Culture and creativity with Kyle Wild, CEO of Keen IO

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When I sat down with Kyle Wild, Co-founder and CEO of Keen IO, I wanted to start at the beginning of when he was first inspired to build a company with such a unique and powerful creative culture. He started by saying, “I was a Montessori kid.” I laughed, thinking this was a joke, but he was absolutely serious.

Moving from Montessori to the mainstream school system was a shock to him. He had the disadvantage of being a bright kid that learned faster than the curriculum, and was a straight-A student with discipline problems attributable to both boredom and discontent with the education system. This set him on a lifelong path of learning about system and organizational design.

Keen IO is an API platform that lets developers collect and study custom events at a massive scale. The company was one of the earliest members of SoftLayer’s startup program, which eventually became IBM Global Entrepreneur, and is one of our top partners to come from the startup world. They are a culture-driven company that adheres to its values and is constantly iterating on not just their product, but also their operations.

All employees at Keen have access to a coaching program; it’s not just for executives or management. It’s fully paid for and completely optional, and the enrollment is over 90 percent. The program teaching everyone how to start and complete difficult conversations with different kinds of co-workers. They teach their employees how to describe their emotions with a consistent vocabulary.

“I think we’ve got a pretty collaborative place,” Kyle said about Keen’s culture. “It’s not for everybody. This is one of our main things we looked at from the start: we’re not going to build a company that’s for everybody.” The company emphasizes empathy and emotional training. In some companies, apologizing is a sign of weakness, but at Keen, apologizing is part of the culture, and they’re very good at it. The father of one of the co-founders authored a book on apologizing.

When it comes to hiring for culture, “even if you don’t talk about culture when you’re hiring, you’re still hiring on culture because you’re only going to get people who are OK with that,” which may be a contributing factor to their single-digit voluntary turnover rate.

Organizational Design
Kyle looks at organizational design as an ongoing experiment to find the best way to build and run a tech startup in the heart of San Francisco. In setting up Keen’s current design, he focused on a set of questions:

“Who’s managing budgeting resources and deciding how to allocate? Who’s managing projects? The deliverables — what do we do with the resources that we’ve got? Who’s managing people?”

Kyle found that in many companies run into problems in places where managerial roles overlap. “You have your manager who’s actually your budget manager, who you need to go to for resources. Your career manager, you need to go to for promotions. And the project manager who makes decisions about what does this group do or not do.” When all three roles are represented by the same person, complexities arise which can stifle the best ideas winning out. “Let’s say hypothetically that a manager of an eleven-person product team has a really bad idea. It takes a really brave soul to say to the person who owns your career, and to the only person that can really marshal resources from around the company, that their idea is bad. So you end up doing what they want.”

At Keen people report to the People Team for their careers. The People Team is responsible for the advancement of your career, not your project manager, and not your budget manager. The separation of career from projects and budgets changes the incentive structure into a system that is more collaborative by default. This is just one of the alterations from traditional organizational design that Keen experiments with and looks to refine. “I think the main difference at Keen is not that we figured out how to organize around work. It’s that we’re trying to figure out how to organize around work.”

The culture of Keen is not just collaborative, it’s creative, which influences how they view products. “It wouldn’t be smart to organize around creativity and then have a pursuit that’s not inherently a creative pursuit,” says Kyle. “Even the customers are encouraged to be creative with the product. Whereas in other businesses, you’re using the product wrong if you’re being too creative with it.“ Keen built their platform to be more like Legos—encouraging experimentation.

“Most of the creativity is not on the payroll. There are tens of thousands of people from well over a thousand companies on a daily basis coming up with interesting ways to use our stuff that we didn’t think about.”

When a developer shows up and plays around with Keen’s API’s, comes up with some cool ideas, but ultimately doesn’t pay for anything, Kyle says, “sweet! That person drank the Kool-Aid. They’re not hooked on it yet, but eventually they’re going to have a problem and it’s going to nag at them and they’re going to be like ‘oh my gosh, I could use Keen for this.’ We’re on their tool belt.”

First Principles & Lean Methodology
“There’s a lot of first principles reason [at Keen]. We’ve spent a lot of time considering and devising. So it’s a lot of ready-aim-fire. A lot of tech companies, even companies our size, are ready fire fire fire fire raise fire maybe aim later when you have to.”

The patience of that approach allows for greater flexibility in opinion, even amongst and opinionated group. “We have to be willing to hit the reset button and in a sense, we always want to hit the reset button. This is something my founders and I have in common. We are very opinionated people. And if you bring a new piece of data, one new piece of information, our opinions will change, and will change dramatically. Quickly. And that’s an important thing to have at a company that’s experimenting on this stuff. If you have new information that disproves your hypothesis you need to accept it and make new hypothesis.”

The language of the scientific method applies. As Kyle likes to say, “We are very scientific by nature. We also make a science platform.”

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