First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Blake Clark: Overall we’re doing great. I have five children, and I’ve been surprised by how much better I’ve gotten to know my family by being together all the time.
Still, I know there are a lot of people who are really struggling, and I recognize that I’m in a privileged position. I’m so thankful for the healthcare and frontline workers and am really feeling for the small businesses we serve every day.
With so much uncertainty, everyone’s had to get really comfortable with not having answers—my family included. We’ve just been living day by day.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Software Advice
Blake Clark: I’ve always approached my career with a compass rather than a map, and that’s served me well. By that I mean, I’ve always had a general direction in mind, but never really managed my career by thinking about an endpoint or a specific role I wanted to have.
Until this position, I worked in eCommerce and retail as a product manager because I’ve always liked solving business problems with an entrepreneurial mindset. When I heard about the opportunity with Software Advice and Gartner, I wasn’t sure it would be part of my professional journey. It seemed like it’d mostly be a B2B role, and my experience up until that point had been B2C.
But when I looked at the opportunity, I found a couple of things. One was the incredibly passionate, smart team already built. Second, I wanted to stay in technology, help people and be closer to the businesses driving transformation in all sorts of industries, and Software Advice is all about that. We talk to real people and have real conversations about their needs to help them change and grow. So even though it is a B2B role, my eCommerce and tech experience applies really well to this business.
When given the opportunity, I took it, and it’s been amazing. I love that I can come in every day to help small businesses.
What are some big lessons that you learned professionally and personally due to the pandemic?
Blake Clark: I am, by nature, a people person and I get a ton of energy being around other people. Given a choice, I will always be in an office. So one of the main lessons I’ve learned professionally is that if I’m not very intentional about things, I will feel a sense of disengagement. The serendipitous moments you would have in an office are missing unless you are conscious about making time for them.
On the personal side, I’ve loved being in close physical proximity with my family and kids. It’s been great being able to have lunch with my three-year-old when before I would have been in the office. But it also means the lines between work and home are completely blurred.
When I’m in the office, the lines between professional and personal are automatically there, so when working remotely, I’m having to deliberately and intentionally draw those lines. There has to be a hard cut, and it’s a hard balance to strike.
Honestly, one of the most surprising lessons is that we’ve had to get very comfortable with ambiguity. Coming to terms with not knowing where things are going has been difficult. There are very big things in life that I have no control over, and I’ve had to get more comfortable with that. It’s made me appreciate being more present and in the now.
What strategies have you implemented to keep your employees motivated during this time?
Blake Clark: When this first started, our mindset was that it would be short-lived, so we were trying to focus on continuity. However, it quickly became apparent this would have a long-lasting impact, so we shifted our mindset to think about how we can successfully work remotely—instead of just viewing it as a stopgap.
A lot of our staff is on phones with small business owners helping them find business solutions, so we’ve thought a lot about how we do recognition. Our software advisor role can be a grind since you’re on call after call helping customers, so camaraderie and support are a huge part of being in the office. When you’re working from home, you are simply left with the grind. That’s why we’ve been trying to be more intentional about calling out small wins across Slack channels and during weekly video calls.
We also wanted to make online communication a little less formal. It’s about tone setting: if I set a tone that shows that it’s okay to unwind and be less formal in these online spaces, then, hopefully, it shows that it’s not all about dollars and cents.
That’s why I started a little internal video interview series called The Hot Seat. I pick someone in the organization and have a fun conversation with them for 10 minutes on the video. I intentionally pick people who aren’t in prominent, highly visible leadership roles to try and give them a platform and a voice. We also intentionally avoid talking about business; for instance, I’ll do something silly like a quiz on pop culture.
The aim is to make a connection. The series has been received well, which is good because I love doing it—the interviews are a blast.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing SMBs during this time, and how is Software Advice helping them to navigate change and adapt?
Blake Clark: It’s safe to say the biggest challenge is the unprecedented business disruption to small businesses. Every aspect of the small business landscape has been upended.
First, there’s an enormous impact on any business that depends on face-to-face interaction with customers, which has either been halted completely or at least dramatically decreased.
Second, changes like this greatly accelerate large structural changes to the economy. Business owners who used to have a largely offline business now have to contend with going online—maybe for the first time.
Software Advice is built around the human connection. Imagine someone who runs a restaurant looking for online ordering software for the first time. On top of trying to find software, she’s managing 100 other things with her restaurant, and, at the end of the day, it’s about serving food and providing a great experience. It’s not about just buying software.
Our service aims to help her find a software solution in 10 to 15 minutes so that she can avoid an aimless software search and have confidence in her purchase. We’re going to give her some personalized recommendations that fit her budget and business needs and save her a ton of time so she can get back to running the restaurant. If we do our job well, small businesses will be able to go digital quickly and—hopefully—painlessly.
But, of course, retail and restaurant owners aren’t the only ones impacted by this. We’ve seen an unsurprisingly big uptick in medical practices seeking advice about telemedicine solutions. It went from a small but growing niche to us, seeing an increase of 1,212% in traffic to our telemedicine market page.
Likewise, we’ve been talking to tons of school administrators who are trying to figure out distance learning solutions. We’ve seen a traffic increase of over 700% for those categories as well.
Luckily, our advisors know these markets backwards and forward so they can help anyone who calls us looking for advice.
How have you seen small businesses leverage technology to maintain and even grow their business during the pandemic?
Blake Clark: There’s a successful, well-loved, family-run butcher shop in Austin that’s been around for decades. Obviously, in Texas, we love our beef. Like many businesses, almost overnight, they got completely upended, especially since they didn’t have much of an online presence at all. They had never done much in the way of offering online ordering or delivery, but they adapted quickly. They gave us a call looking for a path forward and quickly embraced what it took to get online and take orders digitally; as a result, they have been successful during this upheaval. I’m really glad we were able to play a small part in their journey.
What I love about this is that it proves that you don’t have to be a digital leader or technological wizard to make a digital transformation. If you’re willing to move and learn quickly, you can make a lot of changes to your business that don’t just keep you afloat but attract new customers and open up new sales opportunities.
Any advice you have for small businesses and startups that are trying to stay connected to their customers?
Blake Clark: It’s never too late. We’re four or five months into a new age at this point, so if you’re seeing a decline in business and haven’t changed something, what have you got to lose? Take a risk and do something different. Go in with a test-and-learn mentality, especially if you’re a small business.
It’s important to remember that your clients and customers want to help you. Don’t feel like you have to struggle and endure alone. If you’re a beloved business, your customers will want to see you succeed and thrive. They’re likely waiting to hear how their favorite businesses are doing things nowadays and will jump at the opportunity to give you business.
Small businesses are the backbone of the economy. I don’t want small businesses to thrive just because my day job is to help them. They are what makes our community unique and special, and I want my kids and family to see and experience the small businesses I love.
If you feel like you’re alone, try to connect with your community and don’t be afraid. At Software Advice, we take our service really seriously. Small businesses are taking a big risk moving digitally, so I want to make sure we’re doing our part.
Go for it with confidence—but don’t be afraid to reach out.
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