SurveyMonkey’s Outlier Effect

Tim Maly secured the online polling startup’s ascent by building top-grade teams and unparalleled predictive products

It’s not surprising that Tim Maly went to work at SurveyMonkey in 2009. After all, the company had achieved profitability in the startup phase practically since it was founded ten years earlier. He had worked at other fast-growing firms in Silicon Valley—Google and Clicktools among them—and jumping onto the next big thing is part of just about everyone’s career development plan. But what Maly found most intriguing was the chance to be SurveyMonkey’s chief financial officer and chief operations officer. “There was really no infrastructure in place then,” Maly recalls. “We only had fourteen people. So it was an opportunity to build a team.”

And build it, he did. The company now has more than 600 employees and offices around the world. Plus, it has managed to fend off imitators with a winning business model, strong brand recognition, a healthy financial position, and loyalty with both customers and employees that are the envy of the technology sector. SurveyMonkey, which largely works in the corporate and nonprofit sector, is also making waves in the political polling sphere at a time when traditional polling methodologies are faltering.

Maly had specific reasons for joining the firm, most of which have come to fruition. “I was attracted by its leading products,” he says, including a “freemium” offering to bring in customers who often upgrade to advanced pay-for-it products. He says these customer dynamics are particularly compelling. “The company was also incredibly profitable,” Maly says.

It’s not hard to see why. After building its brand in such sectors as employee surveys, it was the lone survey firm to most accurately predict the outcome of the United Kingdom’s national election in May 2015, and it has since become the polling partner with NBC News and its cable subsidiary, MSNBC. The vaunted website FiveThirtyEight.com, which analyzes the aggregation of political polls, noted that SurveyMonkey’s success in the United Kingdom vote was accomplished at a fraction of the price of what was spent by traditional phone-polling firms.

The advantage of online polling pricing is that it doesn’t have to pay phone bills and wages for phone-bank workers, according to a post on its website. Based on this and other survey outcomes, it’s becoming clear that people who opt into taking online polls are more representative of a population than those who are inclined to answer landline phones without regard to who is calling.

Maly says the positive cash flow provides several advantages to the company. “Ours is not a sweatshop culture,” he says. “Our focus is on building a company for the long term, not racing nine to twelve months for an exit.”

Instead, SurveyMonkey’s leadership team focuses on long-term objectives, building that infrastructure, and hiring the right people to ensure continued success. “We look for people who are experienced at working in early-stage companies and who also had big company experience,” he says, noting there is an abundance of talent in the region surrounding the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. “We especially want high-caliber, low-ego people,” he adds.

Yet this is also a region where job mobility is exceptional, which often spells retention issues for even the most recognized tech behemoths. “Of course we have to be competitive on compensation,” Maly says, adding that the company goes even further in providing career experience that should be important and impactful. He believes all employees ask at some point if they work with people they like, which he says includes being in a place that encourages authenticity.

“We set up a culture that fosters transparency,” he says. “SurveyMonkey is all about using data to inform decision making.” That tends to favor being real about what matters at work and life in general. The company even has a voluntary turnover rate of less than 10 percent.

While the hiring criteria for the firm seeks a particular type of worker, it’s understood that few come ready-made for their positions. An onboarding program is provided to all, and management-level employees are given more specific methods of working. “It’s crucial to do this as we scale up,” Maly says.

About $1.2 billion was raised in several rounds of funding, in what Maly describes as new investors buying out existing investors, which allowed employees to sell off shares held in their employee stock ownership plan. The enviable situation of growing largely from revenues and less from outside investment could have some pitfalls.

Exuberant spending on unsuccessful ventures has fallen many a growth company, but Maly says they aren’t there, at least not yet. “We still say ‘no’ to a lot of ideas,” he shares. “We still have to ask ourselves, ‘What advantage do we have in the marketplace and what is our engineering, marketing, and sales investment?’” He and other senior executives engage in this introspection on a quarterly and annual basis.

The pan-industry, pan-culture nature of the business allows for tremendous growth within its core business model. While the company claims its customers include 99 percent of the Fortune 500, with a full half of its business in the government, nonprofit, and educational sector, the online survey industry has an abundance of room to grow, both domestically and around the world.

Of course growth means new offices. Much to Maly’s surprise, the real estate responsibilities of his job are exciting. “It’s really fun,” he says of the process of finding and building out offices in places that include Portland, Seattle, Sydney, Dublin, and Ottawa. “The philosophy is to provide a great working environment where people can be productive and enjoy themselves.”

True to trends, that means open floor plans with no private offices, with equal space dedicated to work stations and alternative, collaborative areas such as rooftop decks and soft seating. Interconnecting stairwells designed to attract use and employee interaction are built into the design wherever possible. Plus, it’s green: the Palo Alto office is located near regional public transportation stations such that half the workforce gets there by train or bus. Another quarter of employees bike, walk, or use car pools.

Maly’s finance background led him to the more human-centric aspects of business, where he’s continuing to lead SurveyMonkey to the next phase of its success.