As the president and co-founder of HMS Software, Chris Vandersluis has been instrumental in the growth and operations since 1984. Under his guidance, HMS has become recognized as one the foremost suppliers of project management products and one of the most significant suppliers of timesheet and project tracking software in the world. HMS is the publisher of TimeControl, one of the world’s most successful project-based timesheet systems.
Vandersluis has become widely recognized as an authority on enterprise project management and on enterprise project systems. He has written for Fortune, Ivey Business Journal, American Management Association, Chief Project Officer magazine and Computing Canada.
He often speaks at business functions around the world. Talks include tracking employee workloads, prioritizing business decisions, creating a mission statement, and the anatomy of the breakthrough.
Corporate clients have included Bombadier, Phillips, General Motors, Credit Suisse, Hydro Quebec, Ontario Hydro, and Rolls Royce.
You’ve got huge corporate clients under your belt – how did that happen?
Chris Vandersluis: GE is the biggest at the moment, although they may get eclipsed this year. We’ve never sold to a client our size. We are small band, less than twenty people in the company, on salary. We’ve never sold to a twenty-person company. From the very beginning, our very first client was Phillips. That was when it was just the two of us. We went up from there. We’ve always had this culture, in the business, of being a small niche solution provider for very large organizations. It doesn’t scare us to talk to the largest public or private sector organizations in the world. We’re comfortable doing that.
What would you say to an entrepreneur who has trepidation to hit the highest companies?
Chris Vandersluis: I guess the first thing is, there is nothing wrong with selling to a small company, as long as you sell to a lot of them. There is nothing inherently better about selling to a smaller company than a big company.
But if you want to, or your business plan says, there are a couple of things I’d say. Make sure you really know what you are doing in your particular genre. If you are going to talk to someone in a big organization, say, ‘we are not the largest company you are going to talk to, but we are really experts in this one area.’ They are always listening for that. No matter what size the organization is, you are still talking to a person who needs to solve a problem. Being really knowledgeable about this one thing you are trying to do makes a lot of sense. That’s true for any business in any sale you want to do.
We’ve been able to score business in the past when larger businesses had representatives who weren’t as knowledgeable about their own product. That’s paid dividends for us in a huge way. In our company, everyone has a fairly in-depth knowledge of what we do, and why it’s good. I talked to one of our marketing people just yesterday, and said, ‘just off the top of your head, what would be our unique selling points?’ She reeled off three or four just like that.
So, what are your unique selling points?
Chris Vandersluis: TimeControl is a timesheet system. Probably the number one unique thing about it is that it’s multifaceted, multipurpose. It’s pretty common to find timesheets. If you look up ‘timesheets’ on Google, I don’t know the exact number, but it’s a huge number.
Someone might say ‘I need it for payroll. We need a timesheet to know when you are here so we know what to pay you.’ If I go to a different part of the company, they might say, ‘timesheets are needed for billing, invoicing.’ And in another part of the business, they might say, ‘we need timesheets for cost control. We need to know how much time we are putting into these projects.’
We arrive to organizations that have two, three, four, five timesheets used at one time. We don’t have any illusion that people wake up on Friday going, ‘Timesheets, yay!’ Timesheets are usually a barrier between finishing your week and starting your weekend. If you are having to do more than one, that seems awful.
TimeControl’s first selling point is that it’s multipurpose. You can use the same timesheet for project management, cost control, payroll, human resources, invoicing, all of that can come from the same system.
Tell me about your biggest business challenge currently.
Chris Vandersluis: For us, we’ve shifted from traditional advertising that we might have done ten years ago, to being more findable. So, we put a higher priority on search engine optimization. When somebody has the kind of problem we can solve, it shows up higher in the search results. That’s just an ongoing challenge. We have somebody who manages that as their job all the time. Also, when they arrive at our site, we want to make sure people can get the information they need without having to jump through a lot of hoops. That’s different than it was ten years ago. Ten years ago, you would have had a landing page and say, ‘give me your email or phone number. We’ll start calling and emailing you,’ with the idea of creating some kind of massive funnel from which sales would eventually drop. In our particular industry, that’s just not as successful as it was in the past. That’s probably at the top of my list of challenges.
What for you epitomizes great leadership?
Chris Vandersluis: I think the first thing in that area is being willing to hire people that are smarter than me. A lot of people in business have the notion that they are the smartest person available. If you can’t accept contributions from the people you hire, if you really think you are the smartest person, that’s a barrier, or would have been for me. I’ve hired some really tremendous people who’ve stayed with me for a very long time. We’ve had people in this company who’ve stayed for over twenty-five years.
The second thing is, if you hire great people, point them in the direction of where you want to go and then let them tell you how to get there. I’ve never been a big fan of micromanagement. I’m in Tampa now, so I talk to my staff remotely every day. I’m in Montreal every three weeks. These things would have come to bite me big time if I’d been a micromanager. Our people have been tremendously effective by setting the goals we all have to meet. I think that would be key for entrepreneurs starting a business.
Hiring processes – what’s yours like?
Chris Vandersluis: I understand the challenge of an HR department is to cull the herd and get from a big number of applicants to a small number that’s manageable. But we have a screening process, where we have a couple of people in the office screen applications manually. Then we get down to the ones want. Then we meet the people.
The staff don’t let me do first meetings anymore. They say I’m too intimidating, which I completely disagree with, but I’ve accepted that as a given. We go through a couple of round of interviews.
The other thing that we have instituted on the technical side, is we really want people to show us they can do the technical work. So, one thing we do in the testing sense is, if we are talking about a Senior Programmer, is sit them down with one of our Senior Programmers. We’ll say, ‘make sure that these things on this resume are things they know how to do.’ They might give them a small challenge that might take an hour. Very quickly, if someone was not being forthcoming on their resume, it becomes evident.