We’re in the middle of a series on fintech, and this week’s guests are from one of the hottest companies in the industry. Kabbage provides financing for small businesses, and they have developed a culture that has helped build their company over the last 10 years to more than 500 employees. I’m sure most of us have done plenty of reading on the subject of company culture, and can probably talk a good game, but it’s another thing altogether to have a culture so strong it shows up at 9 a.m. on any random Tuesday.
This week, I’m thrilled to welcome Rob Frohwein and Kathryn Petralia from Kabbage. We talk about fintech companies to watch, developing your vision and creating a company culture that drives your mission and values – in real life. Here are some tips on how to create a killer company culture.
1. Evolve Your Vision
Kabbage is doing what they’ve always done…sort of. Says Kathryn, “We do the same thing today that we did when we first started. When we made our very first loan in the summer of 2010, when we were in our beta period, we did that exact same thing. We made loans to eBay businesses. Now today, that comprises a really small percentage of our population, but we still do that.”
Kabbage expanded their funding to other kinds of small businesses, and are now looking at other ways to provide more comprehensive financial support to their clientele. They are currently looking at ways to help small and midsized businesses streamline financial processes and allow for better reconciliation and reporting of transactions in their businesses. Being part of a company that is always expanding and evolving is inspiring. It keeps employees from growing stagnant as well.
2. Get Rid of Titles
So here’s an idea. Might not work for everyone, but it works at Kabbage. They don’t have CEOs, or vice presidents, or directors of anything. No titles. People are free to put whatever title they’d like on LinkedIn, but within the company, they run around wild and free and title-less.
Explains Rob, “On the website Kathryn and I are labeled cofounders and Kabbageheads and we like Kabbagehead because in the U.K., that means you’re braindead. So, we thought that was fairly appropriate.”
The system monitors itself. As far as what people say about their titles publicly, Rob says, “I literally couldn’t care less. We don’t care about that. But if you think you’re the equivalent of a director or senior director, or senior manager, put it on. That title is going to be judged by the other people in the company who have put their own titles on there. So, it’s almost a self-policing mentality.”
3. Make Sense
Clear communication starts with having clear things to communicate. So, expanding is good, but don’t expand willy-nilly all over the place. Make sense. Says Kathryn, “We’ve been drawing these concentric circles around the business. And I think that’s made it easier to communicate the vision to folks at Kabbage, because they see the natural progression of everything else that we’ve done.”
4. Communicate Regularly
Kabbage starts with an onboarding process and is extremely intentional about explaining the values and culture of the company. They hold regular town hall meetings where they share updates, answer questions, and in general have an ongoing dialogue with the members of their growing team. They also publicly reward those that exemplify the values of the company. Whatever fits your business – newsletters, social media, town hall meetings, podcasts – communicate with your team on a regular basis, and open the doors for them to communicate with you as well.
5. Hire Who You Need Now
For Kabbage, who they hire fluctuates between generalists and specialists depending on their stage of growth. Says Rob, “Recently we’ve been hiring the kind of people that we hired at the very start of the company. People who are a little bit more entrepreneurial, and can basically help us expand. I really do think that companies go through these phases where you start out with a bunch of people who are 80% great at 50 things, and then, your company becomes a little more specialized. And then, you start hiring people who are 120% great at one thing. And then when you really want to grow again, you have to sort of go back to that concept and start hiring more people who are entrepreneurial.”
Bringing the right people in at the right time has a lot to do with both building the company, and building the company culture. And the right kind of person at one stage is not the right kind at another stage. Know thyself.
6. Hire People Who Share Your Values
Whether you’re going generalist or specialist, hire people who share your values. Rob and Kathryn still interview most of the people that they bring on the team. They start at the early stages to inculcate the culture into new employees, and weed out those that don’t fit.
To hire to your values, you need to know your values. A few years ago, Rob and Kathryn went through an exercise to codify the company’s values. Rather than going to Google and looking up “cool corporate values”, they took a look at the business they’d built and began to identify what made their culture unique. Says Rob, “Number one is care deeply, and that means not just about our customers, but also about one another. About our investors, partners, and also about our community.”
Work hard to bring on the right people, but it’s not a perfect art, so don’t be afraid to let them go if they don’t fit. Rob says, “People know in our atmosphere that treating others with disrespect won’t fly. You could be the greatest employee of all time. Like in terms of your capabilities, what you’re trying to achieve, your insights. But if you’re a jerk, we’re going to fire you.”
7. Be Genuine
“We’re trying to really build an authentic culture,” explains Rob, “which means that when you come into the office, you feel like you can be yourself. There’s not the work Rob and the home Rob, or the work Kathryn and the home Kathryn, because that creates a lot of stress when you feel like you have to be somebody different at work. And it also impedes your ability to build relationships with those around you, because they’re not getting to know the real you.”
Rob continues, “I had a guy who came in the office a few years ago and he says, you need to have the pool table, the ping pong table and the beer for the young people, and we have all of those things. I said, yeah, but that’s not the culture, when you have a culture where people actually establish genuine relationships with one another, then they want to hang out after work or even during work, and do those things. So that’s why those things are present; not to create culture, but to embody the culture.”
All of this makes people care more about the mission. It also means you are more focused on supporting the team. Says Rob, “If you’re not doing your job, and you’re not really executing on the things you promised, you’re not just letting the company down, you’re letting your buddy down. So that’s a big deal.”
8. Help Your Team Help Your Customers
When you’ve created a fantastic culture, what you’re left with is a team that genuinely cares about your customers. That’s a good thing to have. Part of maintaining that culture is empowering your team to serve the customers.
Recently a hurricane affected many Kabbage customers. For small business owners the hurricane was devastating, and customers were struggling with the businesses they’d poured their heart and soul into. The Kabbage team wanted to help. Explains Rob, “They actually understand the mission of the company, what they’re trying to achieve, and they are kind of a little bit, at times, the judge and jury as to whether we’re sticking to what we have committed ourselves to. And it’s really interesting, and you see that through the entire organization.”
The employees became advocates for the customers, and the company came up with ways to support them. They allowed payments to be skipped and, in some cases, expanded access to capital. Kathryn said, “We also made sure that every single person talking to customers had all of the resources available for other agencies that could be helpful to small businesses.”
Says Rob, “It really is fantastic to see that team just get so far behind our customer, and really rally to support them, and that was great.”
9. Keep it Simple
We all like to overthink culture, but it’s not that difficult really. Know your values, communicate them, and be nice. Says Rob, “It’s pretty simple. I think people try to make culture really complicated, and I think it’s actually really simple. Like how should people treat one another? What interest should they take in one another’s lives? What should they expect of one another? Those things are pretty simple. Don’t make them difficult, and don’t make that seem like it’s so counterculture in the workplace; that really is what it should be.”