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Fast-growing Top Workplace KnowBe4 emphasizes both speed and fun

Stu Sjouwerman, founder and CEO of KnowBe4, speaks to employees during a morning meeting at the company’s Clearwater offices recently. Sjouwerman started the company in 2010. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 5

CLEARWATER — In four appearances in the Top Workplaces survey, cybersecurity awareness training company KnowBe4 has scored an unusual trifecta, finishing first, in different years, in each of the categories for small, midsize and large companies.

Chalk up that category-jumping to the company's rapid growth. Founded in 2010, KnowBe4 still had only about 50 employees in late 2015. In contrast, it hired more than 250 employees in 2018, bringing its workforce to about 660. It plans to hire another 300 this year and to be at 1,600 employees in 2023.

As headcount and revenues have scaled up, KnowBe4's approach to workplace culture has changed in some ways, but not in others.

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"I work harder on corporate culture now than I did in the beginning," says Stu Sjouwerman, KnowBe4's founder and CEO. For one thing, the company doesn't leave daily communication to chance.

"If you work with 15 people in the same big room, you start your 9 a.m. meeting and everyone knows what's going on, because it's a small team, and you turn on a dime if something happens," Sjouwerman says. But KnowBe4 left those days behind years ago. It now has about 600 employees in downtown Clearwater, with offices in Berlin, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Singapore, Dubai, Melbourne, Australia, and Capetown, South Africa. So it still holds the 9 a.m. meeting, but makes sure a video is available to all KnowBe4's offices within an hour.

"Because we still are in hypergrowth, we feel it's very important that every employee is fully up to date on what's happening," Sjouwerman said. In March, when private equity giant KKR announced that it was investing up to $50 million in KnowBe4's international expansion and valued the company at $821 million, "everybody immediately needed to know because customers are going to ask."

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KnowBe4 has nearly 24,000 customers, 90 percent of them in North America. They sign up for awareness and training services designed to help employees at client companies recognize and avoid digital intrusion attempts made through phishing (done by raiders who try to get employees to click on a malicious link in an email that appears to be from a trusted sender) or pretexting (where the bad guys use trickery and deception to talk employees out of critical security information). KnowBe4 is a tech company, but a lot of the emphasis is on making clients smart enough to stay out of trouble. The company's slogan is, "Human error. Conquered."

FOUR YEARS AGO, A MUCH SMALLER COMPANY: 'People need to think before they click'

Speed is built into the company's culture, as summed up in a three-part rule: Do it right the first time, do it fast and have fun doing it. A company clock runs twice as fast as a standard clock.

KnowBe4 has a lot of trappings of a Silicon Valley startup, with bean bag chairs, wacky dress-up days and off-beat events. (There's a YouTube video of employees dropping a 100-pound ball of Silly Putty off the roof of the parking garage onto the roof of a car below.) There's also cash bonuses (paid in $100 bills) for hitting monthly performance targets, free gym memberships, tuition reimbursement, and weekly yoga and massages, plus a pointedly lax dress code (Sjouwerman has been known to say that if what you're wearing doesn't get you arrested on the way to work, you're good).

The company does not do annual performance reviews, Sjouwerman says, but, like other tech startups, emphasizes having frequent one-on-one discussions with a focus on, "Did I get my job done today? This week? This month?" The company touts a 50/50 ratio of men to women, as opposed to the 80/20 ratio more typical of many tech companies.

'90 MPH': KnowBe4 as a medium-sized company

Another key difference, Sjouwerman says, is that office space in Clearwater costs about $20 per square foot, versus five times that much in San Francisco. He says that gives KnowBe4 a "strong competitive advantage and has helped drive revenues: $120 million last year. up from just over $60 million the year before, $24 million the year before that and $7 million the year before that.

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That revenue growth has KnowBe4 on the path to an initial public offering of stock, but likely not for several years. Sjouwerman says Wall Street likely will be looking for $200 million to $300 million in revenues a year.

In the meantime, Sjouwerman isn't looking to change the employee experience as the company grows.

"The main thing is you want to keep your workplace culture as fun and fast as you can," he says. "You want to use the least amount of red tape as you can. When you get bigger you need more policy, sure, but let's not become the United States tax code."

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Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

ABOUT THE COMPANY
KnowBe4 is a cybersecurity awareness and training company. Its simulated phishing platform helps clients detect their own vulnerabilities to email threats and other scams aimed at breaking into their digital systems, and its training is designed to help its clients employees recognize and avoid falling prey to phishing or pretexting scams.
Employees: 660
Location: Clearwater
Website: www.knowbe4.com

EMPLOYEE COMMENTS
"As an engineer I am empowered to develop and construct our future with the tools gained through my experience. There is a strong understanding of our collective goal, without which we would be going all over the place."

"Corporate culture is outstanding, and management actually cares … you can tell."

"For once, I 100% believe in what I'm selling."

"My colleagues in my department are some of the brightest people I have ever worked with and it is truly rewarding to collaborate with them. The general atmosphere at work is upbeat, fun and this is by far the best company I have ever worked for."

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