Tommy joined Howard Services in 1993, became a partner in 2000, and sole owner in 2006 of what is now HS Brands International. In 1999, Tommy was a founding member of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association and was inducted into the MSPA Hall of Fame in 2005. He served as president in 2007. In 2000, Tommy created the mystery shopping industries’ first web-based software platform, SASSIE. Since 2008, Tommy’s mission has been global expansion, and has added to the Boston and Las Vegas offices with Buenos Aires, Milan, London, Beirut, Bangalore, Sidney, Bangkok, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Tommy is a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization, an avid golfer and billiards player, has visited 40+ countries, and is a music and movies fanatic. He and his wife, Jill, have twin teenage daughters: Summer and Riley.
Tell me about your early career.
I dropped out of college as a junior to move to LA to become an actor. I never really made it, and fell in love with Las Vegas along the way. It basically turned into a six month vacation. When I came back, I bounced around between jobs at Staples, Papa Gino’s and a shoe store chain. I got started when I got a phone call from an ex-boss who I had stayed friends with, and who asked “Hey, I know a guy who needs someone young like you to watch some bartenders, to make sure they aren’t stealing. He’ll pay you a few bucks and cover your tab.” I thought he was joking.
How did the concept for HS Brands come about?
My original partner, Howard, is a security consultant. He gets hired to consult on how to best secure your facility, mostly using security cameras. He was asked to do this for a local bar/restaurant chain, who then asked him to come back and eat dinner, have some drinks, and report on the service, food, integrity, etc. of the staff. When he needed someone younger to help him out, he was introduced to me through a mutual friend.
How was the first year in business?
The first year with me was pretty lean. Actually, the first five to six years were. Howard got his business from the Yellow Pages, and when I came, the cold calling and mailing began. I sat on a couch in his basement making calls as he sat at a small computer desk doing his work. In the first five years, I made about $80,000 total. Fortunately, I had a wife and parents who were there to support me through these tough times to keep me going.
What was your marketing strategy?
Picking up the phone. We ran ads in the Yellow Pages, but it wasn’t until ten years later when we actually began marketing.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Extremely slow. From 1994 to 1999, we barely existed. It was in 1999 when I had an idea to create a software that would pull all of the mystery shopping functions into one place. My intention was to solve my own problems. Little did I know that I was creating the world’s first web-based mystery shopping platform, SASSIE. Not only did SASSIE kick us into high gear, but after I made a licensing deal, it would and still is the most widely-used software in the world for mystery shopping.
How do you define success?
Being happy with what you do, every day.
What is the key to success?
Build great relationships. When we struggled to execute, or before we became innovative, or when we didn’t have the lowest prices, the thing that consistently kept us moving forward and keeping customers around for long periods of time was the quality of the relationships. We have had customers for 20+ years.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Hire great people and spend what’s necessary. The more cost conscious on people I have been, the slower I have grown.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” – Groucho Marx
“I intend to live forever, or die trying.” – Groucho Marx
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” – Ronald Reagan
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
In the 90’s, my wife asked me a few times to quit and get a real job. There were many days I thought she might be right. In 2003, the market had a correction and we lost 35% of our business in 30 days. I never really thought that was possible. It taught me a lot about resilience.
There was also one day when I was in the process of buying out my first partner where I thought he might fire me. We could have ended up in court or just lost the company over the battle. Fortunately, it didn’t happen, but we came very close. Also, in 1997, we got our first great account, but they left us in 2015….I hated to see them go.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Patience. I don’t get panicked and I don’t get too excited or overpositive. There are too many ups and downs to let them affect me.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Don’t get married and have kids too young. You need that time to work your ass off to get your business going. There is nothing worse than not spending time with your family in your 40’s when your kids are growing up.
2) Hire the best people you can to do absolutely everything that someone can do better than you. If that includes running the company, then do it.
3) Never measure your success on how many people you employ. Employ the best people, not the most.
4) Make working fun for you. If it’s not fun for you, then it won’t be fun for your employees, and no one likes a job that isn’t fun. They will just work there for the paycheck.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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