Archives for August 2017

August 20, 2017 - No Comments!

Startup Culture: Are you a family, sports team or an army unit?

by Rajiv Jayaraman, Founder - CEO, KNOLSKAPE

Culture is serious business. Peter Drucker, in fact, has famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". I personally think that this quote is a bit on the conservative side. In reality, culture can eat strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner! In this post, I will focus on the challenges of scaling culture in a growing startup and the different types of startup cultures that you will come across.

Before we delve deeper into culture and its various nuances, let's get to the same page on some definitions. I can't help but notice that a lot of startups equate culture with perks. We have a ping-pong table, they say. (As an aside, did you know about the correlation between the sales of ping-pong tables and startup funding. Here you go). Some of them talk about free lunch or a work-vacation. Others create ornate descriptions of their culture and values on their walls. While these are great artifacts of culture, we really need to look deeper for the real deal.

Jeff Lawson of Twilio nails it when he says, “Culture is the collection of people making decisions every day. Thousands of decisions are made every day. Culture is how you, as say a leader of the company, are confident that every one of those decisions is the right one.” For this to happen, the artifacts, values and the underlying assumptions have to be well understood across the board and acted upon on a daily basis.

I double-hat as the CEO and Chief People Office at KNOLSKAPE and I can tell you that we obsess a great deal about our culture and core values. We seek to create a wow experience for our learners and knollies (that's what we call ourselves) are design thinkers (and doers). Every interviewer carefully evaluates the "knolly" factor of the interviewee. Every month, we have awards aligned to our core values. We are starting to roll out performance conversations around our core values as well.

Scaling culture past the Dunbar number
As we pace furiously towards the 150 headcount mark, I am mindful, more than ever before, of the need to cascade our values and strengthen our culture. 150, after all, happens to be a magic number in social sciences. It is called the "Dunbar number", named after the British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who specialized in primate behavior. His seminal work revolved around the measurement of the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. This limit happens to be 150.

150 is the number beyond which the senior leadership team's bandwidth becomes severely restricted to make deep personal connects. The passion that created and sustained the organization, therefore, will not be felt by the new joiners first hand.

I do believe that a lot of organizations become run-of-the-mill, from a culture standpoint, if they don't handle the transition well around the 150 mark. Startups will need legions of leaders and managers at various levels to carry the torch forward. The leadership team will also need to communicate through non-personal means very often to re-iterate the core message and make time, whenever possible, to make personal connects with team members from various parts of the organization. Most importantly, leaders must enable every single person in the organization to know what the right decisions are and act accordingly. As they say, culture is what remains when the leader steps out of the room.

Types of Startup Cultures
As I was reading through the warm welcome email that we send to knewllies (new Knollies), I noticed the tremendous consistency in the message sent by our team members. "Welcome to the KNOLSKAPE family", most of us say.

We are extremely proud of the culture we have built - one that is predicated on respect and care. Our intent has always been to create a safe environment for knollies, where they can aspire to be the best versions of themselves. So 'family' does seem to fit the description well. We are the "Incredibles", who perform astonishing feats, building on each others' strengths.

The welcome email chain got me thinking though - how do other startups characterize their cultures? My search took me back to the famous Netflix culture deck. The deck categorically says "We are team, not a family. We are a pro-sports team, not a kids recreational team".

Later, I happened to listen to a riveting TEDx talk delivered by Capt. Raghu Raman. In a talk that I'd rate as one of the best I've heard in recent times, he talks about the similarities between the startup world and the army. He presents a framework that works in the army, one that can work equally well in startups.

So which startup culture is right for you? Of course, it depends. If there is a contribution from the field of management to humanity, it is this answer - it depends 🙂 What does it depend on? It depends on your goal and how you are trying to achieve it. Let's now look at the 3 cultures closely.

Startup as a family 


In this culture, the working environment is warm and friendly. Team members strive to create bonds with others and share a lot in common, and in many ways, it’s similar to a large family. Startup leaders in this setup often play the role of mentors or coaches. There is a great deal of involvement and employee engagement. The organization cares deeply about employees and organizational success is often defined in terms of addressing the needs of the clients and caring for the people along with numbers.
What to watch out for?  Potential trade-offs between loyalty and performance, slow decision making

Startup as a sports team

This is a results oriented organization that focuses on getting things done. People are competitive and driven by goals. Leaders drive superior results by setting high expectations and by acting as hard drivers, producers, and agent provocateurs at the same time. Winning is what binds the organization together. Success is defined through competitive edge and market share, along with results.
What to watch out for? Potential lack of collaboration due to superstar syndrome, poor people development practices

Startups as an army unit

This organization has a structured work environment. Process orientation and procedures drive the organizational culture. Leaders set the tone through their efficiency-driven decision making. The organization is deeply committed to the mission and marches in synchronized steps towards the goal. Success in such an organization is looked at through the lens of stability, long-term orientation along with results.
What to watch out for? Poor empowerment, Lack of creativity

I'd love to hear from you on which of these 3 best describes your startup. How are you managing the strengths and weaknesses of your startup culture? What are you doing / have done to scale your culture past the Dunbar number?

Whichever startup culture you pick, remember, "Customers will never love a company until its employees love it first" [Simon Sinek].

August 11, 2017 - No Comments!

6 Startup Leadership Lessons From a Gym

by Rajiv Jayaraman, Founder - CEO, KNOLSKAPE

Startup leaders are primarily in the business of cheer leading: energizing people inside and outside the organization. In order to be an effective cheerleader, a start-up leader needs to exude positive energy, be in great spirits and above all, be in great physical shape to sustain the energy. Few years earlier, I decided to hit the gym with the help of a trainer to become a better “cheer leader”. I signed up for a 1-year membership, promptly evoking a stifled laugh from my friends and colleagues, hinting that I am being overly optimistic. I told myself that I'd be just fine since I have the propensity of putting myself in challenging situations and enduring pain (why else would I become an entrepreneur?).

As I started my gym sessions, I realized that a gym is a perfect training ground to learn great startup leadership lessons and very soon, my trainer became my management guru, unbeknownst to him. The following are some key lessons from the gym that a startup leader can use while managing the team.

Lesson 1: Know your purpose
The very first question that my trainer asked me was ‘What do you want to achieve by joining the gym?’. Your motivation to join the gym drives your exercise routine and helps the trainer help you reach your goals. In the startup context, it is important for the leader to ask the all-important question to a prospective team mate, ‘What do you want to achieve by joining us?’. Similarly, it is important for the leader to talk about the raison-d’etre of the startup so that the employee is clear on what the company wants to achieve.

Lesson 2: Start from the heart
The first thing my trainer focused on was my cardio vascular health. He put me through a battery of cardio exercises that tested and pushed the envelope on the efficiency of my heart. He explained to me that only when the heart performs efficiently, blood flows through all the veins of the body and consequently, the body and the mind get warmed up for the uphill journey. In a startup as well, it is important for the leader to start from the hearts of the team mates, appeal to their passion, get them to see the big picture and prepare them for the uphill journey. A teammate with his heart in the business tends to be relentless and strives for excellence even during hard times (which tend to crop up much too often in a startup)

Lesson 3: The importance of discipline
Very early on, the trainer instilled in me the importance of being disciplined about managing time and maintaining a routine that works. He also emphasized the value of meticulously following the agreed plan. Needless to say, in a startup as well, where timelines are extremely short and the team members don multiple hats, it is imperative that the startup leader reinforces the importance of time management and sticking to the plan. Without financial and operational discipline, the startup can very quickly burn its resources and find itself in a tight spot.

Lesson 4: Set Stretch Goals
On my first day when I was huffing and puffing on the treadmill, my trainer calmly walked up to the machine and bumped up the speed, much to my chagrin. He constantly pushed the limits and tested my mettle. By setting stretch goals, he made me go out of my comfort zone and stretch my capabilities. As Mark Cuban would put it, employees in a startup have to learn to punch above their weight class. This is possible only when the leaders set stretch goals for the team and constantly challenge and motivate the team.

Lesson 5: Know your limits, Stick to the thread
When the trainer saw me getting carried away with early successes in my routine and trying much harder exercises that were not part of the plan, he was quick to advise caution. This situation is akin to startup leaders getting carried away with initial successes and squandering away precious resources in activities that make them lose focus. I am reminded of an advice that my advisor, Sanjay Anandram, had given me –“For startups, focus is spelled as ‘NO’”.

Lesson 6: Persist by Dealing with Negativity
One fine morning, the trainer walked up to me and said, “Today you will do 600 calories”. The maximum I had done in my life before this was 250 calories. The first thought that came to my mind was, “This is impossible”, and when the trainer bumped up the intensity when I was struggling, I thought “Boy, can this person be any more cruel?”. As I toiled hard, I started experiencing an intense tussle between the mind and the matter. The mind comes up with amazing reasons for quitting the drill. What worked for me eventually is the age old saying, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. I told myself, what could possibly happen if I actually pushed myself all the way? The thought was truly liberating. I am sure a lot of startup leaders have dealt with this emotion at some point in the life of their startups. Startups operate in highly uncertain and often daunting situations but what carries a team forward is the ability to re-frame the situation, look at things in a positive light and keep pushing ahead.

There are plenty of real life situations that offer valuable startup leadership lessons. What are your sources of startup leadership lessons from real life?