It’s been quite a tumultuous summer for the folks at Urban Airship. With big events like the World Cup and new platforms like the Amazon Fire Phone and iOS 8, business has continued to grow for the five-year-old Portland mobile marketing startup that helps customers deliver push notifications to mobile phones.
But the company had a major distraction in July when The Oregonian revealed sexual assault accusations levied by a former girlfriend against Scott Kveton, the 40-year-old co-founder and CEO who was also one of Portland’s most well-known entrepreneurs. Shortly after the reports published, Kveton stepped down from his role and eventually left the board of directors, completely cutting ties with the company he helped start in 2009.
Earlier this month, a grand jury declined to indict Kveton on criminal charges related to the allegations. Kveton, who declined to be interviewed for this story, still faces a civil suit.
On a recent trip to Portland, we stopped by Urban Airship’s headquarters and met with Chief Marketing Officer Brent Hieggelke and Director of Communications Corey Gault to find out how the company handled not only the distraction, but also losing one of its leaders.
“You can’t deny that this doesn’t have impact on culture,” Hieggelke said. “But you can certainly recover, and I think we have recovered remarkably fast.”
Read on for edited excerpts from our conversation:
GeekWire: OK, this has been a crazy summer for you guys. Where do things stand now, about a month since Kveton stepped down?
Brent Hieggelke: “Overall, while this certainly wasn’t something you look forward to going through, we’ve come out of the other end pretty strong. We went through process and had a lot of company conversation. A lot of folks felt compelled to kind of delve into issues — even if they weren’t related to [the allegations against Kveton] — but kind of the whole issue of diversity, and how do we channel this energy into something productive, even though it’s not really related.
We had a lot of conversations here and did some roundtables with groups of folks that were really energized. We kicked off a Diversity Guild and some other initiatives that folks are energizing into. Suffice to say, a lot of good energy came out of the desire to look at the work environment and say, ‘how do we make this an example of what’s right?’ It was one of those silver lining scenarios.”
Corey Gault: “Yeah, especially since this was entirely a personal matter for Scott and it had nothing really to do with the workplace. But to see folks really get excited about seeing how we can ensure that we have a safe and inclusive environment to work at was really great. The Diversity Guild was self-mobilized by employees here and now we have active discussion groups on Slack and Jive. We’ve just been getting a lot of input and coordinating through these roundtables.”
GeekWire: What’s the Diversity Guild?
Gault: “That was started by three folks to ensure that we all have great understanding about what is happening in the broader environment. We were looped in to a lot of stories — the Tinder stuff, the Yahoo stuff — and in some respects we were just ensuring that we all understood what the issues are and what are we as a company going to be doing to ensure we are on the right side of this.”
GeekWire: Tell me how the culture was affected at Urban after what happened with Kveton outside the company.
Hieggelke: “Culture has been a huge part of the company, a huge part of our story and draw. People really care about it. One of the reasons a lot of us chose to work here was, we love the culture.
When you have a shock to the system, you can do two things: You can freak out and freeze up, or you can do something to impact the world. Even though [the allegations against Kveton] had nothing to do with the company or was related to workplace, a lot of people just felt like, here are some things we can attack. Here are some things we can put energy into to make it better and be proud of. The executive level totally supported it and had roundtables to discuss how do you come out of this thing stronger as a result.
Scott was a really important motivator and really got this company going with the three co-founders. He was a big part of the culture and brand. You can’t deny that this doesn’t have impact on culture. But you can certainly recover, and I think we have recovered remarkably fast. People went through it, disconnected, and now it’s business as usual — all surprisingly fast.”
GeekWire: What about the culture that Kveton and the founders helped build? How has that changed, if at all?
Hieggelke: “Part of your culture of any company changes when you get bigger. When I joined when this was a 45-person company and back then there was a strong founder culture. We were still acting like a startup. Now there are 160 people, and the culture gets diluted just naturally by each employee who brings personal piece of culture.
I think it was easier to extricate Scott from the culture now, and I think Scott would probably be proud that the company culture can survive, and doesn’t rely on him. Yeah, he was the chief cheerleader three years ago, but now that culture lives on.
Again, it’s the idea that you start with certain culture that attracts employees who appreciate and embrace that culture and emulate it and spread it, so that culture kind of lives on regardless of initiator. Even if that initiator goes, it’s such a part of the company that those values still kind of maintain themselves. I think that’s where we’re at. We’re not reliant on any one individual to keep the culture alive because it’s just now part of the DNA of the company and that’s what people really appreciate.”
GeekWire: What about your customers? Has business been affected?
Hieggelke: “Because Scott moved off the business so fast and it was such clear clean cut, there wasn’t a lot of having to defend or describe. There was no ambiguity. I think people looked at it as a personal issue he had, and the company was detached, so, move on. That made it easy.
If it had dragged on, it would have been different story because no one likes uncertainty, but I think because it all resolved itself so quickly, it was like, how do you hold a company responsible for something that is a personal life thing? Luckily, our customers are mature enough to see the difference. I don’t think we lost a single customer.”
GeekWire: Do you have any advice for startups that might go through something similar to this?
Hieggelke: “I think it’s surprising how much more mature the company can be than you think it will. When we were in the midst of all this, and sitting and scratching our heads saying, ‘Wow, this is a new one for us,’ I would have bet that the company was going to linger on this for a lot longer than we actually did. I’m really surprised at how fast people absorbed it, processed it and moved on. Honestly, it’s like no one is talking about it anymore.”
Had it been a workplace issue, it would have been much more exhaustive. The other thing is that we are incredibly busy. Our business is fast and furious and we don’t have a lot of time. We hired people who are here to tackle the world of mobile. We are just really busy and there’s just not a lot of time to sit around and worry about it.”