Jimmy Chebat of ZIZO Technologies: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great
An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski
Be agile. This has been the most crucial lesson I’ve learned across all of my business ventures. As I said in the answer to your previous question, a great company is one that grows, leads, innovates and adapts. Agility is the trait which allows a company to do all of those things. In many instances, most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, my company has faced major changes to it’s environment. Rather than remaining stagnant and hoping eventually things would shift back to the way they were, we chose to adapt to our new world and lean into the changes.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jimmy Chebat.
An enterprising business pioneer, Jimmy has developed a digital initiative anticipated to address the paradigm shifts currently plaguing the workforce due in part to the workplace culture identity crisis and the ever-increasing rate of remote workers. His portfolio of past business ventures emphasizes his ability to identify challenges facing personnel management, generating innovative solutions using his experience in data analytics, automated intelligence, and gamification. The fourth industrial revolution is already here and it’s Jimmy’s fully integrated system that’s leading the digital transformation into the tomorrow we need.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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’ve been an entrepreneur in Buffalo, NY for the past 20 years. Ever since I was very young, I knew that my dream was to be the CEO of my own company; I never wanted to work for someone else. I attempted to launch my first business before I was 21 and failed, so I put the dreams on hold for to begin working an IT company. Eventually, I used the that skills I learned working at that company to open my own business (successfully this time), and I’ve been running my own companies ever since.
About 12 years ago, I began working in the accounts receivable space and I experienced some culture shock. There was a major issue of accountability and employee engagement within the workforce and I quickly realized this was a part of the culture in the industry. As a solution, I used my software skills to develop a solution to replace the traditional whiteboard used in most collections call centers.
This software allowed me to clearly see performance and business data and created a culture of accountability and transparency within my agency. We had a lot of internal success with the product and even sold it to other agencies in our area before eventually deciding to take off the market until I was able to perfect it.
Ten years later, here we are with the best iteration of that software. I’ve taken everything that I know works from the initial software and combined it with gamification, integration, and automation to create ZIZO.
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?
Like I mentioned previously, I attempted to launch my very first company before the age of 21. I was so passionate about the project and I tried everything to gain traction, but it just didn’t work. I was broke and clueless. It was a tough way to start my journey as an entrepreneur and eventually I gave up and decided that I had to get a job working for someone else.
There was a time when I thought that was it, I tried to be an entrepreneur and failed and I settled into working for someone else. Lucky for me, that company went under, and I was forced to reevaluate which lead me to try again on my own.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where that drive came from because it has always been such major part of me. I think a lot of my determination just comes from my dislike for failure. I had a vision of how I wanted my life to end up and I knew the only way to accomplish it was to rely on myself and not someone else.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
During the time when I was attempting to launch that very first venture, it got to the point where I was literally living out of my change jar. Even during that crazy period of my life, I never felt like I was taking the wrong path. At the time, it didn’t really feel like something to laugh about, but looking back I can find humor in the fact that I let myself get to that point.
Allowing myself to get to that type of low early on in my career taught me a very valuable lesson about knowing when to let go and when to sacrifice. I’m thankful that I went through that experience when I did because it taught me how about sacrifice and how to make smart decisions in my future ventures.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are so many things I could say that make ZIZO stand out — but I’ll just focus on one for the sake of time. One of main reasons that I initially developed the software ten years ago was to win a debate with my brother. At the time, we both owned our own call centers and we constantly got into friendly debates over leadership style.
My brother had employees who he believed were the best simply because he liked them. He would send them the best leads and give them the best opportunities for success because he considered them his top employees. I challenged him to show me provable data that they were the best employees; because to me it seemed like they were only the best because they had the best opportunities. My brother couldn’t prove me wrong. That wasn’t enough for me though, I wanted to prove that my method of giving everyone the same opportunities, and only rewarding them based on measurable performance data was better.
So that’s when I decided to build a software that would track my employee’s performance to create a culture of accountability and transparency. This allowed me to run my agency objectively, while he lead his agency subjectively.
Taking that idea even further, ZIZO gamifies that data so that top performers are automatically rewarded. Which means instead of worrying about office politics and upsetting employees who feel like management is picking favorites, management can focus on bigger issues and leave that headache to ZIZO.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Set realistic goals and don’t be afraid to revisit them. When leading a company, it can be easy to set yourself up with high expectations and unrealistic deadlines. If they’re not attainable, the only thing you’ll accomplish is building frustration and disappointment in yourself. I’d encourage any colleague of mine to always encourage realistic and attainable goal setting for their team and themselves. If they’re ever in a position where goals are consistently not being met, the first step is to evaluate if they goals were realistically attainable in the first place.
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?
My mom has been a huge factor in me getting to where I am today. She was a single mom of six and did an incredible job of supporting all of us. She has this unique way of recognizing her kid’s strengths and encouraging us to use those strengths to benefit the family. For me, it was my leadership skills. From a young age she realized that leading was something I enjoyed and excelled at and she expected me to lead the family and help her keep everyone else on track. I think having that type of responsibility at a young age instilled the love of leadership in me which is why I’ve always been drawn to running my own company.
Over the years my mom has continued to be my biggest supporter and she is always there for me and cheering me on. Having someone who has been there from the beginning routing for me and hoping for my success drives me to want to succeed and make her proud.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company is one that is profitable, stable, and with low stress and low turnover. While not easy to accomplish, it’s relatively easy to measure and maintain.
A great company takes all those good qualities a step further. Great companies provide opportunities for everyone involved to prosper both professionally and personally. A great company is one that grows, leads, innovates, and adapts.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Creating the right team and the right culture. This is probably the single most crucial thing you can do for your business. I’ve been in situations in the past where I chose employees based on their skills for the job without considering how they would fit into the company’s culture. This never works out well because it is nearly impossible to accomplish your vision without everyone working towards a common goal.
2. Create a culture of accountability. Something that shocked me when I started out in the accounts receivable industry was the lack of accountability expected from employees. I quickly learned that no matter how much direction I gave, nothing was accomplished because no one was held accountable to their tasks. Establishing the importance of accountability within a company allows it to accomplish more and become truly great.
3. Be transparent. Nothing great can come from a lack of transparency. Build something trustworthy and honest. Ensure that the company’s goals, values, and direction are visible to everyone inside and outside of the organization so that together, everyone can move the company in the right direction.
4. Use the right tools. As the founder and CEO of a startup, I’m extremely familiar with going bootstrap and taking the cheap route when needed. There are a lot of business tools that save huge amounts of time and headaches, but when you’re on a limited budget, it is tempting to take the long and cost-effective route. While this is sometimes necessary, there are certain things you can’t be will to forgo. Always ensure your business is setup for success by utilizing technology to buy yourself and your employees time.
5. Be agile. This has been the most crucial lesson I’ve learned across all of my business ventures. As I said in the answer to your previous question, a great company is one that grows, leads, innovates and adapts. Agility is the trait which allows a company to do all of those things. In many instances, most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, my company has faced major changes to it’s environment. Rather than remaining stagnant and hoping eventually things would shift back to the way they were, we chose to adapt to our new world and lean into the changes.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
In addition to the altruistic motivating factors of a purpose driven business, there are a lot of benefits to considering becoming purpose driven. Within the next 5 years, millennials and Gen Z employees will make up 75% of the workforce. Studies of the Gen Z cohort tell us that as consumers, they’re more likely to buy from companies that represent some type of socially conscious purpose. Furthermore, Gen Z is known as the generation that wants to work with purpose; this generation is more interested in a meaningful career than a lucrative job. Focusing business efforts on being purpose driven allows you to attract Gen Z customers and employees, which is imperative to the life of a business as we see a generational shift in the market.
What would you advise to a business 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 and “restart their engines”?
Business plateaus are the exact reason that I always preach regular reviews or audits for all aspects of your business. Our world changes at a rapid pace and somethings we don’t even realized our market has shifted without us until it’s too late. Take a look at the world around you, what has changed? How can your company change to catch up?
In addition, a stale company culture sets in easily and quietly. Is the problem external, like the environment changing, or internal, like your staff becoming complacent? As much as we don’t want to address that our beloved team is part of the problem, you have to be critical of the culture that you’re cultivating. If you’re not encouraging a culture of growth, you’ll remain at a standstill forever.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Regardless of what economy you’re in, it is always a good idea to practice fiscal responsibility. Don’t spend just to spend, even when things are going well. Continue stacking away the money you’re making so that you don’t have to stress during difficult times.
That being said, regardless of how much you plan, there will always be unexpected times when you need to get lean and focus your spending to stay afloat. A mistake that I see a lot of business owners make (myself included in the past) is going about getting lean in the wrong way. Make cuts from the top down, don’t just cut the lowest man on the totem pole when you need to save money, consider what you can sacrifice from yourself and work down from there.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
People management. As a young CEO I really underestimated the skills that managing multiple people require. Everyone comes to work with different moods and personal issues and they let those show at work in varying degrees; this can make it really tough to manage. Striking a balance between being caring and understanding and being a boss is difficult; especially when you genuinely like and care about your staff.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
I’m a firm believer in letting professionals do what their best at. The best thing you can do for your company’s conversion rate is to hire a good sales professional to help you build your sales process. If it is not a space your comfortable in, you’ll save hours and stress and mistakes by putting someone who knows this process well in charge.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Be transparent. If you’re upfront and honest about who you are, consumers have no reason NOT to trust you. I also think having fun and not taking yourself too seriously helps brands become more beloved. Of course, this varies by industry, but as the CEO of a gaming brand, we find that people love our fun and open approach.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Creating a great customer experience starts with having a great product. Businesses need to understand their customer and provide them with the right solution. Know what you’re target audience values most and ensure that you deliver it. Never provide a product or solution that doesn’t do what you say it will.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
I completely agree, I think that engaging on social media is a slippery slope. People are easily offended, and things can quickly be taken out of context or misconstrued. Companies and executives, especially, need to be ultra-cautious in today’s world of cancel culture.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A lot of CEOs and founders try too hard to do things right. Instead, don’t be afraid to fail and fail fast so that you can learn from it. Follow the rule of shooting bullets, not cannon balls. If you miss a few times with small bullets, its no big deal; but if you put everything into launching a canon and you miss, you’ll do a lot more damage.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. 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. :-)
I would love to see a movement that incentivizes parents to hold their kids accountable for their education. Something that encourages parents to support their kids to actively participate in their education, but that also supports working parents without limiting them.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I’m very active on my LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jimmychebat/
You can also follow ZIZO on…
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
About the interviewer: Jerome Knyszewski (Kenchefski) is the CEO of HeavyShift. Jerome serves as an advisor to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurs who disrupt their industries and therefore tend to be targets of malicious online attacks. His company builds, protects, and repairs the online presence & reputation of many celebrities, products and beloved brands.