As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Holland.
Rob is the CEO at Feedback Loop. He’s an accomplished C-level entrepreneur and executive who has consistently delivered high-impact results at venture and private equity-backed start-ups and businesses throughout his career. He has experience in global general management, as well as leadership roles at brand, retail, digital media, data & analytics, and technology & services companies such as Bluecore, Oracle, DataLogix, and The Nielsen Company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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’ve been working with consumers in data technology analytics for over 30 years. I started out in
the CPG retail world, which is where I learned how consumers think and behave. I then moved into research at Nielsen where I built data, technology and research products that helped to understand and quantify the impact of consumer behavior and how it can help businesses make decisions. Over the last 10 years I’ve held general management roles in early stage tech startups and have scaled companies in adtech and martech and now research tech with Feedback Loop.
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 first job as an internal auditor at Clorox I was sent to the Jersey City beach plant to do an audit of the operational practices on the bleach filling line. As a “green” 23-year-old right out of school, I had to work with tenured line operators ( with over 15 years experience) and evaluate their operational efficiency. I initially approached the assignment straight “by the book” and came up with a list of “assessments & recommendations” for improvements. The operators had to patiently explain how things really worked on the line and I learned valuable lessons about the power of collaborating and empathy. Ultimately, we rewrote “the book” to implement effective, real-world practices as a result of this project and had full buy-in. My key take-away was to always bring an open mind and listen to the people who are closest to the work.
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?
Lawrence Jackson has been a friend for over 20 years, he was my first boss at Safeway. We developed a strong connection very early on and he helped me to discover that I had the ability to achieve things significantly greater than I ever imagined. He was the first C-level executive to encourage me to trust myself, take bigger risks and pursue opportunities that could generate a much bigger impact. He has continued to be a mentor and a friend and I’m one of many people he has helped throughout the years.
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?
Feedback Loop was founded on the principles of the gaming industry. Gaming has always been at the forefront of agile development, with product teams using gamer feedback to create and iterate games. This sparked the idea of democratizing data in other industries. Our company’s vision was that by democratizing data we would be able to help businesses learn faster and smarter. We work under the premise that businesses don’t really know what will work until it’s in the market. We want to counteract this and enable learning as fast as possible so that companies can confidently go to market.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Feedback Loop is the agile research company that delivers rapid consumer insights so brands can learn faster and innovate smarter.
Our agile survey platform automates the process of gathering consumer feedback, transforming it into actionable insights, and applying those insights to current and future products in the market. As a result marketing and product teams can establish a continuous connection to consumers while developing and iterating on products, testing new concepts and perpetually optimizing their offerings.
We work with Fortune 500 companies like Farmers Insurance, Humana and Uber to bring the voice of the consumer into critical market decisions throughout the innovation lifestyle.
How can technological innovations disrupt an industry? Can you share an example? Has this happened in your industry?
Typically, technological innovations disrupt by attacking an existing problem in a way that was never before possible. An example in the research industry is the emergence of online consumer surveys replacing telephone and written surveys. This completely altered the cost to acquire survey respondents and opened up a significantly larger universe of people who wanted to share their perspectives. This change upended long-standing business models and is transforming the research industry from services to technology-driven solutions.
How does consumer feedback lend to companies pivoting during times of disruption?
It’s critical for companies to create a continuous feedback loop with consumers in order to understand how their needs are changing and how they can adapt their business to that change, especially during periods of disruption.
Over the past year companies across industries experienced first-hand the effects of not understanding shifting consumer opinions, and how a lack of continuous consumer feedback can directly affect their ability to move at the speed of the consumer. Businesses need to make sure they’re always testing and iterating to make sure they’re consistently meeting consumers’ needs.
Can you share an example of a company pivoting with the help consumer feedback?
One hundred-year-old Farmers Insurance created its first startup Toggle to build entirely new insurance products for Gen-Z and millennial audiences as companies like Lemonade entered the insurance space and disrupted the industry. The idea behind Toggle was to create products that out-innovate newcomers by figuring out what consumers actually wanted, rather than just making the marketing slicker and the online experience easier.
Ahead of the launch, Toggle worked with Feedback Loop to conduct 175 agile studies of more than 54,000 participants in 40 specific audiences. In speaking with consumers, Toggle found that renters insurance policies didn’t account for tenants storing equipment related to their “side hustles” in their homes and that most people wanted pets covered by their renters insurance. Based on these insights, Toggle launched products specifically covering pets and side hustle equipment.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Leaders need to be laser-focused on identifying the implications of the disruption, and then setting and communicating the direction the business is to go next. Once this is in place, leaders will play a critical role in keeping people focused on executing as quickly and efficiently as possible to pivot the business.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best way to boost morale during uncertain times is to be fully transparent. A leader should provide clarity on the situation at hand, and have the company work together to help navigate it. When the entire team is working together, it’s easier to find a long-term solution.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Define and communicate a clear number one priority for the company, and focus relentlessly on achieving it.
Can you share some of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen businesses make is to prematurely dismiss or ignore an emerging trend because it’s too small or radically different. The second is that businesses are afraid to disrupt their own business model (someone else will do it if you don’t). Companies should try to understand why the hot new trends may be important to their business, even if it isn’t obvious. Disruption is inevitable so companies need to keep looking out for it in good times or in bad, and especially when they least expect it.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Recognize the threat or opportunity early. The earlier business leaders can identify how a technology will cause disruption in their industry, the quicker they can implement changes to adapt to the new environment. If business leaders ignore up-and-coming technology and don’t consider how it will affect them, it could be the downfall of their business.
For example, when Netflix hit the scene with its online DVD business, Blockbuster knew it had to quickly adapt its business model. Blockbuster started a competing online DVD rental platform and got rid of their late fees. This only lasted a bit though — just a few years later late fees were reinstated, and the online platform was put on the backburner. Instead of investing all of its efforts into finding a new way to deliver value to consumers as their preferences changed, Blockbuster’s innovation stagnated. The company wasn’t on board to do things “the new way” and, as a result, it wasn’t meeting consumer’s needs and could not compete with Netflix.
2. Don’t panic. While this may be the initial feeling for many business leaders as they face disruption, panicking can result in rash decisions. Leaders need to take a step back, examine the situation and make a rational plan before moving ahead. As leaders make these critical decisions, they should be speaking with consumers to help them to evaluate decisions to forward, iterate, or even scrap new products or services completely.
And this is applicable not only in the face of new technologies but changing environments that have the power to disrupt an industry. When insurance technology company Rhino set out to replace security deposits with low monthly insurance payments, it didn’t anticipate a pandemic that would completely reshape the rental market. COVID-19 completely changed its ideal customers’ profile, and the rental market was completely unpredictable. The company worked with Feedback Loop to gather consumer insights that would ultimately inform its COVID-19 pivot and how it prioritized different business initiatives. For example, when a number of reinsurance companies stopped backing payments for security deposit claims, Rhino was able to put guardrails in place in their policies to protect their business while still benefiting renters.
3. Respond quickly. Pivoting in a changing industry is crucial to a business’ survival, which means there’s no time to waste. At the start of the pandemic, when restaurants, gyms and retail stores were all shut down, they had to quickly transform their businesses to be 100% online. Restaurants looked to delivery apps like DoorDash to bring in business, gyms brought their classes online and retail stores had to rely solely on their ecommerce sites to sell to customers. If these businesses didn’t pivot quickly to rely more heavily on technology, or integrate new technology altogether, they likely would have not survived.
The shift to this digital-first world has also opened the door to create completely new technologies. Business leaders need to ensure they’re not only offering consumers what they want right now, but they’re preparing to make changes in the future as these new technologies emerge to meet consumers’ preferences in the post-pandemic world.
4. Don’t do it alone. While it’s up to business leaders to navigate the company through a disruptive period, it doesn’t mean they have to do it alone. Leaders should be transparent with the entire company when the business is in a transformative period and empower every employee to offer solutions and innovative ideas. Beyond the company itself, business leaders should enlist external partners to help the company to pivot.
As an agile research technology company, at Feedback Loop we’ve worked with companies across industries that need quick consumer feedback to make critical business decisions. For example, we worked with Swiss Re’s digital insurance startup iptiQ as they used consumer insight to figure out how to transform 150 years of b2b knowledge and expertise into a new b2b2c model. Businesses should work with partners that specialize in areas that they may not, to successfully move the business forward.
5. Constantly try to disrupt yourself. Business leaders can’t sit still. They have to continue to innovate and make the necessary moves to disrupt themselves. It’s not enough to simply keep up with the industry as technologies emerge and consumer behaviors change — they need to lead the industry. For example, Amazon built a supply chain to get customers products faster than ever before with one-day delivery and Netflix disrupted their DVD service with streaming. To gauge how the industry will evolve, companies need to consistently speak with consumers about their ever-changing needs and wants. Only then can they successfully cause disruption in the industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Something that I live by is the quote, “When you panic you die”. It is one of the most fundamental principles in life and that lesson is embedded into virtually every story ever told. When you panic it is more likely that mistakes will be made, so it’s best to always stay calm. When you assess the situation with a cool head you can move forward with rational decisions instead of hastily made ones.