As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need to Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Bordo, Founder and CEO of Vetster Inc.
Vetster is an innovative pet wellness platform that connects pet parents to a marketplace of licensed veterinary professionals for virtual appointments. With over 20 years of internet business development under his belt, Mark embarked on this latest venture with a vision to bring his previous success of online development to the telemedicine industry, specifically as it relates to pet care. He is proud to bring all of his technical and business experience to the veterinary industry and change the way pet care is operated, globally.
Before starting Vetster, Mark founded two other companies, Home Renovation Guide and CanadaStays, which he grew from conception to country category leaders. As a serial entrepreneur since the early 2000’s, Mark has developed a skill to successfully build online marketplaces to assist in critical consumer decisions made within the travel and home renovation industries and now within the pet care industry. While his past two ventures grew quickly in Canada, he hopes to grow Vetster on an international scale.
Mark is not only a business founder but also a true family (and pet) man, making him a perfect fit to lead a company that fuses tech and compassion. His personal experience as a dog owner along with his passion for creating personal consumer experiences have assisted him to develop a unique platform that he hopes will surpass the current industry standards.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been an entrepreneur. Whether it was shoveling snow off my neighbor’s driveway or bugging my parents to try my latest invention, I was always interested in efficiency and innovation. As my career evolved, I developed a real knack for business development.
My career in online marketplaces began almost 20 years ago. I became infatuated with online directories and rudimentary marketplace platforms. After working as a leader in business development for several years, I decided I was ready to take the leap and start a company of my own in the online directory space.
I made the move to start my own marketplace company in 2004. The Home Renovation Guide was an online directory matching home owners with contractors across Canada and the US. It eventually grew to become one of the largest online directories in Canada. In 2007, the company was sold and I was looking for my next venture.
CanadaStays was founded less than a year later and was born out of personally experiencing the difficulty renting a vacation home in Canada. Long before the sharing economy was mainstream, my team was at trade shows marketing our vacation rental service. As the sharing economy grew, so did CanadaStays. With the help of an incredible board and investor group, the company grew from concept to be the largest homegrown vacation rental company in the country. It was fully acquired by Expedia in the summer of 2019.
It didn’t take long for my entrepreneurial spirit to kick in again following the sale of CanadaStays. With a continued interest in marketplace concepts, I was drawn to the current opportunities in human telemedicine. The more I researched, the more interested I became, but with one small twist. As a lifelong dog owner, I saw the tremendous opportunity that telemedicine presented for pet owners like myself. From someone who has had to leave the office many times to bring my dog to the vet, or race to the emergency clinic at 2am, I knew there was a need for this service. This need, in combination with my desire to build another marketplace venture, led me down the path to Vetster — a telemedicine marketplace matching pet owners and veterinarians across North America.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When first starting out as an entrepreneur, I was a very strong business development specialist, but had little experience with pretty much every other aspect of building and running a company. So probably the funniest ‘mistake’ I made was jumping without fear and getting started at all. There was so much to learn and discover, that had I known what I didn’t know I may never have started. The biggest take away from that experience is that if you set your mind to a goal you can achieve anything you want. If you are prepared to put in the effort and focus anything is achievable. Too often taking that first leap prevents people from what could be big achievements. My lesson is jump responsibly and don’t look back.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There were so many role models and people who helped me along the way when I was starting out. To single out one person who be difficult. However, I can say that my family has been with me every step of the way. My wife has always been my partner in my ventures and a great listener when needed. Professionally, I routinely sought the advice of fellow entrepreneurs who collaboratively helped to form my strategies. Today, I try to help anyone I can in the same way I was helped. I take this “paying it forward” philosophy very seriously and fully believe in the importance of entrepreneurs helping one another.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas.
When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
We at Vetster are absolutely on a mission to change the way we care for our pets. Instead of thinking of pet care as just an urgent passive issue, our goal with virtual care for pets is to encourage a much more proactive approach. With ease of access and more affordability, I encourage all pet owners to take a much more active role in pet care.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The COVID-19 pandemic hit so quickly and before I had a chance to really make sense of it, everything had changed. Businesses were all of a sudden remote, schools were closed and chaos was everywhere. However, I knew keeping in touch with the team was paramount despite all of these changes. Quickly changing routines from in person meetings to virtual meetings was vital. Ensuring that team members were comfortable with the new virtual technology was paramount. As a recurring theme in this interview, none of this just came together instantly as a reaction to the pandemic. Many of the systems, tech and routines were already in place before the pandemic which made the transition a lot easier for us.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, not ever in my career have I considered giving up. While I have faced many challenges and hurdles routinely along the way, giving up is not ever on the table for consideration or even enters into my thoughts. It’s actually the opposite. When times are hard, I push harder to find the solutions required to turn things around. I firmly believe that in most cases, if you have the drive and passion to keep going, eventually the timing will line up for you to be successful. Tackle hurdles as they come and eventually the hurdles to success diminish. My drive is sustained by my passion. I am extremely competitive to say the least. That competitive spirit gets me out of bed and to the office every day with a consistent drive and boundless energy.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Tough question as it really depends on the challenges that your company is facing. Certainly, capital requirements may direct a CEO to focus exclusively on that if runway is evaporating. However, if the business is generally running, I think a leader should be filling the company with a transparent plan and roadmap to success. A renewed focus on company execution of the strategy will build optimism. Most of this should have already been in place long before the turbulent times started. Developing a great team with great people and then relying on them to find solutions is not something that happens quickly.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
We are facing tremendous challenges right now. The past months have been some of the most difficult times to be at work. With economic, health, political, parenting, and education uncertainty, how can anyone be expected to buckle down and focus on work? As a leader, it is important to be compassionate with your team as they go through these unprecedented times. Boosting morale is extremely hard given all these challenges, I’m not even sure it’s where the effort needs to be focused or that anything can really change the realities. I have put a focus on having a good business plan, preparations for success once normalcy resumes and keeping a safe workplace as we go through these times. I hope that normalcy, job security and a mission will be a good distraction from everything else while we’re at work.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The guiding principles should be honesty, compassion, and preparedness. Anticipating questions and trying to cover off as many as possible during communication.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I have been trying to make plans in a very responsible way while the future is still so unpredictable with a focus on resource conservation. Our company moved into our office on Oct 1, 2020 just as COVID cases began to spike again in Ontario post the summer slowdown. While this was scary, I determined that we absolutely need to have an office as a start-up and the virtual communication needed a combination of in-person collaboration. Rather than taking a large space in a high rent building complete with a salt water fish tank, I took a short-term lease in a walk up building with no elevator and no frills. I weighed the office cost and ability to exit the lease easily as my top priority. Not the prestige of a bigger space with views etc. These types of considerations are a big part of strategy moving through COVID.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stick to it. Understand that there will be highs and lows in every business but it’s important to stay committed to your vision.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Running a business is tough and there is no magic answer for success. Luck and timing play a role in the successes too. It’s hard to point out mistakes that other businesses make without knowing their business in detail. However, often these mistakes were made long before the difficult business cycle, such as hiring the wrong people, over spending etc.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Becoming even more customer centric while focusing on your value proposition is a good place start. Understanding that just like you, your customers are working in a tough environment and may require more flexibility than in normal times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Resource conservation
During tough times, it is important to identify your critical resources and conserve them. Going through the process of identifying optimization is important to keep the business moving in the right direction. Through discovery of wasteful expenditures or inefficient practices the organization as a whole will improve.
2. Slower, tougher times can be an opportunity.
It’s a chance to get to that laundry list of items that you never have time for, but know will boost value and product quality once the difficult cycle passes.
3. This too shall pass.
It’s a really good phrase to repeat and mention to the team. Businesses have cycles and remaining calm during tough times is as important as remaining level during the great times. A calm manner will help the team stay focused.
4. Prepare a plan — Plan to get out of this cycle.
The turbulent times normally don’t just end. Something will need to change to push the cycle forward. Status quo is not the way to go.
Communicating with your team is critical and should be part of your daily process. During tougher times, employees will naturally feel stressed and concerned. It is important to over communicate and be fully transparent to ensure company morale and energy remains high. I have often found energetic town halls with a good Q&A session to be a great course of action.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many life lesson quotes which have had an impact on me. Two that come to mind include:
- A quote from Robin Sharma’s self-help book, ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ — “Awaken yourself to the power of your own mind to make things happen. Once you do, the universe will conspire with you to work magic in your life.” In the early stages of all three of my companies, I was apprehensive to take the leap and get started. This quote often crossed my mind and ultimately filled me with confidence to make the first move and once I was sure that this is what I wanted, then there was no looking back.
- A recent short and sweet quote from one of the greatest competitors the world has ever seen — Michael Jordan. In the sports documentary on the athlete’s career, ‘The Last Dance’, he is quoted before a pivotal game 7 as saying “Some Can, Some Can’t.” When I need motivation, that quote often crosses my mind as I ask myself which side I want to be on.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can check Vetster out at Vetster.com for more information.