A generation of women-founded unicorns is on the rise. Today, over 130 companies founded by women have passed the $1B mark. We’re seeing this exciting trend of women leading growth-stage organizations in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. In these dynamic times, I wanted to bring in an expert in scaling. Enter: Frederic Kerrest, who grew identity and access management platform Okta from a startup to a publicly traded company valued at over $15B. Fast Forward has been lucky to have Okta as a longtime partner of our work scaling the most innovative tech nonprofits – many of which have received mentorship from Frederic directly.
In his recent Wall Street Journal bestselling book Zero to IPO, Frederic interviews founders who have experienced the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of bringing an organization to massive growth. I sat down with him to discuss his biggest takeaways for entrepreneurs looking to take their solution to global scale.
Shannon Farley: You scaled Okta from a startup to a Fortune 200 company. As an expert in growth, what do you think entrepreneurs should focus on as they transition from startup to grownup?
Frederic Kerrest: I’ve learned that every entrepreneur – regardless of stage – should focus on four main pillars: People, Process, Systems, and Data. But to become a more established company, you’ll need to shift your approach to each. Here’s how.
People. While people at startups wear many hats, as your organization matures, focus on hiring people who are experts at what they do. You’ll need a team of highly talented specialists to successfully drive your growth.
Process. Startups are scrappy and have a “whatever it takes” approach. As you grow, your organization needs more structure. Implement processes to help your team know where to go to find information, understand how things are done, and have role clarity.
Systems. HR for startups often looks like one person who manages everything from recruiting to benefits. This workload is no longer manageable as your organization grows. Put systems in place to outline roles and responsibilities, team ownership, and strategic goals for each function.
Data: It’s invaluable. Okta leverages data to highlight gaps in our internal processes, which we’ve been able to quickly address to avoid costly pivots, tech debt, and unhappy customers. It’s much easier to collect data along the way rather than backtracking to uncover insights after an issue arises.
Farley: In Zero to IPO, you interviewed dozens of founders. What other themes came up for entrepreneurs trying to scale?
Kerrest: When it comes to scaling, I’ve seen that the most successful founders prioritize both speed and focus. A bigger organization has the capacity to do more, and faster – but it’s paramount that you focus on the most important initiatives. Aaron Levie at Box, who I interview in the book, said it best: “On the one hand, when you have that many people [on your team], you feel like ‘We can finally do all the million things that we always wanted to do.’ On the other hand, by definition, if you even attempted to do those million things, you would fail miserably.” I couldn’t agree more. Focus on the most high-impact projects to avoid wasting time on lesser ones.
Farley: Do you have any strategies to help founders in the scaling stage determine what to focus on?
Kerrest: At Okta, we use our VMT (vision, methods, targets) framework to focus on our biggest priorities. It’s a powerful tool for aligning our entire workforce to our highest company priorities, ensuring each team member’s day-to-day work supports these focus areas. We have a company-wide VMT that outlines our strategy for the year; every team has a VMT; and every individual has a VMT, all cascading down from the corporate VMT. My advice is to use a framework or process like this to help your team set, execute, and track priorities together as an organization.
Farley: I couldn’t agree more – the OKR framework has been critical to our growth at Fast Forward. Switching gears, you included a number of women leaders in your book. First, thank you. Second, did these conversations reveal any key insights for women founders?
Kerrest: I’m absolutely thrilled to see the growing number of women-founded organizations reaching meaningful scale. When it comes to advice, I believe deeply in the power of mentorship. I encourage women leaders to seek mentors at all stages of their career. I’ve found that it’s especially impactful to surround yourself with mentors and champions who not only have similar career experiences, but who share identities and life experiences. My conversations with incredible women founders in Zero to IPO make it clear that building a network of mentors, and investing in these relationships, is critical to success in the long term.
That said, stay in touch with everyone you meet – the head of engineering at one of your first jobs could one day be your co-founder. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentors I’ve had throughout my life.
Farley: Well said. At Fast Forward, we’ve seen how mentorship can guide tech nonprofit founders through the uncertainties of the growth stage. Now that you’re leading a multi-billion dollar company, what does mentorship look like for you?
Kerrest: Today, I’m committed to paying it forward. I’m a mentor for the MIT Trust Center for Entrepreneurship and the Stanford StartX Accelerator program. And, 100% of the profits from Zero to IPO go to two organizations: Build.org, an entrepreneurship program for underserved high school students, and The Hidden Genius Project, which trains and mentors Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills.
Farley: That’s inspiring to hear. Aside from mentorship, anything else entrepreneurs should keep in mind as they navigate the transition into a more established organization?
Kerrest: As your organization grows, it’s critical that you as the founder grow too. While you may have focused on selling to those first few customers in the early days, that’s not what you’ll be focused on as your company matures. Shifting responsibilities requires your mindset and skill set continue to evolve. Having a growth mindset applies to leaders, not just to the culture of the organization you’re trying to build!
Farley: In this same vein, founder mental health is consistently top of mind for tech nonprofit founders. You confront these topics straight-on in the chapter “Managing Yourself.” What were some of your key takeaways?
Kerrest: Your mental and emotional health is equally – if not more – important than everything else you do as a founder. I have advisors for my physical, mental, and emotional health to make sure that I’m explicitly carving out time for all the things that are most important to helping me stay focused, balanced, and fulfilled.
I use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to help with my prioritization and decision-making. This method has served me very well. I focus on what is important and urgent, delegate what is urgent but not most important, schedule what is important but not urgent, and delete everything else.
Farley: Thank you so much for taking the time to share all this incredibly helpful advice. Frederic, any last words of wisdom for entrepreneurs focusing on scale?
Kerrest: I’ll leave you with my top three takeaways from Zero to IPO:
- Time is your most valuable asset
- Keep the main thing the main thing
- Nothing happens until somebody sells something!
I encourage readers to check out the book for a deeper dive into these takeaways and the important topics we discussed today. It was great chatting, Shannon!
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