CINCINNATI – The announcement of a big industry award made Chris Ostoich’s Blackbook HR an overnight success – and it only took five years to get there.
Ostoich has come to learn that’s pretty quick for a technology start-up. That doesn’t mean his entrepreneurial journey has been easy.
“Nothing in this world happens as fast as you think it will. There’s absolutely no such thing as an overnight success,” said Ostoich, a 35-year-old Cincinnati resident. “We came five years later out of near-death experiences on a quarterly basis.”
But after all that, the company’s Sense software was named one of the top HR products of 2013 by the editors of Human Resource Executive magazine.
The recognition is a “big deal” in the world of human resources, said George LaRocque, president of LAROCQUE, a human resources technology consulting firm in New Providence, N.J.
“It’s very validating for them,” LaRocque said. “They’ll get some traction with it.”
Here’s what it does: Sense is a software product that helps companies keep tabs on how “engaged” their employees are. Instead of the traditional surveys that employees fill out every year or so and then discuss with their managers a few months later, Sense asks employees a quick question each week to track whether employees feel connected to their companies and communities and gauge their level of job satisfaction.
It’s a big change from how Blackbook HR started. In its early days, the company was sort of a business concierge service, working directly with companies to help their employees feel connected to their communities.
“We helped companies and communities keep their best people. That hasn’t changed,” Ostoich said. “The way that we execute it is a little bit different.”
The new approach has made all the difference for the company, said Mike Venerable, managing director of digital, software and health tech at CincyTech. CincyTech is a public-private seed-stage investor that has invested a total of about $500,000 in Blackbook HR since 2009.
“Like all these early stage companies, you get your product to exactly what the market wants to buy, and then they buy it,” Venerable said.
Of course, even an impressive industry award doesn’t guarantee sales, LaRocque said. Ostoich and his team must continue to work hard to reach potential customers and make those sales, he said.
That doesn’t worry Ostoich.
He’s been working hard for the past five years building a business that now employs seven people, including Ostoich. He’s gone from being the kind of high school student who would start things and never finish them to being relentless in his pursuit of success.
“I’ve changed my DNA,” Ostoich said.
“They say that success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Well, I think that’s bullshit,” he said. “I try to be the most prepared person in the universe. Every single say. For every pitch. For every meeting.”
Every day, Ostoich said, he goes to work as prepared as he could possibly be and waits for opportunity to crash into him.
“It’s hard when lots of days go by and you never have that collision,” he said. “But every once in a while, you do run into it.”
It’s been more than every once in a while for Ostoich.
Blackbook HR has 50 clients, including such corporate titans as Procter & Gamble Co., Macy’s, General Electric and TriHealth and smaller firms, such as Pure Romance and design agency LPK. The company also does work for communities, including Cincinnati, San Jose, Calif., and Miami, Fla.
The Miami community reached out to Blackbook HR after seeing some research the company did for the group CEOs for Cities, said Steve Sauls, vice president of governmental relations for Florida International University in Miami.
The research showed that although Miami was the eighth largest metropolitan area in the U.S., it ranked 51st out of 51 communities studied in terms of community engagement.
Sauls introduced Ostoich to the Miami Foundation, and now Blackbook HR is doing an assessment to measure how connected people feel to the Miami community.
“If we can encourage community activity, it will build a stronger community,” Sauls said.
And that will help the university retain the employees it recruits from across the country, he said.
“It’s no secret that CEOs say talent is their No. 1 priority,” Ostoich said. “Cities have that same priority.”
The work Blackbook HR is doing with cities is a smart way to introduce the company’s products to new markets and get the attention of new business customers, too, said CincyTech’s Venerable.
Never Quit, Get It Right
Ostoich’s willingness to try new approaches and investigate new applications for his company’s work also shows just how tenacious he has been, he added.
“The two lessons are never quit working on your product. Get it right,” Venerable said. “And the second is, just be willing to grind it out. Sometimes that can be very difficult. People that really have the disease don’t give up.”
Ostoich has it. He’s heard people call him relentless, and that’s fine with him. Every time he hires someone at Blackbook HR, he looks for that same kind of determination, that grit.
It’s paying off. Ostoich expects the company to break even in January and become “highly profitable” by the end of the first quarter of 2014.
By end of next year, his goal is to have a total of between 25 and 30 employees, he said.
“This is really a war every day,” Ostoich said. “I have never met a better teacher than the job itself. It’s kicked me in the teeth a few times. But at the same time, it’s been a gift.”
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