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At Top Workplace KnowBe4, the culture preceded the workforce

Founder Stu Sjouwerman wrote the employee handbook on day one. The first employees came nine months later.

CLEARWATER — Cybersecurity company KnowBe4 has notched five Top Workplace finishes in its 10-year history, and the culture responsible for those results did not come about by chance.

Rather, KnowBe4 founder and chief executive officer Stu Sjouwerman (pronounced shower-man) set out to engineer the DNA of the KnowBe4 workplace nine months before he hired his first employee.

“The very first thing I did, literally, which is very uncommon, (was) I created the employee handbook on the first day,” said Sjouwerman, 63, who had launched four previous startups before founding KnowBe4 in 2010.

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Since then, KnowBe4 has grown into a company with nearly 900 employees worldwide, about 800 of them at its main offices in downtown Clearwater, and a valuation of $1 billion. By the end of this year, Sjouwerman aims to have more than 1,000 employees in Clearwater and annual revenues of $250 million — roughly twice what they were in 2018.

Related: KnowBe4 reached unicorn status with $1 billion valuation

KnowBe4′s business is helping companies educate their employees to recognize and resist hackers’ attempts to get them to divulge their passwords or other proprietary information. More than 31,000 companies and other organizations worldwide use its security awareness training and simulated phishing platform.

In building other companies, Sjouwerman said he had learned that if you don’t have the plan and rules in place on the front end, there’s a lot of confusion as new employees come aboard, so saying “this is how we’re gonna roll makes the whole thing much easier.”

KnowBe4 founder and chief executive officer Stu Sjouwerman at his desk in the company's executive suite in Clearwater. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

KnowBe4 has distilled the essence of its rules into three short sentences: Do it right the first time. Do it fast. Have fun doing it.

Note that the first two sentences are about performance. KnowBe4 often gets attention for its Silicon Valley-like array of benefits and perks, but its use of detailed metrics and daily messaging keep the focus on productivity and speed. The company’s headquarters, for example, includes a clock that runs twice as fast as standard time.

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Along the way, Sjouwerman said the company has learned to take suggestions and act on them. Take, for example, its customer success management team, which is the fastest-growing part of the company. Its members handle accounts for a wide range of clients, from fewer than 50 employees to more than 1,000.

“The trick is, and we have learned the hard way ... how many accounts can a customer success manager effectively manage?" Sjouwerman said. Four hundred? Five hundred? Eight hundred? As the company has heard, "Hey, I have 400 accounts. I’m swamped, I’m overloaded and overwhelmed. I need help,' " Sjouwerman said, it has responded: “Well, maybe we need to put it to 350, 300. So, basically, it’s a continuous feedback loop.”

Related: Fast-growing KnowBe4 emphasizes both speed and fun

In other areas, employees get a lot of leeway. For example, Sjouwerman’s dress code is famously lax: “If the cops don’t pick you up on your way to work, you’re fine.” At a recent 9 a.m. all-hands meeting, the dress ranged from business casual to jeans and comic-book T-shirts. It was a cool morning, so only one guy showed up wearing shower sandals.

“We don’t necessarily care about how you look,” Sjourwerman said, though the company does draw the line on political or religious clothing that could stir up disputes. “We care about production. We care about how you perform on the job. You can walk in here with flip flops and shorts and a T-shirt, we don’t really care.”

Employees of KnowBe4, Clearwater use bean bag chairs to take a nap at the company, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Along with in-house yoga, massage Thursdays and deliveries of organic fruit, KnowBe4 also has another employee-support feature common in Silicon Valley workplaces: a life coach who is in the office two days a week and on call the rest of the time to help employees cope with family emergencies and other non-work distractions.

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At one point, the coach told management she was getting so many calls from employees contending with landlords, contracts, divorce, child support and child custody that she recommended KnowBe4 make it easier for its staffers to find and hire a lawyer.

“We put that in this year,” Sjouwerman said.

“Everything is there to support the employee" and “help people be productive,” he said. So “if they want to play foosball for 15 minutes in the middle of the day, go ahead. We’re not wildly focused on you have to put in your hours. It’s more like, do you get your job done?"

New employees participate in classes at KnowBe4 U in Clearwater, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. The new employees were learning company terminology during the 1-6 week sessions. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY 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. Its training is designed to help its clients’ employees recognize and avoid falling prey to phishing or pretexting scams.

Employees: 900

Headquarters: Clearwater


Employee comments

“By far the best place I’ve worked. Good pay, great product, even better company culture. Every company preaches the importance of company culture, but only a few know how to actually make it happen and not feel forced. This is one of them.”

“Each team is on the same page and works to meet the goals of the overall organization and anything that does not is removed.”

“Everyone is bought into the same plan. Teamwork is everywhere. Management makes the organization short-term and long-term goals VERY apparent. That makes you feel accomplished. Now let’s talk rewards :) You get 6 weeks of vacation. People actually use it. Cash bonuses are a real thing. End of the month is wild :)”

Left to Right: KnowBe4 receptionist Kara Cole and recruiter Isabel VanAuken, talk with Mike Hulme, Riverview, a perspective employee, in the company's recruitment center in Clearwater, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Stu Sjouwerman’s recommended reading list

When the Top Workplaces survey asked, “What about the leader of this company inspires your confidence?” one KnowBe4 employee said, “very blunt. Believes in continued education (reading books) and hard work.” So we asked CEO Stu Sjouwerman for the books he recommends to employees. Here they are:

  • The Sales Acceleration Formula, by Mark Roberge
  • Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout
  • Customer Success, by Nick Mehta, Dan Steinman and Lincoln Murphy
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Robert W. Bly
  • Valley Speak, by Rochelle Kopp and Steven Ganz
  • UP and to the RIGHT: Strategy and Tactics of Analyst Influence, by Richard Stiennon
  • Fanatical Prospecting, by Jeb Blount
  • A Data-Driven Computer Security Defense, by Roger Grimes
  • Predictable Revenue, by Aaron Ross
  • Spin Selling, by Neil Rackham
  • REWORK, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
  • Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras
  • Measure What Matters, by John Doerr
  • Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
  • Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz
  • Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, by Patty McCord
  • Behind the Cloud, by Marc Benioff
  • Trillion Dollar Coach, by Eric Schmidt
  • Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Reveals about the Future of Strategy, by Ming Zeng
  • The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni