Chase Garbarino of HqO: “Transparency around company goals”

Transparency around company goals: Each quarter, HqO sets clear, numerical goals for each team and publishes these goals to the entire company. Leadership then presents to the entire company on progress towards these goals on a monthly basis. We believe transparency is critical for a successful organization. As a part of my series about how […]

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Transparency around company goals: Each quarter, HqO sets clear, numerical goals for each team and publishes these goals to the entire company. Leadership then presents to the entire company on progress towards these goals on a monthly basis. We believe transparency is critical for a successful organization.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chase Garbarino.

Chase Garbarino is co-founder and CEO of HqO, the leading tenant experience software platform for commercial real estate. Prior to HqO, Chase was co-founder and CEO of AmericanInno (formerly Streetwise Media) where he helped build a local media network for the innovation economies in over a dozen cities in the US. The company was purchased in 2012 by ACBJ, a subsidiary of Advance Publications which owns Conde Nast and is a shareholder of Reddit, Discovery and a number of other media properties.

In his free time, Chase is an avid Boston sports fan and runner. He enjoys spending time with his wife Jess, son Dash, and newborn Grayson. Chase holds a B.A. from Hamilton College.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was in fifth grade, there was a game called Pogs where kids would hit these little cardboard stacks with a “slammer.” It was all the rage in elementary school. Though I wasn’t particularly interested in playing them, I was interested in selling them. My mother used to take me to buy Pogs at wholesale, and then I’d sell them to kids at school. I’ve always enjoyed selling things and building businesses. I had a few businesses in high school and college as well, and I enjoyed that more than classroom work. Both my father and grandfather were entrepreneurs, so I guess it’s something that just runs in my family.

I went to Hamilton College, where I co-founded and was President of the Entrepreneurship club. There, my co-founder Kevin McCarthy and I started an online publication. We’d become interested in digital media, mostly around the software piece of user-generated content. While we were watching Youtube’s growth and CollegeHumor’s growth, we weren’t particularly interested in their content production, rather more about how their software was scaling content from non-professional content producers.

We had created a site — called The Campus Word — where students all over the country could post content. In 2004–2005, online advertising was not particularly sophisticated. There was an ad network called AdBrite where you’d get flat fees of payment for a link ad, and it was pretty easy to make money if you had decent traffic. We learned a lot and made some good money for college students, and then when we graduated in 2007, we were hooked on startups and we wanted to continue doing that. So, we moved to Boston and tried to dive into the tech startup scene here.

Soon after we started a tech publication focused on the Boston area called BostInno. It eventually became Streetwise Media, a digital media company focused on local innovation economies. We then sold AmericanInno — the parent company to BostInno — to the American City Business Journal (ACBJ) in 2012, a subsidiary of Advance Publications, which owns Conde Nast and is a shareholder of Reddit, Discovery, and a number of other media properties. After leaving the company in 2016 — and taking a bit of a winding road to figure out what was next — we landed on HqO.

A few things helped us piece together the birth of HqO. The first was that BostInno was created with the purpose of highlighting how technology drives the local community. The second was that after it was sold to the ACBJ, Kevin and I were able to learn about commercial real estate (CRE); we saw how big of a market it was because it happened to be the publication’s largest ad segment.

We already knew that our interests involved how technology connects people back to the real world around them. After assessing the CRE industry, the built environment became a much more interesting platform for us. So, we embarked on developing technology that connects people back to their local community and the people around them in a more impactful way. After all, the workplace is just one setting. There’s so much more around an office building, beyond the physical workplace, in terms of how it impacts the local community. We’d been heading in this direction for a while — and the more we continue on, the more we realize how passionate we are about what we do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Before HqO was officially known as HqO, it was a company called VentureApp. Kevin and I had taken on this endeavor in our 20s and didn’t know much about maintaining a workplace culture, so we completely screwed up our company values. By this, I mean we didn’t proactively define them or think much about them at all; we figured that it would all work out as long as we hired talented people.

In the early stages of the company, we got away with it — we got lucky and hired some great people who are still with us today. However, as the company grew, we never pattern-matched what made a good teammate or employee. As more joined the company and started getting involved in the hiring process, they didn’t know what to look for. Our culture inevitably suffered.

Therefore, we focused on being more deliberate when we started what is now HqO. We took the core group of people that had made it through the early-stage pivots of the company, and asked them what they thought would make a good teammate. Sourcing this information from the entire team set a good foundation that reflected everyone’s values, and ensured that there was a lot of buy-in from the very beginning.

We also knew that company values are often pretty generic and non-impactful. To combat this, we took our values and adapted them so that they were built for scale as we continued to grow. Our values became a part of our overall brand, and as we ran into the global pandemic this year, it definitely helped keep our workplace culture alive. This saved us from a lot of difficulties that other small, high-growth companies have been experiencing since shifting to remote work models.

So, how did we make our values brand-able? When we were defining our values in the early stages of the company, I had asked our core group if they could name our company values. As it turned out, nobody could because they weren’t very memorable. This led to me running a search query in Slack to figure out what language we were using the most as a company. One of the most popular phrases was “let’s go,” which we then converted into an acronym for our current values: Learning, Excellence, Truth, Speed, Goodness, and Ownership. Now, every HqO employee knows our values by heart and embodies them every day.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are always working on projects to help our employees. There’s this mentality that when you go from a small company where the team knows everyone to a bigger company, some people just accept that the culture will change. Well, I don’t really accept that. So the biggest thing that I’ve been working on is how do we continue to instill and also develop with new people? We want everybody — new or old — to continue to add to and feel ownership of our values. Because of this, many of our initiatives work together to strengthen our culture for every employee.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

At HqO, we believe employees find satisfaction in their roles for factors well beyond compensation. In fact, we believe the retention of employees boils down to two main factors: 1) a clear vision and belief in the company’s culture values, and 2) an understanding of and ability to influence company goals. Because of this, every one of our employees can recite our values — Learning, Excellence, Truth, Speed, Goodness, and Ownership — by memory, and speak about how the company is embodying these values each day. Additionally, we make sure we’re hiring managers who empower their teams to have clear insight in and influence over company strategy.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

It will impact all of the above. We adopt a long-term view on the business; if our people are happy, then the profits will follow. We know that an employee who doesn’t believe in the culture of the organization, or feels unable to impact its strategy or trajectory, will be less productive and satisfied. Ultimately, this leads to diminished company success.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. A clear vision of company values and culture: At HqO, every employee can recite our values by memory and on a weekly basis we discuss those who embody them most. This gives everyone a clear vision as to what qualities we value in people, which leads to better retention, as well as better recruiting.
  2. Transparency around company goals: Each quarter, HqO sets clear, numerical goals for each team and publishes these goals to the entire company. Leadership then presents to the entire company on progress towards these goals on a monthly basis. We believe transparency is critical for a successful organization.
  3. A flat approach to influencing company strategy: Concurrent with the above, we welcome feedback on our company strategy — some of our best strategic ideas came from discussions across the organization.
  4. A clear feedback mechanism on culture: HqO will only improve in an environment in which people feel empowered to speak their mind, and we celebrate it. We welcome feedback on our culture from hires new and old, and are dynamic about the way we approach culture as a result.
  5. Radical candor: We don’t believe that anything productive comes from avoiding the truth, even if that truth is hard. We welcome radical candor and quick action resulting from said candor. Such a practice results in a more efficient, better functioning, and overall healthier organization.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

In general, I don’t think the United States has a blanket workplace culture — any retail work culture will be much different from that of a tech startup. Since I can only speak to HqO’s work culture, I know that we’re constantly working on it. I think that collectively as a nation, we should always be evaluating our workplaces. At the end of the day, I think we always want to remain adaptable to stay productive as a country. We need to continue to be smart and knowledge-based as work shifts — being mindful is necessary when you’re resourcing and helping people enhance their skill sets so they can succeed as the workforce evolves.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

We set big goals with our employees, but we don’t micromanage how we achieve those goals — that part is really up to the person working directly on a certain problem.

As far as my personal style, I grew up in a household where the phrase “you could do better” was seen as a compliment. That phrase means that someone believes in your potential, and will constantly push for you to do better. Sometimes being in a slightly uncomfortable position will help you figure out the best version of what you can be doing professionally. Of course, since you can’t just press on people, you need to support employees to get there as well. I’m about figuring out who you can be, challenging you to get there, and helping you along the way.

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?

I remember dating back to middle school, my father would constantly tell me stories about different entrepreneurs who built businesses. He’s been my informal coach from a young age. At one point, I watched my father run a furniture business that had IPO’d and then got crushed on the public market — so he made it work for a little bit, until it came down. I also watched him work his ass off while I was in high school to build an occupational healthcare business. He would always travel during weeks, at times living in different locations during the week. Now in his late 60s, I’m watching him build other healthcare businesses and still working hard. He and I trade war stories, and I’ve been fortunate to watch somebody constantly working to try to build something. I received an early education from him, just by osmosis and experiencing his growth.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

HqO is a forward-thinking company that makes sure to give back to the broader community. Some examples of its impact are as follows:

  • HqO has joined several of its best-in-class Marketplace partners to elevate corporate volunteering and social responsibility initiatives. Most recently, HqO helped Building Impact roll out their annual food drive to HqO clients in 10 major markets as part of a new digital programming initiative. Together, they helped deliver much needed support to local food pantries on the front lines of helping families during the pandemic. HqO is also planning on sponsoring a future Guppy Tank program (also run by Building Impact) focused on the development of middle school students.
  • HqO is part of The Catalog Cares program in partnership with Blackstone to boost retailers and deliver meals to frontline healthcare workers in Chicago.
  • HqO supports TUGG in its local community, which stands for Technology Underwriting Greater Good. They participate in Tech Gives Back every year, which is an annual day of service that connects tech entrepreneurs with local under-resourced youth in the Boston area. They also have worked in Boston classrooms to teach entrepreneurship skills to students.
  • As the CEO, I’ve personally made it a mission for the company to help and support the military and its veterans. HqO has attended veteran-specific career fairs and focuses on hiring veterans in its overall recruiting process.
  • HqO has also gotten involved with the following organizations:
    -BUILD Entrepreneur Games
    -Big Sister Chapter of Big Brother Big Sister
    -Home for Little Wanderers
    -Pan Mass Challenge — a team of HqO riders raised money for Dana Farber Cancer Institute at their Winter Cycle event in January
    -She Geeks Out — many HqO employees are members, and the company is hosting an event with them in January 2021
    -Color of Change

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

I’m not sure they are quotes, but I have a few life goals that I measure myself on each week, which include:

  • Put family first — I try to put my wife and two sons before everything else. I try to block time at the beginning of each week to make sure I’m there for them as a husband and dad, as well as a friend, son, sibling to my extended family.
  • Build a world leading organization — Oftentimes, entrepreneurs are asked what their “exit plan” is. I’m not really motivated by the “exit,” but rather am motivated by building something that can be defined as a category leader. I’d love for HqO to be the world’s best/biggest tenant experience company for a very long time.
  • Help veterans — I was raised to be very appreciative of the freedoms we are afforded here in the US, which we owe to the members of our military first and foremost. I hope to make meaningful contributions to the lives of veterans at some point in my life.

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. 🙂

I have always been driven to be of service to my country, and today I value more and more focusing locally. I believe our real worlds — the people in our local communities, the people we work and spend time with every day — are a much better reflection of what we can be as a society than what we tend to see on social media. My work through HqO touches this by building technology that brings people together in the real world, rather than keeping us isolated. If I could inspire people outside of HqO, I would love to start a civic movement focused on bringing people together in real life to unite us in healthy, positive, and kind ways.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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