Create seamless customer experiences. Creating a better customer experience starts with understanding how your customers use your space and optimizing the design and layout based on their behavior. When clients like our university partners are able to give students access to live occupancy data that shows how busy spaces like the library are, it can help students avoid the risk of exposure to large groups in crowded spaces and promote social distancing. Not to mention add a layer or convenience and comfort in knowing before they go to a busy space. Being transparent with space visitors by creating a frictionless in-person experience builds brand loyalty and increases the overall customer lifetime value.
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 Nic Halverson.
Nic Halverson is the founder and CEO of Occuspace, an emerging leader in the occupancy monitoring space. His company’s sensor technology is used by dozens of U.S. and Canadian universities and multiple Fortune 500 companies to collect real-time occupancy data critical to help promote social distancing and safe space capacity and usage. Halverson has appeared as a company spokesperson and technology expert in regional and national media outlets including The New York Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, ABC, NBC and CBS television stations.
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?
The story of how I got started with Occuspace really was a result of my growing up in a small Florida town with a population of about 4,000 people. I wanted to experience a larger metropolitan area, so I decided to attend UC San Diego (UCSD) for college in 2013 and pursue a degree in electrical engineering. Going from a tiny town to a campus of 30,000 students was initially an overwhelming experience for me. The idea for our company culminated when I was walking up and down the eight floors of UCSD’s Geisel Library trying to find a seat to study one night only to see zero spaces available. I literally said to myself out loud, “I wish I knew how busy every floor was before I came!” That’s when Occuspace was born. Our occupancy sensor technology is really the result of my frustration with crowded spaces and a collaboration with my two roommates, Linus Grasel and Max Topolsky, who brought additional engineering and development brainpower to the initial product creation. We also benefited from the backing of UCSD’s incubator program that provided mentorship and initial funding to help our idea take flight, then they actually became our first customer. We helped their faculty monitor the busyness of the library and our consumer mobile app, Waitz, was downloaded by thousands of students on campus to know how crowded the library was before they left their dorm or house.
Fast forward to today and a worldwide pandemic. I never imagined that entering a busy building would go from being an inconvenience to a matter of health and safety. That’s really when the value of our offering and the opportunity for our technology to immediately benefit more businesses and consumers was realized. Our product provides businesses and universities with assurance that they can monitor real-time crowding within their walls to create a safer more comfortable workplace/visitor/student experience. And our consumer app, Waitz, gives visitors the security of knowing before they go to a potentially busy place. We’ve watched our partners from large universities to retailers and corporations make more efficient decisions when it comes to billion-dollar construction budgets and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by using historical occupancy data. We’ve seen our data used in so many ways; it’s really been an amazing experience to support our customers’ use cases and watch our company grow.
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?
It’s hard to not cringe when I look back at our early days and see a million mistakes that we made when starting out. That said, I would make almost all of them again. We learned fast and goaled ourselves to make mistakes once and not twice (usually). What’s laughable now is when we decided to make our first MVP (minimum viable product) the creation of a website showing UC San Diego students how busy every floor of the library was without any real tech installed yet. A wholly unrealistic goal! Literally, it was just my co-founders and me scrambling around the library every day for a week manually counting people and updating the website in real-time as thousands of UCSD students started coming to the site on day one! It was a panic/euphoria cycle like nothing else I’ve experienced.
But to date, our biggest mistake was our misperception of the startup company success story and how “easy” we envisioned the road would be. I thought if we could prove that business stakeholders liked our product, we’d get investors, make money, grow a team, and sell the company for a bunch of money in a couple years, easy right? Nope. Turns out that starting a company is hard — really hard. There is sacrifice of sleep, relationships, vacations, financial stability, and sometimes even mental stability. There are moments of hopelessness, doubt, fatigue, and manually building sensors until midnight to make ends meet while you take dollars 0 salary for 10 months just working to turn a profit. Occuspace launched over four years ago, and it feels like now we’ve just begun to hit our stride and build the company and innovative technology that I had dreamed about. I learned that this isn’t something that happens overnight, and it gets harder than I ever thought possible before it gets easier. But, if you believe in what you’re building and remain persistent, all of the trials make you a better entrepreneur, friend and spouse.
Another takeaway for business owners is to focus on building a company where you surround yourself with incredibly smart, driven, fun and humble people. You have a lot more to gain going this route.
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 feel incredibly blessed to have a lot of options for this answer. Investors believed in us and gave us a shot, mentors guided me in the right direction to avoid mistakes, my wife (an aspiring Olympian) married me in the middle of this chaos and vowed to go on this roller coaster ride with me knowing what it means to work hard for what you want. That being said, my co-founders Max Topolsky and Linus Grasel are who I remain most grateful for on this journey. These are my college friends and roommates who helped take my vision to life, working countless hours and many years to make it a reality. I mean, they turned down big time jobs with Hollywood studios and NASA to come rent a house with me and work out of our living room with zero financial security to make Occuspace happen. There were so many opportunities for them to quit on this journey, and it would have been totally understandable. We went 10 months without a paycheck, easily put in a hundred hours of work a week together and often pulled all-nighters. Max and I picked up second jobs with Amazon doing evening shifts while on the phone with each other laughing at how Max got stuck in a ditch delivering a package to a house, or how I’d leave business cards with packages delivered in higher-end neighborhoods hoping to maybe find our next investor. Turns out investors aren’t as inclined to spend money on a company when the CEO leaves a business card with an Amazon package! Linus and Max had my back and stuck with me through the hardest and bleakest of times, and we would not be here today without them.
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 am a subscriber to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. It has taught me more than I would have learned in college about starting and running a successful business. Some of the most memorable episodes that have inspired me as a CEO were interviews with Terry Crews, Scott Belsky, George Raveling, Greg McKeown, Jim Collins, Chip Conley, Joe Gebbia, and Hugh Jackman, all sharing stories on how they reached success and created balance in their life along the way. There are also a few books that have made a big impact on me, such as Extreme Ownership, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, Trillion Dollar Coach, and High Output Management. If I had to choose one it would be Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist. The other books taught me a lot about the structural components of running a company, but Present Over Perfect taught me how to keep myself sane while doing it. I struggle a lot with negative self-talk. To this day, I’ve never watched any of the TV interviews I have done because I am terrified to watch myself on camera. I’m very hard on myself, but this book helped me avoid losing myself in the pursuit of perfection. It helped me grow in my faith so that I can be more content in all situations, even when I fail, fall short of perfection, or things don’t go my way. I can take comfort that I did my best and find joy in what I have in the present.
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?
From the day I started this company, I told God that the business was His. That’s my personal purpose that drives me. The purpose that drives the company is simply to do good by our people, by our customers and by our product offering. Our vision is to improve how people use space, plain and simple. I’m working to make sure this purpose and our vision are interwoven as a natural part of our remote team culture. It starts with genuinely supporting and caring about our employees and their families, whether I’m turning a work call into a personal discussion to learn more about my co-worker’s kids or any challenges they are facing or sending personalized holiday gifts to the team while everyone was stuck at home. Our extension of the “do good” mantra extends also to our customers, where our technology makes it possible for them to save potentially millions or billions of dollars on unnecessary building or infrastructure costs, creating visitor experiences that are safer, more comfortable and convenient, and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by discontinuing operation of low-usage or unused space. I like to say, the greenest building is the one that was never built.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Occuspace is in the process of shifting our core business into the retail sector. We’ve had great success within the university space and will still continue to grow our business in that vertical. We know our customers love our business intelligence data and historical insights, and I’m excited about bringing the same real-time crowd data that started at UCSD to retail spaces. What if before you went to a gym, restaurant, or coffee shop, you could first see how busy it was at that very minute? Immediately, businesses can change the customer experience for the better, allowing consumers to choose when and where they go. This adds a layer of convenience that transcends to retailers gaining happier, loyal customers and a foot traffic flow that is more manageable. Our technology has the ability to change consumer expectations for businesses to prove they are investing in the overall in-store customer experience. I like to think we are helping to take the frictionless online shopping experience that has become a daily part of our lives to the brick-and-mortar store, helping to reduce wait and check-out times that detract customers and cause retailers to lose millions in annual revenue.
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 to me means the ways in which businesses can utilize new technologies to augment and improve their current reality, accounting for any unplanned challenges like the recent pandemic. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. From a practical perspective, digital transformation for an industry could mean simply pressing send on their first automated email marketing campaign. For others, it’s implementing a new platform to better manage all of the disparate information sources on their customers for more actionable insights to make business or marketing decisions. Today, it’s imperative for businesses to adopt digital technologies to remain competitive and improve their business operations, marketing strategies and revenue streams.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
After years of hearing how Amazon and other ecommerce giants are slowly leading to the demise of the brick-and-mortar retailer, in my view, there is no industry that can benefit more from digital transformation as physical retail stores. In fact, I feel digital transformation can help save these businesses. The pandemic fast-tracked digital innovation, speeding up the need for retailers to provide online commerce, pick-up and delivery services, but what it also did is highlight the importance of human-to-human interaction. Digital transformation has added convenience to our lives, sure, but the physical experience of feeling, touching, and/or tasting the items we want to purchase is a necessary part of our lives. The world is changing fast, but brick-and-mortar experiences in my view are more vital than ever. That being said, physical retail experiences can benefit from digital transformation to continue to evolve the in-person experience and better adapt to changing customer behaviors and expectations.
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.
It’s interesting because for us, digital transformation is viewed through the management of physical brick-and-mortar spaces. It’s not the immediate “digitally transformative” view that you would have like, for example, a new platform, AR, or wearable device. Our view of digital transformation is really about the ways in which occupancy data can help businesses better understand and control how their physical spaces are being used to improve customer experiences. Prior to the pandemic, occupancy monitoring was used mainly for deepening business intelligence and as a way to offer a more convenient and comfortable end-user experience. Think about it this way, website analytics have drastically improved the ways companies manage their websites and supporting business and marketing strategies. For businesses with a brick-and-mortar presence, they also could benefit from real-time visitor analytics to understand when, where and how long spaces are being used to make smarter business decisions from energy savings, to space development, and/or new construction initiatives. Our technology prioritizes awareness for businesses and consumers from a human density perspective.
A critical example is the university space. COVID impacted every industry, but one of the hardest hit from the number of coronavirus case counts and revenue loss, in my opinion, are universities. When it came to responding to COVID, digital technologies — from contact tracing, to biosensors, space reservation systems, and our occupancy monitoring technology — have fast-forwarded the on-campus digital transformation process for administrators, faculty, and students. With our technology, schools like Baylor University, University of Rochester and more can safely welcome students back to campus with the knowledge that they can better manage their on-campus spaces in real-time. Our data allows them to de-densify highly populated spaces and/or monitor capacity limits and social distancing virtually versus just removing furniture and hoping students don’t congregate too closely. Students and parents can feel less anxious knowing that with our Watiz app in hand, their college students will be able to make more informed decisions about where they go on campus to stay socially distanced but still connected, improving the overall on-campus experience.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
Oh yeah, it has been full of challenges! We’re trying to change the way people have been doing things for decades. That’s never easy. A lot of the customers using our historical occupancy data are typically real-estate professionals and/or facility managers who have never had access to data on how their spaces are used, so they don’t exactly know what to do with it. To help overcome this problem, we identified what we call “super customers” who were willing to get their hands dirty and spend a lot of time with us sharing how they make decisions about their spaces and what systems they currently use. This way, we could figure out with them how to turn occupancy data into actionable insights to help our customers manage energy efficiencies and make more cost-effective space planning decisions. Getting people to adopt new technology and change how they have made decisions for the past 20–30 years is not easy, but once we can start to show them results and what to do with them it’s awesome to see the light bulb go off. They can immediately see how our technology can improve their job and reduce their workload and conflict that comes from emotional- or political-based decision making rather than data-driven decision making. The latter is always an easier conversation!
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.
I’ve learned more than I originally anticipated about how digitizing brick-and-mortar experiences from the perspective of occupancy monitoring can impact operations and revenue. Businesses can use digital transformation to create more seamless in-person customer experiences, improve energy efficiencies, optimize real estate portfolios, enhance operations, and respond in real-time to current events.
- Create seamless customer experiences. Creating a better customer experience starts with understanding how your customers use your space and optimizing the design and layout based on their behavior. When clients like our university partners are able to give students access to live occupancy data that shows how busy spaces like the library are, it can help students avoid the risk of exposure to large groups in crowded spaces and promote social distancing. Not to mention add a layer or convenience and comfort in knowing before they go to a busy space. Being transparent with space visitors by creating a frictionless in-person experience builds brand loyalty and increases the overall customer lifetime value.
- Improve energy efficiency. Studies have been done for years showing how occupancy data can decrease building energy consumption by 10% or more by optimizing use of HVAC systems. The sustainability benefits don’t end there. If we can use historical occupancy data to reduce millions of wasted square footage — for example, in non-COVID times, office spaces are typically only 30–50% full during the workday — we can reduce the number of buildings that need to be built and cut future greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 30%. The greenest building is the one that was never built.
- Optimize real estate portfolios. Millions even billions of dollars are allocated to building development and infrastructure changes for businesses. Often, there is lack of data to help inform leadership that new spaces even need to be built or how big they should be to help businesses run efficiently? Real estate acquisitions have been for the most part a blind pursuit for many businesses who often resort to guesstimating how much square footage they actually do or don’t use. UC San Diego, a customer of ours, is taking their digital transformation efforts to the next level by using our occupancy data to help plan for what new spaces need to be built, how renovation dollars can be spent to maximize ROI, and how to minimize the overall need for new spaces to save in costs and hit sustainability goals.
- Enhance operations. Similar to how website analytics give businesses critical information into web traffic and trends to drive business decisions, occupancy data can provide businesses with insights into how their spaces are being used to make space planning and design more efficient. We’ve seen customers use our data to adjust their staff scheduling, hours of operations, and measure marketing success by using foot traffic as a KPI of what strategies are most successful.
- Respond in real-time to current events. Ensuring visitor safety and preventing overcrowding has been vital to our customers during these uncertain times. With digital innovations like occupancy monitoring, businesses don’t have to allocate personnel to physically and often manually monitor visitor capacity and social distancing. Our university customers have really benefited from this feature as they work to safely reopen their campuses. Instead of just rearranging furniture to prevent overcrowding, they are relying on data to inform how they should allocate their physical spaces to manage student flow and space crowding. Our technology provides more cost-effective and efficient foot traffic monitoring by providing real-time alerts if spaces are over-capacity so businesses can take action to ensure COVID regulations are adhered to, while their visitors benefit from seeing how crowded spaces are to help them feel safer and more comfortable venturing out. This digital transformation of physical spaces can really help businesses build trust through transparency with visitors.
In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?
I think that all starts with bringing the right people on board. You can’t just wake up one day and say, “Today, I’m going to be innovative!” We’ve been incredibly lucky to have a lot of really great people who genuinely want to work with us to achieve our business growth goals. When your core team has the drive, experience, and commitment to making advancements for our brand, building a culture of innovation really just comes naturally. Once you set a precedent for the core team, you will see this culture of innovation trickle down to the next eight or even 10 hires as you grow, with the benefits of adding even more talent, imaginative viewpoints, and experience to the mix. Also, don’t be afraid to give employees the freedom and trust to just create. It gives them the support they need that, in turn, will only benefit the whole team and company.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Easy choices, hard life; hard choices, easy life.”
This quote is from Jerzy Gregorek, a Polish man who went to win four World Weightlifting Championships after overcoming alcoholism. I found myself trying to avoid making the hard choices in my life and in my company but pushing those difficult decisions off doesn’t make them go away, it just makes for a more stressful life. We had so many roadblocks when building Occuspace. So many difficult decisions needed to be made like do we continue to try and bring this technology to market despite the fact that we don’t have any investment funding? My co-founders and I were committed to building this company, but in the process of making that difficult choice we had to take second jobs with Amazon, working mostly through the evenings to bring a viable product to fruition. It would have been so easy to just give up to chase a paycheck after college. I mean, talk about a safety net. We completely lost the net and chose to go forward with our company, with every year getting easier as we got smarter about running this business, seeking investor funding, and piloting our technology in many verticals that have since become our customers.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find us at www.occuspace.io or follow us @Occuspace on LinkedIn or @Occuspace_io on Twitter.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!