Entrepreneur Keith Krach Reveals His Secret Sauce For Creating Billion Dollar Companies
Previously published by ForbesWomen’s Heather R Morgan February 25, 2019.
Small town values aren’t the first thing you think of when you picture the CEO of a billion-dollar software company. But Keith Krach, former CEO of DocuSign and Ariba, is the quintessential example of an entrepreneur with old school, small-town integrity.
From a small farm town in Ohio, Krach went on to study engineering at Purdue University via a full-ride academic scholarship from General Motors. Krach’s original plan was to use the degree to help out in his dad’s machine shop, but Krach’s aptitude and leadership abilities caught the attention of General Motors. Upon Krach’s graduation from Purdue, General Motors awarded Krach with a fellowship to work for them part-time while pursuing an MBA from Harvard Business School.
As Krach and I discussed his business strategies and the lessons he learned from repeatedly building billion dollar software companies, he also reflected on how growing up in a small town shaped his views. I also grew up in a tiny city of just 400 people, so we found a lot in common as we discussed how our rural upbringings shaped our values and worldviews, and how it has set him apart from other business leaders, especially in the software world.
Beyond small town values, Keith also oozes business acumen. Here are 9 of the insights he shared with me:
1. Be relentlessly curious
Krach believes “curiosity is the basis for all great leadership, team building, and strong relationships in general.” By having a genuine curiosity, you convey interest when building relationships — whether with employees, customers, or business partners. And people take notice.
2. Focus on what you can control
“Never get too high on the highs or low on the lows,” says Krach. Every entrepreneur knows endless things can and will go wrong in business. If you let every problem get to you, and take it personally, you probably won’t last long. “It’s like the serenity prayer: Things that you can’t control you have to let go, but things you can control you [must] take ownership of. There’s always something you can do, no matter the situation,” explains Krach.
3. Hire employees that can handle adversity
When asking Krach about what traits he looks for most when hiring, he said beyond “great IQ and EQ,” he always looks for those who have what he calls “adversity culture.” In other words: “Can you take a lickin’ and keep on kicking? It’s that tenacity to keep going the last foot or last few inches when everything is against you in a crisis situation,” adds Krach.
4. Make fun of yourself
“My dad always said, ‘Keith, if you get into a jam, and there’s no way out, there always is. Mock yourself out. It works every time.’ Just don’t mock out anybody else; that hurts their feelings, and that’s not funny. Treat everyone with respect, and never hold a grudge,” remarks Krach.
Krach believes his self-deprecating sense of humor is one of his superpowers. “Vulnerability is the key to rapidly developing trust in a relationship.” He likes to make people laugh, even if it’s at his own expense. Rather than being embarrassed about situations like locking himself out of his own conference room, he uses moments like these as opportunities to make his team feel comfortable, creating an environment where they can be themselves.
5. Have a noble mission
Krach believes it’s important for businesses, especially early on, to “focus on the external and not the internal.” In other words, if your team doesn’t have a clear external goal to focus on, they’ll be likely to get distracted by egos and internal politics. Krach says that the “external” could be as simple as a competitor, as “competition is exhilarating,” but ultimately asserts you should have a “noble mission” because if you want your employees to “spring out of the bed in the morning, they need to know that they’re making a difference.” At DocuSign, the noble mission was to “change the way business is done,” and ultimately “simplify and improve people’s lives.” Krach adds, “Ultimately, time is the most precious commodity in life, and the ultimate weapon in business is speed.”
6. Create the category and become the global standard
As CEO of DocuSign, Krach’s always sought to become the global standard, especially as the market was going to be “winner take all.” According to Krach, one of the best things a business-to-business company can do is create their own category. “If you’re the verb in the space and you have cognitive resonance, that’s huge.” In other words, the objective was for people to think: “Have a document that needs to be signed? Just DocuSign it.” Krach adds that this requires a lot of time and effort spent on making this a reality, but it’s well worth it.
7. Have brutally honest transparency and crystal clear objectives
Krach firmly believes “visibility is accountability.” DocuSign always has a list of clear objectives for their entire staff, which are updated and reviewed quarterly. But instead of doing performance reviews behind closed doors, Krach had his employees review their objectives and give themselves grades on a scale of 1–100 in front of the entire staff. “If they review themselves too high, well the crowd takes care of that. But often times they actually review themselves too low, and the crowd also takes cares of that,” shares Krach.
8. Start an Advisory Board: it will be your ultimate strategic weapon
Krach told me one of the best things he ever did was start an advisory board. “People support what they help create. Get a bunch of experts together, and they give product influence, help with strategies, move deals along, etc. A great network of people…will bring [more great people] to the board,” shares Krach. DocuSign currently has an advisory board of over 200 people, including the COO of Deutsche Bank, the President of Purdue University, Co-Founder of Yahoo, and the former CEO of McDonald’s Don Thompson, but Krach started the board early on. When deciding who should be on the board, Krach definitely seeks experts, but always tries to cultivate diversity of thought across industries and professions, as well as geographies, seeking experts from all major countries.
In the beginning, he started with friends. “You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings if they’re asked to be on the Advisory Board,” explains Krach. Worst case they’ll tell you no, but if they don’t, you’ll be building reciprocity. He says it can be very low commitment; “just start by asking their advice, again going back to ‘curiosity.’ Ask them about what problems they had and what solutions would be ideal. And people love to talk about their problems and what their challenges are.”
9. Always end with a roundtable
Whenever Krach ends a gathering, whether it’s an offsite, staff meeting, or family get-together, he likes to end it with a roundtable. The concept is simple: everyone in the room share’s what’s on their mind, potentially answering a few specific questions. There are no interruptions, and everyone must do it. “It’s the ultimate safe environment created, and you can learn so much from it. This gives people the chance to really get stuff off their chest.”
Krach firmly believes roundtables are viable and necessary for every culture or situation. “In Germany, they didn’t want to. They tried to fight it and said it wouldn’t work, and that people wouldn’t open up. I said, ‘That’s BS. It will work. And it did.’”