People First Leadership Drives Growth with Jeff Knauss at Digital Hyve

People first leadership is rare. Putting your team before your clients are tough. After hundreds of interviews with fast-growth leaders, I see that most of these leaders know the value of their people. They are willing to invest in their people and create an employee experience that drives a customer-centered workforce. People first leadership is a way to ensure that your people know you care about them and raises their loyalty to the company. Our guest is Jeff Knauss, co-founder of Digital Hyve. Digital Hyve was #52 on the 2018 Inc 500 list. Jeff gives insight into hiring the right people. He provides details on how to create people-first leadership. This episode will challenge you as a leader that has been taught customer first. Tune in to find out the benefits of people-first leadership.

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Jeff Knauss: The Transcript

Target Audience: He is the CEO & Co-Founder Digital Hyve 5th Fastest-Growing Marketing & Advertising Company in 2018 Inc 5,000. The Digital Hyve is a full-service digital marketing agency. Connect brands and their message to targeted audiences online to produce meaningful results for our clients. 

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Jeff Knauss: [00:00]
People first company, we put our employees first. Anyone can say that. And you know what? It’s so often, especially in young tech startup companies that the conversation turns into what we have. Beanbag chairs and we have snacks in the kitchen and we have beer on the table. You know, and those things are not cultured or their perks, their benefits. But at the end of the day, it’s about, you know how are you at the moment? What are your actions doing to ensure that your people are being taken care of?

Gene Hammett: [00:28]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs. The fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow? When you think about growing your company? Do you think about the culture that you want to put in place? Are you very intentional about that? Well, everyone I know that is growing really fast. Those leaders put emphasis on culture. They put so much care around what will it be like to work here? How do we create the right experience for our employees? And one of the big ideas behind that is a team-first, or employee first. When you put your people first, they are more likely to take care of the clients. If you put your clients first, you’re willing to sort change a little bit of the care for the people so that you actually bring in revenue. It’s kind of a short term versus long term thinking, longterm taking care of your people will provide the long-term growth of the company. Short term. You can kind of figure out the magic there.

Gene Hammett: [01:40]
Well, I wanted to find a company that really kind of could really demonstrate how this is done and show you how fast they could grow when the put people first. So I found the cofounder of Digital Hyve, Jeff Knauss, this guy, really amazing young, really on fire. But one of the things that were really stood out to me in this conversation with him is the fourth hire in the company was a director of HR. And everyone said you’re crazy. Why would you do that? You don’t. You don’t have the kind of revenue for that kind of overhead, but he knew he wanted to grow fast. He knew he needed to hire a lot of people to be able to keep up with the demand that was going on and so that fourth hire became a critical hire for him and we talk about it inside the interview. We talk about the power of people first and we talk about how that drives the growth of his company. By the way, number 52 on the 2018 Inc list, they grew it over 5000% their revenue was over 5 million and so lean into what Jeff has to say about how to grow fast.

Gene Hammett: [02:43]
Thanks for tuning in here to grow. Think tank. Really excited about sharing this with you and before you run, I have done so many interviews in the last few weeks. I have such an exciting time to share with you that those interviews have been organized into the 12 principles of fast-growth companies. So all you have to do to get that is go to so you can get the 12 principles. And I’ve been able to go in there and find which episodes will align with each individual episodes. When you subscribe to grow think tank, you will find exactly what you need so that you can move forward. And many of them haven’t been published yet depending on when you’re hearing this. But you can, you can tune in to the date that means the most to them.

Gene Hammett: [03:25]
Hi Jeff, how are you?

Jeff Knauss: [03:27]
Goodman. Thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett: [03:28]
Well, I’m excited to have you here at the growth think tank podcast. I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you but tell us about the business you have right now.

Jeff Knauss: [03:37]
Yeah, so I co-founded a, I’m the CEO and co-founder of Digital Hyve. We are a full-service digital marketing agency based in upstate New York. And we’ve been growing really fast. Gene,

Gene Hammett: [03:50]
Well, you were on the inc list last year over 5000% growth in three years. Was that kind of the plan or does this just kind of something that just happened because you guys are executing well?

Jeff Knauss: [04:02]
You know, I talk a lot about intentionality and I will say that very much the growth has been part of our plan, not just the growth, but inc actually I’ve been reading inc magazines since I was probably 22 years old. My favorite business publication. And you know, I always looked at the inc 5,000 even before I was not, nor I, I worked in corporate television for about eight years prior to starting my business. And you know, I just, I looked at that list every year and I was like, wow. And I agreed on the stories and I just thought it was so fascinating how these businesses started with nothing. And then, you know, they grew to this incredible, at this incredible rate. So when we first started our business, literally from year one we talked about being on the Inc 5,000 and when it was just two guys in a 200 square foot office. So that was on our mind very, very early on. And we knew that at the top if you get in the top 10%, the top 500 to get featured in the magazine. So our joke was always we’re shooting for four 99, we get four 99, we’ll be happy. And yeah we landed on the list last year, which is awesome.

Gene Hammett: [05:03]
Well, you blew past that because you landed on 52. Is that right? Yep. Impressive. A lot of the people that I’ve had on the show already are part of that crowd and we’re really trying to figure out, you know, what are the key strategies that define or activate growth inside the companies? And I was talking to you before last week and setting up this common conversation. You really have a very strong feeling about putting people first in the organization. Like, where did that come from?

Jeff Knauss: [05:34]
Yeah. So a few things one I think specifically is, I think the play in most businesses today and a lot of business owners specifically, is that most folks that I see in business are very shortsighted. They’re very, they’re thinking about the short term. So, you know, and that’s, there’s a lot of reasons for that, right? They’re, you know, they’re businesses and doing so well. So it’s out of desperation. They’re worried about, you know, making today’s dollar and tomorrow’s dollar and how am I gonna, how am I going to get one over on somebody else? Right. and, and I think that there’s a lot of that is driven from a corporate structure. You know, and again I worked in the corporate world for a number of years and I understand, you know, market share and trying to drive competitor, you know, just trying to eke out that 1% is to make a huge difference.

Jeff Knauss: [06:22]
But I realized early on that you know, the Digital Hyve was going to be a longterm play for us, and that, you know, yes. Or we, you know, in the beginning, a stereotypical struggling startup. It was, you know, again, just, just two guys, you know, my wife was staying at home with our, with our son and so my income was the only income in for, you know, for a long time that wasn’t an income. So you know, was there that, you know, we’ve got to make this work. Absolutely. But at the same time, even from day one, I was just like, you know what, we’re going to start this company on the right foot so much. In fact that our name Digital Hyve, each Yev is actually finished. My wife is from Finland, so I got some brownie points for that. HIV is actually [inaudible] and finish, which means virtue.

Jeff Knauss: [07:05]
And we incorporated it into business because we wanted to make sure that we were always virtuous. We were always thinking about our clients. We’re always doing the right thing for our people, for our crew, for our clients. You know, doing the right thing was very important to us for the over the long run. Cause we knew our hypothesis was that if we do the right thing long enough, it’ll come back to us eventually, you know? And so that’s why we decided to make people first. That’s why we made a conscious decision when we created our value sets. You know, it’s our crew, our clients, passion, integrity and better everyday people, sequentially. Our people come first. And the reason for that, and I tell clients that too, and some clients like really? And the reason for that is because if we, I’ve seen so many businesses put their clients first and what happens is they burn out their people.

Jeff Knauss: [07:52]
They say no matter what the client emails in the middle of the night, four o’clock, you better be up, you better be on the phone, you better figure it out, email on whatever. And then what happens that people aren’t happy. You create a negative culture and then ultimately clients don’t get thbem best service. Whereas if you create a great culture and you put your people first, what happens? You take care of your people, they take care of your clients. So it may seem like a, you know, a fluffy strategy, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a truly a win-win wind. The bit our business wins because our people are happy, the culture strong. And then, you know, our people win because they’re getting taken care of. They feel fulfilled with the job. Then the career that they’re passionate about, and our clients win because they’re getting [inaudible] you’re taken care of by the absolute best.

Jeff Knauss: [08:35]
I’m so proud of our team, the absolute best people in the world, taking care of them, thinking about them first, because now all of a sudden, it’s not just a job to our crew. It’s, you know, it’s a passion. It’s a career. It’s something that they can really feel like I want to help this company grow Digital Hyve grow. And by doing that, I’m going to know, make sure that our clients are happy. So I think it’s just changing that paradigm shift and thinking about how our people can come first was one of the first things that we did. And honestly, one of the best things that we did and continue to grow.

Commentary: [09:04]
Let’s pause here for a minute. Jeff just said, putting a lens of people first. When you have a conversation coming up with an employee and you have that intention to address that with the emotion and the tone that you’re going to put them first, things are different. It’s really easy to judge someone or to be angry or be frustrated with someone because there was a mistake or a failure. But when you put people first, you actually are able to slow down, take a breath, and actually come to that with the right emotion. And when you come to that, the conversation with the right emotion, you’re going to have a much better chance to connect with that individual and to get them to see what needs to be shifted or changed or done differently. And you have that as a tool in your toolbox if you will if you really do take that pause. So I wanted to reinforce that for you today, here. Now back to the interview with Jeff.

Gene Hammett: [09:59]
Why do you think people resist that? Because it’s common to put customers first.

Jeff Knauss: [10:05]
Again, I think it’s really just, I think it’s shortsightedness. I think it’s like, you know, there’s this urgency of, Oh gosh, my client’s upset, so I gotta drop everything and make sure, and there’s a sense of urgency there that we carry, but that’s what’s instilled in our, our, our people because they know that our clients needed to be the most important things they’re focused on because we’re taking care of the people. I think that when, you know, you aren’t taking care of your people, there were, you know, this is again, they’re coming into a job, right? They have, you know, mortgages to pay. They have, you know, spouses to think about, they have kids to think about. They got a lot more than just whatever they’re doing in the day today.

Jeff Knauss: [10:42]
But if you can take care of them as people, as humans, and you can kind of knock off those you know, those worries for them, they can be wholly focused on their customers. But I think people, I think oftentimes businesses just think about like, well no matter what we got to grow. No matter, no matter what the cost, we got to grow. We’ve got to retain our clients, get it no matter what, and it can’t be no matter what situation we can’t be. Because at the end of the day, not all clients are a good fit for digital hype and we’re not a good fit for every client. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re aligning ourselves with best clients to ensure that our crew is content and we take care of everyone. Again, it’s really about thinking about a win, win, win mentality.

Jeff Knauss: [11:22]
It’s just what it has to be for future success in sometimes Gene, you know, to answer your questions in another way. When you start to put your clients first, what actually happens is you’re, you’re, you’re being a detriment to your business longterm because you’re sacrificing those, those core values of your business for those short term wins, but ultimately the longterm, it’s really, really hard. Your brand, your reputation, your culture, all those things are really, really important. Start to go down the tubes because worried about like, Oh well we’re just going to do, we’re just going to do this, that anything because that’s what the client needs at the moment. Right?

Gene Hammett: [12:00]
I do agree with you. I mean, I’ve done so many, you know, inside projects with clients are growing really fast and I noticed that this was something that was important to them. And so as a coach, I help them actually make that come alive. But then you talk about it in, in, in my public speeches and whatnot, and I mentioned this and people are like floored because they either believe it’s customer first or they actually believe it’s this chicken and egg thing. Like it takes both. And my argument behind that, Jeff, is yes, it does take both. But if you don’t put people first, they’ll never put your clients first. I want to dive into the strategies behind this because it’s, it’s, it’s cool you showed me that you have these things on the wall and a lot of companies have their values on the wall, but what do you do to really reinforce that or operationalize the values of the crew first?

Jeff Knauss: [12:51]
Yeah, so I think, you know, it’s really easy to say all these things and it sounds nice, doesn’t it? You know, to, to say, well, we’re a people-first company. We put our employees first. Anyone can say that. And, and you know what, it’s so often, especially in young tech startup companies that the conversation turns into what we have bean bag chairs and we have snacks in the kitchen and we have beer on tap. You know, and those things are not culture. They’re their perks, their benefits. But at the end of the day, it’s about, you know how are you at the moment? What are your actions doing to ensure that, you know, your people are being taken care of? Because, you know, I mentioned like, you know, a client’s upset at 11 o’clock at night. I lasted this, here’s a good example, last night, literally I was I work all hours of the night because a, I get to, it’s my business and me, you know, it’s fun for me.

Jeff Knauss: [13:41]
It’s businesses. My hobby I also have now, I, you know, I sleep about three hours a night just because I’ve done that since I was a kid. So I don’t really need much sleep. So I do a lot of my thinking and my strategic work in back to emails and things like that at night. And about midnight I was, I, I was thinking about some stuff. I wrote some strategy out for a client of ours and I copied a bunch of our team members into it and everybody knows you don’t get back to me until the next day. This is just me working on my time. Right. and then this person, one of our, one of our employees was just emailing me, like responding in the moment and like I had to tell her, shut the computer down and go to sleep. She’d go away or go watch it whenever you want to do.

Jeff Knauss: [14:20]
But don’t work anymore. And I think that’s the result of us putting people first because they are invested, they want to be doing this. Right. And so ultimately the to your point, like it does have to be both. I’m not saying that clients aren’t, I’m not saying the clients aren’t mega important. Obviously we wouldn’t be a business without clients. Right. But I think of it less about like the importance level. It’s not like clients are more important than our people. Our people are more important. I think it’s about as sequential. So, so, so our crew comes before clients. There’s the same importance. But if you put our crew before the client, then what happens is then our crew can naturally take care of the client and the same importance level. So I think it’s more about sequential than, than, than weights. But operationally, what a lot of times what we’ll do is we’ll just, well, so one just, you know, example of that is we’ve adopted work from home days and mental health days because we understand like, you know, I always try to tell people is the 52nd fastest-growing company in the country, if everyone could do that, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it right?

Jeff Knauss: [15:26]
They’d be growing super fast because a lot of it is what a lot of businesses want. And so it’s not going to be easy to be here. You have to be an eight-player. You have to be, well, you have to want to be part of a championship team. You get all the benefits from being a ton of championship team. You get all the, you know, the bragging rights being 52 and all the fun perks and bending and all that kind of stuff that I talked about the same time. Look right in, man, you gotta be at the top of your game because we’re not gonna stay. It’s, it’s, it’s almost, it’s, it’s almost easy looking like retrospectively, it’s almost easy to get here, but to maintain this gene, like to maintain being this fast, growing this fast pace, this agile, this, this good at what we do, you got to keep working, man.

Jeff Knauss: [16:06]
And so I think that giving people understanding that it’s not easy and in order to be part of this crew, it’s, you’re going to be grinding, but in exchange for that, right? Because I think that organizations need to think about the fair exchange between employer and employee. Giving back that value of like, we recognize that there’s a lot going on and we’re going to give you mental health days. So if you need to take a break, you got that, you go home, you unplug and you just, you just get your mind space in the right spot. Because if you are, if you’re not, if your mind space isn’t in the right spot, then that’s going to translate into our clients. You’re just gonna translate in your customer services and translate and do executing campaigns and not being able to optimize the right way. So that’s just a that’s just an example of ways that we try to operationally build into our business opportunities for our employees to take advantage of so that they know that we got their back. Right.

Gene Hammett: [16:59]
When you think about, you know, defining the workplace and what you’re doing, is there anything that you do that you feel is uncommon across the, you know, crew first?

Jeff Knauss: [17:10]
You know, I think it’s I don’t know that we have this big sweeping you know, I mean, we, as I mentioned, there’s like, there’s, there’s working home, we try to incorporate the mental health days. We also incorporate things like volunteer paid volunteer hours. So if you want to get behind a cause and go out and volunteer we’re going to support you because we’re big believers in the community. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff. But I know a lot of other companies do that. I think that what I think the reason we’ve been successful at it, to be very honest, is because our leadership team is on the same page. So we don’t have rogue leaders that don’t believe in this philosophy. There’s the person that’s like cracking though because all day long I can say all these nice philosophies, I can say all these great things about how putting people first is important, all that stuff.

Jeff Knauss: [17:58]
But if our line-level managers, our directors, our VP’s aren’t actually putting into place on the day to day basis these principals and treating people with respect and, and, and, and not bring him into a room and screaming when there’s a mistake, but supporting them and giving them tools to ensure that they can do a good job and then getting out of their way because we hired them because they’re talented people. If we’re not implementing those different things on the day to day, not all of this stuff falls flat, all, none of it actually. It’s all just nice things to say out loud. It never gets implemented. It never gets executed on. And so I give a lot of credit. I give all the credit to our leadership team of being really thoughtful about, you know, putting everything almost through a lens, putting everything through a lens of saying, I’m going to make this decision about how I’m going to approach an employee or a situation or a critical error.

Jeff Knauss: [18:44]
I’m going to put this through a lens and say, alright, if we’re putting PR people for first, how should I approach this situation rather than how I might naturally react? I might react with anger. I might react with frustration. I might react this way. If I put this lens of saying like, all right, I really want my people to grow. I want my people to be you know, fulfilled in their career. How can I approach the situation differently? Looking through that lens? And that’s, that’s how I think we’ve made a real impact, have been able to, to actually execute on that prompts.

Gene Hammett: [19:12]
Well, that’s a credit to you, you know, understanding the values and bringing in a leadership team that is aligned with those values. When, and that’s again, that’s easy to say and everyone thinks kind of think, Oh, that’s what we’re all trying to do. Is there anything that you did in the hiring process of that leadership team that you could share with us that, that you feel like really has made a difference?

Jeff Knauss: [19:33]
Yeah. So I’ll tell you one of them, one of the easier anecdotes to tell you is that our fourth hire was a director of HR. Now when you talk about did you plan on growing the business to this level? You know, that, that intentionality that I was talking about, that’s, that’s evidence of that, right? Because when we were only three people it was, it was kinda hard to justify the quote-unquote overhead of an HR person. Right. but the way that we were able to do that was to say, look it, as Jake and I and my co-founder, you know, Jake is the technical cofounder. I’m much more of the face of the company, CEO, co-founder. And but what we did not have was experienced in building a culture. We did not have experience and HR regulations and rules and laws, and we did not have the best hiring practices under our belts.

Jeff Knauss: [20:24]
You know, I had been a manager in the corporate world, but you know, this is, we’re both first-time entrepreneurs. So we found we found somebody, her name’s Sarah [inaudible], we found Sarah, she had been at a chocolate company in Boston. She was leaving that company to come back to upstate New York to be with their family and things like that. And it’s perfect timing. She had been through the scaling process was like the fourth employee at its company and within a few years they were scaled up to I think like 150 200 people. So he said, die. See, you’ve been through it, you can help us in this war that we’re trying to wage. And so was it a, was it a tough thing to swallow on the front end? Sure. but I think that she really helped us define, you know, we, we kinda set the vision of saying this is what we want. Or in places where we want to go, culture, this is where we want to go as a business. But she helped us lay in the foundation of hiring best hiring practices and recruitment skills to be able to find those people and to hire those people.

Gene Hammett: [21:22]
Many visionary leaders are labeled crazy. I’ll put it in air quotes. The saved job comes to mind because of the way he saw the evolution of computers. And, and frankly, most accounts say that he wasn’t that good of a leader. But when you told others that your fourth hire was a director of HR, how many times do people say that that was crazy? They didn’t understand it or, or some, some something along those lines?

Jeff Knauss: [21:50]
Every time. All of my, all of my you know kinda circle that I surrounded myself with other entrepreneurs, business folks Corp, certainly my corporate friends from my previous career. You know, they, they definitely questioned the rationale behind, you know, right now, you know, we’re growing fast. You need account managers, you need digital marketing producers, you need this, you need that. And I was like, we do need that, which is all the more reason we need a director of HR so that we can figure out how to hire those people and not only hire those people, how do we keep those people? How do we set in a base culture and create a foundation for that culture that’s going to support these folks moving forward in their careers? How do we, how do we create a company that’s you know, fulfilling, you know, their most basic needs of, of wanting to grow their personal selves?

Jeff Knauss: [22:39]
Like, I didn’t have the answer to that and I felt that it was really important and you know, that, that we, that we figure out that answer and I couldn’t do on my own. So I’m a big believer in, you know in, in finding people with incredible talents growing, you know, at one of my favorite quotes is, is from it’s from David Ogleby. He said in effect that if you hire people that are smaller than you, you end up as a company of, of small people, little people. If you, if you hire people that are bigger than you, you end up as a company of giants. And, and I, and I so, so subscribe to that mentality of hi, just want people that can come in and just own it. I don’t want, I don’t want to be involved with the HR thing. I don’t know how to do it. I want somebody that’s incredibly smart. It can run with it. I’ll tell them, division, I’ll set the path. You go an executed man. And, and we’ve found incredible success with doing that, but it takes a lot of patients rushing. The hiring decision is like the last thing you want to do because at the end of the day, each one of those people is going to contribute to that culture and you’ve got to make sure to maintain it as you continue to see.

Commentary: [23:46]
Now, that was a really big statement there. You’ve got to grow yourself. You’ve got to grow your employees when you grow the people inside the organization. I’m not talking about growing their midsection by, you know, throwing out free food and free snacks and free sodas. I’m talking about growing them from a mindset and growing them from a heart set, but the things that are really driving their passion forward and if you’re able to grow their confidence and courage as a leader, you will have a loyal employee base that really does want to do great work. They want to innovate, be creative, but they not going to do that if you’re not growing them as a person, as a leader, you must see the connection as growing yourself as growing the company but also growing the people is growing the company. That is really important. It’s one of the key things I work on with mine. Leadership and leadership teams. If you have any questions about that, make sure you reach out to me. I’d love to help you and see what’s going on inside your organization. Know back to the interview.

Gene Hammett: [24:48]
You know I’m smiling here because as a speaker I did, I started doing this research a couple of years ago cause I had multiple clients that made the inc 5,000 list and I was kind of curious what other companies had in common. The core principles of growth. And I was looking at sales and marketing and I know you’re in the marketing background, but there, there was nothing that I could really latch on there. But this concept of, of team-first, was huge. The concept of giving people a chance to own it and, and to grow at a personal level where the common themes that took companies to this, this higher level and other companies were ignoring those. And so I really appreciate you sharing that with us today. If our audience wanted to get in touch with you and see what you’re up to, Jeff, where would you point them to?

Jeff Knauss: [25:35]
Yeah. emails, [email protected] Hyve is spelled with an H-Y-V-E [email protected]. Feel free to reach out to me by email and LinkedIn. The easiest way to find me or go to our website that it’ll

Gene Hammett: [25:50]
Perfect. Well, thanks for sharing this really happy for your success and happy for you to be the kind of leader that really inspires us to be modern leaders. So thank you.

Jeff Knauss: [26:00]
Yeah. Thanks for having me, Gene.

Gene Hammett: [26:01]
That’s fine. Wow. Really love everything about that because it really reinforces everything I’ve done in the last few years working with fast-growth companies. One of the things that Jeff said right there at the end was you talked about the power of getting the people to own it. When you get an ownership culture, people are willing to see the work that needs to be done and not just do it out of respect, flexibility to do it because they want to. They have that sense of ownership. They feel a sense of ownership of that work and taking care of it. They own the results. They own. The process is, the core of the speeches I give is according to work that I do is a coach and as a consultant working with clients that want to grow really fast. So wanting to reinforce that for you today. Thank you for joining us here at Growth Think Tank as always, lead with courage and will see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


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