Jeff Corbin of Staffbase: “Digital transformation fosters a culture of community”

Through digital transformation, everyone can be a winner. Provide your employees with the right tools and resources and you have now equipped them to become your greatest ambassadors and to share (socially or otherwise) the great things taking place within your organization. At the same time, your employees can be more effective and efficient in […]

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Through digital transformation, everyone can be a winner. Provide your employees with the right tools and resources and you have now equipped them to become your greatest ambassadors and to share (socially or otherwise) the great things taking place within your organization. At the same time, your employees can be more effective and efficient in their work saving them time to better enjoy their personal time outside of work.

As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Corbin.

Jeff has worked as a communications consultant for more than 20 years. Passionate about transforming internal communications through the use of technology, he was the founder and CEO of APPrise Mobile where he pioneered the use of mobile technology in the United States with respect to a new category of technology — employee apps. Since selling the company to a private equity firm, he has joined forces with Staffbase, the pioneer of employee communication apps in Europe. As Staffbase’s Senior Strategic Advisor, Internal Communications Consulting, he is furthering his vision of digitally transforming the communications industry. Prior to starting APPrise Mobile, Jeff was the CEO of communications consulting firm, KCSA Strategic Communications, in New York City.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started out as a corporate attorney in New York City. Great experience that to this day I credit for helping me build my businesses and confronting challenges. I was a lawyer for seven years, but around year five I started to get an entrepreneurial itch to do something on my own, so one of my colleagues and I, while we were still practicing law, started a business called “Spa & Fitness Services.” This was around 1995 and the fitness craze was in its infancy. The mega gyms that exist now, didn’t back then. The purpose of Spa & Fitness Services was to equip country clubs and condominium associations with spa and fitness facilities and offer personal training and spa services. We secured several clients, and the business was off to a good start. But it became very difficult to run a business of this sort and, at the same time, work a full-time legal job which required me to bill 200 hours per month. Around this time, I also started having discussions with a corporate communications/public relations consulting firm and, after several months, decided to make a career change from the legal industry to the communications industry.

I started at KCSA Strategic Communications (founded by my father) in late 1997 as a Vice President in their investor relations department where I would spend the next 10 years working with and consulting for publicly traded companies on their communications with their investors. During this time, the entrepreneurial itch returned again. The internet was in its infancy and the stock market was rallying before the internet bubble burst. To take advantage of this, I started a business called “OTC Village.” It was a website that was intended to offer investors in small cap companies a place to share their story to a community of small cap investors and to provide these investors with a place to exchange investing ideas and chat among themselves. OTC Village was intended to be a Facebook-like business. Interestingly, at this time, Facebook had not yet been created, nor did the average person own a mobile device. Unfortunately, the day after we launched the website and promoted it within our own circles, we realized that for this to work at scale, we would require significant investment capital — something the markets at that time were not willing to provide as the dot-com bubble was about to burst. A good try, but we decided that it made sense to stick to what we knew best and to make a living doing investor and corporate communications.

Over the years, I rose in the ranks at KCSA and eventually became its CEO. Professional services businesses are great businesses but having consulted for many technology and software companies in my investor relations work, I realized that they couldn’t perform at tremendous scale. Around 2011, another burst of entrepreneurialism overtook me. It was in the very early days of the “mobile” tech revolution with iPhones just starting to proliferate and the app stores consisting of hundreds of apps rather than millions. I was fortunate to have had a really smart IT professional working for me who came to me with an idea of creating an app that could be white labeled for companies who could use it to publish and “push” information to their investors. Originally this was just going to be a value-added service for our consulting clients and a way to differentiate our business from our competitors. But after seeing the first prototype of what would eventually be called theIRapp, I knew that there was something more that could be made of this. In 2013, we took this prototype to a large investor relations industry conference, rented a 10×10 booth, and conducted demonstrations on a couple of iPads (which were really cool at the time). Following the conference, we started to receive calls from large multinational publicly traded companies including Philip Morris, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Colgate-Palmolive, Sysco Corporation, and more, wondering how they could get one of those “IR app” things.

This is what allowed me to move from professional services to technology and I decided to go with it and utilize the resources of KCSA to further the cause of transforming the public relations/communications industry through the use of mobile technology. I recognized the power that mobile technology offered communications professionals to go right to the pocket of the people they were trying to reach rather than having to use traditional PR and marketing tactics. Given what Apple and Google were doing and how they were investing in marketing their app stores, I had a strong suspicion that this wasn’t going away any time soon and eventually would be used in the workplace rather than just for hailing taxis, banking, and playing games. I went to my partners at KCSA and was able to convince them to join me in investing to continue to build what I believed could be a significant, important and scalable technology business.

The business started with our IR product and generated a nice cash revenue stream for us. Things changed when I received a call from the head of corporate communications at Sysco Corporation (the Fortune 100 food distribution company) who was introduced to me by his IR colleague who had been using our IR product. He explained to me a big problem that his team was having — getting information to and engaging with the company’s 60,000 employees, the vast majority of whom were not sitting behind desks, did not have email addresses and did not have access to the company’s internal intranet. He thought that if Sysco could have a second app dedicated to their employee communications, this could be game changing for their company since they could then push information directly to the mobile devices of all of their employees and know that these hard-to-reach individuals were actually receiving the information. In listening to him and thinking about this problem, I knew that this could not only be helpful for Sysco but could transform the entire communications industry especially since there were three billion of, what I coined, “deskless” workers, who comprised the global workforce.

Again, I went with it, was able to convince my partners at KCSA to continue to invest, and developed our next product, theEMPLOYEEapp. As it turned out, this was the beginning of a new category of workplace communications technology appropriately referred to as “employee apps.” Our company continued to grow over the next several years and in early 2019, I sold APPrise Mobile to a private equity firm. I am now continuing this journey and evangelizing the importance of employee communications applications with Staffbase, the pioneer of employee apps in Europe, as its Senior Strategic Advisor for internal communications consulting.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

As I mentioned before, one of my first entrepreneurial mishaps was when I started OTC Village. It wasn’t a complete failure because there were a lot of lessons I learned from this experience. There were a couple of pretty funny moments though that I can remember.

The first was the day we were ready to launch the website. My entire communications consulting firm (about 40 people at the time) was standing around a computer terminal, we flicked the “go live” switch in the back end and everyone stood around waiting for something to happen. But nothing did. We stood there for about 15 minutes and then realized that we had a lot of work to do if we were going to make this a success. We all smiled at each other, looked down at our feet and went back to our desks to work. Our dream of making a fortune overnight was short lived.

Another funny story (in my opinion) coming from my days at OTC Village had to do with chocolate coins. As a marketing tactic, we purchased 1,000 chocolate coins wrapped with the OTC Village name and logo on them. Unfortunately, we never put them to use and for several years they were stored in a closet. When we started theIRapp business years later, we found the chocolates and decided to bring them to one of the events we were attending and give them away to get people to stop by our booth. We didn’t think about the fact that maybe they went stale. But those who took and ate them certainly let us know.

Not catastrophic mistakes but definitely a couple of good lessons that came out of this and helped guide me in building the APPrise Mobile business. First, we didn’t have a business plan for OTC Village. We spent a lot of time concepting what the website would look like and invested quite a bit of our own money in it. But we never mapped out what needed to happen next, to think through the business from the sales and marketing side and what would be required financially to make it succeed. On the chocolates, since that trade show, I now understand what it means to be penny-wise, pound-foolish.

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?

I am indebted to my father who gave me the opportunity to join his PR/communications consulting firm in 1997. Joining KCSA was not an option for me after graduating from college as there was a very clear no nepotism policy at the firm. However, after graduating law school, working as an associate in a law firm for seven years and then starting Spa & Fitness Services, my father and his four partners saw in me an opportunity to bring a new level of thinking and way of doing business to their 30-year-old business. To the extent I could bring my entrepreneurial spirit to KCSA, similar to what I was doing with Spa & Fitness Services while practicing law, then maybe I could help take the firm into the 21st Century, as well as to the next level of success.

Even though I did end up joining the company my father founded, I never took this for granted and, from the day I started, wanted people to view me as Jeff, not Herb’s son. To accomplish this, and even though I came in as a VP, I decided to learn from the ground up and made my way to the mailroom stuffing press kits and doing other administrative jobs. I never relied on my legal laurels or nepotism as a means to engender respect from my colleagues.

As my father was preparing to retire, I remember speaking with him about me stepping in as CEO. I believed that after more than 10 years in the business and having helped to grow the firm from 30 to 50 professionals, I had demonstrated the leadership qualities needed for the role. I also believed that I had established myself as a leader and figure in the PR/communications industry through my many involvements speaking at events and participating in industry organizations including the Public Relations Society of America. Initially he was against this. His view was that titles didn’t mean anything. However, over a period of time and as he neared retirement, my father and his partners realized that the time was right for me to take over the helm of the firm they had successfully built.

From the day that I officially became CEO of KCSA, I realized that my father’s initial resistance to pass the baton to me was actually him teaching me a very important lesson. Leaders lead by example and not by title or entitlement to respect. Respect is something that one earns through his or her actions. I now realized why I have always felt uncomfortable when others who worked with me referred to me as the CEO or their boss. While I knew that as CEO, I held a level of responsibility for the business overall and the authority to make certain business decisions that others didn’t, I always felt that everyone who I worked with was my equal — we just had different responsibilities. I believe that this lesson from my father set me up to build successful companies with great values and dedicated employees and it is for this that I will always be grateful to him.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I love the podcast series, How I Built This, and especially the episode featuring Steve Ells, the founder and former CEO of Chipotle. As I was building APPrise Mobile, I relied on this podcast to guide me in my work and thinking. Many of the episodes gave me ideas to put to use, allowed me to validate my thinking and approach to what I was doing, and to know that my fears and anxieties weren’t abnormal.

The episode with Steve Ells was one that had a significant impact on me. Chipotle was one of the first major retail/restaurant clients of theEMPLOYEEapp. In working with the company, I felt as though I actually knew Steve, even though I never had the opportunity to meet him. There are four key things I learned from his episode and think about to this day. First, he acknowledged, like I do, the gratitude that he feels for his father who helped him get started. Second, much of his success didn’t come from any specific skills that he was taught but rather he followed his instincts and listened to his gut and as a result, the Chipotle business was able to grow organically and not necessarily in lockstep with any business plan. Third, at times he wondered if he was qualified and experienced moments of self-doubt which he believes is natural and not a bad thing. And fourth, he attributed much of his success to surrounding himself with really good people. These are business principles that I have put to use in building my own business and which I attribute to my success.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

APPrise Mobile was created to solve a fundamental problem plaguing businesses, especially enterprise sized organizations — the difficulty they have in getting information to, communicating and engaging with the three billion non-desk workers who make up the global workforce. It also was intended to enable communications professionals to communicate directly with all of their targeted audiences.

I never strayed from this vision and purpose. I stayed focused on developing the best solution to help the industry that I had been involved with for decades and the communications professionals charged with getting information to and engaging with their organization’s most important audience — their employees. I understood the landscape of communications technology given my decades of experience working in the communications industry and saw a void that existed with respect to deskless workers who, for the most part, had been disenfranchised from communications because they weren’t sitting at desks with easy access to desktop computers. Mobile technology through employee apps was an opportunity to solve this problem. In fact, this is what led me to work with Staffbase whose purpose is the same and we continue to pound the pavement educating the industry about the opportunity that now exists for internal communications professionals to be more effective and efficient in their work.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Yes, as I mentioned, I have joined forces and am working with Staffbase, the pioneer of employee apps in Europe, just like I was in the U.S. I got to know two of the founders of Staffbase, Martin Böhringer and Frank Wolf, while I was building APPrise Mobile and always felt that our companies were aligned in purpose and vision — addressing the deskless worker communication challenge and finding a way to provide these workers with the same access to information as their deskbound counterparts.

One of my major initiatives at Staffbase is to put to use the extensive data that Staffbase has available as a result of the millions of data points being collected from hundreds of companies and hundreds of thousands of employees around the world using the Staffbase communications platform. I have always felt that if credible data could be gathered and analyzed with respect to content, trends in employee behaviors in consuming content and the impact of content and communications on employee engagement, this could not only be extremely powerful and informative to the work of communications professionals but could transform the way in which they do their work. Access to such data can ultimately elevate their stature and credibility within their respective organizations. Working with the Staffbase data science team, we have begun this initiative and recently released our first report that studied the impact of the COVID-10 pandemic on employee engagement. We plan to continue this effort.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation means utilizing technology to change the way businesses operate in order to work more effectively and efficiently. This can occur in various ways throughout an organization including its business processes, the way it addresses its values and other cultural issues, as well as customer and employee experience.

In my world of communications, it’s about rethinking our methods for getting information to and engaging with our various targeted audiences whether they be internal (employees) or external (customers, partners, influencers, etc.). For the past 25 years (since I first joined the communications industry), there has not been many advancements in technology for the benefit of communications professionals. Most technology development and innovation has been centered around tools that only benefited those with access to desktop computers. And this made sense since mobile technology and apps for the mobile device did not exist as they do today. However, this has changed and, for the first time, nearly three billion people (i.e., the deskless workers) no longer need to be disenfranchised from information and information sharing. Mobile devices, and the software that runs on them (apps), have created an opportunity to reach all employees.

This is a relatively new phenomenon that has set the foundation for digital transformation in the workplace. And, it has been elevated in importance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which has left pretty much everyone working remotely and somewhat isolated. Fortunately, there are many technology companies now developing software solutions aimed at addressing the void that has existed for decades and this is leading to a significant and swift change when it comes to putting technology to work for employee communications, employee engagement and the overall employee experience.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

There is no limit. All can and should. Digital Transformation is no longer a nice to have. It’s a necessity. Again, from my point of view as a lifelong communications professional, companies that employ primarily non-desk workers in industries such as manufacturing, hospitality, retail, energy and utilities as well as trucking and logistics, for example, need to modernize their employee communications sooner rather than later if they wish to remain competitive, especially considering the fact that other companies in their industries are doing the same. Another significant opportunity exists within hospital organizations to transform their approach to dealing with their many front-line workers who are on their feet all day, working long shifts caring for patients, but don’t have easy or private access to computers.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

Having pioneered the use of mobile technology and employee apps in the United States, I’ve seen and experienced some amazing opportunities while helping companies transform digitally.

As I mentioned before, my very first employee app customer was Sysco, the Fortune 100 food distribution company. It was in mid-2013 when the head of corporate communications at Sysco contacted me to help him solve his “deskless” worker problem. He explained to me the vast majority of their 60,000 employees were not sitting behind desks with access to desktop computers. Rather, they were in trucks, warehouses and fields (literally and figuratively). They didn’t have access to the company’s corporate intranet, and many did not have email addresses. Basically, they had a very difficult time getting information to, communicating and engaging with these individuals. If we were able to provide them with a second app (they already had one of our apps for their investor relations) dedicated to employee communications that could push important company information to the personal mobile devices of their employees, this could be game changing for Sysco. Of course the answer was yes. It would just require development time, resources and money, but it could be done. Sysco was one of the very first company in the U.S. to deploy an employee app mobile solution and it was a real honor to have been part of their experience in doing so.

This was the beginning of a new category of employee communications applications, employee apps. And since then, large enterprises as well as medium and small businesses around the world have the opportunity to reach all of their employees, not just the deskbound worker. I’ve traveled to and witnessed employee apps effectively put to use on the North Slope of Alaska, created for employees that travel from the “Lower 48” leaving their families for weeks to service the oil and gas industry; I’ve seen employee apps being used by workers as they entered gold mines in Elko, Nevada; and I’ve helped employees in hospitals and in the “back-of-house” at casinos install their company’s employee app on their mobile devices to have easy, convenient and instantaneous access to important information and workplace tools.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

Fortunately, the companies we work with have embraced the concept of employee apps and using cloud-based solutions that aid in the digital transformation of work and improving the overall employee experience.

As a result, they do acknowledge the importance of digital transformation in their organizations, especially given what has taken place over the past year and the fact that the pandemic has caused an unexpected surge in remote work.

Of course, over the years I have come across many organizations not quite ready to embrace this sort of digital change. And there are undoubtedly obstacles and questions organizations have when implementing new and transformational tools. First, will employees be willing to download a company workplace app to their personal mobile device? Will they use an employee app when solutions like email, intranets and other means of communicating already exist? Will the internal communications professionals who work for enterprise companies finally get a seat at the executive boardroom table and be part of technological decisions that directly affect them instead of letting IT decide without input?

Change is never easy and is often used as an excuse by some for not moving forward, especially when it comes to digital transformation. To help organizations overcome the inevitable pushback that can stand in the way of modernizing antiquated tools, at Staffbase we help clients and prospective customers build their business cases by: (i) clearly articulating the problem; (ii) providing case studies and references of companies within their respective industry who have successfully accomplished similar change; (iii) providing quantitative data for benchmarking purposes and the tangible return on investment (ROI) that other similarly situated companies have experienced as a result of their digital transformation; (iv) setting out the facts that explain the ease of use, simplicity and security underlying the solution to be implemented; and (v) empathizing with the organization’s concerns and providing them with a comfort level to know that they have a partner who has “been there, done that” and will be there throughout their digital transformation journey helping to ensure their success.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

There are many ways digital transformation can take a company to the next level. When it comes to the way organizations communicate internally, digital transformation has the potential to not only solve today’s problems with respect to everyone working remotely and maybe feeling isolated, but also to differentiate organizations from the competition and set the stage for a company’s success going forward.

Digital transformation does not happen overnight or in a vacuum. Nevertheless, here are five reasons why now is a good time and how to get started:

  1. Digital transformation can provide a platform/delivery mechanism to reinforce a company’s mission, vision and values. Every time an organization’s employees turn on their computer or tap on their employee app on their iPhone or Android mobile device, companies have the opportunity to keep what’s important to their organization top of mind, especially when people are not together.
  2. Digital transformation is about transparency and a willingness to share information. Nothing is more trusted, powerful or personal than hearing it directly from the CEO. Whether via a blog post or down and dirty iPhone video recording, even the most remote worker now has the opportunity to actually see, get to know and even build relationships with their leadership.
  3. Digital transformation fosters a culture of community. The majority of our workforce now has the ability to be connected regardless of where they are located. We’ve learned this past year that company town hall meetings can include all employees thanks to modern enterprise video communications tools. Sharing of information, collaboration and the bringing of people together (albeit virtually) has never been more easy or convenient. Employees want to hear and communicate easily with each other. Through chat tools and other digital means of communicating one-on-one or in groups and teams, they now have the ability to do so.
  4. Digital transformation breaks down silos and brings generations of workers together. It isn’t just for Millennials or Generation Z — now everyone in the workplace, even Baby Boomers (my parents) and those in Generation X (me) can be a part of the conversation.
  5. Through digital transformation, everyone can be a winner. Provide your employees with the right tools and resources and you have now equipped them to become your greatest ambassadors and to share (socially or otherwise) the great things taking place within your organization. At the same time, your employees can be more effective and efficient in their work saving them time to better enjoy their personal time outside of work.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

There are two aspects to creating a culture of innovation. The first is empowering your employees to be creative and encourage the sharing of ideas. This requires providing the forum or tools to do so. At the same time, it requires actionable follow through to demonstrate that such solicitation is genuine and that what is contributed will not be considered in vain. Whether this is coordinated through online forums or survey tools, tangible actions must be taken in response if feedback is solicited.

Then there is the building of a culture of innovation by providing and investing in tools that allow for and facilitate creativity. As I mentioned before, one earns respect but is not entitled to it. Similarly, a “culture” evolves over time and exists not because we simply say so, but because those actions taken demonstrate a seriousness to what the culture stands for. A culture of innovation comes about first, by clearly explaining what it means to your organization and, second, by putting those words into action through tools that allow for it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two life lesson quotes. One from my father and one from my grandfather.

From my father: “You don’t get anywhere by standing still.” This quote guided my entrepreneurial spirit throughout my life. If I wasn’t constantly thinking and being creative, then I might not succeed to my fullest potential. Even if I took certain chances (which I did) that didn’t necessarily end up the way I had hoped (which they did), then I would never know if I could achieve the ultimate success that my life could offer. I kept on thinking, learning and trying, never standing still, and eventually it worked.

From my grandfather: “You have to be the smartest person to lie.” This quote taught me about the importance of honesty. If you are dishonest, it will eventually catch up to you. No matter how small or white the lie, even the smartest person in the world can’t cover all bases (especially in this digital world) and eventually will get caught. It is in everyone’s best interest to always be above-board and truthful.

How can our readers further follow your work?

The best way is to connect with me on LinkedIn:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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