Ivan Hofmann taught me to build the road, not the people. He learned this first hand when he worked for a trucking company that built the people, and subsequently went out of business when those people left. He then worked for a company that built the road, having everyone document how they did everything in a day. This left everyone free to grow into higher positions without getting caught up training new employees to do their old job. And it freed them to go on vacations, without constant calls asking how to do stuff, and where stuff is. And it protected the business from the occasional employee that ran off. That company still exists decades later, and it set the stage for him go on to co-found what became Fedex Ground. Fedex is one of the best examples of a business that built the road. They offer consistent, high quality service, entirely independent of the person.
Back when Shipwire was a two person company, we were already documenting everything we thought and did, excessively, in JotSpot, the predecessor to Google Docs. I remember when Google acquired the company. We were so worried about all that content not getting migrated over properly.
I also remember what happened when we did NOT build the road. One of our early warehouses built the people instead. There was one guy who knew where all our stuff was, and how we wanted each SKU picked, packed and shipped. Then one day he probably got in a fight with the owner about compensation or some such, and picked up and left. No one else knew the workflow associated with our inventory. Things went downhill fast, and we quickly fired that warehouse.
Then later when I hired a VP of Sales, I told him his primary mission was to build a sales operation that was completely automated and required no people. And that I understood my ask was impossible…in the short term. So he was free to build out his organization as he saw fit in the short term, and draw out his KPIs, but then I wanted to see him incrementally move closer and closer to a zero person organization with better and better KPIs.
In other words, I wanted him to hire a few really good salespeople, then document document document their workflow, and then document it some more. And then test out the documentation by hiring less qualified salespeople, and see if they could achieve the same KPIs, and if not, identify why, and update the documentation to fix the issues, and rinse, repeat. Slowly, his documentation, and templates, and supporting software, got good enough, and refined enough, that when we got acquired we had recent college grads from Enterprise Rent-A-Car onboarding customers very similar to the ones our acquirer’s sales reps were onboarding, only for 1/10 the cost. Yes 1/10 the cost. Building the road worked, at least for the medium term. In the long term, I am hoping to see autonomous workflow automation, with zero people.
I love cloud-based workflow automation. We massively integrated Shipwire’s main application with Salesforce, and became one of Marketo’s first and flagship customers. Marketo is, for me, a reinvention of marketing, where software engineers run the show. It’s cloud based workflow automation where the software sees someone on our website, calculates how many people from their organization are visiting the website and in what frequency, and then sees that this visitor visited the pricing page, hence this person’s contact info should jump to the top of the queue for an outbound call offering a free trial.
Every industry, every company, every department, every government office, needs workflow automation. And the cloud is proving the best model for rapidly iterating and delivering workflow automation on demand.
What do you see in your world that need workflow automation? Where do you see people doing the same thing over and over again? Where do you see people building people, rather than building the road? Please visit my office hours and continue this conversation.