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Kyum Kim

Blind co-founder Kyum Kim on the hidden power of anonymity

Online anonymity can be a touchy subject nowadays, with the default assumption often being that it breeds negativity or misinformation.

But, there’s one company who believe that’s not always the case. Kyum Kim is the Head of U.S. Operations and co-founder of Blind, the anonymous social platform for verified professionals.

The company was originally founded in South Korea and made the move to Silicon Valley in 2015 – it quickly became adopted as a place for employees from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and more to discuss the internal culture of their companies.

Their mission is born out of the desire to bring transparency to the workforce and to offer a platform for colleagues, peers, and leadership teams to honestly share information about salary, culture, career advice, and industry insights. Far from being a forum for toxicity, Kyum argues that their platform encourages empathy and empowerment and that, used correctly, anonymity can be a force for good.

Short on time? Here are some quick takeaways:

When popular culture breeds company culture

Dee: Kyum, we’re delighted to welcome you as a guest on Inside Intercom today. I know we chatted with you before as part of our H.O.M.E. series, but we didn’t really have the opportunity that time to hear about your background. So, maybe you could start us off by sharing how you came to your current role as co-founder and head of U.S. operations for Blind.

Kyum: To give a little background about myself, I am an entrepreneur from Korea and I spent most of my life back in South Korea, especially in Seoul. But I did get some elementary school and middle school education in the States near Washington, D.C., and that’s why I have this American accent minus the vocabulary.

I started my career while I was in college back in South Korea when my friend started an ecommerce startup called TMON. And this one day, he called me and said he’d started a company and he wanted me to check it out. So I went there and he asked me if I could join as a sales rep. I had no idea what sales was, I had no work experience, but I thought it was a fun, interesting idea. I called my mom and I asked her if it would be okay to join this no-name company that my friend started. And she said, “Yeah. I mean, I think it’s going to go bankrupt in a year, but it would be a fun experience for you, so just do it.”

“Once we’d got some traction in Korea, we were pretty confident that people around the world would have the same problem”

That’s how I got into the world of entrepreneurship. Because when I first joined the company, it was just about ten people. In a year, it became 300, and in two years it became a thousand. Experiencing such a hypergrowth company gave a lot to me. I learned so much, I had so much fun experiencing everything from sales, sales management, operations, customer service. I met the founders of Blind there, and I also realized why the world needs Blind to solve the problem of communication within the workplace.

Dee: I do love that you checked in with your mom before taking up the role. I also check in with the parents and get their advice. I’m glad she steered you in the right direction just to go for it.

Kyum: Yeah, she was always open to this new experiences and I really appreciate that. I will probably do that to my newborn that’s coming in February as well.

Dee: So that’s a really interesting backstory. So, having established yourselves in South Korea, at what point did you then decide to make the move to the US? Did you feel that it was just integral to being at the heart of the tech industry?

Kyum: So once we’d got some traction in Korea, we were pretty confident that people around the world would have the same problem. And there was a point where we were looking into global markets and trying to understand the culture there, and one of the resources that we used was the TV show, The Office.

Dee: No way?

Kyum: We thought there was a reason it was reproduced twice in the UK and the United States. And when you look at the character there, Michael Scott, he’s very similar to a typical boss in Korea. He has a terrible sense of humor, he has people talking behind his back, he lacks empathy. So, we thought, “Oh, if those kind of people exist in the United States as well, we have a chance to take off as well.” So, that was actually one of the reasons, that gave us confidence to go global.

Dee: That’s fascinating. So, it was basically like, “Oh, offices are the same everywhere, so this is ultimately a relatable idea”? Did you watch the UK version at all?

Kyum: I watched some episodes of it, and I just found it to be hilarious because I think Office is one of the few TV shows that everyone around the world can relate to if you have ever had a job.

Dee: Well, I have to say that is the first time The Office has ever been referenced as a reason for a company moving to the States. And frankly, I love it. It kind of  makes sense in terms of Blind being like the online version of the water cooler. Let’s talk a bit about Blind itself then. It bills itself as a trusted community where verified professionals connect to discuss what matters most. Firstly, let’s talk about what Blind actually does and what you offer as a platform. And then let’s talk a bit about how the idea first came about after you had met these colleagues of yours.

A platform to speak honestly

Kyum: Sure. Blind is a platform that gives you the freedom to talk about your work honestly. There’s a contrast between what you say in offline meetings or in your Zoom meetings right now, to your colleagues or your boss, or in the workplace with the content you talk about on Blind. Because at work, when a company asks you “Are you satisfied at your work?”, you can’t really be honest. When your coworker asks you about your salary or your work satisfaction, there’s always an agenda or political aspects that are associated with your conversation. I’ve realized that there’s always a need for a platform that facilitates these honest discussions, and that’s what we are. Everyone needs a work email to sign up and participate in discussions, and once you sign up, you get access to two different channels — one’s a company channel where you can talk privately with your coworkers and another is a public channel where you can communicate with people in other companies. That’s what Blind is.

Things were said that wouldn’t have been said in meetings or other settings within the workplace”

My CEO, Sunguk Moon, used to work at a company called Naver and he was a big fan of this anonymous forum within the company. Korean people are notorious for having rigorous forum cultures, and that has kind of transferred into the company as well because someone in HR had a crazy idea to have an anonymous channel within a company. But he realized two things there; one is that the forums were hierarchy-free — because it was anonymous, people didn’t know who this person was, what the rank of this person was, or whether they were a manager or individual contributor. And that just changed a lot of dynamics for the discussion. Things were said that wouldn’t have been said in meetings or other settings within the workplace.

And another interesting aspect was that people were agenda-free, so there was no reason to protect your agenda or your team or to be political about your work in these anonymous forums. What that did was it helped people actually be more helpful and trustworthy. So, he was really fascinated with the culture that was formed there, and I met him when I was working at that first company started by my friend. And when we were working there, seeing this hypergrowth, we saw a culture of hesitation building up. And that was really interesting because when it was only 10 people, I could just go up to the CEO or anyone and talk about whatever I thought. If there was a problem within a company, I could just go up to him and say there was a problem and think about the solution. Everyone was just solution-focused.

But when the company got bigger, I realized that employees started to fear repercussions or retaliation from their management, and fearing the judgment from their peers. When we think about hierarchies within companies, we think about employees fearing their bosses, but when I look at the Blind community, what I see over and over again is people not being sure of what coworkers will think about them if they are honest about what they think.

A few years ago, there was an interesting article on the New York Times about the Amazon culture. And what was really interesting to me was that there were pieces of information about the Amazon culture, such as people crying on their desks, which became a meme within the Blind community. And there were also a lot of examples of how Amazon employees are very, very stressed out at work. What was fascinating to me was that on platforms like LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Medium, these places where you have your identity attached to, people were saying, “I work at Amazon, I don’t see this happening within this company. I think the article is exaggerating.”

I think that when you’re running an anonymous forum, you’ve got to really believe in the goodwill of people. And I truly believe in the goodwill of our users”

Meanwhile, on Blind, there was a poll about this specific article, which was called Inside Amazon. And more than 50% of the people were answering that the examples in the article are very likely to happen at Amazon, and comments were saying, “Oh, I’ve seen people cry on their desks.” I think that shows the contrast between what can happen in a workplace setting versus an anonymous setting where you don’t have your identity attached.

Dee: Well, it strikes me that it’s almost a trick of timing to a certain extent. When you’re in a startup, as your mom said, it might not last a year, so it’s too early for you to be personally invested on a career level. And then the only other time when you’re going to be really truthful and honest is when you’re so jaded that you’re already on your way out the door, that you don’t care anymore and you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to tell you what I think.” But what Blind offers to people is, in that middle ground when they are personally and professionally invested in the company, an opportunity to actually speak their mind.

Kyum: Exactly. I think you brought up a good point that when you’re running an anonymous forum, you’ve got to really believe in the goodwill of people. And I truly believe in the goodwill of our users. And as I said, when you’re anonymous, you don’t really have an agenda. You’re not going to become famous here, or get your name out and make more money through an anonymous forum. So, whatever people say, usually comes out of goodwill, whether it’s complaints or complements. I think, for most of the comments, it comes from goodwill.

Anonymity as a source of empowerment

Dee: And I know that can’t be the case in every case. And we’ll get to that in a minute, the challenges about anonymity. But before we do, another way that you guys have described yourself is as a platform for change, saying that your mission towards transparency breaks down professional barriers, which I think we’ve covered a little bit already, and that it empowers and forms decisions, and inspires productive change in the workplace. But in that mission statement, how do you feel that you successfully differentiate yourself from other, on the surface, similar platforms that have existed before? The likes of Whisper and Secret, for example.

Kyum: When we make decisions within the Blind team, we have two pillars of decision-making. One is: how do we increase communication within the community? How do we make people talk more? And the other is: how do we sustain as a community without breaking it down? I think what other anonymous communities did really well was increasing the amount of communication because when you’re anonymous, you can talk about whatever you want, and that usually brings in a lot of people who want to talk about whatever is on their mind. But the reason why that doesn’t sustain is that it does not really provide any value to your life.

So what we did was we verified people with their work identity and that provides the community with an extra level of context, and that makes the discussions much more relevant to the users. And I think we might get to talk about moderation later, but it helps us do a lot of things. One, it makes the conversations much more relevant to the users. And second, it helps with self-moderating as well because when you have verified identities, you have the right to say, “Oh, that is not true,” and you have the authority to do that when there’s misinformation posted on these forums.

I think empowering our users goes back to giving them the freedom to be honest about work”

The third aspect is that you’re invested in your user account because you have verified your work email, and people tend to be much more careful when they say something about someone else because they know their work identity is attached. So, there’s a little bit of that self-motivation factor as well.

Dee: That makes sense. Anonymity is such a core element to what you do at Blind. In your experience, why is this so important to your users? And aside from what we’ve touched on already, how does it empower them?

Kyum: We are essentially a workplace community that uses anonymity to promote more discussions. And I think empowering our users goes back to giving them the freedom to be honest about work. I remember a time when I was a sales manager at my first company and I was managing about 20 sales reps, and there was this best performing sales rep that everyone loved. Once, she came up to me and said, “There was a thing that you made me do three months ago that I really struggled with, which was relocating to a different location.” She got a new apartment, she got a new temporary lease. And then I made her move to another location after that, which was a terrible thing to do, but she just followed my orders basically because I was her boss. And I thought we had a great relationship, but three months later, she told me that it made her struggle a lot.

“When you have hierarchies and work relationships and a professional facade, you can’t truly be yourself and some things are left unsaid”

And what really strikes me was that it was so obvious that what I made her do was something that I shouldn’t make a person go through, but I had no sense of that because no one told me. And I think this is where Blind comes in. Because when you have hierarchies and work relationships and a professional facade, you can’t truly be yourself and some things are left unsaid. What we essentially do is we let these unheard voices and unsaid sentiments be heard through our forums.

Dee: I love that description of it, the unheard sentiments. We’re going to talk a little bit about the dangers of anonymity a little later in the interview, but I’m really captivated by the idea of harnessing the power of it as well. How do you think that this anonymity or transparency that Blind and other organizations offer can support positive change within the tech industry? For example, how might it support something as important as diversity and inclusion?

Kyum: I think the way we have thought about diversity and inclusion is access to information. When we first started operating Blind, one of the goals of the community was to bring out as much information as possible to these forums, so it’s accessible to anyone who wants to access it. And I’m actually one of the beneficiaries of them because I’m an immigrant in the United States. When I first landed here, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any network, I was just desperate to meet anyone who works at tech companies because I had to promote mine. And if I had something like Blind, I would have benefited so much because I could have found information about the tech industry, what people think, and what to do.

“We promote those kinds of behavior where verified employees of these large tech firms or other companies come in and share information about their career, whether it be salary or company culture, that empowers other people’s informed decisions”

And I think there are a lot of minorities and immigrants, and many people who are not fortunate enough to have those networks within the tech industry. If you didn’t go to the right school, if you are not from the right neighborhood, you might not have anyone to ask for interview advice or salary information. What we essentially do is we promote those kinds of behavior where verified employees of these large tech firms or other companies come in and share information about their career, whether it be salary or company culture, that empowers other people’s informed decisions. And that doesn’t stop with some kind of network that people have — it is public. If you have an email, you can sign up. If you don’t have a work email, you cannot write content, but you can read all the content. So, giving access to this information, I believe, is the first step to promoting diversity because it’s going to help them make better decisions.

Dee: It kind of lifts the curtain for people to talk more openly about salary expectations and the like. One charge, Kyum, that is often leveled at Silicon Valley as a whole is that it can be a bit homogenous in ideas. Do you think or do you see on your Blind forums that coming across? And do you think there is a need to open dialogue there, and is that something that you could do?

Kyum: I think Silicon Valley has a very open and transparent culture in general. But what I see more and more is that some people are hesitant to express themselves because they don’t want to be judged by their peers or even canceled at these companies or cultures. When you want to create a diverse culture, that does not mean facilitating hatred or racism or anything like that, but you’ve got to understand that people’s thoughts are in a spectrum. It’s not zero or one.

I think the first step to driving people to a better culture is actually understanding where people are and where people sit within the spectrum. If you have context about people, it actually helps you rise above these kind of controversies because now you’re understanding people.

Building a Blind business model

Dee: We’ve spoken quite a bit about the benefits for individual contributors, but what about for yourselves and other companies? What’s the business model behind Blind? Is there not always going to be a tension between trying to monetize the app or the platform and then users feeling that it’s a safe space for them to comment?

Kyum: Yeah, absolutely. The value proposition to the people who are using Blind and the companies where these employees work is we want to be the ally to the employees and advisor to the company. Ally to the employee means that we’re going to keep providing a platform where employees can come in and be honest about their work, talk about career-related information, give each other career advice and discover new opportunities in their career. And what that does to the company is they now have an extra touchpoint on accessing these people. If we can help companies meet these top candidates at the right moment through our platform, we believe that’s going to be a great business model.

I think that’s actually a good thing for the companies because this kind of information wasn’t accessible anywhere else before, and now we’re getting the honest sentiment from the employees and presenting it to the company”

And the second aspect is there are millions of dialogues that happen within Blind that talk about workplace sentiments, and we’ve started surveying these people on how they feel about their workplaces. We recently released the employee NPS score rankings of the companies, and we can benchmark these rankings and scores between companies because we have the ability to survey employees without the companies consent. And I think that’s actually a good thing for the companies because this kind of information wasn’t accessible anywhere else before, and now we’re getting the honest sentiment from the employees and presenting it to the company. I think that’s going to be our next big business model as well.

Dee: And presumably, for your users, there’s an implicit agreement that there would never be any passing on of information to those companies of who had ranked them where.

Kyum: Yes, of course. One of the things I really focused on from the start is that the best way to create an anonymous platform is to make the users anonymous to us. We don’t have any information to identify the users even ourselves. And that has remained the same ever since the start of Blind.

Everything in moderation

Dee: That makes sense. Let’s move on then and chat a bit more about anonymity. We’re living in a world where anonymous accounts on social media are increasingly seen as a part of a dangerous trend towards misinformation. How do you mitigate against that potential for toxicity on your own forums?

Kyum: In the world that we live in, there’s not going to be a forum that’s perfectly non-toxic, and there’s always going to be people who post bad content. But I do think we are doing a better job than other platforms because when misinformation is posted on our platform, we have a ton of other people who can validate this information or correct this information because the work identities of these people are verified. And we’ve seen that happen a lot. Let’s say a Microsoft employee comes on board and talks something about their boss or their director, we’ve seen a lot of times people come back and say, “Hey, you’re wrong. I know this person. That is not true.” And we’ve also seen cases where people post information about their company and it gets flagged down immediately because it’s misinformation or it’s an attack against an individual. We try to promote that behavior a lot within our platform, and we encourage our users to self-moderate content they feel it’s inappropriate.

Dee: But there is a point, presumably, where Blind would step in. I’ve seen you on LinkedIn step in to apologize to a woman who shared a post that had been not so secretly written about herself.

I think companies should realize that the way people make career decisions is always changing”

Kyum: Definitely. The post you mentioned was flagged down within two hours, and I felt it was really unfortunate that she saw it and that she was hurt by it, And not necessarily because it was posted on LinkedIn. We are always paying attention to posts that might hurt people or include hate, and there is no way we are promoting those kinds of behavior on our platform. And we’re going to keep on doing that as long as we stand.

Dee: For those listening who might be coming from a leadership perspective rather than an employee perspective, is there a risk to companies that they might feel exposed by their employees operating on Blind?

Kyum: First of all, I think companies should realize that the way people make decisions is always changing. In the 1920s, for example, when companies were hiring people, they would post job ads talking about how great their culture is, how great their company is. And people would come to you looking at the job ads. After Glassdoor came out, people started writing reviews about companies. And now, many people rely on Glassdoor to make career-related decisions. I think we’re the next version of that.

And it is surprisingly similar to what happened to the consumer product industry because there were ads, and then there were reviews. And now, these kinds of product-related decisions live on these networks of people such as Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit. We are the workplace version of that, now people come to Blind to make career-related decisions. When you look at how companies utilize social networks right now, they think of it as an opportunity. Of course, there’s a risk, but there are a lot of companies that have gotten so much value from utilizing these networks. And I think companies should do the same for Blind and any other platform out there that creates networks of people who talk about work.

Watch out for burnout

Dee: To harness the power of it and the information that it gives you rather than fearing it, I suppose. Over the years, you’ve been called upon to comment on everything, from interpersonal romantic relationships in the workplace to remote working trends. From what you’re seeing on Blind at the moment, what’s front of mind for tech workers in September 2020?

Kyum: If I were a tech worker in a typical tech company right now, this is what I’d be experiencing. In March, my company tells me that I need to work from home until June. Then, I see my coworkers and peers being laid off left and right. Then, the murder of George Floyd happens and the Black Lives Matter movement happens, and your company tells you you’ve got to work from home until the end of the year. And then you see more layoffs coming, and you see the administration changing policies about your visa status. And then there’s another announcement from your company saying that you need to work from home until June or July next year.

Uncertainty gives you mental stress and I think a lot of people are burned out right now from all these events that are happening, and I don’t think this is going to end soon”

There’s been so much uncertainty, and I think that that has been the underlying status of everyone in the tech industry. Uncertainty gives you mental stress and I think a lot of people are burned out right now from all these events that are happening, and I don’t think this is going to end soon. We say things are going to go back to normal, which means that the current status is abnormal, and this abnormal status is going to go on for another year, at least from what I see.

When we survey our users about their mental health, we see an increased level of burnout and loneliness. And I think the sentiment on the remote work itself is misrepresented in the press as well. Because, yes, there is a lot of people who enjoy remote working and who can work remotely forever, but I still think the majority of the people need to come back to the office at some point. The companies know and the workers know better that they need to be in the office at least one or two times per week. No one knows when that’s going to happen, and that’s giving people a lot of stress because the work from home situation is involuntary. It’s not a voluntary decision.

I think a lot of tech companies have been really empathetic towards their employees”

Dee: For you, then, burnout is the key issue that companies should be watching.

Kyum: And I see companies watching it. I think companies are actually doing a great job recognizing employee burnout — they’re not necessarily taking care of it or fixing it, but companies like Google have implemented policies like temporary holidays and some companies gave out allowances to spend budget on working from home. I think a lot of tech companies have been really empathetic towards their employees. When we survey our users, we see that more than 80% of the tech employees think their employers have been empathetic towards them during this coronavirus pandemic.

Dee: Before we let you go, if you had to make one projection about where anonymity as a tool might be useful over the next year or two, considering how fast-paced the world is at the moment, where do you think that impact will be most important?

Kyum: I think what the pandemic has done is it’s accelerating all the changes that are happening in the workplace, and companies need to make structural changes within their organizations. Individuals might face changes around their job security or their positions or the places where they work. I feel like the uncertainty of job security is going to change a lot over time, and this is a time when people need to help out each other much more than before.

And the power of anonymity is that because people don’t come in with an agenda, they can be truly themselves, they can bring out the good in themselves and actually help out each other through these anonymous forums. In the past few months, there were so many layoffs, but we’ve seen the same amount of support from our community lending these people a hand saying that “I will give you a referral. If you need any advice on an interview, I will help you.” I just foresee more of that happening, and we’re going to try our best to facilitate that within the community.

Dee: Amazing. That’s certainly very heartwarming to hear. Second to last question Kyum, and it’s something we do like to ask guests on Inside Intercom, is whether there’s an individual who inspires them or that they aspire to. Is there anyone that comes to mind?

Kyum: When I was first working at TMON, the ecommerce company, there was a book called Delivering Happiness, written by Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos. And the book talks about how a company can become profitable while maintaining that passionate culture, and that delivering happiness to your employees delivers happiness to your customers. After founding a company, I found out that it’s an extremely hard thing to do, especially delivering happiness to your employees. I just look up to him a lot, being an Asian founder in the United States and creating that culture, and I’ve always wanted to meet him in person and ask him a lot of questions about how to build that culture within a company. If there’s one person that I really look up to, it’s him.

Dee: Nice one. Before we let you go, where can people keep up with you and your work?

Kyum: I usually post about my work and what’s going on, on Blind, on my LinkedIn – feel free to add me on @kyumkim.

Dee: Kyum, it was an absolute pleasure talking to you again today. Thanks so for joining us on Inside Intercom.
 
Kyum: Thanks for having me Dee. It was a great pleasure.