The 2019 Cornell Tech Startup Awards pitted hundreds of innovative ideas against one another, from companies’ cutting-edge hardware to forward-thinking software solutions. Among so many great ideas, Grow was unique because it already had 20,000 users across 20 countries without spending a cent on marketing.
That, according to co-founders Ryan Sydnor and Richard Hill, was what allowed Grow to win Cornell Tech’s Startup of the Year award. Since then, Grow has raised millions, scaled the team, and been rapidly adopted by both small companies and massive enterprises because of how easy the app makes sharing meaningful feedback on remote and hybrid teams.
In this installment of our On the Platform interview series, Slack open source engineer Alissa Renz linked up with Sydnor and Hill to talk about the barriers that we all have to giving and getting feedback, and what it’s like to develop for the Slack Platform.
The following is a condensed transcript; answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The impetus for the ideas behind Grow
Alissa Renz: When did you know that you wanted to build an app specifically for giving feedback? How did that become your focus?
Ryan Sydnor: I learned about the power of feedback early in my career at Bridgewater Associates. I stayed late to fix a bug, and the next morning, my manager told me that I was driven, but bad at prioritizing. As a result of that feedback, I frequently ask myself if I’m spending my time wisely. That was transformative, so naturally I began craving more feedback.
Richard Hill: For me it was when I transitioned to become a project manager at a medical software company. When I first started there, I was really bad. I didn’t have a lot of soft skills, like professionalism. But when people gave me feedback, I would circle back, tell them how their feedback had helped me and ask for more. Four years later, I was at the top of that role.
When we got to grad school, there was almost no feedback. Classmates were worried about starting drama, they weren’t sure who was open to it. So, Ryan and I originally built Grow to get more feedback from our peers.
Renz: How did you select the Slack Platform as an avenue to explore the problem you identified?
Sydnor: Our classmates were already using Slack so we wanted to build an app that met them where they were working. Now people constantly tell us how much they love Grow and one reason is because it’s so seamlessly integrated into Slack!
Grow’s changing product and target audience
Renz: In the two years since you started Grow, how have things changed in terms of features and functionality?
Sydnor: By talking to five users a week, we’ve learned that feedback means different things around the world. Australia, India, Africa, South America … Culturally, the context of feedback is really important. These nuances are now built into Grow. People fill out their Grow profiles, which helps teams be vulnerable with one another, builds psychological safety, and ultimately results in feedback that’s fast and informal, but also honest and actionable.
Hill: One thing we do is partner with nonprofits to plant real trees when you give feedback. It’s been a huge part of the brand and feeling of Grow.
Feedback can be scary. Even just saying the word can make people feel uncomfortable. But we all aspire to be better by getting and giving honest feedback. How do you build a habit around something that is uncomfortable and doesn’t have immediate gratification?
Trees are one way we reward our users’ effort toward growth! Everyone loves their trees!
Renz: How about your user base? Has your target segment changed at all?
Sydnor: We originally thought that Slack was just for tech-savvy, forward-thinking small businesses. Lately, however, we’ve been selling primarily to enterprises.
Employees are leaving for opportunities where they’ll learn and grow – a trend that’s accelerated with the shift to remote work. Enterprises are eager to solve their retention problems and are turning to Grow because it’s so seamless.
Renz: What are some of the challenges you’ve been facing, particularly when you have those larger companies depending on you?
Hill: What makes sense when you say it out loud, but not a lot of people do, is to put the users first. The enterprise buyer has a solution in mind, but it might not be the right solution. They know that communication is a problem, but they want to look at all of the feedback contents. When they can see everything, then it’s no longer a safe space for honest feedback.
That’s been an interesting challenge for us. Interestingly though, when we frame it as “putting the employee first,” people have a sort-of epiphany and say “why isn’t anyone else doing this?!”
The evolution of feedback in a remote-first world
Renz: You mentioned earlier that folks have different feedback styles, preferring to receive and give feedback in different ways. Could you talk more about how Grow takes that into consideration?
Hill: When new users join, we have them fill out their Grow profile. It’s, “Here’s what I’m working on, and why. Here are my preferences around feedback.” Then, when someone goes to give that person feedback, we surface their profile. They can see the style the person responds to best.
Some people prefer a phone call first. Others are just like, “Give it to me straight, give it to me quick so we can start the conversation.”
Sydnor: There are always barriers to feedback. A lot of people say, “I don’t know how to write feedback.” Grow provides curated, Mad Lib-style templates that people can use.
For example, “When we were _____, I was _____, and I felt _____ which resulted in _____.” Most people go way beyond the blanks, but Grow templates get the feedback flowing.
Renz: How has Grow had to adapt to the remote workplace? Over the past year, what changes have you seen in usage, styles and how people are interacting with Grow?
Hill: When people were in offices, there was a lot of microfeedback after meetings, in the hallway, or out to lunch. Those interactions are basically nonexistent in a remote environment.
If I sent you a Zoom invitation that said “Feedback,” you’d think, “Am I getting fired?”
Grow is making that microfeedback happen. You don’t need a standing one-on-one meeting to give feedback. It’s a lower barrier.
Sydnor: Our power users tell us that Grow helps them build relationships. When you give someone feedback, it helps kickstart the relationship by showing you care. When you do it on a regular basis, people feel more connected.
Slack apps that help make Grow possible
Renz: While you were busy building Grow, were there any other apps you used that were exciting or otherwise helpful in terms of managing the day to day?
Hill: I’m the Giphy champion in our workspace. I also find Standuply really helpful. We used to do a recurring morning meeting, but it’s not as effective as something that’s asynchronous. In the morning, you’re just pulled all over the place and it’s easy to forget.
Renz: Any other tips or tricks you have for Slack users or developers?
Sydnor: Modals in Slack can pop out into their own window!
Hill: The average feedback submission time on Grow is only two minutes. That’s kind of mind-blowing. But even in those two minutes, you’re going to be getting other Slack messages. So just pop it out!
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