Kelly Steckelberg doesn’t sit in an office at Zoosk. She’s out on the floor with her team and that’s just the way she likes it.
“I like to hear what’s going on,” says Steckelberg, the company’s CEO. “It can be important things or it can be really silly things. Last night, the team was making funny jokes and it was making me laugh so hard. I think it’s great and I was enjoying myself. They see that I like to know what’s happening and be involved in those things and they feel comfortable around me.”
Steckelberg didn’t grow up with aspirations to become a CEO. Rather, she has a background in finance and accounting and hoped to one day be a CFO at a public company.
“Zoosk and our founders (Shayan Zadeh and Alex Mehr) gave me an amazing opportunity to expand my area of responsibility beyond finance and accounting,” Steckelberg says. “I spent a lot of time with them and learned a lot about how they thought about the strategy of the business and how they thought about the product. It was the first time I thought I might really enjoy having a broader sense of responsibility.”
Steckelberg was named CEO in December 2014.
“I had taken on IT and facilities and had gradually increased my areas of responsibility in the company, but I hadn’t ever managed marketing or product at that point,” she says. “It was certainly a stretch. But it was one of those things, because it felt a little scary, that was exactly the reason I needed to do it. I’ve learned a ton in the last year and a half.”
Zoosk is a leading online dating company with more than 35 million members. It’s available in more than 80 countries and is translated into 25 languages. In March 2015, the company launched on Android Wear. But there have also been challenges in attempting to match up the company’s significant growth trajectory with profitability.
The two employee reductions she has had to make at Zoosk as CEO were “the two worst days of my life,” Steckelberg says.
“And yet, those are the decisions that had to be made,” she says. “By my nature, I’m an optimistic person. I will always look for the best outcome. With that said, I’m someone who makes decisions quickly and I trust my intuition.”
Empower your team
It’s her ability to be part of the team and to not try to do too much that has helped Steckelberg earn the loyalty and support of her team in good times and bad.
“One of the most valuable traits of a CEO is empowering and trusting others,” she says. “I have strong expertise in certain areas and very limited expertise in others. I can’t be involved in every decision if I’m trying to micromanage every process of this company. That’s not the best use of my time. When there is something high-risk, of course it’s a little bit nerve-wracking. But having me manage that process would be a terrible idea.”
That empowering style of leadership was on display when Zoosk consolidated its data centers.
“The execution, the planning, the timeline and the decisions around how that would get done was led by another VP in our organization,” she says.
“By empowering him to lead it in the way that he saw best because he was ultimately going to be responsible for it, he executed it in an unbelievably efficient way and without any impact to our users. It’s a very risky proposition when you’re moving your website from one data center to another. We didn’t tell him how to do it. He figured it out. He came to us with a proposal and then he did it.”
Empowerment comes down to trust and the ability to ask questions and serve as a facilitator to allow necessary changes to take places. The foundation on which these changes can be made is built through regular dialogue with your team.
“One of the things I promoted when I became CEO is to be transparent,” Steckelberg says. “We’re going to be transparent about financial results and the issues that we face. We made a lot of progress around that in the first year. Then we got some feedback that we could be doing better. I said, ‘OK, we’re going to try to be even better.’”
She also takes part in department meetings to interact with her team in smaller group environments and conducts regular skip-level lunches with employees to talk about what’s on their minds.
“You get to get outside of the office with them in a different way and hear what they have to say,” she says.
“Maybe it’s about work, maybe it’s about their life. People see that I’m around and I’m approachable. We use Slack as an internal communication channel and people Slack me all the time. They feel comfortable coming to me directly.”
It puts her in a better position to listen and understand proposals about changes such as the consolidation of data centers.
“I listen to their proposals and I ask questions,” Steckelberg says. “Can I help with anything? What support do you need? What resources do you need? I make sure they have what they need and then I get out of the way.”
Think about the customer
Leaders need to be focused on providing employees with the tools they need to do their jobs. But they can’t ever forget why they are doing those jobs.
“We are a consumer web business and there are real-time sales happening on our site all the time,” she says. “We are able to look at metrics in increments of every 20 minutes. So every 20 minutes, I can see how many subscribers are on our site, how many messages have been sent and what’s the response rate? We judge our success every day based on those metrics.”
You can never assume that you know what your customer is thinking, Steckelberg says.
“It’s very important to stay in touch with customers and not assume you know what they want or what they need or that we always know best,” she says. “We do that through user research, surveys and by having our customers come in. We’ve had them speak at all-hands meetings. We’ve had them do success videos. We’re a business and they are our consumers. But they are looking at us from a very different perspective. It’s really important to keep them front and center.”
One of the challenges that users commonly face, according to research, is when they don’t get responses to messages. Typically, both people have to be subscribers in order to have a conversation.
“If you’re a subscriber and I’m not and you send me a message, I can’t reply unless I subscribe,” she says. “Some people are compelled to subscribe. Some are not. If you feel disappointed that I don’t reply, that can be a reason for you to be disappointed in our service.”
A premium feature was added that allows any person you talk to, whether they are a subscriber or not, to reply to your messages.
“This is a great way for a subscriber to get additional value from their experience,” Steckelberg says.
Another new feature has been added that allows subscribers to get the photos they post to their profiles officially verified by Zoosk.
“When you see that, you know this person is going to look like their photo,” she says. “The response rate for people with verified photos is seven times that of people with unverified photos.”
New features such as these are tested in a controlled environment before they go live. The team does a great job of working towards a solution that is best for the customer.
“The environment and culture here is one where you’ll win by presenting a valid argument with reason,” she says. “You don’t win by politicking or yelling. The culture here is very no-nonsense and straight-forward, which I love.”
Looking to the future
As she looks to the future, Zoosk is both confident and curious about what the years ahead will bring to Zoosk and the world of online dating.
“We are constantly looking at what could be next from a technology perspective,” Steckelberg says. “For example, this week, we are having hack days. Our whole company is eligible to participate these three days in coming up with a project of something they want to be implemented in our product or maybe a new app idea.
They are certainly encouraged to look at what they think is coming in the future and embrace new technologies. I don’t know what is next in terms of online dating. It hasn’t made itself visible yet.”
In the meantime, she is confident the number of people who do online dating will only continue to grow.
“If you think that every single person isn’t on a dating website, you’re probably wrong,” she says. “I think everybody is doing it these days. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s easy and it’s a super-efficient way to meet people.” ●
How to reach: Zoosk, or www.zoosk.com
- You don’t have to be an expert at everything.
- Don’t assume you know what’s best for customers.
- Give your team the opportunity to dream about the future.
The Steckelberg File
NAME: Kelly Steckelberg
Born: Vermillion, South Dakota.
What was your very first job and what did you learn? I worked in the fabric department of a department store. It was called Anthony’s in Kerrville, Texas. It was my first real foray into customer service and how you support your customers.
Who has been your biggest influence? In general, it has to be my mother. She’s one of the strongest people I know and has a very high moral compass. One time when I was in high school, I told her I’d like to be on the tennis team. I went to a very small rural high school, so I didn’t grow up at a country club where I played tennis.
My mother said, ‘OK, let’s play tennis.’ It was as simple as that. You want it, you go for it. We started going down every day after school to the tennis courts and played tennis. She has always been very inspiring. I have two sisters and she raised us to be very strong independent women who could have whatever we wanted.
Who is one person, past or present, that you would like to meet and why? It’s William Randolph Hearst. I find him to have been an amazing successful businessman who also had this super interesting personal life. I’ve read a few biographies and he’s had such a significant impact on San Francisco and the Bay Area as well that I just think he would have been an amazing person to have known.