As a startup coach, I hope founders learn from me, but I also learn from them. I particularly want to mine the insights from founders who have been successful multiple times. That’s why I was excited to talk to Ronni Zehavi, cofounder and CEO of Hibob. Zehavi is a three-time successful entrepreneur within multiple industries. He cofounded and was CEO of Cotendo, a website and mobile solutions developer which was acquired by Akamai Technologies in 2012, and was a cofounder of Team8 Cyber Security.
He cofounded Hibob 5 years ago and is the CEO. Hibob is a user-friendly cloud-based HR system that provides companies with tools for the basics of HR reporting as well as engagement builders like social tools. The platform also provides tools for social network analysis – a map to show you who in your company are hidden idea spreaders.
Hibob represents a return to Zehavi’s roots since he started his career in HR.
I asked him how he became an entrepreneur in the first place. “I’m in tech by mistake,” he said. A history major in college, he had planned to be a psychologist. He answered an ad for a job at an Israeli startup which led to his first job as a vice president of HR at a tech company.
He soon realized that the “real stuff in business is business,” so he moved from being an executive to being a salesperson, and from there to running sales. After running about 70% of the company, he asked the CEO if he would ever be promoted to run the company. The CEO didn’t seem to embrace that idea, so he realized that the best way to become the CEO was to start his own company.
Two successful exits and a fast-growing startup later, Zehavi has valuable insights, wisdom, and experience to share with entrepreneurs who are building their first, second, or more company.
Even the most experienced entrepreneurs make mistakes
“I built my first company when I was in my early forties,” he said. “You learn a lot, and you learn a lot by making a lot of mistakes. I am doing this for the third time, I’m a serial entrepreneur, I have a lot of management experience, and I’m still making mistakes.”
For example, when the company was looking to expand into the US he decided to do it very quickly. “I thought ‘I’ve done this before, I’ve lived in the US, I know US employees.’ And then I made all these mistakes because instead of doing it slowly and carefully by adding a few people at a time I added people all at once. I thought I knew how to do it, but then it didn’t work.”
Hire CEOs all around you
“Hire people who can be the CEO of your engineering, the CEO for marketing. If you’re not surrounding yourself with strong people who can potentially be the CEO, it’s a show of weakness. Have very strong people around.”
He tells his team that when they think about a new hire, think about somebody who can replace them. They don’t have to worry about their own jobs. They will be able to be more strategic and the company will improve.
He used a metaphor when talking about hiring the right people. “When you’re swimming, you have people who help you float and people who are weights. People who don’t adjust feel like weights. They pull you down, you swim harder, you get exhausted and lose your way. If you get people that can help you float, you don’t struggle, you can breathe easily, and you can plan your swim.”
Don’t let natural biases get in your way when hiring
When Zehavi interviews someone, he thinks in advance about the specific items he wants to make sure he covers. “It’s easy to get off track in an interview. You do want to get to know someone, but also think in advance what are the three or five things I want to know about this person.”
Zehavi tries to have checks to ensure he makes good decisions hiring. Meet someone multiple times, he said. If you feel there are too many red flags, then pay attention to your gut. But, he added, if there are too many yeses, then maybe you’re biased because the person is too much like you. Make sure other people meet them and see if they feel the same way.
Make room for other voices
Hibob’s leadership team is equally comprised of men and women from people in the US and Israel. “I could not imagine a team without all these voices,” he said.
It’s also important to bring in newcomers who bring their own values, different points of view as the company grows. “You have to make room for others to get in and to be inspired by your vision and then let them adjust your culture,” he said.
Lead With Transparency
“You have to be open all the time,” he said. In executive team meetings, he uses the same presentation as he uses with his board so that everyone knows exactly what’s going on and where the team is. “Everyone should know how we are doing and how we are measured.”
Zehavi also talks to employees at all levels to get both the formal and informal information. “I tell every executive I hire that I like talking to people directly. I want to know how they view the company. Every week I schedule spontaneous calls with people. I ask them big and little questions: ‘How do you view the market? Tell me about the competition? What do you think we are not doing right? Are you missing any tools?’ and you get the informal insight by people you talk to.”
The importance of focus and patience
“Startups are all about what not to do,” Zehavi said. “There are always too many things to do. You have to focus.”
It’s what Zehavi calls the “short blanket dilemma.” Everybody is supposed to be covered by the same blanket. And it’s a very cold night. But in a startup, not everyone can be under the blanket at the same time. So someone is going to be cold. That means that the company has to focus on what the most important things are at any given time, ignoring everything else, even when it is crying out for attention. That’s hard to do, but essential in building a successful company.
His final insights about building a successful company have to do with the importance of hiring the right people. “When I was a younger, less experienced entrepreneur, I thought it was about me. I need to know everything. And then you realize you just can’t. If you want to scale, then you will have to have the right management.”
Having the right people, aligning them in the same direction, and focusing them, is the challenge and the opportunity for the founder and CEO. It brings Zehavi back to his HR roots. “You can call HR the Chief Heart Officer,” he said. “The power of HR is to recognize that when you put your people first you have all the ingredients.”