Why this enterprise software CEO recruits from fashion schools

September 16, 2014, 1:46 PM UTC
New man: Infor CEO Charles Phillips, at his New York City headquarters.
Courtesy: Mackenzie Stroh

Infor, the enterprise apps developer fronted by Oracle alumnus and former analyst Charles Phillips, has so far made cloud converts out of more than 73,000 customers in 200-plus countries—including the likes of Boeing, Ferrari, and Siemens. It has a barrage of releases in store this week including one focused squarely on rival NetSuite and the first product built ground-up using its “beautiful software” philosophy.

Headlining its annual customer conference is CloudSuite Business, an all-in-one ERP system for midmarket companies combining financial, human resources, supply chain, product, sales and customer relationship features. Already rely on NetSuite for this? Info will offer pricing incentives to switch.

“Whatever you’re paying NetSuite, reduce that by about 25%, we’ll migrate you over,” Phillips told me. One advantage it will tout: Infor covers reporting for close to 100 countries, so if you’re global it’s got an edge.

For its other big launch, CloudSuite Financials, Infor hired PriceWaterhouse to collect the 100 biggest complaints about existing financial systems and then methodically addressed them. Infor will offer a $55,000 flat-fee data migration service to bring companies on board. (There will be industry-specific templates, but you can’t customize.)

Notably, Financials was developed with Infor’s 100-person Hook & Loop internal design agency—which Phillips has positioned as a big differentiator for Infor. Here’s more perspective from Phillips, edited for length and clarity.

Is this the first product where Hook & Loop’s influence can be felt?

It’s not the first, but it is a new application that they got in on the ground floor to help create. They are a differentiator for us: we’re the only software company to try this approach to separate user experience design from the application. We have different people who are good in that discipline, who didn’t come from enterprise software, who really understand aesthetics and beauty and came from a different background. The second thing is you need fresh eyes. Not only did they not come from our industry, they tend to be the 20-somethings that think about design differently. The fact that they don’t know about enterprise software is actually good because they ask very simple questions about why things work the way they do and about why it can’t be easier.

How do you look for new hires?

That was one reason we located this in New York City. Finding people who understand and care about design is hard to do, and most of us just don’t have that eye or taste. But in New York, there’s a lot of people who care about design and fashion. We started hiring out of fashion schools, architecture schools, agencies. … All these schools now have a tech track, so they start picking up technical skills and get interested in it. That’s the perfect profile. Call them “left-brained creatives.”

What about working with the schools?

The universities here are so hungry for tech presence, they’ve all been in here. We’re starting an internship program with five universities, giving them our software, training their professors and running a couple-hundred interns through here a year. It helps everybody.

How do you fund that?

We’re funding most of it to get it started. Now, we’ve hired a university relations person from Microsoft. What we’re trying to next is scale it beyond New York and create virtual internships. Obviously, we train people online all the time. We can do that with interns all over the world. It’s an investment you have to make in people.

How does this team interface with the developers?

That’s, frankly, a challenge. Brilliant as they are, they’re not the easiest people to manage sometimes so we had to figure out a way to build the right culture and find the right leader to work with the other engineers. The initial reaction was, ‘Why do we need this team in New York, we can do our own [user interfaces].’ I told the Hook & Look guys they had to show us great UI designs, stunning, and earn their way. And they did. Then [the scenario] flipped. Now everybody wants to work with them.

Connected is an interview series with leaders of innovative organizations. Conversations are condensed and edited.