Bullhorn CEO Talks Tech Unicorns, Voice Interfaces, & A.I. Hype

Last week, Xconomy published a story about how I jammed with Bullhorn CEO Art Papas in the music room at his software company’s downtown Boston headquarters. Hard-hitting journalism, I know.

But our meeting wasn’t just about rocking out to a Foo Fighters song. We also chatted about his 18-year-old company’s ups and downs, why it revamped its culture, and how he and other Bullhorn employees started an in-house rock band, Stampede.

Papas shared plenty of other pearls of tech wisdom that didn’t make it into that story: his thoughts on LinkedIn’s $26.2 billion sale to Microsoft, tech unicorns over the years, artificial intelligence hype, and the evolution of user interfaces. (Plus, more fun facts about Stampede.)

Here are more highlights of our conversation, edited for clarity:

Xconomy: How much did Vista Equity Partners pay to acquire Bullhorn in 2012?

Art Papas: I can just tell you it was a nine-figure deal. So, a good price, but we weren’t fully unicorn status at that point. But that was 2012, before being a unicorn was a hip thing to do. I don’t think it’s so cool anymore, actually. I think people have unicorn indigestion.

But whenever people get too frothy about valuations, it’s like—because we were born in that time—1999. If you were a tech company and focused on the Internet, the valuations were incredibly high. People couldn’t live up to the expectations. Then eventually there’s a reckoning there.

It’s funny because a lot of tech companies are [now] focused on being profitable. That’s how we’ve always run [Bullhorn]. It’s like, isn’t that the point of a business? You should have some money left over after you pay your employees and your vendors. You take that and you use it to make new investments, or you take it to make acquisitions, or you take it to pay back shareholders. It’s sort of a novel concept, profitability, and it’s funny how many entrepreneurs I meet with who are struggling to get profitable in their businesses. That should be a discipline. You aren’t really in business if you’re just incinerating capital every year.

But I get it, in some businesses you have to grow. It’s a market share play. But most businesses, I think there’s a balance between healthy growth and profits.

X: I know you are still mostly focused on the staffing and recruiting industry, but being a customer relationship management software company, that puts you in competition with the likes of Salesforce and Microsoft. Both of them were bidding on LinkedIn. Obviously Microsoft won. Did that outcome make you feel relief, or dread, or something else?

AP: I’ll give it to Microsoft. Those guys have done an amazing job changing the profile of that company under [Satya Nadella’s] leadership. I think the LinkedIn acquisition makes a ton of sense. They’ve said that they’re not really doing much to integrate the two businesses, short term. But LinkedIn is an important partner for Bullhorn. I think there’s no plans to change that relationship.

I think that [acquisition] was a smart move. I also think there’s value in having the data and the software together, but I think the nature of the way people work is changing pretty dramatically.

I was in a customer site just two weeks ago, and I was observing some of our users using the [Bullhorn] software. What I noticed is five years ago, they would’ve used their e-mail and Bullhorn, and gone back and forth. And now it’s like e-mail; Bullhorn; Slack; they’ve got their phone on their lap and they’re text messaging with customers; they’re using LinkedIn; they’re using … a customer portal that they kept jumping in and out of. There’s all this technology that they’re using. Oh, and also they were using WhatsApp. So not only were they using text with some clients, some clients use WhatsApp.

It was a really, almost mind-boggling experience. How do they keep it straight? And very clearly, the person I was watching, I watched them get confused a couple times on the phone.

And I think where it’s going is every company, whether it’s LinkedIn or Bullhorn or Salesforce, all of us are trying to understand how are humans going to interface with technology and data? And I don’t think the answer is going to be an app or a desktop. I see there’s going to be a trend toward a different type of user interface.

I feel like if you look at one of the hottest things right now it’s [Amazon’s] Alexa [devices] and Google Home. Siri, not so much—[Apple hasn’t] gotten that right. But I watch my kids talk to Alexa. My wife and I aren’t quite as into it, but they really are. They’ve really adapted to the voice user interface.

And I think the text user interface is coming back. … I think that we are going to get to a place where people are going to be able to talk or type in natural language and get response from the data.

People talk about chatbots. All that really is, is like, hey, let’s give users a text user interface because that’s the most frequent thing they’re doing is texting, or e-mailing, or using some user interface to enter data by text. [Bullhorn is] doing a lot with that, and we’re going to announce some stuff this June at our big customer conference, Engage.

X: How are you going to take advantage of that?

AP: It’s sort of the intersection of the mobile phone and artificial intelligence to do natural language processing. It’s pretty exciting times.

And the tools have gotten really, really affordable. It used to be if you wanted to talk about artificial intelligence, you had to go and get a data scientist team. And that’s not really the case anymore. The skill set required to do lightweight A.I. is much, much lower than it used to be.

X: That’s refreshing to hear you say lightweight to at least put it in context because I think a lot of companies will just say, “We’re doing A.I.” But there are varying degrees of it, right?

AP: Artificial intelligence is really just a buzzword. People say machine learning, which as a former programmer, unless your code is actually writing code, then it ain’t machine learning. I had code that was writing code for Bullhorn, we did that back, like, in 2002. That’s not new. But it’s also not really artificial intelligence. It’s a hack.

Most people that say they’re doing things around machine learning and A.I. are really just making rules engines. If the user says, “Hey Alexa,” then you respond. And if they mention Uber, they probably want to hail a ride. That’s not artificial intelligence, that’s just if/then statements.

I used to program, so I try to avoid claiming that we’re doing science-related experiments when we’re really just building user interfaces for customers to interact with data.

X: Is that a good thing that for all companies, there has to be an A.I. component? At least, that’s where it seems like it’s heading. I can’t tell if it is just branding, or if they really are going to be using it in useful ways.

AP: If you break it down, what’s going on is we had this big push to get all of this data on the Web. So now, customer data is all in one place and everybody can access it from any device. That was sort of the first wave of the power of the Internet.

The second, I think what’s going on now, is people are saying, “Let’s derive insights from the data and let’s derive patterns; and let’s use all of that data to make better-informed decisions for our customers.”

And the other thing is this natural language processing—let a user speak to the software in the way they normally would. You can use, call it artificial intelligence, but you can make it more efficient for the user. I think that is real. But it’s couched in these fake terms that are meant to mystify and make it seem like magic. But at the end of the day, it’s a real thing and it’s going to provide real value to customers and users, but it’s just over-hyped.

And I see the amount of venture dollars going to A.I. companies, and I say, this feels a lot like the Internet 1.0. There was a lot of hype, and a lot of venture dollars went into companies that actually didn’t do anything, and really didn’t have true product-market fit. They just had eyeballs. Or they had fleeting clicks on the Internet.

And the second wave of companies that survived and came out in 2001, 2002, ‘03, ‘04, ‘05—those companies were real. And that’s where we are with A.I. right now. There’s a bunch of hype, way too many dollars chasing too few practical applications, but there will be some fantastic companies that emerge from it and great innovations that will actually make life incrementally better.

X: Switching gears back to music… How many instruments do you play?

AP: I really only play guitar now. I can play piano, but I’m not really that good at it anymore. I played piano for 10 years, and then my uncle gave me a guitar. I stopped playing [piano] five years ago and just focused on playing guitar.

X: Who is your music idol?

AP: I love Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. He’s an incredible musician. Nirvana and the Foo Fighters? That’s pretty cool.

X: What’s the best song in Stampede’s repertoire?

AP: It depends who you ask. We have a couple originals, and Matt [Fischer] and I love those. [Fischer is Bullhorn’s president and chief technology officer. He’s also Stampede’s lead singer and plays rhythm guitar and keyboards in the band. Papas plays lead guitar.—Eds.]

But people love covers. People have said that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” [by U2] is pretty good. “Whole Lotta Love” [by Led Zeppelin] is pretty good. I love “Everlong” [by Foo Fighters]. We always open with “Everlong.”

X: What’s the guilty pleasure song in the set list?

AP: For me it’s “Alive” by Pearl Jam because the [guitar] solo is like two minutes.

X: Do you and Matt write Stampede’s original songs?

AP: Yeah, we have very different styles. He’s heavily Billy Joel-influenced, and then I’m more Led Zeppelin and Foo Fighters-influenced. We both love the Foo Fighters.

I’ll write a song and then he’ll say we’ve got to change this or that, it’s too slow, let’s make it up-tempo. And then he’ll write a song and I’ll be like, that’s too drippy, we’ve got to add a riff that really makes it kind of drive. If you listen to the songs, you can say, oh that one’s a Matt one because it’s more melodic, or that one’s an Art one. It’s cool.

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