What it Takes to Build a Business: Creating a Sustainable Culture from the Ground Up
ICYMI, Fuze Executive Chairman and Co-founder Steve Kokinos sits down with Harvard Business Review’s Curt Nickisch to discuss startups, talent, and finding the right zest to tackle new challenges
More than 10 years ago, Steve Kokinos and Derek Yoo co-founded Fuze – then ThinkingPhones – with one mission: to power every business conversation. In other words, to change the way people work together.
Fast forward to 2017 and the vision remains the same. What’s changed is that it now fuels a business that has raised more than $300M in funding and is home to more than 700 employees.
Shifting market dynamics have also been a catalyst for change, not the least of which has been accelerated cloud adoption over the past five years. That aside, there was no silver bullet or magic formula that led Fuze to where it is now. Far from it, according to Kokinos. There have, however, been certain guiding principles throughout the journey of Fuze.
Editor Curt Nickisch recently sat down with Steve to pick his brain about what it takes to build a viable business. Here are a few key highlights for other entrepreneurs on a mission to breathe life into their own ideas:
- Evolve or die. There is no “exact formula” for the financial, operational, or talent side of building a company; there will be different things to focus on at each stage along the way. Whether it is finding the appropriate balance between top-line and bottom-line growth or implementing more formal processes to continue building momentum after pivotal stages of growth, leaders must consciously understand the pace of change in an organization. High growth doesn’t “just happen” nor is it a linear path to success. There will be some existential crises along the way, so get comfortable with that from the get-go.
- Get personal. Steve personally interviewed almost all of the first 500 employees at Fuze to be sure they were a good fit for the company. What were a few key indications that they would be successful? 1) Do they have passion outside of work? 2) Do they have passion for the company? 3) Are they inquisitive? Not taking an opportunity to ask the founder of a company a question when given the chance can be an indication they’ll miss other opportunities that arise in future interactions. Putting someone in front of a co-founder is also a good way to ensure that they’re being properly vetted beforehand, so managers are asking the right questions before passing them on.
- Communicate your vision. As a company grows, fewer people will be around who can easily state the original mission of the business. Make sure the vision and mission are clear so that all employees embody “who the company is” and can easily relay that back to others, whether a new team member, customer, or investor.
- Stress the importance of team dynamics. Finding talent isn’t just about finding “the best people,” it’s about finding “the best people who can work together.” Company success relies on a more interconnected workforce than ever before, and team chemistry is essential to building a cohesive unit that also sustains a winning culture. Be conscious of intangible attributes that will support growth over time; people who will help others flourish as new team members onboard and who will take the time to train and coach the next era of talent to reflect your company’s values and best practices – even as they evolve.
- Embrace the role of middle management. As a company grows, problems must be solved – and consensus reached – less by sheer will (you can’t always just walk up to someone and get what you need right away) and more through formal structure. Larger companies must rely heavily on middle managers to handle stressful situations, solve problems, and carry out company vision and goals.
- Help people find their path. A startup is a tight-knit family: a small group of people spending a lot of time together. It’s exciting in that moment in time to wear a lot of hats. Sometimes, it’s painful – but necessary – to become more focused as a company grows. Help people identify their best roles so they can re-formulate goals based on their strengths. This will also help you hone in on new talent that can complement existing leadership and key players. People grow as the business grows, and that’s a good thing so long as it’s properly supported.
In a nutshell, Steve summarized his tips to create a successful business as follows: 1) Accept that you’re never going to get it right 100% of the time, 2) Create an environment where people can learn, and 3) Allow people to be themselves: don’t become too rigid too soon.