Serendipity and Startups: A Conversation with Robert Manne '77
The general counsel and senior vice president at Ultimate Software shares how embracing serendipity can lead to success with startups
Ultimate Software, the Weston, FL–based human capital management and benefits firm where Robert Manne ’77 serves as general counsel and senior vice president, has a reputation for treating its employees exceptionally well. They have access to a wellness expert, and the company even has a massage therapist on staff. “You might want to think about doing that here!” Manne told Dean Nick Allard during a lunchtime conversation in October before an audience of students about entrepreneurship and advising startups. “If you make the employees happy, they’ll make the customers happy, and that will make shareholders happy,” he said.
Manne’s approach to employee—and customer— satisfaction has yielded solid results for Ultimate, which today is a $6 billion company with 3,500 employees that is regularly ranked by Fortune as one of the best places to work in the United States. But when Ultimate launched in 1990, the company barely had an office. Manne, whose friend Scott Scherr was Ultimate’s founder and is the current CEO, stepped in to lend the company its first office space and then signed on to be its lawyer. At that time, Manne had been a litigator at the Fort Lauderdale firm Becker & Poliakoff for more than a decade. He was about to jump into the nascent software-as-a-service (SaaS) field and figure out as he went along how existing laws applied.
Manne discussed the company’s journey to success and offered his advice and insights to students who are considering a career working with startups.
Can you talk about your path to Ultimate, and why the company is unique in the HR SaaS field?
We’ve turned a company that started in a little cubicle outside my office into a large publicly traded company that we think is just a great corporate model. After I became involved and we raised some money, Scott says, ‘By the way, I’ve got no place to go.’ I told him he could use the little secretarial station outside my office for a couple of months. The next day he comes to me and says, ‘By the way, I don’t have any customers.’ So my law firm became the first customer, and that’s where we started Ultimate.
We pride ourselves on our relationships with our customers and our employees. We truly believe in partnering with our customers and our vendors, and we like to grow with them. We have a culture that is a little different than I think a lot of other companies our size have, and we have a 96 percent retention rate among our customers.
If you had to choose a word that best describes your career path, would you say “planning” or “serendipity?”
Serendipity. Sometimes you’re not sure if you are doing the right thing, but you need to take a chance. I grew up in the Harlem/Washington Heights area and didn’t know any lawyers, nor did I have any contact with lawyers. I went to undergraduate school in Albany, and at some point during my time there I decided I was going to go to law school. When I graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1977, I decided to move to Florida even though I had a job offer from a Wall Street firm where I had clerked. When I told the senior partner who had offered me a position that I was going to move to Florida, he said he knew someone at one of the larger firms in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area who was hiring. It was a small, kind of old Southern town in many respects at the time; it wasn’t the cosmopolitan area it is today. The partner said, ‘I’m telling you right now, they’re not going to hire anybody who is Jewish.’
I interviewed at the firm, got through the first and second set of interviews, and was taken to lunch with the hiring partner. Everything was going well until he asked: ‘So, what holidays do you celebrate?’ With a very straight face I looked at him and said, ‘You mean, like July 4th?’
He didn’t appreciate the humor, and needless to say I didn’t get the job. A few months later I joined the Becker & Poliakoff group, which at the time had only eight lawyers, and all of us were under the age of 35. It was a young, dynamic group, and we were going to set the world on fire.
What was your practice like at Becker & Poliakoff, and how did you transition to the world of SaaS?
Most of our practice was representing homeowners and consumers who had difficulty when they purchased their condominiums, and my practice was primarily litigating. I did a lot of construction litigation and I loved every minute of it; loved my partners. You won’t find a lot of lawyers who say that after 10 or 20 years of practice, but that was me.
Then in 1990, as I mentioned, my friend told me that he was starting this HR software company and I was doing all of the legal work for them while I was still a partner at the law firm. You need to understand that at that time there was no Internet. So, when people are asking me questions about technology law, I’m improvising the answers. It was really an exciting time.
Some people said I was going to regret leaving my law firm, where I was a senior partner running a litigation department with 30 lawyers. But I said: ‘This is where my heart is going to take me, and let’s take a chance.’ As in-house counsel, one of the first legal issues was a dispute with the Post Office over what our address was going to be. But that’s what you face when you first start working with startups.
What are your views and tips on client service for students who are going to become lawyers?
The first thing I tell young lawyers when they’re coming out of law school is: ‘You want to be a sponge. You need to spend the first few years learning your trade and learning your profession. You want to talk to other people who have that experience.’
When I left the law firm to start the technology company, I had to learn a whole new area of law in many respects. I always kid people because I tell them that the most important part of my body when I went in-house in those days was the dialing finger. It was the ability to call other attorneys and get information because I was a litigator, I had done a lot of construction and real estate–related work, but there were a lot of areas that I didn’t know.
Here’s the best piece of advice I can give people who go into this area: You need to know the product. It is important for young lawyers as they’re learning their profession to know what they don’t know, and know when to ask the question. One of the great things I learned at Brooklyn Law School is issue spotting. You may not know the answer when you’re out there starting to practice, but if you can spot the issue, you’ll get the answer.
You are clearly passionate about your work. What kind of advice can you give to young people thinking about how to find that same type of passion?
Around our company we have a great passion for what we do, and we believe, especially being in the HR payroll world, that culture is a significant portion of what you’re selling, even to your customers. We win awards as one of the best companies in America to work for.
I always tell people that two things are very important with respect to making these kinds of career decisions: You’ve got to have a passion for the work, and you’ve got to have a passion for the people. At the end of the day you’re going to spend a lot of time working. If you’re going to learn your trade, if you’re going to be a good lawyer or you’re going to be a good businessperson, whatever you’re going to do, you need to develop a passion for it.