Agile Businesses: Steven Lin Of Semarchy On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies
If you don’t plan, you’ll never get to the next step of your dream. Be good at both. Ask yourself, “What are the immediate next steps?”
If you don’t plan, you’ll never get to the next step of your dream. Be good at both. Ask yourself, “What are the immediate next steps?”
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Lin.
Steven Lin is the product marketing manager at Semarchy, responsible for executing the go-to-market strategy for the awarding-winning data company. Prior to joining Semarchy, Steven was a Technology Strategy consultant at Ernst & Young advising large-scale data initiatives for global & national firms. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Marketing & Technology Management as well as a Masters of Science in Information Systems from Indiana University — Kelley School of Business.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always been interested in business. I grew up working at a restaurant with my parents, which has always been a part of my life. When I went to college, I decided to pursue marketing because it is one of the most general business degrees you can earn. I realized that I liked it and was good at it, so I ended up staying with it in college. Later, I realized I wanted to pursue technology-intensive fields, so I pursued a master’s degree in Information Systems.
After college, I ended up working at EY as a technology transformation consultant. During the latter half of my studies, I was super focused on the technology and strategy sides. Now at Semarchy, I have been able to marry these worlds with my passion for marketing more tightly. That’s how I ended up here as the product marketing manager.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Probably my funniest mistake was not setting proper standards for myself. Without getting into all the details, I’ll say it like this: When you begin your career, you think everyone else has it all figured out, and you’re playing catch-up. And so you put everyone else on a pedestal. This can put you in a tight spot where instead of asking questions and figuring things out, you allow yourself to stay stuck in a cycle of self-doubt.
The key takeaway is to go into your career confidently, regardless of your rank, title, or the people you work with. You were hired based on what you offer — for many, at the beginning of their careers, you are hired because you are fresh, young, and have a brand new set of eyes to look at the industry. You offer a different perspective, and I think that is the key lesson to take away here.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In eighth grade, my class took a tour of the focus areas we could choose in high school. The only two options available were biology and engineering because we grew up in such a small town. It was a given that if you were a boy, you took the engineering track, and if you were a girl, you took the biology track.
I actually wanted to become a doctor for the longest time, so I started taking the biology route, but I got lost on my way to that class and ended up in the basement. There was literally a light at the end of the hallway that happened to be the engineering room. Walking in and watching the teacher talk to his students about 3D printing changed everything for me. If I had not “gotten lost,” I may never have thought about pursuing technology, STEM, and ultimately, business. I am so grateful for that chance encounter with the engineering teacher who ultimately helped me develop my problem-solving and technical skills.
Honestly, every step of the way throughout college and my professional career, I had great mentors. I can’t thank all of them enough.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
One of the things that drew me to consulting was my passion for problem-solving. The prior consulting firm I worked for had a motto to the effect of “Asking questions and building a better world.” This was an inspiring statement for a fresh graduate because it points to the future. Later, what drew me to Semarchy was its creative page, which talked about embracing humor and humanity. At the end of the day, all of the problems we solve involve people. This is why I think it is such a powerful message.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We’re a master data management company. In a nutshell, we bring data together to make it easier for people to use. For example, many companies have data in 15 or 20 different systems, and they don’t know what is “the truth.” Semarchy makes sure that data all goes to one place where meaning can be made out of chaos.
Ultimately, data is very powerful, but what makes it that way is when people have access to it. Semarchy enables more people to derive power from data by making it easier for the people that have access to it. Data is powerful, but everyone wants to keep it to themselves. We help simplify data by making it more accessible, allowing companies to create more value out of their information.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
There are a lot of disruptive technologies, such as AI and machine learning technologies. I would say that the biggest disrupter to technological innovation in our space is new language and words that are not yet standard. New buzzwords, like data fabric, data mesh, data AI, etc. can be confusing. No one has a cohesive understanding of their meaning. The ever-evolving language throws people off because they are unsure of your company’s solutions.
We need to extract some of this noise and say what we are trying to solve. Technology is hugely disruptive, but how people bring up new buzzwords disrupts our industry in a negative sense. We must ask ourselves what actual value we bring with our technology and what kind of education we need to provide our audience.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
The main pivot we have to make as a company is internally aligning our language and messaging. So we are beginning by internally aligning at Semarchy to determine what we mean when we talk about “data integration” or “data management,” for example. Companies need to focus on who they are, what they do, and determine common language when discussing specific topics.
If we can have a united front in our messaging and internally, we can better approach our prospects. For example, whenever a new buzzword appears, we can take it and see if it applies to us. Or, if new terms are accepted within the industry, we can pivot and shift our language as necessary. Operations are much more manageable when companies are aligned internally — and alignment begins with having a common language.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
Whenever you are hired into a new role, you come in with a big vision and grand objective of what you want to do. I’ve been with enough clients to realize that 90% of the time, their issues involve communication and people. That was my “aha moment.” So, I began asking questions about who we focus on as our audience, our value, and how we win in the market. Are we not communicating how we’re winning throughout the funnel? Where’s the friction there?
I’m coming in to facilitate and distill these conversations, which are going well. Now, we have a much better understanding of where we are winning. In addition, we have been seeing more success targeting specific personas after our pivot to improve our messaging. This internal communication exercise has proven to work so far in my career.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Yeah, so it’s going well. We have worked together to analyze thousands of customer comments about what they like and don’t like about us. After that, we pare it back with what our internal team says about where we are succeeding and where we are failing. We toss all of this on a dashboard. We’re humans, and we love to see things tangibly, right? So when some kind of number is attached, things make sense because there is less friction. Data is clear. If you can show something simply on one slide or on a dashboard, you have already won. The rest of it is explaining how you got there.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
Probably the most interesting thing that happened after pivoting our sales/marketing team to leverage this insight dashboard is how much more aligned and communicative we’ve become as a whole. We’re now less in the dark about our customers and competitors and more data-driven in terms of making decisions. A lot of companies don’t drink their own Kool-Aid so to speak — meaning they don’t follow what they preach. If you don’t evangelize your own products, services, and approach, how can you expect your customers to trust that you can actually solve their problems?
On a more personal level — I found it interesting that I left consulting just to be put into a more consulting role. It’s quite amazing the fundamental shift a company can have by simply having all their data in one place and a few pretty visuals or charts. Once this happens, you spend a lot less time digging up the past to understand and more time looking into the future to what’s possible.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
The role of the leader is to dream, guide, and plan. Of course, a good leader does all three, but a great leader understands the grand vision. It’s really easy to dream, but it’s challenging to plan the immediate next steps for an organization. The most important role for a leader in a disruptive period is to stay firm in those three roles. If you can’t do all of them, you will be the one disrupted and not the one disrupting.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Dream, guide, and plan. I think that’s the most important role of a leader to keep their team engaged during disruptive periods or times of uncertainty. It’s all about understanding the issues at hand, dreaming up the best-case scenario, and offering realistic solutions to get those employees motivated.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
It boils down to communication. I see companies spend millions of dollars bringing in consultants just because they don’t know how to initiate a conversation between two important entities. During these turbulent times, everyone has thoughts on what can be done better, why they need more resources, and why everyone else is wrong. This is just human nature.
The less you communicate these issues in some capacity, the longer you will draw it out, and the more extreme things will get. You can quickly fix these problems and stay on track when you communicate. When you don’t, you end up putting a band-aid on a wound that will probably never close until someone says, “Hey, let’s spend a good hour understanding and communicating, and let’s see where we can go from here.”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is when a disruptive technology is put on the market, companies will immediately purchase it without understanding why they need to. In some cases, companies don’t actually end up using these products. And then people ask themselves, “Why did I buy this again?” Don’t hitch your company to that wagon without knowing what you are hitching yourself to.
Another mistake goes back to communication. It occurs when one party decides that it is their way or the highway, dragging everyone else along. Difficulties arise when everyone is pulling their feet to move forward.
Lastly, I would say a big mistake is not being proactive enough. While some people can anticipate too fast, others may not anticipate enough. When we anticipate too early, we fail because we fail to grasp the larger perspective that comes with time. When we anticipate too late, we fail because we are playing catch-up. So be safe and pragmatic in what you do and have a good sense of what is out there. Being aware and understanding timing and when to act is key to making sure you can be the disruptor and not the disrupted.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
A business leader should:
- Communicate: If you can start a good cadence of communication with your team, you’ll be in a much better spot than 90% of your competitors.
- Dream Big: If you don’t dream, you’ll never reach your potential.
- Plan: If you don’t plan, you’ll never get to the next step of your dream. Be good at both. Ask yourself, “What are the immediate next steps?”
- Anticipate and Participate: Find the sweet spot for anticipating change. Don’t participate too early, but don’t anticipate too late. We’ve seen a lot of companies like Facebook do this. They’re not the first social media platform, and they probably won’t be the last, but they didn’t participate at the very beginning because everyone else had to work out the bugs first. Someone eventually has to be the pioneer and work out the bugs, but it brings me to my point — when something new and shiny comes, don’t just hitch your wagon there, but also don’t disregard it. If you blink, you might miss it, and your whole company might have missed the train.
- Be Human: Behind every disruption or wave of innovation is a human (or many humans) making it happen. If you only look at technologies without appreciating that people drive adoption or rejection — then you’re doomed to fail. Technologies don’t have KPIs, metrics or goals — humans do. Appreciate this and help educate people who buy and use your technology to solve their problems or make their lives easier.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think this is a Greek quote: “A society or civilization becomes great when the men who plant the trees don’t get to sit in their shade.” I may have butchered it a bit, but its meaning goes to that principle of dreaming. In business, you should be able to accomplish the dreams that you have set out to do. If you only want to build something for the short term and not for something you can’t see, you probably won’t create something that’ll make a lasting impact.