Kevin Gregson of Aniline: “Alignment”

Alignment.You can’t be a great company unless you have alignment across the organization. As a leader, getting alignment can be time consuming, requires patience and energy. Yet, nothing will push a company to mediocrity faster than not having it. Alignment doesn’t mean, “no difference of opinion,” it means once differences are expressed, considered, and a […]

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Alignment.You can’t be a great company unless you have alignment across the organization. As a leader, getting alignment can be time consuming, requires patience and energy. Yet, nothing will push a company to mediocrity faster than not having it. Alignment doesn’t mean, “no difference of opinion,” it means once differences are expressed, considered, and a path chosen, it’s time to get on board.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Gregson, CEO & Co-Founder of Aniline.

A consulting industry veteran, technology entrepreneur, and insurance industry innovator, Kevin formed Aniline while working on the insurance vertical of Plug and Play, a technology incubator in the Silicon Valley. His vision for Aniline is based on applying the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to help organizations improve the lives of their people. Also a senior advisor to Plug and Play and a board member of Nassau Insurance Group, his past roles include senior executive positions at Willis Towers Watson, Alvarez & Marsal, and Ernst & Young.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

A: I spent 35 years as a management consultant and recently ventured into the tech entrepreneur world.

In my last role, asGlobal Leader, Commercial and Client Development at Willis Towers Watson, a leading global advisory firm in Insurance, Brokerage and Human Capital, I was tasked with finding new technologies that enable acceleration of corporate innovation through startups. I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley hearing pitches from new companies. I noticed there were a lot of young, bright and talented technologists who were designing great technology, but it was based on flawed assumptions about the industry, due to gaps in domain expertise, and relied too heavily on solving negative personal experiences. That dynamic led to a crowded consumer focused segment and left a significant gap in B2B opportunities in the sector I knew best, insurance and HR based solutions. I saw this as an opportunity to begin Aniline, an analytics company that aggregates employee sentiment (i.e., what employees really think) across a number of publicly available sources, such as review sites. This data helps companies use sentiment to determine where the opportunities lie to create a better, more productive, and sustainable working environment.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

A: It was February 2020, and I had just finished putting together all the paperwork to begin raising the seed round funding for Aniline. I returned home to New York from Silicon Valley and within days of coming home, the world was turned upside down with COVID-19. Rather than be deterred by being locked down, I used this time as an opportunity to continue to refine Aniline’s business model, messaging, and began assembling the team that would form the core of the company.

In June, after the initial shock of COVID-19 had set in and we were all getting a bit more used to operating in the “new normal,” and the kinks of working from home began to get ironed out, we successfully raised our first round of capital. It was three months off schedule, but we kept at it, no matter what. The key is to be resilient, focus on the task at hand, and what you have control over rather than get caught up in what you don’t. Look out over the horizon at what the post-COVID world may look like, and what your business can do to improve this new world and work within whatever new guardrails may be put in place.

Where did I get the drive continue through a rough patch? I think we can all draw strength from personal experiences and other difficulties we may have experienced in our lives. In my case, both my younger brother and my mother succumbed to cancer at early ages. My brother at age 17, my mother at 59. It was devastating to our family. That’s hard, business is easy. It’s about resilience and maintaining proper perspective. There are always forces and events that are out of our control. What you can control is how you react to them, learn and play the hand you’re dealt the best way you can. One lesson I learned from that experience is to live and act with a sense of urgency.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A: Aniline is a purpose-driven business. We provide coherence and clarity to unfiltered feedback from employees at a time when the workforce and workplace are under incredible change. We give employees a voice.

Aniline is laser focused on leveling the playing field for mid-market companies to have access to information, analytics and professional services that were formerly only available to large companies, giving them an inherent competitive advantage.

One quick story. We were in the process of writing a humorous promotional video script focused on presenting the differences in what employees may say in a survey or exit interview and what they really think. The producer had the idea to use actual narrative reviews that Aniline captured as dialogue for the actors when expressing their actual opinions.

We pored over thousands of narrative entries across numerous platforms. We found some that were so hysterically written, they immediately made it into the script. On the other hand, there were also many entries that were written in such a way that we needed to refer to Urban Dictionary to make heads or tails of what really happened. All kidding aside, it was those reviews that were difficult to decipher that reminded us of how important it is to give employees a voice. We need to encourage people to make sure their voice is clear. That’s where we come in. With science, and AI, taking all of this information, converting it into actionable insights that employers can use to improve working conditions and, in turn, drive performance. Otherwise, it’s just noise and easily dismissed. In fact, we recently released a Top 21 for ’21 list and the correlation between high employee sentiment scores and outstanding business performance cannot be clearer.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

A: Two words — down time. I strongly encourage everyone to carve out some time for themselves, every day. Do something that involves physical activity and requires focus and being present. When you come back to your work, your productivity and focus will be vastly improved.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

A: There’s a list of people that have been helpful to me along the way. Some I have known a long time; others, I have come to know more recently but it feels like we’ve known each other forever.

Of course, there’s a few that stand out. First is, Michael Maidy. Michael is one of the most astute businessmen, and best human beings I have ever known. When I first asked him to join Aniline’s first board of advisors, he responded, “I don’t know AI, Machine Learning, Insurance or HR. What do you want my role to be on the board?” My reply was, “In your business at Sherwood Partners, you’ve seen all the mistakes a founder can make. Your job is simple. You need to call me out if I stop listening to the board, my team, customers, or the market.” He laughed and said, “Well that I can do.” Michael also connected me with my co-founder and brilliant CTO, Alexey Klimenko. Everyone needs people that will give them clear-eyed feedback. Even when it’s unsolicited. In fact, especially when it’s unsolicited.

I also want to thank Saeed Amidi from Plug and Play who was hugely supportive when Aniline was just a concept. He introduced me to Alireza Masrour who in turn was an early investor, and introduced me to Sanjay Sathe, whose been a great friend mentor as well. I’d like people to understand that success is a team sport. Surrounding yourself with high-quality people will keep you in the company of other high-quality people. Some other folks are Lee Launer and Nick Gerhart who have been major sources of guidance and support.

The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A: It’s an interesting question considering what Aniline does. We report on companies based on their employees’ assessment, including unsolicited and unfiltered feedback. In my view, good companies function efficiently, meet customer demand, and create value for their shareholders. Great companies, on the other hand, have leaders who create buy-in with employees, who act with purpose, create value for customers, shareholders and leave the market and their industry better than they found it. That only happens when highly engaged groups of people act in concert with conviction to improve the lives and circumstances of those people and companies they serve.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Empathy. Have a deep understanding of your customer and meet them where they are, not where you want them to be. It’s not about you, it’s about the customer. Many companies become so focused on product and process they forget the customers and people they serve.

A shared vision of the future and the business.Including how you intend to impact the industry and the lives of the customers you serve. Internalize and repeat your purpose often and make sure everything you do aligns to it.

Alignment.You can’t be a great company unless you have alignment across the organization. As a leader, getting alignment can be time consuming, requires patience and energy. Yet, nothing will push a company to mediocrity faster than not having it. Alignment doesn’t mean, “no difference of opinion,” it means once differences are expressed, considered, and a path chosen, it’s time to get on board.

Execution.Sounds boring, but having seen many great ideas and charismatic leaders, nothing works unless you can execute on it. Execution is underrated as an operating principle and risk mitigator for investors.

Humility and gratitude.At a time when bravado seems to be the order of the day, humility and a willingness to learn from others is critical. You can learn from peers, team members, customers and the market. None of us has all the answers. Take feedback no matter how harsh — even if it’s Gordon Ramsey harsh. It’s often the most critical feedback that creates the desire to take you from good to great. Be grateful for the team, customers, investors and advocates you have. No one “has to” do anything. Don’t keep it to yourself, it helps to express that gratitude from time to time.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

A: Shared purpose is the strongest motivator for any endeavor. Just look across human history, the greatest achievements of countries and civilizations have been attained by people organized around a shared purpose. Commercial enterprises are no different. Some of the most significant changes in history come from small groups of highly motivated people focused on a shared purpose that gains momentum and turns into a movement or a highly successful commercial enterprise.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

A: I find that organizations that are in this situation, and I’ve been at some, tend to manage through the rear-view mirror. Human nature pushes us to continue doing in the future what’s worked for us in the past. Most companies in a standstill continue to just do what they’ve always done, they just do it better and more efficiently.

That’s part of the magic of startups. These are companies that have no past and are laser focused on the future — and the now. My advice is to park the time machine in the garage and focus on what’s ahead and not behind. Also embracing the five points mentioned earlier helps. Most stalled companies simply forgot about humility and gratitude. They fall into the trap of entitlement and hubris. Nothing in this life is guaranteed, including continued success. It requires constant care and feeding.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

A: There are the basic blocking and tackling matters, like managing expenses and to always be triaging. Triaging is key to avoiding panic and getting overstretched.

Also make sure you are focusing on the right priorities, at the right time. Priorities will shift based on circumstances, so make sure you’re not too rigid and reexamine them regularly so you don’t get too far out over your skis.

Many companies become too inward-looking during turbulent times. Great companies are self-aware. And the really great ones spend a lot of time understanding how the turbulent times are affecting their customers, not just them.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

A: Trust and embracing discomfort. First, and not always the easiest, is for those running companies — especially companies they’ve founded or helped establish — is being able to fully trust others to execute. It’s important to give them the room to do it, even when you know there are going to be missteps.

Many individuals running companies, present company included, probably fall somewhere on the spectrum of “control freak.” Learning to embrace discomfort driven by lack of knowledge or control will free you. The discomfort is a good thing, it means your stretching yourself, your team, and demonstrating trust.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

A: Not surprisingly, it’s down to value. If you can attract people with an introduction to your product so that it impresses them, it says to them: “If this is what they are giving me for free, I really need to see what I get when I have to pay!” It all boils down to that simple equation.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

A: In my view, there are three ways: Quality, Consistency and Respect. First, create a very high-quality product, without that you’re nowhere. Create trust by being consistent in delivering high quality. Then the customer knows what to expect and gets that and potentially more each time they engage with you. Most importantly, treat the customer with respect. Continue to try to win them each time they engage and don’t take them for granted. Every interaction is a chance to gain more trust or lose them completely.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

A: Make your product super-easy, accessible, and fun to use, even in a B2B environment. Empathy and the element of surprise are important. Meaning, really understanding what the customer is looking for and then saying to yourself, ok so how can we ramp that up and get them to genuinely say, ”I didn’t see that coming!” You want the customer to always be wondering, what are these people going to be doing next?

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

A: Being an independent board director on both public and private companies and a CEO, social media is one of the most top-of-mind issues of boards and leadership. It has two parallel and challenging paths. First and foremost, companies need to have a coherent and comprehensive social media strategy, policy and governance framework.

Path one concerns the social media profile of the company itself. There are three rules that are top-of-mind from my perspective. 1) Stay positive. Be supportive of the industry, promote your brand, your purpose and your points of view. 2) Trust. Be seen as a trusted source of useful content on the industry and your product rather than simply engaging in shameless self-promotion. 3) Be a net contributor to whatever conversation you choose to engage in, meaning leave it better than you found it.

Path two is dicey. This is now more than ever a top-of-mind issue. That is, what role and/or involvement does the company as an employer have in the social media exploits of its workforce? This is an area of considerable risk to employers and employees. I think we are reaching some sort of inflection point in the discussion around the intersection of personal freedom/privacy, vs. corporate, vs. governmental oversight on this matter. I think this will take a lot of time to sort out. As a risk, I believe it’s real and material and will continue to be for some time to come.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

A: Using passion as a substitute for strategy and execution.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A: I feel proud of the company we’ve started with Aniline and our purpose. The notion of getting employees to share how they really feel about an organization, from leadership, to benefits, to compensation, to diversity and inclusion, and making that information publicly available, is meant to drive a better workplace. We all have to work, there’s no way around that. If Aniline can play a part in helping to create better, more fulfilling, collaborative, sustainable environments where people feel valued, and their voices heard, then that feels good to be part of.

How can our readers further follow you online?

A: You can find us on LinkedIn for the latest news, updates, and analysis around employee sentiment. I also invite readers to connect with me directly on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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