This week, TOPS made the announcement that our founder, Jeff Hardy, is stepping back from the day-to-day operations of the company. While we at TOPS are sad to see Jeff go, we are also excited to see what the future holds.
At the same time, across the country students are graduating to the next chapter of their lives, and the Internet is flooded with inspirational speeches and words of wisdom for those students marching into their own bright future.
In that vein, today I want to give a sort of introspection. A TOPS Commencement, if you will, to talk about the lessons that I learned from a great man and mentor: TOPS founder, Jeff Hardy.
Lesson Number 1:
Continuously Take Smart Risks
When Jeff Hardy started his first Community Management business, he had a wife and 2 small children, a dog and a mortgage. Quitting a successful career in finance to go into managing HOAs seemed crazy, but as an officer in a struggling association, he saw a need that he knew he could fill. However, he didn't throw caution to the wind and abandon everything he had worked for in the first instant.
He took a smart risk. He started small, managing his own association in the evenings and weekends. As he grew the portfolio he recruited his wife to help answer phones and perform office tasks during the day while he attended board meetings and managed the books at night. Within 15 months, he was ready to quit his day job and focus full time on growing the property management company.
But Jeff did not sit back and relax after such a major upheaval. Within a few years he was at it again - this time selling his management company to focus his attention on a new startup for a little product he had conceived called TOPS. Even as TOPS has achieved success, Jeff has continued to take risks, both in decisions he made within the company and in helping new startups, such as AssociationReady.
Lesson Number 2:
Focus on Doing One Thing Really Well
The saying goes that you cannot be all things to all people. When Jeff designed TOPS, he created a product that would do the job he needed it to do - facilitate condominium and homeowners association management.
Over the years, many opportunities and seductive offers have come to switch gears or expand to other industries. In fact, many of TOPS competitors did exactly that. But by keeping his company's focus on the Condo/HOA niche, Jeff built a product that served their needs the best - it may not be all things to all people, but it IS all things that this one group of people needed. And that, in my opinion is why TOPS remains to this day the preferred choice for Condo HOA management software.
Lesson Number 3:
Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work
Golfer Gary Player once said "The harder you work, the luckier you get." This is a lesson that Jeff has always embodied. In more than 30 years in Community Association Management, Jeff has always been directly involved in the work that gets done. In the early days that meant making copies, selling the products, even providing technical support. But even when TOPS became successful enough to hire people to take on those roles, Jeff continued to get his hands dirty.
For example, Jeff has personally written most of the user guides for TOPS various products. Many might feel that such a task was beneath the President of the company, but for Jeff, it represented a way for him to keep his finger on the pulse of the product, and continue to have a deep understanding of how it worked, as well as provide him with a way to communicate directly with the clients in the same clear, easy to follow style that attracted customers to TOPS 25 years ago.
This hard work translates into the kind of 'luck' that results in thousands of loyal fans, among both customers and employees.
Lesson Number 4:
You've heard that nice guys finish last. I often think that sentence feels unfinished. Perhaps it should be more like this: Nice guys finish last, but mean guys finish alone.
Where many in business may be cutthroat, Jeff Hardy has always been the nice guy. He did not sacrifice the integrity of the company to get fast money - he brought it up by the bootstraps. He made sure that the company has always stayed focused on the customer. He never outsourced support or skimped on training.
These efforts to ensure that the customers and the employees are happy and well pays off in loyalty. The first customer that TOPS ever had still uses the product. Employee turnover is extremely low, with the average employee having been with the company for over 5 years.
This level of loyalty is earned by being the nice guy who does the right thing, even when it isn't easy or the most profitable option.
Lesson Number 5:
Always Give Amazing Customer Service
When I first started working at TOPS 14 years ago, there were only 3 people doing technical support, one of whom was Jeff. (This was larger than our sales department at the time, which had only one person.) In those early days we did it all - We were constantly helping people balance their books, find problems in their ledgers, and fix anything that might have gone wrong. We were support, training, conversion specialists, hand-holders and advisors rolled into one. I am proud to say that in more than a decade, and thanks to the vision of Jeff Hardy, the level and quality of support TOPS offers to our users has stayed at this high standard.
On average, it takes a new support technician at TOPS 1 year of training in our Clearwater, Florida office before they are qualified to be on their own in support. In this time, they have to learn every aspect of TOPS as well as the principles of community association acccounting. When a customer calls, there are no scripts. The support technician just knows the software, and they are able to help with whatever your needs may be, every time. (Incidentally, there are STILL more support and services staff than sales staff at TOPS to this day!)
It's human nature to be fearful when change is ahead - we cannot see what the future will hold, and so our minds become filled with a litany of the worst case scenarios. But go forward, we must, and the best thing we can do is prepare ourselves to ensure that we are ready for anything life will throw at us. As Jeff passes the torch of this great company to the next generation to make it even greater, I know that he will look back on those lessons he taught us and feel assured that he did prepare us well, and that the future is indeed bright.