“To create a fantastic work culture, learn to give up control”, with Eugene Levin of SEMrush and Phil Laboon

By supporting employee independence in setting their milestones, timeframes, and way of work you definitely increase the level of trust. I believe that control is not always a good way to get things done well. As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of […]

By supporting employee independence in setting their milestones, timeframes, and way of work you definitely increase the level of trust. I believe that control is not always a good way to get things done well.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eugene Levin, who was one of the first investors to spot SEMrush. After joining the company as a Chief Strategy Officer he helped to quadruple company revenue and raised over $40m from Tier 1 investors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My educational background is in software engineering, but after almost six years in the university, I realized that this career probably wouldn’t make me very rich. I decided to try working in the venture capital world and was lucky enough to become an associate at a small seed-stage firm. I guess I was good at it, and fast forward four years, I was a partner at a large multi-stage firm with offices in the US and Europe. My perseverance is what really helped me on my career path.

What is funny, initially I intended to invest my money in SEMrush. I was pretty sure I was going to do that, yet Oleg Shchegolev, SEMrush’s CEO, opposed that idea. He didn’t want his company to be dependent on external investors. We kept negotiating and, well, long story short, we decided that we both would be better off if I became SEMrush’s Chief Strategy Officer. I knew the company pretty well by then and figured that might indeed be a great option.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

So, I’m in Germany negotiating with our clients on a big discount they would like us to offer them. Then there’s this small pause in our otherwise flawless conversation. They ask me to excuse themselves and engage in some kind of a small talk in German, in which they refer to me with some not so pleasant and, in fact, pretty offensive terms (I can’t repeat the words here for a good reason). What they didn’t know, though, was that I actually knew German. I had my poker face on, pretended I didn’t understand anything and kept acting like nothing was wrong. It goes without saying, they didn’t get their discount!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The working culture at SEMrush constantly drives our employees to come up with ideas for new projects and organize new teams for this purpose. Right now, we’re working on a really exciting project: we’re developing our first product for Amazon SEO, which is aimed at helping Amazon sellers. This product will be named Sellerly, and will be separate from the SEMrush main products, because this is a completely new undertaking for us.

The idea of this product came to one of our employees when he was talking to a SEMrush customer, who had an Amazon seller account and was asking for a tip on how to adjust Amazon SEO. The employee noted this customer’s pain and thought, “Why don’t we — as professionals in making products for marketers — help Amazon sellers like this guy?”

We’ve been working on Sellerly for about six months and are now at the pretty much final product testing stage. I am really excited to say that the product will be free and available for everyone at the end of April 2019.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I believe that the main reason is work/life imbalance. People spend the majority of their lifetime at work and pretty often feel frustrated because of this. One of the ways to handle this is to create a cozy, friendly and even family-like atmosphere in the office.

For instance, here at SEMrush we organize different events throughout the year where employees are welcomed to invite their family members. Another thing we are taking into account is employees’ motivation: it’s only fair to assume that motivation is not only about money, but also about other non-financial things like praise, recognition or even comfort in the workplace. Different people have different needs, and when you know what the need of a certain employee is, it is very easy to find a way to make everyone happier.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

It has a direct impact for sure. Such is the nature of humans that most people have a very strong sense of empathy. When you work in the same place together with a person who is sad all the time, you will probably feel unhappy too. It will directly affect the overall health and wellbeing of all staff, which in turn reflects on a company’s productivity and, ultimately, on profitability.

By the way, we conducted a survey within our company which was called “Are you happy at SEMrush?” asking employees about their satisfaction level in various organizational areas, from office maintenance to realization of their personal potential. We’ll get the results soon, and, based on them, will try to implement changes.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Our team succeeded in creating a fantastic work culture, which is suitable for all our offices in different countries, for employees of all nationalities and cultural backgrounds. I’d like to list 5 main things which have helped us in this.

1. People are your main asset.

At the time when we decided to found the company, the main asset for us was the people working in it. We still stick to this point, and try to do our best for our employees so that they feel their job is not some sort of a set of obligatory activities but rather activities that they are happy doing.

2. A family-like atmosphere in your company is a must.

Here at SEMrush, we enjoy spending time together with colleagues, celebrating holidays, having parties, watching movies, playing sports games etc. But most of all we enjoy family events organized by our HR team several times a year, when we’re able to remove the boundaries between our family and our work in a positive way.

3. Giving freedom is one of the best ways to gain a high level of employee loyalty.

By supporting employee independence in setting their milestones, timeframes, and way of work you definitely increase the level of trust. I believe that control is not always a good way to get things done well.

4. All (even crazy) ideas should be encouraged.

Finding your life’s mission is a very long and difficult process, and you may feel like an uninspiring person in this world if you don’t at least try to find it. Within our company, we welcome any — even the craziest — ideas, because they drive both employees’ and the company’s development.

5. Cross-functionality of employees within a team makes people feel constantly supported.

At the very beginning of SEMrush’s history, we tried agile and realized that it fit our values and the way we would like to do business. Self-organized and cross-functional teams that take advantage of evolutionary development — this was exactly what we needed.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I would say people in the US should improve their work-life balance and split their time and energy between work and other important aspects of their life more carefully. Too many people work overtime, suppress their workplace stress and can’t rest mentally at home. As a away of handling this, I believe agile approach might be of help when dealing with many conventional working issues, including this one.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Here in SEMrush we don’t believe in managers in a strict sense, our approach to agile implies that our organizational structure is almost horizontal. Any employee can come by my office and suggest discussing some business ideas over a cup of coffee. This is something you’ve got to be prepared to when you work in a company with a flat structure, and it always works out for the best.

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 about that?

My family and my wife are people who have helped me a lot along the way. They’ve always inspired me to keep moving and supported me in bad times. Sometimes the working process can get quite intense, but it is really encouraging to know that there’s always someone who supports me at home.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Well, apart from charity, I personally also help first-time entrepreneurs. I don’t ask for any money for that. It’s just that I know how hard things might be at the beginning stage. As a company we certainly advocate sustainable business development and stick to fair play when it comes to our clients or any stakeholders. We focus intently on our relationships with customers and clients, and I’m sure that’s a nice place to start for making the world a better place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I like the saying by Warren Buffet: “The ability to say no is a tremendous advantage for an investor.” The effectiveness of your investing decisions to a large degree depends on your ability to filter out projects or ideas that are not worth a shot. There are hundreds of projects and strategic decisions that I have to consider and then reject — only saying “yes” to the one that will be right on target.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

There are many things that can be improved and there are many reasons why not everything is fair in the world we live in. So if I have to choose only one problem to address it has to be a big one. Many people talk today about inequality. And I believe that on a global scale one of the biggest inequalities is that, today, depending on their place of birth, children have very different chances to get not just a good job but even basic education and healthcare. It’s hard to believe, but there are still places where a very significant percentage of girls don’t go to school. There are places where infant mortality rates are 20 times higher than in affluent countries. And what is really sad is that while adults are responsible for their lives at least to some degree, children never choose where to be born. And being born in the “wrong place” might mean being hungry, not having an education, not having reasonable healthcare and other long-lasting consequences. I’m not even saying that even if they manage to get the best education available in their country, they are still not very likely to get a job in one of the top EU or US companies. So if we are talking about the “most amount of good to the most amount of people” I believe that providing good healthcare, nutrition and education to every kid in the world, no matter where they were born, will be very beneficial for everyone in the long run.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

About the Author:

Phil Laboon wants to live in a world where actions speak louder than words, people shout their stories from roof tops, and where following one’s passion is the norm. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, his personal and professional life has spotlighted in hundreds of publications such as People Magazine, Rueters, Forbes, Inc, HuffingtonPost, and CBS This Morning. Phil also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column on the subject of how great leaders build great companies. When he’s not building memorable brands or launching exciting startups, you can find him backpacking exotic countries looking for new inspiration and challenges. If you would like to book Phil for an entertaining speaking engagement about inbound marketing or growing a business, he can be contacted HERE.

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