Navigating post-grad life can be defined by uncertainty and risk. Starting a new business can be as well. But three Cornell Tech graduates decided to do both simultaneously when they pursued their passion to found Grow, a startup focused on improving workplace culture.
Then graduate students at Cornell Tech, Ryan Sydnor MBA ’19, Christopher Caulfield M.S. ’19 and Richard Hill M.Eng. ’19 were united by what they felt was a “core problem” in team culture, according to Sydnor. They felt that companies often lacked “the right culture,” and that there was untapped “potential for [them] to continue learning and improving [their] performance.”
“When our performance improved, the team performance improved, and when the team improves, the whole organization improves,” Sydnor said.
After conducting research and industry analysis, the team found that they weren’t alone in experiencing this problem — a lack of team trust and feedback was widespread among companies and collaborators.
Built as a Slack app — an extension to the chat service that has become ubiquitous in many organizations — the service is intended to allow workers to exchange structured feedback in a more organized, effective way.
At the heart of the product’s core value proposition is the fact that “people often forget to give feedback,” according to Caulfield, who now serves as an advisor to the start-up. “They don’t have time for it in their day; it’s just not part of their routine.”
Through the app, team members can communicate both praise and potential for improvement, discussing performance metrics in anything from coding skills to public speaking.
One feature allows users to identify weekly goals, such as improvement in public speaking, and then shares their personal objectives with co-workers. Users can aim to receive a certain amount of feedback on that goal within the week, allowing people to feel more comfortable giving and receiving comments.
After feedback is delivered, Grow provides its users with additional resources, such as blog posts or educational videos, to supplement conversation and facilitate opportunities for improvement. The startup is also working with leadership coaches to provide additional mentorship to users and plans to help connect people within organizations who, based on past performance, would be positive influences and useful resources for each other.
While currently centered around Slack, Grow hopes to expand its platform and “meet people where they are,” Sydnor said. He calls this development “Grow in the Flow,” where Grow can integrate into the flow of work, whether it occurs on Slack or other communication platforms such as Facebook Workplace or Microsoft Teams.
So far, Grow is not yet profitable, though, according to its founders, it has been increasing its “revenue month over month through negative churn, in addition to onboarding new businesses around the world,” Sydnor explained. In just a few months, the team has expanded to include an engineer, a part-time designer and a few interns.
Since coming together, Grow has won the Concept Stage Award at the New York Business Plan Competition and has won pre-seed funding through the 2019 Cornell Tech Startup Awards. It currently engages with teams across over 60 countries, with over 100,000 people using its platform, and continues searching for opportunities to expand its customer base.
“In the same way that you know it’s good for you to go to the gym, or you know it’s good for you to floss your teeth,” Sydnor said, it’s beneficial for people to give and receive feedback in order to improve and build trust within their workplace.
The team attributed much of its success to Cornell Tech. For Caulfield, the “driven” and “independent” culture in NYC and at Cornell Tech has been a positive influence on his mindset and the nature of his work at Grow.
“Everybody at Cornell Tech is very ambitious in their own way, whether it’s to drive their career to success, or do well in their classes, or do well in their start-up,” Caulfield said. “Cornell Tech has really taught us that you need to put in the work in order for this thing to work out.”
He added that the curriculum’s emphasis on products and group work has equipped him and his teammates with skills useful for managing their start-up. “We’re able to really work effectively and get a lot done … and I think that credit goes to … working in teams and taking very product-driven courses,” he said.
The team also offered advice to fellow students interested in entrepreneurship. “You have to disregard the way things are normally done,” Sydnor said. “You have to disregard conventional wisdom and think of yourself as a sculptor [of the world].”
“Find something you love, find something you believe in,” Caulfield said. “And if you really believe in it, start interviewing people and get validation that [there] is a problem and you’re solving it.”
“You’re going to get a lot of people that don’t believe in it,” he continued, “but don’t let that turn you around. Stay with those people that love it, and keep listening to them, and tailor the product to what they want.”