Hustle — I don’t care what industry you are in; you need to hustle if you want to be great. Competition is fierce, and if you are not hustling, you are going to be outperformed. From day one, you need to instill a hustle mentality into the team so that when an opportunity opens up, your team is ready to execute. In order take advantage of opportunities when they do arise, your team must have a sense of urgency instilled in them and be ready to deliver in the most efficient and effective way.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Schwartz, Chief Executive Officer of Hall Technologies, has more than 20 years of C-Suite experience and has previously worked for some of the electronics industry’s biggest names, including Sony and Razer, Inc. In 2020 Schwartz started his role as CEO of Hall, bringing a track record of transforming companies through cutting-edge strategies that deliver increased performance across all departments. He has a B.S. in Accounting and Finance from the University of Buffalo and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Sure, I grew up in Upstate New York and completed my undergraduate work at University of Buffalo in accounting and finance. Sometime during my last year, I made up my mind to leave Upstate New York and take on the big world of business. However, I quickly learned that there weren’t many entry-level jobs out there. This meant that if I wanted to do something “special,” I had to out-hustle my competition, which in hindsight, is how I started my career.
I remember my senior year, I must have contacted more than a hundred alumni, trying to network my way into a position. I didn’t care (within reason) where the company was located. I just wanted something that would challenge me. Yet sending out hundreds of resumes and making as many follow-up calls did not seem to bring any results. I started feeling hopeless when one day I saw an ad in a local newspaper for a position in Los Angeles, but with no company name attached. My friends thought it was a scam, and I shouldn’t respond, but I figured: “What’s the worst that can happen?” So I prepared a CV and sent in my resume.
It turns out the job was an audit position for Sony Corporation of America in Culver City, CA. I not only got the job, but they paid for me to relocate to Los Angeles. This was the start of my professional journey, with one of the best lessons I could learn at an early age: never stop grinding.
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?
I wanted to be a management consultant, but my early roles and experiences were mostly in accounting and finance. Although I enjoyed what I did, I didn’t see this as my lifelong path. I quickly realized that if I wanted to make the switch, I needed to do it early in my career. However, making this transition without either having deep industry experience or a top-tier MBA turned out to be an extremely difficult task.
Yet, I don’t believe I ever thought of giving up. I called every firm I could think of and networked my way into a few interviews. I must have been rejected by more than 30 firms before I finally got a shot with KPMG through a colleague who had seen and liked my work. I landed a staff consultant position and stayed in this industry for almost 10 years.
I’m not sure where I got the drive, but I never believed in taking no for an answer. I knew I would do an exceptional job if someone gave me a chance and I think that fueled my efforts.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I’ve got a few of those, but there’s one that always stands out in my head. Early on in my consulting career I stayed up working all night to prepare a sales presentation for the next morning. It was a Jewish-owned business, and we were trying to sell them a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation. One of the modules was called Product Lifecycle Management, with the acronym PLM. I must have been exhausted and did not double-check one of the slides, where I titled in large bold letters “PLO,” which also stands for Palestine Liberation Organization. Unfortunately, Jewish people were not exactly on good terms with PLO. It was a very careless mistake, and I received a glare from the Consulting Partner that I still vividly remember to this day. He played it off well, but I was certainly not his favorite at that moment.
My takeaway was to always pay attention to the details. You can do 100 things correctly, but one careless mistake can destroy all the good you’ve done up to that point. In case you’re wondering, we didn’t get the engagement. I don’t believe my mistake was the reason, but it sure didn’t help.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Professional audio/visual (Pro AV) is a very traditional industry that has seen moderate changes over a long time. Most products look very similar (plain black boxes), perform similar functions, and are quite complicated and expensive to implement and use. Upon taking over as CEO at Hall Technologies, I wanted to break this mold but not throw away the reasons for the company’s 35 years of success. Hall made a name for itself through high product quality and exceptional customer service. These bones needed to be preserved and became a launching point for our innovation.
We immediately set out to create a unique product industrial design that is visually appealing and simplify our products’ operation to the point of near “plug and play”. Then, to tie it all together, we created the industry’s first pure cloud-based platform to control our systems, which is simple to deploy and extremely cost-effective. Essentially, we’ve taken a system that only the industry elites (large corporations, well-funded schools, etc.) could afford to implement and made it approachable to a broader array of organizations.
One great example is our EdTech application, which enables in-class, remote, and hybrid learning. In years past, only the top-tier colleges and private or affluent primary education schools could afford such a system. Up until 2020, this wasn’t a significant issue. However, with the COVID pandemic, we now understand how devastating this lack of technology is for these schools. We’ve essentially bridged this gap and can now provide a holistic solution to a much larger population of schools.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You need to find something you love to do outside of work and make that a part of your daily life. It’s easy to get into a “workaholic” mode because the work never ends. There are always emails, presentations, meetings, etc. At some point, you need to shut it off and dive into something you love that isn’t work-related. You can keep up a non-stop pace for a while, possibly many years, but at some point, everyone has a breaking point, so you have to find a release valve that helps you with a work/life balance.
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?
I was very fortunate to find two great mentors early in my career. A gentleman by the name of Joe Muga and the other Scott Barrows, a colleague of Joe who I ended up working with at a consulting firm we all started together. I was very green back then — with a lot of drive, but a little rough around the edges. Both Joe and Scott took the time to teach me everything they could about the business world, including how to sell, how to conduct myself with clients, effective communication and presentation skills, the power of continuous learning, how to effectively speak in public, how to improve my EQ (emotional quotient), etc.
The way it all started actually makes an interesting story. I was about 25 when I met Joe while working at KPMG. At the time, he was running one of the groups and was searching for a staff consultant to be part of a supply chain reengineering project. He approached me in the office and asked me what I know about supply chain management (SCM). I told him straight out: “I have minimal SCM experience, but I would love to learn.” He then walked to his office and brought me a book called Introduction to Supply Chain Management and said: “Here you go!” I read it front to back that night and came to his office to ask him if he had more literature. Joe happened to have more books than Barnes and Noble, so he started supplying me with one almost daily. After about a week, he said that as long as I keep building my knowledge base, I could be a part of his team. After that, I was on every single one of his engagements. From Joe I have learned that information is power and that continuous self-enrichment in your domain is vital for a good leader. A year later, I joined him to start our own consulting company, together with Scott Borrows. Scott not only brought his vast industry experience to the table but also a rare ability to sell with the utmost enthusiasm. Mentorship from these two gentlemen definitely helped me shape my business and leadership skills.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
The world is filled with “good companies.” We use them every day. To keep your products on a shelf or keep your service in business, you need to be good. When the time comes to make a buying decision, the consumer generally doesn’t have a preference when presented with multiple choices of products or services from “good companies.” They will opt for the one that is on sale or the one with a more attractive endcap display. In general, consumers will have little brand loyalty unless the company goes the extra mile and proactively figures out how to improve their product or service. And “good companies” don’t ask, “How can we make our customer’s experience even better?” They do the basics — check the boxes and stay in business.
Now, imagine driving a little further to get that service you enjoy or the one product you will buy regardless of the promotion their competitors have in place. You will even leave the store without buying anything and will be willing to wait for that product or service to become available. That is the sign of a “great company.” We all have ones that we can think of in our heads. We will even pay to get what we want, all because we are loyal to that brand. It takes more than just making a great product or service to create this kind of loyalty. There has to be a holistic experience for your customer, and that requires greatness. To build a “great company” you need to go the extra mile that the “good companies” do not or cannot go.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
#1 Creating and Implementing a Vision
A company needs a clear direction on where it is going and understanding why it is going in that direction. One of the most critical responsibilities of a leader is to come up with guidance and make sure that everyone in the organization understands and buys into it.
I cannot tell you how many times during my career I walked in the door of an organization that had no true vision. I once asked a CEO about his company’s vision and goals. He pulled out a nice-looking presentation and showed it to me. I said, “This is great;” then inquired, “If I randomly ask employees about your company’s vision, what do you think they will say?” He said he did not know because this was a presentation for investors and was not shared with most of the company.
If your organization doesn’t understand the vision, then you don’t have one. All you have is a thought on paper. You must present the vision to your company and reinforce it on a regular basis.
#2 Putting together an “A” team
This one is as equally important as the #1. One of the lessons I learned early in my career is that it is absolutely vital to surround yourself with A players. Do not wait to do this. It should be one of your top priorities, if not THE priority. You can create an incredible strategy, line up a perfect way to execute it, but it will never work if you do not have the team that can perform.
A new leader may believe they need to work with the team they inherited, which isn’t the case. As soon as you start, it’s crucial to begin evaluating your talent. Get to know your heads of departments, their abilities, and their personalities. Sometimes, for example, you may find that shuffling your talent is most effective. Here at Hall Technologies, I was lucky to inherit incredible employees. However, I was missing a Head of Product. It goes without saying that you need someone to spearhead this in a product-based company, and I had nobody for this function. I did have a good head of sales who also happened to be one of Hall’s veterans. I quickly realized he has fantastic product and industry knowledge. Within two months of joining, I moved him over to Product and hired someone to run sales and marketing. Both of them are doing fantastic in their new roles, and is why we’ve been able to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time. The key is to evaluate and take action right away.
I don’t care what industry you are in; you need to hustle if you want to be great. Competition is fierce, and if you are not hustling, you are going to be outperformed. From day one, you need to instill a hustle mentality into the team so that when an opportunity opens up, your team is ready to execute. In order take advantage of opportunities when they do arise, your team must have a sense of urgency instilled in them and be ready to deliver in the most efficient and effective way.
One time, we were trying to get a product onto the shelves at Walmart, but their planogram was full. We pitched the buyers many times and, although they liked our product, they simply did not have room on their shelves. However, one day our fortunes seemed to change. Our main competitor had production issues during the holidays and could not deliver their products to Walmart’s distribution center on time. The buyer called us and asked if we can have our product in their warehouse by a set date, along with enough displays to fill out almost every store in the U.S. The timetable was nearly impossible to hit, but we figured out a way to make it happen, all because my team was ready to hustle. From that day forward, we owned the space on the shelf, and our competitor was out.
Do not chase shiny objects without a clear vision. You need discipline in your organization. Figuring out who you are and what you do is the most important. Just because you can do or make something the world wants does not mean you should. This is the downfall of many organizations, and, in turn, it stretches them too thin. In the end, you become a jack of all trades but a master of none.
In one organization I worked with, we had several key product lines that did very well. Our distribution channel was incredibly strong, and the margins on these core products were solid. We were great at our core business. This was about the time smart home products were taking off, and we jumped into the mix to make smart everything — lights, outlets, switches, etc. The problem was that we did not have the “permission” as a brand to be in the space, and we did not differentiate ourselves enough to be disruptive to those brands that did have permission. In the end, we tied up crucial capital into R&D and inventory but were never able to penetrate the market. Consequently, the smart business lines had to be shut down. Never take your eyes off the core of your business and lose sight of the goal.
It is crucial to leverage technology to accelerate your growth as a product or service offering. This should tie into your vision for the organization. You must ask yourself, “How can technology help us improve our offering?” If the technology does not exist, then you have a chance to be first to market. If it does exist, you can improve upon it. Either way, you have a greater opportunity to be the innovation leader in your industry if you can effectively leverage technology.
This is precisely what we did at Hall Technologies. Professional audio/visual control systems have been around for many years. However, most were built on an old IT platform that requires programmers to implement and maintain the system. This drives up the cost and complexity. For instance, in the education setting, the top tier universities could pay more to run their remote learning programs online, while others were scrambling.
We saw this as an opportunity and recently developed our Hive Control platform, which leapfrogs our competition. We were able to leverage the latest programming languages to create a best in class offering without the complexity and cost of our competitors. Now we can offer a superior learning environment, whether it is in-class, remote, or hybrid, to a much more inclusive group of primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
One of the best things you can do is find a way to create a business that benefits both shareholders and the general public. It does multiple things. One is that it helps to engage your employees. Employees are much more motivated when they feel there is a “higher purpose” for their role, which helps the business as a whole and improves the lives of others on the planet. People like to feel empowered, knowing that they are making a difference and their work means something to the world. This, in turn, leads to a more engaged employee base and helps with retention.
I think from a consumer standpoint, people would prefer to give to companies that care more than just about their bottom line. Most people understand that a company needs to be profitable; however, they would like to see their money going to a greater good beyond shareholder profits. When you can effectively do both, you are potentially generating a much greater level of brand loyalty.
What would you advise to a business 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 and “restart their engines”?
I did a great deal of “turnaround” consulting, and many of my clients faced these types of issues. The key is the pivot. You had a great business model, and the world changed around you, but you didn’t change with it. To do this, you need to understand the key elements to your success and what does your brand have the “approval” to do (i.e. what will customers accept in your pivot plan). Once you determine how you can reinvent yourself by leveraging your foundation to meet the demands of current and future markets, your business will start moving again.
IBM is an excellent example of this with its transition from a PC manufacturer to a global consulting powerhouse. Netflix pivoted from a DVD rental company to a digital platform with original content. Fuji Film transitioned from a consumer photography company into a healthcare/medical imaging company. The pivot or transformation possibilities are usually there, but a leader needs to have the vision, innovation, and determination to see it through the right path.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
First off, you need to run lean. This means you will have an outstanding performance during good times and make it through the difficult times. Business does not entirely go away during economic downturns, but if you are cash strapped, you will have a more challenging time generating revenues due to the large cuts you will need to make to stay afloat. However, if you’ve saved a war chest from the good days, you will have the funds to keep going during the inevitable bad days that you will face.
I was once told a story about two fish in a river, one big fish and one small fish. The big fish loved to swim around and show off how big he is when the water level was high while the little fish swam around admiring the big fish’s size. However, when the water dried up, the big fish was stuck and could no longer swim, while the little fish could maneuver even in the shallow waters.
Be the little fish in terms of spending. But always think big and drive towards your vision.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I believe it is getting an organization to both understand and champion your vision, especially when you are changing the direction of the company. People will generally do what you tell them to do based upon their position in an organizational chart. However, that will get you at best a “B” result. If you want to truly go from good to great, you need the entire team rowing in the same direction and doing it with a passion. This requires the leader to take the time to lay out the vision to the team, explain why it is the best direction, and then work side by side to help them implement it. This cannot be done sitting in your proverbial ivory tower. You need to roll up your sleeves and work with not only the leadership team but with as much of the organization as possible. This takes a tremendous amount of time, but it definitely pays off in the end.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
It is through the “genuine” engagement on the sales floor. Apple does a fantastic job of this in the retail world. People see the Apple Store as a destination to try out new products, learn about them via the genius bar or just ask questions on using their devices or software. It’s a friendly environment, with what I would call a genuine engagement with the staff. Contrast that to another store you visited in your life, and I am sure you can think of a time when you felt it was not a genuine engagement and instead either a lack of interest or an overly pushy situation.
The key here is setting up the environment to be engaging. This can translate to any sales pitch for nearly any industry. You need the engagement to be real. When someone feels they aren’t being “sold” but instead engaged on a topic of mutual interest, you will find the sale is more natural and, most importantly, more frequent.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Absolutely, the number one thing you need to be is authentic. You need to deliver on what you say you will deliver on, and, I believe even more importantly, you need to practice what you preach. There aren’t many better ways to lose your brand loyalty than by not being loyal to the brand identify. This is key. If you look at some of the most iconic brands with the most extensive following, they all have this in common.
Razer is a perfect example of this. The company’s motto is, “For Gamers By Gamers,” and their CEO drives this from the top. Every product they make is designed to improve the customers’ gaming experiences. They are relentless in their pursuit of making the perfect gaming products and will not compromise on quality. Additionally, their CEO goes as far as communicating directly to their customers via social media. He frequently reads the comments on his posts and responds directly to them. He then takes their input to improve their products or, sometimes, even come up with a new product concept. Customers see this engagement with the company as genuine, and as a result, Razer has one if not the most loyal customer bases in the world.
I also think you need to stand behind your brand. Brand loyalty is most developed when you are dealing with an issue versus just having a good product. Every company has failures with the products; it is part of the game. However, what you do at the point of failure will determine whether your customer buys your product the next time or goes to your competitor. We all understand that a product or service does not always go as planned. We face that in our own lives. However, what we want and actually demand is that you rectify the situation to leave the consumer with a positive experience. If you can do these things, you have a good chance of creating strong brand loyalty.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
One of the most critical phrases my mentors drilled into my head is, “The customer comes first, second, and there ain’t no third.” I still hear them saying it in my head to this day, and I, in turn, drill that into every employee in the company. This must come from the top, and it must be embraced by everyone in the organization.
Customer service is not just a department, it is a mantra for the company. Every single thing an employee does daily needs to add value to the customer. Everything else should be eliminated as it is wasted time. If every staff member, manager, director, VP, and C-suite member of the team keeps this in mind, you have a great chance to create a Wow! Customer Experience.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
We see social media as a platform to better engage with and get to know our customers. It is a hub where we can communicate with our customers, hear their pain points, and share their celebrations. I feel that social media is an invaluable tool for businesses to use. It is an environment that genuinely fosters building stronger relationships through our brand and a very effective way to have a conversation with our customer base. I find it invaluable to help ensure we stay true to our brand.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
They forget that cash is king. There are countless profitable companies that go under while trying to grow, due to a lack of capital. They invest too heavily in R&D, purchase too much inventory, overspend on marketing, you name it. You must watch and model cash flow or risk going bankrupt. Profit means nothing if you don’t have the cash to operate your business.
My number one advice is to get an experienced CFO and listen to what they tell you. A CEO can have a great vision at the helm, but a CFO is there to keep him or her grounded. Choose wisely and let them do their job. The CFO is the CEO’s consigliere, and it should be a great relationship.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 there was one movement I could champion, it would have to revolve around childhood nutrition. The subject “quality nutrition” is often overlooked by a vast majority of the population, even by those who have more than enough means to buy food. I see too many children eating extremely fatty, sugary, and preservative-filled foods that will ultimately turn into serious physical and mental health issues later in life. There are many ways to cost-effectively feed our kids healthy and nutritious foods, all you need to do is invest a little bit of time and effort. If we can help educate parents and children on the importance of eating healthy from an early age and then enable them to purchase the right foods, we can do a lot of good for our communities and future workforce.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!