The renowned business management guru Tom Peters once wrote that “Business is about people. It’s about passion. It’s about bold ideas, bold small ideas or bold large ideas.” Automation, arguably, is a bold large idea that’s taken root in large enterprises. Less well known is the fact that it’s pretty popular among smaller businesses as well, where it’s become no less of a bold large idea. That may come as a surprise to some who only think of automation as a tool for roboticizing complex, large-scale processes in big organizations. Nevertheless, automation’s diffusion has made it readily accessible at all levels, just as computers went from being once rare machines of the privileged to ubiquitous tools of the masses.
The democratization of automation is creating a bonanza for service providers who can accelerate the benefits an organization realizes from its deployment. One such provider is DataAutomation, whose cofounder Will Christensen has gained a unique perspective on this trend through his extensive experience helping SMB’s automate a broad diversity of processes. Will joins us to share the surprising #1 driver for automation among SMB’s, the 4 basic questions to answer before automating any SMB’s manual process, and the litmus test SMB’s should go through before deciding whether or not to even automate a manual process.
Guy Nadivi: Welcome, everyone. My name is Guy Nadivi and I’m the host of Intelligent Automation Radio. Our guest on today’s episode is Will Christensen, cofounder of DataAutomation, an automation service provider. Will spends a lot of time helping organizations deploy automation in the SMB space, and that caught our attention, because you really don’t hear as much about automation for SMBs as you do for large enterprises. Yet despite the difference in their respective scales, the desired outcome for both enterprises and SMBs is the same: Improving performance, reducing costs, and gaining competitive advantage. So we’ve invited Will to come on the show and shed some light for us on automation for SMBs, and in the process we may learn some new perspectives that could also be applicable at the enterprise level. Will, welcome to Intelligent Automation Radio.
Will Christensen: Thanks. It’s good to be here. I’m excited to chat with you a little bit about this other perspective.
Guy Nadivi: So let’s start, Will, by you telling us a little bit about your background and how you got into automation.
Will Christensen: Absolutely. It’s actually a pretty good story. I’m a little bit of a superhero nerd, so I totally call this the origin story, so to speak. So I was the low man on the totem pole at an advertising agency, and I walked in, and being the low man on the totem pole, you get the really awesome opportunity to get essentially all the grunt work. And so I was handed 16 hours of copying and pasting things manually, and the 16 hours was happening once a week. So almost half of my life was dedicated to literally putting together these manual reports. And I thought, “You know, there’s got to be a better way.” Somebody sat me down at that point, this is several years ago, and said, “Hey, Will, this is called a VLOOKUP.” They showed me how to connect one spreadsheet to another, and my mind was blown. “Holy crap. You can actually move things from one spreadsheet to another automatically? No need to manually go look up each one of those items?” And I said, “Okay, if you can do that, what else can you do?” And so technically, DataAutomation started with a VLOOKUP, and I then spent probably close to 180 to 200 hours teaching myself how to do different pieces of automation. Did a bunch of macros in Excel, then I got underneath that and understood all of the Visual Basic, taught myself to code. I even taught the Excel program to open up web browsers and download all of the data sources, so I got it to the point where this 16 hour process, I cut it down to two hours. And so my computer would wake up in the middle of the night and I’d come in in the morning and check the work, and then send out the reports. And I just got so … I loved it. I loved the process, and I thought, “You know, I’ve learned a lot of new skills here. I wonder if I could take this out and give it to other people.” And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. I was able to take that skill set, I became the resident person in the office who would solve anything related to Excel, and pretty quickly I started to translate that into using other SaaS platforms that allow for automation, and went to work for a tech incubator on the east coast called RoundSphere, and pitched them on the idea of creating a company, a systems integrator, an automation-focused company that basically just helped other companies automate, and they bought off on it. That was three and a half, four years ago. So ever since, we’ve been neck deep. We graduated pretty quickly from Excel to Google Sheets, and then quickly moved from Google Sheets into using things like Zapier, which is a platform we’ll talk a little bit more about, that’s pretty heavy in the SMB space for automation, and you know, dived in head first to APIs, and becoming API experts to help with data transformation and data movement back and forth between different platforms.
Guy Nadivi: Will, on this show we tend to focus on the impact of intelligent automation on enterprise IT, as I stated in my intro, and these are organizations with large scale operations that are digitally transforming their information infrastructure through automation. Your focus, though, being targeted a bit more on the SMB market, I’m curious, at that level, what drivers are used to justify automation projects?
Will Christensen: That’s a great question. The number one thing that I find, it’s kind of interesting, because you’d think that it was all about money and time, and, “What can we get there?” But I find that the number one thing is actually boredom. So the clients will come to me and say, “I am doing this thing and it is totally driving me insane.” And so there’s a lot of value they place on doing something that’s boring versus doing something that’s a little easier to understand. I’d say the second thing that I often see is the amount of impact that it can have on the bottom line of the business. So if it’s a report that they are preparing, and there’s a bunch of data sources, and it’s only happening once a month, they’ll look at it and say, “Okay, well if we had this report at our fingertips every day, what could that mean for the business?” And so that’s an exciting piece of what we do, and what gets it to that next level, because we’re able to make it so that that report that was taking three or four hours is now completely automated, and they can get access to that data in more realtime. So boredom, I see access to realtime information that gives them a competitive edge or allows them to make better business decisions, and then it gets into the more normal things you’d see like, “Okay, well how much time is this currently taking me? If I delegated this to an employee, it would take them X, Y, Z amount of time, and then they’re going to cost X, Y, Z. So what would it take to automate it?” And that’s where it goes. So it depends on the individual that I’m talking to and where they stand in the company, but I often see, especially if it’s a smaller business where it’s the owner of the company that’s actually handling whatever it is, the lower the level of the project, the higher the value they see in pushing it off their plate. I hope that answers your question a little bit.
Guy Nadivi: Yeah. That actually speaks to one of the universal drivers for automation, which is there are tasks people are doing that they shouldn’t be doing, that machines should do to free them up to do other things. And I think since the general perception out there is that automation is primarily taking place at the enterprise level, there are probably going to be a lot of people surprised to hear about its growing popularity for smaller organizations as well, even if it’s just to alleviate boredom. The SMB space, though, is not as resource rich as the enterprise. So how do smaller organizations tackle automation deployments differently than large enterprises?
Will Christensen: That’s a great question. So this is a good opportunity for me to describe a platform that we use a lot. It’s called Zapier. If you get to their website, zapier.com, “Zapier makes you happier.” That’s how you say it, so if you see that is that “Zapier,” that a lot of people will mix up the name, but Zapier’s entire goal was to create something that users large and small of organizations could get in and basically tackle their own automation. And so they tried to take it out of the hands of the developers and put it in the hands of the average individual who’s actually doing that work. And so inside a larger organization, you’ve got different individuals who are kind of that evangelist for automation, and those same individuals exist in the SMB companies, and given tools that take APIs or code and turn them into a visual language, something that someone who’s not a coder can handle, is really what puts it in the playbook for them. So just a dumb example, but if you’re getting emails, and they have attachments on them, and the attachments have different keywords, and you need to funnel those into different Dropbox folders or different Google Drive folders, that is a very simple task, using Zapier. So automation can be handled on a smaller scale because it’s very inexpensive to get involved and understand some of those things. And it’s creating new businesses like DataAutomation who focus on helping those companies take off and do what they need to.
Guy Nadivi: Okay. So tell us about some of the more interesting automation use cases you’ve worked on, and the quantitative impacts they’ve had.
Guy Nadivi: When you’re tackling the automation of manual processes, like the ones you just described, what kind of questions do you start with when you’re talking to your customers? And what if those are questions that they can’t answer?
Will Christensen: Yup. That’s a fantastic question. I always ask them three basic questions, and I say three, and then I always add a fourth one on there. So let me go with four. Four basic questions. “Where is the data now? Where does the data need to go? And what needs to happen to the data in between?” Okay, so we understand the process, and you could insert whatever word you want. When I say “data,” you could say, “Where’s the report now?” Or, “Okay, the output here is a report. Where is the data from the report now? Where does it need to go?” “It needs to go into this report.” “What needs to happen to it in between?” And then the last question I ask is, “What triggers the process to start?” And some people, they haven’t done enough thinking about this piece or what’s going on there, that they’ve even realized what’s there. So if they can’t answer those questions, I often will throw out and say, “You know what? If you could wave a magic wand,” I don’t know what it is about that statement or that phrase, but people get really excited about magic wands. And I ask them, “If you could wave a magic wand, what would be the outcome here?” And generally speaking, if I can get them to answer that question, then I can start to work backwards to understand, “Okay, magic wand equaled this. That means the data’s here,” and you can kind of start getting at some of those deeper, finer points.
Guy Nadivi: I’m curious, listening to you talk about those things, about what single metric other than ROI best captures the effectiveness of the kind of automation you deploy for those organizations?
Will Christensen: So the best metric that I’ve found is generally the hours saved, and they can generally times that by the number of times the automation runs. So for example, I work with an e-commerce company, and they are able to submit an invoice to their manufacturer in exchange for a reimbursement on everything they sell. It’s like a manufacturer discount program, and that invoice was not something they had automatically. In fact, they were copying and pasting that into an Excel template, creating a PDF, and then sending it out. We created a link between their ERP system that brought in all of their order data, and then formulas that would create a PDF or a template, and then we’d automatically spit that out. And then we upgraded that a step further, and we just gave the code access to generate that PDF on the fly and input it into the system. And so that one, the way that … To go back to your question, “What is that metric?” When we were evaluating, “Should we automate this? Is this worth the amount of time and investment?” The thing that he looked at was time. All about time, for putting it there. Does that answer the question?
Guy Nadivi: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Time is money, so that’s a big driver for a lot of automation projects in general. Now, you spoke about the impact of the phrase “magic wand” on your customers, and sometimes the term “automation” can have an interesting impact on people’s expectations. So I’m wondering, Will, what are some of the more unrealistic expectations you’ve encountered in the SMB space about deploying automation?
Will Christensen: So I would say most of the time … It’s interesting that you talk about unrealistic expectations, because in the SMB space, what I’ve discovered is that most people have tried to automate already. They heard from their brothers, sisters, boss, or whatever, they heard through the grapevine that you could do this automatically, and they do the first thing everyone thinks to do, and they go to Google and start Googling around to figure out what they can automate. And a lot of times they actually get pretty disgruntled, and so their expectations are very low already in terms of what they’re tackling, because they’ve tried. They’ve spent an afternoon trying to push that data back and forth and failed because they didn’t have the right resources. And so they get really frustrated. And so oftentimes in the SMB space, I have to help them bring those expectations back to reality, which is that, “This is possible with a little bit of extra automation muscle.” So in the SMB space, I find the expectations are actually lower, not higher. I have run across a couple where they come up and they’ll ask something like, “Okay, I need to be able to get my proposal to go through the system, and when it gets down here, I need the system to analyze whether or not this is a good deal or not.” And then you start to ask them questions about, “Well, what is a good deal?” And they start to talk about like, “Well, first I have to look at the client and decide whether or not they’ve paid me in the past,” which I can totally automate that. I can look up to see if they’ve paid in the past. And then they’re like, “And if they’ve been rude to me on a phone call, I’d probably up the bid a little bit. And if they’ve done this …” And there’s all sorts of data that’s just, it’s not gathered in a place that’s easy to extract, and that becomes unrealistic, right? If you’re starting to put things on conjecture or human intuition, really, really difficult to put that in there. Now, obviously there’s AI and things like that that are coming out, that are handling more and more of that, but there’s a lot of things that are difficult there. Last thing I’ll mention in unrealistic expectations is I often get people that want to automate things that are inside a closed system, so like on a desktop, not in the cloud. And anytime you’re trying to automate something on a desktop, there’s a lot of good programs out there that can do mouse clicks and things like that. That can be very difficult. So I encounter that a lot and have to either advise them to move to an online system … Very rarely are we able to make something work that’s on a closed system like that. It has to be more of an online thing.
Guy Nadivi: Interesting. Will, you gave a presentation at an Amazon sellers trade show last year about how to decide if a process should be automated or not, and I’m curious if you can share with our audience some of the finer points of your litmus test.
Will Christensen: Yup, absolutely. So this is something that I’ve developed over the past three or four years as we’ve taken on different projects, and we’ve done our fair share of, “Oops, we shouldn’t have automated that,” and our fair share of, “Wow, that was very effective for the client and for us.” And so as we’ve gone in and pushed on that, we’ve discovered this litmus test that I shared at that Amazon sellers show, at the Prosper show last year, and the first piece of the litmus test is, make sure you’ve done that thing five times manually. And I don’t even know if I shared that at the Prosper show, because I think that’s something that’s come up since then, but make sure that you’ve done your manual process 5 times manually, and 5 times is the bare minimum. Do it 10 times, do it 20 times manually. It depends on how long it takes that process to take, right? But do it manually first before you attempt to automate, because you’re going to discover what fields you need, what the data needs to look like, what the end goal is, the finer points of what’s there. There’s some real power in doing it manually a couple of times, at least five times, before you start automating. Then the second thing that I tell people is, after you’ve done that, you have to kind of identify or figure out what should be automated and what shouldn’t be automated. And so I’ve broken that down into a couple of time tests. So what I tell people is, “Hey, get out a sticky note and anything that matches this, write it down on a sticky note, and start putting a ticker next to that sticky note to see what’s going on.” So if it takes you more than 15 minutes a day, more than an hour a week, or more than an hour a month, you should be writing it down on that sticky note and putting a tally mark next to it for every time it happens, and give yourself some massaging on how long that thing takes. So if it’s a 15 minute task, you put that ticker next to it, and you’re going to pretty quickly find out how much time you’re putting into it. And then the last piece of the litmus test, after you’ve done it five times manually, after you’ve written it down and it’s made it to that sticky note and it’s equaling more time than that, I say if you have an intern, someone who’s just out of college who has a basic understanding of Google Sheets or Excel, a basic understanding, so not crazy in formulas, maybe they know how to write a VLOOKUP, maybe not, but at least they know how to move things around in different sheets, they’re not completely inept there. A basic understanding of email, right? So somebody who can make their way around email, and then a Word document. So just a basic intern. If you could teach a basic intern how to do this task in less than 15 minutes, or in less time than it takes you to actually do it yourself, it’s probably time to consider automation. I had to find a litmus test that wasn’t so technical that people couldn’t do it, but was also indicative of the simplicity needed to hand something to a robot. And so that’s kind of the process or litmus test that I give to my clients to decide whether or not it’s time to automate.
Guy Nadivi: Now, speaking of robots, “robophobia” is the term we use at Intelligent Automation Radio to describe people’s fear of automation, and particularly as it pertains to the impact it might have on the nature of their job or even their employment. How do you assuage the robophobia concerns at your SMB customers?
Will Christensen: So that’s a fantastic question. It’s something that comes up often. So what I’ve discovered is that from the top of the organization, automation is a must. Yeah, we definitely need to do that. But if you go all the way to the bottom of the totem pole, remember where I started, right? I was at the bottom of that totem pole, doing that 16 hours a week, and I was automating my own process. At the time, I didn’t even consider the fact that I might be automating away 16 hours of my job. What was I going to do next? I mean, I’m a very forward person and so I was like, “Well, I’ll just figure something else out to do that helps the company.” For those individuals that are in those roles, you kind of have to help them recognize that if they can take pieces of the work they’re doing and automate them to the point where they’re no longer pulling a lever for 15 hours a day or pulling a lever for 20% of their day, they get some real opportunity to take that to the next level and give back to the company. And when they give back to the company, the company can grow, and there are going to be new opportunities for them to automate. And so this is where I have to do some culture shifting. I do a process where I call it “automation interviews”. It starts with an automation audit, where I come out to a company and they look at everything that’s going on in the company. I document processes, I point out things that I think could be automated first. And after I do that audit, I recommend doing automation interviews where I actually get on the phone with individuals who are actually doing the work. So my audit was focusing more on leadership, and I do interview some of the individuals who are doing the work, but it’s more focused on the leadership aspect to kind of show overall impact that’s going to happen. Then I get in and I meet with the individuals who are actually doing the work, and my goal in that interview is to make a culture shift. So the first thing I do is open their mind to what’s possible, but first I have to gain their trust. So I gain their trust and help them recognize, “I’ve done manual things too. I don’t like it either. It’s difficult, but we’re going to do this together. We’re going to figure this out.” Then after I’ve gained their trust, I open their mind and show them, “Hey, the world of automation is real. You’ve tried to automate. You’ve failed. It was frustrating. Let me show you how we can get around that.” And then after I’ve started to get their hopes up in terms of what’s possible, I actually roll up my sleeves and we automate something. I’m looking for an easy win of some kind to actually open up their mind and automate some piece of work. And sometimes I save people 15 minutes a week. Sometimes I save people two or three hours a week in that half an hour process of automating. But after they’ve tasted robophobia, after they’ve actually eaten some of the pie, it’s so much easier to move forward, because they’re like, “Oh man, this is way better than doing it manually. I was so scared of this. Why was I scared of this?” So that’s kind of the process that I go through to assuage robophobia and help them through that. Help them through the concern, and once they see that, and taste the pie and look at it, they’re like, “Oh, cool. This opens me up to do X, Y, Z, and is a good opportunity for me to go and ask for a raise.”
Guy Nadivi: I think that’ll be very interesting for some of the enterprise executives listening to the show, to hear your perspective on how to change the culture in that regard and assuage that fear. And so, Will, to close out, for the CIOs, CTOs and other IT executives listening in, what is the one big must-have piece of advice that you’d like them to take away from our discussion with regards to deploying automation at their organizations?
Will Christensen: Absolutely. The number one thing, #1 piece of advice that I would give to a CIO or a CTO or IT executive that’s listening to this podcast would be, when you’re considering automation for your employees, remember that although they fill a function inside your business that feels like a cog in the machine, they’re emotional, and because they’re emotional, they are going to react to the way that automation is presented very differently than obviously a computer would. And so because of that, you kind of have to win them over first. I’ve seen a lot of automation start at the top and die at the bottom, and the individuals who take it on and do what needs to be done, and actually can successfully get there, are the ones who are able to help those guys who are actually doing the work get in there, and that includes sit down and interview. Go do some of that work. If you haven’t been the one to copy and paste for a couple of hours in a while, roll up your sleeves, get down there, sit down with the interns and do what they’re doing. And once you’ve done it 5 times manually, you’re going to start to understand that some of the automation that you’re feeding from the top down is totally ineffective. It doesn’t handle all of the use cases that are there. So that’s probably the number one piece of advice I would give, is when you’re automating, make sure to go to the bottom of the totem pole and have some one-on-ones, if not sessions where you actually do some of the manual work, to understand what it’s like to be in those shoes so that your automation is something that’s viable and can be used and will actually shift culture and change in the long term.
Guy Nadivi: Excellent advice. All right. It looks like that’s all the time we have for on this episode of Intelligent Automation Radio. Will, we’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. It’s been great having you on the podcast to learn about a whole ‘nother market for automation that much of our audience might not know much about. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Will Christensen: Yep. Glad to be here. Excited to share a little bit of a different perspective with you and your listeners.
Guy Nadivi: Will Christensen, cofounder of DataAutomation, an automation service provider. Thank you for listening everyone, and remember: Don’t hesitate, automate.