It’s About Connections, Not Contacts.

In America, we cherish the ideal of the rugged individualist. We idolize the kind of person that pulls themselves up by the bootstraps to do all the heavy lifting on their own. In truth, individuals accomplish almost nothing on their own. Everything of value is the product of collaboration. In business, collaboration comes in many forms: internal teams, partner and sales relationships with other companies, multi-company ventures. No matter the type, if you want to create value, you must collaborate.

In this light, nothing is more important than having the right person in the right role. Advances in tech have made remote collaboration easier than ever. That means more opportunities to find and work with the best and the brightest talent. But even with all the collaboration tools for teams – Slack, Zoom, Jira, Hangouts, Dropbox, WebEx – it’s still really hard to maintain connections with people you may want to collaborate with in the future. That’s the idea that gave Convey its start.

I have had the good fortune to start, grow, take public, or sell four companies over the past 33 years.  Each one of these companies formed to address a business pain that the team had observed in the world. It’s a bit different with company #5. This team gathered to work on something that we not only observed in the world but that each person had directly experienced. In fact, it was while selling the fourth company  that I came face-to-face with this pain.

There are many things a CEO needs to oversee while selling a company. Among other things, I had to make sure that shareholders were happy, the business integrated well into the parent company, and that our team had the best footing possible to see the value of the combined companies. Anything personal takes a back seat pretty quickly. It wasn’t until the integration was almost complete when I had a chance to take a look at my contact database.

In the nine years that I was CEO of Veritix®, now AXS, I met over 5,000 people who mattered to me in some way. I know this because that is the number of records I had in my contacts database. As I prepared to turn the reins over to the new parent company, I wanted to let my contacts know how much I valued them, and to give them the information necessary to reach me in the future.

I drafted an email, and as I went to send it to my contacts, I got my first surprise. I thought it would take a click or two to communicate with my entire contact database. Turns out, neither Outlook nor iCloud allowed that function. It took me several hours of searching to put together a plan. Then it took several days of exporting, fighting with Excel, and using specialized tools to prepare everything necessary to send the email. I finally completely the painful process and was happy to click “Send”, confident that each of my 5,000 contacts would instantly have my new contact information.

I should note here that for the bulk of the nine years I was CEO, I had the benefit of an executive administrator to assist me. Either she or I dutifully entered contact information for everyone I encountered in the industry. Sometimes I did it immediately after meeting someone on the road. Other times I would bring back a stack of business cards, or forward an email to my executive assistant. Our painstaking process and my attention to detail made me confident that the records in my database were accurate.

Imagine my surprise as my inbox filled up with the notifications that over 40% of my emails had bounced. I had expected a few emails to bounce. I knew that I would not be aware of everyone’s most-recent information changes. But losing touch with over 2,000 people was shocking, and frankly, embarrassing. So much value we create in the world is through relationships, and I felt that I had somehow squandered those connections. I resolved to do better at maintaining the remaining 3,000 records.

Fast-forward 12 months.  I was assembling the incredible team that is working on Convey. I wanted to let my contacts know that I was starting a new company to begin to recruit some of them.  I had taken great care to maintain my all the records in my contact database, and I was very aware of the effort because, without the benefit of an executive administrator, I had personally entered every update. To tell everyone about the new company, I repeated the process from one year earlier with the 3,000 contact records that I had taken such care to maintain. This time, it was neither shock nor embarrassment, but indignation that I felt as more than 1,000 of those messages bounced.

I am a scientist by training, so I decided to do some research on where the real problem was.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the average life of contact information these days is 18 months.  I knew that we had entered the 21st century and that people changed jobs much more often, but I had clearly underestimated the impact. Companies themselves are changing at a much more frequent pace as well. Each time this happens, the contact information for everyone involved changes. And of course, it’s becoming more common for people to be working for several businesses at once on both short-term and long-term projects. All these factors add up to the fact that contact information expires very quickly – about 30% per year.

Once I started looking for it, it became more and more clear that this was an increasing problem for people. Despite that, I couldn’t find any tools that would easily and effectively allow me to communicate contact changes or update when a valuable connection’s information changed. So we started Convey.

A Paradigm Shift

Once we started thinking about it, we realized how broken the current paradigm is.  Sociologists tell us that a practice must remain unchanged for more than two generations in order for it to become a social ritual. Business cards have remained unchanged for more than 600 years. It’s no surprise that business card exchange has become so ritualized. In fact, in some societies holding a business card wrong when exchanging it or failing to look at it long enough after receiving it is insulting. Something happens when things become habits or rituals: we no longer ask why we do what we do. The critical thinking process goes away and we stop asking if the habit is efficient or effective. We do things because it’s “the way things are done”.

This tendency to accept rather than question is so strong that all of us on the Convey team were blind to a particular absurd contact sharing ritual even after weeks of looking at it. Once you see it, you see how ridiculous it is. In the current paradigm of contact information exchange, right after you meet someone new, you immediately ask them to work on your behalf. What work you ask? Manually recording your contact information. If you really look at the current conversation, it goes like this:

“Hello, it is nice to meet you. I am going to give you a piece of paper with my contact information. I would like you to do something that has more value for ME than it does for you.  I want you to enter this information in your contact database, and whenever I change my information, I would like you to update your records.”

It’s no wonder that 88% of business cards are thrown away within a week, much less entered into a system that makes them usable.

Before the Internet, this paradigm was a practical necessity. But for the last 20 years, we have lived in a connected world.  Why on earth should we ask anyone else to maintain OUR contact information for us?

At Convey we’re working on changing that conversation. Now, when you meet someone new, you can say:

“Hello – let me give you my digital business card.  You’ll have my information anytime you need it, always accurate and up to date, without doing any work!”

Connections, Not Contacts

Even though we were able to look beyond the ritual and see the centuries-old paradigm for what it was, we still had not made the most important mental leap. It was during the third phase of our market validation process that we were able to fully break out of the ritual. As we interviewed business people, we heard again and again that they viewed their contact records as one of their most valuable assets. It did not matter whether they stored them in a contact app, an Excel spreadsheet, or a paper system (yes, even in 2017, we found many people who still maintain their contact records on paper…), entry-level recruits and senior vice presidents alike told us over and over how important their contacts were. These statements reinforced the value of accurate contact information – music to our ears.

However, a few individuals, most of whom were sales people, phrased it a little differently. They said that their relationships were their most valuable assets. Over the last 32 years, I have learned to listen carefully to the words people use (So much that the team at my last company heard me say “Words matter!” so often that they hung a banner with that phrase on it). These sales people were using the word relationships because they were observant enough to realize that it was not, in fact, the contact records that were valuable. Rather, it was the person-to-person connection that the contact record represented which was the real asset.

If real value in the world is relationships, something for which “contacts” are a poor proxy, then the true need is obvious: to help you create, maintain, and get / give value to, your connections.  And that was the final piece of the puzzle for Convey – it’s about connections, not contacts.  That is what the Convey team has been working on – a set of easy-to-use tools to allow you make, and never lose touch with, valuable connections.

By the way, focusing on connections does not mean that we can ignore contact information. You must be able to reach someone to maintain a relationship. That’s why the first set of services do focus on contact information. We designed the Convey iOS app and the Convey cloud service to allow you to:

  • easily create and maintain digital business cards
  • easily share your card with anyone, even if they don’t have Convey
  • easily create live connections with other Convey users
  • instantly update contact information for any of your live connections when they change it

If you use Convey today to create a live connection with someone, you will never lose touch. If their title changes, or their email changes, or they get a new mobile phone number, you will have it instantaneously. If they add a new social handle or change their office location, you will always be up-to-date. You’ll always have the comfort of knowing that your contacts can always reach you. We did this to bring contact information into the 21st century. We’re introducing the new paradigm where each person can create and maintain their own digital personas and grant anyone access to them. Right now, we are hard at work on more tools that will connect with the places where you use your contact information like contacts apps, sales automation systems, marketing information systems, and CRM’s that you use so your information is up-to-date across platforms.

Of course, changing the contact information paradigm is necessary, but it isn’t enough. As we learned in conversations with over 400 business people, it’s all about the connections, not the contact information. Our true purpose is to allow you to create and maintain valuable relationships. We’re hard at work on tools that will help you create and maintain relationships, and deliver value to those connections.

We want to transform the way you connect and stay connected with people in the 21st-century. Transformational teams come from transformational cultures. Convey’s founding team defined a culture that values egolessness, integrity, continuous learning, continuous innovation, a bias toward action, and a desire to do purposeful work in the world. Then, we assembled an incredible team of experienced innovators aligned with that culture. It is that team that is working on Convey today. We hope you will take the journey with us.  As we continue to release new Convey services, we will look forward to your feedback to guide us in delivering the greatest value with the best user experience possible.

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Author Sam Gerace

Chief Executive Officer Sam works to build the growth stage ecosystem in Northeast Ohio through entrepreneurial mentoring programs at Jumpstart, Inc., Flash Starts, and in the Entrepreneurial Studies program at Hawken School; through ad hoc mentoring; and by serving on the board of the Ohio Venture Association.

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