Creating Employee Value with Rob Whalen of PTO Exchange
“Obviously, as the company leader, I have to think three chess moves ahead - I'm watching the world. And I think that the world is a really exciting place. I feel like it's 1994 all over again, when the internet was born. Web3 opens up so many opportunities.”
Rob Whalen studied accounting in the 1990s and planned to join a major firm. Instead, he began a career in sales.
25 years later, Rob co-founded PTO Exchange, an innovative employee benefits platform. Since then, he’s successfully built a healthy business and a thriving work culture.
In this episode of the CFO Yeah! podcast, we discussed the challenges of founding a company, the right approach to building a healthy culture, and his predictions for what’ll come next for finance professionals and businesses.
From sales to entrepreneurship
I’ve spent 25 years - most of my career - in sales, despite graduating in accounting from Seattle University.
At the time, I was headed to one of the big eight. But my uncle, who was in technology, advised me not to go in that direction. He set up an interview with a company that was selling semiconductors, and I got the job. So I started my professional life selling semiconductors!
In my family though, everyone’s a salesman, so that was just natural to me.
Recently, I co-founded PTO Exchange. I also operate as the CEO. We allow employees to exchange their unused PTO (paid time off) for goods, services and experiences.
So, we're a benefit that employers can implement into their company to give their employees more flexibility with an already accrued budgeted benefit.
A fiscal perspective on product and channel strategies
I think anyone who's educated in finance or accounting looks at business or problem solving through a P&L or ROI lens. And I've always done the same in everything that I've sold or built.
So, when I look at building a channel or a product, I always ask myself “how much investment are we putting into this channel, and what is the return on that investment over a certain timeline?”
And I do that with products too. You need to think about where your dollars are going and what you're investing in.
ROI mindset for business building
When I built PTO Exchange, I also approached it from that kind of vernacular. This is my third company, so I approached it a little differently compared to the previous ones.
The other two software companies I built didn’t have a large addressable market like PTO Exchange has. It’s extremely large. I approached this one more from the market size I was going after, rather than the productivity side.
In my first software company, for example, I looked at it more from a revenue productivity perspective.
Optimizing PTO and bringing value back to employees
When you’re an employee, you can use our platform to convert accrued leave into something else. What you can convert it into is up to the employer. Any employer can turn on what we call ‘plans’ within the platform. These plans dictate the different things that the employee could exchange their accrued leave for. In our early days, we started a contract with this very large organization, and realized that this company was making 18 million, and not paying out PTO to their workers. And what's really sad about it, is that these 18 million was not withheld from the executives, but from the rank and file. It was from people that could barely make ends meet.
To me, that's a sad definition of a corporation when a company steals the productivity that is given to them by their employees. So we had a mission: to help protect the accrued productivity of every worker out there today.
We sorted these exchangeable items into different pillars: financial, social, wellbeing. To give you an example, in our social pillar, you have the option to take an hour of your time and give it to a nonprofit. Then, you’ll get a tax deduction at the end of the year. We actually have a full giving and matching platform underneath the hood.
How to build company culture from scratch
Our company’s culture is a reflection of not just me, but of every employee in the company. Actually, I'm a big believer that it's not my company - it's everyone’s company.
I think the other thing about building a healthy and thriving corporate culture is about leading by example. As a CEO, you always must be first or second in the office, and last to leave, even on Fridays. It’s also really important for me to check in to see what my team are doing with their families over the weekend. It’s all about making it personal, and caring for people. Not just about the employees, but also their families. I know everyone's kids.
Lastly, I pay a lot of attention to the fact that everyone feels like they belong and are excited about our ambitions. We pay below market salaries. The people are here for this mission and they’re part of the company - it's their company. That’s the way I run it. And that's the way we've been so successful.
At some point, we went through a downturn as the company was growing in revenue, but running out of capital. And all of the executives jumped in and said: “we're willing to give up our salary to make this thing go.” And so I believe that as a leader, you should never separate yourself from the rank and file.
Building a roadmap for the future
We're really focused on delivering our current product to market and helping employers attract and retain their employees. The beauty of it is that we’re doing it with a budgeted benefit that they already have, and just making it more flexible.
Obviously, as the company leader, I have to think three chess moves ahead. And I think that the world is a really exciting place. I feel like it's 1994 all over again, when the internet was born: Web3 opens up so many opportunities.
I think the finance world and the world itself are going to change at a very rapid pace in the next five to seven years. I’m quite excited about crypto.
The funny thing is that everyone thinks crypto is just a currency. Of course, it is. But I also think what people don’t recognize is that there’s a whole new technology stack that comes with it.
I've been in technology for so long, I've seen so many stacks. One thing I’m sure, is that this one's really exciting! I think we’re going to see blockchain, Web3 technology embed itself into everything we do in the future.
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