Foster Strong Relationships. Relationships can make or break your business, and I don’t just mean networking. This is about how you build your team — do your employees trust that you have their best interests in mind? Do you understand how to meet their needs? And it’s about client needs too. If you aren’t being genuine, if you aren’t trustworthy, they’ll know that right away. You need to nurture the relationships in your business because no matter what product or service you’re offering, it all comes down to the people.
As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Hosman, founder and CEO of Vant4ge, a human services and predictive analytics technology company that has revolutionized correctional care and case management. He has more than 20 years of experience working closely with public and private juvenile and adult justice agencies, and large human services systems. In order to continue improving the lives of those involved in correctional systems, he also founded Persevere, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and providing marketable skills to incarcerated individuals.
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?
Well, that story sort of comes full circle. As a college student, I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I thought the way to do that was to become a politician and enact laws that would create a better society. I went to law school to start down that path. But I did well enough in law school to work for a large law firm, at a practice that focused mainly on representing banks and insurance companies. I quickly became disillusioned with the practice of law, and started realizing that I wanted to create things, like companies, products, and services that were innovative and produced value for society.
So I quit the law, and started a fly-fishing expedition company in Argentina, in Patagonia. I loved it, and I learned I enjoyed building companies, and I was good at it. That company didn’t work out, but I had caught the bug to be an entrepreneur. I have since started and built a number of companies — some successful, some not. Along the way, I realized I wanted to combine my innate desire to make the world a better place with my entrepreneurial spirit. Out of that came Vant4ge, one of the companies I am currently running. Vant4ge was my opportunity to help people and to build something bigger than myself. The people I wanted to help the most, and still do, are those who are often underserved, or disadvantaged — people who feel they’ve been marginalized or disenfranchised, by the rest of society. With that in mind, it was easy for me to focus on the individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, and their families as well.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I became an expert in criminal justice systems reform. In the middle of that, I also became an alcoholic and a drug addict. Not really a good mix. Between 2010 and 2012, I was arrested 12 times. My mugshot was online for everyone to see. Once I got clean and sober in July 2012, I had a decision to make: would I be able to be effective as a leader of my company, and as an advocate for improving the criminal justice system? I decided that I could — and that I could do even more. I stuck with my purpose and my mission, and have since grown several companies in this space, and developed a new focus for working directly with those impacted by the criminal justice system. These companies are working to bring them real hope, valuable skills, and meaningful opportunity, and helping them change their lives.
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?
Naturally, there are many. I have amazing mentors, colleagues, clients, and staff. My family has been one of the most impactful forces for good in my life, and for my success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a quote from Father Gregory Boyle, a man who had devoted himself to serving and ministering in one of the most difficult areas in our country. He’s done amazing work, and has helped so many people, including helping hardcore gang members find a way out so they can pursue meaningful lives. I admire his outlook and his life’s work, and I think this quote really demonstrates the compassion that everyone should have for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
“No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
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?
Vant4ge’s mission is to reduce the over-incarceration problem we have in the United States, while simultaneously increasing public safety, and reducing recidivism. It’s about shifting the focus of our criminal justice system towards data-driven rehabilitation. We are focused on solving these complex social issues and having a massive, positive social impact.
So that’s the big picture, but the nuts and bolts of what we do is use evidence-based data that streamlines risk-needs assessment, case planning, and communications throughout the continuum of correctional care. We use advanced predictive analytics technology to create an efficient, collaborative care system that increases chances for offenders’ success with the objective of reducing recidivism rates. Recidivism means for a formerly incarcerated person to return back behind bars, and we want to do everything we can to reduce recidivism around the country.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are two big things that make us stand out. First, there’s our staff. They have figured out how to use data to inform decisions in such a way that is useful both by practitioners in the criminal justice system and the people who are in that system. They do this in such a sophisticated way that it produces real, tangible outcomes. We get reduced recidivism and increased rehabilitation, in a measurable, outcome-oriented way, that also protects public safety. And in the end this can also save jurisdictions and their taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The second thing that’s unique at Vant4ge is our relentless innovation. Our work ethic drives us to constantly improve our systems, the people we work with, and ourselves, so that we can make a difference in the lives of the people in the system, and thus, society.
When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?
As a child, I was taught about the concept of the social contract, and I still believe in that. We have a moral or a principled obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and that includes incarcerated individuals. They need help and support, and I want to do what I can to help them.
What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?
That same motivation has only gotten stronger. It drives me more now than before for two reasons: one is that I’ve experienced both sides and know what it’s like to feel hopeless. Two is that after doing this for 22 years I am more driven. I understand what solutions will work, so I feel an obligation to fix this. We are able to understand this. If we don’t keep pushing, there will be less impact. My team knows how to solve these problems in the criminal justice system, so we have an obligation to do so.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the most exciting projects we’re tackling is creating a larger network of connections using technology for all of the people working in human services, which includes criminal justice. It’s a system of connection, communication, and care. Evolve, our platform for case management in the community, has a special place in that. It’s unique in its ability to connect people and professionals and communities of care.
The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?
A lot of it is grinding out hard work. And a lot of it is being a relationship builder. I earnestly and genuinely care about my customer’s pain points and want to solve them. When people know you care and you are genuine, it isn’t hard to help them.
The biggest problem was being almost ahead of our time. We had solutions and technology and products that were available before the market and industry were truly ready to embrace them, i.e., the idea of a rehabilitative focus. A lot of people had the mentality that we had to be “tough on crime,” with serious sentencing and hardcore corrections. So our audience wasn’t always as open-minded then as it is now. I was saying, “Why don’t you assess these people and find out what they need,” and a lot of people didn’t want that. But we quickly found the people who shared our outlook, and over time the national view about corrections has shifted to more closely align with the vision we’ve always had.
Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?
We took the time to understand the problems our clients had, and we created actual solutions for them. We were genuine and delivered on the solutions we promised. It takes time, but it’s worth it. Sales were a natural progression of the relationships we built. If you have integrity and an exceptional product, you don’t have to do much selling.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are so many examples of this that I can’t pick just one. But look at it this way: we’re a technology company, right? We’re always talking about how technology can solve your problems. But more often than I’d like to admit, we’ll have a presentation to give, and the technology we need to display the slides won’t work. It’s ironic that even with all of our expertise and preparation, sometimes the wifi is down, or Google just won’t load the document we need. And the lesson is just not to take yourself too seriously when things don’t go according to plan. If we can all laugh about it, there’s no harm done.
Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
You have to train your staff, set high expectations, incentivize success, and focus on the people. That means focusing on your sales team and the people you’re trying to reach. Some people talk about the three P’s, but I think there are really five P’s: people, product, processes, pricing, and profitability.
Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Start a Business You Believe In
This is the most important concept because everything follows from it. If you don’t really believe in what you’re offering, if you don’t think it’s going to change the world, then it’s never going to work. When you have a business that you know can make a difference, it comes through in everything you do. The people you hire can feel it, the clients you work with can see it, and people can share your vision. Back when I was working at a law firm helping banks make more money, I was good at my job — but I didn’t believe in it. Who would? That’s why it never would have worked for me in the long term.
2. Foster Strong Relationships
Relationships can make or break your business, and I don’t just mean networking. This is about how you build your team — do your employees trust that you have their best interests in mind? Do you understand how to meet their needs? And it’s about client needs too. If you aren’t being genuine, if you aren’t trustworthy, they’ll know that right away. You need to nurture the relationships in your business because no matter what product or service you’re offering, it all comes down to the people.
3. Embrace Relentless Innovation
Your client’s needs are going to change over time — that’s the reality of it. And you have to be able to adapt to that change, and even anticipate it. That’s what we’re doing with the Evolve platform. Right now, a lot of jurisdictions are relying on the old methods of staying in touch with subjects in the community. So when someone is on parole, their case manager has to meet with them, in person, on a regular basis. Now this formerly incarcerated individual is in a tough spot: they may have limited access to transportation, they may have little to no child care options, they may have a really demanding, unpredictable job. And they still have to go see that case manager in person a couple of times a month, and maybe they have to drive an hour away to do it. Evolve makes it easy to use video check-ins instead, from any internet-connected device. Those are the solutions you develop when you embrace innovation.
4. The Customer is Always Right
Some things are cliches because they’re true! This is the real key to keeping your clients happy. There are going to be things you’ll disagree about, and sometimes their objectives will change over time. You need to be flexible and make things work for them. If you spend all of your time explaining why they’re wrong and you’re right…who is that helping? Not your clients, and not your business.
5. When You Fall Down, You Get Back Up
My personal story really showcases this principle. I know what it means to be in a terrible place, and feel like you won’t be able to climb out of this hole. I was arrested, I battled addiction and alcoholism, and I almost lost my company because of it. But I did the only thing I could — I got back up again. I got the treatment and rehab I needed, the support I needed, and I was able to turn it around. The experience has given me more perspective and compassion than I had before. It wasn’t easy; in fact, it was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. But it was absolutely worth it.
What would you advise to another 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 or sales and “restart their engines”?
One of our values is relentless innovation, and I think that’s a necessity in any industry. Client pain points and problems are constantly evolving, and if your products and services don’t evolve with them, you’ll be stuck at a standstill. We’ve lived through plateaus like that, and we just had to double-down on trying to find the best way to solve client problems through innovation and growth.
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?
One constant theme I’ve talked about is building solid relationships. That means not only networking but also having credibility and delivering on your promises. You have to have integrity, be genuine, and work closely with your partners to actually help them solve problems. We are a small company selling a complicated product, so we work intimately with our clients to solve their problems, which attracts similar clients who need those same successful outcomes. It’s possible that there is a more scalable, efficient way to do this, but for us, this is the best way to do the work.
I do believe in business development, but we’re focused on using the successful outcomes we’ve created. We’re building success on top of success. We’re a consulting company too, and that has to rely on the legitimate value we’re providing. But the software side of the business can be more of a client generator than the consulting side.
Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
My philosophy has been kind of a cliche, but I believe that the customer is always right. It sounds simple, but it is actually quite profound in what it means about how we should service and support our clients. As things change, we support our clients in a way that accommodates that change for them. Our business exists to support our clients. Though we might have disagreements about some things, we are willing to be flexible and solution-focused. That’s how we operate.
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?
We provide successful solutions and the best products and services for the best value. That’s the approach that creates retention. We work closely with the customers as time passes and changes are needed, and even when changes occur we continue to provide the best product at the greatest value. It sounds simple, but it means a lot when you do it right.
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. :-)
I want to end mass incarceration. For one thing, economically, it affects everyone in the country. Everyone is paying for it. But, of course, it also has an enormous impact on incarcerated individuals and their families — especially their children. Mass incarceration is self-perpetuating over generations. If one of your parents went to prison, you’re more likely to go to prison. This isn’t how the system is supposed to work. I want to break the cycle — both the generational cycle of families ending up in prison and the recidivism cycle that so many incarcerated individuals fall into. This is why Persevere is all about providing hope, skills, and the opportunity to create a meaningful life outside of the criminal justice system. This system needs reform, and the services we offer to those in the system need reform too.
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 :-)
It’s hard to choose! I would love to meet with Father Gregory Boyle, because we share so many of the same values and we’re both working to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who deserve a chance to have a healthy, safe, productive life. On a personal level, I would love to get to know him better.
But it’s so hard to choose just one person to have lunch with because there are so many opportunities to advance the movement of criminal justice reform. In that arena, I’d also love to meet Barack and Michelle Obama, because I really respect them both and they have such an enormous influence on public opinion. There’s also Jay-Z, who has been doing great work on raising money and bringing attention to criminal justice reform issues.
If I was going to spend an hour with someone, I would want that hour to contribute to the criminal justice reform movement. I would want to find someone with the most influence, who would share the values and objectives of that movement, and who would be able to push that movement forward.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!