Henry Valentino Of eConnect: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
Do it now! Don’t wait if you want to do something — especially if it’s something you are not likely to be afforded the chance to do again.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Henry Valentino.
Henry Valentino is the founder, CEO, and president of eConnect. He has amassed years of experience in building, financing, and managing companies, all the way from the startup stage to the liquidity event. In 1999, he sold Digisys — a Montana-based ISP/data communications company — to CenturyTel, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the U.S.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am president and CEO of eConnect, a company based in Las Vegas, and I have been in that role since I founded the company in 2009. Over the years, I’ve been involved in starting and operating a number of different businesses as a founder, director, and executive.
I began my career in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area as the owner of a company in the telecom industry. Back then, the internet was in its infancy, and data communications were becoming more frequent than voice telephone calls. As data took over, I became interested in digital video and the IP networking it would require. In 1998, I sold my data telecom company and moved to Las Vegas with a plan to sell more commercial data communications products — what we called BHPs (big honkin’ pipes) — because digital video was going to need a lot of them. Cutting-edge technology is likewise a central part of eConnect, which provides intelligent software surveillance solutions, including facial recognition technology, to the gaming industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I recently heard an interesting story from one of our customers that illustrates why I am always amazed by the innovative ways customers use our products. This case involved a high roller at a very large casino and the claim that he was robbed of $150,000 in his luxury hotel room. The high roller said the room safe had been stolen, and video showed two people coming up the back elevator, the employee entrance. Within five minutes, they removed the safe, went right back down the elevator, got into a getaway car, and left the property.
Despite thousands of cameras and an extensive video review, the investigators were unable to come up with good, clear video of the faces of the individuals who had taken the safe because they were covered head to toe and had masks and baseball caps obscuring their faces. Even their car license plate was covered by cardboard.
The customer was at a dead end, so one of the investigators asked if we could run the faces of the two individuals who had been robbed through our facial recognition system to see if we could learn more about how many times they visited the property. Sure enough, a search revealed that, on several previous visits, this high roller and his girlfriend had arrived in the same car used by the thieves to leave with the safe. Case closed! This is something that would have been impossible to unravel without our highly accurate and fast face-matching technology.
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 had given some of my employees a company credit card. Unfortunately, one of the employees who hadn’t been with the company very long took liberties, and in Vegas, those liberties can be costly. We realized what was happening when that employee’s wife wanted to know where her husband was and why he had not been home in two days. Our CFO got a call an hour later from Nobu, a Japanese restaurant at Caesars Palace, asking him to approve a $5,000 bar tab. It wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back on it now, we can laugh and learn. The lesson is obvious: You have to make sure your employees know that you trust them, but they have to earn that trust.
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 was fortunate to have my father as a mentor. He encouraged me to pursue my own dreams and to be determined and persistent so I could get through the bad times.
I had a situation in which I was particularly challenged by a group of investors, and I was upset and stressed. My father encouraged me to be patient and not to be vindictive or overreact. It took a couple of years to resolve the situation, but I ended up with a much better outcome than if I had pursued my original, scorched-earth plan.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. 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?
My own view is that this is not something that just happened in the last 10 years. It has been going on as long as I’ve been alive, and as a society, we’re always evolving. We are a nation of many diverse cultures and backgrounds, and to run a business in today’s United States, you have to be able to support and welcome all walks of life.
At eConnect, we haven’t done anything new because we have always had a culture that strives to treat people fairly and to look for people who can do high-quality work for their colleagues and our customers. We encourage them to be part of a diverse team and participate in a culture that is driven by making sure our customers have success, which is a tremendous achievement.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Nothing encourages people to be inclusive like traveling internationally and realizing how other humans live. During my career at eConnect, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some culturally diverse areas around the world and have sent employees on important international assignments.
Obviously, our primary intention is to install our software and satisfy a customer need, but spending time in cities like Manila, Sydney, Singapore, and Phnom Penh really opens your eyes to the fact that we’re all just human beings.
eConnect is an international business with customers all around the world. Because we’ve been a culturally diverse organization since we started and already had an inclusive culture in place, we strive to keep that culture in place rather than revisit or change how we do things from the ground up.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
This is a hard question because it depends on the current operations of the business. At a basic level, the CEO has to set long-term strategies and make key decisions around products that are selling and products that aren’t. I also happen to be a CEO who is very interested in sales and marketing, so I continue to be involved in those areas on a regular basis. Ever since the COVID-19 lockdowns, we’ve been having daily sales meetings. I attend those meetings with the rest of the sales team to keep up with what’s going on.
I think another key thing for a CEO is to know the numbers so you understand exactly how much it costs to run the business every month and how much money needs to be in the bank account to cover all of those costs on a very basic level. This is called “break-even analysis,” and it is absolutely critical to keep the business going. It can get more complicated for SaaS companies to account for revenues and to understand exactly how well or poorly the business is doing, but you can always go back to the basic cash flow and break-even analysis to understand where you are.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think one of the biggest myths is that the CEO makes tons of money. That may be true in these public companies where they actually transact hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, but in the case of a small business, the founder/CEO is often the last one to get paid.
Luckily, at eConnect, we’ve been successful, especially these last few years, and I’ve been able to realize a decent living. But it’s a long way from the CEOs making millions of dollars a year that you see in the media.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think it’s interesting that time seems to go faster now as I get older and I’ve been doing the job for a longer time. The days and weeks just seem to move by really quickly.
When I first became a CEO, I thought I might have more time to do leisure activities. The reality, however, is that as a CEO, you always have to be in touch with everything going on in the business, even if you’re trying to go out on the boat and do some water skiing.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
No, I don’t think everyone is cut out to be an executive.
The reality of the situation is that it can be a very demanding job that requires a big time commitment. This often means the job or the company takes priority over family needs, and it can create situations that could be uncomfortable.
I talked earlier about my dad. He wanted to be an entrepreneur and run his own company. However, he had four children he had to support, and he didn’t want to take too big of a risk. So instead, he went to work every day at the Pentagon for 30 years, and that is where he retired. It wasn’t until he was working as a consultant that he was really able to be more entrepreneurial.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Treat people fairly, be transparent about how the business is going, and make hiring decisions based on who the best people are for the job.
Another important piece of advice for CEOs is “don’t sweat the small stuff.” There’s actually a great book by that name by Richard Carlson that I would highly recommend. The reality of business is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We had a situation recently where it was late Friday afternoon and I realized that some of our materials were incorrect. This was after a very long week of very hard work to get everything up to date. Even though it meant we would miss our deadline, I decided not to change anything immediately. I had to remind myself to be calm and patient and allow everyone to get some rest before going back to make those corrections.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I don’t think I really have made the world a better place. (I would guess not many people give that answer to this question.) I would say my biggest impact is helping make sure our core team of wonderful people have good jobs that reward them well and remove the challenge of knowing where the next check is coming from. Being able to provide that stability for those wonderful people, my team members and friends, and being able to see them grow and raise families over the years has been my greatest impact on society.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. You’re gonna need more money.
This one may be obvious, but there is nothing more stressful than wondering if you will have enough money to make payroll. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to only face this challenge a few times. The lesson I learned was don’t overspend, unless you are absolutely certain about where the additional money is coming from.
2. Don’t become partners or shareholders with just anyone who comes along — due diligence is very important.
The reality about business is that you will spend a lot of time working to develop it, and this time will mainly be spent with your investors. If you don’t get along with these people, you will not be successful.
I had an unfortunate incident years ago, when I raised a seed round from a very wealthy investor. Almost immediately after I deposited the check, he moved from being my trusted advisor to being my harshest critic. Though I understand criticism is important to grow and advance, the Bobby Knight type of management and feedback style is not likely to work in today’s business world. I wanted to give this investor his money back the first week, and he would not take it.
Not long after that, I was fired from the company I started, which is definitely not an experience I want to have again. If I had taken the time to speak with the previous CEO who had worked with this investor — even if I had just done a little research on how things worked out for him — I would have realized that this person was very difficult to get along with and did not share my values or strategic vision for the company. By taking his money, I assured my own failure.
3. You’re going to spend more time working with employees than you do with your family, so take the time to make sure these are people you enjoy being around.
Everyone knows working with colleagues who never knew each other before coming together in a company or work environment can create some challenges. It’s best to try hard to figure out how to deal with this before it becomes a problem. I can describe many situations in which I realized I did not like or respect a colleague whom I was spending a lot of time with, but I still let them continue to draw a paycheck because I hoped their business productivity would overshadow the personality conflicts. The reality is I just wasted money by not taking action earlier. This ultimately taught me to be much more critical during the interview and offer process when hiring new employees.
4. Don’t be too critical of yourself just because something doesn’t work out exactly the way you thought it would.
I remember telling my dad one evening it was all my fault things were not going the way I expected. I was really dejected and stressed because I was sure the company I was heading was about to lose a lot of money for me and my father, as well as employees and investors I had personally recruited. However, at the end of the day, I have learned that, although money may be lost, if you waste time beating yourself up, you won’t be able to figure out how to make things better.
5. Make sure you take enough time to enjoy the unique benefits of being a CEO.
I just finished a very interesting book titled Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. This book does a great job helping readers understand the value of our limited time on this earth. We never think about our life in weeks; we typically think in terms of years. The reality is that you won’t be able to do everything, and if you continually put something off, it’s likely you will never do it. This is true in both business and life, and as a CEO, you have the power to make things happen.
If you wait too long, you may be too late to start trying. For a non-business example, I would love to try helicopter skiing, but I broke my leg a year ago skiing, and it took me so long to recover that I realized I was too old to heli-ski. The same principle applies in business. Do it now! Don’t wait if you want to do something — especially if it’s something you are not likely to be afforded the chance to do again.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the divisiveness and vitriol around our current political environment is not good. If I could do something to impact that, I would love to sit down with these leaders and have some discussions that I could lead and organize and try to come up with a way to tone down the rhetoric and improve people’s lives.
Since that’s not likely to happen, I try to be very supportive of the people who are in my office and not criticize everything they’re doing because I think the criticism only makes the division greater.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
It’s important to always be ready to meet somebody new and make sure your first impression is a memorable one.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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
I would say the entrepreneur Ben Horowitz. I saw that he just moved to Las Vegas, and I have read and enjoyed his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I’d love to sit down and have lunch with him.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.