By Verne Harnish
For many scale-ups, it’s almost impossible to compete against tech startups for talent. Not so for CEO Sam Zietz’s interlocking companies TouchSuite, an 18-year-old fintech firm that provides North American companies with credit card processing services, and GRUBBRR, a startup that provides self-service technology for mobile and online ordering.
Zietz, whose 250 employees are headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla., has created his own “fishing hole for talent” by recruiting college athletes. Zietz tried to borrow the idea from a friend—a fellow CEO in Young Presidents’ Organization—after learning about it a decade ago. But when he reached out to a local university, he couldn’t get anywhere.
He was not willing to give up on the idea. “We believe there are a lot of innate skills developed playing team sports,” he explains. “You learn how to lead others. At the same time, you learn how to rely on others.”
Tapping an alma mater
So around five years ago, Zietz approached his alma mater, the University of Michigan. To his surprise, he learned there was a small department that was focused on providing career placement for student athletes. That was the beginning of an ongoing relationship.
Since then, Zietz has hired more than 25 student athletes as interns, sometimes extending the offer for permanent jobs. He found that athletes’ competitive spirit was a good fit for the culture of his companies, where one big indoor attraction is an elaborate indoor basketball court. “They want to win,” he says. “It’s a natural transition from wanting to win on the playing field to wanting to win in the business world.”
And he liked how receptive athletes are to feedback. “Athletes are used to being coached,” he says. “They love critiques. They consider it coaching and not criticism.”
Last year, he hired 50 interns, expanding beyond athletes to include students with other interests from Princeton University, where his daughter is a student; the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Fifteen worked on-site, while the rest, mostly contributing to the marketing department, did their internships remotely.
Zietz expanded the program beyond athletes when his daughter told him that many of her friends were losing their internships during the COVID-19 crisis. “I thought, ‘Problem? Opportunity! Let me see if I can help some of these kids,’” he says.
Extending a coaching program
Zietz has kept the interns engaged by bringing in top CEOs to speak to them and engaging his Scaling Up certified coach, Matt Kuttler, who normally guides the executive team, to coach them on professional skills. His leadership team has taught the new hires core values such as “Be an entrepreneur.”
“We want everyone to think entrepreneurially,” Zietz explains. “We want them to make decisions as if they own the place.”
That approach seems to be working. Thanks to the contributions of interns involved in product development, his team has created a food locker that automatically texts people who order take-out meals once their order is ready and placed inside. “It eliminates congestion at pickup and is good for social distancing,” says Zietz.
In the fourth quarter, his team plans to roll out another intern-powered innovation that allows for self-checkout in stores without bar code scanners, using artificial intelligence. It’s similar to an Amazon Go store, except, he notes, “We did it with a $20 camera. Amazon has $5 million worth of cameras in there.”
Zietz believes his companies have no time to waste when it comes to innovation. “Why put off anything until tomorrow?” he asks. “Our competition is working. Even the pace people walk at needs to be quicker.”
Fortunately, with so many student athletes around, it’s not hard to keep his team on the move.