“It’s the People.”

How Grovo Became the Best Place to Work in NYC Tech

By Matylda Czarnecka

What does it take to build a company whose culture is praised by employees and visitors alike? As the winner of our Best Places to Work in NYC Tech Awards, we thought educational startup Grovo could teach us a few tips. Internet Week sat down with Co-Founder and CEO Jeff Fernandez in the company’s new offices to learn what it takes to build the best.

Jeff Fernandez, Co-Founder and CEO, Grovo

Internet Week: Thanks for taking the time to talk. What’s your story?
Jeff Fernandez: I grew up in northern New Jersey, 10 miles from the George Washington Bridge, graduated from Harvard in 2005 and worked at two startups prior to Grovo. Doostang was first — I was the second employee and helped raise the Series A. Then I joined Clickable as the 20th employee and was with the company as they raised a Series B. That’s where I met Nick, a Grovo co-founder. Surag (CTO) is also a co-founder and we were living together at the time, with a big whiteboard. We were working all the time. In 2010, we were having dinner in Union Square and got a text from a friend asking how to connect Google Analytics to Wordpress. That’s when we became enamored with how to teach people how to use the Internet.

We put in $60,000, which was everything we had, and ran Grovo from our apartments for eight or nine months before we raised seed financing.

Internet Week: How are things now?
It’s even more exciting. It’s been four years since we started doing this and it’s still one of the most exciting things I’ve done. When I took a step back and took a look at that award and that we won it, it hit home.

A view from Grovo’s new offices

Internet Week: What makes Grovo the Best Place to Work?
One of the first things we said was that we needed to build the best culture, even when it was just the three of us. In the past we had worked with really talented people who didn’t do as well as they could have because they weren’t really allowed to be who they are. There wasn’t a certain element of authenticity and respect, which is so important. We wanted to create a place that’s a launchpad for people to do their best work and be fulfilled. We say, “you’ll have a bad day or two, but if you’re ever not excited to come in and get revved up, please let us know.”

A gym, complete with a personal trainer, is one of Grovo’s perks.

Internet Week: How would you describe Grovo’s culture?
It evolves, but I think we stayed true to what we set out to do. We value integrity, honesty and courage that produces transparency and the ability to be direct. We value open and forthright-but-thoughtful communication. It saves you time and allows you to do stuff a whole lot faster. This is a place where you can have frank conversations quickly.

Sometimes I just stand and watch people interacting and see how they treat each other, how they speak to each other, and their physical body language. It’s a warm place, and that’s the balancing act — you need both confidence and humility.

My background is in psychology, and I considered doing a PhD in it. I applied, got in, and figured I’d get back to it when the time was right, but startups got me more excited. There’s a lot of ownership and responsibility for someone more junior to learn a lot faster in a startup environment. It used up my energy in a way other opportunities wouldn’t have.

Internet Week: What are some of the challenges?
A McKinsey study said 9 in 10 knowledge workers don’t feel comfortable with tech skills they are expected to have, which translates to a 21% productivity loss, and $21M loss every year.

The rate of new technology has outpaced the rate of training. People are bringing in their own devices, and it’s challenging to any industry built to serve long cycles. We’re filling the digital skills gap. It’s a whole lot less taboo now to say, “Hey I need training” to get a promotion or a new job.

Grovo’s new office space

Internet Week: What are some of the most popular topics?
Our tutorials are very how-to driven. Guides for Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, Asana and Google Analytics are popular. Our other format is live-action on topics like refining business skills, leadership training, working remotely, email efficiency. People are starting to feel less anxious and embarrassed that they don’t have these skills.

We have nearly 5,000 1–2 minute videos, 150 topics and online tools, and add 15 new ones every day. All of our training follows micro learning methodologies — they’re short videos that remove unnecessary info. The bite-sized training works with how people’s attention spans have evolved. They get to the point, and not only do you complete the training, you retain it better.

We also have a platform on top of the library that’s great for organizations to on-board new employees, track their training performance and create assignments. Companies can insert their own PDFs and Word docs among the training materials as well.

We have users in 190 countries, everything from small and medium-sized businesses to companies like Saatchi & Saatchi and Chevron.

The need for this is really large, and we’re just starting. We’re hiring more people, with a focus on product.

Internet Week: What about Grovo makes it the best place to work?
The people. It’s not only competence, but culture. The combination of those two things helps us attract the kind of person who is smart, hardworking and honest. People who work here are expected to be direct and forthright, but also humble and respectful of different kinds of people, and we look for that very explicitly. Sometimes you have someone who’s competent but won’t contribute to what it’s like to walk through the door.

People tell us all the time that when you walk through the door there’s an energy. You need to watch to make sure you keep that energy. Every person contributes to it, whether very quietly or very loudly.

Internet Week: What have you learned about hiring the right people?
I interview every person we hire, and our talent team is very good. Dynamic matters so much. Do you have a rapport that gets established relatively quickly? That’s what I’ve learned the most, asking questions that are a bit different and open-ended. I think the most value you get from that is that you can answer in a number a of ways. It’s not about the answer, but about your orientation.

I ask people, “what’s the best $100 you’ve ever spent?” Some people don’t know how to answer that question. How you answer is very revealing about what you care about, what you value. Even when someone thinks it’s a trick question, that tells you so much.

Internet Week: What advice would you offer to entrepreneurs aiming to build a great company?
Be resilient. That’s the most important thing. Don’t stop, keep going.

Also, self-awareness matters a lot — knowing who you are, knowing who your co-founders are and being really deliberate about having a vision for what you want it to be, how you want it to feel, what you are really looking for. The more you can document that, put it to paper in the early days of company the better. Being deliberate early is what creates the place. Be true to yourself.

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