"It’s fine." That was the answer Claire Lew received every night when she asked her father, a mechanical engineer, how work was. Yet she sensed that things were not fine, especially as the family moved from state to state. "Clearly he was not happy in his job," Lew says, which instilled in her an early interest in the concept of job satisfaction.
It was at her first job where Lew realized that how difficult it was for even a positive work environment like hers to create open lines of communication. Lew recalls the CEO asking her how things were going and giving the familiar reply, "It’s fine," even if it wasn’t. "Part of it was on me as an employee—I couldn’t vocalize my feelings. But there’s also no resource for a CEO to create an environment to get honest feedback from employees."
Lew left that job, with $10,000 in savings, intent on solving this problem. After researching employee satisfaction and retention, she offered consulting services to companies that wanted to learn what their staff really thought. She realized that she could only do so much on her own and began developing a software package.
It was at this time that she took a fortuitous meeting with Jason Fried, the CEO of Chicago’s Basecamp (then 37 Signals), who told her that he was working on a product similar to hers in order to combat feeling out of touch with his own rapidly growing company. Fried then hired Lew as a consultant on both his company and his software, which would come be known as Know Your Company (KYC). They went their separate ways, but in October 2013, with Lew moonlighting as a restaurant hostess to stretch out her last few dollars in savings, Fried called her back. Know Your Company had signed up 100 customers in the first six months, but 37 Signals wanted to focus exclusively on Basecamp—so he offered Lew the KYC helm, which she took over in 2014.
Over 200 companies in more than 15 countries now pay $100 per employee to use the software, with Techstars, Airbnb, Kickstarter, and Medium among their current or former customers.
Know Your Company’s software is simple: Three days a week, staff are automatically emailed questions ranging from basic polls on what everybody’s working on to more specific questions such as:
- "Is there anybody in the company you’d like to apprentice under?"
- "Is there anything we’ve been all talk and no action on?"
Additionally, five icebreakers like: "What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?" are sent out every time a new employee onboards, which is especially ideal for companies with remote staff. "Everybody can’t meet each other face to face, so it’s a way to get to know each other," says Lew.
While employees can typically see each others’ responses, they are able to make some answers private to the CEO—but never anonymous. "I’m a big believer that anonymous feedback is evil. It breeds mistrust," says Lew.
The magic, says Lew, is in the questions themselves and the sheer volume of them—two years’ worth, not counting the custom questions CEOs and employees can submit themselves.
And that’s pretty much all there is to it—and that’s what pleases its client base. "It’s beautifully simple," says Paul Farnell, who heads the email marketing firm Litmus, half of whose staff works remotely. "There’s only two screens in the whole app and it’s just so easy to get around. Everything in there is in the right place."
"The tool’s really built for the C-Suite level," says Dave Look, partner at the web design firm Chromatic. "Since it’s automated, it’s almost set it and forget it. You don’t have to interact with the tool to have it continue to work." He’s a fan of the software’s archival tool, which makes it easy to go back and look through feedback from old questions.
Sometimes Know Your Company elicits surprising feedback. Sachin Kamdar, CEO at the publishing analytics platform Parse.ly, discovered that a sizable population of his employees wished for a cap on vacation days. "You’d assume that everyone would prefer unlimited vacation days, but some people see it as a tactic to get people to take less vacation." Without Know Your Company, he says, "We probably would have never known." He since altered the vacation policy. "We want employees to be transparent to us about what they think is and isn’t working."
Suraj Kika, CEO of the software company Jadu, added training budgets for the entire staff after Know Your Company sent out the question "Do you feel you have the right training to do your job?" and he learned that his employees felt they had still had skills to learn while on the job. But more important to him was the support he received when he asked, "Do you think we’re doing the right thing?" after the company changed its business strategy and went agile. "We got a unanimous yes," he said. "Being a CEO is a lonely business and sometimes that can distort the way you think. You start to second-guess yourself. To know that your team is behind you is a great thing."
The information that KYC reveals can be a little bit more cosmetic as well. Andi Graham, CEO of the web strategy and design company Big Sea, updated the office chairs, changed the lighting fixtures, and even canceled gourmet donut delivery service once her employees admitted via Know Your Company that while the donuts were nice, they didn’t really want them.
In addition to providing valuable insights, Know Your Company serves as a virtual water cooler. "With their heads down working on code all day, hours can go by without anybody chatting with their neighbor," says Graham. "Now, when the emails come out, it sparks little conversations in our group chat program. ‘Did you see that so-and-so hates black olives? It’s one of those little enjoyable moments of the day."