"It is always about people..."

by Erica SunkinMar 31, 2021

NEA's Q&A series is focused on the company building journey and the impactful work of leaders across NEA’s portfolio. Our goal is to shed light on unique perspectives, guiding principles, defining moments, and lessons learned. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What led you to start a company?

I think there are two answers to that question. One is that I've always been a builder. Throughout my entire life, whenever I’ve seen a problem my instinct was to start or build something in response to it.

Second, I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, although they never would have described themselves that way. I was born in communist Romania at a time when entrepreneurship was literally illegal. And yet my family started these tiny businesses on the side of their actual jobs for the state, like a version of Uber in my hometown and importing jeans because they were hard to find. Then communism fell and everyone in my family quit their job to start something at some point, whether it was my mom who was a doctor and started her own clinic, or my dad who was an electrical engineer and started his own construction company. My grandmother was basically the COO for both. I was surrounded by these three incredible people who sought their entire lives to build something of their own. Because I was always surrounded by hustle, I feel like I was programmed genetically to build and to hustle.

What is Knotch’s mission? What is differentiated about Knotch’s approach?

Every organization, whether large or small, is embracing content as the new strategy to communicate with their audiences – customers, employees, investors, and so on. Especially in a digital-only world, content has become a lifeline for companies and it’s really become their voice to the world. Knotch’s mission is to connect content to outcomes.

We place content at the core. This is important because content has never been the core of any intelligence platform. Instead of looking at social performance, SEO, web analytics or research, we look at content impact towards business outcomes and treat all these other datasets as tangential aspects of that analysis. We're an integrated 360 content intelligence platform that is outcome driven. This is unlike most data platforms in today's world because most platforms just give you data. Which is great for data teams, but the reality is that decision makers need to get to insights faster about the content being produced and whether it is moving the needle towards the business outcome. Our job is to partner with the content leader and demonstrate if and how their content is connecting to business outcomes.

How were you able to solve the problem of connecting content to outcomes as a central part of business intelligence?

In a really roundabout way. Knotch started off as a different company all together and morphed into a couple of others before we found what we were looking for and became the business we are today.

My co-founder and I cared about giving people a voice online. We cared about bringing people's behavior online – their interests, their feelings, really who they are – closer to those creating content. We thought that if we could create a better feedback loop between audiences and content creators, we could make the internet a better place.

At a high level, that made sense. So then we started thinking, is this a consumer app? Is this an enterprise app? Who does it serve? How do we talk about it? What's the actual product that we build? What's the data we analyze? What's the data we collect?

We put our heads together and went through a journey of understanding the best way to create something that could actually make the internet a better place. Ultimately that brought us to focusing on businesses creating content and giving them the ability to listen and to act based on audience feedback. While we do think a consumer product could be part of Knotch’s future, it made sense for us to start by becoming an intelligence leader for businesses and empower them to make content a driver of their business outcomes.

What have been some of your highest highs and lowest lows in building Knotch?

It is always about people. The highest highs happen when you hire someone after a long search, and they come into your organization and just exceed every expectation. It's amazing. Especially when you're the founder and you've taken the company as far as you could in one particular aspect and then you get to see a true professional come in and just rock your world in the best way possible. And it doesn’t just change that particular function or workstream—it actually changes the DNA of the company and raises the bar for everyone. These moments are incredible to see.

The lowest lows also tend to be about people—when team members who have impacted the company for some period of time cannot work within the construct of the company anymore, whether for personal reasons or because the company needs have changed. It's like the saying, “what got you here won't get you there.”

That’s what I find hardest as a leader—when you’ve gone into battle with someone, and you’re fighting right next to each other, changing the world and building something together and then all of a sudden you have to let them go because the goal has changed or evolved. And ultimately you realize that the goal isn't that person. It's the company. That's probably one of the biggest lessons that I had to learn as a founder.

The larger arch around all of this is that my relationship with my co-founder is probably my highest high. We've grown so much together and pushed each other to grow, to be the leaders that we need to be and have gotten each other through the lowest lows. To see that continue to grow and evolve and change is really incredible.

How would you describe Knotch’s culture?

I should share what our values are because that’s what ultimately sits at the core of our culture and I think also at the core of my leadership style. The first is transparency. And by that I mean radical candor; a direct, no bullshit culture.

The second is inclusiveness, which is about truly being yourself. For me, I'm a woman, but I'm also an immigrant. So, I think a lot of the differences in who we are as people and what we assume is normal versus not come from our cultural backgrounds. We talk a lot about that and truly try to embrace it. Particularly because about half of our team members are from another country.

Our third value is relentlessness, and this is an important one because I think it speaks to perseverance through the hard part of company building, but also creativity through the good parts of company building. And finally, humor— in particular, self-deprecating humor. There's a lot of that at Knotch.

How would you describe your leadership style and approach to team building? As CEO, what are the most important ways you cultivate or strengthen the company’s culture?

There are a few principles that really matter to me when it comes to creating culture and ensuring that it propagates throughout the organization. The first starts with me leading by example. I truly believe that if you come up with a set of values as a founder or as a CEO, you have to live them and reinforce them with the example you set every day. It’s through those values that you can create a culture that is purposeful and proactive. Every company inevitably develops a culture, but if you want to have an intentional culture it starts with values.

Culture starts with me, but the rest of the leadership team plays a very important role too. I ask them to hold me to almost a higher standard than I hold myself because I think radical candor is very important. We get together as a leadership team on a bi-weekly basis to talk about the things that are impacting our culture, our people and our performance.

Our ability to connect with one another beyond the professional job and any levels of seniority is a really important aspect of our culture. We have many mechanisms for this but there are two specific things I want to call out. The first is a series of meetings and lunches that we run called Ocean. These are specifically designed to be mental health conversations, where everyone in the company can join. And we don't talk as CEO to customer success associate; we talk as people, whether we are celebrating or talking about hard things.

The second is a program that enables me to gauge how everyone in the company is feeling on a weekly basis. Each team member takes five minutes to tell their manager how they're feeling, what progress they’ve made against their goals, what their priorities are for next week and so on. Then we solicit their input, with a different set of questions asked each week. Are there obstacles that are making your work more difficult? Do you feel supported? How can we help you develop in your career? I read every single one of these reports each week, so I feel closely connected to how everyone on our team is feeling and tracking.

What has been your experience as a female founder and leader? What advice would you offer to other women in the early stages of their company building journey?

There are high and low moments associated with this too. The highs are seeing other incredible women, who are so much further along in their careers, opening a door for me, in the beginning and even now. I owe so much to these women – who are our customers, our investors, our board members, and my friends. I hope that I contribute as much to the community of powerful women as they have contributed to my journey.

The lows have also been important because they've been really good lessons. I heard this quote once that really resonated: "The gift is in the wound." There have definitely been a lot of wounds along the way. I came up as an entrepreneur before the "Me Too" movement started, and there have been a lot of scary moments for me. Yet I think what is important is that there was at no point at which I felt any of these moments defined me, my journey or the journey of my company. I ultimately kept coming back to the idea that this was not about me. This was about the company and what I was building.

My advice ultimately is to persevere. While I think we should try to create a world of true equality and fairness, the reality is that life will continue to be tough. Especially if you're an immigrant or a woman or a person of color. In being an entrepreneur, you're kind of setting yourself up for tough lessons. So, persevere.

I have this other quote that I like, and I always keep in mind: "Companies don't fail. People give up." So, I decided I will never give up.

What do you think are the biggest issues for women in the workplace? How do you seek to address these at Knotch?

This is a tough one for me because I often find myself thinking that I don't want to be treated differently for being a woman or an immigrant. I want to focus on what I’m building rather than draw attention to what makes it difficult. But I have realized that a lot of what helps me, and helps others on this journey, is knowing that others are struggling with the same issues.

One difficulty I have noticed in both myself and others is that women are more likely to second guess ourselves. We assume that we have to do a tremendous amount of research before we could have an authoritative opinion about something. We are usually over-prepared.

We also tend to be a little bit less assertive and more risk averse than our male counterparts. Sometimes that shows up in incredible ways—there are a number of studies about women CEOs and how we raise less money and yet are able to do more with that money. However, there is this perception that somehow this approach to company building means that we are less ambitious, less aggressive or less willing to go for the big goals, the big dreams. And I don't think that's true at all.

So, I try to give myself pep talks. And I remind the women around me that we are all goddesses and queens. I know that sounds a little bit out there, but that's the feeling that I want us to come into a meeting with—it’s like a peaceful, quiet energy that doesn't need to dominate or be dominated. It transcends, sitting above the notion of power and is purely focused on what is important to achieve and how to get there. I think it will make us better leaders, help us build stronger companies, and enable us to be a more powerful resource for others.

Quick Qs:

What was your first job? Selling refrigerators for my dad, one of his numerous businesses when I was growing up

What are you currently reading? The Stranger by Albert Camus

Is there a motto/mantra/saying you are known for? Companies don’t fail, people give up

What is your best productivity tip? Wake up early, 5:30-6am. I get so much done before people wake up. It’s pretty crazy.

What keeps you up at night? Sometimes my brain goes into overdrive. I meditate, I journal, I take magnesium, but the reality is sometimes my brain just wants to work through a few things overnight. Sometimes those issues keep me up and sometimes I just work through them sleeping. Sometimes I get great ideas when I am sleeping.

What aspect of company building brings you the greatest satisfaction/fulfillment/joy? People. It’s always the people.

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About the Authors

Erica Sunkin