Our VP of Partnerships Zak Pines recently sat down with Kyle Tuominen, Director – West of Coastal Cloud (and formerly Bluewolf), as part of our ongoing Partner Interview Series. Zak and Kyle had a far-ranging conversation that touched on Kyle’s experience with digital transformation, creating a culture of collaboration, and use cases for digital data collection and processes. Here’s an abridged transcript of the chat.
Talkin’ Digital Transformation
Zak: We’ve heard about Coastal Cloud in this series from John Receveur and JoAnne King and Tina Woodall, so I’m going to jump right to asking you about your specific role at Coastal Cloud as the Director of the West.
Kyle: My role is to help customers see the value of the Salesforce platform and develop our team to be able to execute on those solutions. The problems we have faced in the last two years are different from the problems we faced 20 years prior, and I think that will repeat over the next decade. In SaaS, solutions grow in size and scale, and there’s still something like 20% of the Fortune 100 list who aren’t on Salesforce or a CRM platform of any kind. There’s a unique opportunity to impact customer experience, and it’s my job to help customers see the value of that and help reach that value. Mid-market customers who lack a true customer experience or data-driven decision-making process are seeing a need to revolutionize, and Salesforce and Coastal Cloud can help them get there.
Zak: In your LinkedIn headline you talk about digital transformation as a theme. Would you consider that a key element of your expertise?
Kyle: Definitely my historical expertise. Historically, I’ve helped small and emerging businesses transform digitally, and lately, I’ve been working with more enterprise customers. Digital transformation is definitely a buzzword that people throw around a lot. But it’s apropos for the current age in my opinion.
The head of Salesforce’s ITC says there’s a difference between digitization and digital transformation; digitization happened in the 70s when we started replacing paper with machines, and digital transformation is where we start to act on that to make our businesses run more efficiency and productively. Digital transformation is about taking a step back, looking at your business, and thinking about where the gaps are, what you want to accomplish, and how you get there.
Zak: I realize there’s not one single answer to this question, but what are some of the key considerations when approaching digital transformation?
Kyle: A lot of executives look at it as something where they need to have a huge plan in place with a five-to-ten year roadmap and know their entire tech stack and how they’ll implement and what their use cases are.
But in reality, digital transformation is looking at your customers experience through a new lens. I use the word customer because it’s important to note that understanding the customer experience through delivering to customer-facing employees has had great success for us. Giving those customer-facing teams access to greater opportunities and data about their customers allows them to deliver an improved customer experience. This is more than any of us could build on any software platform because they are right in front of the customer. For me, digital transformation has been about how do you reimagine the way that you’re interacting with your customers—from sales through delivery.
Zak: Can you walk me through a customer use case and how you approached digital transformation?
Kyle: I had a great experience with Caesars Entertainment. My team built a multi-cloud solution that allowed them to leverage data that they had been collecting for over 40 years. One of the craziest parts about the gaming industry as a whole is that these are companies that saw the value of data before anybody else did, and they didn’t monetize it in the way that Google, Apple, Samsung, or Amazon had done. They saw the value of collecting their customer data and using it to inform their decisions about how they would treat and care for them. And so at Caesars, with 40 years of data, we’re talking about billions of rows of data. We built a custom application for their internal marketers to use that data to market in new ways.
Prior to this, their marketing campaigns were built six months in advance. At Caesar’s, it’s a highly regulated industry; each state has its own regulations, and campaigns have to get approved by multiple governing bodies. So a lot of it was driven by current systems that couldn’t keep up with demand. With Caesar’s, we developed a way for marketers to reimagine campaigns. They went from sending a promotional email that says spend $20 and get $5, to a platform that allows them to track if a person checks in between a certain timeframe then we’ll send them a text. If they have a bad CSAT on their last visit, they can send them a new offer.
Marketers could reimagine the customer experience, building customer campaigns that help guide their marketing through certain criteria or customer actions. And then to take it a step further, we could track the success and failure of those campaigns, identify the ones that gained the most customer interaction, and build a way for customer employees to hone in on it. This is from hotel agents to concierge to housekeepers; we’re delivering data to all of the customer-facing employees so they can impact the customer experience even more than the marketer.
Zak: Now I see what you meant earlier about empowering the customer-facing teams. From an industry standpoint, have you found some industries to be further along than others? What industry-specific trends are you seeing around digital transformation?
Kyle: I think hospitality is further along than most industries. We think of casinos as traditionally smoke-filled casinos where every table is full and there are 500 people sitting at slot machines. In reality, casinos are now gaming and entertainment establishments, and it’s all about the entertainment value. They focused on that transformation earlier than most industries because competition is so high. This applies to hotels, resorts, and timeshares too.
Then you have manufacturing, which approaches digital transformation in a unique way since manufacturing companies tend to be more conservative about the type of risk they’re willing to absorb. They tend to put larger plans in place, and they sit down for a year and build what it’ll look like in the next five or ten years. That kind of high level, long-term thinking allows them to better plan and be more strategic in their approach by identifying synergies across projects and platforms and capitalizing on them. Even while doing that, they don’t tie to a single piece of software; they focus on business objectives. This shift allows them to pivot nimbly when a specific piece of software that wasn’t even publicly available when they planned their transformation is available and a good use case. This type of flexible thinking is crucial for driving value from digital transformation.
We typically think of high tech and digital software companies as leading this charge, but I find it the opposite. I find software companies are much more apt to buy plug-and-play point solutions rather than looking at their entire processes and reimagining it. Most of the technology companies that I work with have marketing tech stacks that range between 30, 40, 50, or more different software products. That makes it challenging when you’re trying to say “How can we bring this together and create a new way of doing business?” If there are 40 different software platforms, it creates a technical debt hurdle that creates greater cost to transform. On top of that, technology people tend to look at problems and want to see how they can solve it with a technical solution. A key piece of digital transformation is that sometimes software isn’t the right solution, sometimes it’s a process change.
Zak: That’s such a great point. Software and technology are enablers for digital transformation, but it’s not just about technology decisions.
Kyle: Yes, exactly. Digital transformation is the process of looking at your entire process and the customer life cycle and asking how you can make an impact. It’s not about the software’s impact. It’s going through and identifying new ways of doing business and finding software tools that can accommodate that. By having these conversations and being open to what your business could be, it allows you to rationalize those business processes and say, “If we did this better, what would it get us and how would this impact our customer?”
Zak: Do you have any advice for a company looking to get started?
Kyle: I think the first thing is getting buy-in. If a CIO or CTO is embarking on a digital transformation journey all alone, and they don’t have the buy-in from the rest of the executive team, they’re going to struggle to implement solutions that matter to the business. They have a single silo of objectives, and without broader conversations, they’ll implement a point solution, not embark on a transformative journey.
The second piece is identifying an area where you can have impact. Most executives look at their customers and go to bed at night thinking, “If I could only do this or change that.” I think oftentimes they go to bed feeling constrained by budgets and boards or stock price. They have a certain level of fear of digital transformation. They focus or think about the what ifs because of the constraints they are faced with on a day-to-day basis.
The last piece is accepting there’s a need to work with experts, like a software provider or a partner like Coastal Cloud. Identify the opportunity in your business and work with a consulting firm to help you get there. Partners in the Salesforce ecosystem have an incredibly broad range of skill sets and expertise. Our historical knowledge of hundreds of projects help us identify the risks and pitfalls of a journey such as this. If you can conduct a pilot, prove its value, continue generating good ratings and iterating on the existing product and capabilities, you can start to realize the new ways you can transform your customer experience.
The Denver Technology Scene
Zak: Kyle, you’re based in Denver, and you mentioned your Coastal Cloud office is in Denver. Formstack also has a Denver presence. How do you grade the Denver technology scene?
Kyle: You’re in Boston, Zak, and that’s where I’m originally from. I have a ton of family there. I think Denver is where Boston was 10-12 years ago. In Boston, you had startups like HubSpot and TripAdvisor. They started out small. I remember Kayak was a 10-person company, and I just stumbled across this travel search website and started using it. Five years ago, if you came to Denver, there were a lot of tech jobs but not a lot of tech companies. There were a lot of big corporations with a presence that had software developer jobs opening up. I wouldn’t necessarily classify them as tech companies.
As the ecosystem in Denver has grown, I’ve seen collaboration increase, which has been really encouraging. Five years ago when I would reach out to people and talk about a solution or we’d be trying to solve a problem together, the results would typically take a week. There weren’t a lot of user groups, whether that’s Salesforce or other platforms. There weren’t a lot of women in tech or LGBT in tech groups, but now there are. And I see a lot of companies looking at Denver as a way to invest in growing talent as it is a younger city. Finding leaders in Denver can be challenging. But if you have a good leader, you can fill that team with really capable, high-performing people and provide them a way to grow.
Zak: How has the Denver technology scene evolved?
Kyle: I think that’s been a really cool piece of Denver for the last few years. I’ve seen a significant change in career growth, technology growth, and ecosystem growth. The environment here has gotten more open to tech and tech solutions. It’s also fed by businesses seeing the opportunity of a significant talent base without astronomical costs.
If you’re headquartered in Silicon Valley or New York or Boston or Seattle, you’re going to struggle to find talent to fill the roles you have. You have to basically buy it on the open market and compete just to retain your people. In Denver, you will have to fight to get the talent. It’s still your job as a hiring manager and leader to explain the value of your firm and sell potential employees on what they can do for the company and what the company can do for them, but you have the time and space to build a plan to help that team member grow and mature and ultimately become your next leader. This type of change is critical to ensuring the Denver growth is sustainable.
Zak: What is your vision for Coastal Cloud’s Denver presence?
Kyle: There’s great opportunity on the West Coast for Salesforce as a platform to deliver value to firms. The West Coast is typically a step behind the East Coast in adopting larger-scale transformational projects. Firms out here tend to buy and operate in different ways. For me, the vision for Coastal Cloud out West is to continue delivering for our existing customers and take those solutions that we’ve built and continue to figure out how to apply this and add more value to those firms. We are seeing a lot of consolidation in the overall customer base, and we see that as an opportunity to reimagine those new processes. We started out talking about how companies can envision and deliver digital transformation—a merger, acquisition, or any change-of-control event is the perfect time to take the best parts of all the businesses and build a better process and technology to support it.
Tactically, we’re looking to expand our team. We already have 15 people in Denver and another 10 spread across the West coast. We envision that growing significantly in the next 18 months. Recently, we started an internship program with Northeastern, where we’ll bring interns onboard to help develop a talent pipeline to bring people in and allow them to flourish and deliver value for our customers. This is our version of that sustainable growth and a key piece of how we look for new talent. Our team is incredibly talented and hard-working, but if we aren’t supporting them with talented backstops, we are leaving them out to dry.
Forms & Formstack As Part of Digital Transformation
Zak: Do you recall when you first came across Formstack?
Kyle: I was a business analyst at Bluewolf, and I had a client ask me to put together an analysis on forms tools. It was a video digital rights management company, and they wanted a way for customers to send in issues or warranty problems and validate that customers had existing SLAs. Dynamic prefill of data on the forms from Salesforce was a key requirement.
When I found Formstack, it was pretty clear that it was a great fit. Looking at Your AppExchange product, it was clear you were pioneers in building a platform that could touch multiple Salesforce records without manual input.
That was the difference-maker in your solution, and since the topic is transformation, I think there’s a direct tie-in to data collection and web form tools because of how you can engage in a project with your tool through digital transformation. Form tools are vastly underutilized in this ecosystem. I’ve seen and personally built dozens, if not hundreds, of web pages for customers that simply collect data and then have to run triggers and handlers on the backend to put it on different records. Or I’ve had to build process builders to update multiple records and reference external tables. Formstack’s ability to touch multiple records, multiple objects, and multiple systems is a powerful thing and incredibly valuable to customers. It allows me to reduce costs to them and take that spend and focus it on even more impactful capabilities.
Zak: That’s a great point; the form is the tip of the iceberg. There’s often a lot of business process around the form that helps customers save a lot of time and create more effective processes.
Kyle: When customers approach a form tool, they usually say they just want a form—a single form. That’s not the right mindset. If instead they led with their business problem and how to solve it, you can learn what the form can really do for your organization.
Companies have embraced the idea of having product owners for Salesforce. In addition to admins and developers, you’re seeing product owners, which gives organizations the vision to say here’s the business, here’s the needs of the customer, and here’s how we’re going to prioritize and continue iterating on the product. You’re not just using a form tool to build two or three forms, but instead transforming the way you do business. Form tools need a similar role where an internal team member can identify all the areas the tool can have an impact, at virtually zero additional cost.
Zak: I’m making a note to be sure to loop you in to all of our future customer conversations.
Centers of Excellence at Coastal Cloud
Zak: One of the Coastal Cloud topics I wanted to learn more about is the idea of Centers of Excellence. Can you share more about it?
Kyle: There is an ownership mentality within every single person at the firm. We believe that everyone operates as a leader; it doesn’t matter if it’s your first day and you just graduated college or you’re a 40-year-seasoned executive. We expect our teams to operate the best way they know how, and the Centers for Excellence program enables this.
When Coastal Cloud first got started, they were looking at their business and how they could make improvements. They wanted to do skills and development training so they created a Centers of Excellence around business development, project management, software delivery, and devops. It’s a testament to Coastal and Tim and Sara Hale’s vision for everyone contributing at the same level.
Zak: Sounds like Tim and Sara really care about collaboration.
Kyle: They built a culture of collaboration, and that’s what the Center of Excellence is all about. A great example is our experience with Formstack. When it comes to data collection, there are multiple point solutions that people were implementing, and there wasn’t really a cohesive way of approaching the problem. Formstack goes beyond this concept of data entry to business process and productivity. We took this as an opportunity to bring this knowledge and skill to the rest of the team and show them how we can help customers more broadly.
Zak: What’s ahead for your Center of Excellence?
Kyle: We’re working on putting some tools together in conjunction with the Formstack partner portal to direct our team to reach out more proactively and identify opportunities for collaboration. I think for some consultants, there’s a fear of reaching out to a company to get collateral or training material because there’s a fear that the company might directly touch my customer and impact them negatively. For us, Formstack’s partnership is crucial because we’re able to give our team members a resource that they can use to support challenging conversations. And then bringing in your team to help with solutioning and supporting our team.
Zak: How has your experience with our new partner portal enabled these conversations?
Kyle: The partner portal has been great because it’s a hands-on solution that I could use myself at 11 p.m., but it also opens doors for that collaboration with your team. We encourage our team to reach out to experts in the area. As much as we like to build, we’re experts in Salesforce, and the Formstack team is experts in Formstack. Leveraging your resources and support to help us ideate and solution is key to our success and our partnership. You’ve really delivered an innovative solution to our customers, for years, multiple times over, and in ways we couldn’t have imagined without it.
Zak: We see that collaboration as vital. When your partners are looking for help with solutioning to a customer’s specific scenario, we make ourselves very available to help.
Kyle: I’ve seen that in action, and it’s unique in this space.
Zak: OK, let’s wrap up with the Lightning Round. What are some of your personal interests and hobbies?
Kyle: I moved to Denver because I’m an avid skier and backpacker. This year has been challenging for me. We lost about 30% of the ski season. I still managed to get 25 days in 18 different resorts, which was a new record for me this year.
I love to travel. I try to visit at least 12 countries a year. That was my goal last year, and the year before that I hit 13. I want to hit 11 this year, and I think it’ll be hard with all the restrictions in place. I’m also an avid collector of cigars, and I’m a Red Sox and Patriots fan.
Zak: You’ve a Red Sox and Patriots fan living in Denver; and I’m a Mets and Giants fan living in Boston.
Do you have any productivity tips you can share?
Kyle: Say no to meetings. I think sometimes we want to be there to support our team too much, and we become a crutch—if we’re in all the meetings and supporting all conversations. Also, when we focus on doing too much, we lose the ability to guide and support growth. Another thing I’ve had to get better at is saying no to meetings where I know I’m not going to be productive. If I’m just on the call to listen, I should spend that time somewhere else. So if it’s not crucial for me to be there, I shouldn’t go.
There’s also an important balance in providing learning opportunities for your teams. There’s a value in saying it’s not my job, and not because I don’t want to do it, but because I want them to learn and advance their skill set.
Zak: What’s your favorite TV show, past or present?
Kyle: The greatest TV season of all time is “Homeland” season one. I’ve never seen a storyline that was that thrilling up until the last minute. “The Wire” is the greatest overall TV series for me. I like the approach of presenting multiple different viewpoints to a problem.
Zak: What’s your go-to lunch during the workday?
Kyle: I don’t get a lot of lunch, and I fully acknowledge that that’s not a good thing. I tend to just work through lunch because I’m easily distracted. But my preferred lunch when I do get it is something along the lines of tacos.
Zak: Our last question is a debate within Formstack. Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Kyle: I have heard this debate, and I maintain that it is a sandwich because it’s meat between two buns. I’m a weird sandwich eater, though. If I get a turkey sub, I get turkey and bread. I don’t get lettuce or tomatoes or spreads. So for me, hot dogs are no different. It’s meat between two pieces of bread.