Oscar: We’d like to welcome to the studio today Rob Flippo of MobileHelp. Welcome, Rob.
Rob: Thanks, thanks for having me here.
Oscar: Our pleasure. On behalf of EO South Florida, really like to congratulate you for earning your ranking on the 2014 Inc Fasted Growing Companies in the United States. Congratulations.
Rob: Thank you very much. We’re very proud of being on that list, and making the grade this year.
Oscar: That’s excellent. Tell us a little bit about MobileHelp. What does your company do?
Rob: MobileHelp is the leading provider of mobile personal emergency response systems, primarily targeted to the senior citizen market. Traditional medical alarm systems really don’t work outside of the house, so when we started MobileHelp, our fundamental idea was to allow seniors to get out of the home as safely as they could with a medical alert system in their house. We developed a product that lets them leave the home, and if they have an emergency, they can press a button and be in contact with one of our trained operators, regardless of where they’re at. We’ll know who they are even if they can’t speak to us. We’ll know where they are. We can dispatch help to them immediately. It’s been very well received by the market.
Oscar: That’s fantastic. What motivated you to launch this type of a company?
Rob: On a personal level, I actually got involved in this a little bit by happenstance. I was running a company called [Emergen 00:01:29] in South Florida as well. It was in the process of being bought by Phillips Medical. One of my board members asked me to take a look at a business plan that he was looking at. He knew I had a product development and engineering background, so I thought I was doing him a favor and vetting out an idea that he was looking at. One thing led to another and I got involved with the founder. We launched with a business plan in 2008.
Oscar: Great. Excellent. Very exciting. What is the ultimate vision for the company?
Rob: Again, our vision is really to help and save as many lives as we can in the senior market. Our products provide safety and security for seniors, again, regardless of where they’re at. We’re trying to change the paradigm for people who may need a security product like ours that says it’s not about being old and having one foot in the grave, it’s about being prepared regardless of where you’re at. We know people continue to be active, but things happen, and we want to be there to help as many people as possible. We save lives every day. That’s really what we do.
Oscar: It must be tremendously rewarding to be involved in this business and hear of all the saves and it sort of …
Rob: It really is, and it goes down to all the employees too. I was in the break room the other day, and a gentleman was finishing his lunch. He worked in tech support, so he wasn’t the guy who was taking an emergency response call, he was the person helping somebody set their system up and getting it ready for use in real life activity. He finished his lunch and he said, “Let me go save somebody’s life.” I thought, you know, here’s a guy who’s one of the steps that’s required to make our product work, and even he recognizes that what he’s doing may save that person’s life.
We’ve had people call and say, “You know, I didn’t have any incidents last year. I want to cancel.” We’ll try and convince them that, like an insurance policy, you don’t want necessarily want to give it up. We’ve had more than one occasion where somebody decided to keep it and within a week, something happened, and they called us up and said, “Hey, if I hadn’t kept this, I’m not really sure what would have happened to me.” Because we were able to help save them.
Oscar: Have you ever met one of your customers who’s life you’ve saved?
Rob: I have. We actually use live testimonials in our commercials, our TV commercials, and one of the ladies who’s on our current TV spot we’ve actually helped more than once. She’s obviously a big advocate of the product and is very, very appreciative. As a CEO, I get letters all the time from people thanking us for being there. Sometimes thanking us for just being the right kind of company to work with.
Whether it’s during the sales process or setup process, we’re dealing with a group of people who are sensitive, because they’re generally senior citizens. They’re generally worried about being taken advantage of. We have to, every step of the way, make them comfortable with who we are, and that we’re not some fly by night company who’s just trying to take their money. I get letters like that all the time, and it helps keep me going.
Oscar: That is fantastic. Very rewarding. You mentioned earlier that there was a business plan involved. How detailed of a plan, and how much did reality match up with what was on projections or assumptions?
Rob: The business plan was fairly detailed, but it had a lot of different ideas. One of them mentioned the idea of a mobile, personal emergency response system. There was also mention of Alzheimer’s tracking products, and pet tracking products, but it was really around mobility, tracking, and safety, and of course, like every good business plan, it had a hockey stick curve for growth.
I recently did a presentation to some graduate students at FAU, and I actually charted out the actual performance versus what we thought we were going to do in terms of revenue and profitability. The general shape of the curve is roughly similar. The timing is completely off, and the levels are completely off. I posed a question to them and said, “Here’s where we said we were going to be. Here’s where we ended up, which was clearly, by that measure, a failure, like we obviously failed.” I said, “What do you think that means?”
What it means is that we made the Inc 500 list as a 111th fastest growing company in the country. We were recognized by the GrowFlorida as a company to watch. My message was that it doesn’t always work out the way you plan, and chances are, it won’t. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen one that actually does work out exactly the way you planned, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to fail because you don’t meet that plan. You just have to keep moving forward and keep making progress.
Oscar: Sure. Sure. How were you able to finance the launch of this business?
Rob: We really started the fundraising process in 2008. For anybody in the financial world who remembers 2008, people didn’t even know if their bank accounts were safe at that point. They literally were afraid that their money deposited in their savings account might not be safe, so here we are with a business plan and a very crude prototype that worked occasionally, trying to convince people to invest money on a very risky basis in a startup.
People have asked me how we did that, and I look back and on one hand I say I’m not exactly sure. On the other hand, I think we were very persistent. The founder, my cofounder, is a tremendous sales person. He believed in what we were doing. I believed that we could execute and get things done based on my background. We got some key people involved very early. The very first real investor was a gentleman named Scott Adams who’s a fairly well known serial entrepreneur here in South Florida. He was a catalyst.
Having him involved who had been very successful helped bring other people. It at the very least got their attention, like, “Hey, what’s with that idea?” One good contact led to another, and we just had to do it piece by piece. It was not the days where you go out and raise $10,000,000 in one chunk. You had do it a little bit at a time, continue to make progress, show that you spent the money wisely, make a little more progress, do it again, make a little more progress. That’s really how we did it.
Oscar: Was there a period of time in your efforts of raising capital that you thought, “It’s just not going to happen.”
Rob: I have to go back and look at the records, but I’m pretty sure we completely ran out of money at least six times. In the early part, it was the difference between whether two or three people got paid for that week and we could convince people to continue to move forward. As it got later, and we had more people, and more families essentially, at stake, it got much more tenuous and stressful. We always managed to to pull it off right at the last minute. We had one of our board members actually write a check after one of our board meetings to keep things going, so it was always hit or miss in that respect, but we always managed to make progress and convince people we could succeed.
Oscar: Since you launched this business, what was the most difficult decision you ever had to make?
Rob: That’s a really good question. There have been lots of difficult decisions along the way. We were fortunate enough in this business that we haven’t ever had to downsize. In my previous company we had to go through that exercise, and it’s always difficult to have to do that, particularly when you have a great team and really nobody is at risk, or should be at risk. In this business, the riskiest thing we probably had to do was turn away business.
Really early on, from a very large company, that we frankly needed their business, but the terms weren’t right. They weren’t good for sustainable growth for us. It would have benefited that company, but it would have been at our expense, and could have potentially risked the enterprise. It was tough, because it was going to represent a lot of business, potentially a lot of growth, but under the wrong terms.
Oscar: Sure. Is technology friend or foe to your business?
Rob: It’s actually a friend. In previous roles that I’ve had, technology moves very quickly. When I was at Motorola, the technology moved so that every six to eight months you had to have new products out. In our business, we’ve been very disruptive, and introduced technology into a field that hasn’t seen innovation in over 35 years. They’ve really been using the same kind of wire line, direct connection technology that only works a couple hundred feet from the unit, for 35 years. It left a giant hole to introduce disruptive technology, which is exactly what we did.
Which is what really surprised me when I first analysed the space. Like, why hadn’t anybody done this? From my background, it seemed very reasonable to introduce technology, but the industry had gotten very complacent. Things worked well, they could charge a certain amount of money for what they had, and it was very inexpensive to deliver. They had no reason to really make a change. For us to introduce technology, it really opened up a whole new market within that market. The beauty was we didn’t have to create a market, which is always very challenging. We came and said, “Hey, for the same price, we’re going to give you the kind of service that your really deserve, and the safety that you deserve.”
Oscar: Good for you. Rob I believe in you as an entrepreneur and I believe in what MobileHelp is accomplishing. I’d like to make an investment of $1,000,000 into your company. How would you deploy those funds?
Rob: Today, we’re luckily in a position where new resources coming in primarily get used to go get more customers. We’re in a growth phase where resources go to sales and marketing to go basically help save more people’s lives, and that’s really what we would deploy any additional funds on today.
Oscar: Great. Fantastic. If I gave you some magical powers for just a couple minutes, and you had the ability of going back in time to day one of your launch up through current, and you have the opportunity of reversing any decision that you made, what would that be?
Rob: Wow, that’s really tough. I’m kind of glad I don’t have that magic power because I’m note exactly sure what I would change. I think there was technology transition between 2G and 3G on the cellular side that we knew was coming and we prepared for, but if I could go back in time, I would start that project probably a year earlier, which at the time we would have probably thought it was too early, but now that we’re having to really deal with the transition, it would have been somewhat helpful to do that.
Oscar: Okay, fair enough. The last couple seconds with you possessing the magical power, look in the future five years and tell me how you think the business climate will change, and how that will affect your company.
Rob: I think for us there’s a number of things. I think we unleashed a little bit of a floodgate in terms of technology being introduced into our space. We launched a mobile product when there was no real viable solution out there, so competitors have stepped in and started to basically copy what we’ve done, because there’s a need now. People are calling and saying, “I have to have mobility.” We’ve made that change. I think there’s going to be a continuation of technology evolution in the space, and we’re really trying to lead that every day, and continue to make it a product that, frankly, doesn’t have the same reputation as previous products.
If I had that magic power and could force something to change, it would really be the perception, because there’s so many people out there who really need the kind of security that we offer, that don’t do it because the perception is so negative, that if you need this kind of a product, you’re just frail. People don’t pull the trigger, and they really should.
Oscar: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You have competitors that are now nipping at your heels and basically they emulated your success. How do you deal with them?
Rob: Well, luckily for us, we still believe we have the best solution. They couldn’t completely emulate what we’ve done. We also very early in our enterprises history filed intellectual property. We filed patents from day one around our technology. I’m proud to say as a small company we have eleven issued patents. We have five more pending. We have built some barriers to essentially copying what we’ve done, but that’s not going to stop people from building competitive products, and that’s okay.
It actually helps us in a strange way, because it creates more awareness. The more offerings there are for products like ours, the more consumers will demand that capability. When they do their research, like consumers do today, it’s very easy to see that we’re still the leader in the space, and we will continue to push to be the leader.
Oscar: Great. Good. What one word describes you as an entrepreneur?
Oscar: In your opinion, are entrepreneurs born or are they made?
Rob: I think that you probably have to have, besides a slight screw loose to be an entrepreneur, you probably had some inkling of it from the time you were really young. When I took my dad’s lawnmower and started mowing lawns when I was ten and built a business model around him paying for the gas and me collecting the money, I think that was probably an early sign that I probably had some entrepreneurial spirit.
From what I’ve seen, from entrepreneurs that I know, it seems to be something that was kind of built into their core for a long time. I spent a number of years in the corporate world, and think that that was very, very good experience. I worked for two very large companies, got some great experience there, but at the end of the day I never felt like what I was personally doing impacted the business.
If I was a cog in a $30 billion wheel, there was just nothing I could do to substantially impact that business. Today I can see my impact on a fairly routine basis with decisions we’ve made, decisions I’ve made, and how they directly impact the business.
Oscar: You’re a little bit unique. You have both corporate experience and entrepreneurial experience, do you feel, as an entrepreneur, that you have an advantage over corporate owned competitors, and if so, why?
Rob: I think I do in the sense that … I’ll give you an example. When we were raising funds, one of the things that people would point out on a very regular basis … We’re nobody, we’re just starting. People would say, “You know, Phillips is going to crush you. They have resources beyond your imagination. There’s no way you can compete.” It really reminds me of the David and Goliath story, but having been Goliath before, I could with a straight face tell them, “They can’t move fast enough. They think they know what they want to do, but there’ll be seven subcommittees trying to decide how they move forward. We can do this, and we can beat them.”
We knew, frankly, that that specific company was working on a solution, but we knew that we could operate under the radar much more quickly than they can execute, and we did. I think that’s an advantage, knowing how those corporations work on the inside. It makes you less afraid of them, in some ways.
Oscar: Very interesting, really. As entrepreneurs, we don’t have all the answers. Where do you go to if you want to brainstorm an idea or problem solve, or just generally look for advice and guidance?
Rob: There’s a couple of places, and they’re going to sound a little odd, but I’m fortunate enough that we have a very, very strong board of directors. A lot of times, it’s easy to go to one of my board members and pose a question. They may already have some experience in that area, or be able to offer some advice. Surprisingly, I think the other area is that I’ll ask my wife questions. She’ll give me very unbiased, not uninformed, but just not … She’ll look at it from a different angle.
Oftentimes it’s refreshing, because the people that I might ask the questions to all have biased opinions about what the answers are based on their personal experience, so sometimes getting that outside perspective is helpful. Even my son, who’s 13 years old, I’ll pose a question to him and get a very fresh perspective sometimes that you wouldn’t expect. I think you can never underestimate the sources where you might get great ideas and great feedback.
Oscar: Great. What is the boldest move or decision you’ve ever made in your life?
Rob: In my life? I don’t know how … It was a bold decision to run with the bulls in Pamplona. I don’t know how bright it was, but it was certainly a decision that people ask me why I made it. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ll put that one down.
Oscar: It was a life experience.
Rob: It was definitely a life experience.
Oscar: Good for you. Good. Rob, if I say the words “trust” and “respect”, what do they mean to you?
Rob: They mean that, at the core, whoever you’re talking to, does what they say they’re going to do, and essentially isn’t lying to you. I’m a big fan of essentially doing what I say I’m going to do. If that means I have to give bad news because I know that I can’t deliver, you have to be willing to do that. When you get to the point where you know who you can trust, it makes business decisions so much easier, because those trustworthy colleagues, when they say they’re going to do something, they deliver.
Those that aren’t, now there’s always some unknown and uncertainty as you’re trying to make your planning. Those … On the trust side, I think that’s really what springs to my mind. On the respect side, it’s really as simple as treating people the way you want to be treated. The way you project respect, as a leader in the organization, really permeates its way through the organization. Frankly, disrespect just can’t be tolerated.
Oscar: Exactly. Final question. Let’s pretend for a moment that when you wake up tomorrow morning, MobileHelp is not there. What’s the next company that you’re going to launch?
Rob: That is another really good question. I think, between Emergen and MobileHelp, one of the things I’ve recognized, that the healthcare industry in general represents so much opportunity for new ways to do business. Frankly, what we did at MobileHelp changed the industry, and continues to change that industry. There are a lot of other healthcare industries that are ripe for good ideas and good businesses that will frankly help save us all money. We know that the healthcare system in general can’t support what’s coming in terms of the aging population, so there are going to have to be a lot of entrepreneurs coming up with very clever, innovative ways to really help save money in that system. I think the sky’s the limit in that world.
Oscar: Great, great. Again, congratulations on behalf of EO South Florida for your amazing success, your ranking on the 2014 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies in the United States. Thank you so much for helping to continue to fuel the entrepreneurial spirit in South Florida. Congratulations. Great having you in our studio.
Rob: Thank you very much.
Oscar: Be well.