In this episode, my guest is Steve Sonnenberg, co-founder and CEO of Awardco, the fastest-growing rewards and recognition platform in the world, ranked by Inc. Magazine for the last three years. The company has assisted many employers in creating a better way to recognize their workforce.
And today, we are talking all about rewards and recognition. In this conversation, we explore what it means to create a culture where you appreciate your employees, say thank you and how Awardco is paving the way for you to do just that.
Steve’s passion for employee recognition comes from watching his father in the space. He watched his father work with some of the biggest businesses today and saw firsthand the effects of celebrating people’s milestones. He thrives on creating an environment where professionals can focus on recognizing high performance.
If you are curious about the employee rewards and recognition space, or you want to hear about an entrepreneurial journey tied to recognizing employee key performances, this episode is for you.
Punk Rock HR is proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is a B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Rewards and Recognition Today
Growing up in the Midwest, there are these common sensibilities that many people have that are more or less old-school aspects, especially when you recognize people’s humanity. IIt’s widespread in the Midwest culture, but it does change from generation to generation.
“There is something old-school about it. And it’s something with the younger generation that gets lost a little bit,” Steve shares. “So I think it’s awesome to make sure that we’re saying thanks and we’re respectful of one another because when we are in that type of culture, I think we’re just happier.”
However, a lot has changed in our society. Many of us are busier these days, making it easier to forget what usually comes naturally to us. “I think it gets lost because we get so busy. And when we get too busy in life, we tend to forget about those simple things that are so natural. We shut ourselves away,” he says.
And this is why Steve has dedicated his career to helping companies recognize their most significant assets—their employees. “[At Awardco], we are all about recognizing the good in people and helping others do the same. And when you recognize people, it changes the behavior of people. They want to do better,” he says.
How Awardco Works
Awardco is more than just buying products for your employees or redeeming points. The company offers memorable experiences for your employees. Awardco makes rewarding and recognizing your workforce simple so that people feel valued more often, playing a significant role in employee retention.
Using the platform allows people to get reminders of work anniversaries, set up programs for holidays, spot recognition, etc. Steve and his team help companies focus on the values they prioritize in their culture.
“One of the things that we really focus on is taking those values off of a wall, putting them inside a technology, and allowing employees to recognize them daily,” he explains. “And then, your company has a purpose because every day, you’re recognizing based on those values that are supporting that purpose.”
People are leaving jobs because they don’t feel like there’s a purpose to them being there or a sense of belonging, and that’s why what Awardco does is essential to the rewards and recognition space—employee retention. “The extra monetary side that you can have to redeem points, that’s great, and that’s fun, and that’s an experience as well, but the two blended together is what makes a great workplace culture,” he says.
Employee Rewards and Recognition in Action
Awardco has had various big-name companies use their platform, but one customer that stands out to Steve is their work with Texas Roadhouse. There is typically a high turnover in the restaurant industry, with an average rate of 73% in 2021.
The restaurant chain knew that Awardco could help with their employee retention. “Now, think about the restaurant business. People are coming and going. And so, they use Awardco to incentivize this little small ticks of monetary recognition,” Steve shares. “They like the monetary side because it makes it a little bit fun. It’s like a gamification a little bit for their servers.”
And this platform isn’t only good for in-person work structures. Steve shares that it can also be great for anyone in a work-from-home environment by helping them with their work setup and improving their overall experience, even from different locations.
“One other example, because this is unique and interesting with the pandemic happening,” he says. “I’ve seen people start rewarding their employees to improve their work offices. And so, they would use Awardco, and they would say, “Okay, we’re going to give everyone a $500 budget.” And you can actually populate an Amazon-like catalog inside of Awardco. And then, you can recognize them for the work-at-home program. And then, you can program those points only to be used in a specific catalog.”
Awardco has helped countless clients create a space where they can feel appreciated and are ready to continue to improve the overall experience of their workforce.
[bctt tweet=”‘I think it’s awesome to make sure that we’re saying thanks and respectful of one another because when we are in that type of culture, I think we’re just happier.’ -@gosteve. Tune in to this episode of #PunkRockHR to learn more about the recognition space. ” via=”no”]
People in This Episode
This episode of Punk Rock HR is sponsored by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Hey, everybody. I’m Laurie Ruettimann. Welcome back to Punk Rock HR. My guest today is Steve Sonnenberg. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Awardco. Awardco is the fastest growing rewards and recognition platform globally, as ranked by Inc. Magazine for the last three consecutive years. And more clients than ever before are experiencing a better way to recognize their workforce.
On today’s show, we talk about that. Rewards and recognition. What it means to create a culture where you appreciate your employees, say thank you, and how Awardco allows you to do just that. So if you’re curious about the rewards and recognition space, or you want to hear about an entrepreneurial journey that’s really tied in with recognizing key performances from employees. Well, sit back and enjoy this conversation with Steve Sonnenberg.
Hey, Steve, welcome to the podcast.
Hey, thanks so much for having me.
Sure. Well, it’s really great that you’re here to talk about recognizing employees and really getting people excited about purpose and meaning. So I’m really ready to have that conversation. But first of all, tell us who you are and what you’re all about.
I watched my father in the employee recognition space. And so, I always had a passion for what he did, just growing up, seeing what he did. And that really intrigued me because he just was around celebrating people’s milestones. And I thought that was really neat. Now, he works with some great companies, like McDonald’s and even the Chicago Bulls. And I grew up in the Chicago area, and I was like, “Okay, this is cool. This is what I’m about.” I am all about being in an environment where we can just focus on good things, celebrate them, and recognize for achievement. So that’s what gets me going. It’s just at a young age, just watching my father in this recognition industry.
Amazing. Amazing. Well, I’m from Chicago as well. Born and raised on the Northwest side. Lived in a little town called Golf with my husband, which is right near Glenview. And what I found is that there’s something about growing up in the Midwest, where you just have these common-sense sensibilities, and you say, “Please,” and you say, “Thank you.” And now, I’ve been in the south for about 15 years. And I think it’s true down here too. There’s just something old-school about recognizing people’s humanity. What do you think about that?
Oh, definitely. I agree with you. There is something old-school about it. And it’s something with the younger generation that gets lost a little bit. So I think it’s awesome to make sure that we’re saying thanks and we’re respectful of one another because when we are in that type of culture, I think we’re just happier. We want to do better. And when you don’t have that, then it’s just not a good thing. It’s a negative experience.
Well, why do you think that is? Why do you think recognition gets lost in the mix?
I think it gets lost because we get so busy. And when we get too busy in life, we tend to forget about those simple things that are so natural. We shut ourselves away. And I think that’s it. I think we get in the way because we are busy ourselves. We don’t have time for our kids. We don’t have time to do errands or are always constantly late for things. And we’re just constantly busy, and we’re not making it a priority in our lives. So I think that’s why.
So tell me how Awardco solves this problem. When did you get started? What’s the history of your organization?
It was back in 2011. I had another business that I absolutely failed. I went crashing to the absolute ground. We created an eBay analytical tool where we helped people sell products online, and we helped them understand if they’re going to make money with it. The problem was in that space; we did business with someone that got sued by the FTC.
Oh, good, Lord. All right.
So what happened? They owned a little bit of my company, so we got brought into that lawsuit. So that’s why everything went crashing down. That was a terrible experience. So Awardco was founded at the absolute darkest time of my life because I had nowhere to turn. In fact, I remember borrowing $5,000, and I bought the domain awardco.com. Because I believed, I always had this idea that recognition has been old-school, my father that’s been doing it, the rings, and the lapel pins were just kind of old-school, and it didn’t excite me. And I said the younger generation; they want more options. They want more choices. They want things that they care about. And so the idea was, I wanted to partner with Amazon. I want to offer the Amazon-like experience for rewards and recognition. I want people to have hundreds of millions of choices and pick what’s meaningful to them.
And so, my cousin and I set out to integrate with Amazon. We got access to their API. And we rebuild Amazon into a points program, where you can also log in and have a budget, and you can then reward employees. The only problem was that Amazon didn’t like it. They were like, “We don’t like you doing this.” But as a naive entrepreneur and stubborn, I had this vision. But I had to be flexible in how I get there. So I went forward anyway, and I said, “You know what? I’m going to prove that they’re wrong. That there’s a huge opportunity. There’s a huge TAM here.” And so, we started signing up companies. And then, what would happen is, we’d capture the order of who the employee is and what they bought. And then, my wife would fulfill the order. And it would just go to an amazon.com site.
So there is no roadmap to do what we did. And we got lucky along the way. And now, Amazon and Awardco, we innovate every week. We collaborate. We now integrate with all their warehouses all over the world. We are all about recognizing the good in people and helping others do the same. And when you recognize people, it changes the behavior of people. They want to do better. And so, we’ve created a technology that just makes it easier to recognize the good in people every day and reward them a monetary amount if you have a budget. And managers have access to do that as well on our platform.
I love that story because it demonstrates, I think, a certain sticktoitiveness, like a certain resilience that is really important in entrepreneurship. So I’m impressed with that. And I know that it’s not just about buying things. It’s not just about redeeming points, that Awardco really offers an experience through your software. So tell us a little bit about that.
It’s all about having a purpose for your organization. And then, you have values that you recognize daily that drive behavior, and that behavior builds culture. And so, that’s one of the things that we really focus on is taking those values off of a wall, putting them inside a technology, and allowing employees to recognize them daily. And then, your company has a purpose because every day, you’re recognizing based on those values that are supporting that purpose.
And the whole reason why people are leaving because they don’t feel like there’s no purpose for them being there. They don’t feel a sense of belonging. And I believe that is what’s so important. And that’s the meat and potatoes of Awardco. Now, the extra monetary side that you can have to redeem points is great and fun, and that’s an experience as well, but the two blended together is what makes a great workplace culture.
Well, tell us a little bit about some of your favorite customers. Can you think of one that you’re just so impressed with and their culture of recognition?
One that jumps out is Texas Roadhouse because we all like to go to a steakhouse, and we all see their shirts on the back that they love Texas Roadhouse. I think it says, “I love my job.” Or something like that. They’re great. They use Awardco constantly to recognize all their 500-plus restaurants around the US. Their managers have budgets, and they just recognize them constantly. Now, think about the restaurant business. People are coming and going.
And so, they use Awardco to incentivize these little small ticks of monetary recognition. They like the monetary side because it makes it a little bit fun. It’s like a gamification a little bit for their servers. So Texas Roadhouse is one that I have absolutely loved. They took a chance on us early on when we were a small company. And we’ve just grown with them. And they’ve been a great partner, which then led to other great companies we work with. And they’ve introduced us to many great companies.
Well, sure. And I think that’s a really great example of people who are on the front lines, right? Working in hospitality, who deserve to be rewarded and recognized. Do you have an example of a professional services client or people doing the straight-up 9 to 5? Recognizing those individuals can get lost in the fray of the day in, day out kind of minutia of work. So who do you have that you want to tell us about?
We work with one of the largest financial institutions globally, that have banks all over the world. And they have this 9 to 5 type job. And what they have done is they’ve created a great value-based program based on their customer obsession values. And when you achieve one of those values, you get recognized. And if you achieve all five of the values that they have, then it unlocks something else. So they have a well-rounded approach to their values. And that’s what I’ve seen. I’ve seen the most successful organizations, the professional services. Everyone has their mission statement, their vision. And then, they have the values that support it. The 9 to 5 jobs want to take that information and give it to the employees. And so, it’s not just on a wall anymore. They’re recognized daily. So it’s basically those value-based programs that I’ve seen.
And then one other example, because this is unique and interesting with the pandemic happening. I’ve seen people start rewarding their employees to improve their work offices. And so, they would use Awardco, and they would say, “Okay, we’re going to give everyone a $500 budget.” And you can actually populate an Amazon-like catalog inside of Awardco. And then, you can recognize them for the work-at-home program. And then, you can program those points only to be used in a specific catalog. And so, I’ve seen that. People are starting to use and to recognize their employees at home to help them with their home office. And so, I never thought that people would ever use the platform to do stuff like that. So I’ve seen professionals do that to spruce up their home office, which is interesting.
I love it when customers drive innovation. I think that’s so fascinating. And one of the really untold stories of being an entrepreneur and in a startup is that your customers tell you how they’re going to use your technology. You may have a roadmap and an idea for your product, but when it gets out there in the real world, it’s your customers who are driving innovation. I don’t know. Have you seen that in your own experience?
Oh, absolutely. And that’s why I’m so confident in the direction we’ve gone is because we have been customer-obsessed, side by side with our customers, and they’re telling us what to do. They’re trying to figure out some of the new tech companies out there: Pinterest, the Zendesk, the new emerging tech companies. And I love that we have a front-row seat to the table and we’re solving the problems together. And that’s my favorite part about Awardco is working with customers side by side, solving these problems, and making the workplace just a better, easier, and more natural place to recognize the good.
Well, Steve, I talked to all these founders, right? On this podcast. And many of them have great ideas to fix the world of work, and they don’t practice it internally. Maybe they want to fix recruiting, or they want to fix the employee experience or even recognition. And then, you talk to some of the workforce members, and it’s like, it’s not a great experience. So tell me what it’s like to work at Awardco? I mean, are you drinking your own champagne here, eating your own dog food, all that kind of good stuff?
All the above. Yes. And I tell our employees all the time that if we’re not the best at it, we have no business selling. And so, it’s a constant, constant thing. Now, I have three goals in my company. And it is to generate new revenue, and that’s number one, to protect revenue. And three, recognize it often. And so, that’s one of the three pillars. And we constantly are recognizing every day daily. And we have fun programs, right? We have our value-based program, which we’ve talked a lot about. I’ll tell you another fun one that we do. We’ve glorified the employee of the month program. We rebranded it to call it the A-Team. And it’s a once-a-month program. Everyone in the company can nominate someone. So they do it through the Awardco platform.
They can nominate one person, and they have to say why. And we give a little bit more instructions of what we’re looking for. We get all this data coming in once a month. And then it goes to our executive team, and then we select the winner for that month. And then, we go to Cameo. And we partner with them; when we find the winner, we then find out a bit about the person who won. And then, we find out what celebrity they like. What singer do they like? And then, we get Cameo to come in, and we have one of their favorite people announce the winner. Every Tuesday at 9:00 a.m., we have our all-hands-on meeting. We call it our RTG meeting, Recognize The Good. And then, we bring that employee up. We have that celebrity announce the winner.
And so, it creates this incredible experience. So you need to create a well-balanced recognition strategy for your organization, your value-based program, your nomination type programs, and your service anniversaries. We’ve even started to reimagine that. How many people recognize it every 5, 10, or 15 years? It’s crazy. We’ve come in to say recognize them every year and give them choice. But we’re actually thinking about it a little bit differently. This is new that we’re actually rolling out in April. So this next month, we are going to roll out something where we recognize them every month for being here. And what I mean by that is once you’re here for a year, we’re going to celebrate you, and then we’re going to give you… It’s like you unlocked an automated recognition that’s going to happen every month.
And so, you’ll get $50 once a month. And then all of a sudden, your two happen, guess what? You just activated level two. You’re going to 75. And then, when you’re there for year three, you’re going to get a hundred. And what that does is that creates this sense of the really cool culture of appreciation and then unlocks something special. So we’re thinking about it. We’re not only reimagining recognition. We’re starting to reimagine compensation to a degree as well. So again, we do it. It’s our religion over here. But we like pushing the status quo to see how we can do it even a little bit differently?
Well, I love the story. And what I really like is the fact that you’re trying to innovate, and you’re trying to think through what’s next. And COVID has done that for many businesses, right? And some people are thinking about what’s next, and some people are failing at it. So beyond unlocking recognition monthly, where is this going? Because I feel like you’ve partnered with Amazon in a really smart way. You’ve got some slick technology out there. Great customer adoption. You’re rethinking monthly anniversaries. What are 2022 and 2023 like for you?
We’ve created a technology to organize the world’s incentive spending. We know it’s a huge opportunity. We feel like it’s a fragmented space. We feel like our technology is at a spot where you can put everything into one central location. So when it’s all at one central location, we’re creating the marketplace of all marketplaces. So we have our integrations with Amazon. We’re integrating with flights, bringing airlines in. We have hotels. We do gift cards—just the ultimate experience for an employee. We’re also starting to measure recognition. So for the first time ever, we’ve developed something called the Recognition Score, were based on how your company is doing, we have this algorithm where we can give a total number to your company, and it’ll let you know how your company’s culture is when it comes to recognition and appreciating one another.
And second, we have that score on the departments. And then you can take that score and say, “Okay, this is how this department’s doing. They’re appreciating one another. Are they more engaged? How’d the employee engagement score go? Are their revenue higher?” And then, you’re going to see all this data. And then, we have it on the individual as well. So they have a benchmark to know where they’re at. So it’s all about measuring now for the first time. And so, that’s the future. It will give a baseline, so the Recognition Score is important and growing the marketplace is extremely important around the world.
Well, I love that Recognition Score because I think more and more the people who administer the recognition programs, your HR generalist, your people ops individually, right? Your chief human resources officer is being challenged to bring data into the conversation. And so, I love the idea that data can drive strategy but also can help to raise culture in your organization. Am I hearing you correctly?
You are hearing me correctly. And then, we have an interesting balance we got to figure out because I don’t want to score the employee necessarily. I don’t want to force recognition. So it’s a challenging thing. So it’s on the company. So we’re trying to figure that out. As I said earlier, we test ourselves to the limits. We’re trying to be innovative here at Awardco. So we have a pilot going on here at Awardco, and we’re learning about it. And so, it’s more about a recognition voice.
I want to let the employees know this is your voice. It’s not a score. But we just want to give you a benchmark to see where you are within the organization. And hopefully, it drives behavior. And that’s what’s so unique. And that’s what we’re trying to do is drive behavior. And we know when you drive behavior, it builds culture. And that’s why it’s so special. So it’s an interesting thing we’re figuring out. It’s new, it’s raw, and I can’t wait to release it.
Got it. I’m so excited for the future of Awardco. Listen, if people want to learn more about you or your organization, where should we send them?
They can find me on LinkedIn. So personally, my name’s Steve Sonnenberg. Happy to connect with people. So that’s a great way from a business side to connect with me. And then two, just award.co is a great way to find Awardco, and we have a lot of great resources. We have some incredible content if you want to think outside the box with some of our content. We make it fun, such as The 80s called. And they want their recognition programs back. And we have a lot of fun themes like that all throughout the site. So a lot of great content, very useful about the modern workforce.
Well, Steve, dude, I don’t know. I kind of want a lapel pin. I’m feeling like everything old is new again. So, maybe we can make that happen. I would love to rock an Awardco lapel pin, is all I’m saying. Well, it was a real pleasure to have you on the show today. Thanks again for being a guest.
Hey, thanks so much for having me. Appreciate the time.
Hey, everybody. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Punk Rock HR. The Starr Conspiracy proudly underwrites us. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com. Punk Rock HR is produced and edited by Rep Cap with special help from Michael Thibodeaux and Devon McGrath. For more information, show notes, links, and resources, head on over to punkrockhr.com. Now, that’s all for today, and I hope you enjoyed it. We’ll see you next time on Punk Rock HR.