There aren’t many companies that are able to do what George Young and his team at Kalypso LP can do. That lack of competition and the abilities of the firm have put Kalypso, a 120-employee management consulting firm focused on innovation, product development and product lifecycle management technology, in growth mode and looking to keep that growth going.

Young, co-founder, founding partner, and CEO at Kalypso, plans to grow by 400 percent over the next four years. To accomplish this goal, which they call the four-by-four plan, Kalypso puts a lot of emphasis on hiring talent that fits the company.

“We think that’s realistic based on the demand we see and what we think is possible, because we don’t really have a head-to-head competitor,” Young says. “We want to do four by four, but we’re going to do it while maintaining the values of the firm and that’s the challenge. It’s getting the right people and making sure that the core values of the company don’t change while we have this explosive growth.”

Smart Business spoke to Young about how he finds and maintains top-notch talent to grow his business.

What are the challenges of Kalypso’s growth?

One of our challenges is growing people at the right pace and creating new partners so we have increased delivery capabilities so we can keep up with the demand. Consulting at its core is an apprenticeship model. People come in and they learn the trade by working with senior practitioners, they grow professionally, they’re promoted and eventually they become partners. That career path takes most practitioners seven to 10 years to get there. Kalypso has managed this pretty amazing growth and we’ve only existed for seven years, and you’ve got this apprenticeship model where it takes seven to 10 years for your people to become partners.

Do you promote from within or look outside the company for talent?

There are senior people that might be working in other consulting firms, but they haven’t grown up in our firm. They don’t understand how we work and they don’t understand our core values or how we deliver projects. It is much harder to have those people join and be successful than if you grow those people internally. Our biggest challenge is all around people and getting the people with the right attitude and skill set to do the projects we do. You’ve got to have people that are highly credible. I spend a lot of my time looking for talent, recruiting talent and maintaining the talent that we have because that is the determinant.

What do you look for when hiring new people?

There isn’t a prototypical Kalypso consultant. We have a couple of core values that are really important to how we deliver projects, but they are also really important for when we are looking for talent and recruiting. The first is our diversity statement; characters with character. We don’t hire the traditional consulting automaton. You’re working with creative and innovative types: scientists, engineers, marketing people, advertising and creative services people. All of those people are extremely talented and a little bit weird in a good way. We have to have people like that. There are certain things you can look for on the resumes or certain schools you can go to, but a lot of the interviews have to be around fit. We look for diversity, fit and good weirdness.

How can people make sure new hires are a good fit in their company?

Try to spend as much time with that person as you can. In my experience fit has won more times than strength of resume. The intuitive side of the interview and the intuitive side of how you feel about the person is a strong aspect. Many times you get a resume that just pops out at you. The person has tremendous test scores and tremendous GPA and things like that, but they may not work out as well as someone who maybe doesn’t have those things but turns out to be a more rounded individual. The only way you can assess that is to spend a lot of time with them and do interviews that are nontraditional. I like to take people to Steak ‘n Shake. I don’t take them to a fancy dinner or to a coffee house, I take them to a place that is pretty plebian and we just sit there and we have a conversation. You have to try to do as much as you can to understand their background.

HOW TO REACH: Kalypso LP, (216) 378-4290 or www.kalypso.com

Published in Cleveland

Bill Sasser created The Management Trust in late 2005 as part of an industry rollup, merging six companies to form an employee share ownership plan, or ESOP. The community association management company is owned by its 700 employees, but it is Sasser’s job as chairman and CEO to provide value and profitability for the company’s employee-owners. As part of that, he has helped to spearhead a growth-by-acquisition strategy that has helped the company broach new markets and new lines of business.

Smart Business spoke with Sasser about the acquisition strategy at The Management Trust – which is the DBA name of The Management Association Inc. — and how to effectively implement an acquisition strategy at your company.

At the outset, what was the process like to roll all of the companies together to start The Management Trust?

We really invoke the ESOP culture quite a lot in just about everything we do, and probably our biggest cultural difference between an ESOP company and a nonemployee owned company is the degree to which we engage our employee owners. That really kind of changes the dynamic considerably. What we've done is we operate with a high degree of transparency for all of our employee owners, because they are our shareholders.

In doing so, they understand the good, bad and ugly of what our strategic vision is, what our financial performance is, all of those sorts of things. So as we are going through the post-merger integration issues, which is compounded by the recession, we would share with them the challenges we’re having. What we have found, and this is the beauty of an employee ownership culture, is even when you are sharing with them news that is not entirely positive, they feel honored and respected for being given the information at all.

Moving forward, what has been your growth strategy?

Historically, we have relied heavily on the homebuilders to fuel our growth. Obviously, over the last five years, there has not been a lot of home development. So we really found ourselves in the position of needing to reinvent the company. What we have done is a couple of things: No. 1, we realized we needed to find recurring nonvolatile revenue streams that are predictable, as opposed to the volatility of the real estate market. We went about doing that, creating some proprietary programs and so forth, and in so doing, we built a model that became scalable. So once we realized that we had built a strong business model that could prosper even in a difficult economic time, and had recurring predictable revenue streams, that is what then gave rise to the acquisition strategy.

What makes for a good growth opportunity in your situation?

I think it is a couple of things. First of all, every company's long-term strategy is going to be somewhat different. My job description is very simple: the creation and preservation of ESOP share value for our employees. That is really what I do. Parenthetic to that is a lot of different things. But as it relates to the acquisition opportunities, we look for three different things. We look for companies that are either strategic markets, meaning markets that we know we need to be in to grow this company into a national presence. We look for companies that have what we call a strategic skill set, which may be a particular area of expertise that we can leverage throughout all the positions of the management trust. Again, with the idea that we want to create a business model that is scalable. Thirdly is simply tuck-unders, where we just acquire a focused business and fold them into an existing office of the national trust. The most important criteria that we look at when we are exploring a potential acquisition opportunity is where we can create value.

What would you tell other business heads about developing an acquisition strategy?

I think if I had to identify a couple of key points for somebody considering acquisitions, the first point would be to find a point of differentiation between your company and other acquirers in that business space. If the company is simply trying to compete on price while not considering other factors, a bidding war is going to ensue, and that is not going to work. Sellers want to find a company that is going to be a good fit. So any way you can differentiate yourself from your competitors is better. I think that culture is critically important in any acquisition strategy. You need to find a company that is going to fit.

How to reach: The Management Trust, (714) 285-2626 or www.managementtrust.com

Published in Orange County

Britt Massing realized that his company needed to get creative if it was going to weather the turbulent economy in 2009.

“We could see that a lot of clients, instead of having four or five or maybe 10 orders a month, were going to one, two or three orders a month and constantly saying, ‘We might be having layoffs,’ or, ‘We’re trying to maintain our costs and cut costs etc. at this point in time,’” says Massing, president of The Staffing Resource Group Inc., which employs 93 contractors and a staff of 11. “That’s what we had to deal with.”

Today, the staffing company is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the Tampa Bay area. Smart Business spoke with Massing about how to use economic uncertainty as an opportunity to grow your business by better serving your clients’ needs.

What is the first step when you realize that your clients are struggling?

I think that a lot of companies didn’t react quickly enough to making changes. They thought maybe that renegotiating might not be the best thing for them. A lot of them also didn’t think about going back to as grassroots as taking a look at the income and the profit and loss report and thinking look at all the vendors and going back and talking with them.

The first thing we knew was that a lot of our competitors were going to be going out of business, and for us, it was if we make it through this, we’re going to be good. So what we did was we renegotiated with a lot of our clients our terms, and we also then renegotiated with almost all of our vendors.

We did one-year contracts where we’ve reduced our rates some. We were flexible when other companies were not flexible. We’ve listened to what our clients needed and if it worked for us from a business standpoint, we renegotiated until the turnaround started to happen for us. That was a big part of how we survived when a lot of other companies did not.

How do you stay aware of how to meet your clients’ needs?

We were asking our clients what they needed. Some clients, because of the technical aspect of our business, weren’t hurt as much as other clients, but the ones that were having some difficulties and asked us about flexibility, we decided what made good business sense and we ran with it.

Outside of that kind of strategic aspect, instead of not calling clients when they didn’t have needs at that time, we’ve maintained our relationships with everyone throughout that period. People would be like ‘You know you don’t need to stop by and say hello to us right now. We don’t have anything for you.’ Our response always was, ‘Well, we know you will in the future and when you do, we want you to remember us.’ We wanted them to know that we treat all of our clients like it’s a relationship and it’s a partnership. So we spent a lot of time staying in front of them. We’re in direct contact either via phone, e-mail, in person, breakfast, lunch, dinner etc., with our clients every week. We have a very grassroots effort to make sure that we’re constantly in touch and in front of all of our clients.

As the contracts had ended and then needed to be renegotiated, depending on how the companies were doing, we had opportunities to renegotiate our prices back to where they were or above where they were before; we’ve been able to do that as each contract has come up. A lot of them were experiencing the same thing that they had to do for their businesses as well. Many of the people that understood and partnered with us were going through it themselves, and for the most part, were very appreciative of what we did to help people get through those times.

What advice would have in employing this kind of strategy?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. … We [the owners] are always constantly in communication and talking and bouncing ideas off of each other and taking that to the team. When the team is involved in any policy changes or any changes with the company, it gives them ownership of it and they take pride in seeing it through and making it happen.

We knew that we had to maintain the relationships because we work with what we feel is a great book of business and when we got with our team, we told them, ‘Every customer that we have will continue to get the same amount of service as they’ve gotten before and that’s what will happen in 2010 and beyond after we get through 2009.’

How to reach: The Staffing Resource Group Inc., www.srg-us.com or (877) 774-7742

Published in Florida

Juuhi Ahuja knows uses a simple phrase to describe what it takes to find the talent that has helped her company, Wise Men Consultants, earn a spot on recent lists of Houston area fast-growing companies multiple times.

“We are a fast-paced, aggressively growing company, so getting the people who have the required level of ‘fire in the belly’ to grow both professionally and financially is my biggest challenge,” says Ahuja, founder, president and CEO of the $29 million business, which has grown since 1997 from a staffing company to a provider of international full-range solutions.

“It’s about attracting and keeping the good talent who can be the right mentor to the company’s younger talent and be interested in growing.”

Smart Business spoke with Ahuja on how she finds employees with an inner glow that guides them to success.

Q. What initial approach should a company take in finding the right talent?

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, not that the talent was wrong, but the fit was not right. But I would say that more than anything else, when you look for a person, look for similarities in attitude. That is an important key because that will make or break the person.

You may not even mind hiring people who have less talent and less experience as long as they portray the right attitude, which resonates with your philosophy.

Putting a candidate through several interviews takes time but it is better than making mistakes. We've had to fire people because they did not have the ‘fire in the belly’ that we were looking for. So take your time. It also proves that the candidate is genuinely interested if he will wait to go through your process. Weed out the people who are just looking to make a jump for the sake of a jump.

Q. What other qualities should an interviewer look for in a candidate?

Look for people who are good solution providers ? somebody who should be able to take no for an answer and be persistent but at the same time know that knocking on this door is not going to bear any fruit.

You want somebody who believes in intuition, or a gut feeling. You want somebody who is a person who believes in data, but backs it up with 20 percent intuition. The way I define intuition is a good feeling, or bad feeling, in the gut, combined with market intelligence and hard data of some success stories with clients ? and just an inside feeling that yes, this will work.

Q. While an interviewer can’t spot ‘fire in the belly’ by looking at a candidate, are there any outward signs, such as body language, that are helpful in evaluating a job seeker?

It is in the person’s best interest to find something (that) he is passionate about, and it is also in your best interests to find a passionate person for the job. Passion is what you really look for in people ? that they should run to work.

Yes. Not walk to work. I think it is very true that people who walk fast think fast and tend to act fast. People who have a sluggish gait or ... I can’t say talk very slowly because I have had very, very good luck with people who talk slowly and measured, but I have very accurate insight into intuition and gut feelings. I have found that somebody who is open, gregarious, walks fast and enjoys a fast pace is more successful.

Q: What also increases your odds of getting a good fit?

It is also about letting a person flourish. If the environment is not to the employee’s liking, he is not going to be as excited. I think excitement and enthusiasm are keys to life. Life is really beautiful. You don't want to go into an environment that irritates you and irks you on a daily basis.

I mean life is so beautiful; it can’t be wasted. I have had employees say this is the best place I have worked for, and I know they are protecting themselves. We may still let them go after giving them two or three notices. They are not doing themselves a service or realizing that they need not be in this environment but need to be in a different one, which will make them come alive.

How to reach: Wise Men Consultants, (281) 679-6740 or www.wisemen.net

Published in Houston

As founder and president of the 250-employee consulting firm, Leadership Dynamics Inc., Nancy Clark is regularly working shoulder to shoulder with business executives to help them overcome their leadership challenges. From this perspective, she frequently sees leaders struggle to adapt to new expectations as they are promoted up through management.

“It is not simple, and for many, it is not natural,” says Clark, who is also the author of “18 Holes for Leadership: How a Round of Golf Can Make You a Better Leader.” “Some have to develop the capabilities. Some need to depend on others to fill in the gaps, and some may have strengths that directly conflict with achieving a leadership position.”

Smart Business spoke with Clark about her book and why self-awareness can help you become a better leader within your organization.

What example in the book do you think best illustrates how leaders can become more successful?

The importance of self-awareness is a thread throughout the book and is considered one of the most critical foundational elements.

I formally introduce it when Sam, the executive coach, and Paul are waiting to tee off on the fourth hole. Sam helps Paul to see how he approaches golf, which is completely different than Sam. Neither is right or wrong, but the result can be completely different. Paul is very thorough, analytical, task-focused. He is not ‘people-focused’ and is surprised that he may be perceived by others as unfriendly or distant. Given that Paul is experiencing a high number of defections from his team, he may want to adjust his style to achieve different results.

Why is self-awareness a trait that business leaders need as they move up in a company?

What really seems to implode for some leaders when they make it to the top is their guiding values get sideways, whether they just get so pressured by really earning or they drink the Kool-Aid believing that they are all powerful and above all of this. But they end up sort of throwing their values under the bus.

Sometimes they think they are so unbelievably great that they could run any business any time anywhere, and they begin going a little bit outside of their competency areas.

A lot of it is there really isn’t that self-awareness, that they don’t really understand the impact that their behaviors are having on other people and how that really is creating havoc. Then they go through one of our workshops or learning or coaching, and all of a sudden you see these lights go on. It’s literally waking them up. The real strong first step is self-awareness, because they have to understand and recognize what their strengths are and how best to utilize and how to adjust.

How can a leader become more self-aware?

Some CEOs are very reflective and more naturally aware of their strengths and work styles. For others, it is not as straight forward.

Often when I ask a CEO or leader, ‘What are your strengths?’ I hear more of a chronology of work experiences and education. That is not what is being asked.

The first step is find out that there are great tools out there that can help you be much more effective, also be much more productive and drive performance so much better as well as make people happier and more productive in their positions.

There is a great quote from Dr. Edwards Deming: ‘Experience alone teaches us nothing.’ If CEOs do not have a theory or framework to understand themselves and others, they are left to recurring experiences with no possibility of predictable improvement.

How to reach: Leadership Dynamics Inc., (925) 831-9100 or www.leaders-inc.com

Published in Northern California

The future is all about digital, and the companies that will come out on top will have the most outstanding user experiences, Amy Buckner Chowdhry says.

Buckner Chowdhry is co-founder and CEO of AnswerLab, a consulting firm that helps many of the world’s leading brands build user experiences across digital platforms.

“We wanted to offer the whole tool kit — that no matter what a client’s business question is when they’re developing a digital product, we wanted to be able to offer the right research methodology to answer it,” Buckner Chowdhry says.

Founded in 2004, the firm of 30 has worked with clients such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Honda.

Smart Business sat down with Buckner Chowdhry at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how AnswerLab works to create and implement user experiences that meet the needs of both company and customer.

How is bringing in an outside firm beneficial to the development process?

In your average organization, you don’t have one person who’s that decision-maker. You have multiple people, and what happens is that the competing needs of each of the groups can result in an experience that gets watered down.

It’s incredible to see how easy the user experience within an organization can go south because there are too many stakeholders — there are too many people involved in making the decision around what gets launched.

When you bring in an outside, independent and objective research firm to help in your process, you can get back to what the voice of the customer is.

How do you engage the customer to identify their needs?

It typically involves recruiting them into a research environment where we’re engaging with them one-on-one or in a group setting.

We can start with a database or a list that our client has of their customers. We reach out to them for a particular research study and maybe do focus groups with them. We may visit them in their homes to watch how they use a product, bring them into the lab environment and watch them behind the mirror as they try to use a product or bring them in to do something on a page to track their eyes to see what they’re looking at on the page. Do they notice the fad or do they not notice the fad?

What process do you have to turn a good idea into a tangible product or service?

The day to day is about getting these projects out the door to clients. That’s what most of our teams focus on. But we need to also be innovative in taking what our services and research are and taking them to the next level. We go through a rigorous strategic planning process where our entire management team meets quarterly.

We do a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis, and we sit down and look at what are the opportunities here. When a new product will help address some of the items that come up on our SWOT analysis, we turn that into a strategic priority for the quarter and we track against it.

If we identify that a specific threat may be that a competitor has a competing product, or if we identify that there’s a huge opportunity on the table to basically grab this unmet need from our clients, then that becomes a product or a goal that we drive through as a strategic priority. We take the results of strategic planning process and put it into a one-page plan ... and that’s on every single person’s desk in the office.

We have an online tool that we use. Everyone has to log into on Friday and update it, and it shows our progress toward implementing these strategic priorities. So there’s the goal to get this product launched, and there are all the tasks associated with it and all the people who need to help make sure that happens.

How do you stay motivated and keep creativity flowing for yourself and for your organization?

We focus a lot on trying to ensure that our team can get the right professional development that they want. We have a series of learning luncheons that we set up where we’ll bring in outside speakers to talk with the team and keep them engaged. We’ll watch a ‘Ted talk’ during lunch together. We’ll have individuals within the company present on the work that they’ve been doing.

How to reach: AnswerLab, (415) 814-9910 or www.answerlab.com

Published in Northern California
Wednesday, 29 February 2012 19:01

Nick Vehr buckles down at Vehr Communications LLC

Nick Vehr, founder and president of Vehr Communications LLC, a public relations firm, doesn’t mind uncertainty.

Everyone has been enduring it for the past few years, and for Vehr and its 18 employees, that uncertainty has brought out the best in the business.

“Our company is young and I started it at the front end of the worst recession in many lifetimes,” Vehr says. “It’s an extremely scary time to be out there with a business and even more to be investing in that business and growing that business.”

While it’s a scary business environment, it will be those who work hardest and deliver the best results that will survive.

Smart Business spoke to Vehr about how he is growing his company despite tough times.

How do you deal with uncertainty?

You put your head down and work harder because you can’t control it. You can’t spend all of your time worrying about it; you have to spend time with every client you have and fight aggressively for every client you can get. That’s the only way I know how to deal with the uncertainty that’s out there. Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to grow with cash flow and we didn’t have a huge overhead to feed when the economy went bad and companies started pulling back.

What have been some of the key factors of the company’s success?

Somehow you have to strike a balance between keeping your eye on the big picture and sweating every little detail of the way you run your business, and I think that’s especially true with small businesses. You just have to be very careful in your hiring. You have to be selective in your clients and you have to work harder than the next guy. That’s the key, because there is a direct-line correlation between working hard and winning. You’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to be transparent, honest and open with clients when you give them advice, even if it’s advice they don’t want to hear. All of those things in our business are a given. The variable that spells the difference between winning and losing is, ‘How much are you willing to put into it?’

How do you plan your hiring?

This is a great time to be hiring. There is a whole lot of talent that’s out there and the trick is not trying to pick up good talent dirt cheap because in the long run you’ll lose that talent, because they’ll know you weren’t truly committed to them. We try to be very deliberate, intentionally slow and careful, and on my side when I make the decision to make the hire, I try to calibrate the best I can on a couple of different points. A disaster for us is somebody who we invest all that time and energy in, we pay them a salary for a year, they start developing a relationship with clients, and then they leave. That’s a significant lose of investment on the business side of things.

The scary thing and the challenging thing is you have to hire out in front of the work. People with whom we work, they want to know who they are going to talk to and work with on a daily basis. I can’t as CEO make the sale and then hand it off to a person who’s completely unknown to who I made the sale to. Our people are our product. It’s their brains and their skills and their experience that people are buying. For anybody who’s hiring, the hardest thing to calibrate is, ‘How do I hire out in front?’ You’ve just got to get great people, work hard and the business will come and they will end up adding value to the bottom line of your company.

How have you attracted clients in such a tough economic time?

I hope we don’t do anything differently in good economic times than we do in challenging economic times. For a successful relationship with a client, we have to commit ourselves to that relationship. That means open communication. That means thinking out ahead of the client and what their needs are and being proactive in suggesting strategic approaches and ideas. The best way to make sure a relationship works is to commit yourself to being an active partner in the relationship. It’s a lot of touch and communication. We want to become a strategic partner with our clients. We want to be at the table for the great opportunities and the tough challenges and be able to advise our clients appropriately.

HOW TO REACH: Vehr Communications LLC, (513) 381-8347 or www.vehrcommunications.com

Published in Cincinnati

Gary Conley is never satisfied with a process being good; it can be better and he will find ways to make it so. Conley is president and CEO of TechSolve Inc., a 55-employee consulting company that specializes in industries such as health care, manufacturing, and aerospace.

Conley and his team at TechSolve help businesses find ways to improve operations and become more efficient in any way possible. While he focuses on helping other companies, Conley has to also make sure he is keeping an eye on his own company’s processes.

“We have the same issues as our customers, although our people are trained to look for continuous improvement opportunities,” Conley says. “We need to be careful that we don’t fall into the rut of taking some of our processes for granted and not continuing to find ways to improve them.”

TechSolve utilizes concepts from Toyota’s production system of total quality management.

Smart Business spoke to Conley about how companies can focus on taking waste out of practices.

What are some common mistakes in business processes?

A common mistake is that the top management is not sufficiently engaged in the process and committed to seeing the process through. While you can often go into an organization and identify some immediate cost savings and other measures that might improve productivity or improve profitability, management needs to harvest those types of opportunities, but they also have to keep their eye on the long-term opportunity, which is to develop an environment within your company where everyone in the company is continuously looking for ways to improve.

Another mistake that’s often made is trying to do too much too quickly. This usually results in a lot of multitasking, which tends to delay improvements from actually being realized. It’s much better to focus on a smaller set of improvement initiatives and see them through than to try to take on a very large number.

How can management focus on improving processes and avoid common mistakes?

They need to learn as much as they can about the improvement methodologies that can be applied. Then they need to actually be personally engaged in the process and involved in working with their workers in the actual implementation of these methodologies. These are things that ultimately you can’t learn in the classroom. You can’t learn them by reading books. You can’t learn them just by watching. You have to actually become engaged and do them because it’s very much a high touch, contact sport. They need to establish clear goals and clear measures so that they can monitor the progress that’s being made and also so the workers and other managers who are engaged in the process can continuously evaluate where they are against the goals that have been set forth.

How do you develop a continuously improving environment?

What needs to occur is for all the managers to be aligned around the improvement initiatives and fully understand the purpose and the goals and the methods and the cultural transformation that is being pursued. Then, they, in turn, need to be trained in the methods and be personally hands-on involved in the actual implementation of the improvement.

How do you identify what processes need to be updated or changed?

In the beginning, it’s simply a matter of prioritization. What you’re looking for are improvements that will be meaningful to the organization that can be performed within a relatively short period of time so that they become a model for other divisions or work units within the organization to attempt to duplicate. You want some early successes and visible successes, meaningful successes that other people within the organization can observe and realize that benefits are being realized from the activity. That reinforces the belief within people that they can in fact make these changes and that these changes will make the organization more successful and their workplace a more secure place and a more productive place.

Another approach is if you have dissatisfaction from your customers, either as to quality or meeting delivery promise, then that might give you an indication of what would be the more meaningful project you might take on. Even if you didn’t have dissatisfaction, your sales people and people that are closest to the customers might be able to give you information about the aspects of your products or your service that would have the most meaningful impact.

What are the keys to recognizing what changes give you the best results?

You start with the basics. You want to look at the quality of your product. How much product is being returned? You could also look for areas where you have excessive scrap rates, for example. You look for bottleneck operations which might reveal themselves by very high work-in-process inventory levels. You look at how effective you are at achieving your delivery promise.

Although many of the techniques and methodologies originated within the manufacturing sector, they have universal applicability to any type of enterprise.

HOW TO REACH: TechSolve Inc., (800) 345-4482 or www.techsolve.org

Published in Cincinnati

The future is all about digital, and the companies that will come out on top will have the most outstanding user experiences, Amy Buckner Chowdhry says.

The CEO and co-founder of AnswerLab, a consulting firm that helps many of the world’s leading brands build user experiences across digital platforms, focuses on client research to help guide companies throughout their product development process. Founded in 2004, the firm of 30 has worked with clients such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Honda.

Smart Business sat down with Buckner Chowdhry at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how AnswerLab works to create and implement user experiences that meet the needs of both company and customer.

Q: What was the impetus behind AnswerLab?

My co-founder Dan Clifford and I both worked at a company called Vividence, and Vividence provided a piece of software that would allow you to measure and benchmark the customer experience of websites. That was one method of many that could help clients improve their digital experiences. Having built some knowledge there, we felt we wanted to offer the whole tool kit — that no matter what a client’s business question is when they’re developing a digital product, we wanted to be able to offer the right research methodology to answer it.

Q: How is bringing in an outside firm beneficial to the development process?

In your average organization, you don’t have one person who’s that decision-maker. You have multiple people, and what happens is that the competing needs of each of the groups can result in an experience that gets watered down.

It’s incredible to see how easy the user experience within an organization can go south because there are too many stakeholders — there are too many people involved in making the decision around what gets launched.

When you bring in an outside, independent and objective research firm to help in your process, you can get back to what the voice of the customer is.

Q: How do you engage the customer to identify their needs?

It typically involves recruiting them into a research environment where we’re engaging with them one on one or in a group setting.

We can start with a database or a list that our client has of their customers. We reach out to them for a particular research study and maybe do focus groups with them. We may visit them in their homes to watch how they use a product, bring them into the lab environment and watch them behind the mirror as they try to use a product, or bring them in to do something on a page to track their eyes to see what they’re looking at on the page. Do they notice the fad or do they not notice the fad?

Q: What process do you have to turn a good idea into a tangible product or service?

The day to day is about getting these projects out the door to clients. That’s what most of our teams focus on. But we need to also be innovative in taking what our services and research are and taking them to the next level. We go through a rigorous strategic planning process where our entire management team meets quarterly.

We do a SWOT analysis and we sit down and look at what are the opportunities here. When a new product will help address some of the items that come up on our SWOT analysis, we turn that into a strategic priority for the quarter and we track against it.

If we identify that a specific threat may be that a competitor has a competing product or if we identify that there’s a huge opportunity on the table to basically grab this unmet need from our clients, then that becomes a product or a goal that we drive through as a strategic priority. We take the results of strategic planning process and put it into a one-page plan ... and that’s on every single person’s desk in the office.

We have an online tool that we use. Everyone has to log in to on Friday and update it, and it shows our progress toward implementing these strategic priorities. So there’s the goal to get this product launched, and there are all the tasks associated with it and all the people who need to help make sure that happens.

Q: When you’re developing a digital experience, do you try to go that extra step to surprise users with something unexpected?

(There’s) a big difference in our world of user experience between a game user experience and your traditional user experience on the Web. One is called usability, which is your traditional ‘Can you pay this bill online without getting confused?’(or) ‘Can you register for this website?’

In a traditional usability experience, you could have elements of delight, but you want to avoid elements of shock.

(Another user experience is) what we call playability, which is ‘How easy and enjoyable is it to engage with this game?’ And in a playability sense, it’s OK to have a surprise. It’s good to have gaming elements that are discovered as you go, and it’s important for that game overall objective to be clear to you. And it’s OK for things to be difficult.

Q: What is the difference between a surprise and a shock?

The difference between a surprise and a shock is that surprise delights you.

Sometimes it’s just making an assumption, skipping a step for you so that you don’t have to think about extra steps as you go through the process. If it adds to ease of use, satisfaction, delight with a product, then that’s a great surprise. The bad surprise is what often happens with user experiences, which is actions that you take that have unintended consequences. You have an expectation that you click X or add Y to your shopping bag then Z’s going to happen, and it does not.

A really great surprise has to delight and not take someone for a loop.

Q: How do you stay motivated and keep creativity flowing for yourself and for your organization?

Our company works with the innovators. We are able to see incredible products or ideas for products before they go live.

Simply by doing our jobs, we stay incredibly energized and feel creative because we’re part of this process or this energy ...  around building something new and creating something new. We get to see it first, and we get to have input into it.

We focus a lot on trying to ensure that our team can get the right professional development that they want. We have a series of learning luncheons that we set up where we’ll bring in outside speakers to talk with the team and keep them engaged. We’ll watch a ‘Ted talk’ during lunch together. We’ll have individuals within the company present on the work that they’ve been doing.

Q: How do you recruit new hires?

For our research team, who are day in and day out connecting with our clients and consulting with them and doing the research, we typically recruit straight out of school. They’ve just got a Ph.D. in cognitive science or cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction or computer science, and they’ve done a lot of work in their academic field. They’ve done a couple internships. Then we put them through AnswerLab University. And we do an exercise with them when we’re going through the recruiting process to make sure that they can think on their feet. We give them a very quick assignment to do that they have to turn around to make sure that they will be able to adapt to our environment coming out of academia. So they have a great foundation, and then we help put on the rest, the consulting component.

When I think about growing AnswerLab, a lot of that is focused on ‘How do I create opportunity for everyone there?’ And it’s not growth for the sake of growth. It’s growth for the sake of every person within the company having an opportunity to learn a new industry, try a new product, build a new skill set, move into a different role, open a new office.

Q: What was your biggest barrier for growth in the early days?

The biggest barrier truly for me was not stepping out of the day to day. If I could start all over again, I would have hired our smartest, most senior people first and had them run the rest of the business while I stepped out of it and focused on growing it and setting the vision and the strategy for it. I spent a good couple years still doing the front-line research myself until we got big enough, then slowly but surely started hiring people.

How to reach: AnswerLab, (415) 814-9910 or www.answerlab.com

Published in National

Scott Wise admits it’s difficult to find and keep good employees for the seven restaurants he operates. But despite that, he knows he’s doing something right ? Scotty’s Brewhouse grew from $11.6 million in annual revenue to $18 million between 2008 and 2010, a 55 percent increase.

“It’s important to keep growing our company so everybody’s fire continues to burn, so everybody feels they have another place for them to move forward,” says Wise, founder, president and CEO of the 1,000-employee company.

“Your employee is No. 1, not your customer,” he says. “If your employee is not happy, your customer is going to know that and is probably not going to come back.”

Smart Business spoke with Wise about how Scotty’s finds workers and stokes the fire within them.

What does it take to find a good employee?

Gosh, it’s hard. It’s tough. It starts all the way from the beginning. From the minute you hire them, you’ve got to hold hope that your manager has done his job. We try to put a lot of effort into the manager who’s doing the hiring so that he or she can find the right person. You absolutely have to recognize the right person, see through the bullshit and make sure that someone is not just saying things you can say to get hired. So it starts with that.

But from watching over my entire company, I would say just the generation we are dealing with right now, I don’t want to blame anybody or blame a generation, but it’s just, I hate to say weaker, but I think every generation gets a little weaker in some respects. Maybe they have been a little more overprotected or they need to know a little bit more about why ? “Why do I have to be there at 10 o’clock instead of 10:30?”

They ask a lot more questions. They want to know why they are doing this, or what’s in it for them if they sell these different food items or these different drink items.

I think that the toughest challenge is to always keep all your staff motivated, content, happy and, obviously, as the end result ? pleasing your guests.

What solutions are you taking to address the challenges of Gen Y workers and others?

It takes proper training. If you don’t train them correctly, they won’t want to stay with a company that doesn’t train them properly. The employees won’t feel like they know what they are doing, and they feel uncomfortable where they are, and they are not going to want to stay there.

To follow up, the chief executive needs to personally send an e-mail to every new trainee that comes into the company and tell them, ‘Hey, here’s my e-mail address. This is really me typing this e-mail. If you ever have a question or you feel like someone is saying something rude to you or anything, you need to e-mail me here.’

It all takes good training. We actually have two directors of training in our company so we try to put a lot of emphasis on them and making sure that they have proper training manuals and everything in place.

What are the responsibilities of the two directors?

One travels to the restaurants and actually goes to each store and talks to staff and the training manager.

The other one, who is the main director of training, manages the entire database and stays back to make sure everything is put together. Then she gives out information to him to transfer to the restaurants. They work together in the training.

What types of perks are successful with employees?

Try to just take a little bit extra effort to show support to all employees: Christmas parties, summer baseball games, anniversary cards and gym workout memberships are a few.

You don’t want them to be giving 80 hours a week at work and just killing themselves with that.

You want people to have a good work/life balance. That’s kind of my philosophy. I really think that helps.

How to reach: Scotty’s Brewhouse, (317) 759-6336 or www.scottysbrewhouse.com

Published in Indianapolis