Laurence Marx – CEO and Co-founder of emphasisHR


Entrepreneurship is a constant battle against distraction.

Laurence is CEO and co-founder of emphasisHR and previously co-founded a prominent corporate benefit consulting firm, Global Group. He has turned his passion for entrepreneurship and insatiable hunger to stay in front of the curve into one of the most responsive and imaginative HR outsourcing companies in the market today. Focusing primarily on growth-stage small and mid-sized businesses, Laurence has set out to level the playing field for companies who need great benefits, world-class technology and forward-thinking HR to compete for the best talent. With the belief that growth comes from focus on the “right” things, Laurence delivers a platform that gets entrepreneurs out of the back-office and back in the driver seat.

Where did the idea for Emphasis come from?

I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was a child. One thing that was made crystal clear is that I could not do it all. Even painting addresses on curbs, which hundreds of kids used to do informally for summer work, I turned into a business – one that grew slowly when I was running sales, production, accounting and recruiting, but much faster when I took myself out of the “jack-of-all-trades” role.

Of course, that alone wasn’t the “ah ha” moment for creating a human resources outsourcing company – but it did lay the foundation for a life spend advancing the idea that people should focus on the things that make them great.

Emphasis was formally born as a progression of another business I co-founded, Global Group, Inc, which provides benefits consulting and benefits administrative outsourcing services to mid-sized employers. HR departments’ head-count had been heavily depleted due to budget cuts and it began to be clear that, at least in the small to mid-sized business segments, this trend would continue. At the same time HR departments were shrinking in small business, the demands on all businesses for high level HR where growing exponentially. So I knew if we created a company that could address those complexities – in a more efficient and cost-effective way it would resonate with business owners. It is no coincidence that this entire model hinges on the belief that “jack of all trades” stymies growth and that business will become greater and grow faster when its leader(s) are laser-focused on what makes them great.

Can you describe a typical day and how it flows?

Generally, the first third of my day is spent dealing with employee internal issues. I spend the second part strategizing for our marketing and sales. The third part is devoted to contacts, follow-ups and other touchpoints with clients and prospects, showing them how to bring these big ideas to life. One of the things our clients rave about most is our availability on the phone, and I make sure I’m there when they need me. Sometimes even before they know they need me.

When working with clients, how do you bring the big ideas to life?

It’s equal parts keen observation and persistent creativity. When I say observation, I mean that I keep my eyes open, not only in the client’s sphere of operations, but across their whole industry. I keep an open dialogue to get insights from the client, and I project forward to see where the short- and long-term challenges are.

And that’s where persistent creativity comes into it. We take nothing for granted, accept no assumptions. We’re whiteboarding and implementing new programs and services that may be years ahead of their time—things that our clients aren’t yet ready to consider, let alone buy into. But when the time comes, we’re ahead of the market and ready with an answer the day it’s needed.

What about from an internal point of view? Do you have a brain trust, a board or tap colleagues to help evaluable opportunities?

We have an advisory council that is comprised on clients, industry thought leaders, growth hackers and investors. It is an informal group but it provides invaluable insight. Our clients let us know what is working and what needs improvements, thought leaders help keep our compass pointed toward “progressive” and our investor advisors help us understand how our approach to HR Outsourcing can help clients get that next round of funding.

Name a trend, in your industry or another industry, that currently really excites you?
For many years, the “old boy network” or the golf-buddy ruled the business services space. It didn’t matter what services or solutions an organization brought to the table, most business owners or leaders chose their vendor/consulting partners based on a relationship mainly valued by two parts friendship and one part trust.

While trust was, is and always will be a bedrock part of vendor/consultant selection. What started about 10-12 years ago and has really accelerated in recent years is that more value is being put on solutions and the ability to challenge the status quo ways of the “old guard”. For a firm that brings extreme value and lives by challenging the status quo, this is a very welcomed trend.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurship is a constant battle against distraction. Marketing, sales, employee and HR issues, accounting—you name it, there’s always a fire to put out. So my best answer is waking up at 4:45 in the morning and riding my bike for an hour, which is a great way to collect my thoughts—that leaves me about two hours of administrative coverage and time to think, so I’m ready for the employees, clients, kids and family that all need me later in the morning.

What is one of the worst jobs you’ve ever had and what do you think you learned from it?

I’m a positive mental attitude kind of guy. The old saying, “Attitude controls your altitude,” is how I have always viewed jobs. So I can’t answer about worst job but I can answer about hardest job – which was as a masonry laborer. I’ve always respected hard working people, my father was the hardest working I know. But until you have worked a heavy labor job in the summer heat, you couldn’t possibly respect enough the people who get up and perform those jobs day in and day out, and still find a smile to show their kids when they get home.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

We teach business owners to “let go” of certain no core duties so they can focus on more strategic, growth-oriented work. It’s a big idea but worth it in the end. That line of thinking, however, transcends HR outsourcing – it applies to finance too. Like many entrepreneurs I have my “comfort zones” too. If I were to start over I would leverage capital markets sooner to scale ideas faster.

As an entrepreneur, what’s your top piece of advice for others

Remember that, at its core, entrepreneurship is a game—and I mean that in several ways. It’s all-consuming and sometimes it’s a pain in the neck, but for an entrepreneur, you keep coming back to play some more. But like any game, it’s also important to know when to take a break—enjoy the off-season, if you will. Otherwise it can eat you up.

Can you name one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

When you’re one David up against a bunch Goliaths, you need a really killer sling. For us, that’s consulting. For a boutique like Emphasis, that means competing on the same field, in the same services and benefits as the global firms, but with the personal touch that they don’t—can’t—offer. We pluck talent from the big firms, and help them grow into consultants for our clients. All the brains, and a little more heart. That’s the key to competing with the big firms.

Can you share some significant failures you’ve overcome?

Oh, certainly. We whiteboarded a new idea for a company called Benefit Me, which was to be a web-based, concierge-style insurance company selling individual policies to employees unloaded from work plans, which was happening because of the Affordable Care Act.

It never got off the ground because we simply didn’t have the bandwidth to launch it. Now, five years later, we see the same concept successfully executed in several other places. That’s one I’d really like to have back. But at the same time, putting those resources into other parts of our business has paid some pretty big dividends too, so when I say we’ve “overcome” the failure, I mean that events still played out in our favor, just not in that direction.

Is there a business idea that you are willing to give away?

I have owned for 16 years now. It’s for creating video resumes and interactive interviews for employers who want to prescreen candidates. The idea was to create a universal platform to simplify matters for the employer and dispense with those standard “name your top three strengths” questions for candidates. This was a killer idea back in 2000, and even now there are only a few alternatives that even do something like it, but there still is nothing close to a universal standard. I still think that it’s a viable opportunity for someone who wants to pursue it.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

A set of youth golf clubs for my son. Since we’re all too busy to golf during the week, and because weekends are family time, this means I can enjoy a round and spend quality time with my son, too.

What technology can’t you live without?

I use Outlook, in part because its mobile app syncs your calendar and also because it splits your inbox between “focused” and “other,” and intelligently presorts incoming messages based on your history. I’d say it’s about 95 percent accurate, and since I get 250 emails a day, it’s a total life-saver. Apart from that, I’m big on Apple Pay, Uber and a software called Mint that aggregates banking information.

What’s one of your favorite books right now?

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, because it really digs into what makes successful people successful. And it’s not just brains.

What people have influenced your thinking?

Simon Sinek, because of his insights on leadership, and Jason Dorsey due to his amazing grasp of the Millennial mindset.


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