Going ‘Live’ - Running a Business in Real-Time

October 03, 2018

Case categories include: Leadership   Operations   Sales   Strategy & Planning   Technology   Trends   

By Warren Lutz

Chris Beall, CEO of ConnectAndSell, a provider of sales acceleration technology for outbound prospecting and appointment setting, has no use for meetings or sales quotas. Meetings waste time and are inherently political, he says, while sales goals are artificially restrictive. Instead, he runs ConnectAndSell in real-time—and as he sees it, there isn’t any other choice.

“Regrettable business failures are tragedies that always happen to companies that did not respond quickly enough to their environments,” Beall says. “When done right, running a business in real-time can accelerate certain business processes and improve the fidelity of the output. You can make a decision today that used to take six months of planning, and the decision is usually better.”

In a world where information and critical data are at our fingertips, more companies like ConnectAndSell are going “live” – that is, making decisions today, before taking measure of monthly or quarterly results. The strategy has plenty of benefits, speed being a particularly huge factor. But it also creates new challenges. For example, if you’re not setting periodic sales goals, how exactly do you measure success?  

Beall is one of a growing number of leaders who are putting the theory behind running a real-time business into practice. Instead of monthly meetings, he uses up-to-the-minute data and analytics to track the pulse of his organization, which he says helps the company make quicker decisions and improve overall performance.

“When you switch to a real-time business, you go from a results-oriented business to a learning and growth-oriented business,” he says. “We don’t know if it’s possible for us to sell 15 million rather than 12 million, so why artificially restrict ourselves?”

One reason Beall doesn’t have to rely on quarterly data is because he receives direct reports based on up-to-the-minute sales results. Instead of meetings, he relies on email, which he uses to encourage problem solving among his team.

“I know right now at this moment as of 11 o’clock today my team has made 4,998 dials, set 22 meetings and 3 account executives are leading the meeting setting race,” he says. “I don’t have to rely on a weekly report. If I have a question about the numbers, I can email someone and ask, ‘Does this make sense to you?’”

As one might imagine, CEOs have different ideas about what constitutes a real-time business, and there are at least as many types of real-time businesses as there are definitions of the term.

Dennis O’Malley, CEO of Caliva, California’s largest vertically integrated cannabis company, defines a real-time business as an enterprise that decentralizes information and empowers employees to make on-the-spot decisions based on the data they receive. But it takes effort to put this strategy into practice.

For its part, Caliva is developing a real-time inventory dashboard that will be used to determine when products will be launched. Ideally, the dashboard will also enable Caliva’s managers to make real-time staffing decisions and move products down the supply chain based on the company’s current resources and inventory.

“We are a 7 days-per-week, 24-hour company, and there are many different parts to our business, so it’s critical that everyone has access to the same information and is empowered to make decisions,” O’Malley says. “The idea isn’t just to make quicker decisions, but better ones.”

Running in real-time can greatly help a cannabis business, he says, since the industry is blowing up across California with new startups and products launching every day. But there have been hiccups along the way.

“Taking time to articulate what your priorities are as a business can be a challenge,” O’Malley said. “It takes a lot of work to make things concise. We’re still trying to improve that.” He adds that data integration and ensuring data integrity have also become much more important. “If you don’t have accurate data and you’re making real-time decisions on that data, it can be worse than making decisions with no data at all,” he said.

Jack Peurach, President and CEO of Ekso Bionics, a pioneer in the field of robotic exoskeletons, can’t say that his business is running in real-time now, but the potential is there. Ekso is working to reduce design cycle time and make changes more quickly to its products. Using real-time data, Peurach said, the software used for robotic exoskeletons could be changed remotely as data is collected about how customers use their products.

“We have a cellular data connection to each of our robots in the medical device market, and we receive data every time someone uses the product,” Peurach said. “Over a long period of time, we learn how people use these products and how we can improve them. It also lets us improve preventative maintenance and other services to make sure the devices perform properly.”

Ekso still conducts several meetings a year to discuss strategic decisions and keeps monthly and quarterly goals about revenue, margin and units sold. “I think it’s important to have these goals, so you can organize around them,” Peurach said. “I can’t yet see a time where we wouldn’t have an annual sales target, but we are becoming nimbler about achieving our goals in a variety of other ways.”

Real-time business principles even help some accelerate the process of researching cures for disease. Rodney Pearlman, President of The Bluefield Project, a non-profit that funds academic research to find cures for dementia, said technology has made collection of critical research much faster than ever before. Bluefield funds roughly 20 different research teams on an annual basis, and the intellectual property, research methods and results are packaged and shared between parties.

Pearlman sees similarities between what Bluefield does and running a real-time business. “We hold only a couple of meetings a year with all of our investigators and board meetings four times a year, but there’s not a typical business hierarchy — we are running in a continuum,” he said. “There are a lot of moving pieces, and the only benchmarks of our success are measured by the number of publications, partnerships with pharma and biotech companies and the number of grants that other parties are funding.”

“We’re very much obsessed with translating the ideas we’re gathering into something actionable,” he added. “We encourage our partners to share data early, to talk, and to swap tools and equipment, because we realize without sharing, each lab is just one in a sea of others.”

Some companies that have adopted real-time management philosophies now find themselves stepping back and adding more structure. That’s the case for Transcriptic, which is developing a robotic cloud laboratory for the life sciences industry.

Transcriptic’s CEO, Yvonne Linney, says the company recently landed two very large clients, which is prompting a more thoughtful approach to strategic planning. “I often tell my team that we’re flying the plane when we haven’t built the wings,” she said. “Now that we have several key customers, the challenge is how to translate what we have into products that we can move forward with.”

For Linney, more structure involves setting goals, she said. “There are significant milestones we need to hit, so there needs to be some type of financial metric in place,” she said. “Of course, you hope to create goals that are not smoke and mirror numbers, but something reachable.”

Transcriptic holds weekly, all-hands meetings, a practice Linney adopted when she became CEO one year ago. There are also offsite meetings and happy hours, too. “I certainly like some of the concepts of running a real-time business, but I’m not sure I would buy into having less structure,” she said. “Everyone wants information, and without access, some employees will feel left out of the loop. As you get bigger that gets more challenging.”

Victor Chapela, Co-Founder & CEO of Suggestic, which has developed a food as medicine app that helps consumers find and follow outcome-oriented eating plans, said that setting quarterly and yearly goals were a big part of his previous roles. Today, however, technology is enabling leaders to course-correct much more quickly. “We have real-time metrics for every weekly batch of users, as well as conversion and retention rates, so we can almost relaunch every couple of weeks,” he said.

For example, when Suggestic recently launched a new program, the first day only two people signed up. “Evidently something was broken,” he said. “We discovered that the landing webpage was missing some key messages, so we changed the way we presented the offer. The next day, we had over 50 sales for the same product.”

Chapela compares product development in the technology industry to an accelerated form of evolution. “We tend to believe in evolution as the survival of the fittest, but when you think about it, it is really a survival of the most adaptive. Species that can continuously adapt to their environment - like human beings - will always beat those other species that adapt through slower genetic trial and error.

“This concept of continuous adaptability is really what’s behind the success of fast-paced, successful technology companies,” he added. “That’s what you must aim for — real-time adaptation to your environment, your environment being employees, customers, investors, partners, regulators and competitors. Adaptation is what allows a company to endure and thrive.”

With the increasing speed at which technology is fueling change, running a real-time business can be a huge difference maker. But as the above CEOs can attest, theory and practice are two different things. One thing is certain, running a business in real-time can lead to incredible breakthroughs and achievements, but it also comes with a heavy set of challenges.