At one point, says Chieu Cao, co-founder of Perkbox, “we had been forced to pivot, and were running out of money. “ Today, Perkbox boasts 190 employees, there are 500,000 employees using its platform across 9,000 companies, and it recently won the Smith and Williamson scale-up business of the year at the National Business Awards 2017, but says Chieu, “during the dark days, we had to be very resourceful to survive.”
Perkbox, was founded in 2015, it is in the business of supporting companies by providing a service to their employees – an employee engagement platform. “We genuinely care about creating great cultures across the UK,” says Chieu, “we believe a great company is built on a foundation of a great culture, our mission is to build a better society by building one relationship at a time, by helping foster that relationship between employer and employee, this is such a simple but powerful concept.”
It works by providing users of the platform with unlimited access to discounts and freebies from hundreds of big name brands across 17 different categories, from food and drink to travel.
The company has raised £11 million in funding, saw a turnover of £4.3 million in 2015, £14.7 million in 2016, and doubled turnover again in 2017. But Chieu tends to focus more on building a business based on a mission, “a desire to be something greater than ourselves, to galvanise other people with similar views.”
And that vision is to create a culture at the workplace of happiness, in which employees are truly engaged, and by so doing creating a more productive culture too. “Our mission is to help businesses succeed, by supporting engagement with their employees; with that you can create a very engaging brand as well,” he says.
Perkbox did not spring up overnight. The initial idea, back in 2011, was for a Groupon style business, providing offers and services, via an online platform but for business owners. The business was called Huddlebuy, but “we have pivoted three times” says Chieu.
The process that led to Perkbox began when the Hubblebuy team noticed that many of the business owners using the Huddlebuy service were re-buying extra licenses for employees to motivate staff. So the idea came from customers.
There was another pivot too, Perkbox focuses on creating engagement between customers and employees, but it also acquired Loyalty Bay, which focuses on engagement between companies and their customers.
Before he was an entrepreneur
Chieu came from a family of entrepreneurs, but before he entered the brave world of entrepreneurship, he had worked for Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft. In his years at the three companies, he says he worked with specialists – with very deep knowledge of their areas. “Working with such incredible people was a good experience .”
So that was the corporate world. But both Chieu’s parents had run businesses, many of his friends had done so too, he wanted to create something new, to build on his experience – that’s when he made the first step on his entrepreneurship journey.
At first he says you have to “scrape” for success, “you don’t have the money and structure is not so important, but I have gone in a full circle, and now that the company is scaling, I am applying what I learnt in his my first working decade.”
Chieu was brought up in the US – in Houston, Texas, went to university at Boston, graduated in 1999, when he came to the UK, just at the time of the dotcom crash.
“It was only recently that I began to accept myself as an entrepreneur.” He says that when he was starting off, his head was down, working really hard, and “I couldn’t call myself an entrepreneur until the business started to succeed, I didn’t feel I deserved that title until I had achieved some results.”
But as is so of often the case with entrepreneurs, their success seems to boil down to doing something they are passionate about – “Entrepreneurship is about building great businesses, I see myself as a builder – you need to be very resourceful, have great ideas that you can execute and translate and bring people together creating a company.
“For me, a company is nothing more than a group of individuals with the belief to create something.”
And what advice does he have for other would be entrepreneurs? “One of the most important lessons I have learned is that to be successful you have to be really resourceful – don’t expect to be an expert in many things, especially in my field, where technology and circumstances change so fast, what you need to be able to do is rely on your resourcefulness, know who to ask for help, how to research topics, how to look for solutions, problem solving, plus, coupled with that, lots of confidence and determination, even stubbornness.”
As for his entrepreneur hero, he says “in business you need to be a great leader, which is different from being a great manager, or someone with authority.” He cites Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, “they created a leadership platform for themselves, motivating people at a high level.
“As you get bigger,” he explains “your role becomes more of a leader, than someone who works on the front line. So, Elon is about critical thinking, having the confidence to do things his way, and with Steve Jobs it’s about discipline, about having clear goals and sticking with them, and not being governed by the market place; they know/knew what is important to them and users.”
And finally, how do you want to be remembered? “For Perkbox to be seen as sticking its neck out, advancing workplace happiness, and workplace engagement, providing a service solving a problem, creating an important impact – a company like that would make me very proud.”