To me, great business ideas begin with three words: “Perceive the need.”…No matter what the topic, insight and empathy are the catalysts needed for business ideas to form.
Kevin Groome is a serial entrepreneur, award-winning creative director, and enterprise software architect, whose work in marketing and technology has benefited some of the best-known brands in the world. Kevin began his career in San Francisco, where he founded a high tech marketing communications firm that bore his name, then merged it with an advertising firm and grew the practice until it was ultimately ranked among top 20 in the nation by Marketing Computers Magazine. Responding to a pain point felt by many of his clients, Kevin founded Pica9 in the early 2000s, which today is recognized as a leader in the field of distributed brand management and creative operations platforms.
Where did the idea for Pica9 come from?
When I was the creative director for a high-tech ad agency, one of my largest clients was a multi-national consulting firm. I was in a meeting with the CMO when the CEO popped in and dropped two copies of ComputerWorld Magazine on the table, each opened to a different recruitment ad for the company. The two ads were inconsistent in really obvious, even embarrassing, ways (fonts, colors, facts, etc.). Worse, neither was close to brand standards. In this exquisite French accent, the CEO said, “You guys fix this, or maybe I have to fix you.” The CMO looked at me, and I said, “I think we can build an app for this.” Two weeks later, the spec for our first dynamic templating and brand-management system was in the client’s hands. We got budget approval that very day, and Pica9 was born.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Pica9 is globally distributed, which means my work takes place in equal parts in the office, at home and at customer sites or conferences. I’m responsible for brand awareness, so I start by reviewing outlets that report on brand management and creative operations. I find insights, and share these across a community of customers, partners, etc. My aim is to provide context—to serve, not to sell. After that, I may engage with a reporter, or write a blog post, or participate in a podcast or panel discussion. Occasionally, our customer success teams ask me to help solve a knotty design or automation problem. And I sit on advisory boards for other martech firms, so questions come from those quarters as well.
How do you bring ideas to life?
To me, great business ideas begin with three words: “Perceive the need.” My business ideas have always clustered around creative operations, because that’s what I’ve focused on longest and understand best. But no matter what the topic, insight and empathy are the catalysts needed for business ideas to form.
Once an idea has formed, we try to strike while the iron is hot. As quickly as possible, we put together something that conveys, as realistically as possible, the value the idea will deliver. When I put the spec for Pica9 1.0 in front of that first client in less than two weeks, that’s what I was trying to do. The metaphor of blacksmithing is apt; your spec or prototype or presentation is the hammer. The iron is the marketplace you are trying to serve. And you have a brief period of time when you can shape the marketplace with your idea, because the perceived need or pain (that’s the forge, or fire), has made the marketplace malleable to your idea.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Without a doubt, right now I am most intrigued by the way low-code platforms are inserting themselves into all kinds of business processes, in virtually every industry. Take a look at what the folks at Code.org are doing. You’ll find hundreds of thousands of teachers, engaging with the concepts of software development, and then helping millions of students to gain those same incredibly valuable skills. It’s impossible to watch this effort and not feel hopeful about what we, as a species, can come up with.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Reading. Deep and wide and continuously. Not just business stuff. Literature—emerging and established. History. Political science. Science. Whenever I turn off the talking heads on the damn news (sorry, CNN), and open a book, I feel myself returning to myself. And that makes me a better, more effective team member the next day.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Unplug regularly. Your mind is working even when you aren’t. Ideas will percolate better precisely because you turn your conscious mind to other matters (family, love, others), and open yourself up to influences from outside your normal working environment. Trust that. Trust them. Trust yourself.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I’m going to mention the thing that nobody agrees with me about—but I can’t vouch for certain that my belief is “true.” I just know that it’s true for me.
And that is this: the “weeds” are my friend.
When I want to figure out a better way to deliver a solution, or write a headline, or win a customer, I dive straight into the weeds the way Jedi, our old yellow Lab, used to bolt straight into the woods as soon as I opened the car door. Conventional wisdom says that people who get down in the weeds can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s where the disagreement comes in. Because I believe that there’s wisdom down in the weeds. But that’s just me; I could be wrong.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Exercise. Bringing a company to life and sustaining it through its early years is hard, obsessive work. It’s going to take a lot out of you, every single day. The mental and physical benefits of exercise will help you to run that marathon and enjoy it.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
When we first created Pica9, we asked the team to propose ideas for our company name, our brand. Since everybody came from the ad business, we were blessed with lots of good ideas. We settled on Pica9, because it was a name born in the studio, with a lot of love and respect for the studio. And it resonated with our customers because the brand made sense to them, and because everybody in the company demonstrated the care and attention to detail that the brand name connoted. In other words, we made a brand promise, and we lived it. That’s what helped us grow the business.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
A long time ago, when our development practices were still forming, we made the decision to re-platform our largest customer. The new product was faster and better in every way than the existing platform. But when we launched, to great fanfare, we suddenly realized that we had overlooked connections in the legacy system that were vital to the customer’s operations. With a huge amount of egg on our face, we had to roll back the launch and restore the legacy system so our customers could do their work.
To overcome this failure, we worked around the clock for two weeks straight. We handled hundreds of support calls to ensure that each of our users made their deadlines without too much burden or delay. And then, we submitted ourselves to oversight by a client-side project management consultant for the next two years—to ensure that our software development practices were on par with the world-class standards that that enterprise sets for itself and its vendors.
That experience drove home for me, personally, the meaning and importance of humility. The mistake happened on my watch, as I was Pica9’s CEO at that time. It was important that I be personally accountable to our customer for the failure, and that I personally lead the round-the-clock remediation effort. But even though those two weeks were painful, they were also inspiring—as great team efforts always are. And, on a hopeful note, I believe the way we responded to that incident helped to deepen our relationship with that customer—who remains one of our most important accounts today.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
OK, let’s start with the need. Software companies suffer from a lack of detailed knowledge about how their products are actually being used, and when they are being used to greatest positive effect.
So, this business provides software that (a) monitors user activity; (b) identifies the paths that result in the most successful outcomes; (c) automatically builds step-by-step videos of those most-successful paths; and then (d) presents the right help videos to each user based on their level of experience and their objective for that site visit. Codename: HappyPaths.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
After our dog Jedi died, my wife spent $100 in gas to drive three states to the south to pick up a lovely, old dog, (13 years going on 40), who had nowhere else to go, and who has since taken up residence with us here in our home. He is an old, wise soul, who reminds me every day how fortunate we are to have unconditional love in our lives.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I have been having tons of fun these days with a Neil Patel tool called UberSuggest and with the Search Console in Google Analytics. These help me to choose topics for my content marketing work that will supplement what our marketing, sales and social media teams are doing, while also adding (I hope) real value to the audience I’m trying to reach.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
This is a tough one, so I’m just going to mention the book that’s currently on top of the nightstand stack.
It’s called The Conservative Sensibility by George F. Will, and I would recommend it to any progressive-leaning individual (which is how I would describe myself) who wants to have their ideas and attitudes challenged, rather than reinforced.
Will does a wonderful job of connecting the philosophical ideas underneath the Declaration and the Constitution to a coherent and discerning mode of political existence. And he places modern issues in a broader historical context, which helps us (or me, anyway) to see them as they really are.
What is your favorite quote?
“I hate quotations.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, as quoted by my brother in his high school yearbook. Been a favorite of mine ever since.
• Develop content that provides context for advances in your field—remember to serve, not to sell.
• When creating a business, first perceive a need through empathetic analysis. Then, strike fast.
• Read deeply and widely, and not just in your area. Unplug regularly, to let your subconscious work its magic. And exercise religiously.
• Don’t be afraid of the weeds. That just might be where your business grows best.
• Embrace accountability, especially when it hurts. You and your team will be the better for it.