I’ve often said that the only constant in business is change. Staying ahead of the competition, keeping pace with emerging technologies and meeting customers’ needs as they arise requires agility and the ability to evolve a company’s business needs and those of its customers in real time. But none of this is easy, and none of it happens by accident. It requires an openness to change and an ability to meet these changes head-on by transforming who you are and how you conduct business.
With transformation key to a company’s survival, how can we, as leaders, facilitate successful transformation?
My Transformative Journey
Recently, I had the privilege and honor to address a roomful of entrepreneurs at the annual University of Georgia Bulldog 100 program event, which celebrates the top 100 fastest growing companies owned or operated by the university’s alumni. Transformation emerged as the foundational thread shared by each of these 100 business professionals. Whether personally or professionally — and keeping in mind that each road is different — they were able to grow and change, find the right path, and ultimately grow their business.
What I emphasized to this group of very successful individuals is that they weren’t done. Indeed, embracing change and transformation got them this far, but what if they get set in their ways and begin to resist? It’s easy to say, “I’m the boss. The company is operating well. Life is good. So why mess with it?”
What’s missing in that assertion is the understanding that past success doesn’t guarantee future success. Given how quickly our world is changing, the need for transformation is greater than ever. If a successful business fails to adequately change when the needs of the customer, the business or the market demand it, growth will stall and fortunes could very easily reverse.
Preparing for this speech, I started reflecting on my own path and realized my entire career was one transformation after another — except when it wasn’t, and those were the times that I failed. For the first two decades of my career, I was mostly an entrepreneur. I co-founded and led three startups in three different industries. The first was an early success that we took public only two years after founding, but then neglected to properly transform and later failed. The second failed in just two short years.
The third was Quickoffice, which we successfully sold to Google in 2012. But, importantly, the Quickoffice we sold in 2012 looked nothing like the Quickoffice we founded 10 years earlier. It had radically transformed along the way. Had we not radically transformed, Quickoffice would have failed like startup number two.
Those first 30 years led me to my current position as Vonage CEO, where transformation has again emerged as a theme in my life. Vonage, an NYSE public company, is clearly a far cry from a startup. But it, too, has transformed. Almost 20 years ago, Vonage commercialized a new voice technology called voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Using VoIP technology, Vonage transformed the home phone industry and grew incredibly fast. At its peak in 2008, almost 3 million homes were using Vonage’s VoIP service. However, when I was recruited as CEO from Google in 2014, Vonage’s revenue was in its sixth consecutive year of revenue decline. Our imperative was clear: We had to transform. So we did, and now Vonage is a leader in business cloud communications. A transformation of this magnitude is very difficult, and interestingly, the transformation path we set forth five years ago has itself transformed along the way.
Three Pillars of Transformation
It is critical for businesses to embrace change, but this can be tough for some leaders because what worked in the past — which was likely a bright idea at the time — probably isn’t working now. This is tough enough when you’re running a small company in which you can touch everything and actually implement the necessary changes. But when you’re running a larger company, transformation can be even harder because, in addition to having to change your own past decisions, you can’t touch everything to implement change. Your control is much more indirect, and large organizations often inadvertently prevent change.
I’ve identified three key pillars as critical for transformation. They center on great people, great customer solutions and customer centricity:
Be a destination place to work. This refers to the human elements of the company. Success depends on hiring and retaining great people who are up to the challenge. Motivate these great resources to focus forward and transform your business into a highly prized destination place to work.
Build the best solution for your customers. Innovation is an ongoing transformational priority. Regardless of industry, you win in the end by building the best solution for your customers.
Focus on customer centricity. Remain committed to being a world-class customer service company. Every company says this, but almost all fail at it. The transformational concept I try to push to this end is called minimum viable experience, which means “Unless we can support you incredibly well, we’re not entitled to have you as our customer.” Here’s a simple example: If you have $100 to spend for marketing, sales and customer service, most companies maximize their marketing and sales dollars and spend the least they can in support. I believe this formula is backward. First, you must spend what’s necessary to delight and keep existing customers. In effect, take the notion of transformation and apply it to customer experience: If you create a truly customer-centric company and couple it with great people delivering great solutions, you’re unbeatable.
Transformation is a journey with no finish line. To succeed, you must keep reinventing yourself, your business and your goals. You may fail, but each step backward helps you learn how to take an even bigger step forward — maybe a pivot in a new direction — but always forward.