Are You Satisfied? A Conversation with ForeSee Result's Larry Freed

When local economic development leaders talk about executive talent, there is a good chance an image of Larry Freed pops into their head.

With his chiseled face and thick hair (full enough to be youthful, gray enough to demand respect), the 50-year-old CEO of ForeSee Results is a model executive in both senses of the word. Freed and his wife have three boys who are either attending the University of Michigan or plan to go there. He has a bachelor's in computer science from U-M and a MBA from Wayne State University. His resume boasts stints in the executive suites of what is now Bank One and Compuware before making the tough jump from corporate politics to start-up scrounging. Today, he has real media presence with his quotes gracing the likes of CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

What stands out most about Freed is the way he built ForeSee Results into a growth juggernaut. In 2001, he led the charge to spin out the company (in a joint venture with Compuware) from the University of Michigan. ForeSee Results utilizes the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which was developed at U-M. Capturing the voice of customer feedback and using it to measure online customer satisfaction, ForeSee Results helps companies, many in the Fortune 500, pinpoint opportunities to improve their online presence and interactions. Its clients range from Home Depot to AT&T to Chase.

The Ann Arbor-based company currently employs 245 people (200 in Ann Arbor) after hiring 40 people in 2011. Ninety percent of those hires were local. Freed expects to keep adding people as the company's bottom line grows. ForeSee Results has recently expanded into measuring customer satisfaction on mobile devices, a new sector Freed promises to be a boon for a business that is already booming.

"We have had great growth ever since we were founded," says Freed. "We have grown every quarter since the day we started. We continued that through the difficult times of 2008 and 2009 and we're still growing today."

Freed recently spoke with Concentrate's Jon Zemke about ForeSee Results' growth prospects, the chances it will be acquired and attracting and retaining talented young people in Ann Arbor.

ForeSee Results has grown exponentially over the last few years. Such rapid growth has been known to hurt or even kill promising companies. How have you guarded against that?

The thing that concerns me the most as we grow is making sure we keep the same culture. The same aggressive, young company where every employee makes a big difference in the success of our company.

There are a couple of things you need to do to protect from growth killing you. One is to make sure you are clear on where you're going and why you're growing. The other aspect is keeping that culture and involving it to support your company.

Last year you said there is no exit strategy for ForeSee Results, which seems kind of odd when U-M spin-outs like HandyLab and Accuri Cytometers are being acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars. Is this still the plan?

It is. The best strategy you can have as a business is to build a really, really solid business with great growth. When the time and situation is right you will know it, and someone else will know it. However, we make sure we keep focused on growing and building our business.

U-M has stepped up its emphasis on spinning out startups. Is this policy the key component to creating a critical mass of tech start-ups in Ann Arbor?

It's a great step. That the university is taking a stake is a great, great show of confidence in the local entrepreneurs and professors who make these technologies. Is it a make-or-break step? No. But it will do nothing but help the local economy and the entrepreneurial momentum within Ann Arbor.

There have been a number of large acquisitions in recent years. Is Ann Arbor's entrepreneurial ecosystem starting to hit a tipping point?

We're a little bit away from hitting that tipping point. There are some interesting things going on. There is a lot of tech, bio-tech and stuff on the medical side of things. It needs to feed upon itself. The exits are great and show its success. As long as those people don't get up and walk away, there are enough other things to get excited about staying in the area. That's when you get the momentum to create a substantial and sustainable economic entrepreneurial environment.

How do you keep those people from walking away?

More opportunities to stay in the area. That's also an important aspect for recruiting outside people to the area.

You are a U-M grad who stayed in Ann Arbor, and your company hires a lot of U-M grads. Is the key to keeping more U-M grads in Ann Arbor and Michigan as simple as creating enough jobs for them here?

There are a couple of things. Jobs are the first and foremost. It's very difficult for these kids coming out of college with most degrees to get a job. It starts with job opportunities. The second thing is the right environment, the right culture. We need urban settings because that's where these young kids want to live and grow up in the early stages of their career.

Those quality of life issues have gotten more play in the last 5-10 years, but it seems like they always take a back seat to job creation. Is that the way it should be?

The one area we're lacking is the urban setting. It does need to be secondary to job growth, but not too far back. They go hand in hand. The urban setting is critical for the younger generation to keep them around.

It always seems like those two things are pitted against each other when talking about things like taxes and regulation. Does it have to be that way?

It doesn't have to be that way. Where the jobs grow will be determined a little bit by the tax environment. But I don't think they have to be conflicting with each other.

ForeSee Results specializes in measuring customer satisfaction. Can you name a simple solution for great customer satisfaction that businesses routinely miss?

The first thing is to listen to your customers. Listen to everything you can hear is a great first step. We turn that casual listening into actionable insights, but the first thing is listening to your customers. Without your customers you're nothing.

On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, rate U-M's hire of Brady Hoke as a football coach from a customer satisfaction standpoint if the customers are U-M alumni and football fans?

In this year, I would give it a nine. The one missing ingredient, and this will anger some of my friends, was we didn't beat Michigan State. That would have made it a perfect 10.

- Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and is the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was Walk This Way: The Challenge Of Pedestrian Malls .

 

All photos by Doug Coombe

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