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How To Scale Operations in Fast-Growing Companies

Host Jon Penland, 

Maintaining high-quality operations is a challenging task. Some entrepreneurs feel like everything is constantly on fire. Douglas Hanna, COO at Grafana Labs, is no stranger to that. As a former founder, two-time CEO, and current COO, he is a leader who can drive growth and achieve up and beyond the targeted goals. What’s his secret to his successful operations? Patience to fix things that are constantly breaking, balance in juggling life and work to avoid burnout, and grit to hustle your way towards success. Tune in to learn how Doug manages and scales high-performance teams at fast-growing companies of all sizes, from early-stage startups to public companies.

Duration

48 minutes

Guest

Host

Episode Summary

Most companies, especially big ones, have a lot of data. As a business leader, you need to be able to pull it all together and make it accessible to everyone in your organization to maximize its usefulness.

Grafana Labs is an open-source analytics platform and interactive visualization web application. Grafana takes a unique approach to providing a “single-pane-of-glass” by unifying your existing data, wherever it lives. As a result, it helps to facilitate a culture where data can easily be used and accessed by the people that need it.

In this episode of Reverse Engineered, Douglas Hanna, the COO of Grafana Labs, explains why it’s important to use the OKR framework. Douglas and our host Jon Penland also discuss how to deal with adversity, find the right balance, and do a productive job.

Key Insights:

  • Focus areas are very important. In every business, some specific goals and plans must be achieved for the company to thrive. Douglas emphasizes that he sets goals for himself and his team but that, at the same time, it is important to be spontaneous and be able to adapt to current business challenges. “We go through a goal-setting process every quarter. We use a lightweight version of OKRs, and I think that’s helpful — here are some focus areas and forces. And not only do I set goals, but basically, everyone in the organization does. So it forces everybody to step back and think about what’s important to accomplish in our next quarter. What did we get down over the last quarter? So I try to be pretty intentional about that. […] And then there’s the other part around it — there are going to be fires in so many things you don’t expect: you need to hire someone, someone quit, someone’s getting promoted, or you have to give back the loan, whatever. There are always those sorts of fires. So I think about the Eisenhower Matrix of important and urgent, and constantly balancing those and making sure of that.”
  • It’s not tragic if things are broken. There are ups and downs in day-to-day business, and sometimes, it may seem like everything has failed and you can’t overcome the challenge. Especially if you are a startup, you need to be prepared for challenges and things breaking. Douglas describes how he and his team overcome situations like this. “I try to tell my team — and I try to internalize this for myself — that broken is okay. We’re going to get better. We’re going to focus on what we need to focus on every quarter. We have a plan for addressing it, whether that’s hiring new people or a new process or whatever. And if you make yourself crazy with every little thing that is suboptimal, broken, or could be better, you will go insane. And so I really try to focus my energy and mental focus on, ‘Okay, what do we need to fix? What’s next in line for a fix? What’s important?'”
  • The OKR process has a lot of benefits. As a COO, who has a large team of people around him and a lot of responsibilities, Douglas says that the most important thing for a successful business is to communicate well with your team and make it clear what goals should be achieved and in which direction. What makes this easier for him is the OKR process. “I like to step back and think about what we are trying to get from our OKR process. For me, that’s alignment across a couple of key initiatives; it’s downward communication, in particular, cascading goals. So if I’m the CEO or COO, I want my team to understand what’s important to me, and I want their teams to understand what’s important to them, and so on. And it’s a kind of habit, and the benefits of the habit — we’re going to write it down, we’re going to hold ourselves accountable, we’re going to check in on it, and then 90 days later, we’ll follow up on it ’cause we do our score quarterly. So those are the benefits of the OKR process.”

Today’s Guest: Douglas Hanna, COO at Grafana Labs

Douglas has significant experience managing and scaling high-performance teams at fast-growing companies of all sizes. He has a proven record as a leader who drives growth and high-quality operations within technical businesses operating in highly competitive industries. Douglas is a former founder and two-time CEO and is currently the COO of Grafana Labs.

Episode Highlights

Balance Is Very Important

“From personal mental health, I would love to say that I wake up and meditate and read the New York Times, but I wake up, and within 15 seconds of my eyes opening, I’m looking at my work emails. So I’m not necessarily going to be in a health and wellness magazine for my habits around that. But also, I’m trying to find the right balance. At Grafana, we’re pretty respectful of time off. We do company shut down days. We try to celebrate our achievements. 

So trying to balance those things. You need the right level of intensity, and we all — our sales leaders — never want to be out-hustled. And I think that’s a really important sentiment, but we also need to make sure that we don’t burn ourselves out — burn the candle at both ends to a point where we get burnt out. So it is that balance — it’s that exercise is really important for your mental health, or it’s spending time with your family, somebody else, or whatever, or some combination of those things. I love to eat out at nice restaurants. Whatever makes you happy, you need to incorporate that into your life. Because if it’s just 23 hours a day of work, it’s not going to be productive.”

Who Should Use OKRs?

“We have support people at Grafana, but we also have salespeople and other people who kind of do less creative project work, which OKR is really ideal for — it is really built for engineers. And we’ve been pretty prescriptive with those groups around, ‘Hey, here’s what OKRs mean to you. And here are some ideas on how to set your OKRs. Here are some example objectives and key results that you can use. Here are recommendations from management.’ 

If you’re a salesperson, you should have an OKR for your quota. You should have an OKR for the pipeline. You should have, maybe, a personal development or enablement one, and then so on and so forth. If you can provide more prescriptions around, ‘Hey, this is why it’s relevant to you as an average employee,’ that can be quite helpful. And then obviously, you — as a company and as a leadership team — have to talk about it. You have to reference them. You have to follow through on them, and then hopefully, the organization will get it.

But most commonly, when I see it fall flat, it’s because people are like, ‘I don’t think this is really relevant to my job. My job is that I come in and I do my tickets, or I make my calls or whatever, and then I leave.’ In a lot of cases, that’s true. So I think it’s on the company and your team to implement the OKRs to help make it more relevant to those folks so they get that level buy-in.”

Transcript

[00:00:00] Jon Penland: Hey everyone. My name is Jon Penland, and Reverse Engineered is brought to you by Kinsta, a premium managed hosting provider. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Doug Hanna, COO at Grafana Labs. Doug, welcome to Reverse Engineered. 

[00:00:16] Doug Hanna: Thanks, Jon. Appreciate you having me.

[00:00:18] Jon Penland: Yeah. Thank you for being with us today. So, to get us started, can you introduce yourself to our audience? 

[00:00:23] Doug Hanna: Happy to. So, like you mentioned, my name is Doug Hanna. I’m based in New York City as of about a month ago for that, as in San Francisco around seven years. And COO at Grafana, we’re open-source software company and the observability space primarily. 

[00:00:39] So, we’re best known for our visualization platform, called Grafana. But we also have solutions for metrics, logs, traces, other ways that companies, organizations, home users can understand, kind of performance reliability of their systems.

[00:00:52] Jon Penland: Okay. And I do want to spend some time asking you more about Grafana Labs, what it is that you do, but before we get there, you’ve had kind of a fascinating career. You’ve done a lot of things for a lot of different companies across different industries. So, a full overview of your career would take a long time, but at a very high level, can you give us a sense for what your career has looked like?

[00:01:11] Doug Hanna: I think the SparkNotes version would be a two-time entrepreneur. I joke once successfully, once not as successfully, but that happens. Then I spent four years approximately at Zendesk, customer service software company. And last two and a half plus years now, I’ve been at Grafana. 

[00:01:34] So, a couple of different industries, basically web hosting, then kind of customer service software, and now observability software. So, consistent theme is definitely B2B SaaS, that’s where I spent most of my time and certainly, internet kind of first tech companies.

[00:01:49] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. So, you’ve, you’ve been both in the founder seat and in the non-founder seat in B2B SaaS companies in a variety of different niches or different spaces. And now you’re sitting at Grafana Labs. So let’s unpack Grafana Labs a little bit. So, for the sake of our listeners at a high level, what is it that Grafana Labs does, and what do you do at Grafana? 

[00:02:11] Doug Hanna: Yeah. If I’m explaining Grafana to someone non-technical, I would say that we make a set of solutions that helps you understand if your website or your app presuming your business generally is online or offline or slow or fast because what we’ve kind of all experienced, especially in the last couple of years is more and more stuff is online.

[00:02:34] The importance of reliability, speed, and consistency of those experiences is even more critical than it was before, and Grafana is all about helping solve that. It’s open-source software, so that means anyone can download it, access the code, use it, but we have commercial versions, which we monetize.

[00:02:52] We have managed services that we monetize. And most of our customers tend to be big companies, but lots of startups as well. And then we have a bunch of hobbyist users that use it for monitoring their homebrew setups or their home automation or solar panels, like tons of interesting use cases from across our community, which at this point almost a million active instances and about 10 million users.

[00:03:14] Jon Penland: Okay. Wow. So, you provide software that websites, applications, basically any online service can use to monitor uptime, monitor performance, all of these different metrics to ensure that service is performing optimal optimally. And, and then you’re the COO at Grafana, and COO can mean so many different things.

[00:03:36] So, what does that mean for you there at Grafana? 

[00:03:38] Doug Hanna: At Grafana, my role is pretty go-to-market focused, so the vast majority of my team encompasses, like our sales, marketing, kind of customer success, support teams, all, all of the customer-facing folks in the company are part of my organization, as well as a number of our operations functions. So, that’s like IT, BizOps, revenue operations.

[00:03:58] So, it’s kind of a go-to-market plus, plus. I think, about a big part of my role is helping the company scale and helping us scale our processes and operations in addition to driving revenue growth, which is super important for high-growth startup.

[00:04:11] Jon Penland: Yeah. I was looking at your description of what you do on your LinkedIn profile, and it was, you know, go to market and then the operations side of the business. And as somebody with the COO title as well, like my realm of responsibility is much more narrow than yours, and I was a bit daunted, right? 

[00:04:30] By like, “Okay, you know, we’re, here we are at Kinsta, where 270 employees,” you know, not as large as Grafana, you have significantly more folks on board there. You’re at a Series D, we’ve been bootstrapped to this point. So, my perception of the complexity of what you’re dealing with at Grafana seems significantly higher than what I’m dealing with at Kinsta.

[00:04:50] Yet your breadth of responsibility is much wider, and that immediately raise the question for me. How do you maintain responsibility for such a large swath of the company’s operation? Because I just know that if I was as involved in each of those different areas as I presently am involved in the things I’m responsible for, I would have to work more than 24 hours a day to do that. So, how do you maintain sort of like the right level of penetration into the actual operation of the business to maintain responsibility for such a huge swath of the company’s operation?

[00:05:25] Doug Hanna: So, I’d say there are two things. One is like I’ve hired and helped grow a great team around me, so that’s critical at the scale we’re at. It’s impossible to be involved in everything. I mean, honestly, even to know everybody in the organization at this point, it’s just, it would be a lot of people.

[00:05:45] The team is critical layer, and I have a great group of leaders, kind of on my direct team, and increasingly they’re all building out their leadership teams as well globally. So, that’s definitely number one. And then I think maybe to what you were speaking about just a second ago, it’s evolved over time.

[00:06:02] So, what I was involved in, early days at Grafana I joined when we were about 70 people total, about 20 in kind of my work. So very different. At the time, I was handling all of our commercial negotiations, like hire, interviewing individual salespeople, reviewing copy for the website. It was just a completely different role than the one I’m in today, so, that’s absolutely evolved over time. 

[00:06:25] And I’ve had to get comfortable with the idea that there’s lots of stuff happening in the organization that I am not plugged into. And that’s okay. And, and then, so maybe the second part of your question is like understanding where I do need to spend my time, who I need to spend my time with, and what I need to help the organization focus on.

[00:06:44] That’s where I’m trying to invest my energy because you’re right. If I wanted to be involved in everything with everyone, there would literally not be enough hours in the day, much or less if I want to sleep or eat or go to the gym or whatever else I may want to do.

[00:06:56] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, and that kind of leads straight into what I wanted to ask you next, which is how do you identify what you’re going to spend your, your time and attention on, on a day-to-day basis?

[00:07:08] Doug Hanna: So, we go through a goal-setting process. Every quarter, like we use kind of a lightweight version of OKRs. And I think that’s helpful, here’s some focus areas. It forces, and not only do I set goals where, basically everyone in the organization does. So, it forces everybody to step back and think about what’s important to accomplish in our next quarter, and what did we get down over the last quarter.

[00:07:29] So, I try to be pretty intentional about that. We have a couple of natural cadences around, we do like a twice-annual planning from a financial perspective, we’re because we’re an enterprise software company, and there’s a lot of quarterly cadences as well.

[00:07:41] So, some of those things happen naturally. And what I’ve typically found is I probably spent more time with one or two kind of pieces of my organization or things that we need to get done every given quarter. And I try to dedicate some intentional time to that. And then there’s the other part around it, like, there’s going to be fires since many things you don’t expect. 

[00:07:59] You need to hire someone, or someone quit, or someone’s getting promoted or back the loan, whatever. Like there’s always those sorts of fires. So, I think about like the Eisenhower Matrix of important and urgent and, and I’m constantly balancing those and making sure that

[00:08:14] I think the toughest thing in a startup is what is important but not urgent, and how do you make sure you have time for that and balancing that. And I definitely don’t do it perfectly, but where I spend my time and energy has both evolved, and I think is, is imperfect, but I try to at least focus it on a quarterly basis.

[00:08:32] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, if I could kind of paraphrase just for my own benefit here, right? So, the way that you think about it is on a quarterly basis, you’re using a lightweight OKR framework to think about the planning of your goals. And, and just for the sake of our listeners, OKR is objectives and key results. For any of our listeners who aren’t familiar with, the objective you can think of that as like a goal, and a key result is similar to like a step towards accomplishing that goal.

[00:08:54] So, a lightweight version of that process, and so it sounds to me like you’re saying you do three things. One, you make sure that the process is running. Two, you have one or two of those objectives that you, yourself, own during a given quarter or, or maybe not own, but you spend a lot of your time working on. And then three, you deal with fires that came, that come up.

[00:09:19] And so that’s kind of how you allocate your attention. Is that a decent encapsulation of how you think about it?

[00:09:25] Doug Hanna: Yeah, I think that’s a fair paraphrasing. Maybe instead of fires, I would say day-to-day challenges and opportunities. But, some version of unexpected work which will always happen, you kind of just have to build that in, especially customer-facing organization. There’s always some customer that whether it’s a deal, we want to close on the new business side, or an existing customer that might need something.

[00:09:50] I still spend a decent amount of my time talking to customers, and it’s important that I continue to do that.

[00:09:56] Jon Penland: Yeah. And I actually really liked that you pushed back on the use of the word fire there because one of the things I feel like I’m learning as Kinsta grows is the need to lower the temperature when you are dealing with those sorts of like time-sensitive things that just come up. Right? That if you do approach those, whether this is the fire mentality, there’s a bit of a, I don’t know, panic, or you just don’t work as thoroughly and as thoughtfully.

[00:10:24] Whereas, if you can just think of them as like, “These are challenges that have arisen, let’s figure out the best way to approach them. Yes, they’re time-sensitive, but we’re not going to think of them as fires because then we sort of go into this firefighter emergency mode.” 

[00:10:26] Is that, was that intentional, you’re used to push back on the word fire there in that way? I’m just, I’m just curious what caused you to kind of push back on that a little. 

[00:10:42] Doug Hanna: Absolutely. So, I think myself ideally as a very calm sort of level-headed person. And startups are crazy places where things are always breaking. I was actually talking to a founder of another company earlier today, and she was saying,” I feel like everything’s on fire.” Like, you kind of need to readjust your perspective that if you’re a company like Grafana has 10 X in size and basically all metrics in the last two and a half years. Like things are going to be broken constantly.

[00:11:12] Like as soon as we fix something, like three months later, it’s broken again because the business is so much larger. So, I try to tell my team and I try to internalize this for myself that broken is okay. Like, “We’re going to get better. We’re going to focus on what we need to focus on every quarter. We have a plan for addressing it, whether that’s hiring new people or new process or whatever.”

[00:11:33] And that’s okay. And if you make yourself crazy with every little thing that is suboptimal or is broken, or it could be better, like you, you will go insane. And so I really try to focus my energy and mental focus on, “Okay, what do we need to fix? What what’s next in line to fix? What’s important?”

[00:11:53] Doug Hanna: And there’s reordering of things. There’s always like a genuine, like, “Okay. I need to clear my calendar sort of like at issue to address for the day,” but I actually think we’ve done a decent job at Grafana of trying to live through what I just explained and, and avoid the fire drills whenever we can and just be thoughtful. And okay with the fact that like, “We’re a high-growth startup, nothing is going to be perfect.”

[00:12:17] And that, that’s just a reality of life. And if you tell yourself otherwise, you’re just going to be like set, you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment.

[00:12:23] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. So, a piece there that you talked about was like mentally just accepting, “We’re growing. Things are going to be broken. I’m going to be okay with it.” I, I’m curious, are there any practices that you have adopted to try and help yourself sort of maintain that mentality? And, and I’ll just, I’ll explain where that question’s coming from.

[00:12:46] Something that I’ve personally identified as non-negotiable for myself over the last, I would say over the last year is I have to spend 30 minutes to an hour being active every morning. It doesn’t have to be super intense, doesn’t have to be anything crazy, but there’s something chemical that happens when you spend some time being physically active that helps me be much more calm and how I think about the challenges of the day. 

[00:13:12] Do you have anything like that you go, “This is not work, but it’s actually essential to supporting me working the way that I want to work?” 

[00:13:19] Doug Hanna: Totally. I definitely get that. I work out frequently, but I don’t necessarily think of it as like to help with this and think some of its personality… Honestly, for me is just when you step back and you kind of remove yourself from the emotion of it, just the logical pieces around it. Like we’re fortunate to be a really dynamic business with a lot of momentum, and a great space, with great community, amazing employees,

[00:13:46] and like, you just have to step back and remind yourself, “Actually, things are going pretty well.” Like, we’re our toughest critics, and I think that’s appropriate, and this is actually important for a successful company. So, we’re hard on ourselves, but we have to step back and remind ourselves like, actually, being at Grafana over the last several years is an amazing place to be.

[00:14:04] And people are working hard and achieving amazing outcomes. Like we’re a lot of these problems are because we’re growing so fast. That they’re champagne problems. And like, if you can remind yourself of that, I think that’s helpful. And then from like a personal mental health, like, I would love to say that, I wake up, and I meditate, and I read the New York Times, but I wake up and within 15 seconds of my eyes opening I’m looking at my work emails.

[00:14:32] So, I’m not necessarily like going to be in a health and wellness magazine for my habits around that, but also trying to find the right balance. I think at Grafana, we’re pretty respectful of time off. We have company shutdown days. We try to celebrate our achievements. Like I’m going to our club trip for top sales performers in about two weeks, and that will be amazing. 

[00:14:51] So, trying to balance those things. I think of it as “you need the right level of intensity”  and we don’t want it like our sales leaders as we don’t, we never want to be out-hustled. And I think that’s a really important sentiment, but we also need to make sure that we don’t burn ourselves, burn the candle at both ends to a point where we get burnt out.

[00:15:09] So, it is that balance. If it’s like you and that exercise is really important for your mental health, or it’s spending time with your family for somebody else, or whatever, or some combination of those things. I love to eat out at nice restaurants. Like whatever makes you happy, you need to incorporate that into your life.

[00:15:25] Because if it’s just 23 hours a day of work, one hour a day of sleep, it’s not going to be productive.

[00:15:31] Jon Penland: Yeah, absolutely. I do want to go back to, you know, again, to the OKR light framework, you talked about. And there was a presentation that I came across preparing for this conversation, and you made the statement, “Don’t build process just to add process.” 

[00:15:52]And so, I’m curious as you think about, you know, goal setting and the OKR framework that you’re using, how do you make sure that you’ve gotten the right level of process without going overboard? 

[00:16:05] Doug Hanna: So, I think to do that well in the supplies across OKR, so it can apply across any process of bookings policy, promotion policy, whatever. And, and I really believe in that sentiment of like, “Don’t build process for process itself, like build it to solve a business challenge or business problem.” 

[00:16:26] So, with OKR as in particular, I like to step back and think about what are we trying to get from our OKR process. Like for me, that’s alignment across a couple of key initiatives. It’s communication kind of downward in particular. Like that cascading goals. So, if I’m the CEO or COO as I am, I want my team to understand what’s important to me, and I want their teams understand what’s important to them, and so on.

[00:16:47] And it’s the kind of habit and the benefits of the habit of where we’re going to write it down or hold ourselves accountable, or to check in on it, then we’re going to 90 days later, we’ll follow up on it ’cause we do okay our score quarterly. So, those are what I think the benefits of the OKR process are. 

[00:17:03] Specifically, not benefits for me, as I’m not trying to win a best OKR implementation award, we go to OKR Fast or whatever conference they might have and like talk at a conference about how amazing we follow the perfect OKR protocol. I don’t really care about that. So, that’s why, like, some things like I’ll tell them every presentation I do about OKRs, and I implemented them at Zendesk as well, or a version of them at Zendesk. 

[00:17:26] It’s like, I don’t want to be dogmatic. Like honestly, if you’re talking to people about what’s important to you for the quarter and you’re writing it down, and then you’re following up on it, you’re getting 90% of the way there, and if it’s not the perfectly random OKR that I have the OKR book behind me somewhere that like, it doesn’t need to be featured in that book, I don’t really care. 

[00:17:44] So, that’s what I think about it. And if you take that step back of like literally at the beginning of the process, like, “What are you trying to accomplish? And what if this process is successful, what are you trying to address through that?” is I think really helpful framework, and it scales infinitely. Like big companies can think about this.

[00:18:03] Tiny companies can think about this. And over time, like what you’re trying to accomplish will get more complex. So, if you have a lot of regulation, or compliance, or things like that might necessitate in more complex involved process, but if you’re a small and you’re just doing like, “Hey, we want to be more effective,” you have, I think, more options out there.

[00:18:21] Jon Penland: Yeah. One of the challenges that I’ve seen at Kinsta relative to this goal setting in OKRs, and we have used OKRs in the past, and we do, OKR would probably be even more generous than what we do. It’s more similar to write down your goals on a quarterly basis right now at this particular stage.

[00:18:40] Yeah. One of the challenges and one of the reasons that we actually moved away from the full-blown OKR system was we had a really hard time getting really strong buy-in, right? We found a lot of people kind of going through a “tick the box” process because it’s can be complex, it can be challenging.

[00:18:58] So, the question I want to ask is, how do you think about achieving buy-in for these sorts of goal-setting processes? What are some of the things that you’ve tried to do to get buy-in on the process that you use there at Grafana? 

[00:19:14] Doug Hanna: So, there are some generic answers to this. Like, we try to talk about the goals and why they’re important. And we look back at them. We check-in at the at all-hands. Like we encourage managers to talk to their team members about it. There’s some generic things like that. And if I think about probably the dynamics of your business, you probably have a lot of support people that they’re like, “Okay, I have to go in, I have to sell tickets and two calls,” whatever.

[00:19:36] And like, they have a very like kind of specific set of things they do. And we have support people at Grafana, but we also have salespeople and other people that kind of do less, I would call it like creative project work, which OKRs is really ideal for, is really go for like engineers. 

[00:19:55]And we’ve been pretty prescriptive with those groups around, “Hey, here’s what OKR is mean to you. Here’s some like example, objectives and key results that you can use. Here’s recommendations or management around, like if you’re a salesperson, you should have obviously an OKR for your quota. You should have an OKR for pipeline. You should have maybe a personal development or enablement one.” And then so on and so forth.

[00:20:15] Doug Hanna: And I think if you can provide more prescription around, “Hey, this is why it’s relevant to you as an average employee that, that can be quite helpful.” And then you, you obviously, as a company and as a leadership team, you have to talk about it. You have to reference them, you have to follow through on them, and then hopefully, the organization will get it.

[00:20:33] But, most commonly when, when I see it fall flat, it’s because people are like, “I don’t think this is really relevant to my job. Like my job is, I come in, and I do my tickets, or I make my calls or whatever, and then I leave.” And that’s, in a lot of cases that’s true. So, I think it’s on the company, your team, implementing the OKRs to help make it more relevant to those folks, to get that level buy-in.

[00:20:55] Jon Penland: Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right on, there are roles where OKRs are a bit of a challenged to fit. And, one of the things that we’ve done and some of those cases is try to substitute almost KPIs instead of OKRs for those specific roles. But I really like the idea that you suggested there of like, “Hey, go ahead and, and have sort of, I don’t want to say prebuilt OKRs, but some suggestions on these, these make sense for your role and there they are going to be very role-specific,” right?

[00:21:27] Those are going to be very tailored to… these are the things we that you need to be doing as a part of your position. 

[00:21:34] Doug Hanna: Absolutely. Yeah. If I’m in kind of operations leadership, I’m going to have very different OKRs and someone that’s a frontline sales manager, or that’s a frontline salesperson, or a support person or something like that. And that’s okay. Like the OKRs don’t have to be kind of the most useful thing to everyone. But, and I think the more kind of discretion you have over your time and projects that you work on, probably the more useful they are.

[00:21:59] But I think that, looking at it by function and thinking about it by function or a type of role is a good place to start looking at effectively if you’re not seeing the OKR adoption that you want. Another piece of advice I give teams is, start with maybe just company-wide OKRs, which could be, “Hey, here are the five most important things as an organization we need to accomplish this quarter.

[00:22:20] Doug Hanna: Like don’t bother with the individual cascading for a quarter or two. And see if that helps.” And people get excited about that. That’s how we started at Grafana. We went company-wide, then we went basically all people leaders, and then we extended it out for the third quarter to everybody. And that helped us get buy-in, I think, as well.

[00:22:37] Jon Penland: Practically speaking, one of the challenges that I’ve seen come up is that it can be easy for folks who are part of that process to lose track of where they’re at. And I just mean like in just a timing-wise. Like, right, like they reached the quarter and it snuck upon them, or they get two weeks into the next quarter, and they still haven’t published their OKRs. 

[00:22:55] Are there any, like, just really practical things you do there at Grafana to try and help keep that process front of mind and to try and keep moving, to try and keep it not fall through the cracks? Does that make sense? 

[00:23:10] Doug Hanna: Absolutely. So, we make sure our company-wide OKRs are published ideally within the first two or three days of the quarter. And that’s kind of the top of the cascade for us. And we send an email out about that. We have an OKR timeline that says, “Hey, you’re like a kind of a director plus leader, you need to get it done by this date. If you’re in IC unit and you need to get done by this kind of that day plus five days or whatever.”

[00:23:33] And we, we remind people of those deadlines, of course. Like we’re kind of automatically calendared, so everybody knows what to expect. And it’s generally like the same roughly like kind of two-week OKR setting process. We have not been as serious about following up at people or that have not set OKRs as, we were much more serious about that at Zendesk. We were like, literally like, basically on an individual basis, like remind people about their OKRs and resistant notifications. We were pretty, we were pretty determined to get everybody to have their OKRs. We’re a little, we’re less dogmatic at Grafana about it, ut, I actually, I want to see us doing more of that. 

[00:24:06] Doug Hanna: I was talking to the team that runs this for us, and it’s like, actually, like, “Let’s follow up. Let’s work with the people leaders on.” And the same way that you want to get reviews completed or other things, and we just make it clear it’s an important process that we do every quarter and people that have been here every quarter that have been here, like they see it happen.

[00:24:24] Jon Penland: Yeah. This is a really timely conversation. We first started doing OKRs about two years ago and then we kind of drifted away from them about a year ago, and we went to a much more simplified approach. And we’re actually veering back towards a more structured approach right now, where we’ve realized, “Hey, we’ve, we’ve taken too many guard rails down.”

[00:24:47] And just a really simple takeaway for me and I think for our listeners is that I think you said something about these steps, or these touchpoints are automatically added to people’s calendars. And I mean, that’s such an obvious thing. But, right, like as a company, we control people’s Google calendar.

[00:25:03] We use Google workspace internally. It’s super easy for our IT to go in and just add that to everybody’s calendar, right? Like, “Here are the touchpoints on this stuff,” and then it’s on everybody’s calendar, and there’s no reason not to be aware that it’s coming. 

[00:25:16] Doug Hanna: Sure. Yeah, there there’s a lot you can do to promote it depending on whatever your internal communication cadences. So we try to do that. And maybe people get a little sick of it, and that’s fine. And maybe some people roll their eyes when we talk about OKRs that are all-hands or whatever. But in general, I think they’re really useful.

[00:25:33] And if done well, they can add a lot of value to a team.

[00:25:37] Jon Penland: Yeah. One of the things I heard a while back is that, when people start making fun about how much you’re talking about goal setting, you’ve started to reach the right level of talking about goal setting, right? 

[00:25:52] So, that’s something I always try to remind myself of as somebody who for a while was a jokingly or, I want to say affectionately referred to as the OKR champion internally, right, for a little while. That’s just like, “Okay, champion, right? Stop talking about OKRs.” Yeah. 

[00:26:05] Doug Hanna: At Zendesk, I was basically the goals guy, that was what most people knew me, ’cause I would talk at all-hands about our goals and our scorecards and things like that. So, there’s definitely like the maximum that like half a leadership is repetition and consistency. You need to, in general, you probably need to keep talking about things until you’re sick about talking about them, and then hopefully, people have started to absorb it by then.

[00:26:27] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, I want to shift gears and talk more about your, your personal career in leadership and entrepreneurship. Before we do that, I have one last question about Grafana before we shift in the personal direction. So, as you look at your time at Grafana, what’s something that you would point to and say, “I’m really proud that we accomplished this,” and then what’s something you’re really looking forward to at Grafana, as you look into the future? 

[00:26:55] Doug Hanna: Yeah, I like that question. So, really proud, I think the way that we’ve scaled the business and the culture that we built as we’ve done it, is really impressive. Like, like easy headline proud of is like the way we scaled our revenue and things like that. But I actually think the way that we scale our culture and as we’ve 10 X in two and a half years or so, is even more impressive and admirable.

[00:27:19] So, a lot of credit to the team and our individual employees and folks we’ve hired. And there’s a lot of discussions around how do we do that, how do we be thoughtful around our culture. So, that’s probably what I’m most proud of. I think the most I’m looking forward to is, as we’ve scaled, we see that we’re kind of, and the inner kind of operations person, I mean, is discerning us and appreciating us. Like we’ve built a couple like highly repeatable processes, functions, et cetera, that they’re almost like a machine. And you look back two years and you’re like, “Wow. We could barely do that once much less like 10 times a quarter now.”

[00:27:53] Doug Hanna: And seeing that evolution is really exciting, it’s just like, it’s a part of the scaling journey done well. And I’m looking forward to seeing us as do that and continue to check off new milestones. Like it used to be, “Oh my God, if we could close a $50,000 deal, it would be like the biggest deal in the world, basically.”

[00:28:12] And now we’re closing the deal significantly larger than that, or as magnitude larger than that. And, and then a couple of years it’s going to be, “Okay. Like, we closed $5 million deals. Like that’s no big deal.” And like that, that’s gonna happen over time. And in celebrating those milestones and being able to kind of talk to the team a few years from now at our club 2027, or whatever, and say, “Yeah, I remember we did the X tens of millions of dollar deal with this other company.” Like that’s going to be so amazing. So I’m looking forward to that.

[00:28:43] Jon Penland: Yeah, you mentioned culture, and I have to ask about that because that’s something that we think about a lot. One of the things that we’re proud of at Kinsta is that we’ve grown from the time I started at Kinsta in December 2016, we were about 15 people to about 270 today. 

[00:29:08] And we’ve really retained the same culture by and large. And that’s something we’re really proud of, and it’s something we spend a lot of time thinking and working on. But I’m curious, you know, as I sit where I am looking at where Grafana is, and I hear you say you’re proud of culture, so I’m curious, what are some of the things that you might point to and say, “We think these are some things that we do that are important in maintaining the right kind of culture.” 

[00:29:34] Doug Hanna: So, and really important thing that I try to explain to people because I frequently get asked, especially in interviews like, “What’s the culture at Grafana?” And I, and how has it changed. Because at this point, I’ve been here longer than 90% of employees. I guess that’s technical, that’s actually true. And one thing I pointed out, I think culture evolves naturally as a company, as a company grows and evolves.

[00:29:55] And the culture, we had 78 people, it was actually not like the absolute goal was not to have a culture be identical at 700 or 7,000. And our culture has definitely evolved, but what I look for as kind of a success metric is are the people that were here at 70 so really enjoying it. Do they think hopefully the culture has gotten even better and that the company has continued to get better, because a lot of times you talk to people, especially at bigger companies, they’re like, “Three years ago, this company was amazing, but it’s really gone downhill from a cultural perspective.” 

[00:30:27] Doug Hanna: And that, that’s something I really want to avoid. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same, it doesn’t have to go from A to A. It could go from A to B, but as long as B is an improvement, that’s, that’s totally fine with me.

[00:30:37] So, that’s one piece from just an expectation setting perspective, and I like to talk about that when I talk about culture. But, maybe more specific answers to your question, it’s a generic one, but it’s really important. As we spent so much time thinking about it when we hire people, like I see us reject highly qualified candidates because we don’t think they’re going to be a culture fit, and they might’ve been really successful in previous roles.

[00:31:03] We might have positive back channels about their success in previous roles, but if we’re concerned about culture fail like that, that’s a huge flag for us, and we’ll often kind of pass on a candidate. It’s either that, another really big one, again, like easy to say hard to do is making decisions based on culture as well.

[00:31:23] Doug Hanna: So, who you promote, who you hire, obviously, like we just talked about. Who you fire, who you recognize, what you recognize them for, all those things are really inherent, like your culture really informs that. And you set your culture regardless of whatever kind of platitudes you have on your wall or, or posted maybe in a Wiki somewhere.

[00:31:41] You set your culture by doing that and through your actions. So, that’s another area we try to be intentional about. And, and also talk about how our, how we think our culture is different, our ways of working are different or similar to maybe other companies and other places working about it, and saying, “Well, maybe what you did at previous company was, was this one thing, but at Grafana we do it this other way.”

[00:32:03] And like that, that’s our belief and that that’s where it comes from. So, it’s a combination of, I think, talking about it, acting on it consistently, and kind of highlight, underline both consistently and, and making sure that your culture is, is actually what you do, not what you say.

[00:32:20] Jon Penland: Yeah. I love the emphasis on hiring and on people. One of the things that we emphasize is that hiring piece and, and is alignment between executives as to what is important and what type of company we want to be. So, like one of the things you would find Kinsta, but that I talk about a lot, one of the things that we get asked a lot is, “How have you maintained a culture that prioritizes customer support, as you’ve gone from being a tiny company where the CEO and founder was providing support?” To where we are today, where we have 70 plus, I think, folks working in customer-facing functions of different types. 

[00:33:00] And a part of the answer there is that across the executive team, if you were to ask our executives, every single member of that team would say, “Support is a priority,” and its quality of support is non-negotiable. 

[00:33:11] And so, development, finance, marketing, sales, when the leadership of those groups views support as a priority, then it gets prioritized. And it becomes something we do not compromise on, and we hire the right people, and we make choices that continue to prioritize support.

[00:33:30] So, that’s just one of the things that, as you talk, I feel like there’s alignment there in recognizing that the way that you hire, the people you hire, and the way that your leadership leads is, I don’t know what percentage, but a very large percentage of what ends up being your company culture.

[00:33:47] Doug Hanna: Absolutely. And I like the idea that there’s alignment across the team on the importance of different aspects of the culture. So, while you’re describing, hopefully, when the finance person sees a budget request for the support team, they prioritize that, and it’s not just like, “Oh, let’s get as much efficiency as we possibly can out of that, because we have to do it,” but it’s actually like, “This is core to who we are and what we do.” 

[00:34:15] And culture had gone right, can help make a lot of those decisions in kind of organically across the organization in a way that hopefully, like the senior leadership team would make if they were in the room. And that’s how I think about one of the powerful aspects of company culture.

[00:34:26] Jon Penland: Yeah, I want to shift gears for the last few minutes here of our conversation and kind of focus on your career because you’ve had a really fascinating career across companies and industries all within that B2B SaaS space. So, the first question I want to ask you, back in, I think it was 2010, you ventured out as an entrepreneur.

[00:34:44] What prompted you to first launch out as an entrepreneur into this B2B SaaS space?

[00:34:51] Doug Hanna: I wish I could say I had some grand plan or vision board or something like that, but I really fell into the web hosting industry, which is where it’s basically my early career from literally as a teenager through is my like mid-twenties and to even late twenties. And I needed a server for a web hosting for a company that I are like a project I was running, and I couldn’t afford it at the time as a teenager.

[00:35:19] So, then I fell into the hosting industry and eventually kind of got a series of jobs in that space. And I ended up kind of running my own hosting company, because someone I worked with before was doing some investments and effectively would put up the capital, and then someone from his network, in this case, me, would go run the business.

[00:35:38] Doug Hanna: So, that’s what I did. And, and we bought a small hosting company called A Small Orange. At the time, there were like 10 people and we grew it over, I was involved with that company for about four years, including three in acquisition. So, it was an amazing journey, learned a lot for sure.

[00:35:55] Doug Hanna: I think I’m a significantly more mature leader now than I was, when I was then. But I also joke with people, we actually have a couple former web hosting people at Grafana. And I joke that it’s a good industry to grow up in, it’s very hard industry. You have all the SaaS dynamics, but you have expectations that 24/7, and reliability, and support. The part of the hosting industry I was in was like quite SMB-focused and low dollar value.

[00:36:20] So, it was, it was a tough business, and I think I learned a lot about that from there. And you certainly grow to appreciate the importance of support, services, and reliability, and things like that. So, which is really important to companies too.

[00:36:33] Jon Penland: Yeah. It’s interesting to me looking at your career progression. You’ve been in that founder CEO seat, I think, two different times there was A Small Orange, and then there was a company called Help.com, I think, where you were in that role. But then in other companies you’ve not been in that CEO or founder’s chair.

[00:36:52] And I think some people would have a hard time moving back and forth between that CEO founder role, where you’re deciding what the company is going to do, where are we going to go, that sort of thing, whereas presently, you’re working under somebody else who’s making those sort of like absolute top-level decisions.

[00:37:11] Have you ever found that transition to be difficult? 

[00:37:14] Doug Hanna: There are pros and cons to both. I think something I’ve learned about myself as I’ve been involved in different companies at different stages is the zero to one stage it’s not as exciting to me. I like that’s important thing that a founder has to do almost definitionally, and like, that’s not as exciting to me.

[00:37:33] I’m much more about scaling, which is why I’m enjoying what I’m doing at Grafana so much, and really what a lot of my Zendesk tenure was about as well. I also think like I have lots to learn from, from other folks, like when I joined Grafana, I knew very little about the observability space, would not have been able to create a company in our space. And still learn a lot from our founder CEO and then some of our technical leadership as well, around the space customer dynamics, what’s going where.

[00:38:02] So there are also areas that I think I can add value of course, and that hopefully, my opinions are respected. So, I’ve also been fortunate to work for great leaders that have empowered me and entrusted me to make decisions and have autonomy.

[00:38:17] Doug Hanna: So, it’s not, it hasn’t been a big issue for me, I definitely, I could see founding something in the future again, maybe, but in the meantime, I’m really enjoying kind of scaling and leading kind of a large part of a really exciting company.

[00:38:31] Jon Penland: Yeah. You mentioned a couple of different names there. You’re at Grafana now, you’ve been at Zendesk in the past. There was A Small Orange, and then there was Help.com, so you’ve been in a lot of different, really interesting, and exciting positions. And so, I’m imagining myself as somebody coming right out of college or just embarking on my career and being like, “All right, Doug has had a really interesting career, and he’s been able to be in leadership positions across different industries and different companies.

[00:38:59] How did this guy do that?” Right? So, I’m curious to that, you know, that budding entrepreneur, that person right out of college, and they just said, “Doug, give me some career advice. What should I pursue, you know, as a new person entering my career?”

[00:39:14] Doug Hanna: So, I think probably the most important advice I would give someone is like optimize first for company quality. So if you’re a part of Grafana or some other like really successful high-growth company, and you’re, you’re good, like you’ll have so many opportunities, you’ll learn so much, you’ll be able to do so much.

[00:39:34] You’ll like get your MBA but times 10 and probably a shorter amount of time. So, I think picking for company is really important and I mean not probably more often like this school grads. And they’re like, “I want to be a director X somewhere.” And they’re like, “Well, I’m going to go for this company because they gave me a better title.”

[00:39:53] Doug Hanna: I’m like that, that is the worst decision you can make. Like mop the floors at a good company before your VP or CEO at a bad company. Like it, it just won’t help you that much. So pick a great company. If inherent to that as a company that I think is growing fast and is a company where you can have an impact, like Google, Amazon, Facebook, whatever.

[00:40:15] They’re great places to work and may get extremely comfortable. You can learn a lot. One of my devices is talking to me. Like they are, there… One second. This… 

[00:40:25] Jon Penland: It’s alright. 

[00:40:26] Doug Hanna: My Alexa is talking to me. Amazon, stop. Okay. So, I was saying, is that picking the right company like it’s really tempting for business school grads or recent college grads to say, “I want to work at Google because that’s a high procedure brand and people know it, and it pays well.”

[00:40:43] It’s a great place to work. Like, I have a lot of friends that work there. But you’re just mobility within a company like that it’s going to be less, your learning is gonna be less, your, your ability to have an impact, obviously is going to be less. Google is a giant and, and they built a great business, and it’s, it’s certainly not a waste of time. But, if I’m giving advice to someone that wants to risk at something more entrepreneurial, more exciting, more dynamic, optimizing for that growth stage company, that early-stage company, I think is going to be way more productive.

[00:41:12] Jon Penland: Yeah. I’ll upvote that answer as well. When I was in my, I would say mid-twenties, maybe it was late twenties, I was going through a career transition, completely different industry. And I wasn’t in technology yet. And I almost took one job just because I needed a job. And I was talking to my father-in-law about it, and he was like, “Once you take that job, it’s going to be difficult to find another job. Is that a company that you really feel like you have a future with?” And I was like, “I don’t know, really, I just need a paycheck.” And he’s like, “Well, they were helping us out at the time.” So this really helped me. He was like, “You know what? We’ll continue to help you out. Find the right company.” And he actually pointed me towards the company I ended up working with, which was the best career advice I had received up to that point because I, I, there was a tremendous amount of opportunity at that other company. And that’s that’s advice I’ve carried with me. That’s how I ended up at, at Kinsta.

[00:42:06] As I saw Kinsta from the outside as, this is a company that’s doing things right, that’s going in a lot of the right direction. And it’s something that I can see, a mutual friend of ours, somebody we’ve both worked with, Tom, who is now at Kinsta as well, I remember going through the interview process with him, and all of his questions were like, “What do the people like at Kinsta?

[00:42:27] How do you treat your customers? What’s the quality of the product?” Right? His questions were all about the company, not about how much am I going to get paid, what are you going to make me work, what’s my title going to be. That stuff was very much secondary. His first concern was is this a company that I want to be a part of. Right? So, yeah.

[00:42:47] Doug Hanna: Yeah, and that’s really important. And Thomas made some good career choices in his career, and I think that level of focus helps. And I’m glad your father, I thought when you started the father-in-law story is going to be like he told me to go work at IBM because I feel like that’s what your stereotypical father-in-law would tell you.

[00:43:04] But the parent that can, or the spouse or friend or whatever that can help push somebody to say, “Hey, take a little bit more risk.” Especially if you’re younger, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have some like security blanket from relatives or savings from something else. Like, I think it’s, it’s worth it.

[00:43:20] Doug Hanna: And if nothing else, it will be a good learning experience if you’re able to do it. So definitely encourage people to do it if they can, and it will give them a lot of perspective. And another thing I noticed is being a quote startup guy in a bigger company, is like an amazing competitive advantage because your bias for action, speed, results, what’s good enough, and decision-making, all these things that like big companies traditionally are pretty bad at, is like what you have to do in a startup. 

[00:43:40] So I appreciate this when I joined Zandesk, people are like, “Wow, don’t get so much done. He’s like so productive, blah, blah, blah. He’s so decisive,” like positive things, just great.

[00:43:57] And I was like, “Oh, I’m just kind of operating, like, I’m trying to operate at a startup.” And senior leadership a lot of companies, good companies, which Zendesk is like, appreciate that. And they’re like, “Okay, good. He’s like challenging the status quo a little bit. He’s pushing us in a good way.” And then you’re able to get a lot done.

[00:44:12] Jon Penland: Yeah. I have to give my father-in-law one more shout out there. The reason it was such powerful advice is I was literally living in his spare bedroom at the time. So, I had gone through a period of unemployment, right? And I’m living in the guy’s house, and I’m, that’s why I was going to take the job.

[00:44:27] I’m like, I cannot continue to bomb off of my in-laws, right? I had gone through, business I was working for collapsed, and I’m living in his house, right? And I’m about to take the first job that comes up, and he’s like, “Don’t, don’t do that. Hold on, hold off for a better opportunity than that,” which was very freeing for me.

[00:44:41] Right? But like, “Hey, if the guy who’s paying the bills for me right now says it’s okay to wait. It’s okay to wait.” 

[00:44:46] Doug Hanna: Yeah. Well, that’s great advice from someone who had a stake in the outcome.

[00:44:50] Jon Penland: Absolutely. So, Doug, as we come to a close, I just have two wrap-up questions for you. So, the first is, as you think about the listeners to Reverse Engineered, which are a lot of SMB folks, so agencies, small business owners, what is a resource that you would recommend that you found useful in your own life?

[00:45:09] It could be a book, a blog, a newsletter, really anything that you say, “This is something I consume in my own life that is useful to me, that I think would be useful to the listeners of Reverse Engineered.” 

[00:45:20] Doug Hanna: So, I have two books I would recommend. Maybe three, actually. So one, and they’re kind of all, I think they share a similar lineage. In chronological order, High Output Management by Andrew Grove is a great book. It’s kind of early versions of OKRs and kind of company executive functioning and culture and things like that.

[00:45:40] They’re all, actually, all three of these books are pretty quick reads, so that’d be a good one. Ben Horowitz wrote a great book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. And that is a great kind of entrepreneurial journey book talking about his journey, some of his learnings. It’s pretty practical about making decisions, and hiring, and managing executive teams and things like that.

[00:45:59] Doug Hanna: So, I think a small business owner would appreciate that. And a more recent one that I just read, I actually did a book club with my team is by this gentleman named Frank Slootman, who is the CEO of ServiceNow, and he’s now the CEO of Snowflake. He wrote an awesome book called Amp It Up, which is all about like kind of pushing your team to do more, accomplish more, be decisive, be quick and, and shares his journey as well.

[00:46:20] So, all three great books by great leaders of really interesting technology companies that I think are applicable whether you’re running a large team at a 10,000-person company or a small team at a five-person company.

[00:46:33] Jon Penland: Yeah. Awesome. 

[00:46:34] Well, we’ll make sure and get links to all of those in the show notes. And then last question for you, Doug, where would you send folks if they wanted to learn more about you or about Grafana Labs? 

[00:46:44] Doug Hanna: So, I have a Twitter account, which I rarely tweet at, but you can find me and see some of my historical tweets @douglashanna, connect with me on LinkedIn if you’d like, and then Grafana as a much more active social media presence. We’re @grafana on Twitter or at grafana.com. Feel free to sign up for one of our free cloud accounts, if you want to play around with it. 

[00:47:07] We’re doing a conference, virtual conference in June, so lots of ways to engage with us because we have far more people working on, on that than on my personal social media, which is just me.

[00:47:16] Jon Penland: Yeah. It sounds a lot like my social media versus Kinsta’s as well. Basically, at this point, it serves to retweet Kinsta’s tweets, right? So. 

[00:47:24] Doug Hanna: Yeah. Effectively, if you’d like the 30-second version of all big news from Grafana over the last few years, just look through my Twitter account and, you know, you’ll capture 90% of it probably.

[00:47:33] Jon Penland: Absolutely. All right, Doug. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with me today and for appearing on Reverse Engineered.

[00:47:41] Doug Hanna: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Jon. 

[00:47:43] Jon Penland: Right. And thank you to our listeners. That’s all for today’s podcast. You can access the episode show notes at kinsta.com/podcast. That’s K I N S T A.com/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to Reverse Engineered and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or the platform you’re listening on right now.

[00:48:02] See you next time.

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