Day Two, Empower MSP Scottsdale, General Session—Robert Stephens, Founder of the Geek Squad, Co-founder of Assist and former CTO of Best Buy. Empower MSP Scottsdale took place at JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, on September 18 and 19, 2018.
“I'm happy to be among my people. We can talk frankly now that the doors are closed,” said Stephens as he opened his keynote presentation. “I'm going to talk about the future today, but I want to give a disclaimer—I'm a futurist.”
After a brief introduction to the history of Geek Squad, Stephens presented three things he believes are essential to predicting the future.
“You need to have a sense of humor,” he said. “My favorite Twitter account is the Internet of S***, and there was a great tweet last night about a guy who’d got a Nest camera with facial recognition, but it wouldn't unlock his door when he walked up to it, because he was wearing a Batman T-shirt and it didn’t recognize Batman’s face. There's a lot of stupid stuff coming out these days and we’re the guys that have to deal with it.”
Secondly, he said you need a healthy sense of skepticism. “Every industry has its dominant players, but this doesn't mean us little peons can't find a corner of the market to differentiate,” he explained. “No company's too big to disrupt—whether that’s Amazon or Microsoft. Skepticism is one of the ways you predict the future. We, as geeks, tend to be guilty of doing linear predictions. So when Skype first came around ‘99, they were saying there's not going to be conferences anymore now. We’ll all just dial in remotely, yet here you all are in 105-degree heat.”
He then pointed out that companies like Facebook and YouTube still employ tens of thousands of people to police videos before you see them. “What does this tell us about the future?” he asks. “It tells us the future is messy. It's not perfect.”
Finally, he said, you need a sense of curiosity. “You can't ever lose your wonder for this stuff. As the MSP industry changes, as cloud changes, as retail changes, as small business changes. You're constantly having to figure out what are you going to do next and how you're going to differentiate. I love studying things like that.”
Stephens went on to give some insight into some of the things he believes helped him build Geek Squad. “The best thing that ever happened to me when I started was that I had no money. Money's great if you know what you want or you know how to spend it. But sometimes when you're creating a new product or a new idea, you need to start from the basics. If you're experimenting with too much money, sometimes that can cloud your view,” he explained. “Normally, you're supposed to pay someone to design your logo and do your advertising. But when you have no money for advertising, everything you do is advertising. When I started with a bicycle and one of the first cell phones, I was my own fleet management, I was my own call center. I did everything.”
Stephens also said one of his biggest inspirations was Batman. “He is another beacon of our industry,” he explained. “He makes house calls, wears a uniform, he's on call 24/7. He's branded.”
This, he said, ties back into needing a sense of humor. “I kept hearing people say, ‘I'm sorry’, ‘I'm so stupid’. I was like ‘please don't be impressed by my knowledge. I only learned this by staying home 1,000 Saturday nights. You have a life. Live it’. A sense of humor is a subtle way of projecting confidence.”
This was also reflected in the choice of vehicle he used when starting out with Geek Squad—a green 1958 Simca Aronde 1300 Elysee. “It's a 1300 CC engine,” he explained. “That’s only slightly more powerful than your rider lawnmower and tops out at 57 miles per hour.” Stephens discovered this could work to his advantage.
“Highway 94 runs 10 miles between Minneapolis and St Paul. So I'd often be doing house calls between small businesses in Minneapolis, St Paul,” he explained. “What I learned is that we pass each other on the freeway all the time. If you’re only travelling at 57 MPH, you get passed by 10 times the number of cars. The phone started ringing more. The point is, I don't care how big you get, you're always going to have to be finding ways to punch through the customer's attention. So, slow it down, learn to stand out—if you can't go faster than everybody, then go slower than everybody.”
The other lesson Stephens wanted people to come away with is that they have two brands—the brand the public sees and the brand your future employees might see. “If you're really lucky and efficient, these are the same,” he added. “Those Geekmobiles, those uniforms, they're not for the public; they’re really to attract a certain kind of person.”
Another key message Stephens raised was not to forget people. “What's the future for the MSP industry? Probably not unlike retail. What parts of your job will be here in 10 years? I don't know,” he said. “But if we've learned anything over the past 20, 30 years of technology, it's that people won’t go away. For example, Amazon's not going to kill retail. They're just going to kill mediocre retail. Uber tried to run a business with no people involved and that didn't really work out well for them—it ended up being about people and culture.”
Referring back to a need for skepticism, he also made another important point. “One mistake I made as a leader was to focus on what the future was going to be,” he explained. “I'm like, this is going to happen and you're going to be roadkill if you ignore it. While that may all eventually become true, things last a lot longer. I thought Microsoft would struggle a lot more by now, but Azure is doing well. Why? Because I thought Google would do even better than them, but Google makes so much money, and they live so comfortably. There's not one Google, there's hundreds of Google's little fiefdoms in there, and Google is a bit of an unreliable lover when it comes to cloud computing. Something else to remember is that the market wants choice.”
Highlighting another lesson, Stephens added: “A mistake I made at Best Buy is saying this is going to happen, therefore you need to change everything. Again, I may have been right, but what I didn't do was spend time learning the individual retail leader’s stories, I didn't spend enough time listening to them. And so I remember the president of Best Buy once said to me, ‘Robert, I could listen to you all day, but I don't know what to do with what you're telling me.’”
This, he concluded, was probably a central challenge for MSPs. “It's not enough to know the technical future, we have to be able to translate it to our customers. We have to listen to them because it may not be right. They might need additional choices. It doesn't mean you have to abandon the fact of what is going to be. If I went back in time, I would spend a lot more time with other business leaders trying to help them solve their problem,” he concluded. “But I guess there's two ways to change the world. You can picket outside the White House or you can take a job inside the White House. Both are equally good paths, but just something to think about.”
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