Never start a company for money. I’m sure there are people out there who may disagree with this, but I stand by this point. Building a tech company or any other kind of company is hard. You must make hard decisions throughout your life, and as a leader, you must sometimes make a hard decision that impacts others’ lives. You have to care about what you are doing. I’m not saying you have to have a social mission to change the world. I’m saying you have to personally care about what you are doing. This keeps you going through the tough times.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Thurman. He is a serial entrepreneur who has founded three successful startups including his current venture where he is CEO and Co-Founder of interviewIA, a SaaS platform systematically changing the way companies interview and hire. As CEO of interviewIA, Joe is committed to using technology as the catalyst for a more Inclusive Future of Work. Joe is also one of only 3 Black technology executives on the board of the Colorado Technology Association; and as a mentor and leader, he supports global and national initiatives around technology, machine learning, talent, and diversity.
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?
Iwas 28 years old, and by all accounts, I was succeeding in my career and though my personal life was not great, life seemed good! I began to feel a disconnection and distrust with the beliefs that many of us have been taught since the time we are young. Go to school, get a great job, make great money, eventually retire and have a great life. Something was missing for me; the concept of a big break or career milestones where there is nothing left to achieve felt empty and unfulfilling. I was moving into Executive Placement at the time and my days were filled with lunches and dinners talking to CIO’s and other Executives about what they wanted to do with their lives. Slowly I realized that very few of these people had unlocked the fantasy destination we all seemed to be chasing. I began to notice a trend. The most fulfilled individuals were simply going after things they were passionate about. It wasn’t about career trajectory, it was about finding purpose in what they were doing with their expertise and time.
It took me another 2 years to truly gain the courage to leave the comfort of an amazing job and go all in on the turbulent journey of finding purpose, which led me to entrepreneurship. I had to answer one simple question, and I came up with one simple answer. The question was “What is the worst that could happen?” The answer was “I could stay in my comfort zone and I would have to face myself year after year, knowing that I never truly gave myself a chance to live every day with purpose and passion.” I quit within a week.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I live by the belief that if you just wake up every single day and go after it, you will succeed. The most interesting thing about where I am today is where I started when I decided to become a true entrepreneur. My longtime friend and business partner Jacob Mueller (our current CRO) worked at the same company and quit the week before I did. Sidebar — it’s fair to disclose that I have never been a solopreneur, I’ve always had a partner with me along for the ride and that is a huge blessing in my opinion. Back to the story — so Jacob and I were going after purpose and passion but had no idea what we were going to do. We just knew that we didn’t want to do staffing and placement, but still wanted to be at the intersection of people, technology and jobs. Before LinkedIn was “the place” to put your content, we built a CIO blog. The relevance of this point, to this particular question, is that I can connect every dot from the day we started that blog to the current success of our SaaS Technology platform. The one universal piece is that every day we kept building even though most days we didn’t know where we were going. Some days we had to scrap everything we thought we had and just show up in the office (the second bedroom of my townhouse at the time) and stare at each other. But every day we had to show up, that single point of consistency led us to opportunity after opportunity and pivot after pivot. The point of all of this is don’t underestimate the power of simply committing to showing up every day. We decided to take no days off in the beginning and just keep going full speed ahead.
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?
I wouldn’t say this is funny, but I would say that it is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, and it is why I’m where I am today. I actually started my first company in 2012 while I was still a fulltime employee at a staffing firm. I live in Colorado and over the years we have had devastating forest fires where people have lost everything. The idea behind my first company was to build an online inventory management system for homeowners to document proof of their belongings and store it in the cloud. Sounds simple now with iPhones but it was a pretty revolutionary idea back then. I spent every bit of my extra income on this company. From hiring offshore developers to onshore testers, and just gave it everything I had. We built for a year and then it was time for the big reveal that would change the insurance and homeowner relationship forever. We were certain that what we built was exactly what people needed, but we failed to ask anyone what they wanted throughout the process of building. In the end it didn’t work. The big lesson that came out of this was that you can’t build in a bubble, you have to be willing to show up before it’s “perfect”. I had to get used to failing and being wrong in order to eventually succeed.
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 think the most relevant story has come out of this year. There have been ups and downs but 2020 has offered many challenges and I’m grateful that it has also offered opportunity for innovation. We lost a large percentage of our professional services business at the start of the pandemic. Enough to make me truly question whether or not we would be able to make it through. It wasn’t just us trying to keep our heads above water; everyone was just trying to build survival strategies as things were changing moment by moment.
A very direct answer to the question, about giving up, is no, not once did I ever consider giving up. There is always an option, but it doesn’t come without sacrifice. I do want to be considerate of those industries that had far fewer options than people in the technology and B2B space this year. I feel empathy for the hospitality industry, and even in that space, some are leaning into innovation and creating ideas that will change that industry forever. I just don’t feel like giving up is ever an option.
Faith and courage are what has helped me get through these challenges time and time again. Life has taught me that even when it doesn’t work out, it still “works out”. If you keep moving forward, you eventually see that your options are never as limited as they seem. Giving up may mean you just couldn’t find the faith and courage to continue at the time. But, if you would have continued you would have uncovered more and more options every day, and one of those options may have been exactly what you were looking for. We’ve all been there, and I can recall many times when I felt as though I didn’t have the faith or the courage. Success happens when you can say, “Hell, I’m going for it anyway!”
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?
In the recent Last Dance series on ESPN Michael Jordan said there is no “I” in team but there is an “I” in Win. I must admit, it genuinely made me laugh when I heard that statement and his confidence is something to be admired. As true as it may be for a superstar like him in the game of basketball, it couldn’t be more untrue in business. To say that you need “some” help along the way is an understatement. You need to inspire a wealth of people to help you along the way. Your business may start with one idea and one vision, but great leaders know how to inspire others to dream big and create their own vision within the grand vision. This philosophy is what builds a great company. My answer can’t be summarized in one person. The definition of help is the action of assisting someone in doing something. A company is a community of people, all helping each other to achieve something bigger. You won’t be successful without help from an amazing team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Brené Brown says that “those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect”. I personally believe this is very powerful. We must create space for ourselves, our children, our team members, people in general, to be imperfect. Seeking perfection is the number one thing that keeps people from just going for it, or even just trying. In the conversation of Equity and Inclusion I think this is very important to understand. People who have had what is now being called “privilege” in life simply have a stronger sense of love and belonging in more places, which gives them the opportunity to be imperfect and simply just go for it. This is highlighted in the story of Jackie Robinson. Does the only Black man in Major League Baseball have the opportunity to be imperfect? No, he must say exactly the right thing, do exactly the right thing, and honestly, he must be great! This is not about a perfect batting average, this is about attempting to be viewed as worthy, not imperfect.
Jackie Robinson is not alone. Does the only woman on a Board of Directors have the ability to be imperfect? Does the first minority to join a law firm have the room to be imperfect? This additional applied pressure must be understood. Do Black Technology Entrepreneurs have the room to be imperfect? I work hard to create my own space and surroundings that empower me to “belong” and have the courage to be imperfect. This is the only way that I’ll succeed. Systematically speaking we must continue to ask ourselves a far greater question, “Are there still groups that ‘belong’ in certain circles and others that don’t?”
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
2020 has been the perfect storm and it has shown how broken many of our systems are at their core. COVID not only brought to light the issues within our healthcare system but also clearly showed how socioeconomic status directly impacts quality of life in this country. So many people are struggling and most of them are in the underprivileged and underserved communities. The social inequality based on race, gender, socioeconomics, and sexual orientation is nothing new, but was easier to ignore when markets were soaring, and things were great. COVID slowed the world down, and when things slow down you can begin to see the details, the cracks, the flaws. Layer on the most polarizing election year that most living generations have ever seen, and we reach a boiling point. Race is a real issue in this country and though we have made progress, this year we reached another point of realization that we have not achieved the dream of all men and women being treated and viewed equally. Leadership of the country has attempted to create an us versus them division with a very clear line in my opinion. There are those who believe all men, women, boys, and girls are foundationally created equal and those who don’t. The focus must shift to the “we”, we the people, all people, and we all should fight against oppression and dehumanization of groups wherever we see it. This is not to say that we seek harmony, but we must always seek mutual respect. Respect has been lost.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I’m going to keep this simple. We all take different pathways in life. Those pathways give us different perspective and those perspectives give us different insights. Those insights influence our decisions, recommendations, ideas, creations, and more. If we can bring people from different pathways to the same table with the same mission, we can then begin to solve problems on a scale that the world has never seen before.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
For starters we need to change the status quo perspective of Black Men in general. Next, we need to change the status quo options for Black Men in under-represented areas. Third, we need to change the status quo of communicating about Black Men in generalities. All people are resilient, and all people need a vision and something to shoot for. Professional Sports are an example of a very small, but clear opportunity that is presented to Black Men at an early age. This is often an opportunity to “escape” from the systemic chains if they come from an impoverished or underrepresented community. Why can we come from what most would consider nothing, to be superstars? Because we see it, they have the means (a basketball court, a football team, a track on every corner), we put in the work, and we achieve it. It is really very simple. Imagine if minority communities looked different. For every basketball court, build a STEM lab. Recruit math, science, and business students from the underprivileged areas as aggressively as colleges recruit athletes.
In the United States there are over 195,530 CEO’s, 1.3 million attorneys, and 950,000 doctors. Yet when we look at the number of professional athletes, there are only 450 players in the NBA and 1,696 players in the NFL. The media praises the Black athletes and calls them superstars, but you have to dig deep on the internet to find the stories of Black doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and beyond. Why is this story kept a secret? Why are resources withheld? Why is the vision that there is more than one “way out” not created in the minds of young Black Men? There are far more than 2,146 opportunities (NFL and NBA combined) to make a life for themselves. This is only discussing one pathway for Black Men.
My story looked a bit different. I grew up in an upper-middle class family and learned early on that I had opportunities. I was given a vision and my high school had a Cisco Networking Curriculum that enabled you to graduate high school with a CCNA and High School Diploma. I played football and had full ride scholarships to Division 1 Schools. Unfortunately, most young Black kids aren’t always presented with such a wide array of options. I chose technology and look where I ended up. I’m one of those 195,530 CEO’s not fighting for a short-term opportunity as one of the 1,696 players in a given NFL season. It does not come without a fight simply because I’m Black in America; but I know for a fact that if armed with the opportunity to “escape” through science, technology, engineering, math, and entrepreneurship, many more Black Men would be succeeding in our country.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Every company struggles with hiring, we are changing the way that hiring is done. Traditional interviewing does not work. It is extremely expensive when compared to the outcomes that it creates. It doesn’t align with the rapid changes to hiring, primarily remote and virtual hiring in 2020. It is inherently biased and does not allow for us to truly build diverse and inclusive teams. At scale, the 100-year old method of interviewing is broken on many levels and we are changing that. Guy Kowasaki made a statement that good people hire people better than themselves. So basically, A players hire A+ players. But many will hire below their skills to make themselves look good. So, B players hire C players. C players hire D players, and so on. A Gallup 2020 study showed that bad hires, talent-related issues, and underperforming employees result in an annual loss of $1 Trillion.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our core team has worked together for years now and we intimately know the problem that we are solving. We are early stage with years of research and testing behind our idea and solution in real world scenarios. After 3 years of comprehensive market research, now is the time to take our solution to scale. We’ve recently been compiling numbers on early-stage testing and one of our early adopters saw their turn-over rate reduced by 25%, their retention rate increased by 60% over 12 months, and they had over $200K annual cost savings in the first year. We are more than just a Tech Startup with an idea, we truly have a solution and have the team that can get it into the market.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The continued evolution of our technology will change the way that interviews happen now and in the future. Over the next several years, the way we understand human mindset, behaviors, and ability through technology will change.
An intelligent system capable of consuming and organizing multi-dimensional data to effectively evaluate talent is truly needed. The biases of Artificial Intelligence have failed repeatedly in the HR and talent space. Our mission is focused on using Intelligence Amplification (IA), which is AI’s less popular sibling, to solve this problem. IA helps to keep the focus on human enhancement not human replacement. This alone separates us from others in the space.
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”?
Value to Price comparison, Customer Acquisition Cost, and Product Market Fit are the three key things you must revisit if your business has reached a standstill. Relentlessly pursue and review market feedback. Can you and your customers clearly articulate the value of your platform in numbers, not feelings? Early on people may buy from you because you are persuasive and have a good vision, but at some point, you will have to be able to clearly show your value, and this means numbers and results. From there you can ensure that your pricing strategy aligns with your customer’s realized value. Second you must know how much time it takes and how much money it costs for you to get new customers. Not all customers are the right customers for your business. Build the models, test the models, refine the models (and then do it all over again). Lastly, as we have seen so clearly in 2020, markets move. Product market fit is not a one and done exercise and as markets evolve and move you will either be on the forefront of that movement or reacting to that movement. If your company was once seeing successful growth then you obviously had some type of product market fit, but if you are now at a standstill you may have miscalculated or misjudged a movement within your target market. The best place to be is leading and creating the movement within your market, but if you are not there then go back to the basics. Talk to your customers, figure out what’s missing, adjust, and execute.
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?
Thought leadership is the absolute best way to find and attract customers in our industry. Be informative in the way that you approach the market. Find your area of expertise and become a source of knowledge and value to your customers, your prospects, and your overall market. Knowledge should be free, and your platform should provide a valuable service of operationalizing that knowledge. This is where you create not only demand but real value. By sharing your knowledge, you inspire others to challenge their current methods, and from there they will begin to seek out solutions to execute and operationalize the change they seek. That is where technology comes in and you must be an expert in creating the vision for change and building the technology that makes that change sustainable.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
I think it is relatively straight forward. Gather feedback early and often. I come from the services world and the benefit of that is that you are in the trenches with your customers. You know first-hand if what you are doing is helping to solve the problem or not. In technology you have to create the same type of relationship and not everything you deploy will produce the results you expect. You always need to listen to the customers voice.
Second, you have to commit to the fact that you are not all things to all customers. Committing to this fact is different than simply saying it; committing to it means saying no. Warren Buffett says that the most successful people know that they have to say no far more than they say yes. Apply this same thinking to your company and product to ensure the right customers truly get impactful solutions.
Lastly, find a blend of automation and personal touch in the way that you interact with customers. We live in a world where things are getting over automated. Find ways to insert a truly personal touch or personal response. Maintaining a human touch goes a very long way.
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?
Our business is built off of what is called the “Land and Expand” strategy. Customer retention is the heartbeat of this strategy. It also allows you to focus more on value-add than size of sale. It is very easy to get distracted by the next big deal. We believe that every deal has the potential to be “big,” but they all start out the same. Focus on undisputed value for a small group within each customer at first. The saying “success breeds success” truly comes to life in the land and expand model. Make one team happy and a second team will join. Make two teams happy and eventually you’ll have five. This model, when executed correctly, inherently works against customer churn.
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.
Team is number one in my opinion. Find people who you respect and trust. This doesn’t mean that they are the perfect team at the beginning. Respect and trust give you the ability to challenge each other and those consistent and frequent moments of challenge create growth and execution. Team is number one.
A close second is mentors, coaches, therapists, etc. We’ve all heard the saying it takes a village, well that is true in building great leaders. You must be self-aware, and you must relentlessly pursue opportunities to surround yourself with people who will teach you, guide you, and coach you. This applies to every aspect of being a leader and building a company.
Third, it is equally important to find balance in your life. Entrepreneurship is a crazy journey with many ups and downs. You must invest time in building a strong foundation with your partner and your family. I know many entrepreneurs who have stories about their business destroying their relationships. I’ve been so fortunate to have a partner in life who elevates me and pushes me. When you have someone by your side who understands you and commits to the journey, then that I believe is key to success.
Fourth would be the passion and purpose that I spoke about in my personal journey. Never start a company for money. I’m sure there are people out there who may disagree with this, but I stand by this point. Building a tech company or any other kind of company is hard. You must make hard decisions throughout your life, and as a leader, you must sometimes make a hard decision that impacts others’ lives. You have to care about what you are doing. I’m not saying you have to have a social mission to change the world. I’m saying you have to personally care about what you are doing. This keeps you going through the tough times.
Lastly is graciousness. The first year of my all-in entrepreneurial journey after I quit my job, I had no idea what I was doing. You have to trust the process and you have to be gracious with yourself. You will get more wrong than you do right some days. You will scrape your elbows, knees, and probably even your face a few times. Embrace the fear, embrace the pain that you must endure at times. Be gracious with yourself when you feel like you’re just not sure what to do next. A lot of the things that I’m sharing are not rocket science and they are definitely not exclusive to building a tech company, but these are five very important things that I believe are worth sharing.
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. 🙂
Part of our vision statement as a company is to create opportunities for all people around the world to find purpose, a sense of belonging, and fulfillment in their lives and society. This ties in with my favorite quote that I mentioned above. In a year where sides are being pushed, pulled, and torn apart, my biggest desire is for us to come together. Another favorite Brené Brown quote is “It’s hard to hate up close”. I just want to inspire people to work together for the better of our communities, society, country, and humanity as a whole.
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 🙂
Barack Obama, Brené Brown, and Marc Benioff are all very inspiring and have had some level of impact on my life personally. I would like to thank them for all that they do and I’m sure I would learn a lot from breakfast or lunch with any of these three.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!