“Talent is useless without self-discipline, hard work and thick skin” with Samer Hamadeh and Chaya Weiner
Talent is useless without self-discipline, hard work and thick skin. For every “yes” I get from a customer or investor, I’ve heard thousands of “no’s.” I’m not easily discouraged. I had the pleasure of interviewing Samer Hamadeh, founder & CEO of Zeel, a high growth technology start up and the nation’s largest provider of on-demand wellness services. A serial entrepreneur, Hamadeh has created, led and advised dozens of internet and tech-based companies since graduating from Stanford University in the early 1990s. In December 2012, Hamadeh launched Zeel Massage On Demand® — the first app-based at-home massage service provided by licensed, vetted therapists across the country. The company has since expanded to include Zeel@Work and Zeel Spa®, software solutions for delivering wellness to offices, hotels and spas nationwide. Zeel has been ranked among the Inc. 5000 and Crain’s Fast 50 for two consecutive years. In 2018, Hamadeh was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, celebrating the nation’s most innovative business leaders. Hamadeh is an investment scout at Lightspeed Venture Partners and a venture partner at NYC-based Corigin Ventures. Hamadeh first became interested in home delivery services in 2008 as an investor and board member of Dotmenu, the campus food delivery service, that sold to GrubHub (NYSE: GRUB) in August 2011. From 1998–2006, Hamadeh was co-founder and CEO of Vault.com, an early job board and career information platform, that sold in October 2007 to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a New York-based private-equity firm. While still at Stanford, Hamadeh co-founded a customized-textbook printing company and later co-authored bestsellers The Internship Bible and America’s Top Internships (Random House/Princeton Review) along with his college roommate, Mark Oldman. Hamadeh sits on the board of the PeaceWorks Foundation and is a board observer, angel investor, and advisor to nearly a dozen early-stage companies. He also serves as a mentor at German Accelerator and Lazaridis Institute and is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO)’s NY Metro chapter. A David Rockefeller Fellow, Hamadeh holds a BS in chemistry and an MS in chemical engineering from Stanford University. Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path? In early 2008, I joined the board and made an angel investment in Dotmenu, the campus food delivery service that sold to GrubHub in August 2011. I saw the beauty of home delivery and envisioned the opportunity for wellness services that could be married to the GPS-based tech being used by Uber and the other early ride-sharing services. Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that? In 2011, we launched the first version of Zeel as an online wellness marketplace with a dozen different verticals. A year later, it just wasn’t working. There was too much friction in the booking process, appointment requests were overwhelmingly for massage within a short window of time, and we weren’t fulfilling the vast majority of the requests. While my gut told me to pivot towards massage as the only service, launch an app and prove out that single vertical, I had investors and team members who were very against the idea of Zeel becoming a “massage company.” In the end, I made the call; but that hesitation lost me precious months in execution. My lesson learned: trust your gut, see a path and act. I’m still a very thoughtful data-driven leader, but this is my third start-up. My polling days are pretty much over. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each. 1. Talent is useless without self-discipline, hard work and thick skin. For every “yes” I get from a customer or investor, I’ve heard thousands of “no’s.” I’m not easily discouraged. 2. Love what you do. Choose a business you are passionate about. I have been lucky enough to actually enjoy my career and to make some money along the way. I always advise people who are just starting out that entrepreneurship is all-encompassing — if you don’t love what you do, you’re in trouble. 3. Customer care is just good business. When I launched Zeel, I had differentiators in mind that that I knew would really set Zeel apart. Some include: a. An unwavering dedication to trust and safety through an innovative and robust vetting process that’s setting the standard among on-demand platforms. b. Treating our providers as if the company depends on them, because it does. I’ve frequently been asked to lower provider pay in order to improve our “take rate,” and I just won’t do it because a well-paid therapist is a happy therapist who gives a more effective massage. c. Extreme customer service. Every one of our new employees reads “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh. I was inspired by Zappos and the company’s pure commitment to customer service. 4. Pursue work/life integration as opposed to work/life balance. I’ve been a CEO since I was in my mid-twenties. More than two decades later, I’ve learned that most entrepreneurs are not going to be able to work and play in equal parts. We’re driven by work and working around the clock for our investors, customers and teams. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever take a vacation. It just means I’ll be sitting at the pool with a laptop, a cell phone and a stack of papers, or I’ll play a round of twilight golf when our office is least busy and then get right back to work. 5. Find a way to unplug. Anyone who knows me knows that I am constantly on my cell phone. The running joke in my family is that the only time I’m not on the phone is when I’m getting a Zeel massage. What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Again, my advice would be to love what you do. When you’re in a business you are passionate about, it doesn’t feel so much like work. Entrepreneurship is a 24/7 job and it’s easy to burn out if you don’t have a true passion for the business. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story? My father. He had an office in the back of our house and seeing him work for himself is what really inspired me to become an entrepreneur myself. At age 12, I created a recess snack line. I went to Costco, bought M&M’s and sold them for 50 cents each — making a $25.00 profit five days a week in 7th grade. That feeling of making money for myself was very rewarding. What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally? Right now, we’re very focused on raising a Series C and blowing out our B2B offering, which is really changing the way U.S. corporations think about benefits and employee wellness. We’re basically saying, “give your employees moments of rest and relaxation in-office and at-home and you will accrue a significant increase in employee productivity and a reduction in absenteeism.” We’ve had employers already tell us that indeed, they’re seeing these very effects already. A few HR managers half-joke that everyone shows up on Zeel wellness days to get chair massage, attend yoga class or participate in group mindfulness. My goal is to keep this momentum going. What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy? When I think of legacy, I think of my children. It is very important to me that they know their father loved them dearly, was a good man, and trained them to be the next generation of kind, thoughtful, solid leader citizens. All the rest is pretty secondary. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger! I think in a way I have already started a movement that enhances people’s lives, through Zeel. Most people don’t have the opportunity to take time for wellness, which is crucial to living a healthy and happy life. Zeel gives others the opportunity to take time for themselves at the click of a button. How can our readers follow you on social media? Instagram: @getzeel Facebook: @GetZeel Twitter: @GetZeel Thank you for all of these great insights!