About this Episode
CEO at Equus Software
Mark Thomas is the CEO at Equus Software, the global leader in cloud-based international relocation and mobility solutions. Thomas founded Equus Software in 1999 with Leonard Schuele and since then has built it into the world's leading mobility technology company. More than 300 organizations around the world rely on Equus tools and technology to automate mundane, transactional work so that global mobility teams, talent management professionals and other key stakeholders can focus on adding value to the business.
In this in-depth interview, Mark discusses his career in Equus and explains that today he is more focused on strategy than he was 10 years ago; tells that it was just a big coincidence how he got exposed to the relocation industry; describes the early days of Equus; reveals his belief that AI will have a marginal impact on mobility in the next 10 years; makes his case that Millennials expect everything to be available on their mobile devices; and admits that in Equus they never sit back on our laurels.
Brian Friedman: Hello, and once again, welcome to the View From The Top podcast, brought to you by Benivo. My name is Brian Friedman, I'm the Strategy Director of Benivo, the world's leading welcome-as-a-service mobility tech company. I'm delighted to say that today's guest on the View From The Top is Mark Thomas, who is the Founder and CEO of Equus Software. A native of Kansas, Mark took an undergraduate degree in journalism and advertising, and then a master's in business before moving into the technology sector. He launched Equus in 1999 and since then has built it into the world's leading mobility technology company. Equus Software has been recognized by Inc 5000 as one of the fastest growing companies in the United States, an amazing achievement. And they continue to expand with offices in Denver, Dallas, London, and Manila. Their relentless focus on creating innovative global workforce management solutions, has helped them become the market leader in our industry. Equus now works with over 300 organizations globally, and are rightly regarded as real true innovators in the mobility management technology area. So Mark, welcome to the View From The Top, and many congratulations on your impressive achievements to date.
Mark Thomas: Hi, Brian, thank you very much.
Brian Friedman: Well, Mark, let's get cracking. What I'd like to do is just find out a little bit more about yourself in your current role. So can you tell me a little bit about Mark, Mark, the man and about what your role is in the company, in Equus today?
Mark Thomas: Sure. Well, I suppose my role has evolved through the years as we've grown from a company of 12 people 10 years ago, to a company of almost 200 now. Obviously, the CEO position changes quite considerably. So today, I'm more focused on strategy than I was before. When we started out, I was writing code and building products. And, of course, doing sales and wearing a lot of hats. But today, I'm much less involved on the sales, I'm much less involved with any of the operational type issues, and I'm much more involved in strategy, and in particular, my passion is the product. So I'm quite involved in a lot of our product design, and certainly sort of plans and go forward, the roadmaps for what we're gonna be building in the future.
Brian Friedman: Okay. Now Mark, I want to understand, I'm sure the listeners want to understand, how you got there. I mean, let me just ask you, I look at the introduction I gave you and I think to myself, Mark took an undergraduate degree in journalism and advertising, and one would've thought that doing that you might end up in journalism or advertising, but you didn't, you ended up in technology. And not only did you end up in, but you ended up in technology in a pretty niche sector, the mobility industry. So how did you get from journalism, to technology, and then from technology to global mobility?
Mark Thomas: Right. Why am I not writing columns for the Financial Times? That's a good question.
Brian Friedman: Absolutely. Get your pen out.
Mark Thomas: Right. So yeah, I think it was just a big coincidence that happened, literally, right after I graduated from university, and I had met someone whose brother owned a small software company, and I was looking for a position and I was interviewing with various media outlets and things, but I want to speak to this guy, and they had never had a salesperson at this small software company, they'd been around about 10 years, and he decided that I might make a good salesman for them, young and wet behind the ears as I was.
Brian Friedman: You were what, early 20s at this point?
Mark Thomas: Exactly, yeah, early 20s. And so he was an engineering technical type, very technical, in fact, and decided that if someone was gonna come and sell his software, and solutions to companies out there that they needed to know how the software was built. So he put me through a programming course for the first six months I was with the company. So that's kind of where I got introduced, originally, to the technical side of things, and I'll come back to that, but then, from there, I went into sales for the company, and then eventually branched out, I went to work for some other companies that were doing hospital information systems. And I did that for, I don't know, the first, eight or nine years of my career. At that point, I transitioned into working more with the business and more of the business side of technology and working with engineers, and working with clients, a large financial FinTech company. And then, maybe after four or five years of that, I transitioned in very interested in the technical side of things on a project and had an opportunity to become a developer and started kind of back where I started, I started doing programming work, development work. And that's what I was doing when just prior to founding Equus, as an independent consultant, I was working on a contract for a large relocation service provider to help build some of the software they're going to use in-house. And that's where I got exposed to the relocation industry. I also was with my co-founder, Leonard Schuele, on the same project. And when that project wrapped up, Leonard and I saw an opportunity to start a relocation software business on our shingle out and started contacting a few companies, and were able to bootstrap ourselves from there.
Brian Friedman: Okay, that was the birth of Equus in 1999. Now, my Latin roots are pretty rubbish, but I do happen to know that Equus means horse is there a particular reason why you chose Equus as a name?
Mark Thomas: Well, it was almost a default decision. We went around and around looking at possible names and that was sort of the last compromised one that we agreed on. And there are some connotations with sort of honesty and charging into battle on your stead. And the fact that Leonard and I both live in Denver, Colorado, so our local American football team are called the Denver Broncos so there's a horse there, so. So it was sort of a combination of all those things that caused us to end up and also we were tired of looking at company names. So that's how we ended up by default calling ourselves Equus.
Brian Friedman: Cool. Okay, you told me a little bit about your route into where you are today, but tell me just a little bit more as you went through that route, there must people maybe even earlier in your life, in terms of teachers, educators who really inspired you, or people who set you out on the right direction? Could you tell us a bit about that? I mean, who was it that inspired you to go the way that you did? And in particular, what are the life lessons that they've taught you?
Mark Thomas: Well, I don't know so much about maybe life lessons, certainly, I got enough of those from my father, but when it comes to the business lessons I learned and maybe the mentors that have impacted me the most, I'd say, the founder of the company that I mentioned earlier, that initially hired me, had a very, I think, good perspective on how to build software correctly, and I've carried that with me my entire career, it's the reason that we're very successful here at Equus. And then at one point at that company, they hired a vice president of sales who became my boss, and that person also was an excellent mentor when it came to teaching me how to be a consultant to my clients and to care about the client's need and listen very well during the sales cycle, when you're trying to really gather as much information as you can to understand the needs of the client and then present them with a solution. So I'd say those two are, probably way back then, are still really the biggest influences on me in my career.
Brian Friedman: Okay, you've obviously have a passion for technology for many, many years so let's spend a bit of time talking about technology, but maybe start about the early days first of all, and then we'll get onto bit of blue-sky thinking about the future. But in the early days, what sort of technology were we talking about, was it just spreadsheet that were used even then, sort of above that level?
Mark Thomas: When you say early days, I guess, are you talking about early days of Equus, are you further back with that?
Brian Friedman: No, the early days of Equus.
Mark Thomas: Sure, interesting. The early days of Equus, our very first product was built specifically for the U.S. domestic relocation market and allowed clients to capture relocation expenses in a single place as well as perform the tax gross up work on those expensive, so it was an expense management platform. And it was not Internet-based, it was not browser based in any way, it was not designed to be connected to the Internet, of course, in '99, that wasn't unusual. And so that's where we started, we built our first prototype before we even started the company so that we could go out and talk to companies about what we would be building at that time.
Brian Friedman: Okay, and then how would you say it's changed over the last, I'm trying to think, 1999? So we're talking about 20-odd years, just under, how would you say now, compared to then, what you say would be the big differences?
Mark Thomas: Well, it's funny how things go around and never really change, I think, because in my first role way back then even before '99, back in my very first job, we were doing cloud computing, it was just by a different name. So we hosted the software in our data center, and our clients paid a subscription fee to have us handle everything that they needed done for them. We had all the hardware and everything, they just connected over, at that time, dial-up phone line connections, we called it time-sharing it wasn't calling cloud computing, but that's essentially the same thing that's happening today. The big difference, though, is the Internet and for those listening to this podcast, there was a time before there was an Internet. And we weren't as easily connected to everyone else and every other company all around the globe. So the Internet has created so much opportunity, I think, for disruption of old existing industries and for new companies to start with new ideas and to expand their footprint and their ideas vary widely, very rapidly. And there's a phrase that goes something like software is eating the world, and I think the Internet itself is really what's allowed that to accelerate 100-fold.
Brian Friedman: Okay, and what's next for Equus? I mean, obviously, it's a very sophisticated platform but there must be things that you're doing working on at the moment that you say, well, these are our priorities over the next 18 months or so. So what is it that we're gonna see in terms of new releases in the next 18 months or so?
Mark Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. So Equus, obviously, we're always working, and we continually invest in the software platform. So we believe that it's never done, the work is never done, we never sit back and sit back on our laurels, we're always trying to find ways to improve the software for our client. The current main push here is the employee experience, as well as essentially the user experience across the board, whether it be business partners of mobility, or the mobility team themselves. So we're working very hard to make that experience much more interactive, much more accessible and automated. So we're really working hard to automate where maybe in the past a human being might be required to do something, or make a decision, where can the software make that decision for them. And so those are the areas we're focusing on throughout the entire product feature set.
Brian Friedman: Yeah, and 'cause going forward, obviously, there's a lot of talk and work in the areas at the moment of artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, all these sorts of things, which I think if you have a very utopian view of the future, or indeed, have a dystopian view of the future. If you're still sitting there with your glass of whiskey, sort of shooting the breeze, thinking about what the future could be, what do you think technology could do to the global mobility profession, in say, 10 years?
Mark Thomas: Well, I think AI will have a marginal impact on mobility, and I hate to go on the record saying these things because it could come back to haunt me, but I think the next 10 years AI, as far as mobility itself, will have a marginal impact. So it'll have some impact. Today you're seeing AI used quite effectively for things like hiring and candidate selection, but I think, within mobility, you need to marry up data from other systems. So sources of data, HR data, for example, has to be married with the mobility data to be able do some of the more useful things like predicting success for an assignment, or looking at post-assignment retention prediction, or even predicting things like budget overruns on an individual basis, with this particular person, based on the profile exceed the budget that we've set. So I think those things can definitely happen in the next 10 years, and I think they will, to some extent, mostly for the larger programs, but I think that's also somewhat mitigated by the fact that if a company wants a particular person in a particular role, the technology is not going to override their decision. As far as virtual reality, you mentioned that, I think it's been anticipated and hyped for a very long time, and I think that's gonna be more of a novelty rather than disruptor in global mobility. I think there's some professions where virtual reality and augmented reality will certainly have a big impact, like the medical profession, but in terms of global mobility, we can already go out and do a 360 Street View of the New City we're moving to, there are plenty of real estate sites that allow us to walk around the houses, we're thinking about renting. So those things are there today, and doing it via a headset, or virtual 3D reality is a small enhancement over that, but nothing sort of transformative.
Brian Friedman: And what about data analytics? What role do you think that's gonna start playing in terms of health programs?
Mark Thomas: Absolutely. I think data analytics, and certainly, we're doing that today for our clients, analyzing the data that exists and trying to marry that up with some of the maybe talent data that exists for some of the purposes I mentioned before. So it's predictive analytics, and obviously mining your own data set. So we have hundreds of clients using our software, and certainly, we can go look at generic things like usage, how much usage is happening? So we analyze our own data. So we want to know if a user is navigating through our system, how do they normally navigate? Can we reduce the number of clicks that it takes for them to do this particular task? And we're looking at across hundreds of companies and users on our system, what are they doing today, and where can we go in and make their experience better? So we're using that for that purpose already, so. And then certainly within mobility, getting a handle on costs, understanding true costs in the future, and again, predicting things like budget overruns or exception requests, before they happen, I think could be quite useful.
Brian Friedman: Okay, now, obviously, the Equus platform, Assignment Pro is very popular, it's used by many companies worldwide. There's also an awful lot of companies that don't use it and still do rely on spreadsheets, indeed I suspect it's the vast majority still use spreadsheets, what do you think it is that holds companies back from not implementing a dedicated assignment management technology like yours or anybody else's? And what do you think the sort of main drivers are that make people decide that actually, what they are, we'd even not gonna go with a proprietary platform?
Mark Thomas: I think very often it's corporate strategy, HR strategy and priorities that drive companies to eventually decide that technology has a good return on investment for the mobility function. And if they haven't gone through some of those transformations, if they haven't done some of that sort of thinking within their HR team, then very often just managing things as they're currently being managed by a spreadsheet, or antiquated homegrown systems, it's an easy non-decision to make. But when we talk to companies, and certainly we go out and kick over as many rocks as we can, and try to find those companies that are currently using spreadsheets, we go and we have a return on investment analysis tool that we use, that doing things in spreadsheets are expensive, and that by investing in technology, they're actually gonna save money, at the same time, they're gonna increase the employee experience, they're gonna make the whole mobility program much smoother and better, they're gonna capture those workflows in a systematic way, and maybe that's a great opportunity, very often, most of our clients take the opportunity of implementing technology and use that to also transform their business processes and to streamline their business process.
Brian Friedman: You've mentioned the phrase employee experience a couple of times, so maybe let's just really dwell on that. Obviously, it starts with customer experience, and we hear employee experience and increasingly we're hearing assignee experience, these are the buzzwords of the year. And from my perspective, obviously at Benivo, we are an employee experience company, so this is actually very dear to our soul and obviously we know each other well, but tell me in your take, what is employee experience, and how does Equus enhance employee experience?
Mark Thomas: Well, I think for mobility, and just by the way, I just want to say I think you do have an amazing employee experience with your product, I've had the opportunity to have look at it multiple times, and I know we have some clients in common, and we'll be working together much more closely in the future, but I'd say in mobility, the employee experience obviously starts once an employee is selected, perhaps before that, but really their main experience is once they've been selected for assignment, once that clock starts ticking, it's a very stressful time for most employees. And certainly our research with talking to assignees themselves, it's indicated that initial period from selection to being on post is an extremely stressful time, and in the past, very often been asked to deal with a half a dozen or more different contacts and vendors to accomplish their move and getting on station. So based on that feedback we received, we've taken our particular employee experience and tried to make that whole period of stress, much, much less stressful by providing the employee with the information they need in one place so that they can go in and look at what's upcoming, what's happening today, what's happening in the future, as well as each service that might be performed for them, where are we at with that, when is my attacks-briefing scheduled, what's happening with my work visa? That sort of thing is all in one place so they don't have to talk to and go to multiple sources for that information. And it's a very clear calendar timeline of information, they can integrate that straight with their Outlook calendar, for example, so that everything that needs to happen is organized well for them. And that reduces that stress, which of course, a good thing when we're trying to move a talent from one place to another and get them as productive as possible in their new location.
Brian Friedman: When moving people from one location to another and the people we're moving these days, are younger people, I think back in the day, the typical assignee might be someone in their sort of late 30s, with maybe a spouse and a couple of kids or something, but these days, we're seeing many people much earlier in their career being moved either on project work, or short-term work, or even training graduates and in terms of, I mean, between offices, but what would you say is the difference you're seeing between the new statuses today and previous generations? I'm thinking here of generational differences, millennials, next gen, geners, whatever you call them, do you see them being a different breed in some way, or different expectations, or are they just the same?
Mark Thomas: I'd say certainly, they expect everything to be available on their mobile devices, that goes without saying today, I think, and they certainly never experienced the world without the Internet, as I was alluding to earlier, so they expect instant connectivity, instant communication, so those things, I think, are very different versus, 15 years ago, even with your traditional assignee profile. So yes, I think there's some differences there, but of course, when we create these sorts of new and better employee experiences on the mobile devices, and so on, everyone benefits from that. So I think, even your more traditional long-term of signing gets the same benefit for that, but maybe so these millennials, and these younger assignees driven the industry to have to adopt that.
Brian Friedman: Yeah, I mean, I have heard them referred to as the FANG, F-A-N-G generation, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google. And if we look at how they consume stuff, or in fact all of us, consume stuff these days, we are looking for insights, we are looking for recommendations from our peers, or based on our previous buying behaviors, we're looking at to be able to consume everything immediately and find any answer, and get any answer when we start as immediate as we want. So I suppose the expectations are gonna be much higher. Are you finding that's putting more pressure on you, as you develop your software to raise it to new standards, that maybe five years ago, you wouldn't have dreamt off?
Mark Thomas: Yeah, I think some of those things, that's absolutely true. But we kind of look for is there a solution already in the marketplace for that, and do we need to build this ourselves, or can we work with someone like Benivo to provide that sort of experience through our platform? So yes, I do think that what you said is true that the interaction and certainly the expectations of assignees today are different, and we have been certainly driven to meet some of those expectations with our products, and we're certainly doing that, but we don't like to fool ourselves into thinking that we're gonna be everything to everyone, and we're gonna provide everything that an assignee could need such as what you guys do.
Brian Friedman: One thing, to just change the subject slightly, let's move off technology. I'd like to just talk a few months about politics. And one of the debates I've been having with people, it's a question of actually, have we reached peak global mobility or is mobility gonna carry on continuing, is it gonna change, is it going to decrease? And the argument goes as follows, the argument on the one hand is globalization increases, because globalization always increases, technology makes globalization easier, and we've seen that throughout human history, the other argument is that we're now running into a situation where actually globalization is no longer seem to be overly a good thing by many people that seem to be a bad thing, a threat to countries' self-determination, and whether we're looking at that in the politics of Make America Great Again, or we're looking at in the politics of Brexit, or the politics of similar situations going on in many other countries. We're getting a walls coming up. I don't mean walls literally, though, I suppose I could do, I mean walls, like immigration customs barriers. Do you think we are at a point where there's gonna be a limit to globalization, there's a fight back against globalization? And if so, how do you think that could impact us in the world of mobility?
Mark Thomas: I don't think so. And that's really because I agree with your first statement that globalization is going to continue, it always has, it's going to continue to grow, it's a natural instinct to trade, been happening since mankind first figured out how to either take their camel from A to B to trade goods, for things that they didn't have, and shipping and so on. So I think globalization continues, it maybe looks a little different today, but companies are very powerful, they're a very powerful force, capitalism is a very powerful force. When opportunities exist, companies will find a way to adapt and take advantage of those opportunities. So based on that, I don't think it's going to contract in terms of the globalization. And yeah, maybe there's some nationalism happening globally, in some areas, but even then, I think companies find ways to adapt and sort of find places that maybe are more business friendly to do what they need to do, or they adapt and figure out how to do it in locations that maybe aren't as friendly anymore. And I think at a macro level, if companies are expanding, if hiring is increasing, obviously, mobility will increase right alongside of it. It may transform, I mean, I think mobility is certainly changing and I know you're very aware of this, and it's transforming into more local moves, local hires and commuters, short-term assignments, and so on, but it's not slowing down.
Brian Friedman: And we're pretty much out of time, actually, but just a couple of last questions is to follow on from that one, what about the industry itself? Well, do you think our industry, and I'm talking here from the supplier side, do you see that as growing or contracting at the moment bearing in mind that we've got maybe different types of moves happening, and we're getting different policies being put in place? Where do you see your market growing or contracting at the moment?
Mark Thomas: It depends on, I suppose, just like every change, there are winners and losers, and certainly within mobility, I think that'll be true as well, if the profile of assignment changes, and so therefore, their needs change, well, what the company is either willing to pay for or what is required to move someone, then certainly certain types of suppliers could win and certain types of suppliers could lose. I think, my outlook is that the industry is consolidating. So you're seeing that happen probably because of some of these other larger forces, but the consolidation itself is not necessarily a good or bad thing as long as you defend against monopolies or near monopolies. Consolidation can actually create opportunity for new companies, like Equus. We actually started because of consolidation in the relocation expense management space all those years ago and that allowed us to get a foothold and get started.
Brian Friedman: And Mark, we are pretty much out of time, there's just one last question I'd like to ask you if I may, and you've been incredibly successful with Equus, and I take my hat off to you, my question is this though, if you had your time again, and you were that sort of 20-year-old kid coming out of school, what would you do differently, if anything?
Mark Thomas: Yeah, so I think that's incredibly fortunate and incredibly grateful for what I have, it's been a fantastic journey. I wouldn't change a thing.
Brian Friedman: Well, on that happy note, I think we are actually pretty much out of time. So all that remains is for me to thank you, thank Mark Thomas for being on the podcast today. I'm sure we'll catch up again soon, but many, many thanks, Mark.
Mark Thomas: Brian, it's been my pleasure, thank you for having me.
Brian Friedman: And once again, thank you to all our podcast listeners. I hope you've enjoyed the View From The Top, this is Brian Friedman, and we'll be back again next week with another podcast. Thank you, everybody.