Tasso Roumeliotis of Numa: “Hire people who are better than you.”

Human progress is completely dependent on disruption and economic progress, and that is the only thing that makes our lives better. If society looks to prevent economic disruption from entrepreneurs, it will happen somewhere else. You have to let disruption happen. As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up […]

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Human progress is completely dependent on disruption and economic progress, and that is the only thing that makes our lives better. If society looks to prevent economic disruption from entrepreneurs, it will happen somewhere else. You have to let disruption happen.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tasso Roumeliotis.

Tasso is currently the CEO & Co-Founder of Numa. Previously he was an Entrepreneur in Residence at Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, DFJ and also founded Location Labs, an early pioneer in mobile and location-based technology. He built it to 250+ people and eventually sold Location Labs for 220M dollars with only 19M dollars of primary capital invested. Location Labs was profitable for seven consecutive years and was an INC 500 company. He was also an Ernst &Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist Award winner. Before Location Labs, Tasso worked as Vice President for Claridge Investments (Bronfman Family Office) and as an associate in the merchant banking group of Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette. Tasso started his career at Bain & Co where he was the highest ranked associate in his class. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University in Montreal

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?

As the son of Greek immigrants who never missed a day of work for eight years (including weekends and holidays), I grew up in Montreal with a strong work ethic in an extended family of small business owners. I learned a lot from them. In college, I studied business at McGill University and began my career at Bain & Company, where I was the top associate in my class. I then received my MBA from Harvard Business School and worked as vice president of Claridge Investments. Subsequently, I founded a location-based mobile security company called Location Labs. After building the organization to 200 plus employees, I sold it for 220 million dollars to the online security firm AVG. The company was profitable for seven consecutive years and was an Inc. 500 company. I was also an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award Finalist. Contemplating my next career move, I recruited my top team members from Location Labs to brainstorm about the top lessons learned from the business, and Numa (my current company) was born — realizing that the team’s knowledge of and relationship with large telecoms presented an enormous opportunity to build something great.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

In the United States, more than 29 million small and medium-sized businesses juggle hundreds of millions of calls from customers and clients. Yet, failing to respond to a voicemail, or worse, leaving calls unanswered affects the bottom line. That’s where Numa comes in. Numa is a phone and SMS virtual answering service created to help Main Street businesses respond to customers with less staff and resources in an era where text messaging has become not only a preferred and more convenient way to communicate, but also a necessity for many businesses shuttered or with limited capacities due to the current challenges. More than ever, we are reminded that these small, independent, local and family-owned businesses — Main Street USA — are the backbone of America and need our support.

Making a business number textable, the company handles and responds to every voicemail, text and Facebook message with its AI-based platform that is always learning from employee-customer interactions — and adjusting its answers automatically in a voice uniquely tailored to each business.

When we look at the bigger picture, tech and software adoption takes a lot longer for larger enterprises. What we’re doing that’s disruptive is providing a software solution that is helping small businesses get started immediately. In a few hours, we can help them capture missed calls, add artificial intelligence to automatically answer customer questions and offer an after-hour answering service — all at a low price point. It would take up to six months to a year for large businesses to deploy this type of integration, and we’re able to get small businesses up and running in a few hours.

Another disrupting factor is that we’re enabling Main Street businesses to have a continuous dialogue with their customers. That’s important in today’s world. Things like inventory, menus and appointment times are dynamic. Having a continuous dialogue makes the business more efficient and responsive to customer needs. For example, if someone wants to come in a salon at 8 a.m., the owner could have that discussion with a customer and make plans to open early. Having that continuous dialogue is very beneficial for them.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At Numa, we initially dreamed of being a WeChat ecosystem where people messaged businesses. One day we met a prospective customer and told them we could message-enable their business. The customer looked at us and told us they got zero text messages but hundreds of phone calls. They asked us if we could do something about it. The lesson for us was that sometimes you can have the right technology, but it may be the wrong time for a potential customer.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My first boss at Bain & Company, Alistair Corbett, was one of my mentors. I learned from him the importance of meritocracy, team camaraderie, winning as a phalanx, hard work and having deep bonds with my team. His influence has been imprinted on all of my companies.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The concept of disruption is rooted in the thesis of what Joseph Schumpeter calls “creative destruction.” Disruption is great and essential for a few reasons. You’re typically disrupting rigidity that’s bad for customers, bad for end users or bad for society as a whole. Think about information retrieval and how difficult, expensive and painful it was before search engines like Google came along. Google didn’t just disrupt the information retrieval industry; it has given us the ability to have increased access to information by three orders of magnitude, which made the world more efficient — and they did it for free. It was a great service for consumers and amplified everything in the economy — for businesses to find customers and customers to find information and buy stuff. That’s an example of an important disruption.

When disruption is causing or creating value and taking out rigid old processes, especially ones that are entrenched, that is a huge change and one of the biggest risks of disruption. Technological progress and disruption are the root of all human economic evolution. If you look at the human race before the industrial revolution in the 1800s, on a per person basis we had made infinitesimal to zero progress, going back to Ancient Rome. Once we started to have technology, it disrupted existing industry. For instance, there was a time when clothes were made by hand and people only had one or two articles of clothing. With technological advancements like the spinning jenny in places like Manchester England, suddenly everyone could have more shirts. The price became affordable and we became wealthier.

Another example is when electricity disrupted the business of ice makers and ice boxes to keep our stuff cold. The pain of disruption comes with, in many cases, job loss and the skills gap of people who are stuck in the old industry while the world is moving forward. That’s one of the economic costs of disruption. Before refrigerators, there were people who made and delivered ice, but after the advent of electricity we no longer needed those people. Disruption and new technology development create new jobs in society, like a refrigerator repair person — and that can be a struggle. As human beings, we don’t like change. We’re averse to it. In many cases, we like the status quo, even though it may be bad for us in the long run. That’s the negative perception of disruption.

Human progress is completely dependent on disruption and economic progress, and that is the only thing that makes our lives better. If society looks to prevent economic disruption from entrepreneurs, it will happen somewhere else. You have to let disruption happen.

Can you give us the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Hire people who are better than you. Many folks who start businesses want to be worshiped or be the final decision maker. They can be too controlling and end up hiring “yes” people. You need to find people that are strong enough to challenge you as a leader and, in many cases, have amazing complementary skill sets. This has been a core thesis in my running of several companies. Visionaries sometimes let execution elements fail, but having strong execution people around you are paramount.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Some strategies I use to generate good qualified leads often come from customers who love our product. They eventually refer us to other potential customers. With Main Street businesses, word of mouth goes a long way. Another strategy we use is to have good partners. We have a strong partner like Sprint that has a sales force that’s already talking to the same customers as we are, and they’re able to sell our product to those companies.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Anti-fragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has made a tremendous impact on me. It is the essence of what you need to be as an entrepreneur in today’s world. We see a lot of mental fragility, and to become stronger in today’s world is the true calling card of an entrepreneur. That’s what Taleb talks about in his book. It’s very relevant. He says the opposite of fragile is not strong, it’s not robust: it’s anti-fragile. If things are shaking up around you, fragile people and fragile things break. To be anti-fragile means if things are shaking up around you, you’re getting stronger.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was lucky to discover the Man in the Arena quote from Teddy Roosevelt 20 years ago. It’s popular now, but I read it every day. He is one of the legends that I have admired since I was 15. Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, I would make stoicism and mental toughness a requirement from a young age, as early as kindergarten. A society that is stoic, mentally tough and has a mass resiliency will be more collaborative, less polarized and thrive.

How can our readers follow you online?

Personal LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tassor/

Personal Twitter: @TassoR

Company LinkedIn: Numa by NumberAI

Company Facebook: @numahelps

Company Twitter: @numa_helps

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