As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan Webering.
Jan Webering is the CEO of Avenga, an international IT service provider delivering strategy, customer experience, solution engineering, managed services, and software products to clients around the world. With 2500 professionals and a total of 19 locations in Europe, Asia, and the USA, his company is helping complex organizations with their digital transformation. From 1999 to 2019, he was CEO of Sevenval, a company he founded himself and which was famous for its high-quality frontend solutions. Jan Webering also invests in tech start-ups and actively supports them as a company builder and mentor. He regularly speaks at specialist events about successful strategies for implementing new digital business processes and has been invited to do so at MIT, Harvard Business School, and the Mobile World Congress.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
I always wanted to do something that would give me considerable creative leeway. For this reason, while still attending law school, I founded my own company. Only by doing so, could I be sure that I’d be able to directly influence its business strategy, consequently its success and even its corporate culture.
When we started in 1999, the general idea was to do something with internet technology. This was all well and good at first, but over time it dawned on us that our passion was not necessarily for databases and systems in the back end. The question of how people interact with these complicated systems and how we can best support them during this process just seemed way more exciting. Because ultimately, the decisive question for the success of any solution is the same: Do people enjoy using it? Specializing on the digital interface between man and machine was a very important step at the time, because it allowed us to develop the excellence we needed in this area to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.
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?
In my experience, mistakes are rarely funny when it comes to your business — perhaps when looking back at them, but most definitely not when they are happening. Nevertheless, they are unavoidable and do not necessarily have to be considered solely a bad thing as they can serve as valuable lessons for the future. Usually it is not success but mistakes which provide the impetus to reconsider things and hence allow us to improve and grow.
The most important lesson I have learned is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. When I started, I wanted to have everything mapped out. However, today I know, that the practical implementation and execution of every plan is way more important than any theoretical considerations you can make in advance.
One more thing I wish someone had told me back in those days is that it can take an awful lot of time and tenacity to convince people of your idea. Just because you know that your solution could easily fix a problem potential customers are having, it does not mean that this is obvious to them as well. Whether something is in plain sight or not, always depends on the angle from which you are looking at. And changing someone’s point of view often takes patience.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
What has influenced me more than any book or podcast, are people. I am especially thankful to Kenneth Morse, the former managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. We profited from his experience a great deal and we have both kept in touch ever since. One of the many things I have learned from him and still remember to this day is what he taught us about USPs. So many companies are looking desperately for the one characteristic that distinguishes them from all their competitors. But very often success does not depend on doing or offering something completely different than anybody else. Instead, it is about doing it better, faster, and more reliable. “If there is no competition, there must be no market”, Ken always used to say.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
It is my dire conviction that turnover and profit are not very practicable corporate goals, they are the result of the right corporate goal. You just do not get people motivated for very long if you cannot explain to them why they are doing something. Steve Jobs did not lure John Sculley into working for Apple by offering him more money. He convinced the then PepsiCo president with his legendary pitch: “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” We pretty much had — and still have — the same ambition, no doubt.
Today, more than ever, it is extremely important to exemplify a certain value construct. However, values that are written on some wall are of no use to anyone. They have to be brought to life by every single employee working for your company. When we founded Sevenval in 1999, we even incorporated our most important “seven values” into our company name. Whether we would live up to them is what we wanted to be judged by.
Next to classics like sustainability, trust, and leadership, we came up with the term shipability. This means that if we agreed on a deadline, we would meet it, no matter what. If this meant going the extra mile, we would do so and not start looking for excuses. When Sevenval merged with three other IT specialists to form Avenga late last year, our values served as a common denominator and helped tremendously with the integration into one entity.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“Get stuff done!” As I already said, I am convinced that at a certain point, things just have to be put into practice. Stop the fruitless discussion and try out which idea works best. Maybe you have to start your journey with a small step and maybe you even have to temporarily accept cutbacks in quality — but only sitting there, infinitely elaborating eventualities is the surest way to never reaching any goal, whatever it may be.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The late German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once famously said: “In a crisis the true character of a person reveals itself”. I could not agree more. People close to me all reacted very differently towards the crisis — one has gained weight, the other one has started running and working out like never before.
After the initial shock, I made a very conscious decision to focus on the positive. Most importantly, my family and I are doing well so far. Apart from that, the pandemic has released a lot of energy. This shows itself in the great speed our economy and society are transforming. Many things that were forever being discussed have suddenly been put into practice: Out of sheer necessity, lots of companies have digitized their processes basically overnight. Digital learning concepts are finally being implemented in our schools. Business trips that ever so often turned out to be completely unnecessary, have been replaced by video calls. And across all kinds of disciplines and countries, scientists are collaborating closer than ever before. The list goes on and on.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like many other companies, we had to switch our complete operation to home office in an instant. This went hand in hand with the question of whether we could hold up our high standards regarding deadlines and the quality of our work. Our complete team started working from home in the middle of March and by now, I can safely say that the current situation has not had any negative impact on our output. Even with major challenges, such as the lack of public childcare due to closed schools and kindergartens, our team has done a terrific job — this fills me with pride. Consequently, a higher degree of freedom when it comes to working models like home office will most certainly be realized whenever the lockdown is over.
On the customer side, we had to deal with a very high level of uncertainty, which prompted many to hunker down and put projects on hold. It was our job to tell them that crises come and go. As history has shown, organizations that drive forward strategically important projects in times like these and are ready to meet the needs of their customers with innovative products profit tremendously in the long term.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
During the first weeks of home office, we talked a lot about strategies and about how to make them work best: How can workdays be structured and online meetings held most productively? How can stress levels be kept as low as possible?
In the end though, I think the challenges all of us are facing are far too individual and divergent to have an answer to everything. Therefore, it’s not my place to offer any advice that goes beyond the commonplace: Plan your workload for the day, maybe even for the week. Set realistic goals for what you want to achieve. Do not forget to take breaks, get some fresh air in between, and find the off button in the evening. For me, at times this has worked fine — on other days not so much.
Personally, I miss direct interactions with people the most. Sure, we can have online meetings and the like, but they are usually pretty purpose bound and the conversations we are having just are not the same as when having a chance meeting during a coffee break. Starting up personal interactions again is what I am looking forward to in the next few weeks, however limited they still have to be.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There will be two big trends shaping the years to come: digitization and regionalization. Our pharmaceutical industry, for example, already has to keep certain ingredients in stock. Legal requirements like these will be extended. But other industries will rethink as well how their supply chains and production can best be secured.
For IT and digital transformation specialists like us, the future looks bright. The equation is simple: Reducing the need for direct human interaction is and will in all likelihood be extremely important for quite a while. Hence, companies that can offer customers effective digital channels to purchase and receive their products have a clear advantage.
For one of our customers, we have completely digitized the finalization process for commercial insurance — from the online application to the completed policy. For another customer, we are developing a notification app that enables managers to create push notifications and schedule them for target group-specific dispatch. Thus, for example, information on system failures or maintenance can be sent to the people who are affected. Ultimately, the app enables a more effective employee communication, especially when people work in shifts as they are doing now in many places. Furthermore, telehealth applications are in high demand. Among other things we are developing solutions which allow the monitoring of the health status of patients, enable counseling services to be maintained, and limited resources to be delivered and distributed effectively.
To cut a long story short: Due to COVID-19, every service and every process that can be digitized will be digitized rather sooner than later — for us, this means almost infinite possibilities
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
This pandemic will trigger profound changes because it forces us to fundamentally rethink the way we live. The topic of sustainability will play an even more important role from now on, in the private realm just as much as in the professional environment. I really hope that this crisis serves as a warning shot to humankind. Because, quite frankly, the consequences we are facing right now are small compared to the ones our ongoing over exploitation of natural resources or climate change will have if we carry on the way we used to.
Once again, I am trying to focus on the positive. Many have used the lock down to ask themselves what values are really important to them. Today and in the future even more so, we are facing challenges that no person, no company, and no country can solve by itself. The world we live in is far too complex to do so. When everything is said and done, we are all sitting in the same boat and therefore are dependent on each other.
To find long-term solutions, trustful cooperation, and collaboration across all kinds of areas of specialty, companies, and borders are the be-all and end-all. I hope this realization will be one of the learning we take with us. It would change the way we deal with each other fundamentally. In this day and age, competition should mean driving each other to peak performance — not facing each other with impregnable hostility and playing a zero-sum game.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are in the fortunate situation of not having to rebuild anything. With some minor hiccups, our business has gone on without interruptions. In the long-run, accelerated digitization will even benefit us. This is because as long as things seem to be going well and are profitable, nobody wants to change. Many organizations are now being forced to reconsider their structures and find ways to adapt their offer to a digitalized world.
One thing we are doing as a company to help, is to provide our cloud service wao.io for free to healthcare providers, local retailers, start-ups, and restaurateurs during the COVID-19 crisis and the period of subsequent economic recovery. The automated solution helps them to optimize speed as well as the security of websites, thus increasing their digital visibility and sales without having to change any source code.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
It is no coincidence that, in the current situation, companies which have already gone digital or came from the digital economy to begin with, have been much less vulnerable. For organizations lagging behind, this means now is the time to finally build a digital infrastructure, comprehensively digitize business processes and develop new, digital business models. Organizations that have already started on their digital journey should probably intensify their efforts.
To be able to look into the future calmly and optimistically, decision-makers must ensure their businesses are able to react quickly and agilely to changing situations. To digitize means creating the necessary prerequisites to do so.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Fill your time with life, for you cannot fill life with time”. Alternatively, if you want it less philosophical, the famous Nike slogan says it all: „Just do it”.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am active on Twitter and LinkedIn — and of course, there is our very own Avenga-Magazine, which I enjoy writing for whenever I have the time. If your readers are not tired of me yet, they might be interested in my most recent contribution. It explains why the future is no longer what it used to be, what changes are coming, their implications, and how companies are benefitting from current developments.