Even before you hire your first employee, you need a system in place to pay them. But paying an employee isn’t as simple as it sounds. In addition to ensuring paychecks are correct and timely, you’re also required to do the following:


  • Have documentation verifying your employees’ qualifications to work in the U.S.
  • Withhold payroll taxes from their paychecks during each pay cycle
  • Register to do business in each state where your employees reside
  • File employment tax forms


If this sounds like a lot—it is. Mishaps or oversights in any of these areas could create trouble for you with future fundraising and acquisition deals, and with state and federal governments; in fact, one in three small business owners are penalized by the IRS for payroll errors each year.


The stakes are high when it comes to selecting the best payroll software for your startup, especially when there are a multitude of choices. There’s no single best payroll provider for all companies, and with that in mind, we’ve compared four of the most popular payroll services for startups: Gusto, Justworks, TriNet, and Rippling. Read on to discover how they compare in terms of structure, features, and price.


Payroll For Startups: What’s the difference between a payroll service provider and a PEO?

Before you can understand the differences between Gusto, Justworks, TriNet, and Rippling, it’s important to understand one foundational difference related to companies that provide online payroll services: Some (like Gusto) are HR service providers while others (JustWorks, TriNet, and Rippling) are considered professional employer organizations, or PEOs.

  • A payroll service provider handles all aspects of payroll to ensure employees are paid accurately and on time. Payroll service providers should automatically process payroll calculations, tax statements, and year-end taxes; they can also help employers meet filing deadlines and deposit requirements, and streamline business operations. Payroll service providers vary in terms of their offerings—some simply run payroll while others, like Gusto, offer a full-service platform. In addition, some full-service payroll platforms offer assistance with employee benefits, insurance, hiring and onboarding, and human resources administration.

See: 11 Key Features of Payroll Services for Startups


  • A professional employer organization (PEO) provides comprehensive HR solutions for small and mid-size businesses, of which payroll is one part. In addition to payroll processing, PEOs offer services that include benefits selection and administration, tax administration, and regulatory compliance assistance. For PEOs, payroll processing is just one part of managing a company’s entire HR ecosystem. Importantly, PEOs and their clients sign a co-employment agreement in which both the PEO and client company have an employment relationship with the client’s employees—and thus shared liability and responsibility for employment law compliance.


4 Best Payroll Services For Startups: Pros & Cons

1. Gusto

Calling itself “The People Platform,” Gusto is a payroll provider that serves more than 100,000 U.S. businesses. In addition to payroll, Gusto’s automated platform offers the capability to assist with benefits and HR tasks like time tracking, hiring and onboarding. 


Pros

  • The platform is easy to set up and offers a modern, intuitive, user-friendly interface. At Zeni, about two-thirds of our customers use Gusto.
  • Companies of any size can use the platform—there is no minimum number of employees required, making it ideal for startups and small businesses. Conversely, PEOs require at least seven employees to sign on. 
  • It is the lowest-priced startup payroll system in this comparison, beginning at just $19 per month for unlimited payrolls.


Cons

  • Gusto requires employers to handle registering their employees in multiple states, which can be a complicated process and puts the onus of ensuring your business is compliant with regulations on the employer. If you have employees working outside the state where your business operates, you’ll need to research and understand that state’s legislation and then carry out the necessary steps for proper registration.
  • As strictly a payroll service provider, it does not offer shared liability for employment law compliance. 


2. Justworks

Justworks is a PEO.  It offers a Basic plan and a Plus plan; Basic pricing begins at $49/month for companies with 49 or fewer employees and decreases as the number of employees increases. Payroll-specific features include:

  • Payroll for salaried and hourly employees
  • Off-cycle payments
  • Vendor and independent contractor payments
  • Employer payroll tax filing
  • W-2 and 1099 filings
  • Unemployment insurance filings

Pros 

  • The platform makes it easy and affordable to pay contractors; clients don’t incur a per-employee cost. 
  • Customer service is comprehensive and reliable; it earns high marks from users. 
  • Compared to TriNet, it offers lower rates for insurance options in certain parts of the country. However, this decision comes down to your company’s census. We recommend our clients consider both options because their pricing structures are similar (though presented differently). 
  • The platform is stable and intuitive; notifications and emails, in particular, are user-friendly. 


Cons

  • As with other PEOs, Justworks is more expensive than a basic payroll provider. If you need only a product for payroll processing, a PEO may offer more than you need (and cost more). 


3. TriNet

TriNet is another PEO option we recommend for startups that want the PEO-specific features in addition to payroll services. You can learn more about TriNet’s specific payroll services here.  Depending on the location of your business, TriNet’s pricing may be the most competitive. Keep in mind that TriNet and Justworks offer similar benefits. Between these two reliable and feature-rich platforms, it boils down to comparing the price point for each platform. 


Pros

  • Like Justworks, TriNet’s customer service is comprehensive and reliable; users give it high marks. 
  • The platform is reliable and easy to navigate. 


Cons

  • TriNet charges extra to pay contractors, which could be a detriment for startups. At Zeni, if we have clients who partner with TriNet, we choose not to pay through TriNet so our clients don’t incur charges. 
  • Despite a recent UX overhaul that modernized the platform, certain features like email notifications are still copy-heavy and may feel overwhelming. However, in our opinion, TriNet’s content is more accurate and clear than other payroll providers, even if TriNet doesn’t “feel” modern.


4. Rippling

Rippling is a newer contender in the space; you can view payroll processing features here. Pricing starts at $8 per month per user. With its recently launched PEO, Rippling helps employers manage your employees' payroll, benefits, devices, apps, and more from one place.


Pros

  • The platform is attractive and easy to set up. 
  • It offers full-scale payroll processing in addition to PEO solutions.
  • The platform’s unique combination of HR & IT features—things like automatically sending app invites to new employees during the onboarding process—are particularly appealing to startups. While there does appear to be some bugs in the system currently, we think Rippling may be one to watch for the future.


Cons

  • Customer support is lacking.
  • Problematic issues have plagued payroll systems and API management. 
  • Although it feels modern and has a user-friendly look, Rippling falls short in terms of stability, and may not be the best payroll option right now. 



How do you choose between a payroll service provider and a PEO?

Aside from cost, consider the following factors to help you decide between a payroll service provider and a PEO:


  • Do you have enough employees to support a PEO partnership? PEOs require a minimum number of employees. To make this decision, first assess how quickly you’re going to grow, and then think about where you’re going to grow. If you plan to hire employees in multiple states, a PEO is a wise idea.
  • Do you need to offer benefits? PEOs provide benefits at scale for their clients’ employees; payroll providers do not. If competitive benefits are a consideration for your organization, you will be better off partnering with a PEO. 
  • Do you only need payroll services? If so, a solution like Gusto is your best option. If you would like the additional value provided by a PEO, compare features and costs before you make a decision. 


Payroll Software Solutions: A Head-To-Head Comparison

 

Gusto

Justworks

TriNet

Rippling

General

Pricing

1-2 employees: $19/month base fee + $6/month/employee 


Core plan: $39/month base fee + $6/month/employee


Complete plan: $39/month base fee + $12/month/employee


Concierge plan: $149/month base fee + $12/month/employee

Less than 25 employees: $49/month fee

Basic plan for 25-99 employees:  $44/month/employee


Plus plan

(Basic + Access to Medical, Dental, and Vision) for 25-99 employees: 

$89/month/employee

Exact pricing not stated on website

Begins at $8/month/user. For companies with less than 25 employees, an additional $35/month base fee is applied.


Clients build their own package, thus prices are  customized.  

Product Type

Payroll software only

PEO

PEO

Payroll software or PEO

Coemployer

Payroll 

Direct Deposits

Paper Checks

Employer Tax & Compliance

Automatic Payroll Tax Calculation

Automatic Tax Filing

Automatic Tax Payment

Issue Employee W-2s

Contractor Payments/1099s

$6/contractor/month, includes direct deposit and unlimited payments

Included in fee

Yes, but prices are unclear

Additional $8/employee/month 

Compliance Support

Some

Included

Included

Included in PEO

Benefits

Benefits Offered

  • Medical 
  • Dental 
  • Vision 
  • Health reimbursement 
  • HSAs & FSAs
  • Workers’ compensation
  • PTO tracking
  • 401(k)
  • HR Support
  • Medical
  • Dental
  • Vision
  • HSAs & FSAs
  • Life
  • Disability
  • Workers’ compensation
  • PTO tracking
  • 401(k)
  • Commuter benefits
  • Additional voluntary benefits
  • HR Support
  • Medical 
  • Dental 
  • Vision 
  • HSAs & FSAs
  • Life
  • Disability
  • Workers’ compensation
  • PTO tracking
  • 401(k)
  • Commuter benefits
  • Marketplace discounts
  • Additional voluntary benefits
  • Limited HR Support
  • Medical 
  • Dental 
  • Vision 
  • HSAs & FSAs
  • Life
  • Disability
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Commuter benefits
  • PTO tracking
  • 401(K)
  • Applicant tracking
  • IT Management

Automatic Benefits Deductions

Automatic Benefits Payment


Gusto prepares a statement for the employer outlining what they owe to the carrier. Employer must make benefits payment on their own.

Accessibility & Customer Support

Employer Web Portal

Employee Self-Service Portal


Employees can:

  • View pay stubs 
  • Access W-2 forms
  • Adjust employee information


Employees can:

  • View pay stubs 
  • Access W-2 forms
  • Adjust employee information
  • See performance reviews
  • Request time off


Employees can:

  • View pay stubs
  • Access W-2 forms
  • Make changes to W-4s
  • Enroll in benefits
  • Update direct deposit info
  • Adjust employee information
  • Request time off 


Employees can:

  • Access pay stubs
  • Access W-2 forms
  • Adjust employee information
  • Request time off

Mobile App


iOS and Android


Currently in development 


iOS and Android


iOS and Android

Customer Service

Phone support available Monday-Friday during the following hours, based on plan type:

  • Core and Complete: 8am - 3pm PT 
  • Concierge: 8am - 4pm PT 
  • VIP Partner: 8am - 3pm PT

Phone:

800-936-0383


Email:

support@gusto.com 


Chat support available via web portal.

24/7 support by phone, email, chat, Slack, or SMS.


Phone: 888-534-1711


Email:

support@justworks.com 


Chat support available via the Justworks website and by logging into their accounts.

Support available

6 a.m. - 12 a.m. EST, Monday - Friday.


Phone:

800-638-0461


Email: 

employees@trinet.com


Chat support available via the TriNet website and by logging into their accounts. 

Support available for Rippling administrators by logging into their accounts. 


Employees at companies that use Rippling, must contact their company's Rippling administrator for questions and support.

Accounting Software Integrations


FreshBooks, Xero, QuickBooks, Aplos, ZipBooks, and more


Xero, QuickBooks, and more


Xero, QuickBooks, Sage Intacct and more


QuickBooks, NetSuite, and more

Zeni Compatible

No matter which payroll provider you use, Zeni can help you manage them.  

Whether you choose to partner with a payroll service provider or a PEO, Zeni can help seamlessly orchestrate the payroll needs of your business. With our Payroll Manager service, we offer payroll coordination between you and your online payroll solution: registration in various states; initial follow-up, advising, and sending reminders to employees to complete compliance forms; and preparing other required documents and banking information (like I-9s, W4s, and more). 


Zeni is an all-in-one finance automation platform for startups that takes care of all your finance functions, from daily bookkeeping to taxes to real-time reporting to payroll management. Our experienced team of accountants, tax advisors, and CFOs know the world of startup finance inside and out, so we’ve seen the challenges many founders and business owners face and can provide expert guidance for every scenario. If Zeni sounds like the right fit for your business, get in touch with our team to learn more.

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