I am in the talent business. At least, that’s how my business is categorized. However, I do believe we are all in the talent business now because of the shift that employees have for their employers. Leaders can no longer afford to just go about things in the normal way. My guest couldn’t agree more. Kevin Miller, the CEO and Cofounder of Gr0, a digital marketing agency based out of California specializing in SEO Services, has built his business very fast.
He opened up this business in April 2020, a time when I do not think very many people were thinking of starting a business, but he has managed to grow it from him and his cofounder to over 100 employees. That doesn’t happen easily, and that certainly doesn’t happen without some pain, but it is a testament to his remarkable leadership abilities and his belief that he can create a culture where people can thrive. Kevin Miller, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much for having me, Kendra. I’m super excited to be here. I’m very passionate about people and culture. There’s a lot for us to talk about.
We have a similar background in that we both came from big companies. You came from Google. I came from IBM. I feel like that experience shaped me as a leader. Tell me a little about your experience being a leader at Google.
I was there from 2014 to 2016. From the moment I arrived, it was clear that employees’ personal and professional lives were prioritized. The net effect of that through the myriad of things that they did, which I can get into, was that they made me want to work hard in my role. They made me want to succeed and help other employees. It was an environment where everyone was given mutual respect. You have the ability to disagree with another person, but all ideas are welcomed and able to be heard out. Because I could tell that they cared about me as a person, it changed how I viewed my work. It made me incredibly motivated.
Google did a study a couple of years ago. It came out during that period you were there even. You worked with McKinsey to study what made organizations or certain parts of Google more effective than others. Their result was that particular leaders of that group cared for their employees. It’s simple, yet few people do it. What did it mean for them to care for you? What did they do? What were some of the actions that they took that you’ve brought out into Gr0?
I was 23 at the time. One of my best friends from high school and growing up was diagnosed with cancer. I needed to take a month off of work, which was highly abnormal because I had only been at Google for 30 days. They came to me and said, “No problem. We understand. You can go home. We’re going to pay you for the entire time,” and he passed away. There was a funeral and things like that. I was blown away. I thought they weren’t going to allow that because it was not their problem. They cared for me in a way that I thought was incredible in general, but also because of the short period of time that I was there.
Where that carries itself out in my workplace is I come from an experience of being an alcoholic. Alcoholics Anonymous with my cofounder, Jon, we both met in sobriety. We talk about our addiction struggles with our team members. If they’re experiencing anything like that, or they have a death in the family or some tragic event, it’s not taboo to talk about it. They’re able to just tell us very transparently. They don’t have to hide it.
We make accommodations for them, as in life, those things happen. Good and bad things happen in life. We accommodate that. Because I experienced that myself, I now know what it means to give that gift to someone else. At our workplace, we’re able to lead by example by saying, “We understand the different pitfalls you can fall into in life. Here’s ours. Tell us about yours.” It makes everyone feel more included and comfortable in the workplace because they can bring their whole self to work.
That’s a big thing that people need now. Life is crossed over into work now because of our phones and their ability to work anywhere and all the time. We have to bring our whole person into the workforce now.
Especially with parents, the way that Google would treat parents was incredibly well, starting with extended parental leave for both the mother and father. We do that here as well, which is highly abnormal for a startup our size. You have to make that conscious decision to offer that type of benefit. We got a PEO from ADP, which I’m thrilled about. Most people don’t care about that stuff, but I do because it gives our employees incredible benefits as good as if they were to be at Google, Microsoft or IBM. That encourages people to stay at the company and want to build a career here. It goes a long way.
The benefits are like breathing. You have to have it. It’s an important part, but it’s not something people think about and sometimes even take for granted. There are other things that contribute a lot to the culture. What are other things that you’re doing aside from the great benefits you do to create this condition for people to thrive? We’ve got the care. You’ve probably got some other fun things you do.
We have a system set up where when you come into the company, you are randomly assigned to chat with every single other member of the company throughout the course of a twelve-month period. It does take that long because we have 100 people, but I want my people to speak to each other, even if they have no relationship in their day-to-day work with each other. I want them to know who they are. I want them to get to know them as a person. We have 15 and 30-minute meetings set up randomly throughout everyone’s calendar on a weekly basis to help them get to know each other and ask questions about their personal life.
Seventy percent of our company is remote. That represents all 50 states. We have to go to that link to do that. Another thing that we’ll do is we’ll host events on a monthly basis that encourage people to have fun. We had a virtual or Zoom comedy show that the entire company participated in during work hours. That brings people together. It makes them feel like they care. The United States went through a crisis with rising gas prices. We sent everyone gas cards to try to mitigate that type of thing.
It’s a small amount of money. Let’s say $25 or $50 per person, but that goes a long way for you as an individual to realize like, “My employer is watching out. This has nothing to do with work. This has to do with making my life a little bit easier.” I’m constantly thinking of things that are circumstantial, like the ones I described, to help people feel valued, considered and important. The benefits are just table stakes. Everybody offers them. Some are better than others, but we try to over-index on how we make people feel and make them feel valued. That can be monetary but also non-monetary.
Honestly, the best way to do it is in a non-monetary fashion. Another example would be we have a set of core values. Every week, we pick a core value that we want to highlight. We want to call out employees who personify that value. For example, our core value was to over-communicate and educate. That’s one of the core tenets of how we work with our customers. I was able to get recommendations from nine different employees who recommended other employees with a write-up as to why they personify that core value. I was able to commend them and talk about them in all-hands meetings in front of the whole company. That doesn’t cost a dollar. It’s just time and thoughtfulness. We prepare for that. It makes people feel great to be recognized.
The other element of this that you’re creating is a tribe in a way that word has a negative connotation to it. How it shows up for me is that people feel like they’ve got a community inside your organization, and community is ultimately defined by people who care for each other. When you’re asking people to get to know each other on a deeper level than, “What do you do? Where do you sit? Where are you from?” you’re creating that community with people.
Creating a community nowadays is very hard to do when half of your staff or more is remote because you have to look at the community from a remote and in-person perspective completely differently. There’s a lot of stuff we do in our headquarters office in Los Angeles that’s different than what we do for remote employees, getting people to go to lunch, coffee, or coffee walks together to pay for their coffee so they can have time together.
I’ve learned that, ultimately, this benefits the individual, but it also benefits the business if employees like each other. It comes down to that. Companies are a melting pot. You’re hiring the best man or woman for the job. People come from all different socio-economic and racial backgrounds. What I always try to try to teach people is that we’re fair and everyone’s opinion is valued. Nobody is better than the next person. They can see that with the way that I behave.
I’ve always told people, “There’s nothing that I would ask one of my employees to do that I wouldn’t do myself, including throwing the trash out in the kitchen and stocking up the refrigerator with water. I’m not above any of that stuff because I’m the CEO.” That goes a long way with employees knowing that you consider yourself a peer. I consider that I work with my employees, not that they work for me. That’s a big difference.
I don’t like that statement when I meet people and they say, “What do you do?” I say, “I run a business.” “Do you have staff?” I always want to be like, “I pay their paycheck. I write the check. That’s it. We’re such a team.” It’s such a symbiotic relationship where we each gain from each other. It’s hard for me to say that someone works for me. One of the guys that are on my team teases me because he knows it gets me. He’ll call me boss lady. I’m like, “Do not call me boss lady.”
I don’t like that either.
This wasn’t probably very easy growing that fast. I’m sure you had some mistakes along the way. Do you mind sharing some of the things you learned? It’s been such a short period of time that you’ve been in business. I’d love to get an idea of what were some quick learnings you had in the early days.
We’ve learned much on the hiring front. My business partner and I, first of all, interview every single person that comes into the company. That’s number one. I highly recommend that to any other CEO or founder. You want to make sure that you get to meet that person face to face. Not only is it important to make sure that they are a culture fit as you define it, but it’s very important for them to know who you are. You don’t want them to work for like a faceless or nameless CEO. We ask questions about where they came from, like how they grew up, what their family life was like, and what motivated them to take this job. Prior to starting this company, I worked at Google and a lot of other San Francisco-based tech companies.
If you’re at Google, Facebook or Snapchat, those employees move around a lot. They get poached by Airbnb and all these other companies that can pay so much. They’re not moving companies for the right reason. You want to understand why someone is motivated to work at your company. We try to find the people that want the job for a very valid reason, versus we’re paying $10,000 more than probably the place they were at before because if that’s the reason, then they’re going to leave us when someone offers them $10,000 more.
I look for things like punctuality, whether they are on time for the interview, or politeness and professionalism. If I can tell they’re disengaged, even just not focusing, I don’t want to hire them. I’m looking for people who are intentional. By the time they get to myself and my business partner, we’ve already validated that they have the skills to do the job. It’s just a personal cultural interview. We ask ourselves like, “Do we like this person’s story? Do we feel like they embody what we embody?” Another core value of ours is having an attitude of gratitude.
We need people who are grateful for the opportunities that they have in their lives and don’t take it for granted because it all comes down to attitude, especially with the younger generation. It’s funny for me to say this, but there is a major shift in mentality and what it means to work and work hard if you’re 25 or below, mainly the Gen Z age range. That can be a controversial view, but I have noticed that. You have to drill in if you’re a younger company. Our average age is somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 or 28, and you’ve got to just get to know the person. It all comes back to what’s their motivation for the role and how you make sure that they’re there for the right reasons.
I have distinctive memories of being a new employee. I remember so much about that time. I remember being such a dork. I was the girl that sent an email to our general manager and suggested some things they should do for strategy. I’m just 23 and was so stupid. It was well intended. I hear those stories now of our incoming generation. I think it is just youth. I believe we just have to teach people how to have a job. I don’t think I worked that hard when I was 23. I didn’t have enough context for why because I have a couple of Zoomers, as they’re now known on my team. They’re amazing.
We’re coaching them along the way about what it means to have a job and how you show up. That’s interesting. You also mentioned something else that I want to come back to around creating this culture where you have the remote as well as in-person. Can we go back to that? I’m curious about what you are doing for your remote employees to help them feel connected. You’ve got these interviews you set up. What other things are you doing?
We do a lot of other virtual events. The comedy show is one idea. We do other events like cooking and mixology classes and things like that so that they can do that on an interactive basis. I try to think of things that are non-work related that can get them in the same room. What I do try to do is if we ever have a company off-site or an event, if I’m in an area where I know we have some employees, I make sure that we all meet up. Even if it’s not at our office, we’ll make arrangements for them to come to join us if they’re in the area.
For example, we have a group of 7 or 8 employees in Lynchburg, Virginia, not for any particular reason. They just all happen to live there because good people refer good people. There’s a group of them that are fantastic that just have referred each other and their friends. We’ll pay for them to go out to dinner as a group. I’m very in tune with where people live and what groups that people live where. We have a team member on our HR team that’s in charge of inclusion, culture and making sure that we are connecting all the individuals we can. That’s how we do it. It’s not a specific science, but we go through each group of people and make sure that they’re all together.
What’s unique about you is you are thinking about your people a lot. My brain thinks about my cash, where to spend it, how to find it, and all that. My products and services, are they competitive? Are they doing the right thing for the market? A third of my time has been spent on my people, products and cash. That’s where my brain is always out when it comes to business. I don’t meet very many leaders who think like that. You’re thinking about what you can do a lot. It’s on your mind a lot.
In my business, specifically, the reason that a lot of businesses have grown and done what they’ve done without having great cultures is because they may be heavily reliant on their technology. For example, Airbnb, Uber or Lyft can have big layoffs or big changes. Twitter is a better example. Twitter is going to run regardless. The same with Instagram. The owners of those businesses don’t have to be as in tune because the end user doesn’t notice a lapse of the tool when they’re using it if the internal culture is not great.
When it comes to a digital marketing agency, our people are our product. We’re effectively selling their time and their strategy. If they’re not happy, they’re not going to go the extra mile for their client or deliver for their clients. You cannot survive if you’re a people or services-based company if you don’t have a culture like this, even in the case of Uber and Lyft. That’s why I hesitate when I say them. Their drivers have to be happy. What happens when their drivers are not happy because they’re not being paid? They go on strike. That’s happened multiple times because both companies raised a bunch of money and cared about their end user and internal people, but they didn’t care about the people carrying out their core service. That was a big oversight, and both companies paid for it.
They learned the hard way if they treated their drivers better, and honestly, Lyft did a much better job than Uber. There are tons of articles and documentation on this where Lyft drivers were always paid better and treated better that’s why the company did well with less funding and didn’t have this major revolt of people not willing to drive as Uber did. It catches up with you. In this day and age, you have to treat people the way that you want to be treated. It has to happen. I’m a firm believer in that.
Let’s spend a minute on how you’ve scaled this culture. Go ahead and share a little bit about how you’ve done this. I have some thoughts that I want to maybe add to it.
First, all of our employees are organic. They all came through a very specific, consistent recruiting process. We haven’t had any major acquisitions or mergers where people come from different cultures. They’ve all come in and had the same first impression of what it means to work at Gr0. For example, you sign your offer letter at Gr0, and that same day, we have a welcome box that gets sent to you with a t-shirt, coffee mug, hat, and all these different things that like make you feel a part of. That’s your first impression of Gr0. Every single person who’s come into Gr0 had the same experience in their onboarding. It’s very intensive.
They get to meet a number of people and get trained for at least a month before they work with a client. It’s very uniform. We then introduce them to our core values. Every single person meets with me. They get to hear from me, in particular, what I expect out of them, what our core values mean and why we’ve chosen them. That happens with every single employee. Every week, we have an all-hands meeting for an hour. You hear from every single department head as well as myself. That meeting is highly focused on core values and connecting our work to our core values.
It’s very hard to mistake that, but then people get bought into this culture of being kind. We believe you don’t have to be rude and mean to have business success. You can do it without that. I have a lot of stewards that have learned from me, and then they carry it on. I don’t even need to be in the room, and they are exemplifying what it means to work at Gr0. That’s how we’ve done it. It’s like cross-pollinated organically. I’ve hired a number of good people. They’ve referred better people. We put them in management positions. You can’t be a jerk and work at Gr0. I always tell people, “I’ll fire you if I hear that you’re being rude and disrespectful.” That goes for internal and clients.
One of our values too is no jerks.
I wrote an email to a client who cussed to one of my employees. I said, “That’s not acceptable. All business matters aside, I don’t care what happened. I don’t condone that. We’re not working with you anymore.” They were upset, but they probably hadn’t been spoken to like that before. There were days when I used to put up with that behavior because we needed the money. Now we don’t, and I take the liberty of letting people know that, “I don’t want you in my sphere. It’s too negative. I’m allergic to negative energy.” I’m never going to subject my employees to rude clients just for money. That goes the longest way with employees. When they see that I catch wind of that, and then I fire the client to preserve their mental health, how could that not make them want to work here?
That is a true testament to strong values because when you have the kind of values that make tough decisions easy, then you’ve got real value. Your employees know what your real values are if you’re hiding behind something that looks great on a wall or sounds great to customers, but you’re not living that. Employees know that. It’s like your kids know what your buttons are. That’s excellent. I applaud that. It’s very unique. That’s not a lot of leaders are doing, especially in your industry.
You don’t want to lose the revenue, but that’s like your put up or shut up moment as a leader. You get to prove to your team that you took a revenue hit to preserve culture. That speaks for itself. I don’t even need to say anything.
It comes back around to what you said about you never going to ask your employees to do something that you wouldn’t do. You don’t want to work with those types of jerks. Why would you want your employees to do that? That’s how I feel too.
When I make an ask as a manager, people don’t say no, because they know that I’m not recommending this to put more work on their plate. This is what has to be done. I would do it if I had the time myself. It’s not like everybody knows we’re on an equal playing field.
For this final interview with you, you are doing the review and figuring out their person’s story if they’re a fit or not. Have there been people where you’ve been a little on the fence, and you still brought him in?
What happened? Did it work out?
Yes and no. It depends. Sometimes you can’t tell enough from a 30-minute final meeting, even with my partner conferring. There’s no substitute for getting someone into the role and seeing how they performed because you can see how they do over time. You asked a question about how we scale to 100 employees. The key is not a lot of people left. The thing that has been helpful for our growth is that we’ve created a workplace where people want to stay. It sounds like a huge number, 100 W-2 employees, because we also have 100 contractors. It’s 200 in total, but it added up one by one.
That’s not to say that we haven’t had people leave. We’ve had a number of employees leave voluntarily because they were burned out. We couldn’t hire fast enough at one point to keep up with the demand. We didn’t have a level system in place for a year that could articulate clearly what someone’s career path was. We had some people leave because of that to go to a more mature company. It’s certainly not without growing pains. We’ve had more turnover than I’m fairly and frankly comfortable with. I’ve been racing to improve those parts of our business to make sure that we can improve retention. One of my big metrics for 2023 is the employee retention rate, where 1 out of 10 or less for employees that leave voluntarily in general. That’s what I’m thinking.
After going through this for a long time myself, and thinking about it all the time, even when they leave voluntarily, is it something that you could have had control over or is it something you could have caught in an interview? I’ve had people leave me voluntarily for amazing jobs that I would not be able to offer. I’m super proud of the fact that I’ve grown a few executives out of my business that left and went in to run bigger organizations and had bigger titles. That’s awesome for them. We weren’t in a spot to do that for them. I don’t worry much about that kind of turnover. It’s the turnover where people are like, “It wasn’t me. It was you. It wasn’t you, it was me,” whatever version of that could I have done differently.
Here’s another thing that’s actionable that other people reading this can take away that I think is great. I conduct every exit interview. If someone leaves voluntarily, I meet with them. I understand what went wrong. I say, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings at all. My job is to make sure that this workplace gets better.” If someone’s leaving within six months, that means it’s not their fault, 9 times out of 10, it’s the employers’ fault. We didn’t do something, or we didn’t meet their expectations. I politely asked that and wanted to know what that was so I could fix it.
If it’s you, as the founder, they’ll typically give you that information, but most founders don’t do that. They don’t think it’s worth their time, or they forget about it. I don’t think that’s smart. Having an HR person do it, I don’t know if the information gets back to you as the founder in its full format. I’ve been able to make multiple changes as a result of feedback that I’ve gotten in those meetings. Also, it de-escalates the situation too. If someone’s upset about something, but they get your time as the CEO, that’s a respectful act. They typically leave the company less mad. One of the most important things is to limit negative word of mouth and not burn a bridge.
I always tell all my employees, “We don’t burn any bridges, no matter what.” If someone has a horrible experience here, that’s unfortunate, but we’ll talk it through. No one’s ever going to leave saying, “Those people were horrible. They did this or that to me.” We don’t engage in that activity. We’re too mature and too much of an adult to do that. That goes a long way too.
That’s a perfect way to end this. Thank you so much for your insights on this. I’m impressed by what you’ve been doing and what you’re doing. I hope you’re able to use this as part of your employment brand, too, because I want more people to know the amazing work you’ve got going on internally and externally there at Gr0.
I would love to. Thank you much for having me. I appreciate it.
About Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller brings a wealth of marketing experience with a background working at Google, Open Listings, as well as consulting with smaller firms and startups. In 2020, Kevin left Opendoor to co-found GR0, an SEO agency, with his long-time friend Jonathan Zacharias. GR0 has worked with premium brands including Theragun, Ritual, Pressed Juicery, Hydrow, Venus Et Fleur, Universal Music Group, and more. Now serving as the Chief Executive Officer, Kevin has built GR0’s strong reputation as the go-to agency for organic search, consistently delivering measurable increases in organic traffic and revenue derived from the organic channel.