We talked to Ben Brooks of PILOT about its software- based employee coaching and COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Brooks: Okay, all things considered. We’re all taking the threat of COVID-19 very seriously, not just to protect us, but everyone.
I do chuckle a bit when I get this question, though, as I’ve never in my career or life been asked so much about how my family is doing!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded PILOT.
Ben Brooks: PILOT was never a lightning bolt idea but more like watching a tree grow from nothing into something amazing, slowly, deliberately, carefully, over time.
The big “ah ha” moment for me was realizing that as an executive coach, I’d never been able to have the kind of large-scale impact I desired, as my calendar and available hours in the day were the same as anyone else. A fellow entrepreneur friend encouraged me to figure out a way to “scale myself” during a long drive, and that was the spark that created what is now PILOT.
How does PILOT innovate?
Ben Brooks: Our mission is for “Everyone to feel powerful at work.” What I noticed was that so many friends and colleagues were needlessly miserable in their jobs, the places where we spend a large chunk of our lives as adults. As an outsider, I saw how they were getting in their own way, and just how much power they had to change their circumstances, power that was invisible to them.
So PILOT is innovating by democratizing coaching and mentoring into a structured, software-supported experience. We help employees to truly “own their careers” through a combination of inward reflection, soliciting feedback, advocating for themselves, and taking action to follow through.
Our product has won multiple awards, including a Top HR Product of 2020 by HR Executive Magazine. We’re helping HR to reach an order of magnitude more employees with top talent development programs for the same budget/dollars. Employees are left feeling invested in, appreciated, empowered, and inspired.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ben Brooks: It has certainly been quite difficult, particularly in Q2, as sales activity virtually dried up. In addition, living in NYC’s Manhattan borough through a true crisis was frightening. For our employees, many have faced major challenges, including forced distance learning for their children, economic hardship, and family illness due to COVID-19.
However, there have been many bright spots this year as well. Given that we were a 100% remote-first team since our founding, we had zero learning curve when it came to working remotely. And our virtual model for delivering career development has actually been hugely helpful to our HR customers, who are often accustomed to in-person delivery. We’ve made it easy for them to switch to remote programs, and they actually see even better results with PILOT!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Brooks: Yes. We started by cutting many costs while seeking to avoid any pay cuts or job loss. I’m proud to say we succeeded in that regard, including securing financing as a further backstop to allow us to weather the storm.
Beyond the financials, we’ve had to ruthlessly prioritize many of our initiatives, features, and strategic priorities. Given the personal and professional headwinds we’ve all faced this year, we realized that we had to adjust our expectations and do less. With less throughput/capacity, that meant we had to focus on fewer things. It is always sad to take something off the list or say “not now,” but the upside has been moving a number of things forward at a much faster pace.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and PILOT in the future?
Ben Brooks: I’ve prioritized and invested in my personal growth and well-being for most of my life. That’s a combination of daily Vedic meditation, seeing a therapist, having my own coach/advisor, and staying physically active. It is a constant battle to ratchet down anxiety, and I continue to learn and grow in this regard as I get more experience.
We’re building something amazing with PILOT, so we’re ever more thoughtful in protecting what we’ve created. That ranges from our legal agreements, insurance coverages, IT security, cost structure, product strategy, financial liquidity, and much more. Founding a startup is risky, but now that we’ve created a thriving business, we must reduce risk as we grow.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ben Brooks: Our biggest competitor is the status quo — HR knowing they need to do more for employee career development but not taking action. Most organizations want to do more and reach more employees, but they rely on methods like annual performance reviews, online learning libraries, and non-scalable talent development programs that just don’t move the needle. PILOT makes it easy for everyone, and our business model makes it affordable to scale career development to 10X more employees.
There is a slew of low-cost coaching aggregators (think Uber for coaches) out there, but they have very mixed results and are still quite a bit more expensive while also cramming down coach pay to unsustainable levels. We’ve developed what I think is a smart approach that’s a hybrid of humans and technology, each doing what they do best.
Your final thoughts?
Ben Brooks: We are very excited about what we’re creating, and the life-changing (in the words of the employees who use our product) impact of feeling powerful at work.
If you’re an HR leader looking to make a difference, drive change, and build a legacy of helping others, check out our website. We’d love to give you leverage and help you advance your career by investing in your employees’ careers at scale!
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