Gain true observability. Moving to digital processes means an objective way to measure results and track metrics frequently in near real time. Companies that can operate with those insights can ensure they’re not focused on the wrong thing or investing in the wrong space. They can detect errors and problems and resolve them quickly. And they can amplify what works for them.
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 Chris Cardinal and Kim Stearns.
Chris Cardinal is a founding principal of Synapse Studios, a growing app consultancy that builds custom software for startups, enterprises, government, and just about anyone else. Chris founded the company with his partner in 2003 and has since grown it into a firm of over 50 employees in downtown Tempe, Arizona. His primary focus is on business development, but he also enjoys helping architect solutions for clients.
Kim Stearns is the director of product management at Synapse Studios. She oversees the coordination of product, engineering, and quality teams across the organization. Kim has a passion for turning ideas into functional products customers love and companies can be built upon.
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?
Chris Cardinal: My partner, Bob Eagan, and I met in college, and without anyone there to stop us, we decided to go into business together. That was 18 years ago, and we’re still going strong. From the beginning, we determined we wanted to build complex web applications rather than just being a “web design” firm. That focus has served us well.
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?
Cardinal: The list of mistakes we’ve made is far too long to condense into a single response. When we were first starting, we quoted a comprehensive custom e-commerce platform and inventory system for … I don’t know, about 5,000 dollars? We thought it was a huge windfall. It was not.
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?
Cardinal: I personally learned a lot about business from my father, who ran a packaging consulting firm for a number of years. He explained certain aspects of managing client relationships and how to treat clients and employees that I still use today.
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?
Cardinal: My joke answer to this would be “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In reality, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is a big one for me: Empathy and understanding the individual on the other side of the table has served me very well.
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?
Cardinal: When we first started, we wanted to build cool software for companies to help them recognize the newest web technologies. That’s still our core focus, but now, we’re building a strong engineering culture internally and working with industry-leading clients to transform their approaches to product, data-driven design, and capturing the significant value great software can provide.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Cardinal: We’ve been working to commercialize our testing/QA service, which we call CarbonQA. We specifically built it for startups who have their own dev teams but find that their testing process is lacking or falling onto the devs or product team. We assign them a U.S.-based dedicated team that takes the heavy lifting of manual testing off their plates and helps them ship better quality products faster.
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?
Cardinal: Digital transformation is essentially taking businesses and business processes that find themselves still relying on inefficient, manual, or outdated processes and building them to take advantage of the significant advances in software and technology available today. We think of software as a force multiplier: a lever of sorts. The inputs that go into building out a software solution can have returns that are orders of magnitude of impact on a business. That’s the transformation: taking processes that weren’t able to scale and making them scale automatically — reducing or eliminating human error from complex processes — providing clean and clear workflows, even when the problems are complex. And more and more, it results in creating a fairly robust IP portfolio for medium-sized businesses looking to gain a valuable competitive asset.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
Kim Stearns: It’s not surprising, but companies that started before the digital revolution in mature industries will always be the ones in most desperate need to adapt. It’s the difference between building a ship for the current needs of the world and rebuilding an existing ship that’s already sailing across the ocean filled with cargo. Digitally native companies will have a natural leg up and an ability to react fast, in ways companies in more mature industries will struggle to keep up within the long term. Companies in manufacturing, commerce, and even financial services feel the pain of falling behind the digital curve and have a longer road map to digital transformation to maintain current operations, let alone grow and stay competitive.
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.
Stearns: We have a client in the medical technology space that was looking to close on some sales contracts for some big-name healthcare networks. In looking at projections based on available staff headcount, the company realized that to execute on these contracts they were finalizing, it would take their team more than 10 years — yes, years — to complete just due to the number of contracts involved. There was no feasible way to add headcount fast enough, nor was it the responsible thing to hire staff for a single contract, so in these cases, technology becomes the only answer to address problems like this at scale. The features needed to improve the speed of executing on contracts is now not just a “digital transformation project,” but it becomes the very thing that will keep the company in business.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
Stearns: It’s extraordinarily challenging for businesses to tackle and pretty difficult to find much information to study from other organizations. And you’ll see why. In the DevOps handbook, the author, who was personally involved in the digital transformation efforts of a large, unnamed banking organization, references several case studies. In this author’s experience, he saw the business invest over 2 billion dollars and take over two years for the project to ultimately fail and make no measurable progress or impact on the business. Then he watched the same institution make the same investment all over again with the same miserable results. He explains watching 4 billion dollars basically vanish. The key learning that we regularly apply with our clients is that the quickest way to ensure failure is to treat a digital transformation effort as a profit center to the business and not a cost center. If you optimize for cutting IT costs and disguise it as digital transformation, you’re ignoring quality, speed, and revenue, and the culmination of all of these important factors is what’s at the center of digital transformation.
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.
- Automate the boring, difficult bits. Software can easily wire up processes and automate them in such a way that you can reallocate resources or such that you can scale without having to add nearly as much headcount.
- Update your IP portfolio. Great business processes are one thing, but having them backed by some component of proprietary technology can help add significant value to a company, especially during a capitalization or sales process. The software we build for clients is frequently their secret sauce and a huge competitive advantage and asset for them.
- Get out of Access and Excel. The number of businesses that still run enormous, fundamental aspects of their business in brittle Excel spreadsheets blows my mind. And don’t get me wrong: We still use Google Sheets and Excel every day for certain things. But too many companies treat them as full-blown applications or databases, which frankly puts their businesses at significant risk.
- Gain true observability. Moving to digital processes means an objective way to measure results and track metrics frequently in near real time. Companies that can operate with those insights can ensure they’re not focused on the wrong thing or investing in the wrong space. They can detect errors and problems and resolve them quickly. And they can amplify what works for them.
- Open up different business models. Most business owners have multiple ideas but are focusing on the biggest thing in front of them. By digitizing processes and systems, we frequently free up bandwidth and allow for the sort of scalability that exploring a different business model or going into a different market brings with it.
In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?
Cardinal: Resist the ever-present urge to put up layers of bureaucracy. The old expression “a camel is a horse built by committee” comes to mind. Give a serious budget, make sure there’s a means for tracking results, and then assign some stakeholders to run different initiatives focused on innovation. Hire smart people looking to innovate or consulting firms that align with your values and give your team a new perspective. One of the most common ways we see companies drive value is by simply out-innovating their peers in industries that don’t have a lot of innovation or technology. They’re sitting ducks, and a small but reasonable budget and the right permissive attitude can do wonders for a business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Cardinal: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” It’s a tacit reminder that even when we make mistakes, so long as we’re learning from them, there’s still something to gain from them. I have a lot of “experience.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!