A few weeks ago, we spoke with one of our most down-to-earth leaders yet – Robert Hessel of Source 1 Solutions. We talked about his philanthropic efforts, his book, the company, tech as a whole, talent, and Tampa.
On Source 1 Solutions
Matt Vaughn: For those unfamiliar with Source 1 Solutions, can you give us the 30,000-foot overview of what you do and what problem you solve?
Robert Hessel: Source 1 Solutions is a managed services provider. We provide white label solutions on behalf of larger customers like the Tech Datas, AT&Ts, and Verizons of the world. Oftentimes, when we do projects, people have no idea it’s Source 1 Solutions. Because essentially, we do it on behalf of someone else. That’s a big piece of our business.
We actually provide services in over 110 countries today for customers like Vodafone, Orange Business Services, Verizon, and other bigger distributors. Additionally, we do end user business here in Tampa Bay, because that’s how we can get out and give back to the community. About a year ago, we decided to focus more on the local market. If we can do this for large corporations around the globe, why not do it for the folks in our backyard?
Finally, we concentrate on security as well. We do commercial security systems, Honeywell mostly, for customers like the Florida Aquarium, Amalie Arena, and the Dali Museum. Basically, larger venues with more complex installations. This includes access control, video surveillance, integration projects – larger scale stuff.
More on the Source 1 Solutions white label
Matt: With the white label aspect, what’s the extent of it? Are they outsourcing certain tech supports, or are you guys throwing on Tech Data shirts and going on behalf of Tech Data on site?
Robert: Both. We are 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and we’re here in Clearwater, Florida. Every single call is answered by a Source 1 Solutions employee, and it’s always answered by an engineer. Even on Christmas day at 3 in the morning, if a customer has a problem, they’re not getting an answering service. An engineer answers the phone and works with them.
We benchmark our guys out there. They should be able to resolve 90% of all cases at level one. That’s part of their KPIs, and we lay those out to our clients. It’s a high level of service, because we deal with a lot of companies that outsource to countries like India, Cambodia, and Vietnam. There’s a cultural divide there, and sometimes there’s a big technology skillset gap when it comes to dealing with those companies. It slows service down for the clients. That’s not where we want to go, even if it is cheaper to do it that way, because that’s not what’s best for our customers. So far, it has paid off really well.
Roxanne Williams: I worked for an MSP before I started with FST, and it was the same thing there. You picked up the phone, and it was an engineer answering you. I always appreciated that about them, because it’s just an extra level of service. White glove.
Robert: Yeah, and you’re not missing half the information. They understand what they need to do to fix stuff. And to further your point, we do have field services all around the world. We do projects for our clients where they may do all the staging of equipment, or they may have us do it. We don’t care, we ‘à la carte’ our services based upon what they need from us. In North America alone, we have over 2,500 field engineers that can do projects for us.
Matt: Do you have any other localized offices and locations? Or, is it all hooked up through Field Nation or an equivalent?
Robert: No, we dislike Field Nation – and many larger companies do as well. Not because it’s a competitor to us, but really, you’re taking their proprietary information and posting it to a job board to go find a tech. A long time ago, we tried it. We put a specific project out, and got 20 responses very, very quickly. We responded to 3 of the techs, and none of them knew what to do. That is a very risky way to run your business.
Most of the people that work for us are a direct 1099, us-to-the-tech relationship. If we have a project in Atlanta, we can give you the names of 6 engineers, and we know their exact skillset. Those are the things that make a big difference. And in most cases, globally, we use direct tech relationships. When we can’t and we have to use partner companies, we try to use smaller companies so that we can get to know the people and get the level of service that our clients demand.
On his service in the Navy
Roxanne: Smart. You served in the US Navy. Can you tell us about your experience, and what made you join?
Robert: I grew up in a very small town in Michigan. The closest movie theater was 60 miles away from my house, and it took an hour to drive here. That was normal – we didn’t think anything about it. We had one grocery store, one gas station, one bank, and one blinking light. If you blinked, you passed town. So, there weren’t a lot of jobs up there.
I mean, you live there and that’s okay if that’s what you want, but people spend the wintertime unemployed because they work construction in the summer. I had never traveled, because you just don’t when you grow up in northern Michigan. You don’t even know there’s the rest of the world.
I’m 4th generation of military, so the service made sense to me. The rest of my family, on my father’s side, was Army. I was the only one in my family to be in the Navy. However, on my mom’s side, my grandfather was in the Navy. I never knew it until I joined. He was on the Indianapolis and got pulled of it with the measles two days before it sank.
Robert: Unfortunately, he never spoke about it, because he felt guilty. He teared up when I told him I was joining and told me he was proud of me. That’s how I found out that he was in the Navy.
When I finished my career, I was in Jacksonville, Florida, looking to move home. It was January, I was in the Navy truck with a short-sleeve shirt on, my arm out the window. I said, “Wait a minute. I’m going home? No way. I’m going to stay here and try to make it work in Jacksonville.” Which I did. I got in the health club business, and the guy that I worked for actually got me down to Tampa. He said, “Jacksonville’s Georgia, you don’t even know. Come down to Tampa.” And he was right. I love Tampa. This is home for me.
Roxanne: How long have you lived in Tampa now?
Robert: 20 years.
On his (and Source 1 Solutions) philanthropy
Matt: You’re involved with many charities. Can you tell us why community service is so important to you?
Robert: Yes. Source 1 Solutions supports 4 charities that fall in with our culture and values.
AMIkids, in the Largo area, is a big one. That’s for kids that are about to go into the system, usually because they’re getting in trouble. AMIkids takes the kids out of the system and provides alternatives to incarceration. The kids live at home, but they have to take the school bus every day, and they’re not allowed to take off sick. The school will tell them if they’re sick or not. They have a high success rate in turning these kids around and making them stewards of their community. When I was younger, influences outside of my parents were very important in me becoming who I am. So, that one is very close to me.
We support Feeding Tampa Bay. If you don’t know Thomas Mantz, he’s a wonderful man. I think everyone supports him.
Julie Weintraub’s foundation, Hands Across The Bay, is amazing. What she does for battered women and children is unbelievable. If you ever get invited to one of her events, you should go. It’s really shocking, and it’ll make you really appreciate her. She’s a dynamite woman.
We also support Community Services Foundation. They go into troubled, distressed areas of a community, and they buy the most valuable asset. Usually, that will be a house where drug activity goes on. They fix those properties up, and they mentor and counsel people that want to buy the home. It’s not subsidized, but it’s lower-cost housing. They did studies, and what they found is that when you make a house nicer and put a family in it, everything around it becomes nicer. Vagrant behavior gets pushed out, and that helps change the community.
Are you familiar with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers event?
Robert: So, he was a firefighter when 9/11 happened. He was on shift the day before, so he’d already been up for 24 hours. In fact, that wasn’t even his district. When the first tower got hit, his radio was on, so he heard it. He jumped back in his truck and drove to the city. By the time he got to the bridge, it was already closed, so he put on all of his gear, ran through the bridge and the towers, and ultimately ended up dying in the tower saving people’s lives.
What they do for the community is unbelievable. For veterans’ or first responders’ widows, they’ll either pay off their mortgage, build them a new house, or renovate their current home. It’s a great event. They have it here in Clearwater, in fact.
I think we had 30 of our team members go out and run the event last year. We’re doing it again this year.
On his book
Matt: You wrote a book, Safe City. Was this written with Parkland in mind?
Robert: No. I wrote it before Parkland, and it actually went number one by seller on Amazon when it came out.
I was part of a professional development group, and one of those things was to be published. You didn’t have to write a book, you could do blog posts or something like that. However, to become a bigger influence in your business, you must be credible, put documentation out there, and show you believe. The ultimate goal would be to write a book. So, that’s what I did.
Because of all the things that are happening on our soil now, people are nervous about running in a 5K over the Skyway Bridge, or going to a concert in a park. And what I wanted to do was give a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into making a city safe. Overall, we live in an incredibly safe world here in the USA. We’re very blessed, especially in Tampa Bay. The Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Pete Police Departments – all those guys work together so well. There is no ego between them. They work really hard to make this community safe.
If I interviewed the arena, I would ask, “What goes into a concert coming here?” What I didn’t know is that about a year before the concert even happens, state, local, and federal authorities are already looking into it. Who is the artist? What kind of trouble follows them or doesn’t follow them? What kind of people are going to be the audience? Are there going to be drugs? There are different responses for what they need.
They start planning probably a year before the event date, and they’re prepared for just about everything. They practice and drill. In fact, I think this city was rated number one for the Republican National Convention. Other cities have visited and talked to our folks because they want to know how we pulled off such a safe event. So, Safe City was meant to be a positive look on what goes into it. Also, telling people, “Your responsibility is to make your neighborhood safe by reporting things when you see them.”
On an average day as CEO of Source 1 Solutions
Roxanne: As CEO, what’s your day-to-day like? Can you walk us through an average day?
Robert: As a tech company, there is no such thing as ‘average.’ Anything can change at a moment’s notice. I’ve been very fortunate. In July, we’ll be 8 years old, and I have a really great management team, and great people out here. When I started the company, there was no money, so I did everything. Then, I started attracting talent.
I remember the first VP I hired – we couldn’t afford him. He was worth more than what we offered to pay him, but within 2 to 3 months, we made money from that decision. And so, we continued with that process. Because of these decisions, I’m not as involved in the day-to-day – the president, COO, CAO, and the vice presidents here run that. My days now are about strategy, acquisition targets, new technology that’s coming out, and where we need to be to ensure we continue to be successful. Not today, not tomorrow, but 1 year, 2 years, 3 years from now.
Roxanne: Nice. So, macro level.
Robert: Yeah. Strategy, big relationships, and building the wealth of Source 1 Solutions so that the people here have a job for a long, long time.
On shifting responsibility
Matt: Do you have any advice on passing off those responsibilities? We hear of executives with difficulty letting go quite often.
Robert: It’s a big time struggle, because it’s your baby. I mean this sincerely: hire the person that you need, and find a way to afford it. Good people are 10 times better than getting somebody just because they fit into your smaller budget. Hire the top talent you can get, pay them as much as you can afford, and then leave them alone. Let them do their job.
The thing that I preach, even to our management team here, is vital versus functional. We hire people to do functional jobs, we pay them to do the vital jobs inside of the company. I don’t want to see a VP getting bogged down with what’s going on with a ticket out here. That’s down the level. So, being able to fire yourself from things that you shouldn’t be doing and paying attention to things that you should be doing. It’s not easy, but when you can do it, you’ll see an exponential amount of growth.
The Source 1 Solutions technology
Roxanne: Since our readership is mostly tech nerds, can you tell us about the technologies that you use? I’m particularly interested in the MSP side.
Robert: Sure. We do what we call ‘swivel chair.’ Customers have their own monitoring tools, they have their own ticketing system. So, we’ll work in their system and then update ours so that we can have our workflows, monitoring alerts, and escalations happen as they need to. We, specifically, use ConnectWise. We like to keep it in the Tampa Bay family when we can.
So, it goes either way. Either the customer provides the tools, or we do. And we provide everything from the desktop to larger applications inside the data center.
Roxanne: You mentioned data center. You’re on prem, not cloud?
Robert: We have a combination of both, but remember, we do a lot of work for TelCos, which is building out for 5G stuff. I can’t tell you the clients that we do that for, but we do a lot of work in the data center. And a lot of work on enterprise facilities. That’s really our type of customer: large, global.
On his proudest accomplishment at Source 1 Solutions
Roxanne: What’s your proudest accomplishment here, so far?
Robert: Watching it grow and evolve to where it’s not me doing the day-to-day. When I see our people moving up in their professional life and growing, that’s what I’m most proud of. In North America, we have about ~100 employees. Roughly 50 work out of this office. We just don’t have turnover. There are a lot of people that have been here since the beginning, or have been here for 3 or 4 years, and they’re very happy. They just nominated us for Best Places to Work in Tampa Bay too, so those things make me very happy.
On his ‘oh shit’ moments
Matt: On the flip side of that, is there a particularly difficult project that you worked on? Any “oh shit” moments you learned from that our readers could gain insight from?
Robert: There are tons of things that have gone wrong. Prior to starting Source 1 Solutions, I was never involved in a global business.
Delivering service in North America is a pretty easy thing to do, just like delivering service in Europe is a pretty easy thing to do. However, when you deliver service in Latin America, India, Africa, and Asia, it gets more complicated. There are cultural differences, talent differences, communication barriers that can happen sometimes, etc.
Since we do third-party maintenance, moving products around and getting them into our depots is very complex in places like India. It’s getting harder in Asia, especially with tariffs going on right now. And Latin America is its own monster just because it’s such a different culture down there.
We had a lot of growing pains on learning global business, what we can do and what we can’t do, because it’s just not as easy as doing stuff here in North America.
Matt: If you could go back and do it all again with the insights that you have now, what would you have done differently?
Robert: You need to find strategic partnerships quickly. The best way to learn what your challenges are is to partner with companies that understand the business in India or Latin America. That would be the one thing I would do differently. We’re very fortunate in the fact that many of our customers are global, so they understand the complexities of service delivery. Sometimes, even better than we do. They understand something is going to be more expensive over there, because it’s harder than it would be if we were doing it here in Florida.
Talent in Tampa
Roxanne: Given that you’ve been in Tampa for so long, have you noticed a shift in terms of qualified tech talent?
Robert: I think Tampa has a really good chance to become a big tech area, especially with what Jeff Vinik is doing in this community. It’s not a big market city right now – most of the businesses are mid market. However, there are a ton of MSPs here. It’s harder to get talent, so it’s important to maintain our culture.
We are fortunate: we haven’t had a hard time recruiting. People understand what we do and they understand the values that we have. If you have a child and your child has a school play, don’t call in sick, don’t take vacation. Go to the play, take pictures, post them on our social media. We love that, and it’s important. Those are the things people know about this company.
We also are very involved with Pinellas Technical College and their internship program. There, we can get our talent and raise it up, and they only have our bad habits, not somebody else’s. But they have to finish school. They can work here, but if they drop out of the program, they don’t work here anymore. We will not hire them until they get their certificate or degree.
Roxanne: What degrees do you look for?
Robert: They have networking degrees over there, and they do desktop, so anything that falls around that parameter. If we get somebody in here that obtained their Fundamentals in Networking, we can teach them a lot of other stuff.
Matt: In the business of recruiting, we get questions constantly from students and career-changers. If they’re on the infrastructure side, I always say, “Go to an MSP and get the crap kicked out of you for two years and you’ll know everything.”
Robert: Yeah, it’s true.
Matt: It won’t be easy, you’ll work weird hours and odd shifts, and you’ll touch everything you’ve never touched before. But, it’s better than working entry-level for a company where you only touch their internal tech.
Robert: We have Tier 3 networking guys, and obviously, that’s their specialty. We don’t really expect them to be as good in server storage. They have to know how to work into it to about a Tier 2 standard. They can’t just be a CISCO guy, they have to know Extreme, they have to know HP.
On keeping talent in Tampa
Matt: What are your thoughts on why you’ve done so well at retaining talent? Considering a lot of talent seems to be going remote these days and/or moving out of Tampa, how do you keep people here?
Robert: That’s a big challenge. I think Jeff Vinik is really behind Tampa as a technology hub, and some of the things he’s doing will help. Pinellas Technical College does a good job with that. But it is a big challenge in Tampa, and as this market continues to grow, it will become a bigger challenge. More jobs, less people. I don’t know what all the answers are, but we do need to figure it out.
On certifications and internships
Roxanne: You mentioned certifications earlier. What certifications are actually valuable? What do you look for?
Robert: Well, because we’re in the channel, we don’t sell a lot of hardware. A lot of times, certifications are driven by the manufacturer. I won’t say any names, but a certain giant networking company charges you tons of money to get their certification courses done.
Matt: It rhymes with BISCO.
Robert: Yeah, just for an example.
Getting your degree in Networking at Pinellas Technical College, that’s a great way to start. At least you come in here with something. If you want to get into technology, Jakub, the head of the Clearwater campus of Pinellas Technical College, has a really great program. We can see it because we see the talent that comes out of it. We hired 3 out of 4 interns in our last go-around, and I think we’ll hire 3 out of the 4 that are currently here.
Interns hold training classes here for us. It’s not, “You’re an intern, go get me a cup of coffee.” You’re in a fire. As a result, we actually pay them more than we’re supposed to. We send them to hockey games. When we have events, sometimes they’re stuck manning the desk, so we try to make it up to them. I think that’s gotten back to the school. People want to come here.
Generally speaking, we don’t have a hard time getting applications for our internship program.
Tech in Tampa
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years when it comes to tech in Tampa Bay? I know that you touched on Vinik a little bit, but any specific hopes or wants?
Robert: I’d like to see more tech companies come here. It would’ve been great to win a bid for Amazon or something like that. Hopefully we can start landing those types of companies, because that will definitely help us retain talent. We’ll have to compete with them for the talent, but it’s alright. Just because they’re bigger doesn’t mean they’re better to work with, right? A lot of times, bigger is not. You have big corporate stuff that comes into play. I wouldn’t survive in that environment.
Roxanne: Yeah, lots of red rape.
Non-tech in Tampa!
Matt: What are some things you’re looking forward to in the next couple of years, outside of tech?
Robert: Retiring. I’m partners in a hotel and restaurant / bar in Costa Rica. That’s a side project that I really enjoy, because I know nothing about the hotel, restaurant, or bar business. It’s a new challenge for me.
I want to see this company continue to grow and create more jobs. We have an office in the UK, and we’re in acquisition talks right now to buy another company based out of London. We’ll continue to do what we’re doing here, and look at some acquisition targets and expand into other markets as well.
Roxanne: Ah, that’s what you were doing when I first messaged you!
Robert: Yes! I go back June 13th. So, yeah, I spend a lot of time over there.
Roxanne: How long this time?
Robert: Probably 4 weeks. I have my own place over there too. So, when I go, it’s kind of like going back home.
On his involvement with the tech community
Roxanne: Do you attend any tech events or meetups?
Robert: Yes. I recently joined the Tampa Bay Partnership. It’s quite exciting, because it’s a group of business leaders here in the community. They work behind the scenes to try to make Tampa a better place on transportation issues and things like that. Honestly, I’m very selective about what I attend. Certain networking events more appropriate for business development people to attend than me.
On Tampa’s transportation and infrastructure problem
Matt: What’s your answer to the transportation issues in Tampa? What’s your bet?
Robert: This is not anybody’s views except for my own, because I’ve been very fortunate to travel to different countries where public transportation is phenomenal. In fact, I’ve been staying in the UK for 6 years and I’ve never rented a car. The public transportation is so good, and it’s so much faster. If I wanted to drive from my apartment in Wokingham into London, it would probably take me 2 to 3 hours in the morning.
Robert: Tampa has a huge challenge because of all the water. You can only create so many roads. I don’t have the answer for it, but what we’re doing isn’t working. I mean, it seems that every time we do something, it just slows traffic down more.
Joshua Frank from USF did his thesis statement on eliminating 275 and how it would improve the traffic flow. It’s ridiculous, only 20% of the traffic on 275 goes through Tampa to go somewhere else. It’s all local traffic trying to go to their job in the morning and going home at night. Having more infrastructure, as in local roads, would actually improve the traffic flow here. He had some astounding facts.
Right now, I love Uber and Lyft. I’m a big fan of both those companies – I use them all weekend long for obvious reasons. Really, it’s so easy to get an Uber or a Lyft. However, some people can’t afford them, and our public transportation system is broken. I don’t have the answers, but that’s one of the things that the Tampa Bay Partnership works on, and I just joined that group. That’s going to be one of the issues that I stay close to, because I think we do need to challenge it. If you don’t have a vehicle right now, it’s very hard for you to have a job in Tampa.
Roxanne: Yeah. Fun fact about me. I’m from Toronto, and we have amazing public transportation. We get buses every 6 minutes, and the subway every 2 minutes in rush hour. Never was an issue, I never had a driver’s license there. I lived in Brisbane, Australia for a year – same thing there, amazing transportation.
However, I moved here in 2013, and had to get my driver’s license.
Robert: From my house alone, I’d have to walk about a mile and a half to get to the bus station. Not a big deal until summertime. Then, it would take me probably 2 hours to get to work. And I live 15 minutes from here.
Roxanne: I live in Clearwater, right off of the causeway. FST is in Ybor. With the causeway being 2 lanes, if somebody crashes, okay, my commute just turned into an hour and a half. But it’s usually half an hour in the morning, which is doable. I don’t hate that. On the way back, however, it’s over an hour to get home.
Robert: I love Tampa, but if anybody asks me for a meeting in the afternoon in Tampa, I do everything I can not to accept it because it’s just so hard, the traffic over there.
Book / podcast recs!
Matt: What are your book or podcast recommendations? Can be entrepreneurship, tech-related, personal growth, or fiction.
Robert: 2 years ago, I started reading every day. Prior to that, I probably only read newspaper articles.
If you look at the successful people in the community, I bet if you sit down and ask them, they all read a ton. It’s how you learn. I wasted a lot of my years not doing that. I learn so much from reading books, whether about myself or about ideas on how I can transform the business or motivate our people differently.
For somebody looking to start a business, I’d tell them to read Never Split the Difference. It’s written by an ex-FBI hostage negotiator, and it’s basically about how to win in negotiations. It’s a great book. I wish I read that one when I was younger.
This one, I actually distributed to a lot of people here: Robin Sharma’s 5 AM Club. It’s a very, very good book about the benefits of waking up at 5am. He talks about the 20/20/20 rule. Work out for 20 minutes, read for 20 minutes, and then spend 20 minutes meditating and being grateful.
Roxanne: Oh my gosh. I want to read that. That is relevant to my interests. [Edit: Robert is awesome, he gave me a copy of the book.]
Roxanne: Who is someone in Tampa that you think is doing something cool and innovative, when it comes to tech?
Robert: The amazing people at Synapse! That’s a great start for the technology side of it.
Matt: Any further thoughts you want to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Source 1 Solutions, or for yourself?
Robert: An exciting thing for the company is the Tunnel to Towers event. Last year, we had about 36 people. Afterwards, I took them all to a restaurant that opened specifically for us. We had food and drinks, because I was really proud of the representation we got. We came close to beating the Dunedin Fire Department on raising money. Our marketing team got a little Dunedin Fire Department challenge battle going back and forth. I’m excited about raising money again this year, because it’s a really fun day out with the company.
About Source 1 Solutions:
Source 1 Solutions’ ultimate goal is to become the IT partner your business always wished for by upgrading the way your business works through the transformative power of the latest technologies. They work with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, focused on helping you reach your true potential by taking a custom approach to your specific requirements. Learn more here.
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