Taking half a day out of the business every month to consider all our opportunities in the context of what we’re trying to achieve, helps make me most productive.
Throughout all of Lee Evan’s career, he has sought out entrepreneurial activities and honed his skills as a savvy businessman to consult on corporate deal making, ultimately using his experiences to launch his latest venture, SurveyMe, in May of 2014. From its humble beginning of a spare-bedroom startup, SurveyMe has since grown to incorporate businesses in more than 130 countries. Lee’s vision for SurveyMe was born out of his own success, listening to his customers as he developed Bear Factory Ireland, later acquired by Build-a-Bear Inc., into a plush retailer with $4.5 million in sales within 18 months. By empowering businesses with a means of integrating real-time customer feedback, Lee proves his commitment to returning power to consumers and assisting organizations in the pursuit of their own small business success.
Prior to SurveyMe, Lee worked at Grant Thornton where he advised on corporate mergers and acquisitions worth more than $232 million as well as working mergers and acquisitions for Glanbia PLC in Ireland, the world’s largest multinational dairy company. While studying for his MBA in retail from The University of Stirling, Lee worked for Cisco Systems managing a team of 12 across 78 emerging market countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Where did the idea for SurveyMe come from?
The genesis of the idea came 11 years ago when I was growing my retail business from a startup to reach $5m sales within 12 months. The concept relied on entertaining guests and giving them an awesome experience. The concept was highly successful because of the speed with which I could both listen to guest feedback and take action to incorporate it into the concept delivery. As the number of stores and employees grew, I naturally became more removed from the sales floor and wanted a way of reconnecting, in real-time, to listen to customers and reward them for helping me improve the experience. Years later, having sold the retail business, I was advising some businesses who were in financial trouble. Essentially, each of the businesses were failing because they had not kept up to date on what their customers and employees valued about doing business with them. At the same time, the iPhone had just been launched. While few people had an iPhone at the time, I had a vision that by 2013 ‘everyone would have one’ and if we could develop an app, it would potentially help every business decision-maker run their business more efficiently, more profitably and more successfully.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
It depends on where in the world I am. SurveyMe has now reached 141 countries. We’ve literally learned to anticipate that new opportunities can happen at any time and from anywhere. Typically, I will be awake about 6 am and catch up on what’s happened elsewhere in the world and what great ideas have emerged from within our team as well. Every morning, I can see anywhere in the world were the SurveyMe app is being used via a heat map, and it excites me when I see the world glowing because I know it means what we’ve created is having a positive impact on businesses and making their lives easier.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I bring my ideas to life by listening. When I started SurveyMe, I wanted to create a solution to a very real problem businesses everywhere were facing. I want to know what will make our clients’ lives easier, and every month I go and sit on a mountain somewhere quiet for half a day and I translate all those ideas into a vision for what they really want and what might be achievable. Our very clever development operation and marketing teams then take the vision and try to look a bit further into what clients want. Listen to the problems occurring around you; often times, the market will tell you what it needs to thrive. Being the answer to that problem is one of the best ways to bring an idea to life because the customer already exists.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Rewarding real-time feedback using mobile phone apps. Advances in mobile technology and concepts like elasticsearch makes collecting real-time feedback and deriving answers to make good business decisions, accessible and affordable for every business.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Taking half a day out of the business every month to consider all our opportunities in the context of what we’re trying to achieve, helps make me most productive. This habit has allowed us to constantly refocus our efforts and stay true to the original mission of SurveyMe.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I’ve done some pretty awful jobs to fund SurveyMe before we got seed investment. The worst was probably running a market stall when the town planners decided to allow some big shops to open next to the market which had operated for over 100 years. Overnight the new stores practically destroyed all the little traders. I really loved engaging with customers but it was tough setting up at 5 am in the dark and freezing cold and rain, trading for 12 hours and often not making enough to cover your outgoings. For me, there was always SurveyMe in the back of my mind. It was a great lesson in listening to what your customers want and recognising things can change in real-time if you’re not on top of what they value about doing business with you.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
We operate in a very fast-moving tech space. I think in the early days I was too willing to listen to too many people’s opinions about what could or could not be achieved. As a person, I am very resilient and focused but there were too many times when I trusted people who ultimately did not deliver instead of relying on my own convictions and a belief that if it can be expressed logically then it can be created.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Always ask your consumers what they want. Never forget that launching an idea without asking your customers objectively what they think before you launch it, is like running a bathtub without first putting in the plug. As an entrepreneur, it is vital to constantly have a finger to the pulse of your consumer base, as the old saying goes ‘give the people what they want.’
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Quite simple listen to your existing customers. I cannot say it enough. They’re the lifeblood of any business. There’s a ‘must have experience’ reason why they do business with you and if you continuously know what that is then you will have a profitable sustainable business. Too many businesses focus on spending lots of money to win new customers instead of listening to their existing customers.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Within 12 months, my retail business in Ireland had gone from me sitting in a park on a bench with a prototype product to a point where we had five stores, 100 employees, and I was reading articles in the media praising me for my vision. I believed the hype so much so that we produced a special edition of the product. It was the big idea that was going to make me a millionaire from sales to people who were in town for a week-long event. I was so convinced that I had a winner, I never bothered asking my existing customers if they thought the product was a good idea. Instead it was a disaster and I came within hours of losing everything I had built up. The product had a finite shelf life and literally, I had two hours to shift 9,500 of them, whereas we’d only sold 500 in the previous 60 days. Even discounted by 500 percent, we couldn’t sell them from our usual retail outlets. Faced with a full warehouse and financial meltdown, I borrowed every delivery van I knew of we took all the stock to the one place (the end of event convention) where all our potential (new) customers would later be congregated on the last day and we started giving them free to anyone who showed up early. Soon, we had hundreds of people walking around carrying our product. They did our advertising for us. When the crowds arrived later it was the ‘must have experience’ for everyone and we couldn’t keep up with demand. For an hour we told people stocks were limited and that they could only buy one if they joined the chain and helped deliver them! So at one point we had a chain of dozens of people passing boxes of the product from the delivery vans to the market stall from where we were selling them. We had them sing songs while they passed boxes and this not only generated a lot of activity but a lot of noise and excitement to the point where people who reached the front of the queue were buying the products in their dozens each. The national television crew who were filming the main event live even got involved in the excitement and suddenly people were receiving calls from friends who weren’t even there to ask them to get them one. The fun continued hours after the final event had finished and we sold every product. It’s the last time I ever believed my own business hype and didn’t get feedback before launching a new product.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Globally, around 22% of adults suffer from some form of Tinnitus and roughly 49 million people in the North America and the UK. Of these 17 million suffer from Tinnitus with continuous ringing, hissing, or whistling or popping noises in their ears. Tinnitus is a highly personalised condition that can affect one or both ears to different noise levels. There is no solution. At the same time, smart phone penetration is already >80% of the total North American population. At the moment, there is only a one-size-fits-all solution to soothe Tinnitus and that is to play soothing sounds like running water. Given the advances in mobile apps and music mixing delivered via smart phones, I think there is an enormous market for someone to develop an app that enables individuals to listen to their music with a mask personalised to their Tinnitus condition, which would also improve the quality of life for millions of people.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
My wife and I recently made a trip to watch the sunrise over Hale’a’kela on Maui and then bicycle back down the volcano. Witnessing the sky turn from a star-filled darkness and the kaleidoscope of colours that followed was truly awe-inspiring and made me appreciate that every day we are alive on this planet is a day to be celebrated and an opportunity to achieve something positive.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Our business now operates across the world. We believe that in only a few years email may be as obsolete as the fax machine now and I think one of those mobile technologies that might get us there is Hipchat where you can create your own personal forums to share ideas. It works for every department in our business and particularly when I’ve had a busy day I use the Hipchat app daily to check in on what our development teams are working on and see how our sales teams internationally are collaborating.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Getting Everything You Can Out Of All You’ve Got: What to Do When Times Are Tough’ by Jay Abraham. It’s the ultimate self-help guide for the motivated entrepreneur and it’s literally crammed with leverage ideas.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I’m often asked who has influenced me most and it’s an unusual one because he’s not well known, I have never met him and yet he has had the biggest influence on my life. He’s a guy called Lord J Arthur Rank. He was the visionary behind many successful industries like (Rank Xerox) photocopiers, the British film industry, and wholemeal (Hovis) bread. Although he lived in the 20th century he was a true Victorian philanthropist in the way the Bill Gates Foundation might be understood these days. Lord Rank built houses for his employees in poor areas with no expectation of a financial return, he gained their lifelong loyalty. One of the greatest things he did was anonymously sponsor 1,300 talented children from underprivileged backgrounds. I was one of those children and though we have never personally met, the opportunities his generosity gave me were life-changing. Such was the altruistic nature of the philanthropy, the Rank Foundation has only ever found 400 of us. The Foundation continues to this day and those who have benefited from its support have formed the Rank Fellowship. Like Lord Rank, the Rank Fellows go about their ordinary lives helping people achieve extraordinary things every day. It’s a bit of personal pleasure to know that I’ve helped hundreds of people break through the glass ceiling and achieve things that would have been denied to them by their social background.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.