RALEIGH — After years of explosive “100 percent” growth year on year, cloud tech company Pendo is on the brink of reaching “unicorn” status. Its CEO and founder, Todd Olson, recently sat down with WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam for a one-on-one to talk about his whirlwind journey leading his startup to the top. Here’s the first of a three-part interview.

  • Thanks for talking to us. It’s been quite a busy few days for you. You just wrote a big check to secure a seven-year lease to occupy the top five floors in the new 19-story tower at 301 Hillsborough Street by The Fallon Company. How did that feel?

We’re not going to move in until the beginning of 2022. It feels a little bit odd to plan this far in advance for anything. As a startup, you just very rarely plan this far in advance. We’ll be a completely different company by then. But it’s just a reality of the situation. With our growth – if you plot it out and look at the spreadsheets – we just don’t have anywhere else we could move. There aren’t extra buildings just sitting around in downtown Raleigh.

It is a product of being in a smaller city. When we talked to our board of directors, they literally didn’t understand this at all. They pushed back a lot, frankly. It took a lot for me to get them comfortable. If we were in New York City or San Francisco or in Boston, there’s inventory. We wouldn’t have to plan two and a half years in advance. In that sense, it feels really uncomfortable as an entrepreneur whose never had to do this sort of thing. But it is what it is. It will be good to get into a space for a longer period of time. Literally, everywhere we have moved, six months later we had to start to plan the next move, which is frankly taxing. This has been a long process. We’ve been looking for space over six months, negotiating with folks. Honestly, it takes a lot out of you. I’d rather spend my time focusing on building the business than finding space.  I’m hopeful this is it for an incredibly long time.

Pendo CEO on becoming a unicorn: ‘We’re pretty darn close’

  • As part of the deal, Pendo’s logo will be atop the top. Itt’s going to change the Raleigh skyline. How do you feel about that?

That’s a little crazy. Red Hat right now is the only other tech company on the Raleigh skyline. I think it’s going to be an exciting project and it will transform parts of downtown Raleigh. That block is just an empty street lot but to have not just one building, but eventually at least three buildings on that property, it’s going to be really, really exciting. Culturally, there are several things that we wanted in a space. I’ve always prioritized a large indoor/outdoor space. Our climate lends itself to that. This will have over a 7,000-square-foot outdoor patio with folding, retractable doors. We’ll also have a huge town hall space so we can fit nearly the entire company in a town hall meeting.

  • You still consider yourself a startup?

Yeah, absolutely. Of course we’re a startup. Granted, we are a growth-oriented startup now. We’re 300+ employees so we’re a little different than the average startup, probably. But it’s still a fight every single day to continue executing on our plans and growing. We’ve been growing at over 100 percent year over year consistently now and we’re still growing over 100 percent, which is very difficult. That’s part of what makes us a startup. As we continue to grow and start steering towards a potential public company, we’ll start to shift quite a bit. But the growth really defines us right now.

  • So how are you handling that explosive growth?

There are a lot of ways to think about the challenges around it. One, I always go back to the basics whenever there are challenges. Do we have the right people? Are they in the right roles? Is our product really delivering value to customers? Are customers happy? I go back to the basic metrics, and if the basic metrics are working, then you feel pretty good.

We tend to hire well. I have a very good executive team. I have a good management team beneath the executive team. That’s something that we’ve really been focusing on. We’re building out the infrastructure to help support the scale and growth. I could see my team getting farther away from the details, and you just need more inspection. I wouldn’t say middle management. I’d say upper middle management. That’s been a big change for Pendo.

Also, the big thing I feel my role is now is to help over communicate with the entire employee base what to expect, why things are the way they are. We had a town hall meeting this week — we’ve had one with the whole company every other week from the beginning— and we’ve had some attrition lately. We do an anonymous Q&A. People submit all sorts of crazy questions. I actually talked 50 minutes straight just answering questions. We’re a very transparent organization. But what you realize is, even as transparent as we are, it’s impossible for every employee to understand every facet of every decision. And when they don’t understand it, people tend to question it.

A sneak peek into Pendo’s work space … employees Jeremy Kilgore (left) and Tracy Richardson. Credit: Chantal Allam

In other (company) cultures, when people question these things, they typically wouldn’t get an answer. They’d kibbutz around the water cooler; they would maybe talk privately about a variety of things. But here, if you have a question, you simply ask me and it will get answered. Some of them are very difficult, and I’d say include challenging topics in society like pay equality, diversity and inclusion issues, things like attrition. People don’t like talking about people leaving the business. Or why one person gets paid differently than another person. How equitable it is across different departments, roles, genders potentially. But we answer them honestly. And we tell people what we do. I’d like to think that people really appreciate that. I feel like it’s my job to be sure that everyone understands truly why things are the way they are. We’re honest, transparent, in some cases very vulnerable about what we are and aren’t good at, because it’s impossible for us to be good at everything. But that’s how we continue to handle this growth. I think it engenders loyalty and has allowed us to navigate bad times.

  • As you get bigger, do you think you’ll be able to maintain that intimate work culture?

100 percent. It’s because we’re intentional around that and it matters. It’s arguably our secret sauce. There are a lot of things that you can credit our success to, but our culture is probably number one. Strong teams, strong culture has led to really great business success. We are literally maniacally focused on every detail of our culture. We measure it on a weekly basis, on a quarterly basis. We measure by department, by geo, by role – everything about it. So if there is a weakness, we’re on it.

  • How do you measure it?

A lot of qualitative feedback, surveys. The eNPS (employee net promoter score) is now measured every quarter. We use a platform called 15Five to measure the pulse weekly, where people say on a scale from one to five how they’re feeling. I do regular skip level one-on-ones. My team does regular skip level, so we go beneath our team—sometimes I’ll go three levels deep.

I also do a one-on-one with every person in the first 90 days too. That’s a good spot check on our culture, and I see lots of patterns and trends through that, then I go back and talk to my leadership team. People are very open. It creates an open door for them to have future feedback sessions with me.

I don’t have an office. I just have a desk. It’s pretty messy. That’s where I work. I’m mixed in the middle. I spend a lot of time in conference rooms and meetings, but I want to make sure that people know that they can come to me for everything. No piece of feedback is too minor or insignificant. It all matters.