INTERVIEW

Ilias Vartholomaios, CEO and Co-Founder, Owiwi

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When I asked for an expert on sales and leadership personality testing, I couldn’t have found a more friendly and open contact than Ilias. He was frank and scientific about the Owiwi system, and the personality traits he recommends businesses – depending on the business – should be looking for. We embarked on a personality test exploration across nations, industries, and skill types, with a number of surprising and helpful revelations.

Owiwi is a an interactive, gamified way to understand yourself and the type of businesses you might want to apply to as a candidate, or skills you might look for as an employer based on a large candidate benchmark. You can start your own journey at  https://owiwi.co.uk/

You can read Ilias’s full biography here

 

Jamie: Ilias, just to start off, in your career so far, what have you found most fulfilling? 

Ilias: I guess my answer is two-fold, in the sense that when I first started at Owiwi, I was immediately fulfilled by the fact that I was able to do something of my own. It was something that I always wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily expect for it to happen at such a young age. I started at Owiwi with an idea at 22 along with my co-founder Athina Polina Dova, and we established our business as a legal entity a year later. It was always something that I thought I would be doing in my thirties after having put some money to the side. But as fate would have it, I was allowed to do it much earlier.

An important aspect is that I’m actually involved in a field that I find extremely interesting on a personal level, which is video games. I always wanted to work in the video game industry but also wanted to be involved on the creative side of things; but with my background in business management, I couldn’t do that. Coming across elements like gamification and seeing how we can blend business and game mechanics together, and then having the opportunity to put that into effect through Owiwi, it was like a dream come true. It’s being involved in something that I’m passionate about, even if I don’t have the time to play video games, anymore.

On another level and over time, I started seeing the value that we provide to companies and to our users. When you start receiving messages and testimonials, with people reaching out and telling you, “Oh my God, this tool really helped me.”

Either by helping them to discover their talents or to learn more about themselves or perhaps they found or landed a job they really wanted – it was immensely gratifying as a founder and as an entrepreneur. It took us a while before we could reach that point because we had to wait for the test of time, but when we did, there was a tremendous surge of excitement.

 

Jamie: Do you consider yourself to be in sales?

Ilias: Absolutely, one hundred percent, even though I did not want to necessarily be involved in sales in the beginning.

 

Jamie: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship in a small company between being the CEO and effectively needing to be a salesperson?

Ilias: For better or worse, you have to wear a lot of different hats, especially when you are a small team.

The thing that you end up realizing very quickly, especially if you want to be successful is that you are always in sales mode. The delivery and communication method may change, but you are always representing, being a spokesperson and ambassador for your company and product.

Being a start-up, you are constantly presented with all kinds of opportunities to pitch your company, whether it is to successfully raise funds, which is also a form of sales in my opinion; at least in terms of reaching out to angel investors, or you might be talking to a prospective client or someone who down the line might end up being interested in your services. You never know. It is one of those things where, especially being within the HR industry, you should leave no stone unturned. I don’t want to say that anyone who ever recruits is a potential client; but at the same time I do believe it a little bit – but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of focusing your energy productively.

The truth is you never know where the sale is going to come from. You never know who you are talking to. You might be talking to a business owner who you think is not involved in hiring or recruitment, but he may end up being the one who is signing off on the purchase.

It is one of those things that I think also has to do with the sales style of communication that a lot of different people have.

I do not identify myself as someone who will make extravagant and bold claims. I try to keep a low profile and let my results speak for themselves.

I will never go ahead and say that I have a super innovative tool unless I am pitching to an investor. Things like that I feel aren’t my prerogative to say, and I’ll leave it to the market to define whether or not something is considered innovative because I am biased. I think it’s the greatest product in the world. It really depends on the context and the audience, but the general aspect of communication, whether it is in sales or PR – is definitely something that I found was a much bigger and more important than I originally anticipated.

 

Jamie: How did you go about choosing the product that you wanted to sell?

Ilias: In our case, having a single product simplifies things. It’s not like I have to make an argument in my head of which subset of the product you need. We don’t have a portfolio of products to offer, we offer a working tool, which helps recruiters and TA managers to efficiently and accurately screen a candidate’s soft skills.

With that being said, It comes down to just listening to what it is the prospective client needs and wants. I’m the kind of person whereupon hearing what the client says or needs, I’ll put my own perspective and opinion into it. I might even recommend an alternative solution if I feel that is a better fit for them or that we cannot help. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the notion of a bad-fit client. Now that I’ve been in the market for a few years, I definitely understand you really need to be specific about who you are targeting, and that not all people who purchase your product/services are necessarily good clients.

To that end, we are prepared to leave money on the table. Maybe, that doesn’t make me a good salesperson, but these people keep coming back to me for opinions, for feedback, and in some cases, even come back as customers to purchase my product. We are in a very niche market so immediately that facilitates the discussion, allowing us to go in with a laser focus, determining the pain points and coming up with a resolution.

 

Jamie: Is Owiwi a sales-specific tool?

Ilias: It’s not sales-specific, but it can be used for sales positions as well as many other different types of functions and job roles. The idea is that we are a two-sided platform. On the one hand, we serve what we call B2C. Our consumers, our users, are job seekers or candidates who are looking for personal self-development. We offer them a free assessment tool which is in the form of a game. According to how they respond to the answers, our algorithm then creates a comprehensive soft skills profile indicating to them what their strengths are and potential areas of improvement as well as feedback on what they can do to improve the skills that we assess, which are eight in total.

On the other side of the service, we address our B2B. This is where we sell our platform and dashboard to companies; predominantly mid-market and enterprise-level organizations. Essentially, they purchase access to our dashboard, where they can then issue and send out invitations to their prospective employees. They can assess them. They receive much more in-depth reporting than you would receive as a candidate deciding to play on their own. I guess one of the key value propositions, and this is where I can give you more quantitative information, is the fact that we provide benchmarks and norms to those recruiters.

The idea is that we now have approximately 350,000 candidates who have completed our assessments, and we have the results within our database. Upon registration, we request a lot of demographic information which is required because through that we essentially derive much more targeted and layered benchmarks and norms that allow companies to carry out comparisons. For example, going into our dashboard for the first time, the default norm and benchmark that will show is everyone who has ever played the game.

Now, we know that this is not necessarily relative to you because what makes a good salesperson in the UK is not going to be the same as to what it takes to be a successful salesperson in Japan, for example. The idea is that we can then start to drill down deeper and say, “Okay. What do sales reps look like in terms of their soft skills? What do they look like if they are based in the UK, have a master’s degree, have 5 years of work experience, and work within the pharmaceutical industry?”

We can then create a specific norm for that. Or for a retail focus, let’s use Dixon’s for an example. What does a retail floor person look like coming out of university? Aged 18 to 21, with a bachelor’s degree or not. Then, we can really start to create different benchmarks and norms based on those parameters. It is really interesting to see how much the definitions of certain skills change according to the culture of the region and seniority levels. I would say that those two are the biggest variables across all sorts of sales norms that we have: region and seniority.

A very interesting insight is that

although, there is (to a very large degree) a strong overlap – about sixty to seventy percent – in what skills are thought to be necessary across all regions for salespeople,

in some cases, for example in Turkey and Greece, decision making is not within the top four soft skills that they look for in a salesperson.

 

Adaptability and willingness to change is something that seems to be relevant across all positions, countries and seniorities. The hypothesis here is that being able to adapt to the client’s needs and being able to decide on the fly that perhaps I need to pitch another product, or I can see that this person is not responding positively, so maybe I should try and change my approach.

Then finally, we have found the soft skill of resilience to be relevant across all positions. We define this ability not only in terms of how much you can “take” in terms of pressure; but also how quickly and well you’ll recover from setbacks because you will suffer setbacks. The goal is to come back stronger than before. I think that working in sales, having strong resilience is super important

because no matter what the context is, for example, if you are an outbound agent making hundreds of calls a day, getting rejected can be quite tough psychologically. You need to be okay with getting rejected. Even if you are a dedicated account manager and you are working on very high-level accounts, where you might be working for 7 months trying to close the deal and then all of a sudden it just goes south, and you lose it.

 

Jamie: Do you evaluate people based on their appropriateness for new business versus account manager positions?

Ilias: Yes. The way that we define that is based on the number of years of experience that they have. When they are signing up, they essentially pick from a drop-down list of how many years of experience they have. It can be very broadly categorized as entry-level, middle level, and senior level. Within those ranges, the job positions might vary quite a bit. Even though it is the same position, the way that the company names or labels that position might be different. Essentially, right now internally, as far as Owiwi is concerned, we are trying to consolidate and create clusters through machine learning, so we can create even more relevant norms for more general positions.

 

Jamie: Do you benchmark the skills of a new business hunter versus an account manager?

Ilias: We can and have segmented norms based on that, and we can create norms upon request; data allowing of course. We look to see whether we have enough data to support this norm, statistically speaking. To have a statistically sound norm, we need at least two hundred and fifty people applying under the same position or label. Obviously, all of these factors change according to what sector industry and the job role you have.

For example, something that we have seen is extremely important in the pharmaceuticals industry is the soft skill of integrity. This is something that they are really interested in; it is a little bit surprising, but then again they are handling quite a lot of confidential information. The same goes for the financial/banking sector.

 

We have seen that this is something that a lot of companies request from us as a skill to assess their sales teams. The same also applies to banks in a lot of cashier positions, but that is not always relevant to sales perse. We have seen that for a lot of commission-based salespeople, we see the aspect of accountability is extremely important to those who are being assessed.

 

Jamie: Are all of your measurements based on a sliding scale where more is always better for a salesperson?

Ilias: In terms of how we score it, it is essentially, a percentile. The score is out of 100%. Now, here is the thing. Just because someone suddenly has a low score in one of our skills, that does not mean that he or she is not good for the job. This also changes according to the seniority that they’ll have.

For example, and to put it in context, a lot of senior-level managers will tend to show very low scores in flexibility and willingness to change. This does not mean that they are unable or unwilling to change or adapt, but they have accrued experience over time where they can make decisions with greater ease and more intuitively. Whereas you might see an entry-level candidate who has extremely high willingness to change and how that might manifest is that they might just start agreeing to anything and everything. If I am one of those candidates and I have extremely high levels of willingness to change, you might come to me as my supervisor, and you might say, “I think we should do this. We should also do that, and we should also do this”, and I just say “yes” to everything because I am getting excited and I am getting over-enthusiastic. It is not necessarily a good thing. It really depends on the role and industry.

With developers and we see this a lot, with different quality skills and a load of decision-making skills. The reason for this is because the employees will follow a very specific set of instructions, especially in very large enterprise organizations where a line of production needs them to only repeat a task over and over again. They don’t care whether or not you have higher decision-making skills because to them, they correlate this with people that have career aspirations and it might sound harsh, but this is how companies might see it, “I just want a developer who will be a worker bee, doing their job, and not someone aspiring to be CTO”.

 

Jamie: Are there any of the characteristics you measure that if you were to score badly in, then that would be an indicator that the person should not go into sales? 

Ilias: Resilience for sure, that is the number one soft skill that all sales roles need and is most commonly requested.

 

Jamie: Is there a certain bar out of a hundred where below this level you shouldn’t be a salesperson? 

Ilias: We don’t use those kinds of absolute terms; that you should definitely not hire this person, for example. This is left to the discretion of the recruiter. Soft skills are trainable, so they aren’t something that remains static. You can develop them. It really depends on the company’s policy and culture with regards to training and learning and development – whether they are hiring for potential.

For example, the way that it might work is if we give you a benchmark on a norm and scores above that would need a valid reason to reject them from the shortlist. In the UK, we have two norms, one generally for the UK and one specifically for London. In the UK, the benchmark for the skill of resilience is at 81 percent. Now, 81 percent is already quite high. If someone scored 75 percent, I personally would not reject that candidate unless I had a plethora of candidates who scored way above 81 percent. However, if they scored 60 percent then that would be a cause for concern. Funnily enough, if we are talking about London, which is surprising, the resilience benchmark is actually at 69 percent, so significantly lower than the general United Kingdom region as a whole. Other examples: in Munich, Germany, it is at 75 percent. In Istanbul, it is the same at 75, same with India. Greece is 74, same with Cyprus and Belgrade. In Serbia, the resilience benchmark is at 62 percent. Realistically, what you would be looking for is a candidate who scored at or above the norm.

 

Jamie: If traditionally, companies test for hard skills, what is the big advantage for the company and the candidate of testing their soft skills?

Ilias: I think the best way to phrase it is that hard skills will help you get the job, but soft skills will help you develop and grow professionally, personally, and to climb the corporate ladder. Nowadays, a lot of people have hard skills. You might consider a degree as a hard skill because there are things that you learn from it, like business management and communications.

But nowadays, everyone has an advanced master’s degree, so it is very hard to differentiate and to stand out. With all the automation that is coming in, a lot of hard skills are not required or necessary anymore because we have a piece of software that does it for us. Especially when we are referring to recent graduates.

Companies are now looking into soft skills as the next big thing because they know that through automation, hard skills are becoming less and less relevant as machines or software can do it better than we can. Soft skills are much harder to identify and to develop, but they are trainable; I can teach you the hard skills. That is the easiest part assuming that you want to learn something new and that you want to develop yourself.

I think this is where soft skills really become relevant; the way that we see it, especially within the millennial and graduate market, soft skills are the only key differentiators amongst that talent pool. Because of the fact that they are trainable, they are also a lot more attractive because you can “hire for attitude.”

Soft skills are the embodiment of that. Whether or not I am a team player is crucial in today’s world. Whether, for example, I can carry myself with integrity and have ethics is also becoming extremely important both for job seekers but also for employers. It is a multitude of different dynamics and factors that are really driving the need to have soft skills incorporated as hiring criteria.

 

Jamie: Does Owiwi only provide the hiring guidance, or does it also provide the mechanism to improve those soft skills?

 

Ilias: We provide these benchmarks and norms. So essentially, companies can then see whether we are talking about a specific department or the company as a whole if there are potential areas for improvement. They could say, organizationally speaking, that the teamwork benchmark is not where it should be, compared to other relevant companies within the sector or even perhaps, with a different branch or region that they are competing in.

These benchmarks and these norms immediately point out potential areas of improvement. From then on, it becomes a decision of whether you want to follow a strengths-based approach and enhance already strong skills, or if you want to improve weaker areas for a more holistic profile. We also provide feedback on developmental areas for each skill according to how you score and what you should do to improve that particular skill.

It’s all part of our report. The candidate also receives that same content, and so does the recruiter albeit in greater detail and depth. Hopefully, in the future, we will also be able to make recommendations to both sides with courses and materials that you can follow to help in that regard.

 

Jamie: You mentioned the cost of the wrong employee. Do you have statistics around that for sales?

Ilias: We don’t have that in terms of what it costs to get a wrong salesperson. But general research shows that the cost of a bad hire –  and we are always talking about enterprise-level companies here – ranges anywhere between 14,000 to 24,000 euros, and that is just for an entry-level position. If you go up to the senior level management, there was an old statistic that I found from the Wall Street Journal; the cost of a bad hire on the executive level can skyrocket to $340,000, which makes sense; especially, if they have a very powerful and influential position, and if they steer the strategy and the vision of the company. One wrong decision and it can backfire.

 

Jamie: What would your advice be generally to aspiring salespeople who are just starting out in the market, in terms of how they should evaluate themselves and improve themselves?

Ilias: I think sales is very negatively stigmatized, with people thinking of a travelling salesperson going door to door. But I think it also has to do with how willing you are to adapt to your industry and to the field that you are applying in. Every business needs and has sales. But what sales means for each of those companies and industries is completely different.

 

I think you really need to have a certain profile or personality to be able to work in certain industries and sectors. A lot of the time, especially if you are starting out, you don’t know what that is. It is just about doing research, trying new things and learning more about the field because there is nothing worse than a salesperson who knows all the buzzwords but does not know enough to dive in and understand the pain points they’ll need to solve when facing clients and prospective customers.

 

I see a lot more psychology becoming involved in hiring. It is about communication, obviously. If you’re able to empathize and understand where they are coming from; not to necessarily play game theory with them, but to try and analyze what you have across from you, I think that will really set a salesperson apart from the rest; as someone who can really empathize and listen.

If I have a salesperson who has no real interest in HR, then he would not be able to nurture that client. He might be able to close them on the spot, and that’s great. But I need people to build relationships with my clients, and I think a lot of businesses think like that because the best kind of business that you can have is recurring business.

Through recurring businesses and establishing relationships, you can also then up-sell and have other sorts of perks and benefits. Perhaps you want to do a customer success story with them. They will be much more willing to do it if they like you, and they respect you for helping them accomplish their goals.

 

Jamie: Is that separate then from the testing they should do with Owiwi?

Ilias: Yes, definitely. It’s just about immersing yourself within this sector and field because it is going to be sales, it is going to be different for HR, it is going to be different when you are selling marketing products, and it is going to be different if you are in aviation or in defence, or pharmaceuticals.

 

END

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