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Anthony: Welcome folks, to this episode of the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. My name is Anthony Taylor. I'm super excited to be joined by my guest today, Mo Hamzian, who is the CEO at VEL. Mo, how's it going today?
Mo: Yeah, very good. Thanks very much, Anthony. Excited to be here.
Anthony: Awesome. I'm excited. I love your art in the background, and the stupidest thing went through my head when I saw it. I'm like, Oh my gosh, he's got NF T's in real life. It was the most millennial dumb thing I've ever said to myself, but they're cool art. So if you haven't yet, be sure to check us out on YouTube to see the background of Mo, but Mo, where you calling from? And you know, what's exciting in the life these days?
Mo: Yeah, first of all, let me touch them. So you know, they're not NFTs. These are real. The workplace has changed so much, we spend so much time behind Zoom. And the rear view camera behind you - I spend more time looking at it than my than the people I speak with, right? Because I see them once a month, twice a month, whatever it is. So I said, I want something curious behind me something that's going to be uplifting, not taking myself too seriously. I found this artist and then my family actually had some fun - we all chose our own kind of cat caricatures impersonations, and then that's where you are.
But right now I'm in Northeast Florida, actually a small place, which is very nice, very symbolic that you can create small and great things from wherever you are. So I'm in a small town with maybe 10,000 people. But we're doing some really interesting stuff, my team and I.
Anthony: Cool and your background? What got you to this point, what kind of ventures businesses, things have kept you busy over the past few years?
Mo: Yeah, so I started really working in the 1990s. And when I started working, entrepreneurship wasn't a thing yet - it hadn't happened. It was kind of your business plan and or a merchant or something like that. So I fell into real estate by accident, made some money. I thought 'gosh I'm really good at this', and had some luck along the way. And in real estate, you grow, you get more sophisticated, I was on the new build side in England.
And then fell into manufacturing and consulting, and little bit of private equity. Private equity took me to the world of retail, and I suddenly realized, 'gosh, isn't it nice to sell to the customer directly'. This idea of customer experience, I kind of romanticized it for the time, being behind the scenes as a real estate guy or an industrialist. But because of that experience of seven or eight years, I realized I really enjoy innovating product, and then selling it to the customer. That engagement or that relationship is very special. It may not be there if you're producing alloy wheels and sending it to car manufacturer, for instance. So I did that for a while.
Then I decided in my late 30s, which was a scary decision, that actually I have some real blind spots here. I've traversed life and entrepreneurship, by series of really good accidents. But I've never thought 'this is the direction, this is the tactics, this is a long term vision'. And partly because you come from a place whereby mentorship wasn't really there. Infrastructure wasn't really there for entrepreneurs as it is today. Silicon Valley wasn't a real thing in the late 90s. And so I said, the best thing to do is to go to business school, and upgrade some of those software/firmware inside yourself. So I did that - best thing ever. It taught me vision, strategy, leadership. It actually taught me most of all depend on what you don't know, and fill the gaps. And then that was 2015.
A couple of years after that, something called Brexit happened in my home home country, and that divorce with Europe - I was slightly allergic to it. And I knew that there was going to be some economic headwinds coming to the UK. And we had a foot in the US anyway. And I said let's try it here. And you know, migrating countries is the most imperfect decision you can make in your life, even in a transparent marketplace. But retrospectively a great one, and I've been here since 2017. And I love it.
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Anthony: Awesome. I love that. Well, let me take try to take a culmination question here. So we talked about your your cool paintings in the background, we talked about entrepreneurship, we talked about leadership being something that you care about. What is your perspective on the intermingling of entrepreneurship and personality, and why it's important in the marketplace? What would you say?
Mo: Well, entrepreneurship, first of all, let me qualify is one of the most least glamorous things you can do. It's not like flying of private jet, it's like going through the main airport. You have to take the shoes off your socks off, it's painful. There's a lot of sandpaper involved and it's a very long road, you better have some stamina. When I help out the people 15, 20 years behind me, I make sure they know that it's a five to seven year journey.
So sometimes, good entrepreneurs just don't know any better. And there are other things, there are other disciplines like intrapreneurship, where you can have that discipline within a Series A or A Series B. Or even corporate, where you can exercise the same kind of practices and nuances. But for me, entrepreneurship is this idea of singularly obsessed. With a business I'm involved now, I am sure we talked about it, I recognize the pain point. This light bulb moment came on.. 'Wait a minute, I can do something about this'. I can fix this. And I became emotional and kind of really energized by it. And then I honestly I couldn't sleep for weeks, until I decided how am I going to fix this. Because that's just your cause, that's how you design. So a bit of a Conquistador.
Sometimes you just have to be a little bit of a dog with a bone and realize that you can do it. In entrepreneurship, you have this stubborn side, this outlaw this rebel. It's so nice, because in today's market of entrepreneurship, there are frameworks and so much data out there on what doesn't work. And it mitigates the risk, in case studies - you follow these seven practices, the chances of success for you and your team is more than if you don't. So that's really good.
Anthony: This is my first book on entrepreneurship right here. And it's funny because as an entrepreneur, while there are the frameworks, you want to innovate yourself and say, 'I can do this better'. But really it's all fundamental, you kind of have to make your own mistakes through that. And I find that super interesting. And that's what we take into our leading strategy. Yes, there's a framework, but then you also kind of have to fail through it.
And what I find cool about your approach is that once you have that thing in your mind, you go after it. And entrepreneurship is just a series of failures until you become successful. I think entrepreneurship and innovation are tied closely together, because the only reason you're innovating is because you're trying to create a new outcome. So you just keep going until you get to that outcome that you desire. What are your thoughts on that?
Mo: I do. I think in terms of outcomes, I absolutely agree in terms of outcomes of entrepreneurship, getting this rule of thumb back off the envelope. When you're doing some stress testing earlier on. I always think of it this kind of three plus one model, I didn't come up with this, this is kind of learning from different business schools, etc.
Number one is team, the people. Do you have the resources and capabilities and the know how between you, your co founding team, your advisory team and your board of directors, however small or big you are, to execute the way you think you're going to execute? Because solopreneurs goodness me, it's very risky. You can get sick, get in an argument with your investors, you know, lots of things can happen. And statistically, they get less funded. So you definitely have a good team. And you're going to have to pivot like you said. You're going to fail, you're going to fall flat on your face, you're going to have to learn what it takes as a team to be able to say, 'Let's shift our feet a little bit and look at it this way'. And one of the things I enjoy learning about is removing heuristics. A good team, like you know, will give you that.
The next thing is this product market fit. Is the pain point significant or is it an itch? Because if it's an itch, good luck, your customer is not going to pay what you think they're going to pay because the switching costs are so high in today's marketplace. Then it's this economics of it this business model of it - how you're earning money. Where do you lose money, where do you gain money? Is it a subscription or recurring? Is it defendable? Are margins good? Some of those kind of value engineering under the hood, And then the most important I feel - the rapper, is the trend there? Are you too early or too late? Do you have the wind of change behind you? Some businesses have it and some don't. I mean, Apple is very good at capitalizing on someone else's misfortune, or being second to market.. iPod iPhone, list goes on. Because the trend was there where it wasn't previously, for their competitors.
Anthony: Yeah, I find it interesting. When we do strategic planning, we incorporate a trend analysis. But I thought it was cool when you talk about the winds of change. You saw the writing on the wall for the UK as an example and said 'what are the opportunities here?' What is going to be happening? Am I positioning myself in a place to be successful? And you know, now you're in a 10,000 person town in Florida, with other businesses in the US, which I'm going to ask you about shortly. But it sounds like you surveyed your opportunities, and you made that strategic bet, even into the unknown, to be able to help you accomplish what you want to accomplish moving forward.
Mo: It's true, it's exactly right. With imperfect information. I was 70% sure moving to the US was a good decision. And we went for it as a family. And in the end, it was. It could have not been, and then you would have had to adjust your feet. But you can't get stuck in a moment. And sometimes, sit on your hand is a good strategy. But it's a near term decision.
Anthony: Yeah, I find that some people will avoid making a mistake for fear of the wrong thing. And that's the safe route. I'm not wired that way either. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. So you need to be that intrapreneur, entrepreneur, corporate explorer, as one of our previous guests shared, to be able to help you get to that next place. So as a segue, what is the business? What is VEL? What is keeping you excited over 2022 and beyond?
Mo: Wow, when you say that the back of my hair was kind of standing up. And I do this every day. It's one of those businesses, I kid you not, gets me and my co-founder and CEO up for 4:30/5 o'clock in the morning. And we go till 10:30/11. And we've built such a great team around us. So we're really excited.
So if you and I met in a very quick elevator ride, and asked 'what do you do for a living?' I would say we are the love child of Starbucks. and We Work. We wanted to ask, what does the New Age coffee shop look like? Because coffee shops are great if you want to buy coffee and want to buy a pastry. But if you want to open up your laptop, you want flexible privacy, reservation, you want good acoustics, you want a space that is designed for you to do very good quality work. It doesn't exist. So we think the hybrid workplace is here to stay for either complementing your home office, or because you don't want to commute, or because you don't have an office. The library is no longer around. And millions of Americans spend billions of dollars in food and beverage retail to do good quality work. But it's just not designed that way.
So VEL is, in its first iteration, a tech forward work café that helps you do your best work. Whether it's acoustics, hygiene, lighting, sound quality, reservations, hardware, even having Wi Fi that is better than your Wi Fi at home, more secure than the Wi Fi at home. However, you don't have to travel any further because coffee shops are local, you don't have to spend any more than a normal coffee shop because the average check value of a coffee shop is about $10 per customer. So it's making sure we give all the value metrics of a coffee shop experience. But as if GoPro made a coffee shop, in today's marketplace, a very kind of extreme version of a work café.
Anthony: That's cool. Well again, it goes back thematically, if we look at the winds of change, and what's happening in the marketplace. I always worked in co-working for so long. And the fundamental idea when co-working was new, was here's a third space for you to work from. Just a place to get out of your house to do work or to save money on office space. And what I like that you guys have done is taken that and like distilled the value to say, it's not just a place for you to do work. It's a place for you to do your best work because you recognize the environment matters. What's behind you matters what's around you matters, but also not making it prohibitively expensive like other co-working spaces are.
You've created a really great differentiator niche and environment, and I assert that you know the vibe around the place is really important to support the people in your space being successful.
Mo: Yeah, you said it really well. And co-working, we love it. Co-working is this office replacement, but there's a friction to it. One, it's not local, it's a warehouse solution. Two, it's a membership program. It's exclusive, so there's an encumbrance there. And you pay $300/400 a month for a hot desk, but that's about it. So it definitely doesn't have that inclusive or transactional flexibility of a coffee shop, because anyone can go into a coffee shop.
But coffee shops have huge pain points. Most coffee shops in the US actually prefer you to buy coffee and pastry and leave thanks very much. Because they rely on that. And that's okay, because that's the mandate of a coffee shop. But we're really excited, we've had two fundraisers, both have gone tremendously. We've got some really cool people around us. We're opening shop number one in Savannah, Georgia, with a couple more behind in the pipeline. So good things to come.
Anthony: Excellent. So as we know, the path of an entrepreneur, whether you're an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, an innovator, a disrupter, it is always a new path. And just because you had success in your past ventures does not mean you're going to have success in your future ventures. By the way, I'm just saying generally speaking, not for you. And so I'm curious as to where you sit right now, as of today, what are some of the new challenges that are expanding your brain, that are having you saying 'I haven't solved this yet'. I'm still working through this. I'm evolving. In this iteration of my life and my career and my business, what are the kind of two or three wonders that you still have about what's next for you?
Mo: Yeah, that's really interesting. I think it comes to this idea of culture. What you're trying to create for yourself, your personal manifesto, your businesses vision. At VEL, and in my personal life, because we're a small team and the co founders/senior managers have enormous influence on the culture, we really, truly believe in excellence. We want our customers and us internally to be wanting to win the gold medal. Therefore comes a tremendous amount of sacrifice and commitment to try and win the gold medal in four years time.
Growth is inherent in the startup world, in today's startup world, and scale is also inherent. So being able to grow and scale our value proposition, and get market share and be known for it is tantalizing. I mean, that's our version of the gold medal. So one of those things is to do that, in this in this chapter of life. But at the same time, what we've fallen in love with is product. We love innovating our product.
At the moment, we're kind of exploring this idea of air quality in a coffee shop, and what is our responsibility? Where does it stop? Where does it end? What value engineering metrics can we bring in? What is perception of air quality versus air quality itself? How detailed do we want to get, what budget do we want to allocate to it? And that's just air quality. I mean, I can tell you about door handles, and it's the similar exercise. But I know it's really fun to be doing this with my team and with this product. The winds of change are here, with the workplace changing, so much freelancers, remote work is now a real category. So fun stuff.
Anthony: Awesome. I can tell that you love not just the outcome, but also the process that leads to the outcome. Like the training is fun, because it's in your bones, you just like doing that. So I'm very happy for you. I'm very excited. Sounds like a very, very cool thing. And I look forward to seeing the doors and experiencing the air quality. Next time I'm in Savannah. Just as we finish up today, you know, you've done a lot of education yourself on strategy and leadership - you did your postdoc. What's one thing you want to leave with our listeners, either a guiding principle or a big 'aha' for you as it relates to strategy and leadership for organizations and individuals?
Mo: I mean, for individuals - we have an investor with us called Tom. He's a brilliant mind and has scaled businesses in the past. He always says have the end in mind. And that's so important to know, which direction you want to get to. When I was younger, I did a lot of motor racing, and you will drive where your eyes are. And that's a metaphor for life. Having an eye on the ball is really, really important.
And, you know, the other thing that I would say is rely on good data. That's something that in today's market is quite inexpensive. And then common sense. You'd be surprised how good an internal barometer is, on what feels right, what sounds right, and what decisions you can make around it. And finally, I had a professor, ex-McKinsey, her name is Jessica, and she said follow the money, Mo. And it's really important. In today's marketplace, startups chase valuations, market share, customers, it's important to think about revenue and the bottom line.
Anthony: Absolutely. I love that. Drive where your eyes are, be clear about that outcome. Make sure that you got good data, so do the testing. And of course, follow the money because if there's no money, there's no check, then there's no deal. So I love that. Mo, where can people get a hold of you? Where can they learn more about what you're doing? And where can they see the newest VEL space?
Mo: Yeah so VEL, Savannah, Georgia, with Charleston behind it, and few other cities after that. Find me on LinkedIn. I'm sure it'll be in the show notes. I love connecting with new people. The company's domain is myvel.com. We tried to buy vel.com but the owners wanted three quarters of a million for it. So we said no. And so myvel.com is where the business is at. And our social media handles is workatvel. So you can find us on lots of different places.
Anthony: Awesome. Mo, thank you so much. I appreciate it. It was awesome chatting with you. Ladies and gentlemen, folks, and people, my guest Mo Hamzian is the CEO of VEL. Be sure to check out his space, be sure to check out his art and be sure to follow the money wherever you go.
So thanks so much for watching. My name is Anthony Taylor. This has been the Strategy & Leadership Podcast - appreciate you watching. If you're looking for somebody to help you keep your eyes on the road as it relates to strategy, be sure to reach out to us, we'd be happy to help. So thanks so much for joining us today.
Until next time!