EPISODE 005 : 03/26/2021

Skip Newberry: The Technology Association of Oregon’s Mission and Social Impact

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Skip has headed up TAO for nearly 10 years. In this interview, Skip explains how his team works with local entrepreneurs, investors and policy makers to help startups play the “long game” of social change to create an inclusive world-class innovation economy. Clear-eyed insights on point of sale systems, diversity in tech, BLM, how Covid has changed tech work globally, and the opportunities for startups and small retailers in a post-Covid world.

Host: Ned Hayes and Karen Jensen
Guest: Skip Newberry

Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
  • Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
  • Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
  • Opportunities for small business loyalty programs

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:06] Welcome to SparkPlug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe making mobile locations smarte. Today, Karen Jensen and I talk to Skip Newberry, President and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon. Skip talks about his experience working for a retail startup, the importance of diversity and inclusion in tech, and how retailers and startups can meet the challenges of the future. 

Karen Jensen [00:00:36] Welcome to SparkPlug. We’re excited to have you here.

Skip Newberry [00:00:40] Thanks for having me.

Karen Jensen [00:00:41] Yeah. To start with, could you give us a thumbnail biography? What is Skip Newberry all about? 

Skip Newberry [00:00:48] Sure, I’d be glad to. So currently, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon, we’re doing this for about nine years. And TIO is a regional tech trade association that strives to help position in Oregon and southwest. Washington is inclusive, innovation based economy driven by tech. Early in my career, I started out as a corporate IP attorney. And then after that got involved in a number of different startups. Over the years, it reached a point where I felt like I could have more impact and influence working in economic development on behalf of the tech sector. Kind of at a systems level and had an opportunity with City of Portland, where I’d been living at that point for several years. That was during the 08-11 recession and had a chance to participate in getting the Portland Seed Fund launched and developing the city’s economic development strategy as it relates to tech and doing a whole bunch of fun stuff around digital transformation of the city around open data and e-government solutions. And that was right before I got asked to help with a transformation of a nonprofit which became TIO in the rest is history. 

Ned Hayes [00:02:06] Got it! In terms of TIO, the mission seems to have kind of evolved, the organization has changed. What’s what’s the mission in a nutshell today? Where do you see the group going in 10, 20 years? What’s the long term vision? 

Skip Newberry [00:02:21] Yeah, that’s a good question. So like if I were to state succinctly our core purpose, it’s really about driving technology enablement to create inclusive world class innovation economy here in Oregon and southwest Washington. And if I think about like this concept of like a hedgehog, right? So the idea of having like a Venn diagram of three intersecting circles where one is what you’re passionate about, the other one’s the economic denominator. Essentially, what what is the business model that’s going to make this successful? And then the third is kind of what what is arguably going to be the space in which it can become best in the world. You know, our passion is really about helping to create inclusive innovation. Economy is our economic denominator that we measure is revenue per member company and then our best in the world opportunity is really around serving as a catalyst and a hub, helping develop innovative programs, connecting members to resources that really just help accelerate their digital transformation and innovation. And if I think about, like, where the organization is going to be in, say, the next three years because I think the larger vision of world class inclusive innovation economy is is great, that’s potentially decades out in the future. But if I bring it home to like, what’s realistic in the next several years, three years there we’re trying to really position to TIO is sort of a hub in Oregon and southwest Washington within the innovation ecosystem, specifically as it relates to the equitable development of things like talent, economic opportunity and policies. And so if you think about all of our our programs, our events are networking opportunities, our advocacy work. So a lot of the storytelling and research we do with the tech community, a lot of it really centers around things like how do we improve the quality and accessibility of talent to the tech sector? That includes retention, recruitment, culture, etc. We have a lot around diversity, equity, inclusion that we’re doing right now and then also thinking about how are we creating opportunities for people who want to start businesses and create wealth and also for folks who want to pursue tech careers, which are relatively high wage? So that’s really about the economic opportunity piece. And then finally, companies are only as successful as their environments. And so that’s where policy comes in. If we can help make the the overall ecosystem conducive to people, starting companies, growing them, scaling them, then we’re doing our jobs.

Karen Jensen [00:05:02] Accelerating digital transformation and innovation, that sounds pretty fantastic. Can you give us a recent example? Tell us a story about one of your member companies? 

Ned Hayes [00:05:12] Certainly, there was a company, RFPIO, which not surprisingly has a software solution that helps make it easier for companies that do a lot of responses to our teams to do so more efficiently and effectively across their teams. And I started out working with them when RFPIO was essentially pre-revenue concept. So Ganesh, it was one of the co-founders and the CEO, you know, got together. I think I recall at Starbucks in the Pearl District and he was like, Hey, here’s here’s what I’m working on, here’s what I have in the way of some short term priorities, we need to raise some money. So introductions to potential investors would be helpful. We need some visibility as a company because we’re going to start to hire some folks and we want to try and develop some early reference customers. And those are pretty common requests we get from early stage startups in particular. And so after that meeting introduced in Ganesh to some area tech companies that I know were frequently responding to RFPS and there’s definitely an, you know, a sort of an unwritten, if you will sort of rule or whatever within TIO, where a lot of our members are often looking to kind of lift all boats locally and they’re willing to help one another out. And so not surprisingly, a lot of the member companies I introduced Ganesh to, we’re more than willing to take a look at their software solution and test it out with their teams as they’re applying for RFPs and provide feedback, which is great. So it’s kind of like a living laboratory of sorts for early products. And then also made some introductions to potential investors. The thing that really helped was I occasionally will write for the Business Journal, just profiling different companies and trends that we’re seeing locally in tech. It’s I wrote an article about RFPIO. And it turns out my board chair at the time, who was also an investor as well as a co-founder of a successful software startup locally reached out and was like, Hey, tell me more about this RFPIO company. And I did introduced Ganesh, and he became one of the early investors brought on a whole bunch more. And now that company, fast forward a few years and their employee base has grown considerably, ya know they’re approaching I think a hundred employees like, you know, tens of thousands of customers globally, and they’re kind of off to the races, having raised successive rounds of financing and built up essentially a very profitable business. So that’s a great kind of success story. I think that captures some of what we do for early stage companies. And, you know, we work with a lot of larger established non tech companies to increasingly and this is something that most people don’t realize. I think about organization is that increasingly every company is trying to be a tech company like we work with Nike and Banfield and the major hospital systems and even local and state government agencies. And many of them are grappling with how do they use technology to be more resilient? How do they hire tech teams and keep them motivated and build technology internally at times? And so increasingly, these organizations are trying to learn from peer tech companies and check out what best practices are are being used and who’s doing what locally. And so as an organization that helps provide those connections across traditional silos, that’s been part of what we do too. And that really comes into the digital transformation side of things to the extent we can use technology to help make existing businesses more resilient and even disruptive themselves. That’s great, because then it helps to make our overall economy that much more resilient and successful in the long run as we’re thinking about, like, how do we retain jobs and grow new ones? And one big sort of area of focus for a lot of policymakers all around us and globally right now is technology typically involves a lot of creative destruction and dynamism with it. And so in embracing an innovation economy, you’re also embracing a lot of that creative destruction and change. And so thinking about from a ecosystem standpoint, what role does government and academic institutions have in providing sort of the appropriate supports for safety nets for people who get displaced where businesses get dislocated? 

Ned Hayes [00:09:52] I think this dovetails nicely into something you said earlier about driving and inclusion in innovation. So diversity is there’s an initiative you’ve been behind. Can you tell us more about why that matters in this economy?

Skip Newberry [00:10:06] Yeah. I mean, I think there is there’s a lot of great research out there that shows just from like a pure sort of bottom line standpoint what diversity up and down and organization can do about better decisions made at the board level, better executive teams and then also the quality of work and the closeness to which different folks can kind of bring perspectives in terms of customers and populations that you’re trying to sell to all over the world. All of that matters more diverse the team, the more varied and diverse the perspectives and the higher quality of the product. So all of that is sort of proven and well-established. There’s also the part of it that’s, I think, important for companies, which is you want to be able to essentially have a culture of an organization with a set of processes and well-defined systems where it can be as inclusive as possible. And you know, it’s a lot harder once you’ve kind of grown as a company to kind of reverse engineer a lot of what is grown up from the beginning. And so it’s much like human behavior, you know, the more time that goes by, the more behaviors become established and the harder it is to kind of reprogram them. It’s the same thing with an organization. And so right now, a lot of companies are trying to figure out as they’ve grown, like, maybe we’re not as inclusive as we could be. So not only how does that look in terms of our Cardboard roster and our executive team, as shown on our website? But also, how is that reflected in our processes, our systems, our how we communicate? And those are much harder things to change over time, but absolutely essential because you can you can hire diverse talent, you know, you can recruit people that are diverse on your board. But if you don’t have a culture in place with the processes, the systems, the communication methodologies in place, those folks are not going to stick around. 

Ned Hayes [00:12:07] Right, right. Going to go for not unless you can actually build a culture that makes everyone feel like their input is being heard. 

Skip Newberry [00:12:15] Yeah, exactly. 

Ned Hayes [00:12:16] So in terms of looking at Oregon companies, can you speak a little bit about the Black Lives Matter movement this summer and how that made a difference in in how we look at the technology sector? 

Skip Newberry [00:12:29] Yeah, for sure. I mean, much like other industries, it caused a bit of. 

Ned Hayes [00:12:36] A wake up call maybe? 

Skip Newberry [00:12:36] Yeah, a wake up call, you know, an opportunity for organizations, C-suite rank and file employees boards. It was a conversation that kind of coalesced at all levels of different organizations. And what we saw was some interesting stuff like typically with our policy work, we will typically work with like a government relations team, like a general counsel, CEO, etc. at different companies as we’re formulating policy and coming up different initiatives. This summer, we we ended up doing some more work with what are called employee resource groups at different companies. And frankly, companies themselves were starting to pay more attention, in particular to their black employee resource groups, saying like, “Look, what should we do as a company? Like what are how are you feeling? What are some of the concerns you might have as a black tech professional?” And so they were turning to these groups and more like a bottom up approach to policy formulation and also how a company would ultimately communicate. And that, to me, was really fascinating. It was it went kind of underreported in terms of the national media, but we were seeing elements of this here in Oregon and talking to some of my peers elsewhere in the country. They saw elements of it as well. And what we found was that there was a collection of about 40 or so tech companies around the state that ended up kind of banding together. We did this over a weekend where we started to have conversations among some executive teams. We’re like, we’re talking to our internal black employee resource groups, and they’re all kind of coalescing around some policy recommendations as it relates to local and state government and what can be done differently in terms of providing safe environments as it relates to public policing by the police public safety reform. And here are some things that black technologists had mentioned. You know, our cause for concern for them under the status quo and how things have been done in the past. And so we ended up crafting across three dozen companies a series of recommendations that came from the black employee resource groups who were in touch with black community leaders. And it was a fascinating process because it was very much a bottom up kind of grassroots or grass tops approach to policy formulation, which is something that I think we’re seeing we saw before COVID and before the George Floyd incident, but has really been accelerated by events of this past year, where now I think more and more companies are starting to pay closer attention to their employees and to external stakeholders in the community as they’re formulating policy. And one one way I’ve heard this described is kind of like stakeholder capitalism. And that was the one thing that kind of coalesced this summer that we saw firsthand in tech that I think was is cause for optimism in the future in terms of how companies approach this type of work because I think it’s far more inclusive in how it was done in the summer than maybe in ways it’s been done in the past. 

Karen Jensen [00:15:44] Well, that sounds really important and meaningful work this summer. Can you tell us more about how policy is enacted to help tech companies be effective and successful? 

Ned Hayes [00:15:53] Sure. So one one thing I typically will say to technologists or tech execs who want to get involved in policy is that it’s it’s always good to keep in mind. It’s a long game. It’s about relationships and trust. And so the more points of contact, the more familiarity you can establish with elected officials and policymakers, the better. And it’s also important, I think, to think about, you know, the why and helping to connect with people at a level that helps them understand not only what technology is, but more importantly, why it’s important. Too often technologists will start talking about what they do. And frankly, all anyone really cares about is why it’s important. And when you’ve got 15 minute meetings with elected officials and their entire days are stacked with those 15 minute meetings, you have to be kind of short, concise and really kind of hit people over the head with the why first and then get into. Here’s my ask. And what we do as an organization is something that’s just my own personal philosophy as having worked in government. I think it’s more effective when you can both walk the walk and talk the talk. And what I mean by that is that as an organization that does a fair amount of programmatic work and economic development initiatives, largely in partnership with local and state government, we have longer term relationships with the public sector. It’s not as transactional as, say, a pure lobbying organization would be because we’re typically delivering projects and solutions and initiatives in partnership with them over time. And occasionally, we disagree about things, you know, policies, et cetera, legislation. But in the context of a longer term non transactional relationship, those disagreements are less adversarial and with an eye toward maintaining a long term relationship, which helps get more reason to back and forth around areas of disagreement. And I think that’s an important approach to policy and advocacy that, you know, traditional care advocacy organizations typically do not take. It requires a lot more capabilities because you have to be able to do the blocking and tackling in the programmatic work, in addition to formulating policy, moving legislation, fighting legislation, et cetera. And so for me, it’s important to be able to do both. And that’s how we’ve approached it as an organization over the years, I think it’s worked reasonably well. We also have a pretty narrow policy framework where we get involved in tech specific issues. So general business issues we generally do not get involved in. So if there is like a general employment issue that impacts a lot of different sectors, we as TIO won’t weigh in, that’ll be more that a general business organization might be able to like a Chamber of Commerce 

Karen Jensen [00:18:44] To focus on recent history during COVID. We’ve seen a lot of businesses under threat and fearing for their financial future. What have you heard from Technology Association of Oregon members and how have they fared? 

Skip Newberry [00:19:00] Yeah, I would say that with COVID, there was definitely a lot of concern at first among start ups and in particular some companies that had all their eggs and say the hospitality basket tourism, some who served exclusively retail because they were concerned about the sort of mandatory closures of businesses in those sectors that they serve. What I did notice was that by end of Q2 of last year and beginning of Q3, many of those businesses that had a bumpy beginning of Q2 had either mostly recovered or fully recovered, with a few exceptions. And on the whole, I’ll say that last year, at least in Oregon and something we saw around the country to tech did pretty well, if not really well during the pandemic, with a lot of remote work, remote learning, remote health care delivery, essentially remote everything, all of it going online and accelerated digital transformation, accelerated investments in tech. And a lot of our members benefited from that. As an organization, we actually had a record year, adding one hundred and eighty new member companies between February and December last year, which is a lot like 40 percent. We’re like early stage startups, which is also a good sign. 

Karen Jensen [00:20:31] Wow. I note that in your past you were you co-founded a point of sale company, am I right? 

Skip Newberry [00:20:41] Yes, I was involved with the point of sale software startup that was focused on the salon hair stylist industry. And before that was involved with another startup that was involved with more of like e-learning and professional development, both onsite and online. And the Wall Street Prep, which is a company that exists today, does a lot of investment banking training was kind of the parent company at first, and then we spun another company out. 

Karen Jensen [00:21:14] Got it. Can you tell us about that point of sale experience and how that informs your experience of retail? 

Skip Newberry [00:21:20] Oh, sure. Yeah. So at the time we were looking at what are some of the needs on the part of, you know, independent contractors and how salons were organized primarily west of the Mississippi were thinking about how do they facilitate payments more readily? This is before Square. And so, yeah, so we were looking at sort of the point of sale market and specifically some of the inventory management and operation needs of salons. And what are some of the things that could be done from an innovation standpoint in terms of payments, but also in terms of how a lot of the inventory is managed and procured? And there was one of the guys who was involved was, you know, a couple of different salons that were successful in the Seattle area. And another person was one of the co-founders of an East Coast based software company that was big within salons called CareMax. He was more of the tech guy. And it was it was interesting, like we were looking at what are the opportunities with, you know, both premium as well as more sort of premium offerings and the power of the inventory data and how salons were interacting with the software gave us some really interesting insight. Turns out, was valuable to distributors. We completely missed the boat, did not see Square coming. That would have been a really interesting innovation had we kind of jumped on that bandwagon. 

Ned Hayes [00:23:00] Right? A lot of companies feel that way. Skip cleaned their clocks, right? 

Skip Newberry [00:23:06] Yep.

Ned Hayes [00:23:07] Right now in terms of retailers coming back. What’s made the difference for retailers? 

Ned Hayes [00:23:13] Yeah, you know, I think there is, what we’re seeing is a big focus around customer engagement and how to go more kind of direct to consumer. And I don’t necessarily mean from a performance standpoint, although there’s elements of that and in terms of solutions around first mile delivery and warehousing and the like. What I really mean is that the game changer is thinking about how to take the customer experience and make it more of a relationship rather than transactional. And this is something that you know, we’re seeing in health care. We’re seeing Nike pursue as a company and and really, it’s about how do you engage with a customer understanding what they need, what their constraints are and adding value to them beyond just say, you know, a single transaction for consumer good or an experience, whatever it is that the small business is selling. Some of the innovation that’s going to come out of this is going to be around. How do smaller retailers really leverage technology to connect better with their current customers and prospects, especially given that many of them are now looking at, well, how much do I really need a physical footprint? And that’s a pretty expensive proposition maintaining, say, a physical storefront, and maybe I can reach people better, different ways. Case in point, there’s a woman in our building where our offices who has been operating like a personal training studio for a number of years, and she found that she was able to reach clients all over the country once things went remote just by embracing technology. And she now has more business that way than she used to do with just the physical, in-person studio and is contemplating even moving away from the studio altogether.  

Karen Jensen [00:25:10] Oh wow. Which technologies do you see as vital for small retailers post-COVID? 

Skip Newberry [00:25:15] That’s that’s a good question. I would say that thinking about like, what are some of the ways in which, you know, a small business that doesn’t necessarily have, like a lot of resources or a lot of people can kind of do more with not a lot of time. And so when I think about like marketing automation solutions, opportunities for them to do small data because big data can be overwhelming to a small business, but rather are there solutions that provide kind of the insights that a business analyst would otherwise provide across key customer segments? And are there opportunities, I think for some of those those retailers to think creatively about, are there ways to essentially use existing platforms as well? Like there are some of our members that will help small businesses figure out whether Amazon is right for them and if it is. Here are some ways to like set pricing strategy. And here are some ways to figure out how to kind of game the platform. And not surprisingly, like we have a lot of tech company members that do the same for businesses that are, for example, looking at cloud solutions, right? Migrating to the cloud for hosting, we’ll hear all the various providers for some of the benefits. Here’s how you get a handle on costs, and here’s how you kind of game the the platform. So it’s it’s tech helping small businesses understand an increasingly tech oriented world, right? And I think that’s that’s kind of a one take away. I have, I guess, for some of the small retailers. 

Ned Hayes [00:27:06] Got it. So are there specific companies that you think our listeners should know more about? I mean, companies that you might want to put a spotlight on here, either in retail or in tech companies that are doing interesting, innovative things right now. 

Skip Newberry [00:27:21] Yeah, I would say that just off the top of my head locally. I mean, obviously SnowShoe, you know, really great company. We’ve got another company called Monsoon locally that does some interesting work for small businesses, retailers that are trying to figure out kind of the Amazon landscape and pricing strategies. There is a company I was talking to just a couple of weeks ago called cargo that is actually doing some really interesting stuff as it relates to sort of cannabis fulfillment delivering in the area. And they’re looking at what are some tech solutions that they could add into the mix as as they grow as a company. And so there are a wide range of of different folks that we work with that, you know, are kind of tackling some of the the challenges as it relates to to retail, those last mile delivery, first mile. And then, of course, a lot of the customer engagement platforms. There’s another one that’s, I think, also interesting and that we as an organization are constantly trying to look at getting more real time feedback from our members about their impressions of us. Are we delivering the right content, the right experiences and what they were for another member to us? And there we look at a net promoter score and we have a member company ask nicely. That does some cool work as it relates to, you know, real time NPS from members. So kind of like having a virtual customer success solution for your small business. And then we also, as an organization, look at something called customer effort score, which is essentially how difficult was it to work with us? And I think businesses that are measuring those two things are going to be able to kind of get some good insight into how their customers are feeling and where their pin points. And finally, I’ll say one thing we’ve done as an organization in our digital transformation strategy has been to leverage another member of ours called Ruby Receptionists, which does virtual receptionist. So they they do essentially a plug in for a website that allows for what we do is sort of lead generation. As people are looking to sign up members, it’s a way for them to connect with a real human being or beings, plural, but using technology as the initial sort of assessment interface. And then we also use something called lead forensics, which is sort of a way to kind of mine information about who’s on our site and what they’re doing. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:00] Got it. This is this is a fantastic overview of some interesting companies in our region. Well, we’re coming to the end of our time, really appreciate the time, any last questions, Karen. 

Karen Jensen [00:30:11] I just wanted to say thank you. One last question I have. What is your personal mission? What do you want to be remembered for? 

Skip Newberry [00:30:19] For me, it’s been about kind of being a multiplier. If I can help other people who want to have a big impact be more successful, whether they’re entrepreneurs, technologist. That’s a pretty interesting opportunity for me to feel like I’ve had an impact during my time. 

Karen Jensen [00:30:34] Thank you. 

Skip Newberry [00:30:36] Thank you so much. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:37] That concludes our conversation with Skip Newberry president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon. Tune in next week to hear from Susan Stover, formerly of Fem Biometrics, an expert on authentication and now leading a future focus in femtech. Thank you, Karen. 

Karen Jensen [00:30:53] Thank you. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:55] Thanks for listening today to the SparkPlug podcast hosted by me, Ned Hayes and brought to you by SnowShoes Snow.sh For smarter mobile location. Spark Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content and copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.