Published Feb 11, 2021 by Maggie Martin
As Q4 results for 2020 start rolling in, Houston companies are getting a better picture of how the past year impacted their business.
For Onit, Inc., a software company that provides solutions for industries ranging from legal to sales, the past year is one marked by several key achievements. That includes an expansion of employee numbers by 22%, bringing its total global workforce to 400. Onit plans to hire another 100 employees this year. The company also recently acquired two companies and launched three AI-based products.
Eric Elman is CEO and co-founder of Onit. We asked him about his company's success, how Houston's technology sector has evolved and the greatest strengths and opportunities for Houston to compete as a leading global city.
Your company saw incredible growth last year. What do you attribute to your overall success?
Across the company, we prioritize customers and innovation. When you have nearly 400 employees worldwide focused on the same goals, you create powerful results.
In times of challenges, I firmly believe that strong businesses get stronger and weak businesses get weaker. The pandemic wasn't – and isn't - easy for us. We face the same uncertainties as other businesses, especially during 2020. It forced us to reset on many fronts – budgets, forecasting, strategic priorities and more. We made tough decisions, such as holding off on raises, but never considered a workforce reduction or holding off on recruiting and hiring. We increased our headcount by 22% in 2020 and will continue to hire 100 more people in 2021. By keeping and expanding our talent, we continue to innovate, get stronger and grow.
You also added nearly 100 new customers and more than 330 expansions for existing customers. What do you attribute to that growth during a year when cost reductions may have been a priority for clients and customers?
We disrupt the legal technology market. Innovation means our 45+ Fortune 500 customers succeed, especially when legal departments and their companies are focused on remote working, increasing internal efficiencies and saving money. We have an intense customer focus – from account support to building success programs like OnitCX to provide relevant educational and networking opportunities through our global learning initiative Lean into Legal Ops. Our customers gave us a market-leading NPS score as a result and we're proud to have earned that. But at the end of the day, our customers trust that our technology will support their vision and goals. And they're often happy to share their experiences with their community. That, coupled with our focus on innovation, helps us grow our customer base.
What's your outlook for 2021? What does greater disruption in the software market look like?
We kicked off Q4 2020 with two acquisitions and the launch of three AI-based products: Precedent, our business intelligence platform; ReviewAI, contract AI that reviews, redlines and edits contracts in less than two minutes; and ExtractAI, AI that simplifies contract data extraction.
Now, a little over a month into the new year, we've already announced another AI product – InvoiceAI, an AI-enabled legal invoice review offering for enterprise legal management coming in May. We're not slowing down.
Are there aspects to being based in Houston that have contributed to your success, whether that be the innovation ecosystem, talent pool, etc.?
As an entrepreneur in the late 1990s, there weren't many venture capitalists here in Houston. It was challenging to get investors. But what Houston does have are sharp angel investors willing to support startups. These angel investors helped me get my businesses, including Datacert and Onit, up and going.
In terms of Houston, though, it's a great city and one that I am proud to call home. The city is growing as a technology leader, drawing in new and diverse talent. The cost of living is lower and the city has a lot to offer culturally. Plus, there are inspiring startup and scale-up business communities and organizations like the Greater Houston Partnership and Rice University to support them.
What are Houston's greatest strengths in the technology sector?
Many people think that Austin is the Texas hotbed for innovation and technology. What they do not realize is that Houston houses one of the nation's largest tech communities.
In 2020, Houston ranked as the 12th largest tech workforce with more than 200,000 technology workers. Houston has an abundance of leading research facilities, universities and a tech ecosystem and representation from a range of sectors including biotech, IT, energy and aviation. This rich history, coupled with a diverse workforce and a progressive economic environment, has helped Houston become a leading center for technology innovation and discovery.
What are the greatest opportunities for Houston to grow and improve in the technology sector?
Houston has all the tools to become an even greater incubator for innovation and technology as highlighted above. For example, the Rice University Business Plan Competition is one of the richest and largest graduate-level student startup competitions. Hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Rice University's internationally recognized initiative is devoted to support for entrepreneurs. 2020 was the 20th year of the competition and I have been a judge for nearly all 20 years. It is exciting to see teams worldwide come to Houston and compete for more than $1.5 million in cash and prizes. Back in 2001, the prize money was only $10,000. It is programs like this that help Houston get recognized as a leader in the technology sector.
Our 2021 Board Chair Amy Chronis, Houston Managing Partner for Deloitte, recently laid out what Houston must do to ensure it remains a competitive global city in a post-pandemic world. She said "I suggest it will be those metros whose businesses are focused on developing the technologies and driving innovations that change the world." What do you think Houston needs to do to ensure we remain a competitive global city?
To remain a competitive global city, Houston needs to focus on being an innovation economy with diversity, customer service and sustainability as key contributors. Technology and innovation are already major contributors to its economic growth. Houston could make great strides by continuing to invest in startups and co-innovate with the city's high-performing universities such as Rice University and the University of Houston and local cutting-edge research facilities.