It may sound obvious, but the key is to start a tech company that solves a problem using technology. People can become so enamored of technology that they forget the problem-solving aspect that is critical — technology for its own sake is too broad. You need to narrow the focus to a problem — a pain point — that is shared by many people, and keep that in the forefront of your efforts.
As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Kelly, a serial innovator, published author and founder of SPLICE Software. She is passionate about technology’s potential to change lives for the better. She has consistently channeled that belief into developing technologies that enhance operations, enable better service delivery, and improve the customer experience. This has resulted in creating three customer experience companies and turning an innovative idea into a patented, proprietary technology (US Patent Number 9348812) that harnesses data streams to create personalized, automated messages. SPLICE solutions were included in Gartner’s “Cool Vendors in Insurance, 2016” report and Forrester’s “IoT and Analytics Startups Can Turn Insurers into the ‘Good Guys’” brief.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It all started with a bad customer experience! I was running my first venture and I had a phone interaction with a company that I knew had a ton of data and information about me, but they weren’t using it to deliver great customer service, which was frustrating.
I knew a better experience was possible with cloud computing and technology, so I developed software to personalize customer support for my own customers. That software became its own venture, which I licensed to small business. Then, I saw an opportunity to apply the technology in a different service model, and that venture evolved into SPLICE Software.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There are tons of interesting and enlightening things that have happened to me since beginning SPLICE. I think that is probably true for all of us. However, if I really took a broad lens, I would have to say it is joining an Entrepreneurs Organization and finding a community of entrepreneurs and like-minded people. It expanded my perspective and has given me the opportunity to experience and share in other people’s lives without judgment and with complete confidentiality. The things I have learned and practiced, like incorporating the principals of Gestalt and Johari’s Window, have truly been life-changing, in both the way I run my business and my personal life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, we were closing a contract, and the client asked if we could send over an MSA, meaning a Master Services Agreement, and I said, “Of course, no problem,” thinking it would be something simple we could put together quickly.
But after we got off the phone and I did some research, I realized what an MSA actually is — it’s not something you can just throw together over the weekend by yourself. We had to scramble to find a lawyer who could help us create one. We pulled it off, but I learned an important lesson: you can’t just BS your way through everything!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I think all entrepreneurs have a moment when they feel lost or wonder if they’re up to the task. I remember early on sitting at my desk watching my team do their jobs, and I wasn’t sure of our direction, and I didn’t know who to ask or even what questions to ask to move forward. I felt like we were on the wrong track, but I didn’t know how to address it at that moment.
I think every entrepreneur feels like an imposter or fraud at one point or another. But it doesn’t mean you should quit. There’s a saying that pops into my head at difficult moments, sometimes as an inspiration, and sometimes as criticism: “no one likes a quitter.” You just have to keep going, even if you feel lost. Sometimes just doing something will help you find your way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who helped me along the way, some consciously and some just by setting a great example. The first year we crossed the 1 million dollars mark, I had a party to thank the people who’d been instrumental in our success — there were more than 50. We put together a presentation, and as graphics, we put a photo of the face of each of the people I wanted to thank in a star, and when it zoomed out, all 50-plus stars were in a night sky, lighting it up. That’s what help at a crucial time can be like — light in the dark.
People seem to be taking gratitude more seriously these days due to the pandemic, and that’s one good thing to come from a difficult time. Even people we don’t know can affect us in profound ways. I remember one woman whose example helped me when I was starting out, even though we didn’t know each other and never spoke. I’d see her on my way to work at the bus stop. She had two young children, and everyone was always sharp and ready to roll. She was so powerful and organized; you could tell she had a plan and a mission. She inspired me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s something my mom told me, which paraphrases a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou: people will forget what you say and what you do, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. I think that’s the foundation of everything important in life and relationships. It’s so important to keep that in mind and remember the emotional effect you have on people.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
SPLICE helps facilitate better communication. We try to inspire leaders to have a better conversation with their end customers by offering different channels to meet customers where they are and using automation when possible to streamline communications and ensure consistency across channels.
Communication is based on a foundation of consent and choice — not just in business but in life. At SPLICE, we help companies obtain consent to have a conversation and harness data and technology to make that communication valuable for customers and the companies we serve.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The thing that makes SPLICE Software unique is that we help companies meet customers where they are and move them forward on their journey. We help companies get permission for conversations and use data in a productive way to build better customer relationships.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’ve got some really exciting projects around the post-pandemic renewal of retail, including ways to manage the current environment when COVID-19 is still around and restarting once vaccines are distributed. One is a Retail Fast Pass™ that lets customers know when they can safely enter the store, if they have time to pick something up, grab a latte or run an errand.
We’re also excited about our integration with a leading CRM platform. It’s called Direct Connect, and it’s going to help insurance companies and their customers by putting group benefits providers directly in contact with policyholders. Direct Connect works with group benefits of all types. It will alleviate a lot of the heavy lifting for HR departments, so it’s a win for everybody.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
As a woman, I think it’s time to stop having groups just for us because it’s emphasizing our differences and may be hurting more than helping at this point. I’m comfortable with mandating equality in all things (including pay), and I’m excited to see women like U.S. Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris taking on unprecedented leadership roles.
But let’s own where we are, which is at the top levels now. Women can show up at the board and the executive level as equals, and we’ve got to believe we belong there. When we segregate ourselves as a group, it creates an “us vs. them” dynamic that undermines confidence. It implies that we haven’t arrived yet.
Let’s amplify voices that don’t have the megaphone to amplify themselves. We should always do that. But for women in tech, it’s time to rally for the win, and that’s got to include pay equity. In too many cases, women are in the seats, but they aren’t getting the same value exchange.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Pay inequality is still a huge issue, and I think male allies in the technology sector could take a lesson from the way some male actors are stepping up for women actors and demanding that their female co-stars get paid equally. Companies need to put their money where their mouth is.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
That’s a really great question. If you’ve stalled, you might need to ask better questions. Take a look at external industries and see what’s changed, look for trends. Have you tapped out your target market? Can you improve growth potential by expanding your geographic reach or product set? Should you look at amalgamation?
Customers are a great source of answers, but it’s a good idea to focus on the problem they identify and not necessarily take solution suggestions at face value. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
The key is to get excited about solving a problem again. Sometimes people on the outside see things you don’t see, and that can be the inspiration you need.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
The first step is to get the right people on the bus, as Jim Collins put it in “Good to Great.” You put the right people in the right positions, then you chart out a path. Transparency is important, and visibility leads to accountability by creating a natural sense of competition.
I also think trust is incredibly important. Salespeople have to trust their colleagues, and you have to give them a reason to have faith. Empower salespeople with a clean, tight product they can demo for clients. Don’t make them do their job AND marketing’s job. People do business with people they trust, so sales has to trust that marketing qualified leads are truly qualified and that operations will deliver value to clients as sales has described.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
We recently learned an important lesson about attracting the right customers at the right time, thanks to the pandemic. In the past, we’ve always found engaging with prospective clients at in-person events like conferences and tradeshows really productive in the sense that we come away with a lot of leads that go into the sales funnel. But we’ve also seen a fair amount of churn in the pipeline and an extended lag time that some of these leads spend in the funnel.
It might be a result of the process of generating leads. At these events, we build relationships, have fun, and draw people in, and that’s all great. But in retrospect, we should have curated those leads better.
Now that in-person events are off the table, people are finding us through partners, trade publications, etc., because they’re ready for the solutions we offer right now. Whereas before, we were meeting many contacts who were maybe classified as leads too early, i.e., before they were ready.
This suggests that less may actually be more. After all, it’s not about how many leads you get, it’s how many deals you close. People who are aware of your solutions don’t necessarily belong in the funnel; you need to know their timeline. We were aware of that on one level, but the change in our lead generation approach imposed by the pandemic really brought it home.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- The first step is to accurately define your customer’s success criteria and make sure you’re delivering on it. You need to make sure they get what they came for.
- It’s also important to empower everyone who can speak on behalf of your brand with the same values and options across the board. Consistency is important.
- Continuing to deliver an excellent customer experience requires periodically checking in with customers in a humble way. We have an exercise called “start, stop, keep,” where we ask customers what they’d like to see us start doing, what we should stop doing and what we should keep doing. That last point is key — don’t wreck what they love!
- Another critical point: know your baseline so you can tell if you’re improving your performance or losing ground. The old “what’s measured matters” saying comes into play here. It’s absolutely crucial to measure performance because it matters so much.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
The best way to limit customer churn is to know why you’re in business. What problem are you there to solve? Also, while it’s important to limit customer churn, eliminating it altogether is an unrealistic goal. You’ll want to retain 95% or so of your customers, but sometimes your company and your customer may outgrow each other, and moving on is the best outcome.
The bottom line is that you need to understand why you’re in business and also understand why the customer is there. Then gauge your performance and make improvements where needed. There’s a direct correlation between customer churn and customer experience.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- It may sound obvious, but the key is to start a tech company that solves a problem using technology. People can become so enamored of technology that they forget the problem-solving aspect that is critical — technology for its own sake is too broad. You need to narrow the focus to a problem — a pain point — that is shared by many people, and keep that in the forefront of your efforts.
- Defining the business model is also important. Will you offer software as a service? A platform as a service? Will you be open source? When answering these questions, keep your own company’s sustainability in mind.
- Intellectual property protection is also crucial, using patents, trademarks and trade secrets as appropriate. Not every innovation needs to be patented, and it helps to have good quality legal counsel to help you figure out the right level of protection. But there has to be intellectual property to protect. Otherwise, you’re really a consulting company rather than a tech firm.
- Another key is to find people who are as excited about solving customers’ problems as you are, and make sure they check their egos at the door. There are different leadership philosophies, of course — people say Steve Jobs was a “my way or the highway” guy. But I believe everyone has a unique perspective and that there has to be room for other voices. I love to work with the best and brightest on a shared vision, even if we argue about the best way to get there. A rousing fight about competing paths to that vision can be fun and invigorating as long as it happens in a culture of respect and commitment.
- It’s also critical to keep your battery charged, to find a renewable way to live your life. Creating a successful tech company requires an astounding amount of time and commitment, so you can’t really go into it expecting to find easy balance — balance is for yoga. But if you do work that you find stimulating and exciting, working isn’t a chore that’s taking you away from your life, it’s how you live your best life.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My concept probably doesn’t lend itself to hashtag activism easily, but I really believe it would change everything if people were allowed to be their authentic selves. So much conflict arises because people don’t feel seen and heard, so they understandably fight for recognition and visibility, which everyone deserves.
It’s not just about individual comfort in your own skin, though that’s important in its own right. Authenticity or lack thereof has implications in every facet of life. To name one, working together effectively to fix problems requires letting go of ego. Ego is a protective barrier for a person who isn’t being authentic. People show up with fewer barriers when they’re being their authentic selves. If everyone showed up authentically, think of what we could accomplish!
I believe authenticity is related to purpose. There was a viral video a while back that showed dogs rescuing people who’d been caught in an avalanche. What amazed me was the look of purpose those dogs had — they were fulfilled by their purpose. They weren’t self-absorbed; they were outwardly focused and joyful.
Maybe every living thing is like that — maybe we are all creatures who are better and happier with purpose. If there was a way to find our purpose and engage in it authentically, we could unite as one planet, and we could collectively solve all of our challenges.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to sit down and talk to Elon Musk. He lives with a passion and drive that is rare, and he often operates against all odds. His ability to look at the world and identify novel solutions to problems is something to be admired and I think a meeting would make for some very interesting conversation.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!