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Don Charlton’s uncommon journey from public housing in rural, southwestern Pennsylvania, to founding not one, but two innovative human resources tech startups, is as inspiring as it is educational.
His first venture, JazzHR, offers SMB customers an intuitive recruiting and applicant tracking solution that has been used by over 15,000 companies, which have processed more than 15 million resumes and filled over 200,000 jobs.
I was inspired by Don’s perseverance (he was a solo founder as JazzHR) and chronically positive attitude in 2009, which led me to be his first institutional investor.
Leaving JazzHR in highly capable hands, Don remained on the Board, but took a much-deserved hiatus last year. Not comfortable being idle for long, he soon began mapping out his next venture, Goalee.com, which he launched in January, 2019.
John Greathouse: Hey Don, I was super stoked when you told me a few months ago that you’re working on a new venture. You’ve always been one of my favorite entrepreneurs to work with. If you don’t mind, let’s start with (you) giving my readers an overview of Goalee and how it will make improve their businesses.
Don Charlton: Thanks John. It’s always great to catch up. Goalee Performance Engagement software helps employers keep employees better aligned, highly motivated and performing at their best.
I like to call Goalee a “performance engagement platform” because employers can use it not only to align everyone around transparent, cascading goals, but also to facilitate meaningful internal conversations that help everyone perform better. And when employees perform (exceptionally), Goalee makes it easy for them to get the recognition they deserve.
I created Goalee because over the years speaking to executives and HR <human resources> professionals with recruiting challenges, I noticed many of the roles they were filling were due to excessive employee turnover. Employers were starting to realize a misaligned, unhappy workforce not only results in more recruiting time and cost, but it can also be a sign of future business underperformance.
Looking at the solutions available, I saw that too many focused primarily on improving engagement between managers and their reports, when much employee frustration and business problems stem from teams not working well together. What makes Goalee different is (that) we focus not just on the manager/report relationships, but on helping teams work better together as well.
Greathouse: Ok, got it. Let me stop you for a second, as I find it interesting that you’ve chosen to remain in the HR space. In my past, I’ve often run from the last market I was (previously) in, even when I was successful, just to do something different, solve new problems, etc.
Charlton: I hear you John. It’s actually been exciting to re-enter the HR space with a different product, solving a different problem. When employees feel unheard, unhappy or unproductive, they leave. Creating a culture that encourages continuous dialogue between individuals and teams ensures issues get surfaced and solved before they have an impact on employee retention or business performance. It’s been interesting, and ironic, to focus on problems that reduce the need to recruit, considering my first company.
Greathouse: Makes sense. You’re leveraging your knowledge of HR, but in a fresh context.
I have to ask you a fairly obvious question, but I’m curious how you’re leveraging the lessons your learned at JazzHR, given that Jazz was your first venture as a founder.
Charlton: It goes without saying that experience is the greatest teacher, and JazzHR definitely taught me a lot. Without getting too tactical, I have to say one of the biggest lessons I learned is focus – in many different ways.
First, you need to have a focused initial customer profile, even if your product can be used across industries. Find a segment and gain traction. Second, you need to have a focused, simple value proposition that your customer understands. Don’t get too creative.
And last, but most important, is you need to learn what you should be focusing on at different stages of the business. I was way too product-focused at the beginning of JazzHR and less concerned about go-to-market. That’s changed with Goalee. So to summarize, I think I have learned to focus on the right things at the right time.
Greathouse: Well said. The second time around is usually easier, on many fronts. Where do you envision Goalee will be in three-to-five years? What’s your North Star vision for the company?
Charlton: I’d like Goalee to become a central hub for where sub-500 employee businesses manage employee performance, engagement, recognition, perks and, through partners, learning. I see the current HR platform as the system of record, and these features that are currently buried in that system will spin out into a system of productivity – I wish I could take credit for that phrase because it’s so fitting… So essentially a leading provider of modern Performance Engagement Software. <laughing> Yes, I am trying to name the category!
Greathouse: Got it, “Performance Engagement”, pass it on… You were a sole founder at JazzHR, which can be lonely and challenging on multiple levels. That said, there are also a number of advantages, especially in the very early stages. Do you plan on taking a similar path (at Goalee) or are you working with a co-founder? Either way, I’d love to hear why you’ve taken your current approach.
Charlton: I think there’s often a misconception about solo founders in that they make a conscious decision to start a company alone. As if they have said, “I do not want a co-founder.” My experience is that’s not the case. As I have always said, “I’d welcome a co-founder, but I won’t let not having one stop me from moving forward.”
Simply getting to an MVP can be extremely difficult, often because a founder not only doesn’t have the skills to get to launch, but they find it difficult to convince someone with a complementary skill set to take on the personal risk. The result is they can’t move forward easily.
I am fortunate to have broad skill set that allows me to get to a launched product with minimal assistance, but I recognize that once launched, it gets hard, because I’ve experienced it. So, to answer your question, I am open to, and actively pursuing, a quasi co-founder despite having launched – but I won’t let not having a co-founder prevent me from moving Goalee forward.
Greathouse: You’ve always had a passion and talent for product design and product strategy, but you acknowledge that you focused too much on that in the early stages of your previous company. How will you create balance during the early stages of Goalee?
Charlton: I think during the early days at my first company there was a fear of the unknown – I didn’t have much experience selling software online, so I kept creeping back to my comfort zone in product. I think you actually made me aware of that. But once I started to focus on sales, I realized I had a natural knack for it, and my love of the product rubbed off on customers.
I’ve been selling HR software for 10 years now, so not only do I know how to do it, I enjoy the win – the sale. And to ensure sales and marketing is my focus at Goalee, our product development will focus on smaller, frequent releases that add incremental value, versus big updates that require you to be buried in product design for weeks. And in the end, (the) best product does not always win – you have to remember that. Perfection kills startups.
Greathouse: Amen. As I was on the customer-facing side of my startups, I felt I had to tear the software out of the developers’ hands at times, as their tendency was to pursue perfection.
I’m curious as to what feels different to you about today’s human resources market, versus when you launched JazzHR back in 2009, if anything?
Charlton: The HR professional has automated their employee paperwork and finally has some time to truly focus on people, <chuckles> go figure. They are much more software savvy and more are active buyers of online tools to solve human resources challenges.
HR is the last business function to be conquered by SaaS, and I believe the conquerors exist, or will exist, in the next year or so. There will be many companies looking for next-generation HR tools over the next decade, and the buyer is more informed and more empowered. It feels good to have two bets on the table in the HR tech space.
Greathouse: That’s good news for you and JazzHR. Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
Charlton: I’ll restrain myself from saying, “Visit Goalee.com,” even though I just did, and simply say, “If you haven’t started looking at how employee retention correlates to business challenges, start today.” Employee engagement isn’t warm and fuzzy HR stuff – it’s the first line of defense in the battle to retain top talent, while driving top-line revenue.
Greathouse: That’s OK, I won’t restrain myself from saying, “Check out Goalee.com.” Thanks Don and best of luck with venture number two, with more to come, no doubt!
January 29, 2019 at 10:52AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs