Joan Wrabetz of Fyusion: “Be open to failure”

Find ways to apply new digital technologies to provide an experience for customers that is new, not just on replacing the experience they already have. For example, in addition to replacing photos with 3D interactive images on used car marketplaces, we added tagging so that more information is available in the online 3D image of […]

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Find ways to apply new digital technologies to provide an experience for customers that is new, not just on replacing the experience they already have. For example, in addition to replacing photos with 3D interactive images on used car marketplaces, we added tagging so that more information is available in the online 3D image of a car than you would be able to get if you were viewing the car in person. The online experience is actually richer than the offline experience.

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 Joan Wrabetz, COO at Fyusion.

Over Joan’s 20+ year career, she has spanned roles in engineering, products, marketing, and executive leadership as a CEO, COO, CTO, CMO, VP of Products and VP of Marketing. She has been a Venture Partner and served on the boards of public and private companies. The unifying theme of her career has been creating and leading product and market fit strategies. By developing the right solutions for the right markets with an effective Go To Market plan, Joan helps companies in the areas of AI, big data analytics, DevOps, Cloud/SaaS, storage and networking software win.

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?

From the beginning of my entrepreneurial and leadership journey, I’ve always focused on building successful strategies that lead to acquisitions and market leadership, which I’m most proud of in my career. When I was 29, I launched my own grid computing software company, and within the seven years that I served as its CEO, I was able to secure nearly all the top financial services firms as customers, before it was acquired by Platinum Technology/Computer Associates. I then served as the CEO of three companies in the storage, networking and SaaS space between 2000 and 2009, before pivoting to focus on the marketing functions within organizations, as a VP of Marketing at Visla, Inc. A year later, I joined the leadership team at Eversync as the CMO, implementing a new marketing and channel strategy that led to an acquisition of the company. I took my company leadership, marketing and entrepreneurship I had under my belt, and decided to expand my experience by shifting into a CTO role at Dell EMC. Here, I developed business plans for hyperscale infrastructure leading to the acquisition of multiple companies. I then moved into the CTO role at Quali, before stepping back into my previous role as interim CEO at Renaissance Consulting Group. I currently serve as the COO of 3D-imaging company Fyusion, which recently got acquired by COX Automotive. This recent acquisition is an effort to spearhead computer vision and 3D imaging capabilities in the enterprise for the automotive market, which I’m very excited to be a part of. I do also serve as a venture partner at Shoreline, where I specialize in engaging with early-stage startups.

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?

When I started my first company, I was an engineer and I had never sold a product before. We built our first product and we thought it was amazing and that people would just show up and buy it. Now looking back on that, it was so silly. A few weeks before the release we realized that we hadn’t thought about how we were going to price it or how anyone would find out about us or our product (this was before the existence of the web). Better late than never, I guess. Over the next 3 years I really got an education on how to market and sell business-to-business products. When we finally did get our first unsolicited lead, we framed it. We had learned that even getting a lead for a customer is a hard fought battle. In my last startup, we didn’t even start development until we had talked to over 100 prospective customers and had our early alpha sites already lined up.

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 grateful to my husband who has been a partner in life and in business. He has always encouraged my craziest ideas and thinks that I can do anything that I put my mind to. He pushed me to fulfill a dream by starting my first company. Now that I am in law school after a 30-plus year career in technology — even though he thinks I am crazy — he is helping and supporting me 100%.

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?

Well, one weekend in 1994 I saw two movies in the theatres: Forrest Gump and Schindler’s List. I am a big history buff so I loved the historical elements of both movies. But, they were both just heartbreaking and I cried so hard that I couldn’t see for a couple of days afterwards. But these are still the top two movies that I have ever seen. I think the impact on me from seeing both movies back to back was the juxtaposition of mankind’s ability to perform terrible evil and at the same time have the capability for great acts of heroism.

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?

When we started out, we saw that there were two ways that people captured images of the real world: Taking 2-dimensional photographs and taking videos. Videos allowed someone to digitally recreate the world by controlling time, but neither photographs or videos allowed people to interact with the world digitally by controlling the space. In other words, you could watch a video and you could move back and forth in time, but you can’t control the view that you are seeing. We thought that in order for the real world to be viewed digitally, people would need to be able to interact with images in space. They would need to be able to turn an object and see its other side, independent from the background, for example. And, we thought that these kinds of images should be creatable by anyone and viewable by anyone.

We knew that this capability could disrupt many markets where the business or consumer experience was moving online, but we didn’t know which markets would adopt when. We experimented with a consumer social networking product around 3D interactive images and we experimented with applying this to online e-commerce. But, the market that came to us was automotive. People who were in the business of buying and selling used cars knew that their market was going to shift to digital and the stakes were very high if they missed the boat because the purchase of a car is one of the most important purchases that a consumer makes.

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

Yes, we are working on some exciting new projects. Over the last two years we have recognized that our imaging was getting more and more accurate, and that we can apply our AI expertise to identifying damages on cars automatically. We have been developing this capability and believe that it can be disruptive to how cars are inspected. If a person isn’t needed as part of the inspection process, that process can be done “at scale” and in many different places than it can be done today. A consumer could inspect a car at home. A ride-share driver could inspect their car at the end of every day. When you drive through the entrance of a rental car location, your car could be automatically inspected. The opportunities for disruptive change are exciting.

We are also working on continuing to improve the online viewing experience for used cars by applying Augmented Reality. Imagine that you are viewing a car in an online used car marketplace and you can see what it looks like to sit in the car, or to fill the trunk with groceries. We are always looking for ways to make the online experience as good as or better than the real world experience.

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?

The shift to digital is happening everywhere. We all see the digital transformation when it involves consumers shifting to buying their products online instead of at a storefront. But, digital transformation also involves applying digital technology to any aspect of a business, including all of the internal operations and processes. What does that look like? Well, there are many things that have transformed already to digital and we just take them for granted — like getting our groceries online and buying from Amazon. There are many other activities that happen in businesses that still haven’t transformed, and there needs to be a forcing function in order to drive that change. We have seen how events like the COVID-19 pandemic can be a big driver for this.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

It seems that nearly every company can benefit from Digital transformation. But those that need to transform are companies in businesses where customer expectations are already shifting, or where competitive pressures from companies that are natively digital, force a transformation. The bigger the market, the bigger the opportunity for digital transformation.

In our case, the market that came to us in the throes of disruption was automotive. People who were in the business of buying and selling used cars knew that their market was going to shift to digital and the stakes were very high if they missed the boat because the purchase of a car is one of the most important purchases that a consumer makes. Imagine one of the biggest purchases you will make, and you will be making it entirely online. The problem is even bigger if you are buying a used car because the condition of every car is unique. Facilitating the shift to a heavily online purchase of a used car requires many changes to the current process, from the car manufacturers to the auto dealers. We started working with some of the biggest wholesale providers of used cars to help them create 3D interactive images of used cars which were used to allow prospective buyers to see the condition of the car as accurately as possible. We also started working with retailers of used cars to provide 3D interactive images of cars with tagging right on the image highlighting important features.

Covid-19 has accelerated the shift in used car buying and selling as consumers are more willing to complete more of the car buying process online. Covid-19 is also driving internal process transformation to digital. For example, when customers return cars at the end of the lease, the lease provider has historically sent an inspector to evaluate the condition of the car. In the world of Covid-19, lease providers are re-thinking that process and starting to shift the process to digital by enabling the consumer to collect information about the condition of the car using imaging and then reviewing the images remotely so that an inspector doesn’t have to travel to the consumer’s location.

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. (Cite past experience, helping customers achieve this, etc.)

I have spent a good part of my career helping companies to transform their businesses using big data and analytics. I started working with machine learning on huge data sets in the early 2000s. I have worked with prisons as they deployed video imaging to enforce safe conditions for prisoners. This was a tough transformation, given that your typical prison does not have a datacenter. I have also built products for hedge funds to help them transform their approach to trading by running machine learning algorithms on massive 50 Petabyte datasets.

We are seeing the impact of that transformation in the stock market today. I worked with companies that helped oil and gas exploration companies cut the cost of finding new oil deposits and optimize their drilling operations using advanced analytics around fluid dynamics. Just deploying a drill for a day can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so being more accurate about where to drill and when can save millions of dollars for these companies. In my last startup, we helped one of the largest food and beverage companies determine the impact on their marketing spending using machine learning on social media channels. We were able to show that there is a very long tail of value on a good superbowl ad, which really changed their perspective on how they measure return on investment.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them? (Challenges implementing changes/tools for used car dealers, etc.)

For companies that are not digital natives, there are always obstacles to transforming to digital processes. One obstacle that we see is that companies want to take their existing process without change and just incorporate digital and/or online means into it. But, this will often not achieve the desired results because it isn’t the optimal process if you start from a digital perspective. So, the customer doesn’t see the big return on their investment that they should see and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle that keeps them from doing the work. For example, imagine replacing part of a process with an AI tool But, the customer is convinced that they still need to have a manual check to verify the data coming out of the tool, because in their existing process they have that manual check to verify the work of humans. If they assume that they will never be able to reduce or replace that manual review, they cannot see how they will achieve more scalability and lower costs from the conversion.

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.

Be customer-centric: Focus on applying digital transformation first in areas that will most improve the customer experience. For example, we have focused with our customers on making the visual experience online as close to the real world as possible. The positive impact of this transformation is very high, and it is measurable. Customers engage with 3D interactive images longer, cars with 3D images sell faster, and customers make purchase decisions quicker. Success with this transformation sets the stage for future digital transformations that might have less visibility.

Find ways to apply new digital technologies to provide an experience for customers that is new, not just on replacing the experience they already have. For example, in addition to replacing photos with 3D interactive images on used car marketplaces, we added tagging so that more information is available in the online 3D image of a car than you would be able to get if you were viewing the car in person. The online experience is actually richer than the offline experience.

Think about the digital transformation natively. Don’t just try to replace your existing processes, think about what the optimal process would be using digital technologies to get to the same outcome. This opens the door to improvements in processes enabled by digital tools. For example, when customers take images of cars for listing them online, they tend to create many rules for the photos so that they look consistent on listing pages. Imagine if when you looked at a bunch of cars online they were all at different angles. That makes it hard to compare them. So, dealers and wholesalers had processes in place to force the photographers to take pictures from the same 8 angles. At first, customers wanted us to continue to ask photographers to take the same 8 photos in addition to capturing the 3D image. They made the digital transformation process an add-on to the current process. Well, if you process so are taking 3D images and you have access to the car at an infinite number of angles, it is easy to automatically create the exact same 8 angles as a side effect. You can completely eliminate the painstaking process of capturing 8 photos at exactly the right angles manually.

“Begin with the end in mind”. Digital transformation is about improving outcomes, not just about applying new technology. Defining the desired outcomes first and working to achieve those outcomes should help to focus efforts on the processes and services that should be transformed, and what technologies can best help to achieve those ends. For example, we think about whether our customers are using our technology to get results “faster” or get “more consistent” results. Taking images faster is a cost saving measure. It has value, but may have minimal impact on revenue. On the other hand, getting more consistent condition reports from inspections could result in customers choosing to buy used cars faster, and choosing to buy more cars. Customers have said that if they know that the information about the condition of a used car is known to be consistently accurate, they are more likely to buy more cars from auction. If they believe that condition reports are inconsistent, then they don’t trust them and are less likely to buy at all. So, armed with that information, we focused our technology first on using AI to generate consistent condition reports, rather than making speed the primary focus.

Be open to failure. Digital transformation doesn’t always work perfectly the first time. It is okay to have failures, learn from them and try again. I have worked with companies that were experimenting with the use of AI to improve their factory productivity. They started experimenting with pulling all of the data into a central repository and making AI tools available against that repository. Over time, they learned that this wasn’t the best approach and instead they learned to keep some data at or near the factory and to centralize only a subset of the data. By doing this, they got a big uptick in the analysis that was happening at each factory, and as a side-effect of all of that analysis, they began to see where they could implement cross-factory process improvements which finally led to real improvements that they originally were hoping for. The lesson learned was to keep encouraging use of the analytics and keep modifying the approach until that use happened naturally. Once they hit that point, innovation just took off.

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

I think that companies that embrace experimentation and failure have the best chance of maintaining a culture of innovation. Most companies see changes coming long ahead of time. They fail to develop new products and services quickly enough in response, often because they are afraid of the impact on their existing business. This is the “innovator’s dilemma”. But if companies are experimenting with both incremental changes to existing products, along with new technologies and approaches all the time, they are more likely to have tools in their quiver when disruption does happen and the willingness to use them. But, experimenting necessarily means that there will be failures and companies need to applaud those failures as an important step in the innovation process.

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

Mine is from the Theodore Roosevelt “man in the arena” speech: “…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Of course in my case, it is the “woman in the arena”.

This has inspired me to be a change agent and to follow my own path, even if that path is not the easy path and though the chance of failure is often high. I have been an entrepreneur and an inventor even though this has meant having many failures along the way. When faced with challenges in my life and in my work, I try never to shy away from the difficult work required to achieve greater goals.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Twitter: @varbetz


Fyusion Twitter:

Fyusion LinkedIn:

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