“Working at a start-up is grit and personal growth.” – Kristi Zuhlke, CEO and Founder of KnowledgeHound

Kristi Zuhlke, CEO and Founder of Knowledge Hound

Kristi Zuhlke, CEO and Founder of KnowledgeHound, is  discussing leadership team inflation, managers vs. doers, what it’s really like to work at a start-up, and much more on this episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast.



Connect with Kristi on LinkedIn and Twitter.





























Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results.
My name is Adam Robinson and for the next 25 minutes I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.
Today on the program, Kristi Zuhlke is the co-founder and CEO of KnowledgeHound. Founded in 2013, her company has 13 employees, and they just closed a $2.7 million Series A round. Congratulations Kristi, and welcome to the show.
Kristi Zuhlke: Thank you, thank you.
Adam Robinson: We are thrilled to have you on The Best Team Wins where we know that the best learning happens through the sharing of real experiences from fellow entrepreneurs.
One more fun fact about Kristi, she was recently named a Crain’s Chicago Business 40 Under 40 winner. Pretty awesome. You’re in rarefied air my friend, congratulations and well deserved.
Kristi Zuhlke: Thank you, thanks.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. Lots of good stuff going on with you. We’re excited to learn a lot, but first, let’s start off on the right foot. As is the tradition here on The Best Team Wins Podcast, we always start off with our guest on the right foot, and that’s the best business news, or personal news, that’s happened to you in the past seven days. Kristi, how about it? What’s your right foot?
Kristi Zuhlke: You stole my right foot of being Crain’s 40 Under 40, so I’ll take a different one. We announced our Series A funding of $2.7 million and it was featured in the Wall Street Journal.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, I saw that. Very cool.
Kristi Zuhlke: That was great because we sell to Fortune 1000, and it was amazing exposure for us.
Adam Robinson: I know how hard it is to get financing at any stage, and very cool. Congratulations. All the stuff is happening right now with you, it’s so cool.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah.
Adam Robinson: Okay. Jumping right in. Very quickly, what is KnowledgeHound? Give us the pitch.
Kristi Zuhlke: For those of you who don’t understand the market research world, you can simply think about it as we are the Google of market research for an individual company. If you’ve got market research, we’re going to put it in a database, layer on top a search engine and a visualization tool, and now you can search anything. If you’ve got it inside your company, we’re going to visualize it in a data point.
Adam Robinson: Why is that a problem?
Kristi Zuhlke: Today companies are spending millions of dollars on market research. They’re getting it back in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, and that they’re saving it on their hard drives. They are redoing the same research over and over and over, and they don’t even know it.
They’re being super inefficient with their time, because they’re spending a lot of time just looking for data. Especially these large companies, where startups are eating their lunch, frankly, because they can move so much faster. These corporations need to figure out how to move faster. Move at the speed of a startup.
One of those bottlenecks today is that these organizations just can’t … They have the data, they’ve got to go find it. They want to make a consumer-driven decision, which is the right way to go, but it just takes so long for them to get that consumer insight.
With KnowledgeHound, we unlock that power of data being stuck on hard drives. Now we make it visual and easy so they can make decisions on the fly much faster, so much more efficient, and save a lot of money.
Adam Robinson: You make some customers very happy, I’m sure.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yes.
Adam Robinson: Okay. Kristi, let’s talk about the people side of KnowledgeHound. I heard on another podcast that you did, called Founder To CEO with Todd Uterstaedt, that you were looking for a co-founder. When you started the business, you started looking for a co-founder, that you wanted a team. Let’s start with your team now. Walk us through your leadership team. What roles are sitting around the table when you guys meet?
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah, absolutely. We’re three and a half years into this adventure, just to give you some perspective on where the company is at. We’re at 13 employees, so it’s very different than where I was three and a half years ago. The team has to look very different.
One thing that has been very instrumental in our growth is actually bringing on a COO/CFO, so Chief Operating Officer. He also operates as our Chief Financial Officer as well, Jim Holtzman. He has been fantastic for the organization because he compliments me in so many ways.
I am very much the visionary. I know the market extremely well. I love to ideate. I love the product. I’m a risk-taker, and I’m an optimist.
Jim is the complete opposite. Jim loves the financials. He loves the day-to-day operations. He loves negotiating legal contracts. I hate that stuff.
Adam Robinson: Somebody’s got to do it.
Kristi Zuhlke: Someone’s got to do it. He has just become such a great compliment to me. A lot of times we butt heads because we have such different personalities, or I guess we have similar personalities, but we have such different strengths so think about things in different ways. It has been a tremendous help for not only me as a leader, but also for the organization, because it gets a really great balance.
Jim has been a really great anchor and has been, especially after raising a Series A, I think that feels right for when you need to bring on to your leadership team someone who can get everything in line. You know, the financials in place, and the operations down. We didn’t have someone like that before. I think right after a Series A is a great time to add that to your leadership team.
The other folks on the leadership team is someone in marketing, someone in sales, someone in product, and someone in tech.
One problem that I had, about a year ago now, was leadership team inflation.
Adam Robinson: Okay.
Kristi Zuhlke: That was where I wanted to include everyone into discussions because I wanted them to feel like it was part of their organization, but it became very inefficient. Then it became like, “Who’s really making the decisions?”
One of the hardest decisions I had to make was I actually decreased our leadership team and take people off. That’s a hard conversation to have.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, I was just going to ask, how do you have the … Fire me off the leadership team right now. What does that sound like?
Kristi Zuhlke: Their functions? Or …
Adam Robinson: No. Tell me. I’m a member of your leadership team-
Kristi Zuhlke: Oh fire, yeah.
Adam Robinson: … and I’ve got to go. What do you say to me?
Kristi Zuhlke: I got you. I’m actually firing you off the team.
Adam Robinson: Yeah.
Kristi Zuhlke: We’re a startup and we need to operate extremely efficient. We are not operating efficiently today there are a few reasons, it’s blurred lines as to who’s responsible for what, who’s accountable for what, and there’s too many voices in the decisions we need to make. So at this time, we’re going to have you step back off of the leadership team, but specifically so that you can focus on owning this specific part of the business, and your voice will be heard in this leadership team by feeding that through me. Or whoever else.
Adam Robinson: You’re a pro. That’s good.
Kristi Zuhlke: So I just fired you. Do you feel terrible?
Adam Robinson: Yeah, no, I feel great about myself.
Kristi Zuhlke: Okay, good.
Adam Robinson: That was awesome. Well done. Okay. Cool. That was great. Very good. With a COO and a Series A behind you, who are your direct reports and has that changed now? It sounds like you’ve rewired the way you manage the business pretty substantially.
Kristi Zuhlke: People who are more on the operations side report to Jim, so more of the data … We do a lot of data cleaning in our business, so Jim’s really taking care of that operational level.
Who is reporting to me specifically is our VP of Engineering, our VP of Product, all of our sales team, and a Senior Manager of Client Success. I have a lot of people reporting to me right now.
I think the hardest part is that we don’t have a VP of Sales yet. We’re just a little too early. What we want, and what we need, is people out there closing deals and not managing a team, but just calling out and making sales.
I think that’s the biggest part that I struggle with is that I now have four sales people reporting right to me. That won’t be sustainable for very long, but we need more sales in order to hire our VP of Sales.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, makes sense. You’d rather deploy money to produce than deploy money to have someone manage production.
Kristi Zuhlke: That’s right. It’s a hard balance to figure out. When you’re hiring for people at the beginning, you have to hire doers. People who are going to get stuff done. A lot of times I watch my peers hire people who come from corporate America, and they completely fail, and you’re like, “Why did they fail?” One of the main reasons was because they’re so used to just managing, and not having to do things.
That’s a critical piece of a startup. I think we’re still going to be in that phase of doing, probably for the next 18 months.
Adam Robinson: Sure. Yep. How do you find this team? Where have you found your people?
Kristi Zuhlke: Mostly through my network.
Adam Robinson: Great.
Kristi Zuhlke: Which is exhausting and not super scalable. We have used recruiters more recently, because it is so time intensive. Also, I found that the more people I can interview, the better a benchmarking I can do. We just recently this past week hired three sales people.
Adam Robinson: Wow.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah. We hired a sales development rep, and then two mid-tier account executives, sales account executives. Two of them came through recruiters and one came through my personal network.
Adam Robinson: Okay. As a, I know, a core values focused business, talk about your company’s core values, and what that means, and how you use those to bring the right people in.
Kristi Zuhlke: Awesome question because this is something new for us. I hired a VP of Engineering about three months ago, Jack Korabelnikov, and he is awesome. He came in within the first week, he sat down with me and he’s like, “Kristi. I think your hiring process was good,” he’s like “but I can make it so much better,” and I was like, “Do tell,” and he was like, “I really believe in culture as an important part of startups in any company.” He said, “A lot of that is important in your hiring process.” He’s like, “I have a better way to do interviewing.” He’s like, “Let’s take your values and interview based on those values.”
Adam Robinson: I like this guy.
Kristi Zuhlke: He’s amazing. He’s the best. Oh my gosh. He’s amazing.
Adam Robinson: He’s giving you good advice.
Kristi Zuhlke: Fantastic advice, and I didn’t have to do anything. He put the whole thing together, and then he did training sessions. He trained us in two groups, and he had us do role playing. That’s the type of people that you want to hire, is when I don’t have to do any of the work. He identified the opportunity, he came with a solution, and he executed. He just has made my life so much easier-
Adam Robinson: Amen to that.
Kristi Zuhlke: … as CEO.
Adam Robinson: What are your core values? What did you come up with?
Kristi Zuhlke: We are customer obsessed. We live passionately. We own it. We’re team first always. We create, innovate, and disrupt. We’re biased to action, which is really important in a startup because we don’t have a lot of time to think about things. We expect ourselves to be extraordinary.
Adam Robinson: That’s awesome. All right. You’re feeling good about those.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yep.
Adam Robinson: That’s good. Our listeners love to hear about different people models, right? That’s the business model that governs the people side of your business, so for example, are you a company that’s planning on, or focused on, hiring early or entry-level, high potential hires and investing in them, or are you spending more of your capital to hire experience and specialized skills? Take us through it.
Kristi Zuhlke: Definitely not, well, specialized is a hard word to maybe describe what we’re doing because specialized to me, coming … I used to work in corporate America, and specialized to me means you only do this one piece of, you just do marketing, or you just do research, or you just do finance. You’re really, really good at those things, but you never wear multiple hats.
At a company the size we are, everyone has to wear multiple hats. Some nights you’re sweeping the floor, some days you’re having meetings with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You just have to be able to wear out many hats.
We do look for experienced people. A great example is that we hired this sales development rep. There’s a lot of young people coming out of college that could be go-getters, that would match our values, that would be super ambitious, but I would have to train them, because they’re reporting to me. I’ve never had a sales role before in my life. I’m getting better at sales, by the way.
Adam Robinson: I can imagine you are.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah, but because I have to, right? For survival.
What was really important to us is that they at least had six months of working as a sales development rep. Which is hard because sales development reps typically only are SDRs for, like, a year and a half, because they’re really going for their promotion, so we had to find the sweet spot. We found the guy, and not only is he, he has about six months experience, but he’s also the go-getter, the super positive attitude, and he’s going to do phenomenal.
Adam Robinson: Fantastic. Thanks for taking us through that. On your careers page it says, “Working at a startup doesn’t have to just mean ping-pong and a beer fridge.” I agree wholeheartedly, as a company that has both of those things ironically, but for the right reasons I like to think. How do you manage what a startup means? What do you sell? People will always say to me in interviews, “You know, I’ve always wanted to work at a startup, so that’s why I’m interested in your position.” In so many ways it makes me cringe when I hear a candidate say that, because what that tells me is they don’t really know that it can be not a lot of fun, and it’s not about ping-pong. Tell me what it means to you. What is working at a startup?
Kristi Zuhlke: Working at a startup is grit and personal growth. I’ll add a third, an opportunity. Grit, for sure. Like you said, it’s not easy. This is one of the hardest things you’ll do. A lot of that has to do with how demanding the company is, but also what happens a lot in startups is the company grows at a speed. Hopefully it’s a very rapid speed. What happens then is you either, as an individual, have to grow with the company, or you have to figure out how your skill set now fits in a different capacity inside that company that’s now grown. Or you have to have a hard conversation with yourself to say, “I’m not right for the company anymore.” Grit, it’s about every day hard stuff but also it’s about growing yourself as an individual.
Opportunity is when the company grows like that, that means it opens up a lot of opportunity for moving up inside the organization, for getting different experiences. You can either use that growth to your advantage, or it could take you down. I think it’s more about the experience, being in a startup, than it is about the physical things.
Adam Robinson: I have rarely heard a more succinct or accurate description of what it’s like. Grit and personal growth. I love it. I’ve never heard anyone describe it like that. It’s very cool.
Speaking of, your company has a fantastic careers page, so congratulations. I think your employment brand is spectacular.
Kristi Zuhlke: Thanks.
Adam Robinson: I’m curious. Do you find or source applicants, I know you said through your referral network, but through your careers page? Of your non-network applicants, share with our audience what’s working best for you. What are the tricks or hacks you’ve figured out.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah, so we have been getting inbound through our website. We haven’t hired off of that, but I’ll tell you we haven’t hired anyone whose come through an inbound is what I mean. However, what we do is, especially through the recruiters, the recruiters will say like, “This company, KnowledgeHound, is looking for people,” and people get approached by recruiters all the time. Especially developers. Especially developers.
My thought is that your website is very much your business card … now, today … and that candidate’s first moment of truth with your organization. You either get them there or you don’t, so the careers page is actually really important to communicate what it’s like to work your organization.
I find it most helpful when we ask people, we ask them, “Why did you decide to take this opportunity, and why do you think you would be a good fit for KnowledgeHound,” they can talk to us about the careers page, our values, any of that, and how they fit. It’s a great way for actually the candidate to sell themselves, and us to sell ourselves to the candidate.
Adam Robinson: Sure. What, in an interview situation … You mentioned these interview guides that your technology leader created for you. What’s your favorite interview question?
Kristi Zuhlke: My favorite interview question is actually, it’s more of questions that I’m probably not going to give you, some people give you crazy questions that they ask …
Adam Robinson: We are qualifier-free here on The Best Team Wins Podcast, please go ahead.
Kristi Zuhlke: Sorry.
Adam Robinson: All good.
Kristi Zuhlke: My favorite type of question to ask is behavioral-based questions. Tell me a time when you owned it. So we’ll say, “Tell me a time when someone in your organization wasn’t operating on, or you weren’t operating on time. How did you get yourself back on time and really owned it.” It’s amazing how many people cannot give you a specific example, and then they can’t tell you the outcome. Then you push on them harder and they still can’t do it, and you realize that they probably haven’t done it before, even though they claimed it on their resume. I think that’s the best way to interview.
Adam Robinson: You’re preaching the gospel now, I love it. What is the biggest people-related lesson you’ve learned since launching your business?
Kristi Zuhlke: Oh, my gosh. One thing that I struggled with coming into being a manager, is … and I think this has a little bit to do with having a female perspective of things … has been I believe the best in people. I want them to succeed, sometimes, more than they want to succeed themselves.
Also I want people to like me. It’s been really hard for me to learn, I’m getting better at it, but it’s been really hard for me to learn that you … A mentor of mine told me, “Kristi, all you need to do is be fair. And when you’re fair, people respect you more, and you’re going to have to make really hard decisions.” I think it’s just really being fair and being fair to the company. Realizing the company as a whole needs to move forward, and you can’t put at risk the whole company for a single individual’s lack of ability, or lack of motivation, or lack of knowledge.
Adam Robinson: Well said. Fantastic stuff. All right, final question here, before we move on to the lightning round. What does the Director of Happiness do at KnowledgeHound? I know you’ve got a Director of Happiness. What is that all about?
Kristi Zuhlke: Yes. Sammy’s very important. She has a couple direct reports. Titan, who is a 142 pound Great Dane.
Adam Robinson: Wow.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah, he’s ginormous. And Mack who is a little 30 pound rescue dog. Their whole purpose is just to bring joy to the office every day, and they do. It’s amazing. They don’t know when we, like when we’ve lost a sale it’s like, their tails are just wagging and happy, so it’s their job to be happy all the time.
Adam Robinson: You put the hound in KnowledgeHound.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yeah, exactly.
Adam Robinson: It’s good. All right. Now for the lightning round. A couple of questions here about the direction of things. Do you think the U.S. economy, based on what you’re seeing, is getting better or worse over the next 12 months?
Kristi Zuhlke: Neither.
Adam Robinson: Flat.
Kristi Zuhlke: Flat.
Adam Robinson: Flat, okay. Do you think it’s getting harder or easier to find the people you need to grow your business over the next 12 months?
Kristi Zuhlke: Just as hard.
Adam Robinson: So hard, and staying hard.
Kristi Zuhlke: Yes.
Adam Robinson: Okay. And then, what’s on your nightstand? What book are you reading right now, and would you recommend it to our audience?
Kristi Zuhlke: Crossing the Chasm. Reading it for the second time, it’s meant something totally different, to me, at an early seed stage to where I’m at today and yes, I would recommend it.
Adam Robinson: That’s awesome. All right, our closing question here. If you were to come back on the show one year from now, and report on whether or not you accomplished the most important thing on your plate right now, what are you reporting on?
Kristi Zuhlke: I have quintupled my revenue.
Adam Robinson: You know what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s fantastic.
That’s the final word. You’ve been learning from Kristi Zuhlke, co-founder and CEO at KnowledgeHound. Kristi, thank you for being with us on the program.
Kristi Zuhlke: Thanks for having me.
Adam Robinson: That’s a wrap for this episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. I’m Adam Robinson, author of the book The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at www.thebestteamwins.com. We will see you next week.