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SurveyMonkey’s Future Is Focused On One Word: Curiosity

The company has bounced back from tragedy. Now it’s trying to capture the imagination of people who think they don’t care about surveys.

On May 1, 2015, veteran Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg died of cardiac arrhythmia while exercising during a vacation in Mexico. The news made headlines, in part because he was married to an executive with a profile far higher than his own: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Stories about his passing noted that he was both respected and loved in the tech community, and had served as CEO of online survey platform SurveyMonkey since 2009.

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Among the people on vacation with Goldberg and Sandberg was longtime friend Zander Lurie, an executive at GoPro and member of SurveyMonkey’s board. “We were talking about the upcoming board meeting, and big topics that needed to be addressed, and he died three hours later,” says Lurie.

Dave Goldberg [Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg]
Goldberg’s death robbed SurveyMonkey of the leader who had done more than any other single person to steer it to success and define its culture, a deeply traumatic event that also had practical repercussions. Lurie helped run the company on an interim basis until HP executive Bill Veghte, a Harvard classmate of Goldberg’s, was appointed CEO in July 2015. But Veghte stepped down after only six months. “There was a strategy that he wanted to pursue that wasn’t fully aligned with the board, and he quickly realized this just wasn’t a long-term place that he wanted to be,” says Lurie. “To his credit, he raised his hand and said, ‘I think we should think about someone else.'” With Veghte’s departure, Lurie again stepped in at SurveyMonkey, this time as CEO, and on a permanent basis.

To this day, Lurie says, the loss of his friend Dave Goldberg causes “totally unpredictable waves of emotion that hit me.” But Lurie quickly adds that he feels “empowered and emboldened by what he built, and what I learned from him, and now taking it to the next level.”

Eighteen months into Lurie’s tenure as CEO, that next level is coming into view. SurveyMonkey is rolling out some changes–including both additional features and revised branding–that are designed to give it space to grow far beyond its loyal base of 40 million-plus customers. A big part of what’s new involves positioning the company’s suite of offerings as a way for businesses to satisfy curiosity about their worlds, rather than just conduct surveys.

How The Monkey Grew

The tale of SurveyMonkey is not a typical Silicon Valley success story. In 2009, it was a decade-old company that Ryan Finley had founded in Madison, Wisconsin, and then relocated to Portland, Oregon. It was doing well, but it was still a tiny operation.

“It had great retention and customer satisfaction and this ridiculous financial profile, just incredibly profitable, and there was no infrastructure,” says Tim Maly, now the company’s COO and CFO. “There were 14 people in the company, 10 of whom were in customer service.” Seeing an opportunity to build something much bigger, private equity companies Spectrum Equity Investors and Bain Capital Ventures acquired the company and hired Goldberg as CEO. (Maly, who had worked with Sandberg at Google, also joined at this time.)

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In the years that followed, SurveyMonkey’s new management team turned the potential that the company’s acquirers had seen into reality. Still privately held, SurveyMonkey now has more than 670 employees. In 2016, its revenue was over $200 million, with a profit margin of about 30%. To an unusual degree, the company has bootstrapped itself into the big leagues: While it’s raised over $1.5 billion from investors, that money has gone to owners, employees, and acquisitions activity rather than being required to fund operations.

New SurveyMonkey board member Serena Williams and CEO Zander Lurie [Photo: courtesy of SurveyMonkey]

The Billion-Dollar Opportunity

As much as it’s grown, SurveyMonkey has ambitions to get bigger still. “There’s clearly an opportunity for this to be a multibillion-dollar revenue company,” says Maly. “The market for insights is measured in the tens of billions of dollars, and one of the great advantages we have is a huge installed base of SurveyMonkey users in companies, nonprofits, educational institutions, government institutions, and health care institutions large and small across the U.S. and around the world.”

Actually, SurveyMonkey is so well-established in its field–99% of the Fortune 500 are customers–that if you’re the sort of person who cares about surveys, such as a market researcher, there’s a pretty good chance you already use it. To level up, the company concluded, it needed to reach beyond this natural customer base and get a wider swath of businesspeople interested in what it had to offer, including those who don’t think of themselves as caring about surveys.

To help it figure out how to do that, SurveyMonkey did something that it’s quite adept at: It conducted a survey. When it asked customers about why they conducted surveys, they said it was less about reaching immediate conclusions than fueling curiosity.

“Curiosity is one of the things that CEOs need to have in their companies, and also one of the attributes they look for in leaders,” says senior vice president of marketing communications Bennett Porter. “And that’s really the essence of what people told us they use SurveyMonkey for: not to make a decision, but to have enough data to know they were headed in the right direction.”

Not being sufficiently curious, Lurie argues, is bad business. When a company faces unexpected problems, he says, “Often someone in management or a team in management or a CEO didn’t ask the questions and listen and learn. So we see this big opportunity to help companies turn those voices into actual data.”

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That idea steered the company as it worked on a feature update and rebranding that emphasizes the value of corporate curiosity. It features new catchphrases like “Power to the Curious.” It’s less a pivot than the surfacing of something that was there all along. In fact, when Finley was naming his startup almost two decades ago, he chose the “Monkey” part to riff on the idea that apes are innately curious about the world around them.

A SurveyMonkey kitchen, decorated with “Goldie” signage from the company’s previous headquarters. [Photo: Harry McCracken for Fast Company]

Surveys, Streamlined

The new features that SurveyMonkey is introducing into its products are varied, but they’re all in sync with the curiosity theme in that they’re designed to remove the barriers that stand between a company and the relevant data it would like to collect.

For starters, SurveyMonkey is simplifying the process of creating surveys that people will actually be willing to complete. A new feature called SurveyMonkey Genius analyzes surveys and make recommendations that may increase response rate. SurveyMonkey president Tom Hale describes how it works: “What the Genius does is, it looks at your survey, and it takes the wisdom of the crowds, all of the surveys that have ever been run, and say, ‘This is what yields a good conversion range. This is what takes too long. This is when people drop out of the survey.’ We have all that data, and have done machine learning over that data, to give people insights about what works and what doesn’t work.”

SurveyMonkey also reworked the interface that people see when they take a survey for maximum efficiency, reducing the chances that someone will bail before completing one, especially on a smartphone. “It’s much cleaner, it’s much lighter, it’s more fluid, it’s more tablet and mobile oriented,” says Hale.

The company already offered SurveyMonkey Audience, a service that lets a company survey consumers without having to find the consumers themselves. (SurveyMonkey finds people of appropriate demographics–say, Latino women from 18-35–and induces each one to complete the survey by making a small charitable donation.) Now Audience is a self-serve feature built into the core platform, making it easier to use.

SurveyMonkey found its initial success because it was a versatile tool that lets you build just about any sort of survey. But many businesspeople don’t want to build any sort of survey: They want something specific to their particular line of work. With that in mind, the company has been building purpose-specific tools. SurveyMonkey CX, for instance, lets companies measure customer satisfaction using the industry-standard Net Promoter Score system, while SurveyMonkey Engage is for conducting internal employee surveys.

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Timing-wise, the decision to play up curiosity lined up with SurveyMonkey’s move from its old Palo Alto headquarters, which was snapped up by Amazon, into a new building to the north in San Mateo, where 200,000 feet of space give the company room to expand. After the difficult process of recovering from Goldberg’s death, “Moving into the building at the tail end of last year was a really good fresh start for people,” says senior VP of human resources Becky Cantieri. “There’s always something invigorating about some new digs when you’re not sitting right on top of the person next to you.”

The new space at One Curiosity Way–it received permission from the city to adopt that address rather than the more mundane “3050 South Delaware Street”–is full of allusions to the value of intellectual curiosity, from framed factoids on the wall (“29% of adults say they’ve been splashed or scalded by hot drinks while dunking cookies”) to a library with real dead-tree books, to a room with knitting supplies, just in case anyone is inspired to learn to knit.

This being Silicon Valley, the conference rooms are named after things that have inspired curiosity over the centuries, such as Pandora’s Box and, inevitably, King Kong.

A rather large Curious George doll at SurveyMonkey, adopted from a toy store owned by an employee’s family. [Photo: Harry McCracken for Fast Company]

The Goldberg Legacy

It’s been more than two years since Dave Goldberg’s death, and, as SurveyMonkey has continued to grow, not everyone currently on staff was part of his era. But in ways both obvious and subtle, his impact persists. One vital ongoing connection to him is the presence of Sheryl Sandberg on SurveyMonkey’s board. “She has such deep caring for not only the people of this company and Dave’s legacy, but also making sure we capitalize on all the opportunities in front of us,” says Lurie.

As for Sandberg, she says in a statement to Fast Company, “Zander is a deeply curious person–and is helping to generate a culture of curiosity at the company. He’s empathetic and results driven. It’s this combination that makes him a great leader.”

Among Sandberg’s contributions as a board member has been introducing Lurie to her friend Serena Williams, who had never been a member of a corporate board, but joined SurveyMonkey’s in May. Lurie says that Williams’s competitiveness, savvy with marketing and social media, and interest in topics such as the gender pay gap will be valuable. “And she’s really curious,” he says. “She comes in here with notes and questions, and she wants to do as well here as she does in everything else she does.”

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As an idiosyncratic but heartfelt tribute to Goldberg, the company retroactively named its simian logo/mascot “Goldie” after his nickname, then gave employees Goldie stickers and encouraged them to place them anywhere they wanted around the building. They’re stuck everywhere, from staircases to bookshelves, each one a small rememberance of Goldberg. There’s also a Goldie Speaker Series named after him–Reed Hastings, Arianna Huffington, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and other notables have participated–as well as less explicit tributes, such as Las Vegas-themed art in the game room, a nod to his love of the town.

As for Goldberg’s influence on the way SurveyMonkey is run today, “There are decisions I make that are probably very consistent with the way he would have done it, and things I do differently,” Lurie says. “He passed away in mid-2015, and things change very rapidly in this sector. So I don’t have a frame of mind like, ‘What would Dave do?’ As much as I appreciate what I learned from him.”

“He will always have an inspirational place,” Lurie adds. “But there’s no moping. I think Dave wouldn’t stand for it.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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