Start with a great idea, but then listen to potential customers to figure out what the market really wants/needs. Listen listen listen. Your first idea of what it’s going to look like usually isn’t the way it plays out. We started out going after public health departments, and hadn’t even considered the private sector until we listened to someone who was telling us about their problem, and then shifted the entire focus of our efforts once we saw how much easier it would be.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Software”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Hawker, CEO of OM Systems, LLC.
Chris is a serial entrepreneur, inventor and professional speaker. He has helped bring over a hundred consumer product inventions to market through his company Trident, and is a professional speaker and mindset trainer.
Chris is the co-founder of OM Systems, LLC, a pioneer in COVID-19 contact tracing for businesses looking to streamline protocols that ensure compliance with rapidly changing regulations and promotes employee safety through its flagship product, OM System, an easy-to-use health status intake, analysis, and reporting outbreak management software. The organization is a collaboration of serial tech entrepreneurs, software developers, and healthcare experts whose vision is to create a safe world, unconstrained by disease, by creating solutions to help all people work and live with confidence, good health, and a newfound desire to stand together.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
I’m a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first business at 13, breeding 7 species of exotic birds in my bedroom! I was a nerdy kid with VERY supportive parents. I started my next business at 15, setting up and maintaining aquariums in offices. It was while doing this that I discovered my passion for inventing, as I started devising new filters and selling them to my clients. I went to the Ohio State University to study computer science, which I did for 3 years and did well, but ultimately switched majors to comparative studies as I found understanding culture far more interesting than programming.
I was selling aquarium parts I had designed all through college, and never had to work a job. After graduating from the Ohio State University, I started my invention company, what is now TridentInvents.com, to sell my own inventions and help others with theirs. Also a lifelong personal development devotee, in 2014, I co-founded a leadership training center and started delivering experiential workshops and seminars on high-performance mindsets.
I got into database solutions development in order to solve my own problems, managing the inventions submitted to Trident and the students and rosters in my training business. These were tasks we were handling on spreadsheets, as many data-tracking tasks are, and things were time-consuming and prone to human error. We started exploring how to quickly develop custom solutions, without the high expense usually associated with such endeavors. We identified and mastered a variety of low-code and no-code platforms that allow us to build very quickly deployed custom solutions at extremely reasonable expense.
Once we started learning about these tools, it opened up my mind and I started seeing tons of possibilities for ways to leverage them, for other people’s businesses as well. Working with my best friend and cofounder, Tanner Clayton, who is the tech magician behind our solutions, we started rolling out our custom solutions using a SaaS model in 2017. OM Systems was formed in 2020 in response to the pandemic.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Just before the pandemic started in March 2020, Tanner and I had just completed development of a database tool with a cool visualizer designed to help sales people network. It worked like a digital version of the corkboard in the detective’s office in a movie, with strings connecting a kingpin to their associates. It is a way to keep track of relationships in order to support their approach to influential decision makers, like CEOs.
The pandemic squashed networking, but in a conversation with another very good friend of both of ours, Dr. Javad Keyhani, we realized this tool we had just completed could be converted into a COVID-19 tracing tool with relative ease. Not the kind of tracing with GPS or proximity tracking, but a database and notification tool to organize and support human-based tracing activities. Furthermore, the visualization tool, which we call BirdsEye View™, would make it possible to see developing hotspots and head them off at the pass. Two weeks later we announced our revamped tool to the world with a private Facebook post, not really sure if it was a real opportunity. The pandemic was still new and still thought likely to be ending in a couple of months. Unfortunately.
A high school friend of ours saw the post and reached out. Turns out he works for Adobe now. We spoke to a team of 6 a day later. It didn’t lead anywhere with Adobe, but it woke us up to the fact that we were on to something and we started investing much more energy in refining our idea, enrolling partners and excitedly pursuing what appeared to be a hot opportunity!
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?
We are still just getting started, having officially launched in September, and we have been pushing like crazy since March, while at the same time, working on other projects that were already in the pipeline, plus our personal challenges associated with the pandemic. We all have children at home and have had to adjust our lives and work schedules dramatically. There have been many late nights and evenings. We have put in many extra hours, and everyone has been stretched thin.
In addition, as a small startup we have faced, not unexpectedly, challenges attracting attention from the already over-taxed HR departments we were trying to call on. Our first forays were largely met with silence. We moved through several strategies, approaching different markets, framing our product in different ways, as we have attempted to identify a product-market-price fit that creates a win-win.
We’ve also been continually refining our product based on the feedback from our Beta and early customers, creating a more comprehensive product, with features that make it relevant beyond the pandemic. This was a major point of objection in our earlier sales attempts.
Our drive comes from our sincere desire to make a difference in the pandemic using the tools at our disposal, and our overall passion for what we are doing. We love supporting businesses and people, and love the creative challenge of the work we do, creating streamlined applications that automate arduous tasks.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today our software is tracking 18 McDonald’s locations, 4 factories, an office building and about 14 volleyball teams. We just signed up our first school district and are talking to several more, as well as a few public health departments. We have several versions of our main product released, specialized for tracking worksites, sports teams, and now schools. We’re quickly gaining momentum and are excited about the quick adoption we’re seeing. Our ability to quickly shift to meet this moment has paid off.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The “funniest” mistake we made early on was underestimating how aggressively other people would jump into developing their own software solutions. As we began approaching people, at first no one had heard of solutions like ours, and we were novel. We felt like we were one of only a few games in town. About four weeks later there were probably 20 competitors in the field, including Apple, Google, Microsoft,United Healthcare, and countless smaller companies and startups. Our initial enthusiasm was momentarily dashed.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As we continued to look for market opportunities with our solution, we continued to hear that our solution was unique, and superior to what others were offering in terms of ease-of-use, comprehensiveness, and our unique visualizer, which really gives our product a lot of “sizzle” for software that is doing something that on the surface sounds very mundane: tracking data and sending notifications. Finding the right approach to market our software has taken some learning, but the enthusiasm from everyone who has demoed the product has encouraged us to keep going, even as we looked for real opportunities that made sense.
What really sets us apart from our competitors are four things: First, our speed and simplicity to deploy and begin benefitting from our solutions. A company can be set up and manage their situation within 48 hours. Second, our BirdsEye View™, our patent pending visualizer which allows the user to at-a-glance spot developing hot spots in order to be able to intervene and stop outbreaks. Third, is our passion for service. We treat each of our clients like gold, and provide a level of responsiveness and sincere support that most people can’t conceive of from a software provider. And finally, our flexibility. Our software can be continuously sculpted and refined to adapt to the changing needs of our clients and their precise business processes.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I never burn out because I love what I do. I have started several businesses, and I have found that if I love what I am doing, I never get tired of it. If there is a task that drains my batteries, I find someone else to do it. I use many emotional intelligence and mindset tools, things that I teach my students in my training business, to keep myself inspired and energized. I highly recommend meditation and investing in personal development workshops. You are your own greatest invention and most important investment.
Also, instead of “resting”, I practice what you could call active recuperation. I will take a week where I get a massage, take a float in a floating chamber, get an acupuncture treatment, and visit my Reiki healer. I work hard, so I invest in my performance.
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 am grateful to more people than I can count. I have been blessed to have more incredible mentors and guides and friends than I can believe. People who selflessly imparted wisdom, showed me the way, and lifted me up. I’ll take this moment to acknowledge my father, Bob Hawker, who has had a very successful career in commercial insurance. I remember working on a woodworking project with him when I was a young teenager, and after we finished the project, which he made sure was done in excellence, we both signed it, and he said to me, “Whenever your name is attached to a piece of work, it becomes your representative out in the world. People will know something about you by what they see in your work.” These words never stopped influencing me, as I started putting 100% into every single thing I did from that point on.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many people are using your software? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
We just launched in September and so far numbers are still just starting. We currently have about 2,000 people being tracked, with another 2,000 on the way.
The three main steps we have taken are: 1. Create a SaaS that solves problems faced by large aggregators of users, i.e. large employers, schools or other orgs. 2. Create an attractive, risk free and easy-to-say-yes-to pilot program to get in the door, and 3. Provide over-the-top service so that existing customers happily refer more potential customers.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We are charging monthly SaaS fees based on the number of users. We have different pricing models for private employers and public institutions. We are also exploring distribution through resellers, such as insurance agencies selling COVID-19-related insurance products. For instance, one of the largest stop-loss insurance providers in the country has approved our product as a risk mitigation tool, the adoption of which can reduce premiums and deductibles for stop-gap insurance for self-insured employers.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful software? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Start with a great idea, but then listen to potential customers to figure out what the market really wants/needs. Listen listen listen. Your first idea of what it’s going to look like usually isn’t the way it plays out. We started out going after public health departments, and hadn’t even considered the private sector until we listened to someone who was telling us about their problem, and then shifted the entire focus of our efforts once we saw how much easier it would be.
2. Focus on getting as many early customers as possible, without worrying about revenue at first. You need users and feedback, plus testimonials, track record, and referrals. That said, get them one at a time! Mass communications rarely deliver results. At first we were trying to create revenue, but people kept asking who was already using it. After we gave it away to a few companies, others saw their use as evidence that we were legitimate and started signing up.
3. Keep your solution clearly focused, but be prepared to spot opportunities your potential customers reveal in their discussions. Then be flexible to adapt to what they need. Adapt adapt adapt. You’re looking for your own special niche. Our first Beta customer loved our product, and in one of their feedback sessions mentioned that she wished it included a certain feature, which would make it a “gamechanger” for their company. We realized that her suggestion, which was relatively simple to execute, would make our product 10x as valuable, and make it relevant beyond the pandemic!
4. Regardless of the type of company you are forming, create a clear company culture, vision and values, and hire and manage accordingly. Companies with a clear “why” and aligned teams win! Create a sense of team with your co-workers, and invest in team-building activities and development. Having led many teams, it is clear that teams that come together to figure out who they are, end up far more cohesive, with far more internal support, and are a much more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
5. Create recurring revenue models. Focus on creating cash engines that make you money over and over, using subscription models that allow you to accumulate cash flow over time. This is the true magic of SaaS. Having been in several studio-style businesses, offering industrial design and marketing services, I have learned that those business models are extremely challenging, and difficult to keep going and growing year-after-year. You never get to stop hunting. Models with passive income are radically less stressful over time, once you have enough recurring revenue to cover overhead you have massive amounts of freedom and flexibility.
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. 🙂
The movement would be Win-Win! Most of the world and most businesses play win-lose. They see the game as us vs. them, and see other companies in the same space as opponents, and even see their vendors and customers that way. We also play this way in politics and in our interpersonal relationships. I believe that there is plenty for everyone if we all cooperate and collaborate. I see my “competitors” as my friends, and my vendors and clients and my community as friends. In the long run, playing win-win creates loyal partners and goodwill in the world, which is its own reward, but also creates long-term success and abundance. No one wins until everyone wins!!!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Chris’ LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrishawker/
OM Systems LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/outbreak-management-system/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!