Braking Vlad

Murray Pratt Blog, Business Insights

Truck Driver

Throughout your career you run into people who inspire you. They do things and or teach you things that help you create a better journey for yourself.

I remember working for the Canadian division of a US-based private college company and encountering an amazing leader. His name was Peter. He was British. He once told me that he came from a family of Anglican ministers – a 500-year line of Anglican ministers! He was a good leader – an amazing people motivator. Like him, I am a ‘PK’ – a preacher’s kid – so it might have been my admiration for his ability to instill positive values and ‘belief’ in a company that drew me to his leadership.

He had worked in the Pepsi organization and from what I understand had led the Pepsi concert series – think Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart – at one time. He went on to create some amazing marketing breakthroughs with Taco Bell as well.

He took this private post-secondary college business and transformed it. My only lament was not being able to spend more time in the business. There were structural issues between the Canadian and American operations owing in part to the way in which the two countries approach education. I, in particular, struggled with the challenge of moving the business forward in the Canadian context. I consider my time there my biggest professional failure. My first failure was not properly vetting an employer and choosing to work for a business that had so many problems.  But I take solace in the fact, that in my short time there, I saw some amazing things from this leader.

He did three things that were amazing.

  • He was a ‘humanist’. He believed that in moving a business forward that he first had to transform its people so that they, in turn, would transform their customers
  • He believed strongly in recognition. He used this to great effect with entertainment and celebration around accomplishing great things together. At times I thought I was attending a religious revival or an Elton John concert – sponsored by Pepsi, no doubt.
  • The third thing I learned from him was the importance of ‘wrapping your entire effort’ around the customer. I am not even sure that using term ‘customer focused’ does it justice because he was zealous in making sure the business bent itself to meet the needs of a new generation of student – in this case ‘millenials’. In doing so he created breakthrough TV advertising because he honed in on the right audience with the right message. He realized he had to change the culture within the business because he could see something profound – and that was that the marketplace was changing, that society was changing.

He moved the company towards delivering relevant programming- relevant to a younger audience – speaking to them in new ways. He also saw a new demographic – more newcomers to the country – those people who needed new skills to get better jobs where ‘English was a second language’ in their household.

My understanding is that he was gone a year or so after I had left the company. Some four years later the company was dissolved by regulators who questioned the tactics and strategies of the ownership and management that followed. Let’s put it this way – if your business is the example played out on some PBS Investigation show – you have problems!

I lamented the failure of the company and the fact that it seemed short term expediencies for profit came at the expense of breaking students’ dreams. I am certain this would not have happened ‘on his watch’.

When I first joined Tailwind I was given the task of trying to figure out the SaaS business. I was in sales, and the man who hired me suggested that I figure out how we can get the SaaS model working for our company.

I spent a lot of time learning how to sell the software, demonstrate the software and learning about the trucking and freight brokerage industry. Sometimes it was rather humbling. I remember in the middle of some of my demos that the attendees would be trying to help me! But that was alright, because they understood my intent and they understood too that we were ‘in it together’ – trying to figure out if this software was going to work for their business.

As I say to my salespeople now. ‘There is a worse thing than NOT GETTING A SALE. It’s getting a sale – and having it fail miserably for the  customer’.  The risk and cost of doing that is significant.

In fact I believe that the biggest benefit our new model is the fact that we provide our customers with the ability to assess for themselves whether or not the software works for them. They do that through the use of a 30-day free trial.

Additionally by offering the software on a subscription basis – monthly fee per user – we allow customers to scale their investment in software in concert with their business growth. They are able to adjust their subscriptions up and down depending on their business cycles.

Long gone are the days of big up-front capital investments in software licenses with large maintenance agreements – a model that too often incentivized a salesperson to get the ‘big score’ at the expense of finding the right fit for the customer.

But this model places a significant demand upon the business to listen to its customers, to develop software that meets the needs of a defined group of customers – a defined customer segment. It creates an onus on the business to design an experience for customer who can make the choice for themselves. The proverbial ‘rubber meets the road’ when the customer makes a choice to either buy the subscription or end the trial.

After speaking to hundreds of customers at Tailwind Transportation Software I realized that the customers we were dealing with were just trying to get ahead – just trying to reconcile the competing demands of their work with their personal lives. While Dad was out driving, Mom was keeping the fires burning on the home front while being the ‘Chief Administrator’ for the trucking business.  In fact it was very insightful for us to realize that while over 95% of the drivers in the industry are male – some 30-40% of our customers were female.

I also talked to people who were just trying to get a piece of the ‘American dream’. Those folks who were new to the continent. People who had come from Eastern Europe and knew how to drive a truck. We were dealing with people of Latin American heritage, Native Canadian and Native American, East Indian, and many other Asian cultures. They reflected the demographic changes that were playing out in our broader society.

In moving Tailwind forward I often felt like that I was in a Benjamin Moore commercial. You know the one where two women sitting at a table talking look over at a ‘black in white’ scene where their husbands, all in mullets, are playing poker. They are playing in a brown paneled room probably with ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ picture on the wall. And the one woman says her friend at the table watching the scene in horror.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, they are just trapped in the 80’s!’

When I first arrived at Tailwind I felt that our business, like many other software companies in our industry was trapped in the 1990’s. Business models were evolving, a younger more tech-savvy generation was arriving as was a new group of citizens, drivers, coming from many different communities – certainly not the typical white Anglo Saxon society that we grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and well into the 70’s.

I constantly think about how our business – how are software, how our services, how the experience we create for our customers – can appeal to the ‘Braking Vlads’ of the world. It’s not easy but I remember from my time working for Peter at the colleges company that there was really no other choice. You can’t ignore your customer. You have to adapt.

And if you don’t force change upon yourself – embrace the new customer, newer technologies – one day you may find yourself standing in the middle of an intersection – in confusion while hundreds of vehicles are screaming by you – only to look up and see that one truck – a truck driven by Vlad no doubt – is coming straight at you.

And you will get run over.  Yep, you will get run over.

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