Todd Skokan of BirdDog HR Shares with Inaugural Gathering of Accelerate DSM
"We are a little different than the typical startup. We are a 20-year-old company, but we like to refer to ourselves as a three-year new organization," explained Todd Skokan, CEO of BirdDog HR. He was the after lunch interviewee at the May iteration of Startup Stories, which this month folded into the inaugural session of Accelerate DSM. Skokan took questions from Square One DSM Executive Director Mike Colwell, as well as from the 200 plus attendees of the day-long collaboration of numerous Greater Des Moines (DSM) programs and initiatives focused on fueling the local startup community. He shared his perspective as CEO of a company that re-envisioned and rebuilt itself 17 years out from its founding.
History of BirdDog HR
BirdDog HR is a software as a service company providing human resource capital management tools to businesses in high consequence, high compliance vertical markets. They recruited Skokan to occupy the CEO chair ahead of the transformation that has led to multiple awards, nominations and recognition for the company as well as being named to the Inc. 5,000 List of Fastest Growing companies.
From that perspective, in conversation with Colwell, Skokan shared multiple insights.
A devotee and promoter of servant leadership, the topic was woven through Skokan's comments. "To me servant leadership is all about honesty, transparency and communication. It is really treating others as you would want to be treated. It is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals and builds better organizations," he explained. He added that it is not only practiced within BirdDog HR, but is integral to the support they deliver their clients. They work to provide a full suite of life cycle management, from recruitment through engagement and retention.
Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan
I know it is trite, and sounds real simple, but sometimes we get distracted," he said of the pressures that can drive a company down one-off paths that may address limited client requests but obscure the ultimate goal. "Stick to the business model. I built a transition plan for this company which has been validated and we continue to operate under it, and it has been instrumental when it came to fundraising."
With 53 percent revenue growth from 2013 to 2014, and a staff growth from 17 to 53, Skokan is well positioned to discuss scaling. "The first thing that I would recommend, and the first thing we did at BirdDog HR, was to establish a client advisory committee." Bringing together various sized clients from multiple industries not only builds those relationships but provides a validation of your resistance when investors or potential clients are steering you towards development of a product for which there is insufficient market demand. "In fact, you can even have a client make those calls (explaining why the product development isn't justified) for you," he noted.
The Sales Model/Force
"Sales is probably the highest paying profession for which there is no available college degree," observed Colwell when introducing Skokan, whose pre-BirdDog HR career included several VP of Sales positions. Both agreed that it is too often a rare skill among entrepreneurs where it is doubly necessary not only to sell the product, but initially to sell the concept and themselves to investors. Responding to the "how do I hire a good salesperson?" question, Skokan was to the point, "Nothing replaces somebody who has a history of being a hard worker." Expanding on that he said more can be learned from the interview process than the resume. "I look for their engagement, and the questions they ask me. If they don't have any questions for me, how are they going to interview and assess the needs of the client." He concluded that if they could not sell themselves to him, how could they sell the product, whatever it might be.
In addition to their in-house sales force, BirdDog HR has made extensive use of a sales model involving their relationships with associations that serve as sources of referrals. He cited as an example their relationship with the Association of General Contractors, who represent one of their largest vertical markets; commercial construction. "One of the things I have found over and over in my sales positions is that the way to grow is to get more feet on the street without you having to pay for it," he shared. These associations become your credibility and your warm referral, with the ready-made relationship with the clients you seek. Now partnered with 36 associations, those partnership referrals represented one half of the 2015 BirdDog HR revenue.
Along similar lines, BirdDog HR is now venturing into its first relationship with a reseller. "We picked this particular reseller because they have 1100 customers with existing relationships as they walk in the door." You have to do the math Skokan offers, know the cost of sales from your own sales force, contrast that to other means at your disposal and find the right and profitable combination. Of course it helps to have the math skills of a multiple award winning CEO.