Why company culture matters to leadership

An interview with Replicated CEO Grant Miller

Interested in learning more about the challenges facing leaders of teams at modern tech companies, I was fortunate enough to snag some time with Replicated’s co-founder and CEO Grant Miller. When we met and sat down to chat, we talked about the team, what has been going well for them, the challenges they’re facing, and the items currently top of mind for Grant as a CEO. Here’s what I learned.


MICHAEL: Tell me about Replicated. What are you and the team here working on?

GRANT: My co-founder Marc Campbell and I founded Replicated in 2014. We set out to develop a solution that would allow cloud-native SaaS vendors to distribute a modern adaptation of an “on-prem” or “self-hosted” piece of software behind their customer’s firewall into a corporate data center or on a private cloud. We now have a platform that allows both SaaS and traditional software vendors to operationalize and scale the distribution of their Kubernetes-based applications to the largest enterprises as private instances (we call this “modern on-prem”). Today our platform powers the enterprise distribution of some of the best software in the world (HashiCorp, Gradle, Wickr, Sysdig) to nearly half of the Fortune 100.

Our team grew rather quickly from two to five people and, after raising $5 million in funding from our Series A in late 2016, we began scaling from five to eighteen. That’s the size of the team today.

MICHAEL: As CEO, what do you spend the majority of your time thinking about?

GRANT: As the CEO of a startup, I wear many different hats, all thought-provoking in their ways. Given where Replicated is in terms of its growth stage, a good percentage of my time is spent focusing on culture development and hiring. It is absolutely imperative that we make sure we’re establishing the right systems, solutions, and processes that will make Replicated a highly scalable company from a people operations standpoint.

Product and marketing is another significant area that captures a lot of my attention. For a while, we had a leading product that got some good traction and was growing. Then as Kubernetes adoption started to skyrocket, we knew we needed to course correct to the new market conditions or be left behind. Our world is continually evolving, and we needed to make sure our product continued to be at the frontier. We’re still solving the same problem for our customers, but the value we add is a bit different, and the market opportunity is even bigger. Communicating those changes to the market and our team demands another large percentage of my time.

And then there’s fundraising and business development. That’s always happening. We’re constantly developing relationships with VCs and large, potential partners. Generally, I’m the person managing all of that communication, which naturally takes up a significant amount of time.

MICHAEL: How do you prioritize those tasks alongside all of the other work you’re doing on a daily and weekly basis?

GRANT: I’m often auditing these priorities to make sure that each is getting the attention they deserve. I frequently find myself asking, “What do I not want to do, but is really important (so I need to do it)?” alongside “What could I be doing more or less of to help my team do something better, to get more done and be more productive?”

It’s vital that the rest of the team asks these questions of themselves, in particular, other leaders in our organization. I’m trying to make sure that I’m removing as many roadblocks as possible. And whenever we have a big focus, and I give one of our team members a pretty specific directive, I’m going to follow up with them to make sure we’re making real progress. So auditing and following up are the key drivers to making sure things are getting done.

MICHAEL: What’s currently going well for your team, and where could you possibly use a little support?

GRANT: The people we have are super smart, and they understand the problem we’re trying to solve. They’re good, well-intentioned people. I really like everyone on the team, their outlook, and I genuinely respect and value their contributions. That feels really good.

We’re also fairly dynamic. We’re able to shift focus quickly, which is a true startup advantage. We’re able to pivot and iterate quickly instead of it being a long, drawn out, and potentially painful process. I think this is a reflection of the foundation of our culture, and it’s always been a part of Replicated’s DNA.

We’re now looking for ways to build on top of this. We know we need to come together more and really make an effort to create a tribe. As the team grows, we need to harness the tribe mentality. It leads to trust. I want Replicated to be a place that everyone is excited about, a place where they know their coworkers, value them and have a sense of responsibility for their success. That’s a big focus now: how do we actually take steps to create a great culture.

We’re not all in the same office; four people on the team are remote. Most of them have either started in the main office or have significant experience working with us from previous companies. But making sure they feel included, engaged and part of the core team is always something we’re aiming to do more of.

MICHAEL: And how have you managed to keep those remote employees engaged and connected to the team based in LA?

GRANT: We try to orchestrate having the remote folks in the office at the same time. We’ve been creating company events that put a star on the calendar for when everyone should try to come together. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to get everyone on the same schedule. There’s not a super specific time or frequency that this happens, and perhaps we ought to get better about it.

The biggest challenge is having these remote folks contribute to culture. Interestingly, they are all folks who, when they started in the office, had a really good impact on culture. But as they’ve left, there’s been a gap. Generally, I think they feel reasonably connected. I think it’s more about making the rest of the team feel connected to them. And so with new folks, we’ve noticed the work it takes to get them feeling connected to their remote colleagues.

MICHAEL: With all of that in mind, when you were introduced to Range, what potential did you see for your team?

GRANT: We do a daily standup where we go around and get a sense of what everyone is working on. As a team, this is the place where we are trying to make sure priorities are set, and roadblocks are being avoided. When I was first introduced to Range, I saw an opportunity to move away from everyone listing off intricate tasks to a conversation around high-level priorities and roadblocks. We could create a more thoughtful discussion about work and how to make sure we are all moving in the right direction. We also have more time for personal communication too!

Now that we’ve been using Range, we’ve discovered that the team building questions are fantastic. That’s brought the most value. I thought the help with establishing necessary processes would be the most significant feature, but honestly just asking the team a question each day and having them share a response has helped create and strengthen our interpersonal relationships.

I also like that emojis are a bigger part of Range. I never really understood why people are so “emoji obsessed.” I was talking to HashiCorp’s CTO, Mitchell Hashimoto, and they have a fully remote team. He said, “Hey, look. We actually do emoji training for our team.” And the reason is that when you put an emoji in a message people perceive it many percentage points more positively—there’s a positive connotation to it—rather than if you just sent it without an emoji.

So, familiarizing people with emojis is another small benefit we get from Range. I want people to assume positive intent, and I think you have to give the people you work and spend time with the benefit of the doubt. And if emojis help to do that, if they make people feel more light-hearted and better connected, then there’s value in that to me. It’s about how the other person perceives my message.

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