Jun 24, 2021
Drive Profit with Purpose Podcast: Q & A with Jose Herrera, CEO and cofounder of Horatio
Jose came to America from the Dominican Republic for college. Upon graduation, he got a start in business in Wall Street, where he helped rebuild Morgan Stanley’s Latin American portfolio. After eight years, he decided to go to business school. And on the very first day, he met his co-founders in what became Horatio, a white glove outsourced customer service solution for some of the world’s most well known brands. Jose’s story is one of purpose, perseverance, and values driven growth.
Fran Biderman Gross
Hi, I’m Fran Biderman-Gross, CEO of advantages an award winning full service creative agency. And I’m here to discuss how the greatest leaders activate purpose. They uncover its roots, unlock its potential, and infuse it into everything they do to reimagine legacy,
create winning cultures and achieve sustainable growth. listen in to learn insightful ways to overcome the real challenges countless leaders face every day. Purpose has become somewhat of a catchphrase, it’s something that pretty much every company talks about most intend to live, but fewer actually make the effort to set it at the center of their company and leadership approach. The ones that do we call purpose champions and today’s guest, Jose Herrera is definitely one of them.
Jose came to America from the Dominican Republic for college. Upon graduation, he got a start in business in Wall Street, where he helped rebuild Morgan Stanley’s Latin American portfolio. After eight years, he decided to go to business school. And on the very first day, he met his co founders in what became Horatio, a white glove outsourced customer service solution for some of the world’s most well known brands. Jose story is one of purpose, perseverance, and values driven growth, making him a perfect guest here on Drive profit with purpose. So first of all, Jose, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day.
Origin of Horatio
So a bit of background on myself. I grew up in the Dominican Republic. And at the age of 17, I came to the US for college. I went to a small business school in Boston called Bentley University. And I majored in managerial economics and law. I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. But one thing led to the other and ended up in Wall Street, which was a fascinating experience. I learned a lot. I was part of the team that was in charge of rebuilding the Latin America business for Morgan Stanley Investment Management. It was an amazing experience. I did that for about eight years. I think that to your point, and the theme of this podcast, which is profit and purpose; I did fee l that we were having some sort of purpose for the companies and for the pension funds that we worked with. It was very satisfying and very interesting work that I did there. However, I always had this knack for entrepreneurship and finding a way to give back to the Dominican Republic, which is where I’m from originally. So I decided to take a break and pursue my MBA at Columbia. During my first day, I met my two co-founders of Horatio.
What do we do at Horatio, we are a tech-enabled customer support and back office firm. We work with some of the fastest growing e-commerce and tech-forward driven companies in the world, building out an amazing product and an amazing brand, while also maintaining the same level of customer support that their clients expect from. So we decided to build a framework to provide-omni channel customer support across chat, email, social, and integrate the latest technologies. I guess the secret sauce, where the idea came from the fact that when I was 17, I worked at a call center in the Dominican Republic. I know that the talent there was/is amazing. So we said, what if we pair amazing talent that is fully bilingual in English and Spanish, and provide dedicated teams that are proud to represent these companies is brand voice and value. That’s exactly what we are doing here at Horatio. It’s very cool because I get to work with some of the fastest growing companies in the United States and also give back to the Dominican Republic by creating employment opportunities locally in the island.
The importance of the right partner
It’s really important for us to live this Purpose Driven Life, not only in our, in our own personal lives, but also in our business lives. Because if we feel personalization, and fulfillment at work, we’re actually happier at home, it doesn’t work the other way around. We’ve seen it with the brands and the companies that we what we work with and we get the opportunity to redefine the brand and really influence the culture. Take me back, you saw an opportunity, you had some interesting unspoken alignment with your potential, now current, partners and you saw this opportunity and you activated it. You saw the good that you could do, the exciting place where it put you in the marketplace and your ability to, whether it’s double/triple bottom line, you’re helping the companies and you’re helping the population in the Dominican Republic. You get to do something incredibly fulfilling at the same time. So help me understand or help our listeners understand what it’s like to go to school, meet a couple of guys to be have this unspoken alignment, and then all of a sudden, you’re in business together. Walk me through what that’s like, when you’re making a decision to actually go into a partnership, not even just with one person, but with two. The complexity is actually quite exponential, when you add three people to the mix versus two. So walk me through some of that
Yeah, I think when we’re looking for a partner, you first need to be able to share the same values. So that was very important for us. We come from similar backgrounds. The most important thing is you have to be able to listen to your partners and understand their point of view. We all have different skill sets. I’m more of the visionary and the dreamer. And my two co-founders are very operational and process driven in nature. So having complementary skill sets is very important. But the most important thing is being able to share the same values and listening to your partners to be able to understand where they’re coming from. And that has been the success of our company, right? I think it’s all about listening and understanding where everyone’s coming from and appreciating the value that everyone brings to the table.
Scaling and growth during the pandemic
Those are incredibly important traits, especially with a partnership for more than two, to appreciate everyone’s value and their perspective, and their input is truly commendable, especially in a startup. So talk to me about the growth trajectory, because, when you want to drive profit with purpose, clearly, you’re aligned and you bring that alignment straight into your exemplary leadership, where you’re able to grow and scale. That is a really tough thing to do, right? Because the bigger you get, the more you lose, control or touch with the people around you. So how do you maintain that culture through your exponential scaling?
Horatio was fully self-funded by the three of us. We bootstrapped this business while we were in school. We actually started the business before graduating from Columbia. We had a couple of initial clients that we worked with and basically learned from. We were still trying to figure out what our value proposition was, and how we could actually help these companies grow and scale their operations. The reality is that building and scaling a customer support team in New York or in LA is unsustainable, particularly as you need a very skilled workforce to actually grow very quickly and be trained very quickly. So finding that right partner is critical. This is more from the client standpoint.
But to your point, we have funny stories, or I guess challenging stories that we faced, our business was having a very good trajectory, right up until COVID hit in March of 2020. We reached 40 employees, we had 15 clients, we were doing really well. And COVID hit and all of a sudden, our business took a turn. It was very challenging, a couple of months for us at the beginning of COVID. But we were able to retain all of our employees, for us, the people our biggest asset. So we were a little bit more optimistic than most people were at the beginning of the summer. And we clearly saw a pattern of growth for all these ecommerce companies, right? Everyone was shopping online, and they were going to have a huge uptick in demand. And that’s exactly what happened. So the table’s turned very quickly.
Our business took a turn in July of 2020, where we had a lot of new clients sign up, and actually our business started to grow again, we were able to employ more people, even though it was a very challenging time. Globally.So we went from 40 employees in June to fast forward to today we have over 300 employees and now we work with over 40 clients. It brings me a lot of joy to be able to create all of these job opportunities, while also ensuring that we were able to keep most of our employees during those difficult times. The way that we build and maintain that culture as we’ve grown is I spent a lot of time with our people experience team to ensure that everyone is happy to ensure that the interests are aligned between our teams on our clients. We tend to go out and find A team of agents that are proud to represent your brand voice and values, which is very important for the companies that we work with, because they’re all very high touch. And so our agents are primed to strengthen their bonds with the underlying customers of our clients and have that passion for the brand, and knowledge of customer support to ensure that every customer interaction is meaningful and personalized. And that has allowed us to grow. Most of our clients have come through referrals, which is very unique in this business, I think it goes back to the way that we treat our people and how much we value them.
The office environment is really cool. It does feel like a startup, it’s very open. And we providedaily catered meals to all of our employees, public transportation is included for all of them. So they do feel valued and appreciated. And I think that our clients also see them as a true extension of their teams. They also send them samples, and gifts and all of that. I think creating that culture affinity between the brands and the underlying employees that we that we manage on their behalf has been critical to our success.
The challenge of customer support
If that’s not what purpose driven leadership is, I’m not really sure where to go from here. That’s honestly, it’s an exemplary trait to understand the lessons that our parents taught us. Treat others how you want to be treated yourself. And yet, when we get into a capitalistic situation, it kind of shifts and changes. And the truth is, we know that when we hold those values, and we actually live them, we don’t just profit from them, we actually grow faster, and we go faster together, because everyone is actually satisfied. So therefore, everyone’s willing to work a little harder, because they are satisfied for their contribution, because they’re recognized for it and they’re valued for it. Can you tell me about some of the struggles, I know that this is in the forefront of your mind. You’ve made all these things a priority, so that people feel taken care of, right, because there’s got to be some value about taking care of each other where, they don’t have to worry about meals, and they don’t have to worry about transportation, they only have one thing to worry about, get here and be happy that you’re here and give everything that you can to your job and to the brand that you’re representing. How do you keep that in your mind, in the forefront of your mind so consciously, that there’s like a lesson, or a trick, or a tip that we could share?
Particularly because we are our businesses’ customer support, it’s a very difficult job.No one comes to you, as a customer support agent, or as a customer support organization to tell you how great you’re doing, right? Everyone reaches out to a company to complain. So from the beginning, you’re already starting with a difficult conundrum or a difficult problem that you have to solve. And because this is a people business, we have arrived at the conclusion that if your team is not happy or passionate about what they’re doing, it will be translating into a negative customer experience. We have to start with the people. And we have to start with ensuring that you are valuing your employees, not just for what they do, but for who they are. They’re human beings. In an age where we’re talking a lot about chatbots, and artificial intelligence, at the end of the day, we all want to have that human connection with the brands that we buy from. Hiring passionate people and supporting their success and growth, deeply caring about their growth, and what they bring to the table as human beings is very important, because that will translate into an amazing customer experience. And an amazing customer experience, bringing it back to profit, translates into a higher revenue generating opportunity for each brand that we work with. So it’s all about ensuring that our employees are set up for success from day one.
If you ask me, what doesn’t let me sleep at night, it’s ensuring that our culture stays intact as we continue growing and scaling the business. We’re trying to build a movement here where all of our employees can reach their success in whatever way they define success, that they can continue growing, they can continue learning and feeling valued is very important. I think that when you think about creating a culture that is centered around your people, you will see positive results long term. Our offices are bright, there’s neon signs. There’s no dress code, and I think that adds a lot of value because having the right energy to provide customers support is critical. That was, I think, a very cool moment for me to see how, how happy the employees were when I was talking to them. I try to be as approachable as I can to every single employee in the organization, we use slack as a communication tool. We organize a lot of different activities where I am participating, a lot just to ensure that they know that I’m there for them and for their growth. We’re always trying to find ways to grow our people, so that they continue finding their path within our organization. We have the benefit that we work with a lot of mission driven companies. If you’re interested in working in, in hospitality, or if you’re interested in working in a company that gives back right, you have that opportunity to find that niche, because we work with 40 different companies at the moment, and they’re all very different, right? So I think that finding your niche, or ratio is is very, very easy. Because of the variety, a diversity of clients we work with,
Keeping culture alive, remotely
Help me understand how you were able to pivot with such a strong internal culture, with a great office location, with everybody coming and eating together and so on in this great open environment, how were you able to pivot? And stay home in lock down in order to quarantine? How did you maintain that culture?
That is our biggest challenge during the pandemic. Exactly what you asked, how to maintain the culture from a remote environment. I think I attribute that to our management team. I think our country manager did an amazing job in keeping the culture intact throughout a remote work environment. She’s phenomenal. She came up with a lot of interesting activities for us to all do remotely, whether it was icebreaker, happy hours, where we send care packages to all our team members to their homes, through Uber Eats and crack some jokes on Friday evenings when the whole world is on lockdown. I think we had a lot of fun trivia games, we also provide a lot of ongoing training to all of our employees in a virtual setting. I think that that was a big undertaking for all of us. But I think we were lucky enough, I think everyone was extremely happy that they were able to keep their jobs.
I think that also getting creative around how to stay people centric, in a remote environment was our biggest challenge. I think that we were able to overcome that by getting very creative and doing very cool activities for all of them. I think that our clients also participated. So it was really cool. For us to set happy hours with our employees, between our clients and their team members. We work with a pet food delivery company, I remember the icebreaker was really, really fun, because it was it was all about showing a picture of their favorite moment, right. And I think we all shared experiences that really shaped us as human beings. That was a very emotional, icebreaker moment for all of us.
What is a brand?
That’s great. Certainly a big hurdle for everyone to overcome. How would you describe a strong brand, just in general terms?
There’s a couple ways in which you can think about a strong brand. I think from a brand equity standpoint it is all about having that unique client base that has that loyal following. We work with a lot of subscription businesses. The success of most subscription businesses is actually creating a loyal following that understands your value proposition and wants to keep coming back for more. I think that having the combination of a good product and a good added value proposition, whether it’s through marketing, or through Customer service is the way in which you can create brand value and equity and continue growing your client base is customer experience, good to have or indeed to have, in our opinion, customer experiences is a need to have. I think that a lot of brands spend a lot of time and money investing in their actual brand image and identity. They pay very little attention to customer experience. It’s something that they end up thinking about once the company is overwhelmed and with a huge backlog of customer support inquiries. There’s a lot of ways in which you can augment your customer experience offering by being available across all channels. I think that the today’s consumer is very needy and wants a very quick response. And I think that being available across chat, text, social phone is critical. A lot of brands see customer experience as a cost center instead of as a revenue generating opportunity. We’ve spent a lot of time educating the brands that we work with, to use and leverage omni-channel customer support to drive revenue and to do a lot of upselling. For example, if you go on a website and you’re about to purchase a product, it would make a big difference if you have someone chatting and answering any questions you may have. The amount of people that abandoned carts just because they don’t have the support right there to answer their question is exponential. And I think that that translates across all channels. If you send a message through an email, and the brand takes more than 24 hours to get back to you, what are you going to do? You’re probably going to reach out to them on social and your data will probably affect your reputation. You have to understand that millennials in particular, and the generations that come after this generation are very impatient. They want to get their answer fast. And if they don’t get their answer quickly, they will reach out to you however they want to. I think you don’t want to have that negative customer experience where you don’t answer to a customer inquiry within 24 to 48 hours. And that customer angrily writes a negative post about your brand on social media. So I think that you should think about customer experience, not only to protect your reputation, right, but also increase both brand awareness and revenue.
Measurement of squishy things
You know, when you say things like that brand awareness and revenue, and all of these important things to drive value, how do you measure them? Because I can’t imagine three finance guys coming from Wall Street don’t have incredible metrics around squishy things that are difficult to measure. So let’s share some really good knowledge on how we measure some squishy things.
It’s our secret sauce. But we do think a lot about ways in which we can drive additional revenue opportunities for all of our clients. I think it all depends on the client. All clients have different metrics that we look for. In general, the biggest metrics that we look into our CSR, which is the client satisfaction score, which is based on a scale five, striving to be above 4.8 is very important. There’s a lot of factors that go into mastering the CSR, it all depends on the brand as well. I think it’s a combination of getting back to the customers in a timely manner. So looking at those first response times across different channels. Are you adequately staffed to answer all of your customer inquiries? A lot of brands try, they struggle to do this. And they always are trying to play catch up. With COVID, we had a lot of those issues, because there were a lot of shipping delays, there were less people in the shipping facilities. I am sure that you both experienced this when you purchase your holiday shopping, most of those packages didn’t arrive in time for the holidays. I think that it’s all about educating your customer, creating the right responses to keep them coming back, from wanting to be also understanding of your problems. I think there’s a way to quantify success. But there’s also a qualitative aspect of customer support. Striking that right balance is very important. Because at the end of the day, if you respond to a customer in a timely manner, but you don’t fix it or address their problem, and you sound like you use the canned response or you used a macro that really didn’t address your concern or your problem, then that’s going to come back to the team. That’s going to come back as a question. You want to be able to measure a very reasonable first response time, but also ensure that you’re actually answering the question, because otherwise it’s going to come back. So understanding cset first response time and also the qualitative piece of the puzzle, which is that you address the question and you fix the issue.
I never want you expose your secret sauce. But I believe that you really did answer the question in a way that people can understand, what’s actually important to measure. I appreciate you sharing as much as you have. Can you tell me a little bit, why the name Horatio? Where did that come from?
Yes, it’s a funny story. I used to live on Horatio street in New York. And that’s where we came up with the idea. We wanted to also find a different and unique name. Horatio was a character in Hamlet. And we want it to always convey that message of trust. Actually, Horatiowas Hamlet’s only trusted friend in the play, the only one that never betrayed him. And that was always by his side. And it felt very appropriate for us to name Horatio.
Core values = client values
That’s great. What is one must have trait for a purpose champion, a set of core values. Why is that important?
I think having a set of core values is very important for any organization and also as a human being, you have to have the right workout. To be able to say no, when potential opportunities arise that are not in line with your core values, or your ethical and moral values. I think that being true to who you are, and understanding when to say no, when situations arise that are not in line with what you believe in as a human, and your broader goals for your organization. For me, the way I think about this is, is my team going to be happy doing this function, and are we going to be able to maintain the culture that we set out to maintain at Horatio, and I think that that is something that is very important for us. Because the way that we think about working with our clients is as a partnership, and I think that being able to align our values to all the clients that we work with is very important. That’s why we spent a lot of time trying to find the right fit for each of our employees to represent the clients that they work with. And I think that’s very important.
Values Dictate Culture
You’ll get no argument from me because to me core values are, it’s important to understand your purpose, and the impact in the world that you want to see, and the cause that you’re dedicated to. However, if you don’t understand the direct correlation, and you can’t articulate or translate your moral and ethics into things that you value, so that people can truly understand your boundaries, it’s very difficult to stay on track. So I wholeheartedly support that.
When it comes to values, this takes me back to one of our first classes in Business School, which was a class by Professor Paul Ingram, which was centered around leadership and organizational behavior, and how the values of your leadership team basically dictates how the organizational culture and the ethical decision making process takes place within your organization. We did an exercise that we had to write on a place card, what our core values were. I think that it’s funny because I share the same values with my partners, but it was all centered around, what kind of culture you want it to build out. A lot of these values are pretty common,pretty obvious. But I think that writing them down on a piece of paper was very important for us, because it’s Horatio, we’re all about integrity. We’re all about teamwork. But we’re also all about making the right ethical decisions and having accountability and commitment to our clients. Weset very high standards for all our team members to follow. But I think that we also spent a lot of time getting the buy in from the rest of the management team to ensure that they are carrying those core values across the entire organization. And I think that has been a very important part of our success.
I definitely want to meet Professor Paul Ingram, because I’m sure we have a lot in common, and I’m fascinated to learn a little bit more. Okay, last question. What’s one piece of advice you can give our listeners that will make them a better or more purposeful leader?
The advice I would give would be to never lose sight of your core values and always understand what your long term vision and mission is for your organization. Always think about how you can maintain the highest ethical standards to ensure that you get to that point because, in my opinion, without having the right set of values, and the right set of ethical and moral principles, it’s very hard to achieve success in any organization that you’re going to be leading.
It’s incredible how aligned we really are. And coming from different walks of life, different ends of the earth and purpose just connects and unites us all. And I really appreciate you taking the time.
Thank you and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today as well.
Jose’s approach really reminds me of Tony Hsieh of Zappos. Take care of your teams because your teams are the ones who take care of your customers. For Jose, his employees are the face of the brands they represent. And Jose’s values drive him to be the steward of their well-being. When we take care of the people that take care of our customers. It’s the ultimate win when Jose has the added purpose of providing job opportunities in his home country, the Dominican Republic. We can talk about values and purpose 24/7, but when you see someone like Jose literally living them out loud and reaping the success and experiencing hypergrowth, we learn the true lessons of how purpose drives profit.
I’m Fran Biderman-Gross. See you next time on Drive profit with purpose. If you’re a leader, or aspiring leader absorb all the experiences and insights you can subscribe to this podcast right now to uncover the purpose driven world we live in to unlock purpose and profit.