Kill or Be Killed

Developing your Digital Strategy

The COVID-19 pandemic forced every company, big and small, to think hard about their IT strategy in ways they weren’t 18 months ago. For business owners, it’s an opportunity to rethink your digital strategy from scratch, not just for business continuity purposes, but also to build new capabilities for capitalizing on the future. Once you have taken the steps to build a modern web presence and bring your business online safely and securely, you are ready to think more holistically about your digital strategy. 

Here’s an example of a classic conundrum we see business owners face: 

Customers love us because we treat them well and provide a high-quality service, yet if we were to grow the business and add new customers I’m not sure we can continue to provide the same level of service. There is no way I can risk biting the hand that feeds me!

An effective digital strategy will identify the opportunities for implementing technology to push on the levers of your business to allow for efficient growth without sacrificing service. In the best case service quality and the customer value proposition actually increase with scale.

“Our judgment is that relentlessly returning efficiency improvements and scale economies to customers in the form of lower prices creates a virtuous cycle that leads over the long term to a much larger dollar amount of free cash flow, and thereby to a much more valuable Amazon.com. “

-- Jeff Bezos, 2005 Amazon Shareholder Letter

No need to start fretting about hiring software engineers -- everything you need exists off-the-shelf. We’ve broken down your digital strategy process into a few simple steps. No fancy strategy consultants required!

Digital strategy steps:

  1. Implement core software

  2. Identify and enable power users

  3. Find the pain

  4. Visualize

Implement/Upgrade “Core” Software

It may seem enticing to jump to the hot topic of the day such as AI, blockchain, or robotics, but first, let’s focus on the basic blocking and tackling. You may have heard the phrase that “data is the new oil”. Well that doesn’t mean squat if you have no ability to locate the oil, no means for extracting, collecting and refining it, or delivering it to the desired destination. Modern, cloud-based software systems are a prerequisite for collecting data on the core levers of your business -- sales pipeline, manufacturing process, working capital requirements, customer service, and logistics. For some companies, core software could simply be CRM (Salesforce.com), Marketing (Hubspot), Financial (Quickbooks), Payroll / HR (Gusto), Collaboration (Slack). If you have systems for these functions today, upgrading to modern, cloud-based systems is a necessary step. They are more secure, up-to-date, user-friendly, easier to provision and manage, but most importantly, easier to integrate with other software systems. We will come back to this later.

Identify and Enable Power Users

It’s easy for organizations to just check-the-box when implementing “Core” software, but software is only as good as the people using it. Crap In, Crap Out. Millennials may be a pain in the ass, but they, along with GenZ, represent a massive influx of digitally native talent entering the workforce. They have come of age with the ubiquity of smartphones and the internet literally at their fingertips and they are bringing their knowledge, digital expectations, and inflated egos to your org. Embrace and empower your digital natives to lead the way implementing and establishing best practices to get the most out of your core software systems. They are likely to be natural power users learning the capabilities of the software, establishing workflows, and training others on how to get the most out of your “Core”.

Find the Pain

Once you have established an effective “Core” system it’s time to hunt for the inefficiencies in your org.  You intuitively know the pain points in your business so ask yourself the question — can this pain be cured by technology? The answer, more often than not, is yes! Start asking your team the same questions and you are likely to find opportunities to rethink your business “system” with software at its core. Here are a few real-world examples we have seen: 

  • 9 people reconciling physical checks received in the mail to A/R

  • Invoiced orders need to be manually entered into your fulfillment system

  • Manual data inputs in your manufacturing facility cause significant man-hours to be wasted on scrubbing the data

  • Billing and scheduling mistakes creating an unpleasant patient experience and poor online reviews

Visualize

Just having the systems in place to capture data is obviously not enough. Implementing a data visualization tool like Looker or Tableau is a great best practice. Synthesizing data with visualization tools helps bring the data to life surfacing insights and enabling data-driven decision making. But visualizing the data is more than just pretty charts and graphs. The key performance indicators of your business must remain in constant focus for your team. An effective means for doing this is keeping them in direct line of sight 24/7. Mount a monitor to a wall in a common area in your office to display your KPIs in real time so that there is no excuse for anyone on your team to not know exactly where the business stands every single day. Constant focus = constant improvement

Conclusion

A company is a complex adaptive system that is constantly changing based on its environment -- the economy, customers, employees, vendors, competition etc. Therefore, it’s critical that your digital strategy be adaptive as well. The process of implementing your “Core”, enabling power users, addressing pain points, and driving behavior through visualization must be iterative and ongoing.

Want to level up your digital strategy? The next step means moving from reactive to proactive. Software is no longer just a data repository or backward-looking analytical tools. Modern software systems act as “Invisible Engines1” which automatically execute the functions of a business. Data integrations, known as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), allow software systems to communicate with each other, breaking down siloed systems to create seamless interactions. If this seems too heady -- not to worry! We are going to break down the power and implications of APIs for you in our next two blogs so stay tuned.


Noteworthy Bits

Carvana’s 2018 Analyst Day Presentation

Carvana is a fascinating case study of what it looks like when a company puts software and data at its core to provide a stronger value proposition for customers. In this case, in the traditionally staid used car market.

Data Science Focus Delivers for Pitney Bowes via Wall Street Journal

Pitney Bowes leverages digital capabilities such as cloud computing, database management and APIs, enabling systems of retailers and carriers to work together

2005 Amazon Letter to Shareholders

“To our shareholders:

Many of the important decisions we make at Amazon.com can be made with data. There is a right answer or a wrong answer, a better answer or a worse answer, and math tells us which is which. These are our favorite kinds of decisions. “


Q&A with Bobby Mukherjee, Founder & CEO of Loka

We are delighted to have Bobby join us this month to share his insights from working with dozens of companies to build their technology and digital strategy. Bobby is the Founder and CEO of Loka, a Silicon Valley-based software consulting company, focused on helping companies ship their innovations faster.  Loka serves a wide variety of customers, from startups funded by the likes of Sequoia and Greylock, all the way up to Fortune 500 brands.  Prior to Loka, Bobby started and successfully sold two start-ups, including one which was acquired by NBC.  Bobby began his career at Oracle, and earned his bachelor of science degree from Carnegie Mellon University.

You and your team sit at the intersection of what's possible and what's practical in software development. How do you advise companies, particularly those with limited resources, to ensure they get a positive ROI for their investment in tech?

Focus on speed over scope — every week that you’re not executing a digital strategy you’re missing a massive opportunity to transform your business.  Companies that haven’t started down the digital transformation path often get wrapped around the axel trying to do everything at once including building their own engineering team.  Leave that to the Google’s of the world.  Instead, optimize for making a quick start, and getting some digital DNA flowing in your business.

If you were developing a digital strategy today vs. 5 or 10 years ago, what would be the biggest difference? What is possible today that wasn't before?

Two massive ingredients: Moore’s Law over 10 years + Massive quantities of data = Big Data & Machine Learning opportunities that were impossible to consider a decade ago.   Take something like Smart Compose that Google uses to power Gmail and Google Suite tools like Docs.  Many of us can’t imagine a world without it but it was only announced at Google I/0 in 2018.  It uses a technique called sequence-to-sequence (seq2seq) and the data and processing needed to make it a reality was not possible a decade ago.  The 2008 version was slow and error-prone.  Not particularly useful.  But today, I couldn’t imagine drafting emails without it. Smart Compose won’t change your business, but it will save you time and it’s a great representation of how quickly technology is evolving and becoming more powerful.

Are there any common misperceptions your clients have when considering their digital strategy?

That only FANG (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google) companies or Silicon Valley startups can leverage and execute a digital strategy.  One of the more interesting things I’m seeing is so-called “old world” companies leveraging their very defensible data stores to open up new markets and services to their existing customers.  Take John Deere’s acquisition of Blue River Technology as an example.  John Deere bet on leveraging Blue River’s computer vision and enhanced robotics to improve yields for the agriculture industry. You don’t need to be a Fortune 500 to have a data strategy. Being disciplined about collecting, analyzing, and leveraging data can be a huge competitive differentiation.

Your team recently published a great blog post on "The Now and Near Future of Data". How do you help your clients think about the value of their data? Any examples you have seen of companies creating value from data?

A great example of this is the joint venture between Palantir and Airbus called Skywise.  Airbus was founded in 1970, 5 years before Bill Gates and Paul Allen would come together to incorporate Microsoft, a long time ago, and might as well have been in a galaxy far far away.  Airbus isn’t a company that you’d associate with having data at its core like Netflix.  But with the help of a good partner, Airbus has managed to build a thriving business parlaying the data in their planes, and partnering & selling to the airlines.  We’re barely scratching the surface of possibilities along these lines.

What are you reading or watching these days?

On the curiosity front, I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s Premonition.  Marvel has nothing on the real superheroes in this book, particularly Dr. Charity Dean.  

To bring a smile to even the toughest days - I highly recommend Ted Lasso.  Jason Sudeikis is an underrated SNL alumnus and he’s in a role of a lifetime. Apple just dropped season 2 so there’s plenty of laughs to get through. 

1

Evans, David S., Andrei Hagiu, and Richard Schmalensee. Invisible Engines How Software Platforms Drive Innovation and Transform Industries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.