Deel CEO was told he’d need to replace his entire leadership team for the business to reach unicorn status—now it’s valued at $12 billion and he’s ‘kept 80% of the same team as when it was at $0’

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Entrepreneurs perhaps expect to lose sleep (and all sense of control over their inbox) when scaling their venture from a startup into a unicorn. However, one millennial founder was warned he’d have to also lose his entire leadership team in the process. 

When Alex Bouaziz launched the HR platform Deel in 2019, he was just 25 years old. Although he had already put his weight behind a couple of “nice but very small scale” startups, he insists that this was a “completely different beast”.

So naturally, the now 30-year-old French-born businessman was all ears when seasoned entrepreneurs wanted to offer their advice on scaling.

“When I started Deel, someone told me the different stages of the business require different types of people and you will basically need to replace your whole leadership team, when you get to $1 million in ARR (annual recurring revenue), and then $5 million,” he recalls to Fortune.

After all, bootstrapping a startup, raising capital, and managing a handful of employees require different management skills than running a billion-dollar business with thousands of stakeholders. 

But Bouaziz chose to ignore that advice. 

“That statement to me was very wrong and I think we’re a good example of why it’s wrong,” he explains. “If you look at Deel, actually 80% of my leadership team is the same that it was when we were at $0 ARR.”

His instincts were on the money: In 2021, just three years after launching, Deel hit unicorn status—and it’s not slowed down since. The company has swallowed up 8 similar employee engagement services, its workforce has swelled from 10 to 3,600 workers and annual recurring revenue has skyrocketed from $4 million in 2021 to $500 million as of March. 

Now, the San Francisco–based startup is valued at $12 billion and its founders Bouaziz and Shuo Wang, have become self-made millionaires in the process.

Early-day employees care more about the business than latecomers

In Bouaziz’s eyes, the company’s meteoric success is down to keeping the same team from its early days.

Why? Because people who choose to join a scrappy startup are more invested in its growth than those who come on board once business is already booming. 

“If you really, really care about your job, you’ll always have a leg up on everybody else,” the CEO explains. “It’s my job as a leader to surround myself with the best people. If you have to carry your whole team because you’re the best person in your department, then you’re never going to make it.”

“But what I found is this care is very unique and the later you are in the company, the harder it is to find people that really care about the business.”

It’s why instead of letting go of senior leaders who are no longer quite the right fit for their roles as the company grows, Bouaziz recommends reimagining their roles.

“For example, my head of growth used to be running all of marketing,” he explains. “She’s awesome, but at the stage when the org became really really big it was much better for her to refocus on what she’s great at, top of funnel growth, versus running the whole marketing department.”

Playing to her strengths and hiring someone else to cover her weaker areas, he says, “significantly” helped the company grow faster than if he had let her go (along with all her business knowledge) and tried to find a jack of all trades.

Everything should be improving all the time

It’s not just Deel’s leadership team that has been placed under the microscope as the business scales—Bouaziz says he’s constantly reassessing every department in the company.

“I think about how my organization is built all the time,” he says, before adding with rapid-fire momentum: “How is our comms department structured? Is it optimal for the current state of the company? How is this going to look like in a couple of months? In a year? In two years from now? What are the investments we need to make for them to be able to do their best jobs over time? Is the person leading this organization currently the best person to do that? Are they going to be the best person in a few years?”

It’s all part of his mantra that “everything should be improving all the time.” 

Bouaziz insists that he can’t wait for what’s around the corner, because he knows that bigger and better things are coming—and that can only come when you’re in constant improvement mode. 

But even then, you won’t catch him resting on his laurels and enjoying the fruit of his labor from the sidelines.

“The bigger you get, the easier it is to turn a blind eye to different things that you would have never let slip through the gap if you were the person closer to the problem,” the young chief says. “Most of the successful CEOs I’ve spent time with are the ones that are able to heavily balance when to deep dive into things and not just stay at a 5,000-foot view.”

It’s why Bouaziz is once again ignoring the advice of his peers: “If you actually can stay quite hands-on and decide when to go in and when not to go in, rather than listen to people who will tell you to just step back and let people let the thing run itself, then you will have significantly better outcomes.”

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