Give back. Be part of something bigger than yourself, even if it does not directly impact the bottom line. Since our company’s inception, we have been committed to green technology and sustainability, even years before it was recognized as an important practice. We continue to prioritize and maintain sustainability today. Our data centers use 100% wind power and operate with a low PUE (power usage effectiveness), so we’re 40–75% more efficient than the industry average. In addition to caring for our environment, we believe strongly in caring for our communities. We encourage employees to volunteer, providing paid time off so they can give back in various ways, including through our Lunavi Gives Back program.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Mills.
Shawn Mills is an entrepreneur and founder/CEO of Lunavi (formerly Green House Data), focused on helping companies to digitally transform their businesses and illuminate the path forward in IT modernization.
At Lunavi, he has led strategic efforts to deepen the company’s core areas of expertise and expand its offerings to help customers address continually emerging tech needs and navigate “what’s next.” Since its founding in 2007, Lunavi has grown from a five-person startup to a much larger company, acquiring seven companies in the past six years, steadily expanding beyond its original data center focus, and growing IT, application development, and digital transformation services.
Shawn has been recognized as CEO of the Year by Colorado Technology Association and as Entrepreneur of the Year by Wyoming Business Report.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
As an entrepreneur and CEO of Lunavi, I have always lived by the notion of meeting life, opportunities, and any challenges head-on. I have also come to understand the power of surrounding myself with the smartest people I can find to launch and grow organizations while supporting business leaders who seek to innovate and grow companies in the technology space.
My love of travel and desire to experience new cultures started early, and it played a key role in helping to launch my career as a technology entrepreneur. While at the University of Texas, I knew I wanted to travel to Europe. When I saw an ad for work visas, I applied and took my first job at an investment bank in London. Later, I joined a finance company in San Francisco — and what a cool place that was to live! Then, I moved back to Texas and took a job at American Airlines, where I got to travel the world weekend by weekend. I used to take two bags to the airport: one for hot weather and one for cold weather, so I was prepared for any destination. I think I took, literally,100 trips that year, just traveling around with a bunch of buddies from the airline, and it was a fascinating experience.
I later founded a Voice over IP (VoIP) company, in 2001, that provided free calling over desktop from anywhere in the world. If you are traveling and trying to call home and it costs 1 dollar a minute to do so, subscribing to a service that essentially lets you call for “free” makes a lot more sense. In six months, we went from zero to 300,000 subscribers. Eventually, the company was acquired by New York City-based PhoneFree.com. That same year, I founded iDial Networks, which offered wholesale and consumer voice data and VoIP.
A few years later, in 2007, I was drawn to Wyoming and its ski slopes. It’s there that I founded Green House Data, now Lunavi. We went from a five-person data center and colocation company to a multimillion-dollar IT consulting and managed services provider that provides end-to-end digital transformation services to 500+ customers through our nine locations throughout North America.
Given how much our company had grown and evolved over the years, we made the decision, in fall of 2020, to rebrand our organization, changing our name from Green House Data to Lunavi. This new name and brand reflect a new level of unity for our organization, communicating that we are one company, one team, with one mission centered on creating exceptional customer experiences to help companies to excel throughout their digital transformation journeys.
Today, we are strongly positioned to help organizations of all sizes, from small shops to Fortune 1000 enterprises, digitally transform their businesses to become more agile, cost-efficient, and competitive. What sets us apart is the fact that we can provide customers with the “best of both worlds” — the attentive care, agility and customer-centric focus of a smaller organization AND the broad solution set of a true market leader and innovator. Our team helps organizations in technology, energy, financial services, healthcare, education, and other industries drive value and extract ROI with comprehensive services in cloud migration, modern application development, and managed services.
Throughout all of these experiences, I have consistently sought to surround myself with exceptional people who are smart and innovative. I try to hire people who are leaders in their fields and then take a “let my team run” approach, rather than micromanaging. I also believe strongly in collaboration between different teams and departments.
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?
One potential mistake, or funny story, though in hindsight we might not have changed a thing, is that in the early days we started touring people through one of our first of many “colocation” data centers, when it was just an office building with no Internet, no cooling, no power, and windows everywhere. We were so proud of it and the potential for the future that I remember us saying to prospects “Can’t you see it? This amazing data center?” Now looking back, I can see how it must have looked in those very early stages, I am sure they all were like “Uhhh, no.” But everyone was so kind and said “Oh, yes, I can see it.”
The lesson for me is that while the situation was not ideal with our first data center still very much a work in progress, it highlights the importance of having a vision and successfully communicating that vision to others. You have to be able to look beyond the imperfections and see the possibilities. It’s something we have instilled in our team, to reimagine everything, aspire to know and do more, and be the difference that leads to successful experiences, services, and outcomes.
We could not do any of what we do on a daily basis without our people, and I learned, early on, that we need to ensure we are bringing on great people, and also building a vision and culture of support for them to be their best in supporting our enterprise customers.
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?
When starting any business, there are so many little stories that shape your journey along the way. Each of these “micro sliding glass moments” — where you made the bus or you didn’t make the bus — has an impact on what happens next.
I look at how everything — from the first customer who chose to go out on a limb and do business with our startup back in 2007 to the investors and bankers that listened to our story and funded us early on — influenced the trajectory of our company and helped us get where we are today. Those individuals that took a leap of faith — that believed we were going to do what we said we were going to do — each of them in their own way ultimately shaped where we are today.
This also includes mentors who have helped to guide us during our journey. In the early startup days of Lunavi, Mike Kmetz, CEO and Co-founder of Teton Simulation Software, was an early investor and mentor, helping us get our company off the ground. Mike is also a Board Member of Lunavi and was Vice President of The Wyoming Technology Organization (WTO) when I was executive director there in 2006.
Over the years, I’ve talked with Mike about issues ranging from incentive sales compensation plans and the use of employee stock options to how best to build and encourage a culture and team that rallies behind our goals and vision at Lunavi. His insight and entrepreneurial experiences helped me when hiring our company’s first couple of employees. Even as recently as a month ago, I had a fun, 360-degree, mentor/mentee conversation with Mike, during which our roles reversed and he asked me some questions. It was nice to see it come full-circle and for us to be able to help one another.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
For us and for many companies, your customers are ultimately your greatest asset. They grow with you. They become your source of referrals and success stories. The value of each customer grows far beyond what it starts out as.
Building a successful customer relationship begins way back at the pre-sales process, by helping the client to understand that we are in their corner even before they choose to work with us. Then it continues through the onboarding process and goes all the way through the point when they may someday choose to leave, for whatever reason. Being a customer-centric organization that builds great client relationships has always been paramount for us. We work to earn and keep the trust and business of every customer by building strong relationships across their organization, from the point person to all of the stakeholders.
Making sure people see you as a client advocate builds trust and has payback in the end. We have had many employees that move on to the next role and then they become a customer. We have also had companies that left us yet continue to be valuable referrals for us. Each customer relationship is much bigger and more integral to your continued growth and success than you can ever imagine.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I think every company strives to provide a great customer experience. It falls apart if every employee in the organization doesn’t understand how important it is or is not empowered to provide it.
Every employee needs to know that if they are leaning into the customer, there will never be a negative ramification, even if, ultimately, it costs the company more. If they are leaning away from the customer, then things can fall apart. That is something we make sure our employees understand. We will always support them for leaning into the customer.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
The altruistic side of me would like to say yes, that when demand gets greater and customers are insisting on better service, companies rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is always the case. Everyone talks about it, that it’s all about the customer. But, when it really comes down to it, not every company is willing to do what it takes to create truly exceptional customer experiences.
Ultimately, if a great customer experience is not embedded into the DNA of the organization, more competition will bring that to the surface. And vice versa. So, as competitive pressure grows, if you are more customer-focused, you lean on that. If customer service is just a “nice to have” and not part of your core, you’ll lean on other attributes that are. It’s then that it becomes clear that customer focus is not part of who you are.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided? Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
We are fortunate, at Lunavi, to have had many examples. One is when IT leaders at customers change organizations and come to work with us again. We’ve had that happen several times, and that to me is the greatest compliment.
As another example, our team in Seattle earned five out of five-star ratings from customers for five consecutive months. Every single survey was a five out of five, or the best possible!
Finally, we were recently recognized by one of the largest global system integrators and a Fortune 500 company last year for excellence in helping clients get more value out of the technology we help them to implement. Our team in Toronto was working alongside the global system integrator, as a consulting agency for a major energy provider/customer, and we helped the client identify critical steps to get the most value out of their DevOps tools in Microsoft Azure. The global systems integrator sold them similar products but stopped supporting them after the purchase. The integrator was wowed by how we automatically went a step further to help the client get more value from the solution. They even invited us to an offsite with key executives to learn more about how we go above and beyond. We were the only vendor invited.
I definitely think each of these has ripple effects. People like to work with people who are vested in helping to ensure their success, and referrals from happy customers are one of our biggest sources of leads.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
There are so many, but here are several that come to mind:
- Deeply embed a “wow customer experience” in the culture of your organization.
Have it start with job descriptions and when first screening candidates. Our people and culture are a leading asset. Every prospect is asked a predetermined set of questions to determine not only if they are highly qualified to meet the challenges of the position, but also if they are truly aligned with our culture and commitment to taking care of customers. That is a critical step that occurs before they ever meet with a manager for an interview.
- Ensure employees know that doing what’s best for the client is always right.
Let your team know they will never be penalized for leaning into the client and doing what’s best for them. For instance, at Lunavi, if a client calls and says my systems need “more” or I need something from your organization, the answer should always be yes, we can do that. We’ll figure out later what it means from a sales perspective. The front-line person’s role is to do what the client needs in that moment, and we will work with them after the fact to figure out the potential implications.
- Embed a customer focus into the systematic approach to clients.
If you are truly a customer-focused organization, every client touch point needs to have a client-first message and methodology. From the website and reception desk down to even the way our automated emails communicate with our clients, everything should have a customer-centric tone and message. Customer focus has to be instilled into every aspect of the company’s culture.
- Know that being great at your core business is important, but it’s table stakes. Real differentiation requires an ability to build great customer relationships.
Continuing to build and grow your relationship with a customer after the sale is critical. In our consulting line of business, if a client tells us about a challenge that requires skills or expertise outside our wheelhouse, we don’t walk away. We help connect them to resources they need to solve the problem. That willingness to go above and beyond is at the heart of our culture.
- Be transparent.
My philosophy throughout the organization is to be super transparent. It is critical to share the good, the bad, and the ugly of the company internally. Is it struggling? Is it doing great right now? Stuff happens that’s not always roses and unicorns. Our philosophy is to always be transparent with our teams, so they, in turn, can be transparent with our customers. Being honest, open, and transparent helps to build trust and strengthen those relationships.
In technology, the reality is that there are a million things that can break and cost a bazillion dollars to fix. It’s similar to your car. Things can break anywhere and at any time, and you need to have someone you can trust to tell you what’s wrong and how to repair it. As a technology consultant, if you’re not transparent, you might try to divert blame, saying it’s the network or the service provider rather than your solution. At Lunavi, we take the approach that “it is always our fault, until it’s not.” And, we want to make sure that our clients know that if we did something wrong, either due to human error or another reason, we will own up to it, correct it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. We won’t hide behind a lack of transparency or excuses, no matter where the problem originates.
One last point:
Be part of something bigger than yourself, even if it does not directly impact the bottom line. Since our company’s inception, we have been committed to green technology and sustainability, even years before it was recognized as an important practice. We continue to prioritize and maintain sustainability today. Our data centers use 100% wind power and operate with a low PUE (power usage effectiveness), so we’re 40–75% more efficient than the industry average. In addition to caring for our environment, we believe strongly in caring for our communities. We encourage employees to volunteer, providing paid time off so they can give back in various ways, including through our Lunavi Gives Back program.
I also continue to give back by spending time with early-stage company founders to help and encourage them to keep moving forward, especially during challenging times when others may say, “This isn’t going to work,” or “Isn’t somebody already doing this?” No matter what you choose to do, it’s important to be involved with something bigger than yourself. You’ll gain valuable new perspectives from those you meet, and you’ll make a real difference for others.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
Although it’s admittedly selfish, that really is the whole point of why we like to provide a wow customer experience. Our goal is to give our clients everything they need to be successful so they can be shining examples of what it means to work with us.
We instill this purpose into our environment every day by encouraging employees to lean in to help customers, even when doing so exceeds our defined engagement scope. We also encourage a culture of fairness and respect, collaboration and agile practices, continual learning and technological advancement, problem-solving versus finger-pointing, and holding ourselves to a higher moral ground.
Beyond selling technology tools, we also work alongside our customers to demonstrate and teach them how to get the most from their solutions, even after our engagement with them ends. We let other customers and prospects know how we are helping other organizations, both via social media and other communications, so we can leverage those successes to create more opportunities across industries and organizations.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
The first thing that pops into my mind goes back to how we got started as a company — people helping other people make the biggest difference. If you try to do something alone, the chances of failing will be higher, plus you’ll likely limit your potential success. But when you consult and work with others, including those who are smarter and/or more experienced than you, you can do so much more.
Ultimately, I am a proponent of collaborating with others to build better outcomes. That goes across business, political, social — the whole gamut. I believe that simple act of working together with others could change society and make the world a better place.
I think it is also why I have such a passion for travel and am grounded in the recognition to “never be the smartest person in the room.” It’s why I desire to learn about new cultures, both here in the U.S. and internationally. I want to understand the different challenges being faced and the benefits of doing things in a new or different way. That opportunity to learn more about people and human ingenuity continues to shape who I am.
It’s like I tell my kids: there is always something to be learned from every person you meet. Put yourself in a position to gain a new experience.Meet as many people as you can because you will learn a lot from them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shawnmills
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!