My Employees Helped Me Build a Billion-Dollar Tech Company
By: Stu Sjouwerman
Founder and CEO, KnowBe4
Here’s an inside glimpse at our workplace culture.
As far as backstory, the title really says it all. I’m extremely proud of the success I’ve had as an entrepreneur and CEO of KnowBe4, but I certainly never could have achieved that success on my own; it’s been a team effort from day one.
So how do you get the right people to stick around in the challenging environment of a startup and see the process through? The first thing to understand is that it’s not necessarily about money. A competitive salary and benefits package is useful in attracting good candidates, but less so in terms of retaining them. Who employees work with — and who they work for — rank much higher on the list of contributors to job satisfaction.
The interactions these people have, their mutual expectations of one another and the level of accountability between them across all levels of an organization are some major factors in that somewhat ambiguous “thing” that we refer to as corporate culture.
While there’s no single best example of what a healthy corporate culture looks like, I think it’s worth sharing what has worked for our company, and why I think it can probably work for yours, too.
Treat Employees as Grownups
This might seem obvious or, depending on how many HR meetings you’ve sat in on, even tired. But our practice is to view and treat every employee as an intrinsically valuable individual, not just a contributor. When you start from this premise, there are so many opportunities for team members to help one another grow and find fulfillment in work, which greatly benefits the company in terms of employee engagement and productivity.
No job is “just a job,” after all; where you work and what you do is a significant aspect of your life at any given point in time, whether it’s a culmination of effort expended over decades, or a small stepping stone to where you want to be later.
That’s why it’s so important to take it beyond motivational posters or occasional pep talks. To that end, we clearly outline paths to promotion and employ a dedicated career coach to work with employees internally. We also have Life Coach and an Employee Assistance Program available for all our employees who’ve been with us for 90 days.
More fundamentally, we’ve built our culture, and business, on the foundation of respect. Our policy is that everyone gives it and everyone gets it, which has helped immensely in keeping the workplace a fun, positive place to spend time in.
Keep Communication Direct and Relevant
Live communication, not email, is how we resolve our issues. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that there’s just too much opportunity for a thread of text-only messages to foster misunderstanding and devolve into anger and pettiness. Especially when the original problem could have been easily solved with a quick face-to-face conversation.
In support of this, we also use a “no-door” policy, as well as open floor plans, keeping everyone as accessible to everyone else as much as possible.
Along with how we talk about things, what we talk about also has a big impact on productivity and team spirit. Cohesion is the goal, so we ask employees to leave any conversation about religion or politics (including “office politics”) outside of work.
The “no-door” policy plays a part here, but we also try to maximize transparency in less tangible ways. Information that we actively inform every member of our organization about includes:
- All aspects of corporate policy.
- Any and all plans for future expansion.
- Expectations for each job role, including specifically tracked statistics, and whether those are being met.
We also conduct a daily stand-up meeting to provide all staff members with a quick update about the company. On the more lighthearted side, I also encourage employees to participate in a regular AMA (Ask Me Anything) with me, the CEO.
This hyper-transparent environment doesn’t just make people feel more accountable. It also gives them confidence about their performance, their role and their value to the overall organization.
Remember to Have Fun
By its nature, the work we do is challenging. The last thing I’d want my employees to feel is that it’s also boring or oppressive. Most of us spend a good deal of time at work, and that shouldn’t be time that we look back on with disdain. I firmly believe that good, old-fashioned fun is the right ingredient in preventing that.
To that end, we run a constant flow of games and contests in the workplace and even have an Internal Games Commissioner to manage. Far from getting in the way of work, this actually makes us more efficient, as we’ve gotten good at finding ways to gamify production metrics and implement fun, performance-based rewards.
Also, a perpetual employee favorite among our company policies is the Florida dress code: If you will not get arrested on your way to work, you’re good!
There are many things, small and large, that go into creating a sustainable corporate culture — certainly more than just these four. But in my experience, employees who feel valued (as people, not placeholders), listened to (not just heard) and appreciated (not just compensated) are the ones who will consistently rise to the challenges that their role presents.
Ultimately, everyone wants to succeed, and success in the workplace is part of that. If, as an employer, you’re there to help them succeed on a continual basis, and not just profit off their efforts, then you’ll quickly find yourself surrounded by the kind of people who will want to help you, and your business, succeed as well.