When you meet Tomas Gorny today, in the sun-filled offices of his latest company, Nextiva,, it's clear that life is good. Nextiva, a fast-growing communications company that's on track to earn $130 million [self-reported] this year, is entirely self-funded; it was seeded by the proceeds of Gorny's earlier business ventures, one of which he sold to Warburg Pincus for a reported billion dollars. [Disclosure: I was the customer service keynote speaker for NEXTCON, a business conference sponsored by Nextiva.]
The success of Nextiva leaves Gorny well positioned and enjoying life in his spare but spacious office, complete with a humanoid robot to stand in for him when he's away from the company's headquarters.
But life wasn't always thus.
When Gorny landed in the U.S. from his native Poland, he was 20 years old, had no money in his pocket, and didn't know the language, but he determined to set the world on fire as an entrepreneur. First things first, though. He found an apartment in a rough part of Hollywood and managed to scrounge together his first and last month's rent for a deposit.
It wasn't easy to keep the lights on and the rent paid; the jobs Gorny could find were part-time and low-yield: He would valet park cars; on nights and weekends he found work with a friend as carpet cleaners, shampooing carpets in office buildings in the off-hours after everybody had left.
With the majority of his time, Gorny pursued his entrepreneurial dreams. His first business in the States was a web hosting company; as one of its early members, Gorny made what he describes as "a decent profit from"-and was finally able to buy a house and a car-but then he lost nearly everything as a result of the dotcom crash.
"It was quite a learning experience to lose almost everything. When I say 'almost everything,' I'm not exaggerating; this was close-to-the-wire living. Beyond my mortgage, I had very little money to allocate for anything else. But I learned so much during that experience that I wouldn't trade in the learning that I got. Coming out of the experience, I turned to building technology companies, self-funding them this time around--I'd learned!--and relying on strong financial discipline. I feel this ultimately got me to where I am today, and is propelling the growth of Nextiva as we move forward here as well."
Nextiva currently serves the communications needs of over 150,000 businesses, including Burger King, Allstate, Nissan, Delta and the Conan Show (truly). After years of ultra-fast growth, the company's operations now occupy most of a three-story, Class A office building; when they moved in here, just five years ago, they didn't even need a full, single floor. They've similarly grown in that time from just 100 employees to more than 750, all of whom I found on my visit to be friendly and laid back.
Gorny, however, is far from laid back. He has an intensity that is hard to resist. (He's also a health and fitness nut; asking if I was thirsty, I foolishly said "yes" and he excitedly presented me with his latest obsession, some kind of green, fortified water. I told him I was thirsty, but not that thirsty.)
Beverages aside, what Gorny wanted to talk about was what had compelled him to create what he says is a new kind of business communication company:
Starting with the business phone system: Personal frustration had a lot to do with it--the terrible experience I had purchasing and managing a phone system from a large provider in the space. It cost a fortune, it required a brutally complicated implementation process, and we faced repeated issues: system went down, poor customer service; the works). The industry hadn't seen innovation in the past 50 years and I set out to create a product that would change this for both internal and external company communications.
I asked Gorny how he approaches innovation and product development when he is considering a new business venture or opportunity. "The key principle I use to determine viability of a product or business is first recognizing a gap in the market, then uncovering if there is a viable market in that gap. The value needs to be dramatic and the solution has to be transformational. The second essential principle that I stick to, before pursuing anything, is this: I need to believe that my solution would be worth paying for as if I were the user. Finally, from a business perspective, the opportunity needs to feel good enough to me overall that I feel comfortable betting my own money, which I always do if the opportunity looks right."
Certainly, trendspotting has to be part of this as well. I wanted to know what he is seeing in the business communication landscape-what is bothering or enticing customers these days, and how he is planning to address customer frustrations and desires. Gorny pulled no punches: "Business communications are in a state of crisis. There are more ways to connect with customers than ever, but they're not integrated." It's a mess, Gorny says, and it results in a fragmented, incomplete understanding of customers. Today, many teams touch the customer: sales, product, customer service, marketing, social, etc. and they use some 12-15 applications to manage customer communications, creating a confusing, fragmented and incorrect view of the customer."
This "crisis," as Gorny terms it, is the opportunity he sees today and in the future. "We've reimagined how we communicate with customers with a purpose-built platform designed to solve this crisis, by helping companies capture a full picture of the customer at an individual level and in real-time, and present it in a way that is actionable for every level across the organization, from the customer-facing employee to the CEO. And we're doing it in a way that brings a streamlined simplicity like you'll encounter at Netflix and Uber and Amazon to companies of all sizes and shapes to solve the business communications crisis."
At this point the interview was winding down, and Gorny was interrupted by the excited sounds of his children arriving at the office to see dad (he has five, three of whom were present), so I asked him for some final thoughts about the future. "Although we're a tech company, we're very much a human company, investing in human beings to drive customer experience directly--and, of course, helping our customers do the same for their customers. So, If I were to leave you with one thought about the future, it's this: Customer experience automation is not about Man vs. Machine, it's Man and Machine, working in harmony."