How Shuo Wang Is Helping Turbocharge HR Unicorn Deel’s Growth

   2024-05-30 04:05

Shuo Wang moved to the U.S. as a teenager and sold scooters at flea markets on weekends. Now the cofounder and chief revenue officer of human resources software unicorn Deel is worth an estimated $850 million.

By Phoebe Liu and Kenrick Cai, Forbes Staff


Standing center stage in a lime dress and white sneakers, Shuo Wang presses a microphone to her mouth with one hand and gestures assuredly with the other. Speaking at a conference in San Francisco, the Deel cofounder and chief revenue officer is chronicling the growth of her HR software company in an unconventional way: by taking the audience through what she sees as the list of failures in Deel’s history, starting with its earliest days as part of startup incubator Y Combinator 2019.

In Wang’s 2022 talk, titled “How Everything Breaks in Hypergrowth,” she listed all the places where things went awry—scaling the wrong parts of the company at the wrong times, burnout, lags in features and missing out on sales opportunities—and how she helped Deel change course to address them. “I tend to look forward instead of sideways.”



The company had challenges from the outset that she and her cofounder tackled. “During our time at Y Combinator, everyone loved the idea, but everyone hated the product,” Wang, 35, said at the conference. Their idea was software to make it easier to pay international workers, but what they were proposing was too complicated, people told them. So she and Deel cofounder and CEO Alex Bouaziz went back to the drawing board, and spent the next six weeks interviewing almost all 200 companies also at YC at the time to get feedback on how to improve their product.

Wang’s adaptability, along with her relentless execution and extreme focus, has helped catapult Deel past $500 million in annual recurring revenue, it announced this March, less than five years after its founding. Deel says it has been profitable since September 2022; it wrapped up its last fundraising in April 2022 at a valuation of $12 billion. Based on more recent secondary market transactions, Forbes now estimates it to be worth $7 billion. That’s still more than enough for Wang to debut on Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women, with a stake estimated to be worth $850 million. Wang, through a Deel spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. But Forbes spoke to business partners, investors and mentors to piece together the story of Wang, who’s raced ten-plus-mile Tough Mudder obstacle courses and whose social media bio reads “emotionally stable, mentally healthy, physically active” followed by a winking emoji.

“I’m super competitive, and everything needs to be perfect,” Wang said at the 2022 conference. Some of that attitude comes from being a chief revenue officer with a technical background. A mechanical engineer by training, she sees sales as “a science, not an art. … We should run the sales team as an engineering project,” she explained. Still, Wang, who works from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days, with a gym break before dinner, told Forbes in 2023 that her most defining trait is how she approaches everything with optimism. “I think everything will be good.”


After moving from Northeast China to Baltimore at age 16, Wang’s first sales job was selling scooters at flea markets on weekends, helping with her single mother’s motorcycle and scooter import-export business—and driving the occasional forklift to transport the vehicles.

“That was my first sales experience,” Wang told Forbes in 2023. “I [needed] to be able to learn how to sell so that I [could] help my mom.” She says her mom’s experience as an entrepreneur inspired her to build her own company. Selling something without being able to speak English well at that point taught her that having a unique product matters a lot. If “all the other people are selling fruits, vegetables or food,” she told Forbes, “and then we sell … golf carts and ATVs,” then that seller would have the advantage.

She went on to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, focusing on robotics design. Wang’s senior thesis, funded by DARPA (a unit of the U.S. Dept. of Defense), used robotic devices to study ankle muscle fatigue. Her advisor, Hyunglae Lee, lauded Wang as “exceptionally hard-working,” able to “quickly master new skills and knowledge” and “always ready to assist her fellow lab members.”

Wang ended up staying another year at MIT for the master’s program. That’s when she met two of her future cofounders: first Pierre Bi and then later Bouaziz. Around that time, she also worked at MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

While her big success comes from working with Bouaziz, it was actually Bi and Wang who “hit it off instantly, discussing our backgrounds.” Both were international students who had a parent who started their own business, Bi recalls. “Her mom, bringing her to the States, then fighting through making a living starting and building their life in the U.S., really resonated with me.”

In 2015, Wang dropped out of graduate school and applied her robotics expertise to air purification company Aeris, which she cofounded with Bi, who was CEO. In Aeris’ early days, Wang helped the founding team connect with investors, including Tencent cofounder Vic Lee, according to Bi. “She’s had this very good grasp of presenting her deep technical knowledge to less tech-savvy people and getting them excited to help them connect with this world,” Bi said. “She has the knowledge and network to get access to the right people at the right time.”

Wang ended up moving back to China for three years to be chief technology officer of Aeris, which had locations in Beijing and Zurich. As 2019 approached, Bi started to feel that Aeris’ company potential was limited. Somewhere along the way, Bi says he ended up reconnecting Bouaziz with Wang when Bouaziz, who had invested in Aeris, visited its Beijing branch. In 2019, Wang left and moved back to the U.S. to start Deel with Bouaziz; Bi was an anchor investor in Deel. Two years later, Aeris sold itself to iRobot for approximately $100 million.


Bouaziz and Wang frequently cite their international backgrounds as key to Deel’s success. Bouaziz grew up in Paris and went to college in Tel Aviv before heading to MIT for graduate school. He was back in Tel Aviv when starting Deel. After their own frustrations at their previous companies, they wanted to build something to make it easier to hire and pay employees in other countries without having to worry about each country’s individual compliance regulations.

“The future of work is remote,” Wang said at a fintech conference in 2019, right after Deel launched and a year before the pandemic mainstreamed remote work. She went on to describe the problem that led to Deel with an analogy comparing language barriers to cross-border payments. “You’re trying to order dinner but you look at the menu, and you have to order in a different language, but no one will help you. Then the food is late and cold.”

By the time Deel had completed the YC program in 2019, it had landed on a product that resonated with customers and quickly became known for prioritizing speed.

Indeed, the company frequently invokes the notion of “Deel speed,” or building and executing faster than others, including pre-existing competitors like Papaya Global (last valued at $3.7 billion), founded in 2016 with a playbook Deel initially sought to emulate. Deel says it now has more than 25,000 customers, from small startups that it met at YC to large enterprises like Boston Consulting Group. All of this has led to its blistering growth: $4 million in annual recurring revenues in 2020, $54 million in 2021, $100 million in 2022 and $500 million as of March 2024.

Throughout Deel’s existence, Wang also wasn’t afraid of “working smaller jobs,” which helped keep the company running as it adjusted to rapid growth, according to investor Brianne Kimmel who invested in Deel through her firm Worklife and says Wang is the founder who most inspires her.

“I would be on Intercom 24/7, even during the night time when I was asleep, I would dream about Intercom,” Wang said at the 2022 conference of her earlier days at Deel, referring to the software Deel used for customer support requests. She also personally interviewed the first 400 Deel employees, “just to make sure the culture is aligned.”

“A lot of investors have previously thought that Covid really accelerated their business, or that there was a bit of timing and a bit of luck,” says Kimmel. “I’ve actually seen behind the scenes, there’s also just raw execution and very much brute force to get the company where it is today.”

One byproduct of Deel’s growth-at-all-costs mindset: regulatory issues, including an open letter from Rep. Adam Schiff (D., California) and five other House members alleging that Deel was “misclassifying employees as independent contractors on purpose to increase their profitability and growth – at the expense of workers’ pay, benefits, and their right to organize.” CEO Bouzaziz’s trip to Washington D.C. last fall, packed with meetings to change regulators’ minds, seems to have helped. “Our team had very productive staff-level meetings with Deel. Separately, the Congressman had a good meeting with the CEO when he visited DC that helped clear up the issues we raised in our letter,” a Schiff spokesperson wrote at the time in an email to Forbes.

As Deel continues to grow, it’s aiming to crack a broader and more global segment of the HR software market, especially with recent acquisitions. In 2022, Deel bought Asia-Pacific-based payroll firm PayGroup for an estimated $80 million. In March, Deel announced its purchase of payroll company PaySpace—which operates across Africa and the Middle East, areas in which Deel hopes to expand further.

Aaron Harris, a former YC partner and cofounder of financial advisory firm Magid & Company, cited the trust between the founders, and the way they are able to work mostly independently, as the reason Deel has grown so quickly and sustainably: “There’s just this great back-and-forth ping-ponging energy between them. They feed off each other’s ideas and trust each other to a degree that is unusual, even between the best founders.”

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