I had the pleasure interviewing Victor Ho. Victor co-founded Fivestars following his work at McKinsey & Company, where he helped build out cutting edge loyalty and customer engagement strategies for premiere Fortune 500 brands. He started his career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and holds three degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, where he triple majored in Industrial Engineering, Rhetoric, and Business Administration.
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 in your career, before Fivestars?
I triple majored at UC Berkeley then started my career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. I then headed to McKinsey, where I helped build out cutting edge loyalty and customer engagement strategies for premiere Fortune 500 brands. Eventually, I was inspired to use what I was learning there to create a platform that would democratize loyalty platforms by giving small businesses the network and loyalty programs Fortune 500 companies have access to.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started Fivestars what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision for Fivestars was formed during my time working at McKinsey. There, I started to think about how so much time and energy was going into helping big businesses retain customers, yet small businesses had minimal help in accomplishing the same goals. As we saw small businesses go out of business at record rates, it felt like the American dream itself was under attack. Instead of any American being able to put in hard work and ingenuity for a respectable middle-class living, entire main streets were getting paved over by Walmarts and the income gap was rapidly widening. Our world was becoming a place where a wealthy few live in the excess of billions while an unfortunate many struggle to even make ends meet.
When I was preparing for a career shift, I started thinking about what I wanted my life to stand for and the potential of using the skills I developed for social impact. I felt called to start a company with a key purpose to fight for the underdog, the small businesses. So, Fivestars was born and since 2010, we’ve been doing exactly that.
Do you have a “number one principle” or “life lesson quote” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The biggest challenge I see with founders, and many people in general, is we often conflate our work with our self-worth. When our company / career is doing well, we feel great. When things are going poorly, we feel immense pressure and anxiety from our very identities being challenged.
My greatest advice to other founders is that you must find some other external, immutable source to derive your self-worth. Otherwise, startups are guaranteed to be a roller-coaster (and really, life in general), and if you are on tilt when things are going poorly, you will be making poor decisions when a clear head matters most, and you will be drained when others most look to you for emotional resilience.
There are so many quotes on this topic, so I don’t have any one quote that encapsulates this for me. One I’ve turned to recently is from the Bible in the book of Psalms: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting your career and any lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I first started on my journey building startups, we were working on a product that would help apartment complexes give their tenants a much better experience — think about all the social features of Nextdoor but focused on apartment complexes (this was before Nextdoor existed), combined with features to pay rent online, submit maintenance requests, etc.
We slaved away day and night to build the first version of the product, and then eagerly began setting up sales meetings with landlords. We were so confident they would be excited, only to quickly discover many of them were entirely disincentivized to make their tenants happy. We were in a bull market and rents across the US were going up and up. We often heard landlords say things like “I’m limited in how much I can raise rent each year, so I really hope I have more tenants that are unhappy and leave so that I can charge more money for the units.”
We abandoned the idea soon thereafter, learning a valuable lesson: don’t build anything until you know that people are actually willing to buy it.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges small businesses are facing during this pandemic?
Right now, small businesses have limited resources that allow them to connect with their customers. Amidst our current cycle of uncertainty, they can’t compete with big franchises on price or other marketing efforts.
To navigate COVID, small businesses often look to third-party partners. But the reality is, some are looking to make their profit off the weaknesses of their customers. For example, delivery companies, review sites and daily deals, build a network and gather customer insights, but ask the local business to pay to access the information.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate small businesses will have in the Post-Covid economy?
There’s a huge opportunity for small businesses to creatively pivot their operations, and maintain these new innovations moving forward.
Post COVID-19, merchants will have more opportunities to offer e-commerce options and mobile storefronts.
To adapt to the pandemic, small businesses will have the most opportunity for customer connection due to the innovation offered by their fintech partners, such as pre-pay choices like virtual gift cards. Payment companies will also enhance customer loyalty by offering insights on customer shopping behaviors, and ensuring shoppers are personally notified about operational changes and can make purchases however works best for them.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way small business owners behave, act or live?
During COVID, small business owners have come to understand the importance of their customer relationships. Loyal customers have been the lifeline for many merchants. They have rallied together to support their favorite shops through purchasing gift cards, rescheduling services instead of canceling them, and promoting local businesses on social media.
I believe as a result of our global pandemic, small businesses will focus more time and resources on retaining old customers, over acquiring new ones, through loyalty programs and making sure customers feel like their support really matters. This can be attained through special offerings, exclusive sales, discounts, coupons, and customized messages.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what is your team personally planning to do to help small businesses rebuild in the Post-Covid Economy?
At Fivestars, we’re doing our part by bringing the digital payment solutions and customer loyalty programs used by Fortune 500 e-commerce giants to mom-and-pop shops.
We’ve created a program that unlocks Fivestar’s unlimited messaging feature for all merchants in times of great need. By allowing merchants to connect with their patrons as often as they need to, we are helping them drive in-store visits when they need it most. In addition, we’re now offering new merchants their first month of service free to make sure they can start building a customer database even when they are short on cash.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do to support small businesses?
We need to remember that even when many of us are operating at a distance, relationships are still the key to overcome the devastation of COVID-19. No small business can survive unless their local community and business leaders are committed to supporting each other.
Here are 5 ways anyone can support their favorite local businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak:
1. Find and follow your local businesses on social media
2. Purchase a gift card or prepay for future goods and services
3. If you can, consider donating funds using GoFundMe or Venmo
4. Join their customer loyalty program and/or email lists
5. Contact your local and state governments and urge them to support your community’s small businesses