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Scott Orn

Scott Orn, CFA

Tom Nguyen talks about Café, a new solution to coordinate office hours and remote work for employees

Posted on: 12/14/2021

Kruze Consulting's Founders and Friends Podcast · Tom Nguyen talks about Café, a new solution to coordinate office hours and remote work for employees

Tom Nguyen

Tom Nguyen

Co-founder & CEO - Café


Tom Nguyen of Café - Podcast Summary

Tom Nguyen discusses the creation and development of Café, a software solution that allows employees to easily and quickly schedule time in and out of the office, coordinates their schedules with team members and other employees and promotes collaboration.

Tom Nguyen of Café - Podcast Transcript

Scott: Hey, it’s Scott Orn, Kruze Consulting. And thanks for joining us on Founders and Friends for another awesome podcast. Let’s give a quick shout out to the Kruze Consulting accounting team. We’re very fortunate. We have a ton of people at Kruze who work on the monthly books for our clients and get them all set up, due diligence ready, rocking every month, answering all the clients’ questions, making all those adjustments. And there’s no better moment for a founder and for us, really, when founder says, “Hey, I think I’m going to get a term sheet. Are my books ready for diligence?” And we get to say, “Yes, they are. Fire away. Send them over, give them access.” That is a great feeling. It’s the feeling that lets us know we’ve done a job very well done. And nothing is better than watching that cash at the bank account. So, if you are a venture backed startup, you’re going out to fundraise, maybe check us out. Check us out at kruzeconsulting.com. We love what we do. Taping here, I think we have 575 clients. Clients raised over a billion dollars this year, so we know what we’re doing and hopefully we can help you be successful in your fundraise. All right, let’s get to the podcast. Thanks.
Singer: (Singing) So when your troubles are mounting in tax or accounting, you go to Kruze and Founders and Friends. It’s Kruze Consulting, Founders and Friends with your host, Scotty Orn.
Scott: Welcome to Founders and Friends podcast with Scott Orn, Kruze Consulting. And today very special guest is Tom Nguyen of Café. Welcome, Tom.
Tom: Thanks for having me. Hey everyone.
Scott: Great to have you. I’ve known about your company for, I think, nine months, maybe a year. Also, I should note I do have a very small personal investment in Café because I like the idea so much. And I wish I had a personal investment in those amazing backdrops of Darth Vader and Star Wars stuff back there. That looks so cool.
Tom: Thanks. Shout out to my co-founder. It’s actually his. It’s not mine.
Scott: I’m going to have to get you… That could be a Christmas present for my wife, although she might want… I don’t know if she’ll want Vader, but she might want something Legos. Anyhow, Tom, do you mind just kind of telling everyone, retrace your career and tell everyone how had the idea for Café?
Tom: Would love to. So, it’s a very strange story as I founded Café with my older brother. And the very weird thing is that we’ve met professionally about two years ago. So, we never worked together. We were both engineers. So, we went through tech school and we worked together on different path. And just we figured it out, hey, we can work together because we were in the same company together as head of product and head of tech. And we figured out we can build anything together so let’s do this. And it was the same time as the first lockdown in France. And we figured out that the hybrid model, so mixing remote and office brought a lot of great thing as flexibility and a lot of comfort and the way to have a better work life balance. But also, it brought new problems. So, we were like, “Hey, we are product people, engineer. We just like to solve things and we want to have impact on people’s lives. So how can we make this better?” And actually, we went in summer 220 on a very long interview list of about 100 companies. And all the companies were having the same problems and were trying to solve that with an Excel. So, Excel sheets, it seems like a good solution alternative to just build. And that’s how we came up with Café at first.
Scott: I love it. And for those who don’t know, Tom is based in Paris which I’m very envious of. That’s a favorite vacation place of ours, especially pre COVID. I hope to get out there soon. So, your accent, with Excel is what you’re talking about. People are using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to manage their hybrid workforce which as an accountant, we love Excel’s accountants, but even I know that that should be a SaaS tool, right? And that’s kind of what you built, right?
Tom: Exactly. The thing was everybody in those companies, so we tried to have as many different companies as possible, but then the very first pain that people were feeling is that we never know who is at the office. We never know how many seats are available. And we don’t know… I want to come back to the office once or twice a week, but then I don’t know which day I should come because I have no visibility of other’s people’s schedule. So those problems were basic at first. And companies were like, “Okay. It’s so basic. We can use a spreadsheet to solve that.” But spoiler alert, it’s not working because people don’t input their data on a spreadsheet. Nobody wants to input their data on a spreadsheet. It’s just… You’re using a lot of great tools every day and application and the UX and the UI feels so great that nobody wants to just open a spreadsheet and input their schedule and agenda.
Scott: It might not be… It’s not anything malicious. It’s just they don’t think about it. It’s not in their daily workflow, which is why some of the integrations you’ve built are really important. But I’ll get to that in a second. You talked about using that downtime, the first lockdown as this creative genesis for the idea. I met a lot of startups who were formed in that time. Was it surreal? Did you… Were sitting there working next to your brother and pinching yourself? What was that like?
Tom: Actually, since we were in lockdown, we were just talking every day, but on Slack. And at first, as we came from the B2C mobile industry, we were just looking for a B2C app to just do together. And because we have all the design and tech expertise, we could just do it on our own. And since we haven’t figured out anything that was exciting, we just looked at the B2B world and the biggest problem in companies at the moment. So, just after the first lockdown was the hybrid model. And we didn’t even know it was called hybrid. It was flex office, or flexible workforce or all those names. And we just wanted to solve our own problem because we were managers in the same company and had no way to go back to the office smoothly.
Scott: I love it. You used the word synchronize, being able to synchronize when you’re in the office together or when you’re not in the offices. Can you do, just so people can visualize this, a very basic workflow use case? I’m a coworker of yours, how do I go into the tool’s signal where I’m going to be and vice versa for you?
Tom: The simplest way is five clicks. So, you just say Monday, I’m working remotely. Tuesday, I’m in a coworking. Wednesday, sorry, I’m at the office. And then five clicks it’s done. Then I can go to your profile, find out about your schedule and planning and then just say, “Scott is in the office on Wednesday. I just want to go once a week. So, I want to go on Wednesday to meet with Scott.” And we are kind of agnostic, whether we’re connecting people for socialize or collaborate. We just want to connect people because in this new world you may spend about on average 60% of your not in the office, which actually means it’s possible to miss out on seeing each other for a lifetime and this is what we don’t want.
Scott: And are you seeing, I don’t know how to phrase this, but influencers, for lack of a better word, inside of a company who are, “Tom is going to be in the office on Wednesday. I want to be in the office on…” Are you seeing that kind of behavior where people are patterning their work days after a couple key influencers inside the company?
Tom: We have some companies and it’s very interesting because there are kind of the cool kids, the sunshine of the workplace, the people you want to be around. If I only come once and I really like to have a coffee with Scott because he’s very funny and I just have a good time with him hanging out, I will want to come the same days as he does. And we have another interesting thing is so we’ve just developed a feature so you can add people to your favorite and basically have a filter on who is in the office today based on my favorite people. And this is something that’s really… Compared to just filter on the team, you’re not spending as much time with your teammates because you’re seeing them all day and sending messages and stuff. But maybe you have fellow in other teams like accounting or HR or marketing when you come from the tech team, for example, and you just need to catch up with them and you need to have a better visibility over their schedule.
Scott: I love it. The tech product manager needs to catch up with the marketing manager and on the go to market. I could totally see that. Conversely, are you seeing a couple lone wolves at companies where they’re like, I’m going to go in on the day that no one’s around so I can get all my work done? Because I kind of like that. I mean, I’m a social person, but it’s very nice to be in the office when it’s quiet and no one’s bothering. Do you see that behavior?
Tom: Definitely. It was one of our first discovery when doing the user interview in last summer, so in 220. We figured out people are going to the office for different reasons. Some people are very social and they’re spending so much time alone in their apartment that when they go, they want to make sure that there’s the most people around. And the other way is also true. Some people are, they have kids or they have, I don’t know, roommates, very noisy ambience when they’re working from, and they just want to go to the office when it’s like a library, when it’s super quiet, nobody’s going to disturb you. And it’s interesting because we have those two behaviors. But in the end, what we really think will happen in the future is that if you need to get work done, solo work, heads down, you will basically work from home or work from a coworking because office and workplace should stay away and apply, sorry, where you collaborate and where you get creative and where you brainstorm, you get basically work done together. If you have solo work, just stay home or go to a coworking.
Scott: Now, are you seeing companies either rationalize, reduce their space depending on how many… Or is there… I’m thinking of a very creative use case for maybe a company realizes they only need an office Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Tuesdays and Thursdays, no one comes to the office. Are you seeing any super creative because in a way you’re kind of making this very non-transparent usage, transparent for the rest of the world? And are you seeing any really creative use cases or ways that companies are trying to get paid back or re-rent out their space or things like that?
Tom: It’s not that creative. The one cases where you just have three days every week and two others where you’re out of the office is super creative. And I haven’t… I’ve heard it. Some companies were trying to do that, but I never found any company that succeeded yet. But the other thing is basically people reducing the number of desks they have. So basically, they have a head count of 100 and they want to have about 80 to 60 desks. So, they are basically, they need some kind of rotation or a way for the workforce to just feel that they are accepted whenever they need to go to the office. So, you have lot of other problems because you save money on real estate, but then you have other problem with over capacity management, for example, or all the new problems that hybrid comes up with like flex desks. People don’t have their own desk. And some in some companies’ culture, it’s a problem because people don’t want… They want to have their own desks, their own seats, their own personal stuff around. It’s a huge shift in the culture.
Scott: Do you see that changing though? Because I can see… It’s almost like an airline. When you fly an airline, you’re clicking to see where you’re going to sit. I can see a world where people are being proactive about where they want to sit in the office or change their view or they’re coming in a certain day. Do you see some of that stuff or is it still very much like, hey, this is my desk and this is my world? And I control this square footage? How do we people think about this?
Tom: I think there are two different vision. There is the employee end user vision, which is, I want to know which are the best days to go to the office depending on what everyone else is doing. Is there enough space? Is my team here? Are my favorite people around? And this is a very macro level and you just want as an employee, hey, I want to go to the office. I want to work remotely. Or maybe I want to go to a coworking and meet with other people from that same coworking. So, this is super macro. People don’t really need to book a desk through interactive map that’s super deep in terms of process. It’s like 10 clicks. It’s two minutes and a half for a day. It’s way too much. So, this is the employee vision. But then when you go to a more admin vision, like a manager, a workplace manager, space planner, those kinds of thing, those people need a better overview. So that’s why the first thing we did is that we never created desks on Café. You can only create space. Space can be a floor, can be a neighborhood, can be a section, can be a sub space. You can do all the things based on an island, a bench, anything. But then it gives flexibility to customize your space and answer the real needs. Because right now when you go to the office, it’s like, “Hey, do I want to go to the office?” Yes or no. It’s not like I want the A16 BZ seats next to the kitchen.
Scott: That’s my example.
Tom: And the best example we’ve heard so far is that it’s the same thing when you go to a restaurant. You don’t call a restaurant and say, “Hey, I want that table.” No, you say, maybe you can ask, “Hey, I want to dine and have it outdoor or indoor.” Maybe, that’s okay. But then-
Scott: That’s a great analogy.
Tom: … You don’t go to this great analogy specific point where… Because it doesn’t matter for you, you just want to have somewhere to be eating or working at.
Scott: I totally get it. And now that makes a ton of sense. And are the employers like, that’s enough granularity for them? The administrative people, they’re getting a lot of value out of the product?
Tom: Yeah, definitely. And it’s just a question of culture, again, because I think the first thing is that we had two different kind of people. Some people were coming and were asking for desk booking because for any human being from the old world, pre COVID, this is the solution. Because the old way we were using offices and desks is not the same way as now. And so, we had those people asking for a desk booking tool and in the end this is not what we’ve designed. So, we design something that we call space booking, which is enough for us and for all our customers and users. Those are two different approach. Do you want a very micromanaging way to just go to the office? Is it your desk or is it just a space that you may be working on? It’s like the same thing between flex office and dedicated desks. Do you want to do… It’s a culture problem.
Scott: I see the way you’re talking about it. I like the way you’re talking about it. The desk booking tool does make you feel like you’re on an airline. That’s not what you guys have done. You built something that’s a little more fluid, basically.
Tom: Depends on your need as a company.
Scott: Hey, it’s Scott Orn, and we’re going to take a quick break from the podcast to give a shout out to the Kruze tax team. Gosh, it’s so nice to have an in-house tax team. I can’t even tell you. We have some really amazing professionals on team. It’s over, I think it’s 13 people now. And we do everything from your federal state income tax return, state franchise tax filings, R&D tax credits. Those are pretty popular these days. And guess what? They’re there for you when you go through diligence. A lot of people don’t know this, but you actually go through tax diligence, not just operational kind of financial diligence, but you do go through tax diligence. So it’s nice to have Vanessa Kruze on the phone with your VCs and with the accounting firm they hire to diligence all your stuff and the law firm they hire to diligence all your stuff. Vanessa knows what she’s doing. She’s done this a million times. And it’s not just Vanessa. We have a really great team of tax professionals that will do those calls too. It’s kind of sometimes the difference between getting your round closed or having it take another two weeks because something was disorganized and tax compliance wasn’t done correctly. We hear those horror stories from clients that come to us. So, hey, if you want Kruze’s tax team on your side, we’re here for you. Check us out at kruzeconsulting.com. Thanks. Let’s talk about some of the integrations you built. Because you made the point earlier that some people try to manage this via an Excel spreadsheet. But what I like about what you’ve done is you built it into a lot of tools that people actually use on a daily basis. Can you talk about your integrations?
Tom: Yeah. So, the first thing is that we’ve thought as employees. So as employees would not have wanted another tool to just open every day, et cetera. So, we’ve thought about all the possibilities with actual tools we use every day. So, the first one was basically the chat integration with Slack and Microsoft Teams. So, we are basically spending so much time in our chat that it was so logical for us to do that in first place. So basically, now when you go to Slack, if you’ve set your statuses on Café, which you can do once a week, for example, then every day your status will be updated in real-time to just give that context to your coworkers and teammates. Hey, today I’m at the office this morning and then this afternoon I will be working remotely. So, you have that half day precision so you never have to send a message to Scott and like, “Hey, where are you today?” We want to just kill that question forever.
Scott: I love that. I love… That’s a great idea.
Tom: So that was the chat integration. The second we’ve built was the calendar integration. So, with Google Calendar or Outlook. Everything you put on Café will be directly displayed on any calendar you’re using. So basically, when I want to book a meeting with you, I just have to go through your calendar and I see which day you will be at the office, which day you’ll be working remotely. So, I know that I want to put our meeting the same day we are both at the same place because it’s just a better experience than just a Zoom with people without their camera, because it just feels like not the same thing.
Scott: And then it looks like you’re starting to get into some of the HR tools too that people are… Because some HR, especially at bigger companies, the HR payroll/HR tools are really how people manage the workforce. So, you’re making progress into those systems as well, right?
Tom: Definitely. We’ve just, again, as employees figured out that we don’t want to input our days off in the [HRIS] and in Café because it doesn’t make sense for an employee to do this twice the same thing in two different sources. So basically, right now it’s very simple integration is that we just synchronize days off whatever they are directly from HRIS to Café. We have about 50 of them so far. It’s very simple. And the second step would be to just synchronize all the org charts, the teams, the managers, to just have that fluidity in the usage of our product. Because at the moment we’re starting to build what we call our social graph. So, we can basically filter anybody in the directory based on name, teams, but also their skills and their languages, the-
Scott: Well, the favorites too. I really like the favorites one.
Tom: Exactly.
Scott: That’s a nice little filter too. I love it. And then are you seeing… When you look at your client base and you’re going to market, because you originally talked about you were looking for almost like a consumer app.
Tom: Definitely.
Scott: You and your brother first started building and then you found this problem. How’s the go to market? Are you finding that Café is growing virally and people are telling their friends about it or how’s the company growing?
Tom: It’s a fun question. So, with our consumer background, we were very not good at doing any sales or marketing or ads. So, we just figured out-
Scott: That’s kind of why I asked that question.
Tom: We were just like, “Hey, we’ll just get a bunch of users.” At first it was five companies and in just few weeks it was 15, then 50. Then we just used all the organic channel that we could like Product Hunt or anything that could just make people hear about what we do and then just let users talk about us. Our mantra was our product is the silent salesman, so we don’t have to do sales.
Scott: Love that. Love that. That’s really cool. And are you seeing… You’re based in Europe, but it sounds like you’re growing really nicely in the United States too.
Tom: The first thing is that we thought that our product would grow first in the US then in Europe. But it was super interesting to just see that historically first countries to go back to the office, having shorter lockdown were European. So, it was kind of… Our lockdown, the first one only lasted only three months. That was super long. But then we could go back to the office in May 220. So, we had that amount of time to figure out what was really the hybrid model about. And that was the first time where Europe was kind of in advance to the US. So, it was kind of cool.
Scott: And especially California and New York, people were pretty conservative in the United States and some of the bigger tech states. So that makes a lot of sense. And so, you got to see different stages of usage of Café in kind of-
Tom: So, it was slower. The growth in the US was slower because in the end, the lockdown was longer, there was the variant. So, it was just harder for people to just figure out how are we going to go back to the office since they were just still working from home full time. And work from home is not really remote. It’s not the same thing.
Scott: But I feel like we’re hitting that stage now where people, especially a lot of the big tech companies have said January, February 1st are going to be when people start coming back. I know amongst my friends, that’s why I want to have you on the podcast, is that it’s becoming a much more prevalent conversation. So, are you seeing uptick now where people are like, hey, I need a solution for this and I want to make it social? I think that’s really kind of the genius of your product is that it’s like a social experience, not just an isolated type in where I’m going to be and then who knows who has that info. That’s what’s really cool about it.
Tom: The real thing is that most of the SaaS industry when it comes to HR employee experience and everything that touches the employee life is most of the time, top down. So, you have to use it. You don’t have a choice. And we wanted to just reverse that thing and make it the employee where you just input your statuses because you get value out of it. So, you get visibility over your teammates schedule. And then in the end, if you input your statuses, then it will create a way to connect with people. Then if you don’t, you just don’t get that reward. And we really wanted to just shift this way of thinking. People are not seeing Café as a tracking tool or micromanagement tool or time tracking tool. It’s really about collaboration and connection and socialization.
Scott: It’s almost like the analogy of you put up an Instagram post or a Twitter post or a Facebook post because you want people to know what you’re doing and things like that. It’s the same kind of desire, human desire that drives posting to social except you’re just doing it at your work and you’re kind of making that synchronization or those beautiful little moments where you’re bumping into someone at the water cooler or the bathroom-
Tom: This is where serendipity happens.
Scott: Serendipity.
Tom: Exactly. And that’s what people missed the most. People felt isolated, people felt alone in their apartment. And what we really wanted to bring to that experience is the social part. So that’s what excites us the most because it’s really the magical of human beings. You can have a virtual office spending all your times and trying to fake the office. It will not work. We are… In our team, we’re working four days a week remotely, but then we have that team day, every week, we just schedule and synchronize and find that specific day when we can just other and work together because collaboration is so important. But it’s very difficult right now to just visualize who is going to be at the office. So synchronization is a problem. And then the second thing we figured out is that 60% of people can work from any places during the week, because on average companies are going back two days a week to the office. So, it means that three days you can work from a coworking, from a cafe, from your house or maybe from another city. So that was the… One of the latest features we’ve designed is a map where you can just visually see who is in which city.
Scott: That’s awesome.
Tom: And if you’re going to Boston next week, for example, you might have some teammates that are going to be here, but they will not update their Slack or Teams’ status. They will not update their calendar status. It’s an information, a data that you can’t find anywhere.
Scott: I love it. We actually at Kruze have that where people are kind of slowly traveling the world. Going from one country to another every couple months or states in the United States, and that’s totally happening. And you’re right, they don’t post that on Slack or anywhere else. That data’s lost. So, I really love it. Well, creating serendipity is an amazing thing, and I’m really glad Café exists. Maybe we can wrap it up here. Just, you can tell everyone how to reach out, where to find you and if they’re interested in trying out the product.
Tom: Yeah, definitely. So, our website is the best way. It’s AT, at.café. And we have email, live chat, anything. And the very great thing about our product as we are bottoms up is it’s free up to 50 users. So, anybody can try it out for free. We have many new features coming down, especially on the social part because we really think it’s what’s going to be the real deal. Space optimization is a thing, but then the real deal is how do you connect people and improve onboarding and talent retention and all those great topics that people are really interested about. So, can be LinkedIn, can be email, anything. And really happy to have your feedback if you’re trying our product.
Scott: Awesome check at Café out. And I love the serendipity part of that, Tom. All these that you’re talking about, you made good point about the ROI on reducing your space or things like that. But what people really care about is bumping into their friend and having that 10-minute conversation and not feeling isolated and having that serendipity. So, it’s really cool that you’re developing that.
Tom: Thanks. Thanks. It’s a-
Scott: Awesome man. Thank you for coming by. I really appreciate it.
Tom: Thanks for the invitation.
Scott: All right, bye. Take care.
Singer: (Singing) So when your troubles are mounting in the tax or accounting, you go to Kruze and Founders and Friends. It’s Kruze Consulting, Founders and Friends with your host, Scotty Orn.

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