Starting a business is hard. As a rule, people aren’t going to line up to buy your product or service. Developing something that they will buy is just the first step, you then have to get them excited about the product or service and build a sense of urgency. Even the person that builds the “best mouse trap” still has to convince people that it is actually “the best,” that it is “worth” the price, AND that they need it. We developed an amazing tool for connecting people during an emergency. Since no one had ever developed anything like this before, we had to educate “the world” that we could do it, prove to them that we could do it and then make it a priority for them to need the product. All of this takes time, commitment and perseverance.
The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?
In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allan Sutherland, founder, CEO, and President of In-telligent LLC, a software as a service (SaaS) technology company that offers lifesaving personal safety and emergency communications platforms. Realizing that current communication platforms are inadequate following the tragic 9/11 and London bombing events, he saw the need for a radical change and decided to use his knowledge and experience to build a technology that could save lives. He established In-telligent in 2015, where he and the company strive to connect and keep people safer and better informed during emergencies. A successful business executive with over 20 years of experience on a global scale, Allan’s wealth of knowledge allows him to accurately depict what the next generation of communication will look like. As a leader of a SaaS company delivering telecommunications technology, he’s well equipped about how consumers will communicate with each other in the near future.
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?
After a 20+ year career as a senior officer in one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world, I wanted to take the lessons that I had learned and create a business that would truly benefit others. I grew up in a small farming town in the middle of Illinois with a curiosity around problem-solving, electronics and technology, at a time when the biggest advance in personal computing was the release of the Apple Macintosh! Over the decades since, I have traveled around the world meeting with hundreds of people in dozens of countries. Through these travels and interactions, I learned that we are all connected through the common goal to improve the lives of our friends and family. Keeping them safer and better informed during times of crisis is just one of these essential needs. Personally, I have first-hand experience with enough of these instances to know how important and frustrating it can be to try and reach someone urgently. Believing that others felt the same, I started In-telligent to solve this problem.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
After working for about 10 years in a consulting firm and feeling very confident in my abilities, I found myself in a conference room during the first month of employment at a new company with my boss, the CFO and the CEO. Using all my good listening and participation skills honed from a decade of consulting experience, I thought that I was participating, taking notes and nodding my head at all the right times. Being the “low man” on the totem pole, I was naturally assigned some follow-ups for completion later that day. Wanting to make sure that I did a great job in the eyes of the CEO, I vowed to get and deliver the answer quickly.
After about an hour or so, I had figured out the answer but was having problems getting it to “look right” when printed. Knowing that this was going to the CEO and CFO, I wanted to make sure it looked perfect! To my horror, the CEO showed up in my office while I was trying to print-out the answer and asked if I had the answer yet. I explained that I did, but was having trouble printing it out. This seemed to frustrate him even more and he asked again, “Do you have the darn answer?” I said, “Yes, but I can’t get it to print properly.” He took my pad of paper and asked me to write it down, to which I did immediately. He ripped off the portion of the page with the answer, looked at it and then said, “Good. Now do something else!”
This was my first lesson in understanding the Pareto Principle — ie, 20% effort generates 80+% of the solution. In this instance, he didn’t care about how fancy the answer was presented, he just wanted the answer. Me spending time “getting the presentation perfect” was simply a waste of my time and frustration to him for the delay.
This story was also important because it reminded me to remember that we are doing our work for others. As such, we need to understand what is important to them. I wanted to give him the answer in a beautiful presentation. All he wanted was the answer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have been at this for a while, so I have a couple:
In an important meeting many years ago, I heard my then-CEO say: “Good leaders, take responsibility; bad leaders, place blame.” Of course, it isn’t always the CEO’s fault for the actions of others, but it does highlight the responsibility that vests with leadership. Leadership is more than a title. It is a responsibility that shapes each thought and each action. Leaders do not get a “day off” or stop being a “leader” for a few hours.
In another important meeting many years ago, I was reminded of this fact with a simple comment: “If you want to be a leader, lead. If not, then someone else will be the leader. The choice is yours.” As you have already guessed, I chose to lead.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Most of us learn very quickly that the CEO’s view, approach, and ethics drive the company. I won’t point to any one specific person, but I have been lucky enough to learn from two amazing CEOs and a few not so amazing CEOs. I found that the main difference was how they made me feel about myself and my contributions. CEOs that helped me to feel valued and valued my contributions, instilled respect and admiration.
As the head of my own company, I want to ensure that our people feel respected and valued where their contributions are appreciated and thoughts/ideas encouraged. No one can do this alone. To be successful, you have to have an incredible product, an amazing team and a lot of luck. The CEO is just a component of that amazing team!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Not sure that it qualifies as “bringing goodness to the world” but through In-telligent we are hoping to improve the human condition, reduce anxiety in stressful situations, and connect people better during these challenging times. Our hope is that through our technology and platform we can better support people in moments of need and keep them alerted and aware of any timely situations and keep them out of harm’s way.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
We make it possible to get your important messages noticed immediately. Essentially, we provide our users peace of mind where they know that, if a message is important, they will be alerted immediately. A parent knowing that their child’s school can send an emergency message that gets their attention if anything happens provides peace of mind to that parent. Similarly, a local police department with the ability to instantly alert school principals of danger, allowing them to put their schools into lock-down to keep the students and faculty safe, could be the difference between life and tragedy.
How do you think this might change the world?
We each have our mobile devices with us 24x7x365. To this end, I remember seeing a post recently talking about how most of us would grab our mobile phones during an emergency first before anything else. This sets up the expectation that we are “always” available and reachable by others. However, because of the proliferation of push notifications, most of us switch our mobile phones to “silent” or “do not disturb” to avoid being distracted during the day. When we do this, we create a “communication blackout” that makes it nearly impossible to get someone’s attention urgently. This is where In-telligent comes into the picture. We allow authorities and important people in the user’s life to send them messages that will get around these notification settings, ensuring that important and urgent messages are noticed immediately. Being the first company to figure out how to do this on iOS and Android devices, we have to educate users that this ability is even possible. Once we do, we are certain that our approach to urgent and emergency messages will become the standard everywhere.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I am not sure that I see a “Black Mirror” drawback with our technology, but I do see instances where our technology could be used for mischief. Imagine a disgruntled manager that sends out an emergency message when no emergency actually exists, similar to what happened in Hawaii in 2018. In that instance, people actually thought that a nuclear missile was headed to them and that they were minutes away from certain death. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. However, it does demonstrate the power of the technology. People planning to do bad things could use our technology to keep their co-conspirators aware of time-sensitive changes, assisting towards a “successful” outcome at the same time that one friend is alerting another of a wonderful life event (such as a promotion or pregnancy). We can’t keep mischief from occurring, but we can work to ensure that our product is used for good purposes.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
This one is easy: when we figured out how to make our technology work on iPhones! Never before had a private company figured out how to make an iPhone make noise when set to “silent mode” — whether the app was open or closed, and even if the iPhone was awake or asleep. Figuring this out took perseverance, ingenuity, technical competence, overall confidence, and a lot of coffee!
Problem-solving starts with the belief that a solution exists and then crafting a path from the problem to the solution. As it relates to the silent settings on an iPhone, all Apple developers were under the impression that it simply was not possible to get around these settings. They held to the belief that it had been tried unsuccessfully in the past and that it was futile to try again. Not being a developer, I wasn’t constrained by this thinking. Instead, I was able to quiz our team of developers to see what was possible and what wasn’t through learning and trial and error. While this took some time, like carefully peeling an onion, eventually we started making headway until eventually, we were able to do something that no one else had ever been able to do. After that, we switched from coffee to scotch!
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
As mentioned above, we have a big challenge ahead of us because we have to educate the public that it is possible to do what we can do. Being the first company to bring this technology to the world, very few people know about our feature. When they hear about it, they love it. We just have to get the world out — everywhere!
The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?
Remote working and social distancing are here to stay. Video calling and working from home in casual wear are now staples in our daily lives. Unfortunately, this means that the “water cooler” conversations, gatherings in the kitchen and impromptu happy hours are potentially a thing of the past. While we are dealing with these new “norms,” the importance of reaching out and successfully connecting is even more critical than ever before. Further, while it seems somewhat contradictory, giving someone the ability to “unplug” while still remaining available for important interruptions is becoming even more important to a person’s mental health. Our technology helps in both instances along with dozens of others.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Starting a business is hard. As a rule, people aren’t going to line up to buy your product or service. Developing something that they will buy is just the first step, you then have to get them excited about the product or service and build a sense of urgency. Even the person that builds the “best mouse trap” still has to convince people that it is actually “the best,” that it is “worth” the price, AND that they need it. We developed an amazing tool for connecting people during an emergency. Since no one had ever developed anything like this before, we had to educate “the world” that we could do it, prove to them that we could do it and then make it a priority for them to need the product. All of this takes time, commitment and perseverance.
- No one will love your idea more than you. This is your “baby,” your “brainchild,” and something that you developed from the ether. You will live it 24x7x365. You will mold it and nurture it. You will defend it against all attacks. If you aren’t willing to commit, you will not succeed.
- Build a great team. No one can do this on their own. None of us have all the skills necessary to build a successful business around a cool/innovative product or service. Each team member should enhance the group’s overall skillset and, most importantly, make your life easier. You know what you need. Find the right people, trust them and let them flourish.
- Stay focused. It is extremely easy to get distracted. One client/customer wants “red” and another wants “blue.” Talking to the development team, they say it is easy to create both, so now you have “red” and “blue” widgets. Then a potential customer says that they would like “black” and you are back to the development team. After a while, you are making every color possible and experiencing major and significant efficiency issues. Further, your client support team is managing a massive number of client requests and your marketing and sales team has to sell in markets that they don’t know, just because you are making certain widgets. Remember the Pareto Principle — 80+% of your customers will buy less than 20% of your products. As such, get rid of the other 80% of your products and dramatically increase your effectiveness and efficiency.
- Remember to enjoy the journey. At 2:00 AM when you still need to process payroll as well as finish a sales presentation in the morning, it is often difficult to find “joy.” When you are balancing daily cash collections against your operating expenses and capital commitments, it is stressful and slightly overwhelming. When a key employee asks to take a week off to “recharge” a few days before an important presentation leaving you to pick up the pieces, you might reconsider why you started this business in the first place. There is no doubt that there are going to be dark moments. Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times when creating the electric lightbulb until he succeeded. Don’t expect it to work perfectly the first time. Remember that you are doing something worth doing! You are fighting the good fight! A famous existential quote states, “You have given your life for this moment, was it worth it?” The answer is “Yes” — whether you win or lose, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you try with all your heart, learn along the way and enjoy the journey.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love for people to listen to each other better. So many times, we filter what we hear into something that is different than what the person said. We embellish, we interpret and we modify. What we don’t do enough is truly listen.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.