Building trust between the CEO and COO is indeed essential in keeping a business alive and kicking. But in addition to that, the trust among leaders and employees must not be neglected. Cameron Herold is joined by Jon Penland, COO of Kinsta, to share how they built and continue to build the feeling of trust within their tribe. He shares how he and his CEO, Mark Gavalda, empower each other over the years and how trust plays in his delegation of responsibilities to people he believes are qualified. Jon also details how they foster healthy employee relationships and communication within Kinsta, all rooted in upholding trust.
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With 5.5 years of experience working remotely in the technology space and ten-plus years working with customer-facing teams across multiple industries, Jon has stepped into the role of Chief Operating Officer at Kinsta where his responsibilities include hiring and onboarding. Kinsta has grown from a team of twenty to a team of more than 120. While he didn’t write his first line of HTML until he was 25 years old, within three years, Jon was working full-time in technology, first as a freelance writer for technical websites and eventually as a support engineer at Kinsta. From there, he moved into management roles, initially as the Chief Customer Officer and now as COO. When he’s not driving company-wide strategy and finding ways to help our distributed teams stay connected, Jon can be found in rural Georgia with his wife and five kids. Jon, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
I’m looking forward to it. I got a couple of questions that I want to jump into. Why don’t you tell what Kinsta is, so we’ve got some background on the type of company that you’re running?
Kinsta is a managed WordPress hosting provider, which means we provide managed web hosting that is specifically geared for hosting WordPress websites. WordPress is a flexible content management system that can be used for everything from business websites to eCommerce to about any type of web presence. Kinsta was founded in 2013. First, it’s a concept without a whole lot of customer base or anything behind it. It was a bootstrapped company. There were four founders. They founded the company at one of the founder’s apartment and with no investment. They’ve managed to maintain that model to this day. We continue to be a bootstrapped company to this day. We’ve never taken any outside investment owned by the original founders and pushing forward with a focus on performance, security and providing the best support in the industry.
I coached a company called Media Temple years ago and they were a big WordPress hosting company.
They’re still definitely out there.
I coached Demian Sellfors and his leadership team years ago when they wanted to build the company and get ready to exit the company. I worked with him on culture and operations and execution. WordPress was their focus as well. How did you guys decide to focus on WordPress as a funnel for leads or as your key verticals?
The four founders who created Kinsta, before they created Kinsta, had a website development and internet marketing agency and they were building WordPress websites for customers and doing marketing for customers who primarily were using WordPress. A problem they consistently ran into was that there wasn’t a host out there that offered the right combination of support, performance, pricing. They couldn’t find what they wanted. They build a site for a customer and the customer goes, “Where should we put this site?” They didn’t have a good answer. They decided to pivot and say, “Let’s be the answer for those customers.” That ended up taking off and they wound down the website development and marketing business and focused full-time on Kinsta quickly. It was about a 6 to 12 months’ transition and they had shut down the marketing and development side to focus full-time on hosting.
In your bio, it mentioned that you live in rural Georgia. Is the company based in Georgia as well? Where are you based? Are you remote?
We are remote. Like many technology companies, that was part of the strategy from the start. The founders are out of Europe. By the time they got to team member number 7 or 8, they had ventured into remote territory. At this point, we’re about 60% remote.
Whereabouts in Europe are they based?
We have hubs in the UK and Hungary. We have folks working out of their home out of a number of different countries in Europe. The two hubs are Hungary and the UK.
Do you go after the European market as a strong customer base after the US market? Where’s your focus?
We have income coming from all around the world as probably any online service type company does. Our customer base is weighted strongly in English speaking countries and that means we have a strong customer base in the United States, Canada, also in Europe. English is almost a second language in most European countries. We have a lot of traction there and also down in Australia. We have customers in plenty of other places as well. Europe and the US have been the primary places where the largest percentage of our customer base comes from. Having said that, one of the things that make Kinsta unique is from early on, we adopted a multilingual strategy. From the time we were a company of twenty people, our website was available in ten languages.
I’m Canadian but live in the US. It’s amazing to me watching how many companies don’t go after the European market when there is much money over there. I coached a company called Digi Store, which is like the ClickBank of Europe. They’re based in Austria. They’ve got teams in Bulgaria. They’re crushing it over in Europe and they don’t care about the US market at all. They’re like, “Keep the US market.” I’m not going to give you their numbers but they’re approaching nine figures. They’re crushing it over there because they focused on a market that nobody’s looking at.
That has been a little bit of Kinsta’s approach as well. Not that I necessarily want to give anybody ideas but if you look at a lot of our competitors, they simply do not match our multilingual approach. Looking at Europe, we have our website and our control panel translated into French, Italian, Dutch, German. Not only are we translating our website but we’re also even allowing our customers to interact with us in multiple different languages.
Is your support team based in Holland?
No. Our support team is distributed. We got folks in the UK, Hungary, US, some remote folks about anywhere.
I’ve heard that the Dutch are strong because most of them speak seven languages. I don’t know why the Dutch speak many more than the rest of the Europeans. Most Europeans speak three and the Dutch speak seven for some reason.
That’s accurate. Somebody that we have from the Netherlands does speak 4 or 5 languages.
It’s weird. I can barely speak English. Talk to me a little bit about the complexity of running a multi-language business and a multi-country business. What are some of the complexities there? What have you had to learn?
I’ll start with the multilingual piece because that’s something that my eyes were open to. We have somebody on our team who is in charge of what we call global expansion. One of the touchpoints has always been, how does global expansion interact with sales and marketing? We sat down and I asked him to write out how translations work. Ten pages later, he had written out a document that explained the complexities of how content goes from being written in one language, usually English, though not always, to being pushed into these different systems where it’s translated. We have to check it with subject matter experts and publish it in different locations. It’s a time consuming and expensive process. We think it’s worth it but it’s a significant challenge. That’s a logistical, internal operations challenge.
We’re constantly scanning the horizon for changes in international markets that could affect us because we do have customers in a lot of different places. We’re constantly on the lookout. There are a lot of places. If you think about the European Union, where there is value-added tax, it doesn’t matter where your company is based, you got to charge that value-added tax and remit it. We’re constantly having to keep an eye on what our revenues coming from different countries and different regions and how do we identify the points that which we either have a presence in there and that creates some liability for us. We’ve reached certain levels of activity that caused us to need to start reporting in those jurisdictions. It’s a constant dialogue with a significant number of accountants and lawyers. That used to be my job. Thankfully, we hired a full-time CFO. I was more than happy to hand that responsibility over to him.
It’s interesting that you used to have to oversee finance and now you’ve been able to hire someone to come in and run that. Harvard Business Review wrote an article years ago called The Misunderstood Role of the COO. It’s different in every organization. In some cases, they run IT and some don’t. Some run finance and they don’t. What falls under you?
My scope is limited but it’s broad. I manage HR directly. Aside from that, I’m in charge of our OKR process and our value process, which applies across the company. Why I say it’s limited but broad because I’ve been able to drill down and be focused on HR and then OKRs and values once we hired our CFO but it’s still broad and that affects the entire company. Historically, I’ve managed almost everything at some time or another.
Walk me through what the mindset is then of a leader who’s been in an organization for four-plus years and you’re starting to divest yourself of some areas of the business you used to run. I hear this on coaching calls with clients like, “What am I supposed to do now?” How do you get around that? What do you focus on? How do you manage your mind on that?
I wish I could say that I have the silver bullet that solves that problem. Personally, I have approached it in a couple of different ways. The first thing is that every time that I have divested myself of some responsibility, I’ve tried to hand it to somebody who I thought would do a better job than I was doing. I have three examples there. I was managing sales and all of our customer-facing functions. I brought in a guy, Tom, who had been at one of our competitors, Site5, which had been a similarly structured company and had been in the industry for ten-plus years. He was the COO at a company called Site5 for a while. Tom somebody who’s been in the industry longer than I have, has more professional experience. I brought him in. Over a short period of time, I was able to hand those functions off to him and feel confident that this guy has got it.
I did the same thing when we brought in our CFO. Our CFO has 23 years of experience. He’s worked for Ernst & Young. He’s worked for KPMG. He’s a tax attorney. He’s done mergers and acquisitions internationally. The degree to which he is more qualified to be the CFO of this company than I am can’t be overstated. It was wonderful to hand him those responsibilities. I took a step back even from HR where I was directly managing our HR personnel. We hired a head of HR and allowed her to take over that day-to-day. She came in with about ten years of experience managing HR teams.
The first thing that I’ve done to try and manage my removal from those teams is to hand responsibility to folks who I felt were more qualified to do those things than I was. I could step back into more of a coaching role because I know the history of the company and because I understand the culture and I understand the relationships internally and I could be effectively a coach to them but let them run with that function.
You’ve done it right. Many leaders hire people that they can then manage and oversee. You, in many ways, hired leaders that can run their own functional areas better than you ever could and you get to be the storyteller and help remove obstacles and coach them. How did you make that mental leap that you were still safe in your role?
There has to be a lot of trust with the individuals that are still managing you. In the case of a COO, you’re reporting to the CEO. There has to be a degree of trust with that CEO. Honestly, I have to continue to prove that I can bring value to the organization.
You find it.
Exactly. It took two forms. There were things that our CEO was asking me to do about going out and understanding the industry and looking for specific opportunities. I was sitting here going, “I can’t. I’m dealing with accounts payable. We have these invoices coming in and I’m making sure they’re getting paid. I can’t spend three days researching the industry. I have to make sure invoices get paid.”
Nor should you be doing accounts payable at some point. That’s a $25 an hour job.
You’re exactly right. Part of it was the value was there before we made the transition. We didn’t hire those people until our CEO was going, “Jon, I need you to go work on other things. How do I get you to the point where you can do that?” Step one is that I wasn’t making these decisions divest myself of responsibilities. These weren’t decisions I was making by myself. They were made in consultation with our CEO and he was the one encouraging me to do those things.
The second thing, especially with this transition, I sat back and I said, “How can I best help this company?” We hired David, our CFO and then shortly after we hired Zane, our head of HR. I divested myself of almost all routine day-to-day responsibilities. That’s when I did step back and go, “What do I have that I bring to this company that’s still unique?” What I felt that I brought is that I was probably about the fifteenth person to join the company. I’ve seen support. I’ve seen sales. I’ve seen client care. I’ve seen accounts payable, finance, accounting. I’ve dealt with tax. I’ve dealt with legal. I’ve seen all of our customer-facing functions, all of our back-office type functions and I understand what makes Kinsta work.
My approach was then how can I impart that knowledge? The answer came through another co-worker who introduced me to OKRs, which were on my radar vaguely. I measured what matters, the official OKR Bible. I was like, “For me to bring this to the company as we’re going from this transition from being a relatively small company to a somewhat larger company and to be that OKR Shepherd, to be that person that all these conversations are bouncing off of that’s coordinating this effort is a natural transition. It allows me to bring to bear my understanding of the relationships in the company, which makes Kinsta unique and how we got where we are.”
It was a combination of Mark saying, “I need you to be free to focus on these things.” Me stepping back and going, “What can I bring to the company? Because of how I came into my role, what can I contribute? What’s the most effective thing I can contribute?” I shared OKRs with Mark and it took a couple of rounds because Mark is not a traditional, “Let’s go see what another business is doing and apply it.” He’s always taken the approach of, “Let’s do what makes the most sense for us.” You got to sell Mark before you’re going to do something like OKRs. It took a couple of conversations and explaining how this would work and then he was fully on board and said, “That’s a good way for you to continue to steer the ship from the back of the ship by helping everybody else put those goals out in front of them.”
I love that you identified the two core overarching themes where one was a strong trust with the CEO that gave you the confidence to divest those areas. The second was spending time searching for the opportunities that would bring the most value to the company. That’s what made the transition clear. The trust one is probably the key. I even hear from CEOs, they’ll be like, “If I hire all these people, what am I to do?” The first thing, nobody’s going to fire you. You’re the CEO. You own the company. You’re good.
For the COO, it’s always, “What am I going to be doing?” Talk about the trust of the CEO. One of the roles I’ve always believed is that the COO is to be the person that tells the CEO that they’re wearing no clothes, the Emperor’s New Suit or to be the one to tell them the problems and have the counter-arguments. How do you do that safely with the CEO, so you don’t get their backup? What do you do to make sure that you keep the trust high over the years?
At a personal level, Mark and I get along well and that’s true of me with all of our executives. Mark and I, when I first came to work with Kinsta, he was in Budapest and I was in the United States. We didn’t meet until I was managing support. I started in support. By the time we met face-to-face, I was managing support. We hit it off. On a personal level, we clicked. A second thing that has helped is that we have a similar philosophy about how the business should operate, what the priority should be.
We find ourselves, on a regular basis, arriving at similar conclusions for the same reasons even if we don’t discuss them. There’s been a good degree of alignment in that and that’s contributed to that trust. You hit on something there when you mentioned that the COO is, to some degree, the person who lets the CEO know that he’s the Emperor with no clothes. Mark mentioned that in a chat I was having with him and he said, “You’re one of the only people who will tell me when you disagree.”
They respect that. They love that. They need that from us.
He said, “There are only two other people,” and he mentioned who they were, who will get into a conversation and tell him they disagree. The third piece is I don’t ever push him in that way in public. I always do that either on a private call or a private note or something. I’m not going to get in public and question a decision that he’s made or his approach or whatever. We’ll talk about that privately. I’ll allow him to steer the ship.
I don’t want to get into specifics because it will eliminate the benefit of these things. There have been plenty of times where I wrote something up or I had an idea or whatever and Mark liked it. He’s like, “This should come from me.” Run with it. Nobody is wiser. We run with it. That’s his idea. I try to approach my job with no ego, recognizing that my success in that role is at the privilege of the CEO. My success is going to be him being happy with how I’ve performed.
Our role as the second in command is to shine the spotlight on the CEO to make them look good at all times. Their job behind the scenes is to shine the spotlight on us with the team because we’re always rolling out the hard decisions and the rough ones. Their job is to make us look good. It’s similar to a traditional family with a mom and dad, it’s like, “I know your mom is being a bitch. She cares about you guys. She’s working hard. She’s having a tough day. You guys screwed up.” You never criticize each other but you got to have each other’s back. Behind the scenes, you’re like, “You can’t do this.”
“This was a mistake.”
Talk to me a little bit about the Culture Projects that you mentioned. You said something about culture projects. Can you walk us through that?
That’s something we’ve launched. This has been a part of my transition out of being involved in day-to-day stuff to being able to be a little bit more strategic and thoughtful about what I work on. We are a distributed team. One of the biggest challenges as a distributed team is building connections between team members. I’m talking about non-work connections. These are the more relaxed friendships that are happening.
We had a couple of team members join us in a row. Both of them brought ideas to the table. One of them was like, “I want to do a step challenge where we invite people in the company to measure their steps every day and we’ll see how everybody’s doing. At the end of the month, we can do something.” These are not work-related. How can operations or HR support these ideas and give them some backing without taking them over? There was the thought, “What if HR runs with these ideas?” I was like, “They’re not going to work. We need somebody who loves the idea and who wants to run with it.”
We came up with what we call the Kinsta Culture Projects. What it is, somebody has an idea of something they want to do, they talk to HR and as well as their manager to make sure there are no red flags with whatever it is that they want to do. What we do as a company is we give them as much visibility as we can. We give them access to things like our primary announcements channel and Slack, which we usually limit on who can use that. We let them use that to announce their project and to try and get people involved and interested. As an HR team, we have a page in our primary documentation space where we list out these projects and invite people to participate. They get mentioned at onboarding for new people who are joining.
For the step challenge, the top three winners got $50 to spend on Kinsta Swag. They could get a hoodie and a mug or a t-shirt and a hat or whatever. Those are the things we’ve done to try and encourage those projects. We’re getting up to a point where we only have one Kinsta Culture Project active. The next hurdle for me to try and think through is how do we solicit additional ideas. We got 120 people. People have ideas.
I’ll give you a great tie in for it and we did this back when I was the CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. We would get all of our employees to write their bucket list and they had to commit to as close to 101 things that they wanted to do or try or see or learn or experience before they die. We shared the bucket list with everybody in their business area. Everybody is marketing everybody’s bucket list. All of a sudden, we noticed, it’s like, “There are twelve of you that want to learn how to play guitar. There are seventeen of you that want to parachute.” All of a sudden, we started organizing the people that wanted to do stuff and we’re like, “Why don’t the seventeen guys that want to go parachute go jump?” We didn’t have to pay for anything. They didn’t always know.
That’s exactly right. The big thing we have been trying to do with this is to give these projects visibility because somebody will have an idea and they’ll mention it offhandedly and it’ll die. We’ve been trying to give it a platform. Honestly, it’s a legitimate way for them to converse with their colleagues in a work setting. We’re encouraging them to use the shared work conversation spaces to have these conversations and to get these projects off the ground.
We ended up with this bizarre running club that started one time. Vancouver has a Sun Run, which is 49,000 or 50,000 people. It’s one of the top five largest 10K’s in the world. We hired this guy who’d come ninth at one year. How do you come ninth in a race with 50,000 people? I follow the 30,000 people in front of me. This guy memorizes the course. Every day, this guy would go out for his run. Every day, he’s going out for another run. All of a sudden, he would get other people going for a run. Sooner or later, 18 people out of 200 are going for a run every day. It was cool. What’s on your culture list? If you had a culture project you were going to start, what would it be?
We break our OKRs into what we call periods, which are four-month sections rather than quarters. One of my OKRs for the period that we’re in is to launch. One of my key results is to launch a culture project. I’ve been thinking about this question and I’m either going to do something around exercises and reading, they’re the two things. I tried to do exercise and reading every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Those are the two ideas that I’m working on. I don’t know the exact structure of the project but I know that I have to launch one to hit my key result.
During this whole COVID thing that we’re in the midst of or hopefully emerging from slowly, you mentioned that physical fitness or exercise has been the core for you. What have you been doing?
I’ve been doing bodyweight exercise workouts. My brother and I have used the same program. We don’t do them together but what we do is we use an app. After we completed a days’ work out, we shoot each other a short video chat, that’s like, “I did this workout.” I’ve done that for a long time. I have a couple of different pieces. One is I bought an exercise bike and I’ve been trying to build more cardio into my cycle. The other thing that I’ve done is I bought a book called Run Less, Run Faster. I’ve been a runner but I have a history of knee problems. I wanted to read something that would help me, hopefully, increase how effectively I run and how fast I am without continuing to hurt my knees. That’s what spurred me to start bodyweight exercises. I was doing running after years of being sedentary and my core had lost all of its fitness.
Is that running book an older book?
It’s been around for years. It’s not recent.
I read that years ago. I was training for a marathon. I was trying to migrate to more of a forefoot runner and get my pace up and I read that. I started using an app to put music on that had a certain cadence. I also then realized I was listening to podcasts and that was slowing me down. I’m an hour into a Tim Ferriss podcast going, “Wait a second, what the hell happened to my pace here?”
“Why am I running a twelve-minute per mile pace all of a sudden?”
Sadly, my running career is over. I had advanced osteoarthritis in my left hip and got my hip replaced. I’m no longer allowed to run but at least I checked my marathon box off. Talk about your transition of going from engineering to COO. What was that like?
The piece that surprises a lot of folks is that I spent seven years as a sales manager and earned my MBA in a prior career. I came to Kinsta with a solid background in how business functions and how sales operate and how customer support should work. What happened is I was in that industry and I decided I wanted to work in technology. I went through a process of self-education. As far as transitioning from a support engineer to COO, a big part of that was joining Kinsta at the right time with the right combination of personality and skills that they happen to need. My strategy at a couple of different points in my career has been to worry less about the job I was getting and more about the company I was going to work for.
I was working as a freelance writer and as a freelance website builder in the WordPress space and I kept seeing this company, Kinsta, pop up. They recruited me to do some writing for their blog. I was interacting with them a little bit. I was looking at the landscape going, “This is a company that is taking off.” I started looking for any opportunity to go to work for Kinsta. The first role that came open that I was qualified for was a support engineer role.
I applied for that role. I didn’t get it the first time. They had somebody else and there were some hour issues but they had another role open up and they called me and said, “Would you like to be interviewed for this role?” I got the job that way. It was a matter of having the skills that they were looking for and the personality and the temperament and good alignment with the founders at the time when they needed it.
This was a company that was based in Europe and I was based in the United States and they were seeing a large influx of US customers and they were going, “We need to have a stronger management focus on customer support coming out of the United States because that’s where we’re growing the fastest.” They saw that my philosophy for customer support, my philosophy for how I interacted with our customers, how support should function was closely aligned with what they were doing. They didn’t have anybody managing support and they approached me and said, “Would you be open to managing support?” I took that on.
At that time, when I say managing support, it was me and 2 or 3 other people. It’s a small team. At the time, we had one person who was doing sales and that person left the company. I stuck my hand up and I said, “I’ve done sales before and not in this industry but I’m happy to help out while we figure out what the long-term plan is here.” At this point, the company is still only fifteen people. It’s an all-hands-on-deck with the operation. I got into sales as well. Quickly, they were like, “We’re going to leave the sales function with you. You’re doing a good job with it.” I became head of sales and support. Shortly thereafter, they handed me the client care function, which was effectively the non-technical customer service role. The technical portion was support and they handed me the non-technical portion. I did that for about a year.
I was handling all of our customer-facing functions and our sales functions. The team is growing. We’re expanding. We got to the point where our operation in Budapest and our global operations were too demanding for one person to manage day-to-day completely. They said, “Let’s split these two things apart.” One of the cofounders, Anita, “You’re going to become the general manager of the operation there in Hungary. Jon, you’re going to become the COO of the global organization.” I retained all of the sales and support, everything I was already doing. I was handed responsibility for finance, tax, legal, compliance, data privacy and all that stuff.
You did the classic put up your hand and take that responsibility on and then you proved yourself. When all of a sudden you do that a couple of times, it’s like, “Let’s keep giving it to the guy who keeps proving himself.” You don’t wait for somebody to notice you. You already had some of the experience and the theory behind you to be able to make it work.
I’m realistic and that I recognize that a big part of my success was being the right person in the right place at the right time. Those all three factors have to come together. It has to be the right person, the right place at the right time. The only part of those three that I contributed was the right person. Place and time wasn’t dumb luck. It would be a little bit too strong to say that was dumb luck. I did intentionally seek out Kinsta but there was no guarantee that was going to play out as it did. I do always feel a degree of humility in my success there. If somebody else had joined at that time and had brought the same skills, that may have been their path instead. I brought myself to the role. To a certain degree, all of us are the product of the circumstances that we find ourselves in.
There’s a bit of that as well. You mentioned values a couple of times. Can you talk to us about how you work to ensure that core values are deeply ingrained and lived in an organization?
That’s a note we’re trying to crack. We wrote something called the Kinsta Ethos, which was a document that Mark, our CEO and myself dreamed up where we sat down and said, “What are the principles that we want to see guide the company?” We published it. It was well-received. It’s covered in onboarding. We still like the document. However, we looked back and realized there were problems with it. One, it was internal only. It wasn’t written such that it was designed to be outward-facing.
Two, it was written by Mark and myself and that’s probably not the best way to capture the values of an entire company. Three, we didn’t have a plan for how we were going to use it. We’re going through what we’re calling a process of discovering Kinsta’s values and it’s going to look a little bit differently this time. We can use it on our website. We can use it on LinkedIn. We can use it on Glassdoor. We can sprinkle it into Twitter. We can use it both internally and externally to try and reinforce it continuously.
You’re trying to discover what your core values are versus somebody stating them and then trying to make people live them. If you do understand the pulse of the organization, that’s where the core values do emerge from.
The second part is the executive team isn’t going to sit down and write this time. Mark and I are going to have an all-hands call where we’re going to talk about the project. We’re going to pull in some other company’s value statements, our own ethos, to get people thinking about the types of things and then we’re going to survey the company. We’re going to get everybody’s input. What do you guys view as being our core values or what should our core values be? What are the things we should aspire to? It’s going to be built on that. It’s going to be built on the direct input of our team.
We have a couple of different ideas around how to reinforce them over time. This is a little bit of a work in progress. One of the things we’re going to do is we’re going to have a monthly process where we go, “We want you all to nominate folks on our team who have done something that embodied Kinsta’s values in some way.” Hopefully, we’ll get some nominations in. We’re going to do a swag giveaway, write up a blog post about them internally, talk about what it is that they did that embody those values and then do that on a recurring basis. There’s this repeated coming back to what those values are, highlighting folks who are doing a great job of embodying them and making it something that’s fun and something that folks look forward to.
You’re right because you can have a set of core values and put them on a wall but that doesn’t do anything. It is highlighting them, talking about them and reinforcing them. It’s got to be that obsession around praising people on them and then hiring people who live them and firing people who don’t.
The concept that we’re working on is that if Kinsta is a train and it’s running down a set of tracks, that set of tracks has two rails, one rail is going to be our OKRs. OKRs are going to tell us what we’re working on. The second rail is going to be our values, that’s going to tell us who we are. Those two things have to be in alignment with each other, which means that our values will inform how we form our OKRs, what our key results are, how we pursue them. Those two things will work in tandem as we try and move Kinsta into the future.
That’s great. You’re thinking about them in the right way, for sure. The last question I’ve got related to the operational side of the business is the OKRs. You had to socialize the idea of bringing OKRs in the organization because the CEO didn’t think that way. How did you do that? What did you do to convince them? How are you using OKRs?
The company was founded by four founders. This is true for a lot of small companies. You’re small enough, everybody’s talking to each other. Some of the founders have a clear vision of where the company is going to go and that works for a while. We get in Slack or any of our other systems where everybody is and we realized some significant portion of the company. Myself, Mark, we’ve never talked to a lot of these folks. We’re up to 120-plus folks and there’s a lot of these folks that I’ve never had a one-on-one conversation with. They don’t necessarily know what the company is about. I don’t know what they’re about. We don’t know which direction we’re going. That was observation number one.
Observation number two, we’ve done a couple of different surveys. One of the things that come back almost in any type of context is we want to have a clearer picture of what’s happening in the company. We want to have a clearer picture of what the results have been and where we’re going. I lean on those two ideas as I tried to sell the concept. I became sold on the concept because I listened to one of my colleagues, Nathan, who sold me on the benefit they had brought where he had been before. That caused me to look at them and read them. I knew we needed something and what pointed me in the direction of OKRs was talking to Nathan. Those were the things that I leaned on and I said, “Half the company, we’ve never talked to. They don’t know what we’re about.”
We can’t get on a one-on-one call with everybody in the company once a week, that’s not a solution. We need some way of communicating. What is the company about? What is it that we’re trying to pursue? Where are we going? We need some way of communicating that all the way from the top so that the new hire in support, the new hire in sales, the new hire in accounting can map what they’re doing to what the company is trying to do. That’s how I sold the idea.
As far as what we’re doing, OKRs are new to us. For this first period, we rolled out company-level OKRs. We assigned departments with responsibility for each of the different key results. That’s as far as we required OKRs to go during this first period. Some departments wanted to adopt them. Marketing, for example, has some departmental OKRs. HR, the department that I directly manage, they’re doing some stuff with OKRs. We’re doing a gradual process. We also understand we have a lot to learn as we go. We’ve deployed them at the company level. Departmental and individual has been optional this first go around. As we go along, we’re going to deploy them to additional levels in the organization.
The other thing that I do is I am talking about them to the point that everybody has heard as much as they can possibly hear and maybe more than they want to about them. It’s become a running joke. If you talk to Jon, you’re going to hear about OKRs. I’m constantly talking about them and that is for the purpose of making sure that everybody understands what the point is, how they’re supposed to function. I’ve been writing blog posts about it and I talk about it every time I get on an all-hands meeting to reinforce the idea.
I love that you’re socializing them from the top down and starting at the leadership team. Too often, companies try to roll out a system organization-wide and that’s why it fails. It’s too much too soon. Secondly, you have taken to heart what Jim Collins in Good to Great talked about which is, “It’s only when your employees are making fun of you have your ideas started to stick.” You need to be that monomaniac with a mission. That’s why it’s successful. Jon, last question. If you were to go back to your 22-year-old self, you’re graduating college, getting ready to start in your career, what advice would you give yourself back then that you know to be true now but you didn’t know back then?
I would give myself two pieces of advice. I don’t know if these are going to be universally true but these are the things that I would have pursued. One is to seek out technical skills. Technical skills will open doors for you when you are looking for that first job. You don’t necessarily have to have a degree. A degree isn’t required in most technical roles these days. The ability to perform in a technical role and in some way demonstrate that you have those skills is going to be something that opens up a lot of doors to somebody who’s early in their career. The second thing is that I would encourage myself not to be scared of sales. Sales are one of the best ways to get to know a company and to get in the front door and to understand the mechanics of how a business operates. Those would be the two pieces of advice, don’t be afraid to develop some technical skills and don’t be afraid of sales. If you see the door open, move in.
The technical side is amazing, for sure. People missed that. Jon Penland, the COO of Kinsta, thanks for sharing with us on the show. I appreciate the time and all the insights you gave us.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
I appreciate it.
- The Misunderstood Role of the COO – Harvard Business Review article
- Run Less, Run Faster
- Good to Great
About Jon Penland
With 5+ years of experience working remotely in the technology space, and 10+ years working with customer-facing teams across multiple industries, Jon has stepped into the role of Chief Operating Officer at Kinsta, where his responsibilities include hiring and onboarding as Kinsta has grown from a team of 20 to a team of more than 120.
While he didn’t write his first line of HTML until he was 25 years old, within 3 years Jon was working full-time in technology, first as a freelance writer for technical websites, and eventually as a Support Engineer at Kinsta. From there, he moved into management roles, initially as Chief Customer Officer and now as the COO.
When he’s not driving company-wide strategy and finding ways to help our distributed team stay connected, Jon can be found in rural Georgia with his wife and five kids.