As a solo CEO and founder of KETOS, which builds a water intelligence platform, Meena Sankaran found out early that founders must set the tone for the company culture as they’re building the business.
“Everyone around you is feeding off of that energy,” says the San Francisco-based CEO. “As a founder, it’s important that you remember that you are that central glue of that network.”
With the mindset that the founder is the “glue” of the company, Meena has built a team that can stick together in the best and worst of times. From attracting top-tier talent to her startup, to making tough decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, she credits her consistent communication to employees and transparency as one of the ingredients to building a tight-knit team that can withstand the ebbs and flows of a startup.
The result is a culture that can attract strong talent and motivate those employees to grow within the company. As a result, KETOS has an attrition rate of 0.1% as employees feel more connected to the company mission, says Meena.
“It’s very important how you process things, how you react to things, how you make decisions and how your energy permeates. And that’s something that is very easy to forget.”
We spoke to Meena about how she’s hired people committed to her company mission and building a self-sustaining culture from zero to 60 employees.
Attitude is key
Especially in the early stages of a startup, it’s important to celebrate the work of your employees as they’ve taken a risk to make your startup work — a risk that also has ripple effects on others in their lives, says Meena.
“It’s not just your employee who’s invested in and taking a substantial amount of risk, but it’s their spouses approving of that person to put in that kind of time and risk into their lives while having children and time away from them,” says Meena. “It’s a lot of sacrifice.”
Meena hired her first-ever employee from a “very large” company in Silicon Valley, who had decades of experience in a key area for KETOS’ growth, just two weeks after her first round of venture capital funding hit the bank. What drew him, Meena says, was the idea that he would be making a difference, even if his compensation would be more “equity-driven” in those early days, says Meena.
Your biggest asset, without a doubt, is the people who make up your company. Your company wouldn’t exist without them.
That employee, who started as an electrical engineer, is now the company’s director of hardware development. “I’m still very grateful for the risk he took as part of a family of four with a single income in the household to jump to a startup with two employees and new funding during pre-commercialization,” she says. “It’s the strength and support of not just his intent but his entire family believing in the vision.”
Meena puts a lot of emphasis on hiring and promoting from within — to do that, she tries to find people with a positive attitude, rather than focusing solely on experience. “I’ve got several employees who started off as interns in their first internship, moved on to their second internship and then became an employee,” says Meena. One example includes a KETOS employee who started off as an intern before joining the R&D team. Over the last four years, Meena says she transitioned all of her cross-functional skills and learning to support the sales team as a solutions engineer — recently, she was promoted to lead and build the solutions engineering team.
As people find more opportunities to grow within the company, Meena says this can foster deeper connections and trust between the team, allowing them to be “active, cultural ambassadors” in the recruiting process, even if they aren’t hiring managers.
For example, as part of the company’s interview panels, there’s representation from all of the relevant teams that will be actively working with the new candidate. Behavioral interviews are given significant importance, as KETOS considers whether candidates present their achievements from a place of arrogance or humility. Every interviewer’s voice is heard and incorporated into the decision-making process.
Small gestures make a big difference
Meena credits using small gestures as sustaining close connections to the company — if she hears an employee is sick from a manager, she’ll reach out personally over Slack to see if they’re okay. Or, for example, if she hears one of her employees’ kids are going off to college, she’ll reach out knowing it’s an exciting and emotional experience for parents.
Companies can also do small, inexpensive gestures — setting up a calendar with all employees’ birthdays and greeting them on their day, making baby onesies with the company logo on it so their families can be included in celebrating company milestones and doing family-friendly happy hour activities.
“None of these are expensive, and none of these are a big investment on capital,” says Meena, noting that she wishes that they could do more as there are “so many opportunities” to brighten someone’s day.
It’s important that someday when the team looks back at this phase of their life, they know that their precious hours spent at work weren’t a lost cause.
In tough times, be transparent
Like many companies, KETOS was hit hard by COVID-19, and Meena was forced to lay off about a dozen employees. It was tough on the team, she says, and she spoke frankly with them during an all-staff meeting, admitting that she had to make a hard decision and the layoffs would mean people would need to do more work to make up for lost talent.
“Not one person left and every single person stayed,” says Meena. “I wouldn’t have been able to even have the confidence to ask them that if I didn’t know that we were connected as a group to make something happen.”
For the employees that were laid off, Meena says they still ensured the cash-strapped startup paid them the compensation packages they deserved and tried to support them as they sought new jobs with references. All of the laid-off employees now have jobs, and the company is back to a headcount of 60 from 50 after the layoffs, says Meena.
Slowly building up trust and camaraderie among employees through consistent communication may seem time-consuming, but it can make the difference between a checked-out team or one that is fully invested in the outcome of your company.
This article is part of our CoLab Leadership Series, where we share the most important lessons founders in our program have learned in their journey. Want to learn more about CoLab? Read about it here.