Startup Savants Podcast: Interview with Steve Edwards, Founder of Premier Virtual
Startup Savants is a business podcast series devoted to helping aspiring entrepreneurs and startup enthusiasts by bringing them the latest news, insights, and stories about startups and their founders. The guest for this episode is Steve Edwards, founder and CEO, who spoke with hosts Annaka Voss and Ethan Peyton about his recruitment SaaS company Premier Virtual.
Steve has gone from being a paratrooper and sales manager to heading a software company. His company’s platform is designed for companies that put on job fairs, trade exhibitions, and other events through the cloud. Tune in to hear about the startups that are making waves and rocking the boat.
You founded Premier Virtual – what business skill you possessed gave you the assurance you could make a go of it?
“I was always in sales, but I worked for a company that did outside sales … My markets were in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Texas. And I would go in, and I would build a sales team for the organizations that we had. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were our clients.”
How did this sales job lead into recruitment?
“How do you build a sales team? Job boards and job fairs. So I attended job fairs on a weekly basis … But fast forward four years later, the company shut down the division I was in, and I didn’t want to knock doors and I didn’t want to be in retail sales … There was a company that I knew based out of New Jersey that they do a really efficient type of job fair. It’s in the evening, it’s geared towards sales companies, and you do a presentation format. So, I would speak in front of all the candidates before the job fair, so it drove the right candidates to me … ‘We’ll reach out to the guy up there, and we’ll partner with him.’ So, that’s essentially what we did. We bought a license agreement from the Southeast all the way out to Texas and Arizona.”
So you ran in-person job fairs for about nine years – what made you pivot to a virtual modus operandi?
“2017, started to see a huge decline in job fairs. People would rather apply online than wait in line. So, when people stopped coming to job fairs, companies didn’t want to pay me anymore. At this point in my life, I got a young son, newly married, and I’m like, ‘I got to do something to make money.’ Found out about virtual career fairs, started doing virtual career fairs. The company up in Jersey wanted nothing to do with virtual job fairs … December of 2018, I announced I’m going all virtual, no more in-person job fairs.”
A virtual MO requires software. What software did you use?
“I was using another platform out there, and it wasn’t good because there wasn’t really a lot of platforms out there, and my clients wanted more. So, I built my own platform. Now I’m not a software developer. I’m not a tech guy. I’m a sales guy. I look like, talk like, smell like a sales guy. You know I’m trying to sell you something when I get on the phone with you. So, I had to get a development team to come in and build software for myself and my business partner.”
You had pivoted from in-person hosting to virtual hosting. But you pivoted again?
“So just like any good salesperson out there, we’re getting the software. It’s almost complete, and I have a client say, ‘Can you do this, this, and this?’… Then I had to call my development team and say, “Yeah, I just told somebody we can do this. We need to change our software.” So, we had to add all these things on. So get to August of 2019, and I said, ‘I don’t want to put on job fairs anymore … I want to now license my software so that organizations can do their own events’ … So then, we had to change our software even more. We launched, we took our first client January of 2020.”
Paradoxically, the pandemic brought good fortune, right?
‘COVID was a catalyst, and it showed everybody how efficient virtual events were from a trade show aspect to a career fair aspect. And, mainly 90% of our business are career fairs because that’s really what we knew, and that’s our advertising, the trade show, the virtual stuff, but I like to say our platform is the Three Es: easy to use, effective, and efficient. And, that’s what the world really saw, and that’s how we got to where we’re at, rated as one of the top virtual platforms out there.”
Walk us through the main features of the platform.
“Imagine back in the day you used to have to go into a conference room or a hotel, and you would be standing there. You got your resume. You got your suit on or your dress on, you just spent time in traffic to get there, and you go and you wait in line to talk to a recruiter.
Now you don’t know what jobs they have. You don’t know what their company really does … You hand them your resume … ‘What kind of jobs are you looking for?’ ‘I’m a salesperson.’ ‘Sorry, I’m looking for an accountant.’ My head goes down, I walk to the next one.
Here’s what virtual does for you: You get out of bed, you maybe throw a shirt on … you log in to your computer. You created your profile. In your profile, you created a video resume of yourself. You asked some basic questions: Who are you? What do you do? Why should people hire you? You create your profile. You put all of your experiences in there.
So, now you see the logo of the company and the name. You click on that. The first thing you do is you click ‘About Us,’ and you see what does the company do … if I’m excited about that company, now I can see their jobs. These are some good jobs. I like this job. I’m going to submit my resume to this company. This is a really good company with a really good background. Maybe I want to tailor my resume specifically for that. I can do that through my platform. Where most job fairs, here’s one generic resume that you have. Here, you can tailor it specifically for that. Then, what is the next thing a candidate wants to do after they see what a company does and what jobs they have?
They maybe want to research that company. Is it the right culture for them? Is it the right fit? Are they in the news? All of that is in our platform. So they can look at their social media, they can look at their website, they can look at it all right in the platform. And then, they can chat with them and go right into a video interview in a matter of seconds. There’s no in line. There’s no long queue that says, “In 45 minutes, you can talk to somebody.” No, you can go right in, see what they do, submit your resume, talk to that company immediately, and get into a video interview.
We have a thing called the ‘My Journey.’ When you go to a job fair, how many candidates out there submit their resume and then write down and say, ‘Here are the companies that I submitted my resume. Here’s who I talked to. Here’s who I said I liked. I want to leave some notes.’
We built all that into the platform so the candidates don’t have to remember anything. They could look at it and say, ‘Here are the 10 companies I talked to. Here are the three that I’m interested in, and here are the four jobs that I submitted my resume to.’ We built all that in. So, you got easy connections with each other and then analytics that are out of this world.’
How can you be sure you’re developing the right UI/UX features?
“When we built our first version of our software, a lot of my clients then were sales clients because that’s really the industry that we were targeting on the job fairs. They wanted things a little bit more basic. So, what we did is we wanted ‘what’s the easiest way for me to connect with you?’ Without waiting in lines, without anything, we want to be able to have it where the candidate can come in and immediately start a conversation. But the organization, as soon as that candidate comes in, can see that candidate. They can click on that candidate’s name and see all the information. Now in our first version of our software, we didn’t have all that, but we took a lot of feedback. We built our platform, and then almost at the end of 2020, we started developing our second version already.
So we had focus groups with all of our clients and said, “What do you like?” Because now, we had people from different industries, we had colleges, chamber of commerce’s, military, veteran organizations, workforce development boards. We had a lot of clients and a lot of people have been on our platform, so we said, ‘What do you want to see?’ So, then we had our focus groups. We had 10 different focus groups with clients that came in, and then we did mockups. We said, ‘Here’s what we want to do, but what do you want to see?’ And then, we did all the mockups. And then, we did the focus groups again and said, ‘Here’s what we have.’ And, the best thing is we’re never done. Every month, we’re launching new technology within our platform to always be better and create that user experience.
Every organization that’s on our platform now gets a survey afterward. So, they can now say what they like, if there’s something that maybe could be improved, and this is how we look at our roadmap … I’ll tell you, on my roadmap, the number one thing is if I lose a deal to a competitor, why? Is it something they have that I don’t have? That’s the number one thing that goes on my roadmap. Number two is what our clients [want], if there’s any confusion or anything like that, and number three is just enhancements that are out there. So that’s where we take the user experience from both the organizations, the attendees, and the host of the events. We get feedback from everybody so that we can continue to stay ahead of the game.”
One particularly attractive feature of the software is its ease of use, right?
“On the new platform, we actually created the setup wizard that says step one, step two, step three, step four. So you can’t mess it up, and that’s from a host to an attendee to an organization. It’s like, ‘Put your logo here.’ In our first version of our software, we were always voted as one of the most easy platforms to use. And our clients said, ‘There’s no way you can make this easier to use.’ And I go, ‘Just wait. Just wait and see.’ This setup wizard that we have for everybody, everybody just loves it because it makes it easy … I have clients that are from 18 to 80. Now granted, we’ve had some other events on our platforms as well but figures not everybody’s tech savvy. Not everybody grew up with a tablet or a smartphone in their hand, so some of these people don’t have it.
So we had to make it, and when I went to my developers, I said, ‘I need two things. I need it easy, and I need it sexy.’ And, that’s what we built it based on that because we have it. Now, one of my clients, one time, she was an organization that attended our event. They were looking at her company now getting a license of our platform. And she goes, ‘Steve, it was easy for me. I loved it, but I wanted to see how easy it was, so I had my 72-year-old mother … I sent her the link and I said register for this event and come in and chat with me.’ Her 72-year-old mother came in and did it. And I was like, ‘That is amazing.’ But that shows that you can still have something that’s very tech savvy that doesn’t have to be difficult for people to register, log in, and interact with somebody else.”
Coming from a non-technical background, how did you go about developing such complex software?
“So I went out, and I started looking at development companies. So I started interviewing a few … narrowed it down to two organizations, and prices were pretty similar.
One was going to do a little bit more on the marketing side of it. One was just the development side of it. So, I went with the first one … Okay, now remember I’m not a tech guy … I get on a call with the one company, and they’re showing me all the backend stuff, and I looked at him, and I said, ‘Bro, you’re talking Chinese to me. I don’t understand a thing that you’re saying to me. Just tell me, what’s it going to cost me? And how long is it going to take?’ Walked into the next one. It was a husband and wife team, and they were like, ‘Here’s what it’s going to cost. Here’s how long it’s going to take, and here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll see you in four months.’ I’m like, ‘I love you guys.’
Let’s fast forward now. They were terrible. They built the software. They kinda didn’t do what we wanted. It was still there, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Oh, I forgot. There was one of the other companies that I talked to first that weren’t into the final two … because I walked in and they told me what it was going to cost me, and I was like, ‘You’re nuts.’ Now, I look at what they charged me, and I spent 10 times what that original one was going to be, what they said, but we put a lot more into it.
But, I went with the first company, and then it started to be where they weren’t as good … So I went back to the firm that talked to me like I did know … they talked to me in the development terms.
So, they got to a point. They were really good, and then we’re going live, and there were just a couple things that they couldn’t fix … so I brought in a third firm and they were phenomenal. They fixed everything, and they were really good. They put some new stuff in there. But, they were really expensive, and I couldn’t afford them. But they got me to where we were ready; we had a lot of really good things. But, I couldn’t afford them. So, then I went to a fourth company and they were phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. We’ve still been with them. Now we’ve been with them almost two years. Actually, over two years now because it’s 2022. We’ve been with them, and they came in, and then when I started going to the first one, I said, ‘I don’t want you just to enhance our legacy platform. I want you to build it from scratch.’”
Having been through that experience, what would you do differently?
“I had a guy tell me every new company now, one of the partners should be a software engineer. If you’re starting as a startup, have that. You’re going to give up, yes, maybe a little percentage. A guy like me that comes in, and you have an idea — if you don’t have the right people around you, people could take advantage of you. And, I’m not going to say people took advantage of us, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And, it took us a little bit of time, it took us a little bit longer to get to where we wanted to be, but I’m there.
And, it took that. Sometimes you don’t worry about finding somebody else. If that development team or that software engineer, you bring somebody in and give them a little percentage of the biz and say, ‘Hey, here’s what it is.’ Because somebody who has a little more skin in the game is going to help you more. And I went to the firms originally and said, ‘Hey, I’ll make you my CTO. I’ll give you a percentage of the business.’ Because I wanted them to have more skin in the game, but when you’re a startup and you go to these development companies and you say, ‘Hey, we got this great idea,’ they’re like, ‘Yeah, so did the last 10 people and their businesses, they don’t have it.’”
The company that we’re with, our development firm, we have a phenomenal relationship with them. We have internal now. So, that’s where we’re at now with them is they didn’t take startup companies. We were one of the first ones because he knew it in his previous life, he had seen so many companies fail, and he didn’t do it. Luckily, he saw where our software was and what we were doing, but it’s really hard to try to partner sometimes with organizations like that.”
How much did it cost finally to have a minimum viable product (MVP)?
“Our first platform, our legacy … was a little over $250,000.”
What gave you the confidence to bootstrap the business?
“A little bit of cockiness, a little bit of loving to prove people wrong. I sat down with my wife and said, ‘We’re going to develop a software. I may not make money for a year.’ And she was like, ‘I believe in you.’ That’s a huge thing. I say a lot [that] I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I grew up with love and encouragement. My wife is like that as well, so it’s very encouraging.“
Did you approach the VC community at all?
“I’m not going to say we didn’t talk to private equity firms and VC firms, and this is one thing for startups I think is very important is to get a mentor group … A lot of the local colleges have mentor groups. Here in South Florida, they have two phenomenal mentoring groups. One is called The Venture Mentoring Team. Those guys are amazing. And another one is Tech Runway that’s out at FAU [Florida Atlantic University] … And I’ll tell you, they’re going to be tough on you at first. When I pitched in front of all of them, and then I pitched in front of them a second time because they were going to see if they wanted to even help you…
You’re selling yourself. So when people say, “Well, I’m not a salesperson, but I got an idea,” listen, you’re going to sell your idea and yourself to these people out there. So this mentor group, I went there and they accepted me, but I had to do a pitch scrub with them. So now it was a group of, I think, eight of them, eight or nine of them, and I’m sitting in a room and I’m pitching them … [Afterwards] I called my business partner, I said, ‘Meet me at the bar. I just went 12 rounds with Tyson. I need to have a beer.’
And they were like, ‘We do this on purpose because we want to see: Are you coachable? Are you trainable? Are you willing to listen to us?’ It was so brutal, the one person said to me, ‘I don’t even like the name of your company.’ I was like, ’Wow, that was interesting.’
I love pitch competitions. I ended up winning for FAU, and then I went to state for Florida, so Veterans Florida. I won that. I was actually the first one ever from FAU to win the Veterans Florida pitch competition.
But, seek help out there. This is free. It’s like having a board of directors without anything. But one of the first things … that they told me is every dollar you make is a dollar you don’t have to raise.”
With regard to working with mentor groups down in Florida – are there any other resources or advice you might have specifically for military veterans?
“I’m going to say it. I live in the greatest state for veterans in Florida. They do a ton for veterans. Veterans Florida’s here, they just had a webinar last week about all of the great things for veterans. Texas is number two that’s out there that are so military- and veteran-friendly. All you have to look for is mentor groups. Look for veteran organizations there. They can help you with everything, and there’s a lot of resources for veterans that are out there, as well.
Now, I’ve been out for a long time, so I don’t qualify for some of those resources that are there. Some of them I do. But make sure as a veteran that you’re looking at these resources. You’re finding, you’re getting the bids, getting with the local SBA as well because they just give so much wealth of knowledge that they can help you with to build your business.”
The business benefited from a sudden event: the pandemic. How were you able to cope with the rapid growth?
“Lots of craziness. Actually, in 2020, I used to actually have a head of hair. It was crazy because as Gary and I were putting this all together, we had this ramp up. We knew it was going to take three to five years to really change people’s minds and get this, and we had that planned just because of what we’ve seen and people’s reaction and not really understanding it. It was crazy. There was a lot of late nights. When COVID first hit, we had just hired somebody to come in and just help with the phones.
I was doing demos to Australia in the middle of the night, and it was my calendar went from 8:00 in the morning till 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 at night doing demos, and I couldn’t handle it.
So we had to hire a team, and the thing is — I’ve always believed this — it’s not just about a sales team … I say my client success team is really the face of our company … my competition, as soon as COVID hit, skyrocketed its prices to try to hit home runs … we didn’t. We stayed … because I looked at the long term. This was not a ‘Hey, let’s get rich quick’ scheme like a lot of these other companies did, unfortunately. But we grew, and we grew at a normal pace, and we’d bring in somebody on the sales side to handle the demos because I couldn’t handle all the demos anymore.
But, the client success team is every client that gets onboarded with Premier Virtual has a client success manager. So they then do all of the training, because guess what? We do virtual on a daily basis, they don’t. We train all the hosts. We train all of the organizations that are on the platform. I’ve done Instagram Live for students. I’ve done webinars for students. So, we really take the ‘Hey we’re a veteran-owned, US-based company … we’re going to have support for you.’ We have live support during every event. None of my clients, none of my competition, does that.
We have a worldwide event next week. From 1:00 a.m. to midnight, we have this, and we have staff on, and who’s the last staff in the middle of the night? Me. Because it’s not just ‘Hey, my team go out there and do this.’ I took the last shift, and that’s why we’ve been voted one of the top places to work in Florida by multiple magazines out there because I care for my people. But growing people, I believe, and this is a huge thing with startups is your culture is everything within the company. Everything, right? And we grew, and when we had to move to a new office, because we hired so many people, and I know a lot of people work from remote, but we wanted to give them the option.
First thing I did when we went to a new office, I ripped out the conference room and I put a beautiful gym in there. So now the people can come in, they can work out, they can do whatever they want. Yesterday we were out playing two-on-two football outside to have some fun because culture is important. And we built up so fast, and we had people that were remote building that culture.”
So how would you summarize the impact that rapid growth had?
“So going from an overnight success, it was stressful. It was hard. Looking at those numbers. “Oh my gosh, this is payroll. These are our costs.” And, we looked at what was going to happen in the three years suddenly is happening in a couple months. It was stressful and it’s hard. It was more stressful doing that than it was not making money while we were developing the platform.”
What principles guide your own hiring decisions?
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes on hiring … I always believe sometimes you can hire somebody for attitude and teach them the skill. I always said, especially on the sales side, you’re giving me a positive attitude, a great work ethic and a student mentality, I can teach you the product and how to sell the product. And that’s what I believe a lot is it’s the people you bring in, do they fit your culture? Do they fit what you believe in? Are they a team player?
To me, attitude is everything… and you got to … [find] that gem that’s going to work for you. I listened to a speaker one time tell me, he said, ‘What is the difference between a cow and a buffalo in a storm?’”
In a storm, what’s the difference between a cow and buffalo?
“This is where I look at employees … When a storm hits, a cow runs away. The buffalo runs towards the storm. In adversity, are your team members going to run towards it, or are they going to run away from it? When somebody comes in, they have a bad month, the salesperson has a bad month, are they going to quit and say, ‘Pasture’s greener.’”
You’ve talked about servant leadership. Can you tell us how you interpret that concept?
“I like to say I serve my team. I’ve got a phenomenal team, and I can’t say that enough, and they all know it. They all laugh at me … When we did our office opening, they all had bets on when I was going to cry because I talk about them.
I’ll tell you one of the biggest things that we had … and this happened about a year ago … was I always the face of it. Every training video, everything was me. And I decided, I’m like, “Not everybody wants to listen to me.” I talk fast. Everybody’s like, “Slow down a little bit.” But, I was the guy that was on all the training videos. I was on everything, the webinars, everything we have. I started letting other people do that.
Now we have Glenn [who] handles all of our training videos because he talks a little slower. He’s a lot more detailed than I am on there. But, getting those people, those little things that’s going to be out there … I let my director of marketing run a webinar one time. Sending these guys to events and girls to the events and doing different things for them empowers them to want to work harder because they know that you’re giving everything that you have for them to be successful. Because I’ve worked in a lot of organizations where it was all about sales. Sales was everything. If you weren’t in sales, you were at the bottom of the barrel.
My team knows this. There’s not one division in my company that is more important than the other. Yes, sales is the one who brings in the money, but marketing is the one that’s getting our branding and our name out there, and the development team, they’re the ones that are building a platform that’s going to be there, and our client success team is making the people happy. I tell everybody this. My job really as a CEO is really a very easy job. My job is to build a platform that you can be excited to sell and that takes people and changes people’s lives. You will never hear me ever talk about revenue. You hear me talk about on a daily basis how many people are we helping?”
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