Be on the leading edge. It is important to be current on technology and never get stale. Getting caught up is hard once you fall behind. Continue to improve your product with new technology to keep it relevant and exciting for your customers.
I had the pleasure to interview Sara Silver.
Sara Silver, president and solutions architect of Silverware Inc. is a leader that breaks barriers, while creating opportunities.
Silver grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lake Bluff, Illinois with two older brothers. A strong student with an aptitude for math, Silver earned a BA in mathematics and economics from Northwestern University. After graduation she began her career at a marketing consulting firm doing quantitative research. During that time, she started working with computers, laying the foundation for the eventual launch of Silverware Inc in 1988.
As an analyst, Silver needed access to information. When she learned it would take 6 months to get a report from IT, she purchased a book and taught herself FoxBase programming. Her interest and knack for programming, prompted her resignation and transition to consulting with companies in need of information solutions. While attending a computer show to learn more, she met someone that referred her to company that that needed a programmer to create a customized database.
Under her direction for more than 30 years, Silverware has become a leading provider of cloud computing solutions to small and mid-size U.S. companies. And Silver continues to be a trailblazer and role model, influencing and inspiring others.
Silver and her husband live in Phoenix where they raised their two sons. When she is away from the office and her computer you can find her hiking, quilting, traveling across country to see Bruce Springsteen in action or enjoying time with her family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I consider myself an accidental entrepreneur. After graduating from Northwestern University with a BA in mathematics and economics, I took a position with a marketing consulting firm doing quantitative research. During that time, I started working with computers and PCs. As a pricing analyst at my next job, I needed access to information, but when I requested a report from IT, they said it would take six months to produce. Unwilling to wait, I purchased a book on FoxBase programming and taught myself. Little did I know that that laid the foundation for what eventually became Silverware Inc.
Before venturing out on my own, I had a high paying job, working in a stressful environment, and I knew one day I would crack and be forced to quit. When that day came, I had no idea what I was going to do next to contribute my share of the income. It was the late 80’s when small companies were just getting their first desktop computers. I started helping business contacts and friends with IT projects, , and began networking at the local computer stores. This led to an opportunity to become a rep for an accounting software package (and I had to learn accounting!). It was then that I began building a client base. Some of the clients I worked with in the beginning continue to work with Silverware Inc. today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Very early on, I had the opportunity to witness my first process mapping session with a client. They had all kinds of crazy manual steps in their order process which meant it took three days to get an order packed and out the door to the customer. As part of the exercise, we mapped their current process, and then we showed that by using the software and some slight process changes, we could reduce their time from three days to less than an hour.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well — it might be funny now, but it was not funny then! Early on I was so focused on taking care of my clients, that I was negligent with my payroll tax filing. I had other things to do — which included teaching customers how to use our payroll software to file taxes. When my husband joined the company, his first task was to settle my fines with the government. He will say he kept me out of jail!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The beginning was lonely and I initially thought of Silverware as something temporary. As time went on, the projects became more challenging and I kept accepting work and building my client base. As my workload grew, I hired a few people and moved out of the home office. Once I had the responsibility of employees, I felt an obligation to keep it going. When my husband joined the Silverware Inc. team in 1996, I knew we were all in.
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?
Until 1996, my husband Bob was the “Vice President of Unsolicited Advice”. He taught me accounting, found office space when I needed it, and really got me out of all kinds of binds. In 1996 he joined Silverware full time as our CFO and all-around-everything-guy. We are the married couple who couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. We each have our “lane” that we (mostly) stay in. Bob is an incredible partner as he is able to run the back office and I can stay focused on my specialty — software.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My go-to quote for years has been “going is never the wrong choice”. I sign up for everything and just go. In my personal life, I never miss celebrations for friends and family. If there is an interesting professional opportunity, I go for it. Unfortunately, with Covid, we have had to amend the motto to say “going might be the wrong choice — learn how to do it remotely”. Fortunately, we have been able to pivot and successfully service our clients remotely, and we are incorporating new ways of connecting and staying involved in our community
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our focus on company culture. I believe a strong culture reflects positively on the services we offer our clients and our client relationships. The Silverware Habits serve as the foundation for our corporate culture; unifying us and providing our core approach to how we work, serve our customers and our team, and build strong working relationships.
We work hard to build long lasting relationships with clients and employees. We never view a sale as a one-time transaction — it is all part of a long relationship. Taking this approach has proven extremely effective — we have employees and clients that have worked with us for decades.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Over the last few years, we have developed several “cool new tools” that our customers can use with the Microsoft software we sell and implement. Microsoft now has an app store called AppSource where we can make our apps available, which allows us to share our tools with the broader user community. Our biggest app developments are our enhancements that support the cannabis industry. Two of our most recent new tools are our Silverware Quality Control (QC) application and Silverware BarTender Integration.
The Silverware QC application is designed to create greater flexibility in managing the testing requirements of raw materials and finished goods. Users can drill directly into item details for detailed test results, Certificates of Analysis, and identify quality issues before an item becomes a finished good.
Silverware BarTender Integration allows users to design labels in BarTender or start with a BarTender template, map the label data in Business Central and then hit print.The application is designed to eliminate printing workarounds with a simple 3-step process.We used Seagull Scientific’s a best-in-class labeling software as it provides automated, flexible, and accurate results.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Though there are certainly more women in tech today than when I started, there is a long way to go. I think the most important thing is to encourage young girls and get them interested in math, science, engineering, and computer science at a young age. As gender biases fade in education, we will see more women pursuing careers in technology and recruited to fill positions at all levels. I am proud that Silverware has always hired women in technical roles.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The fact that I am labeled a “woman in tech” is part of the challenge. No one identifies as a “man in tech”! if there were a “men in tech” luncheon, we’d all be appalled! While we are seeing progress — it will unfortunately still take more time. To start, companies need to hire more women at all levels. That is a good first step to inspiring young women to pursue STEM in school and as a career option.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
The word “pivot” has been used a lot lately. Though it sounds cliché, we all have to be ready to pivot. COVID is the obvious example. We have been forced to find new ways to keep our businesses alive during these unprecedented times. If you are stuck in a rut, you must reevaluate your journey and chart a new path and consider new opportunities. We constantly need to think about the solutions or benefits we can provide and potential new markets we can target.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
This is tricky for me as we have a very small sales team — there are just two of us. We are both very knowledgeable in the industries we sell to so we can really practice our favorite habit — Know your customer’s business and show it! We are not transactional — we are selling a long-term relationship.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
We have a measure for all prospects we call “ERP Readiness”. We don’t want to sell our software to customers who are not going to be successful. We also want customers with reasonable expectations. We walked away from a very big opportunity two years ago because the customer demanded an unrealistic timeline for our project. They bought another software, and six months later they came back to us saying they failed and were ready to be realistic! Now, they are one of our showcase customers.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
We feel strongly that if our team follows the seven Silverware Habits that our customers will have a great experience and a successful outcome.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
My other motto is “Customer for life!”. It is important that we engage at all levels of an organization, so we are considered part of their extended team. Our most successful customer relationships are at the accounts where we take the time to know the customer and understand their business. Then we will have a customer for life.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
1 . The technology serves the people, the people do not serve the technology
Your product should fit a specific need and be useful. You’ll only be successful for the long haul if your product solves a problem. Tech that is simply “really cool” is going to be old news.
2. Be on the leading edge
It is important to be current on technology and never get stale. Getting caught up is hard once you fall behind. Continue to improve your product with new technology to keep it relevant and exciting for your customers.
3. Empower your team. Give direction and get out of the way
I used to know how to do every job at our company from programming to the accounting to the coffee making! I thought that made me relatable to my team, but really it made me a bottleneck. As we have grown, we have hired people I trust and setup systems that support our day to day business. I rarely tell someone how to do something — all I care is that it is done. I’ve learned that there are many ways to accomplish a task, and my way isn’t the only way.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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.
We all need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Our customers have real issues, our employees have more than their job. We are all doing our best considering the circumstances. and we can’t be so quick to judge or find fault. COVID has really taught us how to adapt to each other and accommodate one another’s needs. Hopefully, we will overcome COVID soon, but we will remember the lessons we’ve learned and be a little more empathetic to each other
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Though it seems cliché, I would like to meet Bill Gates. I started my career when the first personal computers with DOS were becoming available, and I remember when I later got my first copy of Windows. I feel like my generation has witnessed tech become accessible through personal computers. My career and success would look very different were it not for Microsoft!
Oh, and Bruce Springsteen!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!