Place the main focus on understanding your customers, engage with them, listen to them and always be honest with them. Our team is constantly engaging our customers to understand their needs and also to get a sense as to how we are performing in their eyes. We truly value our customers’ feedback and it’s what helps us deliver the services that they need to be successful.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ross Buhrdorf.
Ross Buhrdorf is the CEO of ZenBusiness, a one-stop-shop for budding entrepreneurs to start, run and grow a business. Buhrdorf is the former founding CTO of HomeAway and has more than 30 years’ experience as a technology leader, entrepreneur and corporate executive.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and from a young child I witnessed a strong work ethic from my parents, who both worked full-time and also often took on side gigs. That ethic was instilled in me as I have been working since a young age and continues through today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are two that I find relevant — “Fear is a Liar” which essentially means to me that fear is what holds us back. Don’t feed into the lie, just go for it. This also ties into our customers who we surveyed and who said that “fear” was their biggest obstacle. So, I remind myself not to buy into the fear.
I also really subscribe to “Vision without action is a daydream” which reiterates that you must execute on your plan otherwise you are simply wasting time.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m currently reading “Scale” by Geoffrey West. It’s a great book that looks at the interconnectivity of our world and is really quite relevant for where we are as a society.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Before the pandemic began, we were already a growing company with a focus on helping aspiring entrepreneurs start, run and grow their own businesses. We had about 30,000 customers in March of 2020 and were also in the middle of a Series B fundraising process.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
As the pandemic took hold, we realized that more and more people were seeking ways to become their own boss and start a business — the exact services that we as a company provide. As a result, our web traffic dramatically increased and ultimately our customer base exploded. Over the course of the pandemic, we have gone from 30,000 customers to more than 110,000 as a new crop of “COVID-preneur” has given rise to what we call the microbusiness renaissance. We were successful in our fundraise during the pandemic, which allowed us to rapidly scale up our operations and staff to meet the new demands of our customers. We have announced new product offerings and have remained in close contact with our customers to assess their needs and are constantly pivoting to make sure they are provided all they need to be successful in a rapidly changing environment. According to our customer survey, what entrepreneurs want the most is to be their own boss and change their life for the better. We are proud to help them do that.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
The “Aha moment” for us was when we began to see the huge rise in interest by so many folks wanting to start their own businesses during the pandemic. We always knew that we wanted to provide services that went above and beyond what was out there to help people form a new business and be their own boss. We are extremely passionate about entrepreneurship. Being in the middle of this renaissance and being able to help so many people follow their dreams was a catalyst for us to rapidly put our growth plan into full swing. In addition, our survey revealed that 90% of those who responded had a positive outlook for their business over the next year. We are bolstered by and share their optimism.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Since the pandemic, we have boosted the number of employees we have in all areas to make sure that we are growing alongside our customers. We have also rolled out a new brand identity and product roadmap that will ensure an easy and “zen” experience for our customers as they form a business. In addition, we are in the process of launching a new financial offering, ZenBusiness Money, as well as building out our business education offering, ZenBusiness U. While that is all exciting, the real success can be measured by the satisfaction of our customers and we are happy to report that we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our customer base regarding the company’s products throughout the pandemic.
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?
Ed Foreman is a former two-state Congressman who came from very humble beginnings to become a successful businessman and civic leader. I met Ed after college, and we have been friends ever since. He has such a positive outlook on life and a zeal for business that really inspired me at a time when I needed inspiration.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Early in the pandemic, we launched a grant program for our customers. We provided 1000 dollars grants to 100 businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them get by. A few months after the program launched we received a note from a customer that received a grant telling us that she was able to use the funds to take some online courses and as a result, her business did a 180 degree turnaround and she was thriving! After taking the courses, she went from a place of debt to earning almost 50,000 dollars from her business.
It’s stories like this that really ground us and highlight the important work that our team is doing to help so many follow their dreams.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1.) Starting and running a business is really, really hard.
You’ve read some books, watched a few business shows or even taken classes, so you may go into the process of starting a business thinking it’s a “piece of cake,” when in reality it is hard work and takes a concerted effort to be successful. I have been an entrepreneur for 30 years and have had ups and downs but one thing remains constant, no matter what the business is, it will always be hard work that makes it successful.
2.) Starting and running a business is extremely rewarding
Nothing comes easy and that includes success. The best part of running a business after all the hard work that you put into it is the reward that comes along with a positive experience. This can be that of you and your team, or more importantly that of your customer.
3.) Place the main focus on understanding your customers, engage with them, listen to them and always be honest with them.
Our team is constantly engaging our customers to understand their needs and also to get a sense as to how we are performing in their eyes. We truly value our customers’ feedback and it’s what helps us deliver the services that they need to be successful.
4.) Don’t give in to fear. You can be afraid, but don’t give in. Go for it.
We surveyed our customers and a large majority listed “fear” as why they were hesitant to start their own business. I too have had this feeling — but a long time ago I decided to not give in to fear and rather “go for it.” Entrepreneurs are brave people and the more of them that realize it, the more successful they will be.
5.) Always show up for the job ready to go with a positive attitude.
It doesn’t matter if you’re CEO or just starting your first day on the job, a go-getter mentality and positive attitude will go a long way in business. I try to maintain a positive attitude and it truly helps me, especially during the tough times of business leadership.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
The news cycle is fast and furious and often leads with the worst news stories. I have taken steps to filter the news and focus on other aspects of life and work as opposed to following the never-ending news cycle. I also take time to focus on the things that I can control and put my energy towards that.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Bill Gates. Not because of what he has done with Microsoft — though that is such an amazing legacy and will be part of world history. I am really inspired by him and the work he has done since he left Microsoft. Here is a billionaire that has had considerable success, who is now taking on an added role through the Gates Foundation to study infectious disease and other things in hopes of making the world a better place. I can only aspire to be like that.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!