When you start a business you hear a lot of people talk about selling it in a few years. I had the same silly expectations — but you need to brace yourself. If you’re going to build a successful company it’s the long haul. You’re in it for a substantial amount of time. Set your expectations early. You will be working more than full time. There is this misnomer that if you own your own business you’re gifted with incredible flexibility. And sometimes, yes, but most of the time, no. There are no words for the amount of time I spend thinking about TTS. It can be all consuming. And don’t get me wrong, I love it, but it’s no walk in the park.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Betsy Hauser.
Betsy Hauser is the CEO & Founder of Tech Talent South (TTS), a WBENC-certified technology recruitment, training, and staffing company that believes in the power of diversity and matching companies to the best talent. Prior to starting TTS, Betsy ran a Charlotte-based product development company, which merged with innovation giant, Enventys, in 2012. While at TTS, Betsy has been named one of Charlotte’s 12 Innovators by Ernst and Young, Most Admired CEO, Woman in Business, Emerging Leader CIO, Charlotte’s Seven to Watch, and Charlotte Business Journal’s 40 under 40.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always had a passion for products. In the early 2010s I was working for a company in Charlotte called Little Idea. It was a small team of six folks that would take your idea and help you physically produce it — everything from kids helmets with interchangeable themed decorations to elliptical arms that attached to baby strollers so parents could get exercise while they walked.
Around that time I had seen a lot of people come through our doors with digital ideas — things like mobile apps, and web applications. At the time Little Idea wasn’t equipped to handle that and I thought, “I’m missing out on this huge market segment…. but what if… what if I could empower these folks with the skills to code so that they could build out new ideas and companies for the cost of host and domain–something like 40 bucks.” I admit that I still geek out more over a physical product, something tangible that you can hold, than a digital one. But physical products are incredibly expensive to start and I’ve watched a lot of people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their “baby” idea that may or may not have had legs.
Little idea ended up merging with a product development giant based right here in Charlotte called Enventys. It was at that time that I had a choice to make — did I stay and continue the work on the physical products with the new company? Or did I run with the idea of digitizing the product landscape? Spoiler alert, I decided to learn to code. I love to tell the story about how I jetted off to Chicago to attend one of the first-ever coding bootcamps in the nation.
That story is also an incredible one — before coding bootcamps were commonplace it was like being a part of the next big thing before it was the next big thing, you know? The code school was co-owned by the guys at 37signals (now Basecamp). These guys literally wrote the computer language Ruby on Rails and I got to learn from them. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life but there were two things that really stood out to me that I wanted to solve for; (1) why was I the only woman in the boot camp, and (2) why did I have to go to Chicago to get this experience? I knew that if I could make these programs more community-based so you could actually leverage the network that you built while you were there it would be a huge benefit to everyone involved. Like a bite-sized business school.
Six months later I launched Tech Talent South in Atlanta and boot-strapped the company. I didn’t take on funding for four and a half years by teaching kids code camps.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In 2016 we got invited to the White House. But how we got invited was the funny part. They sent a direct message to our meetup group of all places. We thought it was spam for sure. We went back and forth via email, then we called and verified it — and turns out it was real!
At the time Megan Smith was the U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. She saw our impact on the community and said they wanted to invite us to the White House. We only had about four people in the company at that point, so we all went. It was incredible to learn about how the administration was thinking about what they needed to do from a talent perspective to empower radical change for its citizens with coding bootcamps and rapid-paced skills training. They saw that we had the power to impact hundreds of thousands of individuals in less than a decade.
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?
A few things come to mind. I didn’t know the difference between cash and accrual accounting at all. Spoiler alert: there is a big difference. If you think about our revenue in student payments they come over time. I was repping it as only the cash we had collected, not booked. Tremendous difference. Sometimes you don’t know those things until you know.
I also did not understand the regulatory space and my naivety there is probably the reason we are still in business. It’s a powerful lesson to entrepreneurs. Sometimes not knowing is actually a blessing because the fear of what could happen can be paralyzing. Our example had to do with regulations by state for schools and educational institutions. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and ended up getting some lessons in regulatory components. In truth I’m glad it happened how it did because staring down the laws at that time may have been enough to stop me in my tracks when I was just starting out.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Yes I thought about giving up. Luckily for us an advantage of the service industry is that cash flow happens quicker. It’s different from a SaaS model where you’re incurring a bunch of debt. You can see the momentum which gives you that real-time gratification.
I had four kids in the seven years that TTS has been in business, of course I thought about quitting. It’s incredibly hard. I never got maternity leave. The first time I got a negative review or difficult customer or someone said something about my company it was personally offensive. It was difficult to see my friends and peers take jobs at major corporations making twice or three times what I was making. I’ve skipped my payroll.
But the truth is that Tech Talent South is my first child (I have four others by the way). I love it. The impact we have is almost surreal. Sometimes I have to sit back and think “holy cow,” I built this in the kitchen of a coworking space with seven folks learning to code. Now it’s thousands. We’ve had bumps in the road but it’s so incredible to see what we’ve done for other people. I have loved so many people that have worked for TTS and I’ve been so lucky to have tremendous people to springboard TTS to each next iteration of a startup. I feel an obligation to them and the students to keep going. I think there’s an obligation of entrepreneurship to realize when it’s not your time to keep going. I’ve questioned if I should bring someone else in for my role — if it makes more sense for the business. I think there will be a time where the answer is yes to that question. Making sure we have the right people is my job, and it’s critical to the success of the business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My first employee, Zach. He was my rock for a very long time. Zach started as a student, then a Teaching Assistant, an instructor, a Product Manager, and finally our Chief Technology Officer. He was uniquely equipped with the tech chops to talk to corporate partners. The combo of Zach and I helped us initiate the pivot from B2C to B2B. I’m convinced that we couldn’t have done it if not together. He has that start up thing — the “do what you need to do to get the job done” mentality. At that time in the company it was exactly what we needed.
Aside from Zach I would say my mentors — those folks that I can call on for anything. And most often it’s to just be honest when they have the expertise I don’t. The things that people don’t tell you about entrepreneurship is that there are a lot of hard moments you shoulder yourself — like when people leave, or you have employee issues, litigation, tough reviews, when you’re worried about cash, etc. I needed guidance and friendship and there are a few cherished people who offered me just that. A lot of little things that happen like that ALL of the time that the employees never see. It’s my job to make sure that they don’t see them and that things keep moving.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — MLK jr.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” -Steve Jobs
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Over the past decade, and even more in the past 6 months, technology has been the driver of digital transformation and it’s moving at a breakneck speed. As we transition to a world that primarily functions online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations of all sizes are being forced to optimize their development capabilities to remain competitive, offer clients new and approachable solutions, and keep their businesses operationally efficient.
For businesses and individuals alike, keeping up with the pace of technological change can be difficult. Technology is a critical part of every infrastructure, yet the US isn’t keeping up with the tech talent to meet the growing demand, at least in the traditional sense. According to Code.org in August of this year there were 666,534 open computing jobs nationwide and only 71,226 computer science students who graduated into the workforce last year. Not to mention the Department of Labor quantifies the price of a bad hire as at least 30 percent of the employee’s first-year earnings — and bad hires happen far more often than most people think.
That is why we don’t do things traditionally. Tech Talent South (TTS) offers a one stop shop for flexible tech talent solutions for teams of all sizes and at all stages. Whether it’s for organizations looking for top quality talent at scale and with speed, Workforce Development initiatives, or companies looking to future proof their own employees by giving them new or advanced skills (upskilling and reskilling) — we deliver solutions that fit every need.
The quality of tech talent has never been more important. We know that having a foundational knowledge base about development isn’t enough to stand out against the crowd. That’s why our talent is trained not only on full stack, but on specialities customized to our client needs such as Salesforce Administration, Python, CyberSecurity, React Native, Data Science, and more. Our consultants are highly sought after, meticulously vetted by our team, trained in full stack, and know how to work with a team. With a proven high capacity for learning and leadership skills, we give you the kind of developer you can put in front of a client.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We recruit all across the country from various professional backgrounds and a range of life experiences. We are proud to say that as a certified woman-owned business we are a diverse supplier, and keep diversity and inclusion at the forefront of all of our programs. Our talent database is over 70% minority talent and our Graduate Accelerator Program is over 90%. We believe that providing individuals, especially those underrepresented in tech, with the necessary skills for becoming leaders in the digital workforce speeds progress toward diversity at the top.
In the State of Connecticut, we partnered with the DECD through a grant to provide technical training to several hundred participants. We also have a partnership with Carolina FinTech Hub, which feeds talent to all the banks in the Carolinas including Bank of America, Ally, and Wells Fargo. Lowe’s also recently partnered with us to reimagine their talent pipeline locally by taking highly qualified individuals with strong aptitude in nontraditional roles and giving them the technical skills they need to fill specific roles, all while being trained in Lowe’s specific technology stack.
I think most of my favorite stories are the ones where people are in jobs they are grateful for but not passionate about and after they take our programs watching them rise in the ranks at incredible organizations. There’s one story about a woman who always loved computers but never was given the access to STEM courses, and college wasn’t an option for her. She became a truck driver and was making good money but ultimately knew it’s not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. After she completed our course we helped to place her at one of the biggest insurance companies in the country as a Software Engineer. A year or so later she was promoted to a Senior Data Engineer. That’s the good stuff, you know? Helping people to access their dream — whatever it may be. We’ve seen people start their own companies and others completely transform their lives. That’s what gets us out of bed on hard days.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think with all of the newly heightened focus on Diversity & Inclusion that there is still a lot of virtue signaling. There isn’t a lot of action — just a lot of people saying they care about stuff. It’s the same reason why it’s still easier to get companies to hire people with degrees, even if they no longer have an education requirement. It’s the same with women in tech and women owned businesses getting funding. I am certainly not satisfied with the status quo, and I don’t think anyone should be.
I’ve certainly been stereotyped more than once. When I was 7 months pregnant with twins I had an investor who suggested that we may want to hire a new CEO because it “might not be my season of life.” Ironically that person has 4 children himself.
The first year of TTS most of my job centered around going to meetups and evangelizing for the brand. I was in the community all the time. As I mentioned earlier, I knew how to code. Was I the best ever? No, but I was good. I registered for a meetup in ATL for *developers only* put on by a recruiting firm. I got an email saying, “I’m sorry that we can’t allow you to come, it’s for developers only”. I am sure they saw my blonde hair and they bucketed me as a recruiter and not a developer. Simultaneously my business partner Richard RSVP’d and got absolutely no pushback. The truth is I didn’t go because I was ticked off and offended. I did respond and say something but in retrospect I wish I would have gone and not only showed up for myself in a powerful way, but show up to other people who don’t look like your “standard” developer. I do think that the shift has started toward more inclusivity in tech, but it was and still is frustrating for marginalized groups.
On the flip side of that coin, there are advantages and privileges afforded to women in tech right now. Standing out makes you memorable — at least it has for me. I’m firmly in the court of the idea that your opinion should matter ever more because it’s not as readily available. It’s scientifically proven that products developed with multiple perspectives are more successful than those produced with non-diverse teams.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think a big one that we all need to be talking about right now is how women default to the primary caregiver and how particularly in times of crisis, like a pandemic, we are more likely to bear the burden of work, the household, childcare, schoolwork and virtual learning, and so much more. There’s the idea that we can “have and do it all,’ but in truth that is damn challenging in normal times. In difficult times? For most it’s just not possible. This year an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center found that women left the labor force at four times the rate of men in September of 2020, just as schools resumed session.
I won’t pretend to have a solution to address this. I think the first step is being aware of it, and not letting what took decades of work to build crumble in one year. The economic crisis will only magnify the negative impact on women and households. The question is, does that wound remain gaping open? Or do we all work together to sew it up and walk away with a gnarly scar in the shape of 2020. We must find a way to help those women who left the workforce get back to work.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
What great people have told me is to “stay the course”. You don’t make it this far just to give up, you’ve got to shoot for the moon now. Plateaus are normal. There are stagnant periods in everything where you are getting ready to iterate and change and grow again.
For us at TTS we have to change because we’re radically different now than who we were 3 years ago — for the better. I would tell them that whenever you’re stagnant — you need to change again. If we’re still doing something the same way we were doing it when we started I would confidently say we’re doing it wrong.
I’m not going to give up on TTS, I love this thing. I love what we’ve been able to do. At every stage I’ve said, “we’re going to do X,” and we’ve done it. I’m the ever-optimist with the ever-entrepreneurial mantra where I know we can fix whatever piece needs to be fixed to keep going.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Yes! I think people really need to stop focusing on traditional sales experience and focus more on sales as relationships. It’s not rocket science — I’m not saying something you don’t already know but look for people that have the personality and capability to develop long lasting relationships and then grow them. I was an advertising major in college and one of my main takeaways from doing that work early on was that it is so much easier to upsell a current client than get a new one. Make your focus less about sales and more about building, holding, and developing a relationship. Our best sales person came from community management. When you see her interact with people you can tell she genuinely cares about what they need, she internalizes their challenges and works to fix their pain point.
Can you think about the last product that really made your life easier? Just recently we found a new company that helps us to contact college students in mass. It costs us a good chunk of money every year but when I think about them I don’t think “ugh, they sold me” — I think “wow, what an incredible service. They are making our lives so much easier.” That’s the difference. Solve their problem, take away their pain.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
We have always worked really hard to be a part of the community, not just visitors. In the first 5 years we built out an organic community of over 30k people by running free meetups in local communities which made us a company folks wanted to be connected to because we were connected to different pools of talent. That also allowed us to be an outlier to our hiring partners in the sense that we had a lot of talent coming from nontraditional backgrounds, which is something that they weren’t able to solve for themselves.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Be an expert. For us it’s “Listen, we’ve done this for almost a decade. Our machine is better than anything that you have and we are going to be able to save you time and frustration.” I’ve been totally shocked that none of these companies have an assessment process for early stage applicants. That’s where we come in. We can supplement their recruiting team or their college recruiting team. We have complex assessment systems and can stack rank qualified candidates far beyond just pedigree. They are trying to mitigate risk, and we are helping them do that while also providing opportunities to individuals who might not otherwise have had access.
Over Communicate. Don’t let them forget about you. Get them what they need before they have to ask you for it.
Provide systems that create simplicity for them. They are paying you. Your job is to make this process as simple and seamless for them as possible.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Yes, it’s the same answer I had to the high performing sales teams question above.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
I would say that these don’t just apply to tech companies.
- The first and most important thing is that you have to just do it. So many people talk about it. Starting something feels overwhelming but it’s actually simple- you just need the gumption.
- There’s a great quote by Steve Jobs, “Most people never pick up the phone, most people never ask. And that’s what separates, sometimes, the people that do things from the people that just dream about them. You gotta act. And you gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.”
- I say this all the time — I have hired people that are so much smarter than me. Hire an incredible team and then empower them to do their jobs and let them own it. That’s where we are at TTS. This is yours you need to own it. When you start a business you’re doing everything, giving up that control is hard but you have to do it to scale.
- Mentorship. I have been so lucky to have people who have been through these experiences help to guide me along my own journey. It’s almost as if they can see into the future. They also have a unique appreciation for what you’re building and doing. If I tell someone at a Fortune 500 company a big win I had they may nod their head… but if I tell a successful entrepreneur they are like “WOW” — they know what went into that. It’s everything to me. I meet with these people all of the time. I have mentors at different stages too.
- Dave Jones is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Charlotte, he’s two decades ahead of me in success. Then I have friends, John Espey (previously at Levvel and now at his own company Defiance Ventures), he’s a friend but also a mentor — he’s 5 years down the road. Then I have friends that started a year or two after me, so we’re all learning from each other. I’ve seen things that they haven’t seen yet. I called one of them last week and asked her if she’s registered as a woman owned company yet.
- When you start a business you hear a lot of people talk about selling it in a few years. I had the same silly expectations — but you need to brace yourself. If you’re going to build a successful company it’s the long haul. You’re in it for a substantial amount of time. Set your expectations early. You will be working more than full time. There is this misnomer that if you own your own business you’re gifted with incredible flexibility. And sometimes, yes, but most of the time, no. There are no words for the amount of time I spend thinking about TTS. It can be all consuming. And don’t get me wrong, I love it, but it’s no walk in the park.
- If you don’t need capital don’t get it. Don’t raise capital right away. It sounds sexy but you lose control (some or a lot) and then you’re tied. I think giving up control early on can hurt the business. Debt is a slippery slope, for individuals and companies. Typically once you get some you need more.
- (BONUS) Trust YOUR gut. I did this thing early on where I talked to people who were successful and I would just go do whatever they said like it was gospel. It took me years to understand that no matter how well intentioned, my folks aren’t right 100% of the time. I am the person who said that I should build this company, and I have to trust that vision above all else.
- You are welcome to ask for advice, and they are welcome to give it. It’s up to you if you decide to take it. Make sure you put space in between the learning and the doing to give yourself time to decide if it’s right for you, right now. If not, great. If it is, great. And if you’re not sure — give yourself more time.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
The real answer is close to my chest. I’m not in a position to talk about it right now but it has to do with evangelizing for people, particularly women, that don’t have a voice. I’d love to do another interview with you in the future and talk more about it.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
OH MY GOSH, YES. Sara Blakely of Spanx — I love her. She has a bazillion children, like me. It’s her hustle and the fact that she’s so normal and authentic. If you haven’t read her story, you must. It will make you laugh and cry and then pull out your notebook full of ideas feeling inspired that you (yes you) can do anything. She is a guiding light on perseverance, a self-made billionaire, and a role model for women, working mommas, and quite frankly anyone with a good idea. Can you tell I’m a little obsessed?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!