Business COVID-19 Entrepreneur of the Week Technology

Adam Froman, CEO of Delvinia, on Leading a Business During a Crisis

Scale-ups

For Adam Froman, CEO of Delvinia, a research technology company, it all came down to playing chess while the rest played checkers. After 20 years and three major world crises, Froman is now leading his company through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting and maintaining a business of small or large scale is difficult for any individual who believed in their ideas enough to give it a shot. Amongst the many things business owners consider as ‘what if’ scenarios, the worst are the ones you cannot control. Simplifying data analysis to give business owners a direct line of communication to their consumers, Delvinia, is a technological giant managing consumer data at scale for large companies like RBC and Wendy’s. Since the Coronavirus outbreak, Delvinia has been helping companies reach consumers and provide solutions from isolation.

“Essentially we are a company that utilizes digital technologies to help organizations bring the consumers closer to them and faster in terms of getting their feedback, and ultimately helping them make better decisions. We own AskingCanadians, which is the largest online research panel in Canada. So essentially we have access to a million Canadians, who have already given us permission to reach out to them to share their opinions. And it’s not just surveys. There are also different tools and technologies that are available to be able to engage or track either attitudes or behaviours,” says Froman.

As a company, Delvinia is in constant search of innovative software that can change the way owners manage business. Recent ventures like their automated customer research platform, Methodify, deliver customer insight to businesses in a few short hours, allowing them to make the right business decision efficiently and effectively for a fraction of what market research typically costs. 

Now, business owners cope with the unthinkable: consumers are staying indoors, and the majority of small and non-essential businesses have shut down in an effort to practise social distancing. Many businesses have been asking, “what now?” How can a company reach customers in isolation? In addition to all of that, companies have been faced with the enormous task of re-configuring their office structure to operate remotely. 

Bay Street Bull spoke with Froman to discuss what it takes to run a business through crisis, and how to be a leader when your team needs it most.

Q & A

Chess over Checkers

What experiences in your career have given you insight in managing crisis control in business? 

I lived through the dot-com crash where my business dropped 95 percent. We started our business in 1998 and you could not, not make money in digital during the dot-com boom. Before the dot-com crash, companies were just throwing money at building websites. So, our business grew but we didn’t really understand how to run the business. The pivotal moment was probably my first time (in special loans) because I developed a cash flow model that I still use to today… We were much smaller then, we had dropped from 50 people to 12, and this model got us through the crisis and we got ourselves out of special loans. Then when the 2008 crisis happened, I used the same model again. I updated it and it got us through that time. Another moment was when we looked over the edge and said, we have 30 days of payroll left and we want to do this. I mortgaged my house to be able to keep the company going.

This [COVID-19 pandemic] is everything together and more. And because of these crises in the past, I was able to kick into crisis management mode because we were prepared… I was able to keep what has been a very, very scary time with my staff, keep them inspired and particularly calm. I’m really appreciative of what they can do. The next thing that I’m doing now is getting involved with a bunch of organizations on how we help those that are less fortunate.

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Staying Prepared for the Unknown

These are undoubtedly peculiar times and a lot is changing rapidly, especially for business in regards to policies and practices. What have you been implementing at Delvinia that would be helpful for all businesses as they adjust to these changes?

I think that the first thing is when we’re going through a crisis like this and when the fundamental revenue source of a company stops, that’s a very difficult thing to manage, especially if you’re in manufacturing or you’re a restaurant that has been mandated to shutdown. It’s very hard to navigate that. 

For Delvinia, because of our ISO certification, which requires us to have very detailed processes and protocols around protecting data, it goes one step further around business continuity. A lot of companies think about business continuity but they don’t actually have a developed plan that they test and they monitor on a regular basis in the event that something like this occurs. We’ve been constantly testing people working from home. All our systems have been set up and probably 90 percent of our systems are in the cloud. If you send everybody home and they’re connecting to the internet at the office or connecting to your network, will the network be able to support it when people are on it? For everybody that is home, is their remote set up done so in a way that they’ll be able work efficiently?

As things continue how might we see the workplace and working culture begin to change in the future? Are there trends that we can predict?

I think it’s going to change dramatically. It’s not just [changing for] the companies, but the employees. As an employer, the fact that everyone is isolated… that is really sort of where we’re getting to see the most challenging scenario. Right now, finding a balance of how working from home fits into an organization, I think that’s going to be one of the big highlights. There’s a huge responsibility on management to understand the work from home environment and how you keep people connected. Part of our executive meetings at the end of each day is we have metrics in place to manage productivity. We go through these metrics every day and we have not lost any productivity, which is incredible. I think coming out of this is a positive confidence that a work from a home strategy doesn’t necessarily have any negative implications socially or productively for the business.

What are three takeaways that you think would be good for a company to implement now to optimize productivity and preparedness in the event that something like this happens again? 

The first would be to understand how much of the tools and technologies that they use to run their business can be in the cloud, because most of our tools and technologies are there. So, whether a staff member is working from home or not, the only issue that would come up is people who have desktop machines versus laptop machines, which is the whole idea of technology being seamless. 

The second one is, you really need to set up mechanisms for effective communication. If you’re small (business) and you don’t have an HR department, then the weight goes onto the shoulders of the business owner. You also have to clearly communicate the expectations of staff.

The third one is, whatever you do, you should be testing [policy] on a company-wide basis. If you set everything up and send everybody home for an afternoon and test the impact of how a work from home situation would work, it allows you to be prepared. By being prepared, it removes the anxiety both for the business owners and the executives. It also removes the anxiety for the staff so that now, you know what you’re doing. It’s basically doing a fire drill and going into the right spot. For us, the Coronavirus crisis is very much a fire drill because we’re very privileged that our business is continuing. We’re not losing business, we’re seeing our business grow.

Delvinia, company wide Zoom conference call. Photo Courtesy of Adam Froman

Technology to Reach Every Customer

How do you feel like implementing research technology could be beneficial for smaller businesses? 

There’s been no better time for small and medium businesses to be able to effectively leverage technology to gain insight about the consumers. The challenge for a lot of smaller businesses is they didn’t do research in the past. And then they struggle with the return on investment. What research technology enables is that it allows them to be able to gather research.

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Many smaller companies aren’t sophisticated in how to properly develop research methods. With tools like Methodify, we automated research methods allowing them to have very robust [resources] that can give them very fast results at a much lower cost. That delivers the insight in the report unlike any time before. There isn’t a company out there that shouldn’t understand the attitudes and the behaviours of their customers. [Methodify] makes it much more accessible for companies, who otherwise may not have been able to in the past, to afford it.

How can research technology positively change the way a business is managed?

Let me paint you a picture that hopefully describes that. Imagine you’re in a company and you’re deciding how you may want to adjust and adapt your product, and you’re saying, “Hey, we want to change our packaging, or we want to actually develop a new product, or we want to test the campaign,” and there’s a team sitting in a boardroom discussing this. Now, imagine that while you’re developing it, you can go and ask the question to your exact customers or prospective customers, and within 24 hours you get the feedback you need.