Its trademark couldn’t be protected there, the size of the market was as yet undetermined and some difficult issues related to using the language with the technology made the market one the company didn’t want to tackle yet.
Besides, there were more lucrative markets to pursue that carried much less risk.
“And six months later, I find out we got an order for Israel,” says LeVan.
LeVan, president and CEO of Vocollect since 2002, attributes the incident to a communications miscue. He thought he had expressed unmistakably that it was not the time to break into the Israeli market.
“But what the other person heard was, ‘Let’s go to the reseller and figure out how we’re going to go to Israel anyway,’” LeVan says.
LeVan laughs about the episode now, but he points out how miscommunication can throw into motion a whole series of events having to overcome the technology obstacles prematurely, clearing customs, sloughing through intellectual property issues that can be like hitting a speed bump for a fast-growing company.
But it also dramatizes how critical it is for a company to communicate clearly and consistently with its work force, both in sending messages and in receiving them, and how that task becomes more difficult as an organization grows.
Tripling in size
For LeVan and Vocollect, which offers voice-directed work solutions, the central challenge of rapid growth hasn’t been funding or finding fertile markets. The trick has been to keep the innovation and creativity flowing in a company that has always rewarded those things and thrived because of them, without letting the energy dissipate in too many resource-draining directions.
Vocollect has tripled its number of employees in the last three years, to a large degree by courting and collaring customers such as Wal-Mart and Giant Eagle as early adopters for its voice recognition technology used in warehouses and distribution centers. Vocollect’s employee count stood at 96 when LeVan arrived in 2002; today, it is 287.
Its Talkman system has become the operating standard for Wal-Mart’s distribution centers, and it has landed the world’s No. 2 retailer, French company Carrefour SA, as a customer, as well. Vocollect’s rapid growth, which has turned it into a $100-million-a-year company at least a year ahead of LeVan’s expectations, has resulted in some growing pains.
“What has been different than what I had expected is that we have more of the challenges associated with managing growth and figuring out how to make it happen. And as anybody will tell you, those are challenges that are a lot more pleasurable to deal with,” LeVan says.
More pleasurable, perhaps, but no less knotty. The ongoing puzzle LeVan has to solve is how to manage a company that depends on maintaining the vibrancy of individual initiative while ensuring that everyone is marching to the same tune.
Vocollect has rich opportunities to apply its technology and talented technologists to develop it, but limited resources to pursue it. Key to solving the puzzle is picking the right opportunities, and that means that some ideas will be pursued while others, at least for a time, will be put on hold.
With proven technology that has widespread applications and a work force eager to develop and exploit them, a natural and inevitable tension develops between the champions of various initiatives.
“With time, I guess I’ve come to learn that my job isn’t about eliminating tension, it’s about managing tension,” LeVan says. “I could eliminate tension by saying, ‘You go there, there and there, and nowhere else, and if you do anything else, you’re fired.’ You get rid of tension, but you also get rid of a lot of innovation and energy, and that’s not what we want.”
But LeVan acknowledges the difficulty in getting a consistent message across to the employees of a rapidly expanding company while it attempts to cull the most promising opportunities in a rich and vast market.
“Certainly, the challenge isn’t, whether you’re 300 or 1,000 or 1,500 people, to read a set of words and say, ‘This is a value.’ The challenge is to make sure it means the same thing to all of those folks,” LeVan says.
Most of Vocollect’s core values, LeVan says, haven’t changed much since founding partners Roger Byford and Larry Sweeney launched the company in 1987. Still, he says that growing fast puts a strain on an organization’s capacity to ensure that those values are carried on. In a company where two out of three employees have come on board in the past three years, the task can be a tough one.
“Some of them are kind of motherhood and apple pie, but some of them are distinctive to Vocollect, and when you’re adding people so rapidly and the business is expanding so rapidly, the tendency is to take the approach that, thank goodness, here’s your desk, here’s your objective, get to work,” says LeVan. “We had to do some of that, but I hope that, in a planned way, in an osmosis kind of way, we’ve been able to meet the challenge of conveying those values through the recruiting process and the orientation process so that we’re not losing sight of not just what we do but of the kind of organization we want to be.” And it’s important to make sure not only that the communication is consistent, LeVan has found, but that everyone is getting the same message and understands it in the same way. That becomes more problematic as the organization grows larger.
“One of the issues that we found is that when you’re 100 people and you have a statement of core values and this is one of our core values ‘We’re committed to a balance between personal and professional life,’ everybody will sign up to that,” he says. “But if 300 people sign up to it, there might be 300 different interpretations. And we found, in fact, that across the organization, there were multiple interpretations.”
To meet the challenge of fostering a company culture and keeping everyone on the same page without strangling creativity, LeVan follows what he describes as a two-track system of communication that involves at least as much listening as talking.
“One of the things that we are big believers in is kind of two paths of communication, one which is informal and certainly not uncommon,” LeVan says. “We work really hard at finding ways to talk to people in the organization, and I work really hard at scheduling a series of informal lunches so that there’s a way to hear what people are always saying to us.”
Vocollect debriefs new employees at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals to measure whether their initial expectations of what working at the company would be like are consistent with their current experience. It also distributes a survey, used by 1,500 organizations worldwide, that poses multiple choice questions to find out whether the company is on track with its message.
When inconsistencies are noted, teams of employees are dispatched to investigate why they exist and figure out what to do to correct them.
“The survey is 60 short answer questions, so it’s indicative, not prescriptive. So then based on the indications, we try to dig a little deeper through those employee teams, what else is going on here, what do we need to work on,” says LeVan.
Energy and excitement
Ultimately, LeVan is attempting to help Vocollect take shape as a company without pressing it into something that simply conforms to his personal notion of what the company should be. And he sees that this is not necessarily the path of least resistance but rather one that ensures change will continue and create upheaval that will have to be confronted.
As someone who talks about the Zen notion of the journey as the destination, he seems comfortable with the notion that there’s not necessarily an endpoint.
Says LeVan: “I’m not a potter, I’m not trying to mold Vocollect. I’m trying to be responsive to market opportunities, the evolution of competition and the reality of what it is to work here. The goal is to make the work exciting, to make folks feel energized, to make folks feel like their work is their work, that they’re not working for Vocollect, they’re working as part of Vocollect.
“I think if you try to do that, you’re inevitably going to have to go through phases of a company’s existence and change.”
How to reach: Vocollect Inc., http://www.vocollect.com