Establish an ethical but strict control over compliance with corporate rules and values. Otherwise, a company’s culture risks being based not on the founder’s values, but on the values of the most talkative employee.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vasiliy Ivanov, the founder and CEO of KeepSolid, a company that develops online security and productivity solutions for over 25 million global customers. Just a handful of KeepSolid’s most popular products include VPN Unlimited (rated by PC Mag as an “Excellent” iOS VPN app that “has it all”), SmartDNS, Goals and DNS Firewall. Ivanov founded KeepSolid in 2013 and has led the company from strength to strength ever since, now with over a hundred employees. He has been researching corporate culture for years with the aim of creating an ideal productive working environment within his company. He is also active in writing and giving lectures on this topic.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ever since I was a child, I have been interested in creating. Back then, I did not even think that you could categorize people as ‘makers’ and ‘doers’, or ‘creators’ and ‘executors’. I just knew I constantly had a desire to create.
When I was 13, I got my first computer. As it is the case with many teenagers, I became captivated by computer games and by the time I had finished school, I started to think about using my computer to create something myself, rather than just consuming content other people had created. I tried my hand at design, creating electronic music, website coding, programming, and more.
While I was studying at university, I realized that I wasn’t learning the knowledge I really needed, so instead, I found a job with a company that developed graphic products. I found it interesting and I was able to figure out the fundamentals of software development, which encouraged me to try to launch my own startups. My many attempts gave me new experiences and lessons. Along the way, my understanding of what ideas interested me, and what I wanted from my business partners gradually grew. It led me to found KeepSolid.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Apparently, I’m too boring to write about something like this here!
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, right now we are launching two new products — Passwarden and MonoDefence.
Passwarden is a password manager. We already have extensive experience in internet security and want to extend beyond VPN technology. With this product, we have tried to implement the most reliable data encryption algorithms. With these algorithms, even the KeepSolid team will not be able to access user data. Our aim is to help people to keep their security concerns in check.
In addition, the product has a ‘duress mode’ feature for users traveling to countries where they do not trust the authorities. This mode allows our customers to hide certain data, even if they are forced to enter the password from the password manager.
MonoDefence is a bundle of security products (Passwarden and VPN Unlimited). Its main feature is that it offers a single price for all the company’s security products. We want to provide our customers with a single solution for all aspects of security.
Another product we have is KeepSolid Goals for strategic planning and control. In it, we have invested all of the experience of managing teams of both IT companies and offline businesses. The emphasis of this product is not on detailed planning for each employee but on managers’ ability to plan tasks and goals with the team in real-time, to monitor important milestones, and receive a summary of all company projects.
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 don’t think there are just one or two reasons that combine to result in staff dissatisfaction. However, I will try to highlight the most significant ones from my point of view:
- Employees do not see the purpose of the company or their department. When you come to work without knowing what has to be achieved, it becomes like the work of firefighters — everything depends on other people and you do not know what will happen to you today. Only, unlike firefighters, people come to the office in a certain mood and spend the whole day in a closed office that is unlikely to be very satisfying for them. In contrast to that, the manager, who directs the attention of employees to the company’s goal every day, will help the most motivated people to move faster, striving for their goal.
- People tend to choose not the profession of their dreams, but the one where they can earn the most. However, even if they manage to make money, they do not get pleasure from it.
- Incompatibility of human personal values with the corporate culture of the company where they work.
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?
I would give a 100% guarantee that the unhappy people do not act effectively enough and that they are spreading their mood throughout the team. Of course, as a result, company efficiency decreases, and this affects the company’s income. Such a person should be parted with as soon as possible, otherwise, they will pass on their attitude to colleagues so that they would also fall into depression or some other emotional state that further decreases their effectiveness.
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?
- First of all, determine which culture is the best for the company. It should be outlined by the founder of the company, as they build the company on certain values and know the culture they want to create.
- Distribute the values and rules of the company to all employees. Train them and confirm that they understand these values correctly
- Establish an ethical but strict control over compliance with corporate rules and values. Otherwise, a company’s culture risks being based not on the founder’s values, but on the values of the most talkative employee.
- Do not hesitate to fire anyone who infringes on the company’s values or is not prepared to accept them.
- Organize the hiring of new employees in such a way as to test new candidates for compliance with the current values of the company.
I set out our values and rules in about the third year of the company’s existence, but it was two years later that I really understood how to introduce people to these rules and values. That’s when we started hiring people differently: we started to pay attention to people’s personal qualities rather than their level of knowledge. About 5–6 years into growing the company, I noticed that we had employees who did not share my values at all. For them, money was more important than the result. We started to identify such people and gradually get rid of them. When I began to push for company leaders to follow the rules and promote my values among employees, many more employees left us. As a result, when we decreased by 30%, our gross income began to grow. So, we got rid of people who were really harmful for the company.
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 think we need to promote the idea of real values and meaningful results. The more I communicate with American or immigrant startup founders, the more I notice that behind all the beautiful words about their product, some people only care about money. But money should not be a goal! Money is just an exchange tool. So what is our real goal?
I would suggest launching a culture of useful startups, where the selection is not based on whether the investor will give money or not, but only on the benefits that people will get from a new startup.
Since almost our entire team is located in Eastern Europe, I would like to draw attention to the peculiarity of this region. Here, people often strive to work as little as possible. The history of this region has gone through such stages as the Soviet Union, so people here are firmly convinced that the less they work, the better for them. But this is not right. The work that a person does and the achievements that they get determine their emotional state. Despite the many attempts of people around our company to ridicule the idea of hard work, we continue to promote this idea, showing others that it is the results of work that determine success and mood.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I think that the culture of creativity is key for me. I like to create new products, analyze and look for new ideas. I always like to be surrounded by creative and smart people. Sometimes, my colleagues and I gather at my home to discuss ideas or find new opportunities for the company while gazing out at the sea view for inspiration.
Of course, when a project goes wrong, or I find an employee who is not trying to achieve a result, I have to change my management style to a stricter control. There are cases when a project is weeks or even months behind due to planning or design errors. Since any product has a limited budget, I insist on reducing the backlog. Sometimes, I even have to introduce overtime or cancel flexible working and make sure that the whole team comes to the office at the same time.
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?
I have been lucky to have a wife who has always supported me in my endeavors, no matter how risky they may be. With her analytical mindset, we have been able to discuss important tasks and find solutions. In addition, I changed my attitude towards people, by choosing to focus less on the negative things about them and focusing instead on their results. I found myself surrounded by more and more interesting people, with whom I was able to discuss both business and personal, spiritual matters. I place great value on discussing topics that go beyond the ordinary. These friends are a great support. No matter how difficult things may seem, simply by chatting with them my spirits are lifted and I am opened up to new experiences.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have a dream — after achieving certain financial results, I aim to pay more attention to education. My dream is to make education available not only to those who have been accepted into university but to anyone with talents or gifts. I want to expand education beyond the popular disciplines, so that young people accumulate real experience in management or relationships with other people during their studies, rather than starting to learn this only when they find themselves in a real situation with difficult conditions.
I had to go through a lot of this kind of growth so I will be very happy if I can help young people to adapt faster in life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I can’t say that there is such a quote. In fact, I do not like quotes at all, because they are often taken out of context and do not give all the explanations that are necessary to understand their essence. Of course, this just applies if the quote is taken from a speech of a very intelligent person.
But I think I can offer one quote:
“It requires real strength to love man. And to love him despite all invitations to do otherwise, all provocations and all reasons why one should not.
Happiness and strength endure only in the absence of hate. To hate alone is the road to disaster. To love is the road to strength. To love in spite of all is the secret of greatness. And may very well be the greatest secret in this universe.”
L. Ron Hubbard.
When I really understood it, I had to change my attitude towards my children, my family and my employees. I realized that there are no bad people, and the mistakes they make are the result of problems they are having due to their personal traits. After this, it became interesting for me to help my employees to develop.
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. 🙂
It could be an idea to teach one friend what I am good at. I would gladly learn a lot from my friends myself!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!