Land, Expand and Rebrand:

Transforming ZenPayroll Into the Zenefits Killer with Gusto

Challenge + Strategy

Gusto today provides a full suite of cloud-based payroll, benefits and HR solutions for more than 40,000 companies nationwide. When Mission North began working with Gusto in 2015, the company was then called ZenPayroll and was known as a scrappy startup offering an easy-to-use, beautifully designed payroll solution that had amassed an impassioned customer base of small-to-mid-sized business owners.

Mission North’s focus for the first six months was on drawing more attention to ZenPayroll’s disruption of the traditional payroll services market and building on its media darling status as a San Francisco startup to watch. Behind closed doors, however, company management and the Mission North team were collaborating on a much more ambitious strategy — a re-launch of the company with an expanded product line that would add benefits administration and worker’s compensation services to the payroll offering.

Simultaneously, the company would be renamed to break away from the pack of other “zen” named startups and better align the brand with the company roadmap beyond payroll. The new Gusto would be going head-to-head with more established companies like Zenefits. Our challenge was to build momentum and credibility as we moved into the benefits space, while ensuring the company remained trusted and beloved by its thousands of SMB customers.


The benefits space is competitive, and it was important for Gusto to play to its strengths: its “people-first” approach, its love of its customers, its deliberate business plan and company culture. The rebrand had to feel like a natural evolution of the company’s trajectory. The desire to solve major pain points for SMBs is what led the founders to build a payroll company, so the addition of benefits was always the intended the next step.

Mission North leveraged the three founders to tell the story, each from a unique angle — the corporate vision, the technology roadmap and the company’s passion for its customers. To prepare for questions around Zenefits, Mission North developed detailed messaging around the differences between the two companies, their products and their approach to customer service. We also used more controversial, counterintuitive messaging that HR as a business function needed to be rethought because “humans are not resources’ to be used and discarded like commodities.

Mission North also guided the company to extend the story beyond the product launch itself, sharing intimate details with First Round Capital’s blog, First Round Review, to humanize the process and serve as a guide for other company’s rebranding efforts. Key to our messaging was that this was not a pivot, but rather another logical step in fulfilling the original vision of the company.

A sampling of media results from this approach includes:

  • In-depth features in 14 unique publications, including Fortune, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch and Business Insider
  • Customer commentary with a small business focus in publications like Inc. and Entrepreneur
  • News syndicated in 60+ outlets and featured on a variety of sites, including Hacker News, Product Hunt, and Wall Street Journal’s The Daily Startup
  • The news acted as a catalyst for follow-up in-person meetings, broadcast segments and closer relationships with top-tier media

Execution + Results

Gusto emerged from the rebrand as the company disrupting the disruptor, Zenefits. Over the coming months, the company continued to eclipse its competitors in terms of reputation and coverage. Additionally, this news propelled CEO Josh Reeves to be viewed as an industry expert on corporate culture, the SMB market and the future of work. Coverage quality shifted from focus on their investor pedigree to stories about their company momentum, and the volume of coverage more than doubled.

Gusto Gusto provides payroll, benefits and HR to modern companies.

Gusto Gusto provides payroll, benefits and HR to modern companies.

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