for deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others. That Zenefits’ current problems generate this impulse in the brokers they’ve insulted should surprise no one. That Zenefits will face challenges, problems and setbacks moving forward is inevitable. That community-based brokers should continue to take the threat Zenefits represents seriously is wise.