Following a discussion of the processes and principles by which they managed the company in Part 4, Allen and Mary conclude the interview by talking about how the business has evolved in response to technological advancements, and offering their thoughts on what the next 30 years may bring to Beck Consulting.
Allen Beck: As the technology evolved, things became much, much easier. Especially when we could do demos over the Internet. It was huge. It was an immense time saver.
Mary Beck: But people still want to have a warm fuzzy feeling. I mean [aren’t the salespeople] still traveling a lot?
Beck Consulting: All the time.
AB: Oh yeah. Well, it’s a personal service business, when you get right down to it, and without a person, it’s hard to make it personal.
BC: I think definitely it’s true also on the implementation side, where clients still want to see you out from time to time.
AB: Oh yeah, you’ve got to go there and do the definition. A lot of the training [can be handled remotely] but the hands-on implementation, you still have to do that.
MB: I remember just from methodology, it’s like you didn’t have any choice but to go out, and like if I was going to travel to Sacramento, that’s two hours each way, and I billed for basically half my travel, so the client, they’re going to want me to be there for the rest of the day to make it worth having paid for my travel time. Whereas in later years, sure, you’ve got to go on site and do some of that training, but for instance, it would get to the point where it’s like, “Okay, so and so in accounts receivable is ready. They need to know how to put in terms codes and this and that, build these little tables before we can get to the customer tables, say.” You can just do that over a GoToMeeting in just no time, and they were thrilled because then you didn’t take up a chunk of their day and they weren’t paying for travel time. They’d get that work done. It was fresh in their minds and they could just get it done. They could call you in another day and say, “Oh, let’s do the next thing.” It was just, whew! It was just fabulous.
AB: Yeah, it was a huge paradigm shift. It was a great sales tool because previously, to get to that point, you were out in the field shaking hands. You spent a lot of time waltzing around before you ever cut to the chase where they really want to seriously look at things. I can remember days where I spent an hour and a half driving to San Jose in rush hour traffic to get to a presentation and spent hours basically just waltzing around doing an overview demo because you’ve got a bunch of people in the room that, because you’re there, they’re a captive audience, there’s no time boundaries, and nobody in management wants to call timeout because they’ve, quote, “empowered” their employees now to be in this demo. And you’d spend three or four hours there and realize literally within the first half hour that you don’t want to go down this road but you still have to be polite. Being able to do this stuff remotely was a huge time saver. Just for us, it was huge because there’d be days literally where to drive 30 miles, I spent four and a half hours in the car, round trip. That’s why I gave up driving cars with a clutch.
MB: Yes. We used to both have cars with clutches.
AB: And I literally one day got to the point where my leg cramped up so badly because I was putting in the clutch, letting it off so often.
MB: Yeah, I remember getting leg cramps, so we finally just said, “You know what? We’re giving those up.”
AB: Yeah, but it was a huge, huge difference there. Just to be able to do the introductory demo. I mean, not a canned demo because there was usually a high-level requirements definition as part of the sales process. You could give them an hour-long GoTo demo. In a lot of cases, you could tell literally by some of the feedback whether you want to go after it hard or not, and in a lot of cases, the people would say, “Okay, I’ve seen enough. When can we schedule you to come on site?” We were doing this stuff fairly early on. The first time we ever saw a Web demo, it was another software company. It was somebody actually we were talking to in terms of a product. It was rough. It wasn’t like GoToMeeting. It was a predecessor to that. It was a little rough because, of course, there were latency issues and things like that.
MB: pcAnywhere, wasn’t it?
AB: Yeah, pcAnywhere. We actually did tech support with pcAnywhere.
MB: Yeah. It was okay to do tech support, but it wasn’t fast enough, in my opinion, to do demos or to really do a good job with training. But, when we started doing tech support at the very beginning, I mean people would come up with error messages on the screen, and I would have to start visualizing, “What could it be? What could it be?” because there was no way to get to what could they have done or what were they really seeing on the screen. They would try and describe something, and it would just be like, “I can’t even begin to imagine.” We finally got to the point of, “Okay, faxes, oh my God, we got a fax machine,” so I could tell them, “Print this for me, do a print screen of this and this and this, and fax that to me,” and they would do that because a lot of the clients were really naive about computers. They would fax it to me. Well, in the very beginning, a couple of mine had to Federal Express me stuff. Like, “The check isn’t coming out right.” “How do you mean?” “Well, it just doesn’t look right.” “Well, can you be a little more specific?” Then later, I got to the point of, “Well, make a copy of it and run it through the fax machine.”
AB: People couldn’t afford fax machines. We literally forced a lot of people early on into buying fax machines for tech support. So in a lot of ways, we were early adopters of technology, and it was because a lot of our clients were so far away it wasn’t like you could jump in the car and drive to the next town over and solve their problem, which was really the business model for a lot of resellers; they didn’t go beyond their general urban area, and we did, so we knew that we had to find ways to support these people short of driving three hours to deal with their check alignment issue sort of thing. But it was interesting because, now that I think about it, when we introduced using things like WebEx, I can remember some employees said, “That’s going to cut down on our revenue.” Which was true from an economic standpoint, because in the past, they would either have to spend more time trying to mentally figure it out or talking to the client over the phone or going on site. I said, “We bill for time, and the goal is the client’s satisfaction. So if it takes you 15 minutes to solve the problem instead of an hour and 15 minutes, yes, we’ve given up an hour of billable time. But the client’s a Hell of a lot happier because they’ve had to invest less time in it and they’ve had to invest less in us. And look at it from my perspective. You still have an hour to fill for billable time. You could do something else. So it really doesn’t affect us.”
MB: They could be working on other projects, new clients, whatever.
AB: Yeah. You can use that time more productively. When you’re driving in your car, it is 100% unproductive time. Even though you might be on the phone in the car trying to solve a technical problem with somebody else, it’s not highly productive and it’s dangerous.
MB: It became such a different world from what we started with, and the tools were amazing by comparison; much better, much easier, less stress. [Dirk and Bruno] wouldn’t have been able to just hire from across the country if it weren’t for that technology.
AB: It was hard finding talent that had some NAV exposure for the longest period of time because you really needed to have somebody pretty much on premise to make it work. There were some partners that had, especially developers, that were other places, but they all suffered from the same issue that we wanted to solve early on; everybody is taking their own path on how to do something, so they’d give a job to this contract developer some place and they’d get the end product, but it was undocumented, or put together in a way that may not make sense to anybody else from a support standpoint. That sort of problem, and it still goes on today, I’m sure. It was hard recruiting people then. But as soon as we started putting some of these technologies in place, it made it effective, from a communication standpoint and, later on, for demos. Initially, it didn’t work for demos because the technology wasn’t there.
MB: It certainly made things challenging, yeah. I’m sure now there are challenges that Allen and I don’t know about that the guys face. There’s always something.
BC: The one thing that you do lose is the camaraderie. You’re isolated, you’re on your island.
AB: It’s a different bonding level.
MB: Back when we first moved in probably at the Alameda office, which was around ’97, I think, at that point, it was really a lot of fun to be in the office because we were all working hard, the Y2K thing was coming and all that, but when we were in the office and not out doing implementations or demos, lunchtime was something that was really fun. We’d sit around, we had great political discussions, or like, “What was that idiot doing on TV?” or somebody just finished reading a great book. I mean, it was really fun. We kept beer in the refrigerator, and on Friday evening, we’d sit around and have a beer. It would be kind of fun on Friday afternoons because the traffic would be Hell for a while anyway, so I’d just say, “I’m tired of working…”
AB: Everybody kicked back and waited for the traffic to die down and had a beer or two.
MB: We did that in the Fresno office only at the beginning. I was gone too much. We gave up on that.
AB: The other thing that I found too once we started doing remote demos, and I pointed this out to Bruno and even before then to other employees that I worked with in sales, because a lot of them said, “Oh, this is great. I don’t have to travel to do this and that and the other and it’s really, really good and there’s not so many distractions,” and I said, “Well, that’s true, but you lose an important strategic advantage, and that is you can’t see their faces. You can’t see their body language.”
MB: Their reactions.
AB: Which is really what you have to key off of in a sales presentation because if you know how to pay attention to that and interpret it correctly, you can immediately change your direction or hit something that you know is a hot point or something you better stay away from, it’s toxic. You can’t do that [remotely], you can’t get any nuance whatsoever other than maybe through voice inflection at the other end. [It] is one of the things that you definitely give up because you can’t see everybody. It continues to evolve. Pretty soon, we’ll have virtual reality demos. Just put on your goggles and, “We’re all in the same room and you’re going to love this. If we had an interface, this is what it would like. If we had an application, this is how it would work. Can you visualize the reports?” (Laughs)
BC: When you think about the future, what do you think about for Beck and for the industry, ERP, food? Where do you see the pitfalls, the challenges, the potential opportunities? How do you see the company faring in the next 30 years?
AB: It’s hard to say because when you go back 30 years, the business really didn’t exist. There was no such thing in the context that we understand it today. Nobody could do this sort of thing other than on massive scale in terms of equipment.
MB: Big teams, and they’re all specialists.
AB: Huge, huge teams and an incredible amount of resources on the part of all parties, and I’m not talking just about money. I’m talking about huge amounts of time. Literally in 30 years, the business evolved from what was really nothing in terms of true network applications, to where we are today, which is tremendously different. We’re doing things in bcFood that the biggest computer systems in the world weren’t doing in 1981. Think about the magnitude of that, it’s almost breathtaking when you think how different that paradigm is. To think that they’re doing that today, when not that many years ago, it was completely different. A lot of people don’t really think of the context of that. I think of it this way. My maternal grandmother: who was born in 1902 and died in ’98, ’99, she saw things like airplanes, jets, man on the moon, in her lifetime. Some of the big accomplishments, clearly, big differences, but we’re talking about nearly 100 years. We were into full-on ERP, close loop, in food, really after 25 years, when the industry didn’t even exist.
MB: Now it can be all mobile. I thought it was amazing to be plugged in, and now it’s all mobile.
AB: In many ways though, we’re actually reinventing the wheel in the industry in my view, because of the whole concept of cloud computing, and SaaS, and all these concepts. We’re right back to where we were 30 years ago, because when you get right down to it, it’s a timeshare model. You don’t own anything in a lot of these schemes, you’re basically buying access to storage and application. Where Beck Consulting has evolved to, what caused that was corporations saying, “I need to take ownership of this stuff. I don’t want to pay somebody in Timbuktu or wherever, that I don’t know what they’re doing with this software, for something that I have no control over.” In many ways, we’re back there right now today. It’s difficult to say where the heck this is going because literally we’ve done a complete 360 in a quarter of a century. When you get right down to it, it has nothing to do with cost of ownership, it has nothing to do with maintenance in many ways, although all the arguments are around cost of ownership. It’s hard for me to even guess, because like I said, literally in a quarter of a century, we’ve gone full circle. We’re back to where we started in many ways.
MB: Except there’s a lot more flexibility.
AB: That’s true.
MB: The cloud is simply a storage thing as opposed to what we were dealing with. The timeshare was very limited, and you had to do it exactly one way.
AB: The rigidity is largely gone, but on the other hand, we have the schemes like, I don’t know what they’re going to call it, but the package NAV product, the low-end thing that they’re talking about.
BC: Dynamics 365.
AB: Yeah, the out-of-the-box solution that they’ve talked about for years off and on. All cloud-based, and subscription-based. The idea there, again, is low cost of entry, low price point. So simple your idiot brother can run this stuff, or whatever the case may be. Of course we know it isn’t necessarily true, but it’s a great pitch. It’s a way to get people into the ecosphere, if you will, but how well is it going to work, who knows? Nobody has actually proven out that model works. There has not been anybody that has a track record of offering a low cost, canned, cloud-based, entry level solution, and then being able to migrate people up to the next level. They seem to think that they’re dope dealers. “Free taste, free taste? Okay, this one’s going to cost you.” So, I don’t know how that’s actually ever going to pan out. It’s hard to say. I don’t know where the company’s going to be in 30 years.
MB: I can’t even imagine, because it’s changed so much.
AB: It has in terms of the underlying technology and some of the strategies, but the software’s the software. The requirements are the requirements. The requirements in terms of manufacturing have not fundamentally changed in 100 years, ever since the assembly line came into being. Once we got away from craft shops, manufacturing is manufacturing. There are just a couple different types. When you get right down to it, once we evolved to the concept of a closed loop MRP/ERP system, and realized there’s all these pieces that are all part and parcel of this environment that we have here, and there’s all these touch points, and really it should be in a single, unified database…nothing much has changed other than outside touch points. “Oh we want to do remote payment processing. We want to do direct deposit for your payroll.” Those are just ancillary, they’re convenience features.
MB: Yeah, all the work on a handheld in a warehouse. They are still doing the same transactions.
AB: It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing as a ledger paper was. It’s really no different, it’s just a different methodology. Same data.
MB: Yeah I guess I haven’t thought about it, I’ll have to think about that. I think I have tried not to think about that. (Laughs)
AB: I’m a deconstructionist. (Laughs) To go back more to your question, it’s hard to say because like I said, fundamentally, in terms of the core functionality, what’s in the application is [already] in the application.
MB: I always see clients needing expertise to guide them. I don’t see that becoming-
MB: Yeah, where people just inherently know how to do all this stuff. They might get better project managers in, I saw that as a trend, but I don’t see them being able to do this on their own. I see that project work will always be a necessity. And with businesses always needing to have an edge of some kind, they’re never going to want 100% canned, and have to use spreadsheets to work around things, like way back when that was accepted as a standard. People now, they know time is money, so they need to be as efficient as they can, so I see development as being an ongoing thing. Now, how software as a service is delivered from the standpoint of making money on, if you will, the sale of software, I don’t know. Where the software resides, or whether it will be the revenue generator, other than your own IP that is developed in-house. That was another great reason we wanted to do [our own software]; it’s your own IP. You never know what Microsoft could do, but I think the services side will continue for sure. [Microsoft is] going to continue to develop, and where are they going to get their ideas? They’re not necessarily innovators these days.
AB: Everybody likes to think they’re unique, every business. I’ve never been into a business that’s in the same industry as another business that thinks that they do things the same way. Everybody has a different way of doing business. In many cases, it’s what differentiates them from their competitors. When you stop and think about it, there’s a lot of different people that, say, process beans, or whatever. They all sell dried pinto beans, okay? They’re all paying the growers the same price for it, so how the Hell do you stay in business if you’re selling the exact same product as the guy down the street, right? It’s how you do business that makes the difference, or who you have in your business. It’s the personal relationships, it’s something you do for people. Guess what? By and large, that gets built into your information system. What is that, what do you call that? “Custom software.”
MB: Or it’s how they want to analyze. Maybe it’s their sales reports, there’s always something. I see reporting still, having to develop reports, that kind of thing. There’s always going to be an analysis tool that they’re going to need help setting up. Maybe it’s not physically a report, it’s a drill-in/drill-down, whatever, some sort of analysis that they can do. I saw that with a lot of different clients. Different people who have the creativity to start businesses have different ways they want to look at things. They don’t want to see a canned thing. They want to be able to tweak it and turn it. Yeah, I see the services going on for sure, and IP going on for sure, but I’m not so sure about how the software will be delivered. Who knows, at one point there was a concern Microsoft would just go direct, they’d just cut out the dealer channel. But I think they’ve given up on that too.
AB: They’re never proven they can sell anything themselves anyway. When you stop to think about it, Microsoft by and large doesn’t sell anything. Other people do it for them. They really have no sales organization; they have a marketing organization, and a channel organization, that’s it.
MB: Who knows, in the future there could be some kind of…like we had Y2K. It drove us out of one piece of software and into another. Something rather dramatic could also occur. [Beck Consulting] would have to change gears and go to a different thing.
AB: I think the other thing that’s going to change is we’re going to see companies that are not traditional software vendors get into some of this space. In some ways I think, and have for some time, that Microsoft is vulnerable, because Microsoft, as long as we’ve worked with them for the better part of two decades, never seemed to have their act together. They never knew what business they were in other than software. I think that potentially people like Google could get into this business, and while in some ways people like Apple have backed off some of their software products, I think that they could get into this space because they have enough money to buy their way into this space if they had a product that would run there. I’m saying that because I look at somebody like Apple who has now forged two massive business partnerships in less than a year; the one with IBM where they’re doing all these mobile applications using IBM back end, through cloud services, and they just did one with SAP, same sort of thing. I’m looking at this from the perspective of, they’re trying to get their technology into the corporate environment because in many ways it’s a more secure operating environment than Windows, and easier to actually maintain from an update standpoint, and they’re using proven applications provided by people like SAP and IBM. Now they’re going to be in this corporate space for these specialized applications, and that’s what they’re focusing on now. How long is it going to be before they’re talking to somebody like SAP and say, “Okay, we’re doing all the front end, you guys don’t worry about the front end anymore. We’re going to provide the front end, people are going to be running this stuff on iPads and MacBook Pros instead of PCs under Windows.” That’s going to be some of the challenges in the future; the delivery method isn’t going to change radically, but who’s delivering it is going to change.
MB: That’s why I say [Beck Consulting] may have to make a shift and say, “If another company is going to be the 100 pound gorilla now, we need to go grab that application and that tool and learn that, so we can do what we do.”
AB: Pay attention to it.
MB: We’ve been there, we’ve done that. The Macola switch to now, that was not a cakewalk.
AB: I think in terms of whether the company will be here in 30 years? Hard to say. There’s a lot of companies that disappeared in this last year that were a Hell of a lot bigger. (To Mary) I haven’t seen you talk so much since we did demos together. You’re a happy cat, I can tell.
MB: Yeah, it’s been fun.
AB: It has been fun.
MB: It’s fun walking down memory lane of a good path. It was a great path, actually.
AB: That’s because I was there.
MB: I wouldn’t have done it without you babe, absolutely. That’s why we wanted to work together, that’s why we started it. It was because we wanted to be together, do our thing together.
AB: Equal partners.