In 2011, Marc Andreessen published an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Software is Eating the World." (Also available here without the paywall.) That phrase, "Software is eating the world," (now coined a decade ago!) has reverberated across the internet, quoted in article after article. Search for anything related to the mass adoption of technology across corporations, like the fashionably overused phrase Every company is a technology company, and you will inevitably find reference after reference to Andreessen's statement intended to support the view that any company lacking a software team is destined for failure.
Andreessen offers numerous examples to support this notion: Amazon disrupted the book industry, Netflix disrupted the video industry, Pixar disrupted the animated movie industry, Spotify and Pandora disrupted the music/radio industry, etc.. And he's right. There's no question whatsoever that technology, and the recent increase (over the last ~20 years) in accessibility to technology, has changed the face of business as we know it. But there are plenty of businesses out there who aren't out to disrupt an entire industry via technology that rely on, but do not create their own, hardware and software.
At this point, we're undeniably reliant on technology (to the extent that enumerating our touch points in greater detail would be pointless). This is as true in the business world as it is in our personal lives. Timothy Carter adeptly articulated the reasoning behind this sentiment in a recent article:
“Modern companies – even those in traditional industries and those operating in a small, niche, local capacity – are practically required to invest in core technologies to operate efficiently.”
The key to this statement comes to bear around the ability to "operate efficiently." In my experience, efficiency is at the crux of most (non-technical) businesses' need to enhance their technical capabilities. Traditional companies that are not focused on building software can realize massive gains through revenue management, operations and logistics, marketing, and more. And they're beginning to realize this en masse. However, doing so requires buy-in at the leadership level and a dedication to this new approach across the organization. That buy-in is often difficult to cultivate, especially when creating a technology shift from within requires investment of both time and capital.
Viewed through the "Every company is a technology company." lens, we come to a conundrum: What exactly does that mean for currently non-technical companies? There's no denying that technology can elevate and benefit non-technical companies, but do those companies truly need to become technology companies? Does every company now need a product, design, and engineering team? And if so, how do these newly minted technology companies define goals, attract talent, and understand what's possible so that they can properly utilize these teams?
The reality is that there's an in-between stage — or two. If we view technical adeptness as a spectrum, there are few points along the path between non-technical companies and tech companies. As I see it, that spectrum breaks down something like this:
There may be more steps in between, but for the sake of simplicity, let's look at the categories above.
- Non-Technical companies are those we pass by every day. For example, my local auto mechanic is well-known amongst folks interesting in the overlanding trend. Much (if not most) of their business comes via word of mouth amongst that community, which is exactly how I found them. They're family owned and run, and they do fantastic work. But they don't even have website. And that seems to suit them just fine. Appointments are booked weeks in advance and there's never a shortage of vehicles in the lot waiting for their attention.
- Tech-Enabled companies are something of a new breed. Born in the digital era (ie most are less than ~10-12 years old), technology is at the core of their business. These companies are often seen as "disruptors" as they have utilized technology — built by internal teams of product managers, designers, and engineers — to create a new business in an existing space. Their focus on technology as a core tenant has allowed these companies to build highly efficient operations from the get-go. Perfect examples include Warby Parker, Harry's & Dollar Shave Club, and Imperfect Foods.
- "Tech" companies are differentiated primarily by the fact that their core product or service is the technology they create, be that hardware or software. Technology is what they do. This group would encompass the FAANG collection, along with a number of newer companies that have exploded into cultural relevance like Lyft & Uber, Spotify & Pandora, and all of our beloved social media platforms.
At a glance, that group of three categories seems to cover the breadth of companies out there. However, what happens when a non-technical company decides that it's time to do technology? These companies don't magically transform overnight, and for the most part, they don't rush out and hire a full-blown technology team to foster that transition. These companies fall into the fourth group that I like to refer to as "Tech-Motivated" companies. Tech-motivated companieshave come to the realization that technology can help streamline their business, creating greater efficiency in operations and a distinct competitive advantage. These upsides can be massively advantageous when these companies are looking to scale — technology can slow the rate of hiring necessary to onboard new customers — or to sell — these companies look more attractive than their peers when they can demonstrate a unique and wholly owned technological advantage.
At Apollo 21, we often speak with prospective customers who ask us something along the lines of, "We have problem X. We know that technology can help us solve that problem, but we have no idea how to execute it. Can you help?" The answer is a resounding yes. We have helped (or are exploring how to help) Tech-Motivated companies address the need to gain efficiency and solve operational pain points via technology across a variety of industries include finance, security, self-storage, and content (to name a few).
While there is an inherent difficulty to this type of work — it requires us to learn a new business from the ground up very quickly in order to help transform that business — it is also massively rewarding. This comes back to the "motivated" side of Tech-Motivated businesses. We find that these partners want to usher in change and progress across their business, and that's refreshing. We also find that this need for change is often driven by a top-down view, meaning that we have buy-in from the senior-most stakeholders before we even begin. That's a recipe for success.
And, while Apollo 21 serves as an outsourced product, design, and engineering team for our Tech-Motivated partners, this recipe allows us to develop these projects into deeply collaborative relationships spanning stakeholders across our client's organizations. This frees us up to quickly gain an understanding of each partner's operations and the pain points therein, which we then work together to solve via software designed explicitly for their needs. This collaborative relationship allows us to test both before and as we build, making iteration faster and ensuring that we're solving the core problems.
By the time we've built technology to suit the needs of any given partner, ideally we've helped them traverse the spectrum above, migrating from Non-Technical to Tech-Motived and onward toward Tech-Enabled.
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