December 5, 2023

Corner Office: Rakesh Kapoor on Accepting Bitter Pills

Q. What were some important early lessons for you?

A. I was born in a very small town in India, and the literacy rate at the time was just one in six. Thankfully, one of the biggest things my parents could do for me is to recognize that if I stayed in that town it would be very difficult to get out. And I remember learning how my parents decided that I had to leave. I was playing marbles, and I had an exam the next day. My mother said, “Why aren’t you studying for your exam?” And I said: “What’s the point? I’ll be first anyway.”

I wasn’t that bright, but in that small town, I would have been first. So my parents sent me to the No. 1 school in India, which happened to be a boarding school in New Delhi. It immediately changed the game for me. I went from somebody who had never been second in class to the middle of the class. The bar was immediately raised, and I had to work really hard.

The lesson for me is that a very important part of leadership is to set a bar for people and to constantly keep them out of their comfort zone. I think status quo is a real enemy for progress. And getting out of my own comfort zone is just as important.

Q. Any other influences from your parents?

A. I asked my mom recently if she saw anything in my early childhood years that would tell her that there was something greater in store for me. She told a story of when I was pretty young, and I had some medical problem. She took me to an ayurvedic doctor, and he gave me a concoction that I had to put on my tongue, rather than swallowing, every day. I would do it every day and not complain.

One day, my mom tried the medicine to see what it tasted like. And she said it was the most bitter, awful medicine. When she was telling me about this recently, she said, “I think one of the things about you is that you don’t complain about something you have to do.” And I think this is a leadership lesson, too. You have to swallow many bitter pills in your life. You just can’t keep complaining about how life should be. You’ve got to accept the way you have to run your life and then do the very best you can.

Q. Tell me about your first career job.

A. I come from a background of entrepreneurs, and after I got my M.B.A., I joined a start-up rather than a big company. I found that to be a much more exciting way of learning.

I became an area sales manager for an electric typewriter company, and I was sent to a state called Gujarat. We went there and there was nothing. I said to my boss: “Can you even tell me where’s the office? Which way do you want me to go?” He said: “There’s no office address. That’s why we hired you, to build our business.” And for the next couple of years I recruited a huge number of people and we created the second-largest business of that company. So I tell people that when you choose your first job, choose one where you can really make a difference from Day 1, rather than getting submerged in a big-company mind-set.

It also taught me that if you are going to be successful, you’ve got to treat your company like your very own. Because, as an entrepreneur, you are depending on yourself to create the value, not anyone else. You cannot rely on other people to tell you what to do. You’ve got to take the initiative yourself. And if you do that, you know, you are going to have a great chance of success.

Q. Important lessons you’ve learned from mentors over the years?

A. My previous boss was a very successful C.E.O. He ran the company for over a decade and we achieved fantastic results. He taught me many things, but he was immensely focused. Time is the only one clear constraint in life, and if you focus on a few things, you have a great chance of achieving something interesting. He taught people — like me and others who have this burning desire to achieve more and more — to prioritize and to be very consistent with the priorities. He never changed the strategy in 12 years. He focused on a few big things and went after them.

Q. You said you came from a family of entrepreneurs, but now you’re running a big company. How do you try to foster an entrepreneurial culture?

A. You have to take risks. Entrepreneurship also means that we need more ideas than we have money for. I keep telling people, you think we are working for a big company, but I’m going to starve you of resources. Only then will I have the best ideas. Scarcity gives rise to more ideas than abundance does. Scarcity is the mother of invention. I’ve grown up like that.

Scale is also the enemy of speed. As you become bigger, you’re going to get slower and slower. So you have to create small teams, because they are more effective and more efficient than big teams. You also have to be careful about how many layers you’re creating.

Q. How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?

A. One is how bright they are. You’ve got to have a level of intellectual agility. The second thing I look for is hunger for success. Is the person hungry or have they had enough? If there’s hunger for success, the person will, by and large, outperform those who don’t.

Q. And your career advice?

A. In my whole life, I’ve never worried about my next job. I never did. I never thought, “Since I’m doing so well, what will come next?” I always thought the job I was doing was the very best job of my life. So I tell people, don’t worry about what somebody else is doing and when they are getting promoted and how much money they’re making. We look around a bit too much. None of that is going to help you do a better job. So do the very best you can of the job that is given to you. It’s like swallowing the bitter pill. Stop complaining. I hate complaining. Put heart and emotion into it. That’s it.

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Corner Office: Dane Atkinson of SumAll, on Making Pay an Open Book

Q. Were you an entrepreneur early on?

A. My parents made me work for money at a very young age. I had a dog-walking business when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I wrote my first piece of software when I was about 11. At around 13, I started working in advertising, because a lot of people didn’t know how to use computers. They paid me $25 an hour. By the time I was 18, I was C.O.O. of a subsidiary of one of the Grey advertising companies. We had about 20 or 30 employees.

Q. That’s a big management role at a young age.

A. I tried to ignore the fact that I was younger, and I would lead from the front. So I worked longer hours, just to make sure people knew that I wasn’t taking advantage of them. I looked after them, and that really helped protect me from other mistakes.

Q. How many companies have you started?

A. Well over a dozen, if you count the act of starting. Fewer if you just count the ones that were successful.

One reason entrepreneurship is so amazing — and one of the reasons I recommend it to everybody — is that unlike most other career paths, it is the purest lens for looking at yourself. If you’re in a big operation, you can blame the surrounding environment. When you’re starting your own company, it’s just you. There really is nothing else. So you have to take that medicine at its purest form, which I think matures you as a person faster.

Q. What were some early lessons running your first company, SenseNet?

A. I made every mistake possible. One of the biggest mistakes I made was that, in your first company, you can really get attached to the idea of equity and ownership, and so it becomes much more of a baby to you. You lose that after you do it a couple of times, but I was overly greedy early on with the ownership. It was a huge learning curve.

Q. Tell me about the culture of your current company.

A. We have a wildly different environment. For example, everybody knows everybody’s salary. It’s pure transparency, which manifests itself with a much greater level of trust. Everybody knows each other’s ownership stake, too.

Q. What was your thinking behind that?

A. The first few months of the company, all we did was talk about culture. We didn’t even know what we were going to do first. We really overthought how to build an environment.

The usual corporate doctrine can be configured poorly for employees. It’s almost designed to enable evil to happen. You can tell an employee they have 10,000 shares, but it doesn’t mean much if I just give myself 100 million shares or whatever. Their stake is going to be worthless. Most of the engineers out there have no idea what their ownership stake really is. They’re just told, here’s how much you own. It’s worth this now, and it could be worth that later.

Q. What happens if you want to pay somebody above-market wages? How do people react?

A. I can’t hire them. So far I’ve not been able to go “out of bounds” to hire people. I try to get the consensus of the team, but if they say it doesn’t make sense, then I don’t hire them.

Q. But you’re the C.E.O.

A. I’m good at arguing. I’m good at getting people to believe in things. But if I can’t get them to believe that we should hire this person for a certain amount, then I might actually be wrong.

When we first started with this, we’d send out the package details of every new hire to the entire team. That caused a lot of stress. So we’ve switched that and now just their peer group will know the new hire’s compensation and be forced to a vote. The information is shared on a drive that everybody can see, but we don’t broadcast it out to everybody. Very few people look at them, though. But they know the information is there if they want to see it, and that creates more trust in a deeper way.

Q. What else about your culture?

A. We have a trial on-boarding process. Anyone we hire goes into a 45-day test period. But we have a really high bar, and only about 65 percent make it through. At the end we have a fresh, clean start and we decide if we want to get married. It turns out to be much healthier for on-boarding when you make sure everybody likes who we’re bringing on.

Q. And with the 35 percent who don’t work out, what’s the pattern?

A. Sometimes people don’t fit into our environment. We’re still at a stage where culture makes an extreme difference. Sometimes we’re not an organization that’s as supportive for them as we’d hope to be. A couple of people who didn’t make it through required an additional level of mentoring. And we believe in mentoring. But if they need an excessive amount, they won’t develop. They won’t grow fast enough, and it’s not the right place for them, or for us. So we save each other the hassle.

Q. A lot of companies struggle to create an environment where people have frank discussions about employees’ performance. How do you do it?

A. You’re expected to have hard conversations as often as you can. That’s how you get better. You’re expected to sit down with your peers and say: “You know what? You really didn’t do that well.” And those conversations are amazing because they de-stress the frustration that people can feel. So you’re unhappy with the way somebody managed the project. You sit down and you talk with them. Maybe you didn’t understand the full picture. We’re all human beings. You have a basic belief that everyone’s here for the same goal and is competent. Then, once you understand their pain points to work through, you can better eliminate where they really failed.

Q. How do you hire?

A. We want ambition. We want people who are hungry. We want people who love what they do. A big screen for us is seeing what people’s personal hobbies are. We look for the playgrounds people play in. We want people who are writing books or building an app or doing other things that show that it’s not just a job — they have an actual native passion for it. So we usually ask a lot about people’s hobbies.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Bucks Blog: Having Mom Do Your Laundry, to Save Money

Associated Press

When I was in high school, I visited France on an exchange program and stayed with a well-to-do family. When I returned home, I marveled that the household employed a maid who washed my clothes. My mother rolled her eyes. “You have a maid here who does your laundry,” she said. “Me!”

So it was with great amusement that I tried out the “living with your parents” calculator, provided by the real estate blog Movoto (covering the “lighter side” of real estate, it says). The calculator shows big savings from living at home, including the perk of having your mother do your laundry.

The calculator lets you plug in your monthly rent, and other expenses if you choose. It then shows how much you would save if, after college graduation, you live with your parents for four years.

The calculator was created by the blog’s marketing director, Chris Kolmar, who laments that if he had just lived at home for a few years, he would have enough for a down payment on a home.

I plugged in rent of $1,000, and the calculator used his default settings to report that in that case, you would save more than $89,000 by moving in with your parents — and that nearly 2 percent of that amount was savings on laundry.

That raised some questions. Does it mean that your mother is actually doing the laundry for you — or just that you are using her washing machine and detergent?

Sally Olsson, the blog’s spokeswoman, confirmed that the calculator assumes that your mother is doing the laundry — and a lot more. In effect, the savings shown by the calculator come from completely freeloading. (Mr. Kolmar also explains in the blog that he spends $35 a month on a laundry service, because he hates to do it.)

There is no doubt living with your parents can save you money, but shouldn’t you be contributing something? Or at least doing your own laundry?

Do you live with your parents? What do you contribute toward household expenses? Or if you’re a parent, what do you expect from your grown-up children?

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Corner Office: Ryan Smith of Qualtrics, on Building a Transparent Culture

Q. What were some early leadership lessons for you?

A. I definitely had an interesting upbringing. There are five children, and everyone’s been pretty successful. My parents are both Ph.D.’s — they were in academia until the late stages of their careers, when they decided to go into entrepreneurial ventures.

They raised us with the mentality of “if you want it, you’ve got to go out and get it.” I remember when I was 13, my mother dropped us off in downtown Provo one summer, about two miles from where we lived, and said, “You guys are all paying for your clothes this year. Don’t come home till you have jobs.” They instilled in us the idea that “you can be anything you want to be, but you’re going to have to go do it.”

Q. How did you start Qualtrics?

A. I was a sophomore in college and working in L.A. for Hewlett-Packard on a summer program. My father was diagnosed with throat cancer, so I took a semester off school to be with him. He was always tinkering with technology to make the research world better. And when he would come home from his radiation treatments, he couldn’t speak. I bonded with him by helping him with his work. The cancer was very severe, and he needed something to look forward to. So we would work together, and by the time he recovered from the cancer, I had signed up 20 clients and we had formed a business. We’re 290 employees now, and we’ll probably double in size in the next 18 months.

Q. Tell me about the culture you’re trying to foster.

A. We’ve been extremely transparent, but not so that we can be cool. And it’s not about an open environment, because that’s not what makes a company transparent. It’s more around the fact that everyone needs to know where we are going and how we are going to get there.

So we want everyone to understand our objectives and make that available to everyone as we’re evolving, so people aren’t guessing and they’re not internally focused. That’s one obstacle a lot of companies fall into. I believe most companies fail because they’re not focused — they either get focused on other things in the market that aren’t important, so they’re thrashing around without a clear objective, or they’re focused internally on things like politics and bureaucracy. It’s not that these companies aren’t smart companies or lack good businesses. It’s just that there’s a lot of noise.

We want to be transparent because we want to encourage our people to have all the information to keep them focused on what really matters — our objectives and how they’re going to contribute.

Q. Can you give more details about how that works?

A. We took our best product guy and some of our best engineers and built a system internally to help scale our organization by knowing everyone’s objectives in the company. We have five objectives annually for our company, and everyone goes into the system each quarter to put in their objectives that play into those broader goals.

For one of the broader objectives, you might have 230 specific objectives. The reason we’re making all this available is, especially nowadays, you’re hiring individuals to think. We can’t control the way they think. All we can control or have an effect on is the environment around them.

We have another system that sends everyone an e-mail on Monday that says: “What are you going to get done this week? And what did you get done last week that you said you were going to do?” Then that rolls up into one e-mail that the entire organization gets. So if someone’s got a question, they can look at that for an explanation. We share other information, too — every time we have a meeting, we release meeting notes to the organization. When we have a board meeting, we write a letter about it afterward and send it to the organization.

When everyone’s rowing together toward the same objective, it’s extremely powerful. We’re trying to execute at a very high level, and we need to make sure everyone knows where we’re going.

The point is that it’s not like we just said, “Hey, we’re going to be transparent.”  We look at every decision and then say, “Why shouldn’t we share this with everyone?” And we do that instead of the default reaction of saying, “We’re not going to share anything.” It might make some people uncomfortable, but that’s not a good-enough argument. 

Q. Let’s shift to hiring. How does the conversation go? What are you looking for? What questions do you ask?

A. We definitely want someone with a high trajectory. The organization is going to change quickly — we’re not perfect, and we make mistakes. We want to find individuals who align with that, who will add value to the company in whatever role they’re in. Part of that is the disposition to be willing to do whatever it’s going to take, because we feel that if we win as a team, we’re going to win together.

Q. Tell me more about how you get at those qualities.

A. From my standpoint, I’m looking to see if someone’s a “gamer” — that’s what I call it. I want to know the hardest thing they’ve ever done. So if you were in Korea, traveling by yourself, did you go home when things got tough? That’s what I’m trying to figure out because when the ship’s going well, everyone’s good. But when obstacles come up, we’ve got to sit back and rethink, how are we going to navigate these? Will some people want to jump off the ship? Or are they going to be a gamer and want to come in, roll up their sleeves and say, “Hey, this is part of it.”

That’s what I’m looking for. I want someone who’s going to roll up their sleeves when a little bit of challenge comes their way.

I think you can pick that up by looking at someone’s career. When times get tough, do they stick in? Because most good things happen after you hit a rough patch. If things are too easy, we probably didn’t learn enough.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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Corner Office: Lily Kanter on Working in Small, Entrepreneurial Groups

A. One of the biggest ones I’ve learned, from working at Microsoft, was that failure is O.K. because of the lessons you learn. I think it’s O.K. for people to swing hard for the fences as long as there’s brutal honesty and no cover-up. I encourage it among my employees — to test things, to try things, but to not make the same mistakes twice. I don’t like cover-up.

Q. What about influences of your parents?

A. It was their work ethic. My parents were tireless volunteers. My father was a doctor and my mom was a schoolteacher. I don’t recall my dad ever not going to work, or even being sick. My mom was tireless as well. She’s a strong woman. She sticks up for what she believes in. It was just having a role model of someone who takes initiative. We have a joke in our family: you need to put your hand in your lap at some point, and stop raising it to volunteer for things.

Q. When you’re hiring people, what qualities are you looking for?

A. I’m looking for a can-do attitude. We’re growing fast, things change, and they don’t exactly happen the way they’re supposed to every single day. It’s about adaptability. It’s about being happy. It’s about finding people who are happy and bringing them into your culture. I think that’s very important.

Q. What questions do you ask people?

A. I like to know what they’re passionate about, what interests them, what kind of books they like to read — just, over all, what does their life look like? I’m looking for balanced people who have a sense of pleasure in their lives, and that it’s not just all work. I hate hearing, “My weakness is that I’m a workaholic.”

Q. Tell me your thoughts on culture.

A. I think we’re at this evolutionary time in business where it’s all about people. We have to embrace that and embrace people’s purpose and their souls to be successful in business. Because if they’re just coming to work to be a body and they’re on a treadmill all day, then you won’t have a happy culture if you don’t tap into what is really meaningful for them in life. So I’m very focused on that.

Q. You’ve got how many employees now?

A. About 75.

Q. Talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced as you’ve grown, in terms of culture and leadership.

A. When you start out, it’s kind of a family. It was important for us to hold on to the culture that we started with, which was very fun and energetic and entrepreneurial. We could get things done so fast, and there wasn’t a lot of bureaucracy. That’s what a start-up looks like; everyone’s wearing a hundred hats. Then things start to need focus and depth, and that’s when that first inflection point of H.R. really hits — when you need specialists who go deep and know how to manage people and can build a team around a particular discipline, whether it’s merchandising or sourcing. That’s when you see a transition in your culture.

Q. How many employees did you have when you sensed the need for that shift?

A. Around 30 to 35.

Q. What started you thinking that a change was necessary?

A. Just that the org chart needed some recalibration, as we called it. It needed to be cleaned up — processes and clarity of roles needed a lot of fine-tuning. When you go from people wearing a hundred hats to people wearing one, it’s a big leap. It takes time. And it’s hard to start taking roles away from people that they’ve owned for the last two years without them feeling like they’ve failed, or without them feeling insecure about it. I think you could create a class in business school about the process around this.

Q. So how do you do that?

A. You have to really manage it from the beginning. You don’t give out titles so early on, unless a person deserves a title based on where they came from. There are a lot of lessons. I can see why a lot of investors particularly like to invest in second-time entrepreneurs.

You always need entrepreneurial people who can wear a hundred hats forever. It’s just finding the right positions for them, because they’re fantastic. They make stuff happen. And then you bring in process-oriented people who have deep backgrounds in a particular area of the business. You need that balance of both those types to build your organization. But you have to be careful, because the more process you get, the slower and more bureaucratic and less nimble you get. Things can get bogged down. You want to start a new initiative, and then there are 15 people in a room discussing it. I think keeping that entrepreneurial ability alive in a company is really important.

Q. What’s your approach?

A. We go rogue. We tell people that if there’s an innovative project we’re working on, it’s going to be a small team. You need to be disruptive. I think entrepreneurial people can be very troublesome to certain organizations if they’re constantly disrupting processes. Of course, you need process. You need people knowing exactly what they’re doing every day to deliver the plan. So it’s important that when you do have disruptive, innovative projects, they should literally not be happening inside the organization, so that the current state of the organization is not turned upside down because of it.

Q. What’s the right number of people to have on a project team?

A. Ideally no more than four. It depends on the project, but somebody’s got to own it. Two to four people on an innovative project is more than plenty. After all, how many companies get started with more than that? Small working groups are very efficient. It’s about making sure people understand where decisions lie.

Q. Your advice for college graduates?

A. I learned a lot working for other companies before I started my own. There’s such value in working for different-size companies — having the experience of working for a large company, and then working inside a small company. The best people I have today have done both.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Bucks Blog: Thursday Reading: Home Composting in the City

January 03

Thursday Reading: Home Composting in the City

Home composting in the city, piecing together the fiscal deal’s effect on taxpayers, talking to other parents about guns and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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Bucks Blog: The Best Financial Move You Made for Your Special Needs Relative

In this weekend’s Your Money column, I turned to financial advisers and lawyers who were themselves parents to or siblings of people with special needs and asked them to offer basic advice for families who are getting started with their own financial planning in this area.

If you have a close family member with who is disabled, how does their advice square with your experience? And what is the best tip you’d offer to people who are starting the process?

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Bucks Blog: Friday Reading: Teens Say Parents Text and Drive

September 28

Friday Reading: Teens Say Parents Text and Drive

Teens say parents text and drive, air passengers share views on chattering seatmates, veterans’ claims pile up and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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Bucks Blog: Why College Money Is the Best Baby Gift

This week’s Your Money column about the ins and outs of giving money as a gift to someone’s 529 college savings account wasn’t meant to be an etiquette lesson. But I do think giving money is totally defensible, even if it means pushing the parents to open a 529 or other savings account to use the gift.

Sure, toys are nice and clothes are useful until babies outgrow them in a few months. But many parents can afford the basics. All but a few families could use a head start on saving up the six-figure sum that will probably be necessary to send the child to college one day.

Have you given college money to a newborn? How did it go over with the parents?

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Business Briefing | Company News: Hacked Intelligence Company Is a Target Again

Opinion »

All Under One Roof

Room for Debate asks: Is it so bad for young adults to move back in with their parents?

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