Any truly successful entrepreneur understands that people are the backbone of a great business. After starting three companies—and selling two of them—many have called me a serial entrepreneur. Like so many others with big ideas, I used to get caught up in building disruptive technology and making a difference, but over time I realized that it’s special people who turn a concept into something tangible and world changing. It’s how they collaborate, and the environment in which they work, that drive innovation. It’s culture.
When a company forms, you have anywhere from two to 10 people in a room working furiously, collaborating on the fly. If you’re lucky enough to find success, you grow to 25 employees, then 100, then 200—and you start opening offices in LA, London, and other places. With this hypergrowth—and the inevitable distribution of your workforce—comes the challenge of maintaining the culture that made your company successful in the first place.
My current venture, Blue Jeans Network, now stands at almost 300 employees and has a worldwide presence spanning from the states to Europe, Asia and Australia. With our growth, I realized it was necessary to make changes in order to maintain the values of transparency, open collaboration, and individual empowerment that I founded the company on.
I firmly believe that time is one of each worker’s biggest assets, and all too often, it’s given away to unproductive activities that distract from making a true impact on the company. A prime example is booking conference rooms for meetings. When meetings are scheduled in advance, they tend to involve too many people and take too much time. People show up late, conversations veer off topic, and meetings expand to fit the time allotted. That’s why, when we started the company, we didn’t allow people to book conference rooms. We found that when people didn’t know whether they’d have a room available, they would seek out the right people at their desks, or in the break room, and have five-minute conversations that would have otherwise been 30-minute meetings.
As we grew, we had more customer meetings and HR conversations that required privacy, so eventually it made sense to allow people to book in advance. Being flexible and changing best practices as you grow is also a very important lesson when thinking about culture and what works best for different sizes of organizations.
Another change occurred when many of my top sales reps who lived in San Francisco started wearing down from commuting south to our headquarters in Mountain View. I knew that these people, and others like them, would be crucial to our company’s future, so I opened an office in San Francisco. Not only were these employees better rested and happier without their commutes, but they helped us find new ways to leverage our own cloud-videoconferencing technology by turning hallway conversations (in the old world) into ad-hoc video meetings.
This sort of expansion was a natural change for us because we were able to leverage our own product to collaborate face-to-face and build relationships, but also maintain a global culture inclusive of remote employees. This is a challenge for many organizations. For culture to be effective and influential, it has to be pervasive, and we’ve found that video meetings—along with other cloud-based collaboration tools—have kept us unified on a global scale.
Other cultural aspects don’t have to change completely in growth, but rather must adapt. I believe in having an open working environment without offices or admins, for example. By removing the door and the gatekeepers, I feel you are more able to keep your finger on the pulse of the company, and you are also more accessible to your employees. Just as importantly, you control your own calendar and are able to align your meeting schedule to your company’s goals and the immediate needs of the day. Even today, none of my executives—myself included—have offices or admins. However, I did ultimately acknowledge that sometimes it’s necessary to have a quiet place to work uninterrupted, so we added “huddle rooms” to our offices that are un-reservable, so anyone can sneak away and find privacy when needed.
Probably the most challenging cultural pillar to uphold through hypergrowth is the concept of individual empowerment. I believe in having a flat organization where ideas, not titles, are valued, and where people that make a difference are recognized. While we have added experienced employees throughout the organization—which has added layers in some cases—we make sure to recognize the individual and not the manager. All of our executives are accessible to anybody within the company, and we have bi-weekly company meetings called “Gong Ceremonies” at which we update the company on recent events and recognize people who have done something special. Examples include support engineers who went above and beyond to help customers, sales reps who closed big deals, and a facilities manager who did a fantastic job organizing our office renovation.
When I take a holistic look back at the evolution of my company, what sticks out isn’t our product launches or press releases. It’s the beer our team shared when we celebrated our first customer, the late nights with the engineering team and the camaraderie at our annual sales kick-off. This reflection helps the entrepreneur in me to remember that it’s people and culture that make companies great.
Krish Ramakrishnan is the co-founder and CEO of Blue Jeans Network. He was previously an executive at Cisco Systems; CEO of Topspin Communications; and co-founder and president of Internet Junction.