Keep your financial model top of mind — how you want to run the company and what you want to be when you grow one. Make sure that the metrics that are critical to the success of the company are established and tracked early. Otherwise, it’s very hard to go backwards later to reestablish them and figure out where you fit.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marina Aslanyan.
For the past six years, Marina Aslanyan has served as CEO of SmartLinx, a trusted leader in human capital management. After joining the company as COO, she quickly rose to CEO, and is currently the only female CEO in her industry, as compared to immediate competitors. Today, Marina leads the firm with a strong commitment and passion for delivering relevant, innovative solutions, achieving a new vision for workforce and labor management efficiency and effectiveness and inspiring transformational success for SmartLinx clients.
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?
The opportunity to join SmartLinx arose an apropos time in my career as a couple of converging factors came together to forge a path that resonated with me professionally and personally. Professionally, I had been involved in the life sciences and technology industries for many years, so healthcare seemed like an ideal next step. On a personal note, I have a strong connection to the long-term care industry, which really brought home this opportunity to make a difference in this critical industry. When my family and I first moved to the U.S. from Russia, my grandmother fell ill and required nursing home care. This was the first time I witnessed this type of facility close up. Although I was grateful to see dedicated nurses caring for her, I saw firsthand how things could be done so much better from a process standpoint and general management of the floor.
SmartLinx is in the business of caring for those who care for others, and that’s what really drew me to the company. We have the ability to holistically transform the industry with our software and drive better quality of care for residents. I often think back to my time with my grandmother at her facility, and it drives me to continue to innovate and improve the industry as a whole.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I first started at SmartLinx, I took it upon myself to meet customers and really get to know the industry from their perspective. These initial introductions showed me how highly connected this industry is, as personal relationships between operators, the medical community, and families serve as the bedrock of this industry. Word-of-mouth is more important in our industry than in any other that I’ve seen.
The relationships I built in my first 12 months at SmartLinx really shaped the trajectory of our company’s growth. I’m honored to say our early customers really believed in me as a leader and my vision for the company, so they stuck with us through the early stages and helped attract and refer many customers. These connections and organic networking really helped the company take off.
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?
Right when I joined, I helped oversee all sales orders. In my previous company, I was accustomed to handling million-dollar deals. When one of the first orders came across my desk, I thought the pricing seemed a bit low and must be a mistake. So, I added two zeros to it and sent it off to the next person in the process. They didn’t flag any concerns and sent it off to the customer. As a result, we ended up presenting a deal that was totally off. For example, if the software was $3,000, my change set services at $300,000. We obviously lost that deal.
The lesson learned was foundational: Never assume. It also reminded me that it’s important to always have a trusted second opinion to look over your work, regardless of your level.
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?
When I started with SmartLinx, we were just at the beginning of our company journey. A head of HR was my first hire. I brought her on to help me to recruit talent. It was an interesting, yet challenging time. We were a bootstrapped company with no executive team and very little presence in the market, so I had to figure out how to attract the right talent and convince people to trust my vision for the company and what it could be down the line, with little to offer at that time.
That was a difficult task and an obstacle to overcome. I used this challenge as inspiration to fuel me to achieve the success I saw for myself and the company. Giving up was never an option.
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’ve been extremely lucky over the years and have had some truly wonderful mentors and coaches in my life. Looking back, I’d say the most impactful person in my career was Jim McGown, the CEO I worked under while at Sparta Systems. His mentorship made me CEO-ready. He’d say, “I will teach you everything I know and then some.” And that’s exactly what he did; I certainly would not be here today if it wasn’t for him.
When you are hired in a new position, you’re often told all of these opportunities and areas you will be able to grow in; Jim was true to his word. When I started at Sparta Systems, I owned a couple of functions. I had grown with the company and by the time I left, I was responsible for more than 50% of company’s revenue and customer retention. He continues to be a true friend of mine and, when things are really tough, he’s the first person that comes to mind to help me figure out what to do next. He’s also the one I always want to share my successes with first.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
Passion is everything. It helps you overcome the biggest obstacles in life and drive the desired outcome. Passion fuel hard work. When I interview people, especially for leadership roles, I look for passion in them. They have to love what they do to put 150% in it and motivate others.
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?
SmartLinx is a company that helps organizations with one of the biggest challenges that they have: effective labor management. Up to 80% of our customers’ cost is attributed to late labor and managing that cost effectively is an extremely difficult task. It’s a constant balancing act, and SmartLinx helps organizations to optimize cost where they can recognize to higher margins and invest in better care for residents.
We specifically serve those that care for our most vulnerable populations — post-acute and long-term health providers. These people are doing one of the toughest jobs right now and need solutions that will keep them and their residents safe. Our software ensures that the right amount and mix of staff are scheduled at the right times to optimize coverage, and our new time clock add-ons are armed with temperature and touchless capabilities to lessen potential contact and spread of COVID-19.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
SmartLinx is a problem-solving company. We collectively truly care about customers, and it starts with me — I personally care about each and every customer, regardless of their size. It is their success that matters to me. If we help one company at a time, we will transform an industry that is in a great need of transformation. Being a client of many vendors at some point in my career defined a deep understanding of customer needs and now drives my passion for their success. I strive to instill this passion across the organization.
We internalized this customer-first attitude and built it as part of our organizational culture. It’s not simply “the customer’s always right,” but we understand that our role is to support our customers and make them successful.
We also bring unparalleled subject matter expertise. We have a very tenured team and, between having access to so much knowledge and believing in the success of our customers, that is where our true differentiation lies.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a handful of new projects in the works, all addressing really timely and critical issues within the industry today. As mentioned, we’ve equipped our time clocks with new add-on capabilities so that the employees checking in and out of work every day are as safe as possible. This includes a touchless time clock that lets employees enter their time with a QR code on their smartphone, rather than having to physically touch the system. We’ve also come out with an add-on that conducts thermal scans and can detect if any employee has a temperature before they start their shift.
I’m also proud of SmartLinx’s Five-Star Predictor, a tool that gives our clients the power to proactively predict and improve their Five-Star Quality Ratings to meet the compliance standards set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). COVID-19 is making it more important than ever for skilled nursing, long-term care and post-acute facilities to meet compliance requirements to protect the safety and wellbeing of residents. In addition to identifying staffing issues before they manifest, the SmartLinx Five-Star Predictor calculates each facility’s projected star rating for staffing in real-time. It also delivers warnings when a facility’s staffing falls below their desired star rating’s requirements.
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 truly believe there is a place for women in tech. More and more companies are recognizing that as well, which we can see in the appointments of many women CEOs in various companies.
However, the industry as a whole has created a certain stigma around successful women. So, it is our job to help lift up women and instill a level of confidence in what they can achieve. Now that the industry is starting to move towards a greater appreciation for women in leadership, women need to break through their apprehension. I hope to see more women believing in themselves to make things happen.
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?
Speaking from my own experience, the biggest challenge is striking the right work-life balance. Especially when you reach a certain level and your title carries a heavy weight, it’s difficult to balance your personal and work commitments without letting anything slide. Whether as a woman you consciously take on more of that traditional role in the home or not, much of the work often falls on women anyway.
In business, when women take a position, there is often a preconceived notion that they may need to take some time off because they’ll have kids and need to care for them, or whatever the case may be. This preconceived notion gets in the way and overshadows the strengths that women can bring to the table. What I can say with certainty is that many times women — while balancing dozens of things with work meetings and managing family schedules — still produce higher output than a man who is just committed to the 40-hours of work. And that is just by the virtue of multi-tasking and knowing how to juggle things to not let anything drop. This also gets overlooked from the stigma of women in business, but it’s a true talent unique to women.
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”?
As a leader, one of the most important things you must do is constantly push the limits. You need to continually go after the things you believe can and will be possible. Don’t ever except the status quo; challenge yourself to think outside of the box and adopt a can-do attitude. Try to figure out ways to get things done instead of caving to the reasons you cannot.
It’s always easy to say, “We haven’t done that before, so we can’t do it.” But you just need one reason to say why you can. If you’re complacent in whatever it is that you’re doing — not thinking outside of the box and pushing the limits of yourself or your team — you’re going to be stuck in the status quo. You constantly need to think about the opportunities that you wouldn’t normally entertain and use them as inspiration to reach new levels.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
In this fast-paced world, especially when part of a subscription model, nothing is more important than sales. A sales team must be thought of as a machine — it has to be the engine driving the company forward. You need to ensure that your sales organization functions as the propeller for company growth because if they are fulfilling that role, then the sky’s the limit.
To set that up, you really have to start small and build it out. One thing that’s really crucial is to allow for yourself to make mistakes. So, you start with a small team and try out different models, structures and segmentation to find the golden standard that you believe would work best.
As always, you have to be looking at the data and KPIs all the time. The data tells you the story — what’s correct and what doesn’t work. And don’t just look at what is working; look at what is not working and then tweak that. That will make your performing sales team into a high performing sales team.
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?
The healthcare industry probably utilizes word-of-mouth, networking and relationships more than any other industry that I’ve been involved in before, so being well-connected is crucial. As is being respected in the market. If you talk to any of my customers, they will tell you that if I promise them something, I will deliver on my promise. They don’t know how hard or easy it is for us on the backend, but if I make a commitment, they know it’s going to happen.
It’s not that I changed my attitude as I moved into this industry — it’s always been the same wherever I am — but here, it’s that much more important because our customers and other players in the industry are part of a very tight-knight group and stay in close contact. They believe in investing in partnerships with vendors, so being seen as a trusted advisor and a respected leader in an organization that they would partner with goes a very long way.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
First and most importantly, as our services are intertwined with labor and are typically used across the entire organization, its adoption must be sponsored by the executive and leadership team within the organization. Implementation of the system is actually the easiest part, but adoption is where you’re going to see success or failure. For the organization to really embrace the new solution and get the best out of it, the sponsorship and ownership of the project has to come form the leadership team and the alignment has to be there with us.
Training and change management cannot be underestimated. As SmartLinx’s solutions are rolled out to everyone in the organization, from the employees that are using the clock to payroll coordinators managing timecard approvals and other functionalities, everybody touches the system. So, we need to think about how we train users and how the organization becomes comfortable with the system.
It’s also highly important to understand how our system’s implementation ties into your business imperatives. To truly get value out of the system, you need to see how it fits in the day-to-day operations of the organization. It also has to be evaluated to see how these operations will work. If they work well, it’s great. If they don’t, it’s a good opportunity for the organization to evaluate their processes in light of the systems and make sure that everything is cohesive when all is said and done.
Finally, our offerings center on workforce management. A lot of that has to do with pay policies, for example, and other processes that don’t typically have uniform approaches, which especially applies to organizations that more than one facility (which is more often the case than not.) This is a great opportunity to standardize to the greatest extent possible across their facilities and make sure that their policies and procedures are as synchronized and standardized as they can be across the organization for easiest management.
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?
Absolutely, I wholeheartedly agree with that statement and believe that should always be top of mind. Investing in a function that is dedicated purely to the success of customers will go a really long way. At first glance, it may seem like a short-sighted investment with little ROI outside of potential retention numbers. However, when you look at it in the long-term, it’s more than worthwhile because it often yields higher retention and lower churn which, in turn, produces higher revenue. If you continue to sell at the rate you sell, but you retain more customers, you grow much more rapidly.
That investment is certainly worthwhile and placing emphasis on services that the customer success function can offer is absolutely crucial for the organization to be successful. When your customers feel that the partnership is equally valued on both sides, it generally works much better. Also, when they understand there are designated individuals they can go to when they need to solve challenges, they feel secure in their relationship. Customer service was created for a reason; having that step up to the next level is crucial to the success and remediation of churn and high retention rate.
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.
- Don’t ever build a company for sale; build a company to drive value for customers.
- It’s never too early to establish operational excellence. Start the right way, and you’ll end up saving a lot of money along the way and be much more successful when you need to scale.
- Don’t take shortcuts and be ready with your product before you introduce yourself. You only have one shot when you want to enter the market with your company, so you have to be ready on all fronts. It’s very hard to go back to the market when you’re just trying to establish yourself and say “Sorry, I made mistakes the first time and now I’m back.”
- Don’t underestimate the value of go-to-market strategy — many times it’s worth much more than the product itself. It’s most important to understand how you’re going to provide a valuable service to the customer that will make them want to stay with you.
- Keep your financial model top of mind — how you want to run the company and what you want to be when you grow one. Make sure that the metrics that are critical to the success of the company are established and tracked early. Otherwise, it’s very hard to go backwards later to reestablish them and figure out where you fit.
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 movement would focus on inspiring women in business. It is less about being recognized, promoted or become a leader; it is more about building their confidence in the onset of their careers, as early as high school. I have met too many talented women of all ages that had so much to offer yet they did not believe in themselves or lacked confidence to pursue their dreams.
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 🙂
Haruki Murakami — Japanese writer. His books forever transformed the way I see the world.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!
Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.