We built a digital advantage so vast, competitors started copying our design to a tee but it didn't matter as the real value rested upon the microservices, APIs and abstract data layers we built. This software powered crucial business operations from tracking a fleet of trucks to automating inbound marketing. Our jet was already in the air while the competition was just starting to build their plane and train their pilots.
Within 24 months they started seeing the results of their small investment in technology. Our client began receiving innovation awards for design and marketing given by national industry organizations. Most importantly they landed two of the biggest corporate clients they've gotten in a decade, and as an inbound request nonetheless! The excitement was building up and things went well for some time but after 12 years of building APIs, CRMs, abstract data layers, geo-location apps and mobile connectivity across more than 20 locations and 500 employees, it all came tumbling down. It took less than six months to unravel and send the company back to where they started.
“When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for people telling you that you are nuts.” Larry Ellison
We visited the headquarters of a well-established company in a beautiful small American town. The kind of place where kids jump in the lake on a late Friday afternoon after a long day of biking and running around. The grown ups walk up and down the neighborhood sidewalk usually barefoot and with a glass of wine in their hands admiring the sunset and sharing stories. The sunsets almost never disappoint as the sun layers a bright orange blanket over the sparkling lake while the children swing from makeshift swings that hang from trees. Doors are wide open and the conversations mix with the sound of the wind sweeping the sandy white beach in front of this magnificent lake. The ice cream is decadent and the portions are big. The days at the office are 9 to 5 and afterwards you get together with friends to grill hamburgers. They just drop by unannounced and with beer in hand ready to work. Traffic is sparse.
It all started as a very small project-building a website that essentially was a digital brochure and something we did because we believed that a company with the foresight to innovate could own the digital footprint in this antiquated industry and grow revenues. Unfortunately, the company didn't have the foresight to take the leap into digital, but at that time even a well designed website with relevant content and great usability was a radical concept. Being the optimists we are and with a new-founder type of stamina, we dove in with a smile and an eagerness to code this company into digital existence.
It was 2005 and most companies already had websites. This company in particular had been one of the first to purchase a domain in the 90s and as of 2005 they had nothing but a logo posted to the site. As you can imagine, I was ecstatic and wanted to get to work right away. There were a few cultural nuances that we didn't quite appreciate at the time or that we unconsciously ignored. What I remember most vividly all these years later is that they saw us as those crazy Californians doing tech things for the Internet. I didn't pay too much attention to that and choked it up to the Midwestern polite spirit we often experienced.
Looking back I can see how we were perceived as being those crazy Californians bringing the promise of the Internet to a century-old company firm in the heart of the steel belt. You have to be a little crazy to do this and succeed.
We had been in California for only a couple of years and never experienced the Irrational Exuberance of the 90s. We had no dotcom baggage –it was all new for us. We just wanted to work hard and help this company realize their potential by bridging their brick-and-mortar operations to the online world. This was an opportunity to big to pass up. We had an inkling of how the power of the Internet was going to change business as we knew it, but it was mostly a hope. Remember, it was 2005 and people were just starting to recuperate from the dotcom bust. Facebook, Twitter, Uber, AirBnB and many other behemoths did not exist yet. We truly were those crazy Californians bringing the goldrush with us to a community just trying to survive.
Their website had a single logo and nothing else, an opportunity to implement a winning digital strategy. As any other young technologist back then, I believed that software had the capacity to change the world. That Silicon Valley moniker that has been bastardized and mocked continues to carry an inkling of truth. Before Facebook decided to sell all our personal data and Google started providing sensored search tools for China, software was seen as a rebellion against the status quo and I subscribed to that sentiment. Things have changed dramatically since then.
That was the easy part. It came to light that no branding guide or strategic plan had been developed an though the CEO had the wits about himself to realize that digital was the future, the company lacked the mandate and plan to prioritize any driver of change in that area.
We took the initiative and developed branding guidelines, messaging and optimized the site for search. Back then, the frameworks were not as advanced. That meant building a prototype on a nascent system called Wordpress. The technology was ready, the branding was done and we launched the first official version of their site. We charged $3,000 for this work and call it a day.
“The digitalization of marketing is only the beginning of a massive shift toward fully digitized retail operations.” Antonio Altamirano, Forbes
Digital is different than any traditional marketing and the CEO, to his credit, asked us to give their branding a lift. We took that to heart and rebuilt and cleaned up all the assets that they had in hand and relaunched the website with updated materials. As any good digital marketer knows, the brand is no longer fully owned by the brand. It is up to the user to identify with it and to interpret the brand's promise. So we suggested a blog, a simple technological task yet a monstrous undertaking for an unprepared team. Over the course of a couple of years and through dozens of meetings, trainings and negotiations we launched and published relevant content and the inbound visits started coming.
People came knocking but there was no one to answer, and as it turns out, their call center was made of one single receptionist. We brought the river to their doorstep but they didn't have canoes.
The river of traffic arrived and brought to light the fact that they needed a call center to support the dozens of calls that were coming from all over the country. This was exciting and it felt as if we tapped into a gold mine. So, we built the canoes and helped them setup a makeshift call center to field the opportunities that were coming. This, eventually became a pillar of their marketing and communication strategy.
In conjunction with the newly hired technology leader, we developed a scalable strategy, supported with technology in conjunction with marketing automation and sound leadership. We built an efficient REST infrastructure on top an outdated database –the abstract data layer powered a host of next-gen web and mobile apps that connected more than 500 employees across dozens of locations and tracked dozens of trucks. CRM, APIs, Automation, SEO, Content Marketing, Geolocation, Mobile Native.
It was a fabulous time. No other company within that industry was doing it. These were the early days for B2B companies and Digital Transformation was not even on the radar of consulting companies let alone enterprises with brick-and-mortar presence. For these cohort of old-school companies, digital did not exist. Furthermore, some executives felt that digital was dead. This assertion always puzzled me. No one understood what social media was and technology was something that was done by the IT department which truly meant IT support for end-users--think reimaging computers and safeguarding data such as email and Word documents. Technology meant system administration of the most basic level with FTP servers, third-party firewalls and on-prem data storage and everything ran on outdated software and antiquated databases. IT was the third wheel of the business with operations and sales leading the charge. Everything was done with paper and pencil.
Bootstrap was just about to be launched and we used it to accelerate our time-to-market. Python 3.0 was a huge help as well since it represented and now major corporations such as Dropbox are using it and going all in. Also, instead of purchasing licenses for CRM Cloud Technology like Salesforce or Google for Business –which was met with distrust due to data ownership concerns– we set out to prove the value of these technologies by developing a prototype for an internal CRM tool so they can have full control of their data.
Ever the startup practitioners, we asked tough questions about the use case and we got to work. Within a few weeks we had an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and we started testing and training employees on how to use it. The roadblock was a lack of interest but mainly poor planning for deployment and user adoption. The results were much better than expected. Though the tool we built was a shadow of what Salesforce could offer, we began seeing a lot more engagement with the brand and many more leads coming through. We had to deal with spam filtering and a light DDOS attack as well which was par for the course.
Technology as a core component of a business strategy is a fairly new paradigm for all companies, especially for the ones that did not grow up in the digital age. The effort was multidisciplinary, educational but mostly a political one.
Over the last 20 years, a number of industries have experienced severe disruption due to the rise of digital technology. Profit margins have shrunk in the traditional economy, as customers have adopted new ways of procuring goods and services. In the retail world, for example, upstarts like Amazon have re-invented the experience of shopping in actual stores to one of buying a world of products online. When it comes to airplane tickets, we have become our own travel agents, booking reservations through Expedia or Kayak or the airlines’ own websites. Rather than shop around for a hotel, travelers find lodging at private homes offered on Airbnb. Instead of hailing cabs, riders submit trip requests to the Uber app. Unlike the fleet cab system, Uber drivers use their own personal cars. These various examples dramatically illustrate how digital technology has rendered the old models obsolete. With the number of new startups increasing exponentially, the disruptive economy appears to be unstoppable! Though it has taken some time, we now see that the scrap recycling industry is ripe for disruption. This does not mean, however, that long-established companies face extinction in the face of digital disruption. It does mean that the pace of innovation and digital execution must accelerate. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this situation is that upstarts—industry counterparts to Amazon, Expedia, Airbnb or Uber— need industry experts to execute their new technologies, while long-established companies need the disrupters to survive and solidify their market positions.
"In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed." Ralph Waldo Emerson
The good times were here. The new leadership had taken over at a slow but deliberate pace which allowed us to speed up and achieve greater technological feats. Though constrained by a small budget and continuous second guessing by the C-suite, the new technical lead was able to provide coverage and allowed us to truly spread our wings. He went on to become a C-level executive at a fast-growing company.
The infrastructure was already there. It was a matter of letting the world know the company was truly digital and open for business. We put our deep expertise in data-science, design, SEO, social media and growth hacking to work. The website was updated to handle heavy traffic and loading speeds were hovering under 500 milliseconds. We updates certain services to handle recency, context and relevance in search to achieve a great level of visibility online. We owned the top positions on Google for over four thousand high value keywords.
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