Kulveer Taggar, CEO & Cofounder @ Zeus Living. Find Product Market Fit. Again, and again, and again.A-Players - The top startups' recipes to build teams of top performers
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- 13 Oct 2020
Kulveer Taggar is CEO at Zeus, a tech-enabled rental company for business travelers. In this episode, Kulveer candidly shares how Covid-19 redefined the company, their struggles when they had to lay off part of the team and how they adjusted to the new environment for the better. His key messages? Listen to your inner voice, learn to make principal choices & your values have to cost you something.
Balance wins games, but teamwork wins championships.
Welcome to eight players. But guess what? We'll tell you how to target, hire, retain and train top performers for your team.
You know, you're casually just sort of saying, hey, do you remember this guy? You work with them. And if they say something like, actually, no, I didn't work with them much, I don't really know that. Sometimes I believe that in itself can be a signal because top performers pretty much end up being known throughout the company.
I am Robin shows you at Higher Suites and we are sourcing automation software that helps Ninan The tech companies hire the best talent at me. And follow me now on LinkedIn Qwant to keep an eye on this.
So today we're having over from another state, no, so I don't usually do that, but we rented was just doing what see NSF at the beginning of the year. We had to leave under 24 hours to take a plate because of covid. So that's the story for another time. But a quick note, I really enjoyed our stay there, really appreciated the company's response to covid. So definitely to check them out. And really happy to have you here today.
Thank you, Robyn. Appreciate the interest. So can you tell us more about zoos? Know that I did some quick promotion about yourself?
Sure. Yeah, happy to. So our vision is we want to create a world where you can live wherever and whenever you want free of the traditional constraints of housing. So a new tagline we came up with was living on your own terms. Right. And is going to be a play on sort of all the terms that you might traditionally see in a lease. But the idea is I myself have moved countries four times. I remember when I moved to San Francisco, I didn't know the city well.
I didn't have credit because I was an American. And you do these apartment buildings for like ten minutes and then you have to commit to signing a 12 month or a twenty four month lease. And then after that, you have to think about like utilities, provisioning the home, getting furniture, etc.. And I just thought there's a better way. And I've had that experience where a landlord has kept my security deposit unfairly and things happen in life when you need to move and you're just sort of locked in.
So we want to basically make it easy for people to live well, you know, wherever they need to and for the duration that they need to like. The 12 month lease is an anachronism, in my opinion. So we started to where the idea was, it's turnkey. You can pick six weeks, six months, however long you need, and you can just move in. And within half an hour you're settled in and a home is fully set up for you to be comfortable and do what you need to do.
And which cities do you operate in today? So obviously, ESF.
Yes, not. Yeah, that's a great question because Prie covid, we were in six major metros, three on the West Coast, Seattle Bay Area and L.A. and three on the East Coast, New York, D.C. and Boston. But actually through covid, we started seeing demand for people to basically move to different metros, leaving the Bay Area, for example. And this hasn't been publicly announced yet. But I'll share it with you. We started working with partners in these other cities like Denver, Austin, Phoenix, etc.
And so by the end of the year, we'll be in 30 metros in the US. And so we found a way to expand by partnering with other operators.
Well, OK. And great question. By the way, how did the company react to covid? I guess you had a lot of impact, right?
Yeah, it was a lot. I mean, I remember when we had locked down, I think it was the weekend of January. Twenty third. And I would walk around the office in early February and some of my teammates would be saying, covid, you look stressed, what's going on? And I was just like, hey, this thing is going to come to America and we're likely to have Lockdown's here. And I knew it had a big impact on the business.
And then in the early days, it and if you remember, when you go south by Southwest was canceled and these conferences were being canceled, we didn't see an impact because we're a 30 day plus provider. We're not really like a hotel or short term operator. And those weren't really our customers. But then when the travel ban came into place from Europe and so on, then we have about 40 percent of our business is international. Then we started seeing a lot of cancellations and so on.
And again, we had a call to make and we were like, look, we're in this for the long term. We have a focus on startups, SMEs and businesses. We want to do the customer centric thing and allow people to cancel and get out. But the second half of March and early April, I don't really want to live that period again. I mean, it felt like every day there was some new news and cancellations and there was just a lot of uncertainty in the stock market was crashing and we were impacted quite massively.
I mean, we had millions of revenue that was meant to come through in the summer. We're an internal housing provider for Facebook and other companies, and they all disappeared. So we had to adapt pretty quickly to that. And generally speaking, I'd say, you know, as a business, we've done well in terms of navigating the crisis. We had to downsize the company, which is an experience I've had before. But generally I think we're emerging as a stronger company for it.
Guess congrats. And recently, so this interview saying about how they voted in, what, two weeks, something like that, to adapt to the covid. That's pretty much what you did as well, right? Yeah, it is.
I mean, in some ways, I think covid accelerates a lot of the trends that are actually tailwinds for us. So, for example, people, you know, remote work, if it gives you the ability. To essentially be more mobile and travel and maybe live in a different city that you want to experience, where it's maybe cheaper or there's more space that I actually think is a positive for us. And I think the last that I saw is I think it's between 40 to 50 percent of the American workforce is now remote.
So we had to very quickly think, OK, our normal model where we're sort of creating the supply, designing it, furnishing it, etc., it's not going to work over the next few months because there's just restrictions on movement and what we can do with our ops team. So, yeah, we looked at how can we grow in this new environment and what is the job that we do really well for our residents? How can we scale that?
And that's how we looked at this opportunity to start working with certain partners that sort of meet our standards and can build from the four years experience we've had on this sort of market. But it was a time of rapid change. I was in the process of fundraising and then all the material, all the story, it was just I have to start again. But again, kudos to the team. I think they handled the uncertainty and all of the changes that were required of them very well.
Cool. And also, thanks for getting us back on track and talk about the team. So this book is about eight players. I'd be curious to understand, how do you find players and do you see common traits that all players exhibit at zoos?
Yeah, I think building a team hiring, it's such a critical part of your startup, the right hire. I've seen this can move your company forward in leaps and bounds. And sometimes if you don't quite get the right fit, it can be a challenge. And I think generally what's worked for me is, you know, if you have a network and you get to know a lot of people and you're in these different communities, then ultimately, I think sourcing from your network and referrals from other people, you know, can be a great way to sort of fill your pipeline.
And I've always had this kind of mantra. I call it logic of position and logic of person, which is just a fancy way of saying that, you know, if what somebody wants in their career or in their personal growth is consistent with what you as a company are offering, then they're going to be really happy. The company will be happy. Great work will be done. And there's growth on both sides. And if for any reason there's some inconsistency between the goals of the individual and what the company needs, then you can run into some challenges.
And so the approach I took would always be to be very transparent about what the role is in the company, the opportunities for growth, the skills that we think we require for this, and letting the candidate make a very informed decision about are they going to fit in well to our team, our structure, the type of work. And so I don't think there's necessarily a silver bullet to finding high performers. I think they can come from very different industries, different stages in their career and so on.
But I think if you find that fit between what that individual really wants and what you can offer, then that's like a great place to start.
I guess you ask that in the interview process as well. Yeah, yeah. I try and really understand the person and their motivations and their goals for the future. And I can share a story. Actually, our first office manager name is Alex Parr and she's still with the company. She didn't have a traditional sort of startup background, but she was a referral from an investor of mine, David Kang, who just said he sent me a very short sort of recommendation.
He's like, she's brilliant, hire her. And she came in and we hit it off and she joined the company. And I didn't really realize this, but she had an interesting sort of interior design and outfit a home for someone to live comfortably. And it's, you know, it's stylish and it's not what the traditional housing providers would provide. So she joined the company as office manager, then on the side, started helping us design these homes and figure out the supply chain and sourcing, and then ultimately ended up taking over that whole department.
And then again, now, as we're starting to work with partner companies, she's also playing a key role in curating the partners, managing the relationships and so on. And I remember I think it's in Keith Worboys podcast or he did a lecture series and there's one called How to Operate. And I remember reading in that, you know, this idea that when you get employees that just have this high level of productivity, you kind of get out of the way and you let them take over, you let them take on more responsibility.
And you should almost be a limit to their rate of learning. And you just see how far they can go. And I really enjoy when we end up hiring people like that who, you know, start off maybe in a more junior position, but through their output and the rate of learning and the collaboration and everything can very quickly blossom into a. A former and have you seen the opposite, like Senora Hirers, that we're good, but just what the company was looking for or their target objectives were different than what the company was looking for.
And even though there were really good, you didn't hire them in the end?
Yeah. This reminds me of something early on in the company where sort of a startup. But we do cross over into the world of real estate. And, you know, in real estate, there's regulations, there's property management is an industry. And early on I had this idea that, like, look, I understand startups, but maybe I should hire someone with domain experience and someone who's come from the real estate world and has all of that knowhow.
And then I quickly realized everything we were doing was just different or being done in a different way to how it's traditionally done in real estate. And that domain experience didn't really matter that much. In some ways, it might have been a disadvantage because you're not as open to doing things to new and new processes and so on. So early on, I had this idea that I'm just going to call it startup. Aptitude mattered a little bit more than, say, domain experience or relevant experience.
And one thing that's worked well for us is people who generally have an interest in real estate and or hospitality. They have done quite well at the company, but it doesn't mean that they necessarily came from that industry itself.
OK, so would it be right, summarizing that one of the common trades you see among the performers is the ability to just change roles and to learn rather than give them an expertise? Yeah, I think so.
I think especially in the early stages. So there's a certain level of passion, hunger, aptitude, determination, adaptability. You know, things change quickly in a startup and sometimes you try some things and they don't work. And so I think it goes without saying that you need a growth mindset in the individuals you hire. But even as a startup, you kind of need the growth mindset. So definitely at zoos, I think the individuals who've been willing to take on more responsibility and there are very sort of positive force in the company as well, that optimistic they have tended to do very well.
I guess that's a trade off that a lot of startups face, like should I go with a junior hire? We will make up for what she doesn't know by just give it all sugar or should I go with the center hire who already has experience expertise but will probably not be as involved in a work?
Yeah, I think that is one of the challenges of doing a startup. You know, there are clearly to sort of zero to one stage where you're maybe experimenting and iterating and trying things and then post product market fit the one to X stage and where you're scaling and then it can really help to just bring someone in who's seen it all before and who's done it before. And they have a network. And yeah, that is potentially one trade off with someone taking on more responsibility who has a lot of hard.
Maybe ultimately you put them in a position where to really get to the next stage, they do need a mentor or coach or to learn someone who has the specific skills. So, yeah, that can be one of the sort of trade offs. And you've got to try and navigate through that.
And what stage satsumas did you feel like this role evolved and that you need to make more senior hires? And did you hire people with actual industry expertise in the end?
Not really, actually. You know, we had functional expertise on the different functions in the company and, you know, again, brand expertise and so on, but not necessarily anyone directly. There are some exceptions like on revenue management and pricing. It helps to have people who've been in sort of a hotel industry and understand how that world works. But generally, I would say not a lot of sort of hiring people with that sort of direct industry experience.
And so you build a team up to what was that, 200 people right at its peak, about two fifty to fifty. And then covid heats. And then suddenly you have to do layoffs and that probably hits your industry more than others. Do you have any recommendations, any advice and people who have to do that as well?
Yeah, I do know. Again, I'll be open here. We ended up doing layoffs. I think it was near the end of March. And this was when there was a lot of uncertainty. You know, investors were telling me there's not going to be a capital raising environment till the end of twenty, twenty one. And you've got to cut deeper than you think and so on. And I had never done layoffs before. And, you know, I had this we unfortunately did.
It had to happen over soon. There was no way we could do it in person given the situation. And that really broke my heart because we worked so hard to recruit every single individual that had come to Zus and every individual had put so much into the company. And then it just felt impersonal doing this thing over Zoome and not being there to sort of commiserate in person and what I can. Say is I had an inner voice that was telling me the sort of original process we had set up that didn't fit our company.
But again, call it inexperience on my side or the sort of advice I was being given. I don't think the first layoffs that we did at the end of March were how I would do them in hindsight. I mean, when we did the second layoff, we had to do a second one. If a couple of months later, when we found out that covid is actually going to be this potentially multi-year long thing and not just a couple of months before we got it under control, then we did it very differently.
Then the communication, the transition period, sort of like a goodbye zoom, really helping employees land on their feet. We did that the first time as well, but now we could do it in a much better way. It felt like a much healthier sort of parting. And and honestly, I would say Airbnb and Brian Chesky was a bit of an inspiration here. He has this saying I remember I heard him say a long time ago, which is there are often times in your startup where you're presented with sort of making a principled sort of choice or the business choice.
And ultimately you won't go wrong or regret it in the long term. If you make the principle choice. And the principle choice can often be much harder as a startup. And there are costs than you'll have other voices who tell you that you have to put the business first and all these other things. And so that's what we did on the second day of that we had to go through. But if I could go back in time, I would try and change that first one.
And I do have this kind of dream that all the former businesses that have departed, we can get together again and, you know, meet in person. And a lot of people have moved on to other jobs. But it was definitely a very challenging and emotional period for me, just because I know the sort of backstories of all the people involved and how the economy is and the environment. And it's not something I want to do again.
And what's the main advice that you wish you could give to your younger self? Send that back in time in March.
It's truly that, you know, follow your gut instinct, stay true to your values. And I would generally say as a company, you know, it's interesting in our hiring process, something that I think we do differently from other startups, which I've heard from candidates that I've interviewed, is we pay a lot of premium on the sort of values fit with the company and the culture fit and so on. And I've always said this thing, which is it kind of needs to cost you something or it's kind of like meaningless, like there's a trade off that you're implicitly making.
And we have one about being humble and customer centric and so on. And I just think the way that the first layoff happened, I may have viewed from some of these values that I hold dearly just again, through an experience. And there were people in the company who hadn't been there that long, but they had had experience of layoffs at their previous companies and they were sort of guiding me on how to do it. And I listen to them as opposed to maybe, say, following my instincts and what I thought was the right way to go about it.
So if I could go back in time, I'd just say, hey, Cuvier, your instinct is right. This is how in your company with the team that you've built, you should handle the situation and the communication. And, yeah, that's that's probably what I would have said.
And what's the main advice that you would give to another CEO when it comes to hiring, though? So we're not talking about laying off anymore, but hiring, building a team. What's the main advice that you give to younger CEOs who come to you?
And as well, there's a lot I think generally hiring and team building it is a complex sort of problem, right? It's not something that's super easy and trivial to do well. So there's lots of factors you have to consider. I mean, in some ways I received a lot of advice and I still made mistakes. And so you're going to get advice and you'll still probably do it wrong anyway. And that's just the process of learning. One thing that I think maybe I don't know how much other companies do it, but mastering the art of a reference, I think, is something worth investing in.
So, you know, I remember when I was first taking on my investors and people who wanted to join my board, the really rigorous process I went through to reference them. And, you know, again, like references can be this weird thing where generally everyone speaks well. But there are some techniques and questions you can ask to try and really get at the truth of of the individual's working style and the background and, you know, how to get the best out of them.
And then I think in hiring, you know, you don't want the references to be kind of like a check the box kind of a process. I think there's some skill and you can sort of learn that skill and develop that skill. And again, in a reference, if something comes up and it's just a hint, it can oftentimes mean a lot more of that in reality. And you kind of have to be cautious about it. Even things like, you know, you find someone on LinkedIn that was a contact and maybe they worked at the same.
And you're casually just sort of saying, hey, do you remember this guy, you work with them and if they say something like, actually, no, I didn't work with them much, I don't really know them. Sometimes I believe that in itself can be a signal because top performers pretty much end up being known throughout the company. And so that's something that wasn't really obvious to me right at the start. But I've learned over time I have a particular fondness for you know, I have this question about, hey, tell me your story and then how someone communicates how succinct they are and that communication can map onto a lot of other sort of soft skills that are really important.
The other bit of advice I would give is, you know, again, don't be afraid to play the long game. I have spent a year recruiting someone, actually someone who's recently joined the company. I've known them for five years and I've been trying to recruit them for five years. And so it can take a long time for, again, the opportunity that you're offering and what a person wants to match. But sometimes they can really pay off.
And, you know, every hire will leave an imprint on the company. They will add to the culture. And so I truly think as a CEO, yes, you spend half of your time helping with hiring early on. It's a lot of maybe your generalists and the junior hires and then over time, you build out a leadership team and so on. But it is a critical thing to get right. I totally believe the right hires can make your company.
And other than that, sometimes the risk of giving startup advice is people can generalize from specific situations. But for me, my gut instinct and I found these techniques that have worked well for me. And again, we were a company that we talked about our values early on and we started screening for them early on. And we would go deep because ultimately I think the values that you build in your startup kind of create like an operating system and then it can take care of itself.
And you had people that are consistent with those values. You can scale your company pretty well that way. That culture can be a superpower for scaling. Yes. So I think they shared a few things there. As I said, it is something that is complicated and takes time to do well, but it is definitely something worth mastering.
Yeah, and it's complicated because it's part of the job. Right. That's just way the job. So interesting. And because it's so hard. Because nothing's really easy. Go like the last one. Culture can be a super power source going in there. Like also that comes back to what you said before, that your values, while they cost you something, should be free. Otherwise, they're not real values, not differentiating. So like that one, we're almost at the end.
Thanks a lot. Cozier was great having you. Is there any final words, any anything else you'd like to say?
I think we covered it all. Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate the conversation. And yeah, good luck to everyone who's listening to this show. Thanks a lot. Thank you. Take care.
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