Focus on the Needs, Not the “Nice-to Have Features” 5 Leadership Lessons with Jason Randolph, CEO of SAVANT
“You must make sure that the product solves a critical pain point of the users — the needs vs the wants. In B2B businesses, the buyer should experience a minimum 10x improvement over the alternative to offset the transition cost and risk of failure. When conducting market research, ask the consumer if the experience you provide would fall into their top three priorities for the following year or if the product would save them enough time to justify trying the product.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Randolph, CEO of SAVANT. Jason is a seasoned entrepreneur and marketer with over a decade of experience in building companies and brands from scratch, taking them from great to extraordinary. He is most well-known for leading exceptional software companies, executing transformative digital marketing strategies, and successfully guiding technology companies through venture funding and acquisition. His last start-up, the venture-capitalist backed Saas ADTECH firm ADSHIFT, grew from two co-founders to a 14 person team with over one million dollars in yearly revenue. Jason has now shifted his focus to pioneering SAVANT, the first and only software dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs via a simple finance dashboard, complete with tax and finance automation, real-time listing and gig management, business optimization, and comprehensive reporting.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My journey as an entrepreneur started early, when I was only six years old. I sold seaweed on the streets of China where my parents were international teachers. To be fair, my parents were the only ones who invested in my “venture,” but it was my very first dive into international commerce — even if it wasn’t the market I decided to pursue later in life.
Early on in my career I learned first-hand how important customer-focused marketing is when you launch a new brand into a market that is constantly bombarded with messaging. And this always held true, regardless of the brand’s type or category. It was always innovative marketing that broke through. Some of the brands I have elevated include Porsche, Edward Jones, Charles Schwab, ADSHIFT, and AirTran Airways.
While selling my last startup, I started renting my vehicle on two auto sharing platforms, Turo and Getaround, since I was only driving my car twice a month in downtown Chicago. After making over $900 in the first month, I recognized that there was real opportunity here, so I bought three more luxury SUVs for the sole purpose of earning extra cash. However, I started running into real challenges, due to the time and taxes. Communicating with renters became extremely time-consuming and creating reports was overwhelming.
During a conversation with my wife about potential next steps for this opportunity, she asked a simple and very reasonable question that stopped me in my tracks: “Jason, how much did we make last month?” I looked down at the floor and admitted that I didn’t know. It took me a long time to manually log into several different platforms, pull the data from each transaction, and try to make sense of all the costs in QuickBooks, which didn’t itemize the financials by vehicle. Additionally, I had to calculate state and federal tax rates, which was confusing due to the changes in my income. This experience inspired me to build the first version of SAVANT for my own personal use. I wanted a simple dashboard that I could access at any time to help me effectively manage my business. It then occurred to me that other entrepreneurs might be running into similar challenges.
After doing some research, I received overwhelming feedback from others who also found a need for a platform like SAVANT. As my engagement with the sharing community deepened, it also became evident that Uber/Lyft drivers, Airbnb hosts, and everyone else in this new and fast moving sharing economy was experiencing the same problems in managing their business.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company
When I was first managing my auto sharing business, and in the initial stages of building SAVANT I decided to save money on office space by working from home. Overall it worked out really well…until I had to host a meeting to pitch the idea of SAVANT to my co-founders. Without a true “conference room” I did what any good innovative entrepreneur would do. I got creative and held the meeting at the communal cabana by my building’s pool. Pina coladas anyone?
Yitzi: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our team. We all have a high level of determination that drives us to help empower entrepreneurs to thrive and retain more of their hard-earned money. We met at Techweek when Iqbal was a keynote, Chris was COO, and I was attending as a founder. With our various backgrounds in technology, we have known each other for years but never anticipating building something together. However, as soon as we joined forces it was full steam ahead — in fact only two days after coming together we were able to raise substantial funds to help get SAVANT off the ground.
Yitzi: None of us can 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?
A personal mentor of mine is Eric Papczun. He is a fellow entrepreneur and the former president of Performics in the United States. Eric has been a trusted advisor throughout my entrepreneurial journey. Two important key lessons he has taught me are to use the power of perseverance, and take hard questions head-on as a CEO.
I also cannot say enough about our amazing SAVANT team. A startup is only as strong the team that is building it. Our team is incredibly fierce and dynamic. I greatly appreciate how fortunate I am to learn from them as we continue to grow.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Personally, over the course of my entrepreneurial journey I have had a lot of mentors help me along the way. I know how important it is to “pay it forward.” I make it a personal priority to provide monitoring to other emerging startups, such as lead mentorship as a Board Member of (EO) Entrepreneurs Organization in Chicago. Ensuring that I do my part to give back to other startup leaders is significant to me.
As for SAVANT, the global workforce is changing experientially faster than ever before. The sharing and gig workforce is the future of the dwindling middle class. It is projected to grow by over 800% by 2025. SAVANT enables individuals from all walks of life to earn a good living with the simplicity of conventional employment. For example, with SAVANT someone who recently immigrated to the U.S. looking for a new life and financial stability can now have a paystub combining their income to save money, purchase a home, or car.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why.
1. Solve tomorrow’s problem today. Be prepared for a potential problem quickly, and not just a problem that is obvious at the moment.
The most powerful strength for any startup is being faster than the larger companies at executing new opportunities and building a brand before the bigger players catch up. Competitors will almost always have more resources and very smart teams. If you think you have plenty of time to build your startup idea into a big company, think again. Technology growth is incredibly fast paced. There is a small window of time to build your product, grow a large client base, and build a brand. Being prepared for potential problems is critical vs a quick fix and iterative improvement the year after you launch.
This is something that I learned during the course of my career. While building my last startup, we focused on adding features that clients wanted at that time without determining whether these features would still be valuable a year down the road. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. We were clearly too reactionary to client requests without having any foresight. As a result, the overall competitive space grew so quickly that by the time we launched, the market was far more difficult to penetrate and prospects found it harder to justify our product versus the many alternative options that had emerged.
2. When launching your brand, the timing needs to be just right for consumer need, speed of technology innovation and having the right team — all at once.
Becoming a successful startup takes get a lot of things right very quickly. There are numerous drivers of successful companies, but I have found TIMING to be the most important. You can have the best team and a very innovative technology, but if the market adoption hasn’t caught up, then the company will be short-lived. An excellent example of this is Uber. Ridesharing has been around for over a hundred years, but it took consumers’ acceptance of virtual connection, renting/riding with strangers (primarily pioneered by Airbnb), the growth in GPS smartphone technology, and the right team to all converge for Uber to obtain their unicorn status.
3. Build a team that truly wants to be part of a startup. Nothing is as easy as it seems on television.
Working at a startup has been glorified recently in television shows such as Silicon Valley, Shark Tank, and The Social Network. These shows portray startups as going from fun idea, to offers of tens of millions of dollars in venture capitalist funding, to then suing each over the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The reality is that working in a startup is a highly stressful, labor-intensive, risky, time-consuming endeavor that requires relentless late nights and early mornings. Any startup wishing to succeed requires a highly skilled team that truly believes in the product with a frenetic passion. From my experience hiring countless startup employees, I’ve learned to thoroughly grill every potential candidate to ensure they have an entrepreneurial, passionate drive. I have had to let many early employees go because they came for the glamor without the grit.
4. Talk to industry and (often more important) non-industry experts.
Spend time interviewing industry experts, and even more importantly find experts outside the industry who have used similar revenue models and acquisition strategies. There is a fantastic community of innovators in different industries who are willing to provide advice. Incubators such as 1871 in Chicago offer excellent resources. The simplest and cheapest way is to go on LinkedIn and find local leaders of companies you want to connect with and message them. You will be surprised by how many coffee meetings you will score and learn from.
In fact, when I was in the process of setting up my own sales team and monetization strategy, I wish I had taken my own advice and consulted more professionals in different industries to see what challenges they experienced. A lot of times these lessons can translate to your business, or spark a new idea you may have never previously considered.
5. Focus on the needs, not the nice-to have features.
You must make sure that the product solves a critical pain point of the users — the needs vs the wants. In B2B businesses, the buyer should experience a minimum 10x improvement over the alternative to offset the transition cost and risk of failure. When conducting market research, ask the consumer if the experience you provide would fall into their top three priorities for the following year or if the product would save them enough time to justify trying the product.
Prior to launching SAVANT, we generated hundreds of pre-registrations and over one thousand listings after only a few social media posts. These early signups, along with surveys and interviews, validated that our target audience views the current methods of managing their sharing business as problematic. We engaged with early registrants by personally calling and conducting product demonstrations to gather feedback on priorities and features.
Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Joe Gebbi, co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Airbnb. I am so inspired by his innovation and focus, which enabled him to build a community of trust. I believe Airbnb to be the company that was the vanguard of the sharing economy.