Don’t waste time with people that have gone dark. In the beginning, it’s tempting to chase every lead, but when you’re creating something revolutionary, the first to adopt will be fewer than you thought, but more powerful than you imagined.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shantanu Rana. Shantanu is the CEO and Co-Founder of People First RH. He was recently CEO and Founder of Louder Communications, a digital marketing consultancy. Shantanu began his career in management consulting and has extensive experience in designing and deploying software for small to large companies globally. He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and lives in New York City with his wife and two sons. People First RH is software and a mobile app for reporting and resolving workplace harassment that is both transparent for employees and organizations.
I began my career in the corporate world at a large consulting firm. My first weeks were full of training — everything from finance to operations to HR policies and procedures. As my career progressed the things I learned changed, but those HR policies and procedures, ironically, stayed the same — outdated videos and manuals that showed little care for employees. I witnessed countless incidents where my colleagues, particularly women, were harassed and found little comfort and no resolution in the policies we had spent hours “learning”. When I became a CEO, I wanted to do it differently — to build a culture of trust, openness and accountability. I soon came to realize that there’s not much out there to really help CEOs put that kind of vision into practice.
When we started Louder Communications, we knew that we wanted to build a company culture that felt safe, transparent, and equitable. We went looking for an HR solution that would protect our employees from workplace harassment. We asked our benefits provider, and there were those same old unsuccessful videos and training I experienced 20 years ago! Education is essential, though it cannot prevent workplace harassment incidents without the firm hand of accountability. I knew we could do better and so that’s what we did. We built People First RH. I’m very proud of the fact that our employees designed People First. In that sense, it is truly about accountability and resolution and goes beyond merely training and reporting, which is what most products in the market today still focus on.
First, we are still in the early days of our journey.
Early in our development, a few large potential customers were interested in our software — but only if we diluted the required transparency and accountability. We had to think really hard about the kind of company we wanted to build. That introspection was a difficult exercise when we had no customers, no traction, and no revenue. It made us question our market strategy and targeting. We chose to stay with our original design and focus on helping CEOs understand that transparency truly helps them create a better work culture for their employees which in turn makes them better leaders.
We understand that what we’re doing is disruptive and we have met plenty of resistance to change. Executive support of transparency and accountability is often just lip service; they don’t commit themselves to it in any substantial way. When faced with taking action, executives are afraid of People First and the shared accountability that it creates versus the playbook they currently have. They are still looking at mitigating quarter to quarter risk instead of building a sustainable culture that creates a more inclusive workplace for the long term. We still have a long way to go to change their mindset and outlook — but we know we can.
Going through those initial pain points and learnings have allowed us to carve a clear path towards the social impact we want to make. We’re already working with like-minded companies who have bought into our product and value proposition, which speaks to the need for the service and really assures us that we are headed in the right direction.
We have a very diverse and driven team — when I think we are not going to make it as a company, they come up with something brilliant or inspiring and we are where we are because of them. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions waking up energized to solve a problem and, by the time we get to the office, we’ve read new stories that tell us that corporate culture has not changed — payouts, hush money, overlooked reports, unending timelines, and retaliation — the heightened press around harassment has done little to change internal HR processes.
For every conversation I have where someone is NOT ready for People First, I have 5 more where a friend or potential client says this is exactly what the workplace needs. And that definitely keeps me going.
We continued speaking to employees who had suffered through workplace harassment. They validated our mission to solve a real problem — not just sell a product. We doubled down on our commitment to building the first software that really worked for the employees.
We spent a year building the product and launched with more than five customers in March; we now have about a dozen customers (companies) and 2,000 employees using our platform and we are growing. We’re speaking with investors so we can scale the business and have added an advisory board. When you’re building a company, it’s important to stay on the path with your goal in sight — it doesn’t all happen at once and you’ve got to keep going and build despite setbacks and fatigue.
We’re also learning a lot. When we launched, we expected to see the typical harassment cases in the news reported in our app. But what we’re seeing are cases of poor communication and discrimination that are discussed and resolved within a few business days. I think this tells us a lot about what’s been missing in the workplace — a safe space for discussion AND resolution of harassment incidents as they happen. That’s something we didn’t fully realize — there is a deep desire and willingness from both the harassed and harasser to talk about and, more importantly, resolve these issues. We think this opens up a whole new level of conversation about workplace harassment and that’s been the most surprising and motivating discovery in this journey.
In retrospect, the early setbacks helped us build the most effective software on the market. We also learned who is our target audience at this stage, and just as importantly, who is not!
Organizations that are fiercely protective of their talent will immediately understand our value. And by working with these leading organizations, we will change the conversation around workplace safety, inclusion, and equity.
We thought our first customers would be companies that have well-documented workplace harassment issues, and a culture that needed to change. We found the opposite to be true. We would see the head of HR, inclusion and diversity, and various C-suite officers, all with different agendas, and all terrified about introducing accountability. We even had a CEO tell us that People First “over values employees.”
A few months ago I had a third meeting with a company that has been in the news for a hostile work environment. They were really excited about People First and seemed to understand the value proposition for their specific situation. And then they asked me if they could make a press release about People First but not deploy the software to their employees. Naturally, I thought that I had misheard the request! Despite the negative media attention and clear economic consequences, this company still refused to adapt to public sentiment.
We learned that companies who already had a history of employee first initiatives are the companies most interested, and they are most likely to use our technology.
People First is not an easy decision. But People First is the right decision. We could have made a lot of trade-offs that would make it easier for executives to buy our software. But we don’t want those executives. We want partners that see the long-term benefit of creating a more transparent relationship with their employees, and are committed to ending all types of harassment.
When a CEO decides to deploy People First in their organization, they are making a statement that they want to put in the work to create an inclusive and equitable culture. We see our job as building technology for their employees that help them achieve this goal.
At some point, you’re going to come close to burning out. The only way to make it through that is to have partners and a team that share the load and are just as committed, if not more, than you. I trust my team and am not afraid to share the workload, so they make decisions to keep us moving forward. As a CEO, you can feel like every decision rests of your shoulders. But if you have a great team, then you quickly learn that delegating and empowering leads to even better results than you could have engineered on your own.
And when you’re feeling burnt out, take a break. It’s a long game and you won’t win if you tire yourself out in the beginning.
My wife. The reasonable thing for me to do would be to get a high paying job, which I’ve had and I think I can still get. She told me to take the shot and do the unreasonable. Without her, People First would be years away.
We believe that all employees do their best work in environments that are safe, inclusive and equitable. My hope is that People First creates those safe, inclusive, and equitable company cultures. We will build employee trust, improve productivity, reputations, and save money. The future of work will be better for these employees, their organizations, and the world.
Introduce transparency in the workplace across the board. Complex and transparent is far better than simple and opaque. This goes for compensation, fees, pricing, and quality.
You can find out more about our mission and progress at www.PeopleFirstRH.com
on Twitter @PeopleFirstRH,
and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/peoplefirstrh
Thanks for your interest!