Lani Hay knows military technology. Joining the U.S. Navy at 17, she served as an intelligence officer and naval aviation observer. Her experience in integrating new technologies ranges from reconnaissance to tactical intelligence, making her a hot commodity for businesses looking to develop their own technologies.
Hay launched Lanmark Technology Inc. in 2003, turning what was a one-woman consulting business into a now 200-employee, multimillion-dollar company that provides services and systems to support the federal government.
Smart Business sat down with Hay, president and CEO of the Vienna, Va.-based business, at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how she generates ideas for technological innovation at LMT.
Q: How do you stay motivated to come up with new ideas?
I would describe myself as a solution architect. … My intelligence background has provided a lot of training and thoughts about how to go about starting my company because I’m a trained analyst, and so I look at things, I look at problems, and I find solutions for them.
I can’t solve problems where there isn’t funding for me to do so, and so I definitely keep track of what the (government) budget trends are, what bills are getting passed, what agencies are getting funded and what programs are getting funded.
There are always efficiencies that you can find. There’s always ways that you can help the government run better, because it ultimately saves taxpayers’ dollars, which helps everyone.
A lot of the projects that we work on support the Department of Defense, meaning that we provide solutions for our deployed service members that ultimately save their lives. So when you look at the bigger picture of the national security interest that we support and how it ultimately ends up effecting the lives of our military members, those are really important problems that I do want to help solve, that I want to help find a better solution for — the efficiencies to get equipment or new technologies.
Q: How do you turn an idea into something tangible?
I like to surround myself with diverse people and diverse viewpoints. When I think of issues that I want to find the solution for, the best idea might not come from me. Sometimes it comes out of the group of people that I’ve surrounded to help me think about the problem, and we end up coming up with the solution by building off of each other’s ideas and suggestions. It’s always a collaborative effort in helping to tackle some of the issues that I want to find answers to.
Q: How do you ensure those people you surround yourself with embody the culture you want at LMT?
It’s about the founder really understanding who they are as a person, and being able to articulate what that environment is and what it’s going to be like working within the company. A small business, a fast-growth business, has a culture that is completely unto itself; it’s different than any large bureaucratic organization. I always make sure that I’m crystal clear when I communicate that to new candidates — if you’re looking for something stable and stagnant, need not apply.
The leadership in the company are former military, and so a lot of the values are intrinsic to our military regarding character: integrity, public service and leadership are the type of people that we attract and that do apply. It’s people who like working in a dynamic environment where you have opportunity to do a whole vast array of things within your professional career.
How to reach: Lanmark Technology Inc., (571) 766-2200 or www.LMT-INC.com
Clevelanders have an amazing ability to come together and support things they feel are important, says Matthew Figgie, chairman of Clark-Reliance Corp. Figgie spoke at the National Kidney Foundation’s Corporate Kick-off Breakfast at Cleveland Browns Stadium earlier today.
Clark-Reliance, recipient of a 2011 Medical Mutual Pillar Award for Community Service, presented by Smart Business, has proved Clevelanders can make a difference through the company’s extensive support of the NKF.
Rick Solon, company president and CEO, chaired the 2011 Northeast Ohio Kidney Walk, which raised a record-breaking $185,000. Clark-Reliance’s 162 walkers raised $2,869 toward this, in addition to the corporate sponsor’s $7,500 scholarship donation.
Figgie, recipient of a kidney transplant thanks to the efforts of Clark-Reliance as detailed here, will continue this spirit of service as chair of the 2012 Northeast Ohio Kidney Walk. The event will take place June 10 outside the Great Lakes Science Center, with a goal to raise $225,000.
“We can make the effort, we can raise the money,” Figgie says. “We have to get the word out, we have to educate people, we have to rally – because this is something that we can control.”
Catherine and David Cook were having trouble meeting people when they switched high schools. After flipping through a school yearbook, they thought they’d never be able to meet people that way — until they had the idea to use it as a template for a social networking tool online.
They co-founded myYearbook.com in 2005 with sibling and current CEO Geoff Cook, and the site has since grown to more than 33 million members. The website incorporates a variety of methods for users to interact including text and video chat, games and quizzes.
“If you think about Facebook as where you go to connect with people you know, myYearbook is where you go to connect with people you want to know,” says Catherine Cook.
The trio has generated increasing momentum by incorporating mobile platforms. Forty-seven percent of the company’s daily users now access the website from a mobile device, which is up from 2 percent when they launched the initiative in 2010.
Smart Business sat down with Geoff and Catherine Cook at the at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how going mobile has impacted their New Hope, Penn.-based business.
Q: How did you make the move to mobile platforms?
Geoff Cook: We decided which platforms to pursue based on where we could drive new users and where we thought we could drive activity from existing users — those are basically the two criteria. Further down the list was modernization, but those first two criteria were important.
You have to develop pretty much everything you build for multiple platforms: iPhone, Android, iPad. So you build everything five or six times.
Basically, build an API layer. So once you’ve built the core APIs, the other things are just interface creation. So Android is a different interface with all the same functions. The database is the same, so you can do cross platform. It’s still not as easy as built-at-once, but it’s not nearly as bad as putting the same amount of effort in five times.
Q: What profit opportunities do you see in mobile?
Geoff: We look at mobile ads as being important, but young and maturing. It’s going to take some time. So we look at other ways of making money on mobile. What’s interesting on mobile is to have frictionless payments. So (on) an iPhone, everyone is two taps away from paying you. If you have an iPhone in your pocket and you’ve ever downloaded even a free app, you have to have a billing profile. And as a result, iPhone is a great payment platform.
We’re trying to drive virtual currency sales and trying to drive a good product using the currency on mobile, because we think it’s obviously where we’re going.
Q: How do you come up with new ideas to expand the user experience?
Catherine Cook: We pay a lot of attention to what our members are saying, and we also try to think about the current trends in social media and what we could do to make things fun. And every feature we come up with is all about making meeting new people fun. So for instance, one of our features that launched in the beginning of the year called Live is a gaming platform that connects video chat with casual gaming so you can see who you play — it makes who you play as important as what you’re playing.
Q: What do you see as the future of your company?
Geoff: A few years from now, what’s this market going to look like and who’s going to win it? We thought the winner is going to win it on a global basis.
Most Internet brands of note have won it on a global basis — it’s hard to be a regional player. We are a regional player. Right now we’re essentially U.S. only — a good region but still regional. So we were looking at various opportunities.
The guys at Quepasa were looking similarly. They were very big in Latin America; they do social discovery and meeting new people there. We do it in North America. And so it was kind of a natural fit. … We thought the vision could be realized together, basically building this global platform for meeting people and social discovery.
(We plan on) taking our mobile applications, repurposing them and localizing them for a Latin audience, and then expanding beyond that. When we look at our market, we’ve got about 33 million people signed up on the site. Our core demographic is ages 13 to 24 — there are a billion people like that in the world.
How to reach: myYearbook, www.myyearbook.com
After she and her husband lost their jobs, Jennifer Labit was at a point where she says her family was choosing between buying diapers or groceries.
In 2002, the new mom invested $100 in a baby product, hoping to sell it for extra money, and Cotton Babies was born. The infant company would quickly grow with the addition of washable and thus reusable cloth diapers to its product line, becoming an economic and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional parenting product companies. Today, it’s a St. Louis-based industry leader with more than 80 employees.
Smart Business sat down with Labit, founder and CEO, at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how she continues to innovate Cotton Babies’ product line by engaging consumers.
Q: Where do you look for inspiration?
I look to moms. My moms tell me what they want, and we listen really carefully and we develop the products they want to see. If we don’t respond to what they want, they’re not going to buy.
We started selling cloth diapers a few months after we started selling products, and I realized almost immediately that this is what our customers were looking for. We started just selling baby carriers initially, and people usually just buy one or two of those, where with diapers they buy them and then they get addicted to them. Then they keep buying them because they like how cute they are. It’s like women with purses and shoes — they can’t get enough of them.
Q: How do you engage your consumers to get feedback?
When we’ve got a question, all we have to do is go out and ask them. Our brand pages combined, between my (Facebook) fan page and all the brand pages that we have, we have around 100,000 people that we can just put something out and Facebook tells us. It’s incredible, and everybody and anybody who wants to say anything does.
I’ve learned more from Facebook than I’ve ever learned from a group of 20 random people sitting there telling me something that they’ve been conditioned to say because they’ve been in a room with the same people for an hour.
Q: How do you filter through feedback to find the salient ideas?
Most of the time, people don’t have the guts to post unless they’ve got something that’s reasonable to think about.
When you hear it once, it’s like, ‘That’s interesting.’ When you hear it twice, you’re like ‘Huh.’ When you hear it the third time, there’s something going on and you better chase it.
Q: How do you find employees to accommodate your rapid growth?
We hire a lot on referrals, so we have a lot of friends of friends and family and people who knew people who were looking for work who’ve been pulled in. My staff is as much of a filter for me as our interview processes because they know who they want to work with. So we really look to them to help us find the right people
But we also started advertising on Craigslist anonymously. We put a job description out there, and we would not tell people what company we were. And what we found out is that we had people self-imposing the filter, so we were only getting a particular kind of person. I really wanted to get a lot broader in our staff, and what we found was that by advertising anonymously on Craigslist, we got a lot more interesting people with various skills. We’ve hired a number of them that way, and it’s been incredibly successful.
How to reach: Cotton Babies, (888) 332-2243 or www.cottonbabies.com
Bob Funk says a company is only as great as the quality of people it hires. As chairman and CEO of Express Employment Professionals and affiliated franchises, Funk is a hiring expert.
“I've seen many companies fail; I've seen many companies grow,” Funk says. “And usually, they grow because of their people – not because of the products that are involved.”
His staffing agency, headquartered in Oklahoma City, Okla., provides full-time and temporary job placement, human resources services and consulting. Express has put more than 5 million people to work worldwide, and last year generated more than $2.1 billion in sales.
Funk’s focus on hiring employees for loyalty within his own company has helped him expand Express’ staff to almost 5,000 associates nationally.
To ensure a good fit, identify whether a hiring candidate’s core values match those you prioritize. Funk says to look for loyalty and integrity before education level or skill.
“You can teach a loyal person skills, but you can't teach a skilled person loyalty,” Funk says. “If you lack the skills, you can always get the training and skills for them if they have the other personal factors that are important.”
To get a personalized feel for a candidate, the interview should be in person, one-on-one. Have a list of questions that prompt value-related answers.
Start by asking candidates what their motivation is for working every day. Find out if it’s financial, work environment or recognition.
“If you're looking for a sales-type person, you're looking for somebody that recognition is very important to, because they would like to be at the top of the recognition file," he says. "And of course, they're always looking for a good work environment.”
“The next question is, ‘If you had anything to do over again in your life, what would you do over again?’ That usually gives you an idea of what lessons they've learned in life as far as their other jobs are concerned.”
Also communicate your own values and company vision.
“They need to know where we're going to go, and then they need to understand how we're going to get there,” Funk says. “That has to be planned out for them so that it is in easy terms for them to understand where the company wants to go and help them to buy into our visionary process.”
Funk ensures his expectations and vision are clear to potential hires by interviewing all headquarters staff and developers (national sales managers) himself, as well as many new franchisees.
“They have an opportunity to hear where my heart comes from personally, and I think that does help them to understand that I really do care about them as a person,” Funk says.
Also ask for potential hires’ goals. By aligning them with the goals of your company, you foster buy-in for your visionary process, provide motivation and set the foundation for a long-term commitment from the employee. If hired, refresh goals during annual reviews.
“Hire the type of person that does want upward mobility, and then design a program for them on how they can achieve that,” Funk says. “That's what franchising is all about, is finding people that want to learn this business and you’re transferring your years of experience into them.”
Also motivate employee productivity and commitment by showing company loyalty in return.
“Loyalty is a two-way street, not a one-way street,” Funk says. “If you identify the person that has the loyalty and they do stick with you and are loyal to your purpose, which is helping other people, then it's your responsibility to be loyal back to them – which means that they should have more responsibility and more financial income than the norm.
Express offers a variety of reward programs to encourage and recognize employees. In addition to profit sharing, employees can earn bonuses on top of base salaries and vacation trips based on productivity.
“It gives them a sense that they have really contributed when they hit different bonus levels,” Funk says. “They're building a business to last, hopefully for the rest of their lives.”
How to Reach: Express Employment Professionals, (800) 222-4057 or www.expresspros.com
Alicia Arenas has built her business on pushing clients out of their comfort zone.
“We are change resistant creatures,” says Arenas, founder and CEO of Sanera, The People Development Co., a business coaching and consulting firm based in San Antonio. “And talking about this subject in the context of business, we have to learn to get comfortable with change.”
“Leaders who are stuck in tradition and stuck in doing things the same way that they have always done them ... they’re going to bring their companies down.”
Smart Business spoke with Arenas about how changing traditional views on customer service can secure a loyal customer base and set a company apart from competitors.
Q: How can a company differentiate itself through customer service?
It used to be that the differentiator was all about the customer service. And really today, I believe the true differentiator is customer experience. And they’re two vastly different things.
Customer service is something that you do, and customer experience is how you make somebody feel.
Neuroscience is evolving into business and workplace applications. This hardcore science of understanding how the brain works, taking it to neuro-marketing, which is the science of understanding why people make the purchasing decisions that they do, this science has led to an answer, which is emotions. It is all about emotions. People don’t make the purchasing decisions that they make because they’ve done a blind double taste test. They do it because of how a product or a service makes them feel.
Q: How can a company deliver an excellent customer experience?
If we’re doing the same things that everybody else is doing, we’re giving them at the same time as everybody else is doing. ... It’s not viewed as extraordinary.
When you’re doing something unexpected, it creates in the other person an element of surprise. And if it’s something unexpected that’s positive — which is hopefully what people are doing — it brings a lot of joy with it. And so what happens, from the branding perspective, is your brand becomes cemented in the consumer’s mind as being joyfully surprising. And what we know through the field of neuro-marketing is that those emotional imprints in the brain are what compel people to have brand loyalty.
Business leaders at all levels need to start getting really comfortable with change, because the thing about doing the unexpected is you can’t keep doing it. Otherwise it’s not unexpected anymore. Doing the same things is no longer innovative or creative. And where I see some companies get stuck is they have had success in doing something unexpected, but then they continue to provide that same thing and they don’t innovate and they don’t do something different with it.
Q: Can you give an example of differentiating through an unexpected experience?
If you want to relate this literally to giving gifts, part of what I teach about gift giving — which can be an important part of loyalty building, depending on the type of company — is don’t give gifts during the holidays. Don’t even give gifts during Thanksgiving. Whatever dollars you were going to spend on giving a holiday gift, take that money and find something that is going to be meaningful to that person and give it at a different time of the year. Give it when it’s unexpected. Sometimes, having that customer experience is about doing something in an off time that people wouldn’t traditionally think of.
Q: How does a company foster an environment of delivering unexpected service?
Great experiences come from great corporate cultures. There’s this theory that says that an employee is going to treat a client as well as they are treated in the workplace. And so if you have a culture that supports and enables employees to give excellent customer experience, then the likelihood of that happening on a consistent basis ... it can be replicated and it can be supported.
You want to work at employee productivity. The more productive an employee is at accomplishing the goals that an organization has set out, the better it is for the company and the better it is for the clients
That responsibility lies with the executive team. I don’t believe it’s a function of HR, I don’t believe it’s a function of marketing. I believe that it’s a function of the people who are at the executive level to very firmly decide that, ‘We need to have a culture in this organization that is going to allow our employees to give their absolute best to our clients every day.’
How to reach: Sanera, The People Development Co., (888) 954-4999 or www.sanerapdc.com
Tom Pierson is an idea man.
As founder and chief technology officer of Houston-based TAS Energy, he has revolutionized the energy industry with new technologies, processes and markets by integrating principles from the power generation, refrigeration and packaging fields to deliver clean and affordable energy solutions.
“The role of the entrepreneur is to be disruptive, to come up with a completely different model that completely changes the value proposition,” Pierson says.
An entrepreneur at heart, he stepped back as CEO of the company to focus on his finest skills. Smart Business sat down with Pierson at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how he identifies industry issues and thinks up innovative solutions to capture a niche.
Q: How do you approach finding market niches?
Look for industries that have done things a certain way for a long time.
You do have to be willing to not accept the status quo, to ask a lot of questions that people aren’t asking. To give you an example, why is energy infrastructure build the same way for the last 50 years? Why do owners who want a highly efficient plan have to go out and hire an engineer to design it? And then they give that out to contractors, and low contractors generally win, and then the contractor will build the plant.
If you wanted to summarize our vision, we want to be the Henry Ford of the energy infrastructure, to take an industry that for 50 years has done it through a bid and spec model ... and get the costs of everything down, especially the energy use. Because when you look at the overall economics, generally the way it works out is 20 percent of the overall cost is the capital to build the energy island, 10 percent’s O&M (and) 70 percent of the cost is the energy, is the fuel. And yet the old model didn’t even measure the 70 percent. They didn’t even have the right metrics.
Folks that will look across different industries have a broader view and can come up with some unique solutions. ... In our own case, we’re playing in three completely different industries. The first is power generation, the second is refrigeration, and the third is process and packaging. And all three of those industries are very different.
What you find when you start looking at these different industries is you can take ideas that power generation has perfected and apply it to HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). The whole idea of reducing the cost of the commodity — in power, it’s cents per kilowatt-hour — that concept didn’t even exist in HVAC. In HVAC, the analogy to that would be cents per ton-hour. They don’t think about it that way. It’s never been thought. Why? Because HVAC was never thought of as a utility, it was always part of the building.
How can you apply HVAC to power? Well, that’s actually how we started. Power plants lose output when it gets hot out. They’ve done that for 50 years. Why would you allow your output of your plant to go down right when demand for power is the highest? It’s physics, the law of physics. It’s the way gas turbines are. And because the power generators were not in the air condition business, they said, ‘We’re not God. We can’t control the weather. It is what it is.’ And so forever, industry and power generation have lived with this degradation in output, and the way they solve the problem is build more power plants. The right answer would have been, ‘Why don’t we simply cool the air going to the power plant and regain all of that power?’
Q: How do you engage with customers to learn how they use things, and then find out the best applications from other industries to apply?
You need to feel their pain. And you know, frankly, sometimes they won’t even know what their pain is.
We’re all busy, and it seems like we’re getting busier and busier every day. If you can do anything that makes people’s jobs easier and better, that’s a good thing.
The other mega trend that we have (is) everybody’s becoming such a specialist. We’re getting really specialized, but what we lose when we do that is this big picture. So there’s a huge need for integrators. Even if you’re a Fortune 500 company ... you’re not ever going to be the world’s greatest expert in everything. Some of your feedstocks, in our case power and cooling and heating, you may not be the global leader in that. If you want to be the global leader in your field, what do you want to do? You want to partner with folks that can provide that. You need a very integrated approach because you don’t want to have to invest, build up your own engineering resources. But at the same time, you want someone looking out for your best interests as though they were on your payroll.
So this idea of partnering and working together, not only with customers, ... it takes a lot of work on the part of both parties. It takes a lot of trust, because you’ve got to believe you’re no longer a vendor. You are really looking out for your customer’s best interests, and the only way you measure your success is their success. And you take that same philosophy downstream, because if you’re an integrator, you’re trying to solve complex problems by integrating a supply chain so that your customer doesn’t have to do that.
Q: What’s the difference between a founder and a CEO?
There’s actually quite a big difference. I consider myself an entrepreneur much more than a CEO. An entrepreneur, in my view, is someone that is able to go out, look at markets, see niches or needs that are not being adequately addressed, understand technology and what the available solutions are and come up with a creative way to bundle it up.
An entrepreneur can get a company started; they can get it going. But once you have a business that’s actually growing very rapidly, things shift. Now you have a lot of people issues, leadership issues and financial issues — just a whole process of running a company.
I think for an entrepreneur, his biggest mission is to grow, is to look for new opportunities. You can’t be complacent. ... If you are, it probably means you’re now successful and you’re buried in the bureaucracy of running a business.
You have to start staffing that and make a conscientious decision that you’re going to move back. And frankly, if you’re an entrepreneur in the gut, you’re going to want to be in the front anyway. Most entrepreneurs, I don’t think, are necessarily total nuts-and-bolts folks. They may understand the nuts and bolts, they may have built the first prototypes, but at some point, they really like going after the new, the unknown, and creating a new market that didn’t exist before. That’s what gets your heart rate up.
I found that that (the operations side) was absorbing a lot of my time, and I didn’t feel that my skill sets were (in it).
So I recruited someone who came in as our president to handle operations. I moved up to the CEO role. Later on, we got a lot of private equity, a lot of board meetings, and now the CEO role grew a lot and again. It was taking me out of being an entrepreneur. So I moved up, he moved up, we brought in a president and that’s kind of the way it worked.
My hat is off to CEOs who can do both.
How to reach: TAS Energy, (713) 877-8700 or www.tas.com
Robert Herjavec’s keen entrepreneurial sense makes him a good judge of character — both of businesses and people. This is obvious to viewers who watch him evaluate the pitches of business hopefuls on the ABC show “Shark Tank.” But on a less visible stage, he’s used this skill to navigate a number of major acquisitions, building and selling several companies.
As founder and CEO of The Herjavec Group, he’s now focused on buying. Based in Mississauga, Canada, the $125 million-and-growing global security and network acceleration services company recently completed its sixth acquisition in seven years. With its staff doubled over last year to about 200 employees, Herjavec says incorporating new employees into his company’s culture has been a challenge.
When you buy a company, he says to immediately evaluate its employees against your needs and make three lists: people you’re definitely keeping, people you’re not and people who fall in between.
“You have to understand why your company is good at what it does and what kind of people fit into your environment, and you go and look for those,” Herjavec says.
Aim for a deeper understanding of potential hires’ values and thus their fit with your own by having multiple people interview them in person. Check their references, talk with their team members and even ask their customers for feedback. Then test them out through a trial workday.
But Herjavec warns to avoid the initial temptation to hire people similar to you that you think you’re going to like.
“You have to be flexible,” he says. “Maybe somebody in the other environment is going to enhance what it is you already have. And then some people aren’t going to fit your environment, aren’t going to enhance it, but my gosh, they’re just such highly, personally motivated people that you’re willing to make the investment to change them and train them.”
To weed out potential hires that make your maybe list, set a timeline for finalizing the decision. The deadline should be before you take over the company. If your evaluation process hasn’t moved them to one of the other two lists by that time, Herjavec says to be brutally honest and go with your gut — they’re a no.
“If you’re not 100 percent sure, then don’t keep them,” he says. “The hardest thing in a culture is indecision. I think people would rather know the hard truth than a positive lie.”
That applies even after you’ve chosen to hire someone, because no evaluation process is foolproof.
“When we realize we’ve hired the wrong person, we don’t spend months trying to figure that out,” Herjavec says. “When someone’s wrong, they’re wrong.”
Give potential hires the opportunity to evaluate their fit with your company, as well, by being clear about your expectations and mission. Then have them interview associates in similar roles to get a hands-on impression.
“Your mission statement is what you live and breathe every day,” Herjavec says. “It’s who you are.”
Once your employee selection is complete, incorporate new employees into your culture as quickly as possible. The Herjavec Group does this by physically taking acquired employees out of their old office environments and bringing them into theirs.
“We find that culture shock, that bucket of cold water, works great because it shakes them up and forces them to change immediately, and they get to experience what it is we do right away,” Herjavec says. “In situations where we haven’t done that, the implementation of change has taken longer because people tend to revert to what they’re comfortable with. Generally, what they’re comfortable with is the things that they know, and what they know is the way they used to do things.”
Be a matchmaker
Robert Herjavec has several general guidelines when considering an acquisition besides culture.
The founder and CEO of The Herjavec Group says to first make sure the company differentiates from your own in a way that benefits your business.
“We look for people who complement something we’re missing,” he says. “Look for complementary businesses either from a product, the coverage, a client base and so on.”
Evaluate the potential company’s client base to avoid one that overlaps too much with your own. More importantly, Herjavec says, make sure clients are satisfied with the company’s performance. To do this, go out and talk directly to customers.
“People try to make shortcuts — they have metrics, questionnaires and all kinds of stuff,” Herjavec says. “It’s one of those things that you have to do. You just have to get on the plane and go see people.”
Also, be wiling to go through a lot of potential deals before finding the right fit — don’t settle.
“We figured out what kind of business we’re looking for, what it has to look like, what we need and we’re not afraid to walk away,” Herjavec says. “I feel no pressure to do a deal.”
How to reach: The Herjavec Group, (905) 306-9948 or www.herjavecgroup.com
Alexa von Tobel was getting a great education from Harvard Business School, but like many young people, she soon realized there was a significant gap in her education — she’d never been taught the basics of personal finance.
With further research bringing up little to help her, von Tobel decided to take matters into her own hands. She took a leave from school to create LearnVest.com in 2008, an interactive personal finance site providing women with information, tools and support for money management.
“[Personal finance] is really important for having a positive future and being able to be in control of your own destiny,” von Tobel, founder and CEO, says.
“As individuals, we make six to 10 money decisions every day, from ‘Should I take a cab?’ to ‘Am I buying my coffee or bringing my lunch?’ to ‘What are we doing this weekend?’ Those are all money decisions, and I just felt that there had to be something out there that would be a great resource for millions of Americans.”
Smart Business sat down with von Tobel at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how she makes understanding personal finance both easy and fun through her thriving, user-friendly start-up.
Q: What online delivery mechanisms do you use to educate people?
LearnVest is now the leading site for women and their money online. You can get free content and tools, everything from ‘Whether or not to buy a home’ calculators to ‘How much is your hour worth?’ And then we have free newsletters that you can come and subscribe to that teach you how to earn well, save well and spend well, [with] content from something like ‘How to save money on dry cleaning?’ to ‘How to negotiate for a better salary?’ [that are] every day delivered to your inbox for free. That’s sort of the free content side.
We’ve then over the last few months rolled out what I believe to be one of the more innovative things happening in the personal finance space, which is you can now pay a small subscription fee to talk directly to certified financial planners through the LearnVest platform. LearnVest goes out and finds the best financial planners here in the United States. We work with them directly, and we actually allow you to pay a small fee and talk directly to them and ask your own personal questions.
Q: What process do you use to develop and test ideas for new products and services?
The simplest answer: I listen to our users. All day long, we have hundreds of people who write in and say, ‘I wish you could do this; I wish you could do that,’ ‘I have this question,’ ‘God, it would be so great if you could help do this.’
Then we go through a really rigorous product process of building, testing. We actually bring in live users all the time. We have this thing called LearnVest Labs where we’ve 7,500 users that we actually vet our tested product through. And then finally, if I would use it, then it’s good enough. I think that that’s the final sort of sniff test, is ‘Is this something that I would use every day that would really make my life better?’ And if the answer is yes after that, at the end of that process, then I’m like, ‘It’s ready to go.’
Q: How do you deliver service that goes beyond world class service?
Money is daunting. It’s stressful. It keeps you up at night. And so what we think is ‘How can we make money engaging and fun and easy for you to digest and get your answers?’ That’s literally what our business is about, is ‘How do we make money not stressful?’ It’s not an easy thing to accomplish and we go through that product process. We talk to millions of users.
You can now link all your accounts to LearnVest so you can see your financial picture in one place for free. That’s a great service, and it really helps you understand where your net worth is and how much you’re spending on things like restaurants and food. And we have this beautiful user interface that our design team came up with that actually makes it fun to look at all your spending.
So those are the ways that we think about solving problems, to get someone to care about looking every day at their money. We make it really fun.
If we have the products and we give and deliver the right trusted, unbiased advice to people, they’re going to spread it.
Q: How do you define the culture of your organization?
We just in the last year and a half have reached $25 million. We have big dreams, big pictures, and we’re moving at lightning pace.
I’m tremendously impatient, for better or for worse, and so I always want us to move as quickly as possible. So the things that I care about are ‘Let's move rapidly, let’s make sure we have extremely high standards and good checks and balances built in internally.’
I’m OK if we fail, if we make bad mistakes. You’re going to. And if we’re not failing at least some of the times, we’re not pushing boundaries quick enough. That’s sort of how I think of our culture.
Q: How can you encourage failure as a catalyst for innovation and change?
By not letting people be worried there’s going to be internal consequences if we do fail, of saying ‘Listen, we’ve got to push the boundary.’ And sometimes, when you’re moving as quickly as we are ... there are going to be failures. There are going to be things you don’t do right. Say ‘Hey, listen, that’s OK but let’s quickly notice it. Let’s cut it, let’s move on, let’s get something better out there.’ And then just be really transparent both internally as a team and with our users.
I’m sure there will be a product that we’ll launch soon that users don’t love as much as we thought they would, and that’s OK. We’ll cut it, say ‘Hey, you guys don’t love that. What do you love?’ and we’ll go out and build it.
I always ask, publically, ‘How do you want us to use this money? What can we build you that’s going to make your life better every single day?’ I think that’s a really transparent way to talk to customers.
How to reach: LearnVest, (212) 675-6711 or www.learnvest.com
Despite co-founding the successful WeddingChannel.com, Jessica Herrin found herself re-evaluating her personal and entrepreneurial priorities. In 2004, she decided to align the two with the founding of Stella & Dot, for which she also serves as CEO.
Herrin’s main goal in the creation of the social selling company was to alleviate barriers to women entering the entrepreneurial realm. The San Francisco-based company now has more than 10,000 entrepreneurs selling a boutique-style jewelry and accessories line through in-home “Trunk Shows,” giving women the chance to work around busy schedules and still earn a living.
“I was really driven to create a company whose mission I felt soulfully connected to,” Herrin says.
“Our company isn’t about accessories, it’s about giving women economic opportunity. So I’m not interested in just selling product. I’m interested in giving the modern woman a way to love her life — because they deserve it.”
Smart Business sat down with Herrin at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how Stella & Dot’s direct, consumer distribution channel benefits its employees, its product line and its customers.
Q: How do you find the inspiration for new products?
Our business is so intimate with our customers — where we go into living rooms and help style women — that I now, after doing thousands of trunk shows myself, can see a woman across a room and be like, ‘OK. I know what’s going to work for you. I can tell what your lifestyle is, how to dress, how to accessorize. I know what you need to feel confident and beautiful. Something that you’re going to wear and you’re going to love, and that’s going to express your style.’ So it becomes something that by doing it, you get to know people. And by focusing on how to please them and delight them, that’s the inspiration for the design.
It’s a marriage between true innovation, creativity and design, and then making sure that that fits into price points and fits that work commercially.
There’s a lot of invention in terms of what’s new, and then it’s about saying, ‘OK, but if someone’s going to wear that comfortably, it needs to be 17 inches with a 2-inch inset,’ or, ‘It needs to be in this price span.’
Q: How do you determine what will please and delight your customer?
With this business ... there’s really not a lot of mystery between you and you customer. You can just go ask them. And our business model is to go into someone’s home, put out our product and a table and chitchat about it.
We are in person talking to our customers about what they think all the time. Our sales team of 10,000-plus active entrepreneurs that sell our line, we’re in touch with them every single day. They’re in living rooms every day, and I go with them all the time. ... I can bring the new spring collection and ask them, ‘What do you think?’ and we give them two colored Post-it notes so they can say, ‘Love it’ or ‘Lose it.’
I think that people think that it’s harder than it is to ask your customers what they want. You can always just ask.
Q: What filters do you then put that information through?
We’re a very mission-driven company, so our filters are very clear and outlined for everyone. Our No. 1 and most simple filter is dollars per hour for our stylist. Because we’re in business to give them a great business, we then say, ‘All right. Is this product going to cannibalize something else that’s already in the line?’ in which case it’s a substitute, it’s not really adding to it.
Imagine if your wife had a trunk show. We’re not just interested in selling to her, because during this season, imagine that her friends coming over are buying for their mother-in-law in Florida and for their teenage daughter that lives in L.A. So stylewise, we try to have a lot of breadth in our line because it makes for a better business.
Q: Once you come up with the product, how do you then align it with your price points?
One of the things that we focus on in this business is adding more value to the customer with better design, better quality and very good pricing. We do that because as a company, we invest heavily in our design process and in our manufacturing process.
So this necklace, for example, is one that in that same production artisan workshop where people in India are hand sewing this piece, they’re sewing pieces ... that will sell for $1200. Ours is sold for $295 ... but ours is exclusively designed for Stella & Dot by our designers, because we invest in having that staff and team.
Then, we work with the scale and the production where we go into those artisan places and say, ‘OK. Here’s how you can do things efficiently. Here’s how we source materials to help.’ We operate it like supply chain experts.
We do believe that you have to deliver affordable luxury. The consumer wants something where they’re going to get a lot of bang for their buck, so we design into it. It’s more than just price — it’s about use and value. Then, if the price is justified by versatility, wearability and emotion, you earn it.
Q: What do you do to go above and beyond to deliver unexpected service that surprises and delights customers?
We have a manifesto that we share with every stylist. We’re more than a company; we’re a tribe with a very strong culture. And it’s a culture of service to our customers. We always say, ‘We’re not in sales; we’re in service.’ And we work very hard to earn our customer, but we work even harder to deserve her continued devotion, and so we do things where we always make it right. We always return it and give a credit if something goes wrong with a product. We ship incredibly fast in emotionally beautiful packaging. We build joy into everything we do. Our packaging has a hidden heart inside with a little message that says, ‘My, you look gorgeous!’ It’s the details that make the difference in surprise and delight. It’s not enough just to make something.
How to reach: Stella & Dot, (800) 920-5893 or www.stelladot.com