SaaS Founder Interview with Nicola Dickinson, Co-Founder of Sparkrock

Tony Zayas 0:07
Welcome to the SaaS Founder Show. This is Tony Zayas joined by Andy Halko. I wanted to ask you, when you when you hear digital transformation, we deal in this space quite a bit. When you hear digital transformation, what are the like industry is business types that come to mind just right off top your head?

Andy Halko 0:31
Well, I mean, off the top of my head, I would say everybody, because digital transformation is the, you know, de facto for any business today is to rethink how they’re doing things and improve through digital and technology. So I assume you’re asking me this, because our guest today is probably going to give us some insight into the answer that question.

Tony Zayas 0:59
Yeah, and I think that you know, a lot of times we’re talking to people who are on the cutting edge of, you know, tacking industries. And so we see a lot of cool stuff that’s like, really those first movers, what what’s really interesting to me is when we see people who are more than traditional businesses, industries that have taken, you know, digital transformation ideals that have really been proven out, not early on, and they’re able to transform more traditional businesses and, and sectors and so I say all that because today’s guest is Nicola Dickinson, she is the co-founder and chief customer officer at SparkRock. It sparks rock provides an all-in-one enterprise software that includes finance, workforce management, payroll, employee scheduling, built for nonprofit and human services organizations, in K to 12. And education. So pretty interesting stuff here. Nicola, how are you doing?

Nicola Dickinson 2:05
I’m great. sound great. How are you both doing?

Tony Zayas 2:08
Very good. Thank you. Appreciate you taking the time to join us. It’s so just to get started. Tell us a little bit about SparkRock, I read the little descriptor but tell us about it.

Nicola Dickinson 2:21
Yeah, I mean, SparkRock is, is we’re a technology company, or we’re a SaaS provider. We specialize and our expertise is in working with the nonprofit public sector. But the real premise of our company is about really making the lives of the people that work in these organizations better so that the impact they make is as great as possible. So everything we do in our product is about ensuring that they’re the productivity and how they work and how they align their organization as successful as possible.

Andy Halko 2:51
You know, one thing that I like to hear is, you know, the help people understand your product. And what you do is, what’s the day in the life of a customer that uses?

Nicola Dickinson 3:03
Yeah, I mean, our customers are, they’re very kind of budget-conscious organizations, they live and breathe within the budgets of what they operate within each year. And so they’re really focused around how they spend, and where that those dollars go. They’re there. They’re always trying to meet the demands of stakeholders, like key funders, whether it’s government funding, state funding, those types of things. So so they’re trying to be as accountable as possible about how the money is spent. And the impact they can make with that money within their communities and programs or within the classrooms for kids or students.

Andy Halko 3:44
And can you tell us a little bit about the origin story? How did you get started? Where did all this come from?

Nicola Dickinson 3:53
Yeah, so I’ve always been in the tech space for before starting this company, I was in the, you know, the ERP space. So enterprise resource planning. And so I understood that I was working, I was in sales there. And but really kind of was always been very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And we had some success with ERP and the nonprofit public sector. And so the premise of it was we started, we decided we put the stake in the ground, we were going to be a technology provider, provide best in class technologies for nonprofits, because we believe that that that market, there was an opportunity there was it was really being underserved from a technology perspective. And so we thought there’s an opportunity here to be a key player. And so from day one, we started focusing on working with big charitable organizations, school boards, you know, that was the premise of it from the beginning. And again, it was about because we believe there was an opening in the market and we thought that because we understood that market so well, we could really get a really great product right? together for them?

Tony Zayas 5:04
What were some of the reasons you saw that that space was being underserved by technology? And how did you view that come to view that as an opportunity?

Nicola Dickinson 5:14
Yeah. So I mean, you know, there are a lot of what we call like horizontal technology players out there. So they were kind of trying to meet the needs of many different verticals. And, and so nonprofits were trying to kind of fit themselves into these technologies that were organized, maybe for a for-profit or commercial business. And so and we knew their needs were very different. And, and so instead of trying to kind of pigeonhole these horizontal products in for the way a nonprofit needed operate, we decided we would get a product from day one that really addresses the needs of their community workers or the teachers or, or individuals out in the field doing the work. And really help a, an accounting team or HR Payroll team in a nonprofit or public sector organization, really, really engage those stakeholders from the beginning in the ERP platform. So we, from day one, thought about the really the greater organization, and how they needed to interact and work with the product. So the people out in the field, that type of thing, that’s really the key differentiator and what we focus thereon

Tony Zayas 6:24
Just for some background, what had been your involvement in the nonprofit space?

Nicola Dickinson 6:31
Yeah, I’ve been, you know, myself, and and lots of, you know, worked with nonprofits from, you know, fundraising through to, you know, volunteering, even was part of a start up nonprofit before, so had lots of experience in those operations. And then obviously, just, you know, working closely with him from a technology perspective as well.

Andy Halko 6:55
How would you go about planning the product? You know, one of the things I’m always interested in with founders is, you have an idea before you start the business, probably have big ideas and dreams of will be. So how do you turn that into something real? And how did you do it? Yeah,

Nicola Dickinson 7:17
I mean, I think, thinking about that question. I think that there are a few things we did. I mean, I mean, first off, I think one of the first things we focused on with our technology partners. So from the beginning, we sought out, you know, we really thought there seriously about what kind of technology partners did we want to work with. And so we chose Microsoft, as one of our key technology partners, you can they, they kind of gave us a starting point from a product perspective. So and so that was the first and foremost key component on that, I think the other component as also was about, you know, working closely with our customers, so, you know, in the early days, and we’re starting out, you know, getting your first customer, then your second customer, those are big deals back then. And so for us, we immediately, like honed in those relationships that early, early adopter customers that believed in, quite honestly, just myself and James, like, you know, they believed in us, and they knew they were taking a huge leap of faith, you know, this, these types of customers are very risk-averse, so, so so we really honed in on that relationship. And so we implemented, you know, an advisory board from day one. So first customer, then second customer, and then you get your fourth, fifth, six, etc. That advisory board grew. But even the early advisors, we had our customer base, they were actively working with us helping us think about our roadmap, talking to us about our services, you know, listening to them in terms of what, what do we need to think about in the future? How do we best support them? So we learned a ton from our customers in the first couple of years. And we continue to?

Andy Halko 9:02
Yeah, and I want to really dig into the customers and that, but just back to the product a little bit like, is about MVP minimum viable products? Yeah. Is that the approach that you took? And how did you first create that MVP?

Nicola Dickinson 9:19
Yeah, so we, we, we started with just accounting as a function and the functionality. And we started with Microsoft as the technology platform as a starting point. And then we began to just think about how we extended Microsoft’s platform so that the capabilities were meaningful for these types of organizations between a feature in a functional area by functional area, and then we coupled that also with thinking about how the technology reach and impact can make so really thinking about how their people worked with the technology when they’re out in a community and working in programs. So We went we did, we did studies with their, with their users, and did side by side interviews to talk to understand how many clicks they needed to make, and how could we reduce those number of clicks. So we literally videotaped A Day in the Life with them. And then those videotapes went back to the product team. And we would try to think about, okay, how can we make those? How do we skip a couple more steps to make it as efficient as possible for them? So that was I think that the user interviews were a big deal for us in the first couple of years.

Andy Halko 10:29
I love that. And, you know, we’ve done I think, 60 70 founder interviews, and I haven’t heard, yeah. Which I love the idea of, and it’s a pretty common practice to do.

Nicola Dickinson 10:43
Yeah. And I think I think the other thing we really sought to understand was, was, you know, their user experience and how, what was the day in the life and like the videos of them clicking around, but then I think, also, we felt very responsible for providing guidance and best practice. So while they may, you know, they may say, I want, you know, these types of clips, or I need to do these types of functions in my role, our responsibility we always felt compelled to have was that, okay, well, this is a best practice to this. So thinking about, Okay, well, you might click this way for these things. But a best practice would include, you know, you need to have the analytics that supports those decision-makings, as you’re clicking through. And so, we would take back those interviews, and then try to think about what’s the best practice in the product? Because what’s key for us is that we become the best practice, for now, you know, nonprofit educational institution, how they operate, how they, how they want to how their accounting function should work.

Andy Halko 11:46
Yeah, it’s really intriguing. It’s so I just want to dig into it more, because I think it’s such an interesting topic. But is that something that you still do today?

Nicola Dickinson 11:59
Yeah, absolutely. Yes. It’s, it’s an I always say, you know, we always think of it as it’s a journey, not a destination. Right? So I mean, even more, so. I mean, we just got, we’re still going through the pandemic. And so, how organizations operated pre-pandemic to how they need to operate today is actually, you know, there’s a lot of differences, obviously, like, you know, they’re, they’re working remotely, etc. So how do best practices need to look continue to evolve? And so, you know, we right away, when the pandemic hit, were one of the first things we did is we reached out to customers to think about, okay, now you’re operating remotely, virtually, you know, how do we continue to support that, and then take those best practices to guide them so that other organizations begin to seek out those leaders in our customers that really can, can build great operational processes, and we use to use that as a way to inform our best practice. And then we begin to teach other organizations. So saying best practices, it’s a regular changing moving piece.

Tony Zayas 13:02
Nik, I’d like I’d like to back up to a statement that you made you said, your customers are really risk averse. And I certainly get that. I guess my question to you is, you know, moving into the digital transformation space technology is always feels risky. Yeah, yeah. So how did you go about building trust and validation, from a marketing standpoint? To make that process a little bit easier?

Nicola Dickinson 13:33
Yeah, I think I mean, what we learned early on, in organizations like these is that trust is really important. And so we would, we would look for customers or leaders in the in in the market, that we’re willing to take some risks, I would say that we always try to look for that, or organizations that are looking to ambitiously grow, we would look for those types of organizations. And then for the greater market, we would use those organizations and their successes as a way to tell the story of how they did it. That was that’s really key. I think a lot of organizations in our own, a lot of our customers really trust one another. It’s a very cooperative market. They work very closely together. They’re a peer-based, and so so if we could tell stories and show that before and after, for them, and they had the confidence to know it could see that it actually happens in organizations had gone before the member successful, then then, and then that really helped us that that enabled us to really kind of get that out to the market and lower their risk aversion because then they didn’t feel like they were the first. So it was really important for us to mean we consider you know, we partner with our customers, but we as a company, you know, talking about that customer relationship we did we did think about our customer base and the segmentation around it to find The leaders or the lighthouse type of accounts, you know, really align ourselves at a leadership level and a partnership level. So that they knew they were they were kind of our leaders that were going to help us tell the story later to the organizations that were much more risk-averse.

Tony Zayas 15:18
That’s great.

Andy Halko 15:20
So one of the things that I think we talk about a lot here, when we’re trying to speak to founders is finding those first customers. I think, for so many people that are building a software product, it feels daunting, because they build, you know, and how do they do it? And we’ve heard a lot of different methodologies and approaches, how did you find those initial customers? Like what did it take to get them on board?

Nicola Dickinson 15:46
Yeah, well, I mean, for us, what we, when I, I saw an opportunity with this is actually to start with is our my relationship with Microsoft. So that relationship, you know, at the product level was critical for our business. But then from a market growth perspective, we saw that relationship, also very critical. So I leveraged as much as I could, out of Microsoft to really build confidence in those first early adopters, that, that it wasn’t just, you know, that wasn’t just SparkRock, or myself and James and the small team we had at the time, it was bigger than that, and it was the support network and the partnerships we had, that was part of that decision of that value proposition that we were putting into place. I think it’s, you know, it’s also the network, you know, leveraging network, we came, I understood the space a little I had some connections, and so I, I tried to do that a little bit as well. Um, you know, we actually, we were very successful in the first year, with even actually, one of our first accounts was a very large government operation, which, you know, surprised us that we would be so successful, we did an RFP, a whole cold RFP, they didn’t know we existed, I just really kind of got into it, dug into it, but my whole heart and soul into it, and just really brought, you know, put Microsoft in front of the room with me. So they saw it as a bigger relationship than just between us and that it was a real partnership between, and Microsoft was very supportive of that they understood we were, we were what we were trying to do and help drive our business. So they were, they were very supportive in helping us in our first two to three customers.

Andy Halko 17:25
So it sounds like you really did have to dig in, though and, and do a lot of legwork. And that’s kind of the story that I always try and get across is that every successful founder we’ve talked to, you know, they it wasn’t Field of Dreams, I built it, and they weren’t, you know, every founder talks about in some way that they really had to grind through to get their initial customers.

Nicola Dickinson 17:50
Absolutely. Like it is, you know, the first you know, it still is today, you know, I’m a workaholic. So, it’s in my blood. So I’m an entrepreneur, I’m in my it’s in my blood. Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s knowing it’s just you roll up your sleeves, you’re everything in the company. In the first you know, you do everything from unloading the dishwasher in the office kitchen to you know, you know, the work you do in terms of working with the client investing your time. Really hustling out there, you know, is a hustle, that’s for sure. And it was a seven-day week thing, you know, the first while Absolutely, it was just no rest. But if you’re so at that moment, you’re so fueled by the excitement of it all and the relationships you’re building and the results you’re getting that just kind of the momentum builds. And then you’re just you don’t even pay attention to the fact that you work seven days a week, you’re just going and I think that’s a lot about what entrepreneurs have is just that they just love it. Right? So it’s not working. And so you’re, you’re putting all your heart and soul into it. And It’s fun.

Andy Halko 19:02
Yeah, the other thing we like to talk about, I think, is the transformation of the founder role. I’d love you to talk about like the arc of like, how has your role changed significantly since the beginning and what it has been kind of that evolution? Because I think for most voters, there is no matter what over time and change their role and who they are and what they do in a business.

Nicola Dickinson 19:27
Yeah. 100% and I, I think, you know, if I think about what did I learn over the years, I wish I learned the importance of the transformation of a founder to you know, the leader in a sense, like founders or leaders, but like a true leader. I kind of caught on to that, I believe like a little bit late. And if I were to advise somebody, it would just really focus on that transformer that shifts. Because as a founder, you’re used to just ideas coming into your brain, you just go do it. It doesn’t matter what it takes you, you do some convincing of your teams, but it just happens, right? You just that’s what you’re used to. But then, but then if you want to scale and grow, you need to get people behind you. And even, you know, hopefully leading and, and, and coming up and doing that transformation for you so, so understanding that you don’t have all the answers, because, at the start, you have to have all the answers, but then you realize, as you, as the transformation happens, you’re having less and less of the answers over that over that time. And then you surround yourself with really smart people. And, and so I’ve had some great coaches over the years that have tried to help me see that, because for so long, at the start of the, you know, the first few years, I’m so used to operating at that, you know, founder level where you’re you’re digging in, you’re working hard, you’re grinding the work, right? And then And then, and then it’s like, you look up and it’s like, okay, wait, how do I scale this? So, so that so that’s, that’s tough to do? I think it doesn’t always come naturally, it certainly didn’t come naturally to me. So I expected it to and it didn’t. So I had to seek out great colleagues that would kind of very kindly let me know that you know, that other people could do that work type of thing. And, you know, eventually caught on and, and I wish I had known that sooner in my career. Really? I’m figuring it out now.

Andy Halko 21:28
Yeah, there’s an interesting, like, and I and I can’t remember it completely, but dynamic between worker to manager to leader, and, you know, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. And there’s ways that depending on on how you do it, it’s easy to get pulled back down into that. Yeah, manager even worker role as a founder. And it’s hard to stay up in that leadership space.

Nicola Dickinson 21:53
Yeah, that’s right. It is. And I think I, Yeah, and I think it’s, you know, it’s, it’s just about, you know, pausing and looking around and, and being okay with, they may not do it your way, right, because you’re so used to you want it is done a certain way. I mean, I think a lot of you know, entrepreneurs have very high standards. And so and so and have a habit already in their head, how they want it to work. So it’s kind of letting go of that and being okay, with a different way or a few mistakes along the way, all that stuff. Just, it’ll all work itself out. And I think that’s, I think that’s one of my biggest lessons learned in my career is, you know, in this business, we’ve had a ton of ups and downs, a ton of downs, you know, hard moments, difficult moments, you know, close to giving up moments, and it’s like, remote, you know, knowing that we got through it. And it’s like, I would have got through it if I was able to really hone in on on on the great people around me as well, kind of sooner.

Andy Halko 22:53
It’s hard to hand off your baby and let other people dress feed it.

Nicola Dickinson 22:58
Right, my first baby, right?

Andy Halko 23:01
No french fries. And I do not like bell bottoms do. Tony, I think we had a great question from the audience. Nicola, you mentioned your workaholic who’s very committed to growing your company? How are you able to balance work and life?

Nicola Dickinson 23:24
Yeah, I mean, it’s just, you know, for me, I have two kids. So I have a teenager and a 10-year-old and so, you know, it’s just scheduling time for the family, you have to do it because your schedule gets built very easily. Making you know, prioritizing yourself. I mean, you know, easier said than done, but you know, putting yourself first where you can and makes you a better person makes you a better colleague, leader, mother, all those things friend, Sister daughter. So investing in yourself as you know, just making the time I, it makes a big difference in your, your mental health and well being.

Andy Halko 24:04
Just you know, one other thing that follows up with that is your you said you have kids, I have daughters, I always hope that what I do sets a impression for them, you know, how hard you work and the way that you approach things in your thinking? Is that something that ever comes into your thoughts about you know, how you’re influencing your family with taking a journey like this?

Nicola Dickinson 24:35
Yeah. I say that you know, I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter and I think that’s become more and more, you know, apparent to me than ever. And so, it didn’t kind of dawn on me in the early years. But as I see her, you know, doing the schoolwork she’s doing she’s you know, she’s embracing you know, certain extracurricular programs like DECA and these things and I think, oh, wow, as I can I remind it kind of helps me kind of see that I’m can be a positive man, you know, influence on our lives and so yeah. And I think, you know that that comment ubank makes a lot of sense to with how she can take care of herself, right and, and know and be a believer in herself that, you know, anything’s possible, you know, and she can start her own company one day or, you know, be part of a great team or whatever she wants to do with her life. So, I think absolutely, it’s a constant reminder as a person, and what I do and how I spend my day, it’s kind of have what the kids are saying for sure.

Tony Zayas 25:42
Nicola, I’d like to just continue to talk about the team that. First off, just love to hear what the team currently looks like, how big what’s the composition of roles?

Nicola Dickinson 25:55
Yeah, so we’re, we’re about a 75 person company today. And the team is broken down into, you know, your sales and marketing and you’re in, but in the biggest teams we have is our consulting or delivery team, so that the folks on the ground that are doing the digital transformation, that technology implementation for our customers, we employ actual CPAs. So professional accountants, technical developers, all of us, you know, all those types of folks, HR professionals, actually, we really seek out in our team, we look actually to recruit individuals that actually also worked in the sector, we think that they bring a lot of knowledge and understanding of how these operations need to work. So where we have those opportunities, we try to, we try to do that. We’re very diverse as a company, I mean, you know, my co-founder and myself from day one, always believed in the importance of diversity and inclusion. So, you know, we’re, you know, we’re very kind of LGBTQ kind of friendly and open, accepting, where, you know, we have people from all over the world, I mean, through the pandemic, by the way, as, as the company adjusted ourselves, one of the advantages we gained was that we were hiring people, not just local to our office, because we have big office space here, it was actually anywhere. And so that’s really opened up our eyes to really incredible talent, and really incredible people that are really helping kind of help us shape out the future of our business. Yeah, so I would say that that’s a new thing for us is now we’re much more virtual than we were before, of course, but and that we benefit from some great new people joining our team,

Tony Zayas 27:44
That’s great, that’s something a lot of us have learned a whole lot about is that being virtual, the benefit of being able to find talent, you know, regardless of where they’re at. So, that’s, that’s great to hear. I would love to ask a little bit more about from the team, you mentioned, you know, the idea of being a leader, and then bringing people onto your team, you start handing things off, it’s not, you know, you lose control. So we always ask about how do you find the right people, to bring us your team, but in particular, how to bring on the right people that are going to be part of management or leadership, when they are going to have important you know, they’re going to leave an important imprint on the business so how do you find those right people having around the team to a pretty nice size at this point?

Nicola Dickinson 28:37
Yeah, I mean, it’s in tech today is it’s extremely challenging. I think all the tech companies out there are struggling just like us finding good talent. But I mean, it’s about to me, it’s the network. I mean, we obviously leverage you know, the channels like LinkedIn, etc those types of networks I guess, or online communities. You know, we talk to our customers actually about you know, how we want to shape out the team how we’re shaping up the team, and sometimes you might get the odd odd comments about somebody they know the type of thing. We do have programs where employees can refer and that we like that because if you’re referring someone you’ve worked with that you’ve really been impressed with the benefits are great you’ve got an opportunity to bring somebody in already know someone and that’s always a plus, but also that they’re coming in recommended. So that’s, that’s another piece to us. I think the pandemic now we’ve really opened her eyes it used as I said, we were really focused in our local area, but since then, now we’re out there, you know, looking for people all over North America right now. So, we, we and we, we really kind of when we look at meeting people, it’s really about you know, because of our customers and, and in what they do, it’s, you know, the people that join us are often really passionate already about making a difference in the world and the impact that organizations like our customers are. And so they’re inspired or excited. They come, you know, they come with already some experience in it as well. And so that’s, that makes the relationship and how we work with our employees as it starts us off in a really great footing. And so that’s, I think, a big one, sometimes we get the odd applicant that doesn’t know this sector very well, but is curious. And then we begin to like, explain how, how rewarding it is, and then it’s like, then we see that the change and they think, Wow, this could be actually a really rewarding role. So so we get that as well. And so that’s, I think that’s a big one is, is impressing upon them, you know, really the difference we’re making in this world because of the customers we have and what they’re doing. And being a part of that.

Tony Zayas 30:56
So it sounds like a lot of this is going into culture. And that’s something that we’d love to talk about on this show. Given that you have you know, customers that are out there, that are passionate about what they did, because they are making a difference, and you guys are serving them and allowing them to grow. And so you’re looking for people like that, what is the culture at Spark rock look like? And, and I will ask, how intentional Have you been about, you know, making that a priority? And really defining and continuing to cultivate that culture?

Nicola Dickinson 31:31
Yeah. So, I mean, we always believe, you know, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Right, everyone’s heard that saying, We say that a lot of cultures, I think one of the most it is, I mean, I can tell you too, over the years, you know, we’ve seen it when our culture wasn’t at its best, and the impact it makes. And it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s not great, certainly for a founder to see and watch. It’s really horrible to see. And so we’ve, you know, when we see that it’s kind of it’s fueled us to kind of think about, okay, what culture do we want to have, and what type of people do we want to be part of our culture, and we’re really big also, and I’m getting helping our employees create the culture and contribute to the culture and define the culture. So you start, at the top, and you, you talk about the type of business, we are a type of organization, we want to be that, you know, how when nobody’s looking how we work, you know, in a sense, and then really seek out to get employees to become, you know, to give us to learn and listen to them to in terms of what’s landing and not landing. So we do regular surveys to, to really continue to listen and learn our town halls, really put our employees in the forefront, we do lots of like, panels with staff where they talk about strategic items or cultural items. And, and, and really kind of try to hone that in as an overall organization. We do a lot of actually, we’ve embraced technology internally ourselves around this concept of a thinking culture, in our workforce, so and it’s really made a big difference. So we use a tool where employees can post thanks to each other, and then why and more recently, we use this tool to line up with our key strategic objectives. So when they thank a colleague, they thank them because it lined up to one of our key strategic objectives. And so that’s new, that’s a new kind of build of what we recently did, but that, that thanking and supportive and culture is really important. So that everybody feels equipped to be successful. And so we’ve really kind of integrated that into our team and it’s just kind of it’s it’s steamrolled, you know, the thanking piece of, hey, thanks for working late the other night, you know, that, that that document I needed at short notice, I really appreciate that stuff is a really big deal for people, and then being able to, like reinforce that thing. So everybody sees it is it really creates a very cooperative, helpful community of staff that is out to, to, to work, do great work together and meet targets and all those important things.

Andy Halko 34:17
We’ve kind of touched on that a tiny bit of COVID. And I want to ask about it from two perspectives, you know, one, how did it impact you? And how did you, you know, how did it change your business, but then too, I like to look at it from, you know, as business owners, we’ve got external factors that we can’t control that can significantly impact our business. So how do you handle situations that are out of your control, but are a major impact to you?

Nicola Dickinson 34:53
Yeah, I mean, I’m tough because we’ve you know, yeah, I mean through COVID are the physical endemic, we’ve, we’ve had lots of uncontrollable situations. I mean, like I mentioned earlier Toronto tech, it’s crazy out there and it’s in, it’s really hard to it, you know, it’s a competitive market. And so one of the uncontrollable for us was, you know, we saw a lot of, of our talent kind of, there was lots of movements and stuff we didn’t want. So. So we really focused around getting as much of an early view on those types of things as possible to try to manage that change and or to, you know, minimize that, that that stuff happening. And that’s kind of that whole concept of you heard about the, like, the great resignation, right? I heard that right. So Oh, yeah, we were not immune to that ourselves. And so I was probably, to me, that was one of them was a big one, our customers, you know, if anything, in a pandemic, we’re embracing digital transformation more than ever. And so for us, what we focused on was giving them as much possible support as possible in their current, you know, in their products. So we really invested in more products, product learning and giving them the tools and tips, and really focusing on how do they operate in a pandemic? And less about, okay, what can we sell, we almost kind of put the sales and marketing a little bit on the backburner because we thought, okay, let’s really take good care of our customers right now because they’re going through this too. And that actually really helped us. And they’re certainly from a relationship perspective, by, you know, really kind of proving out ourselves as a good partner to our customers as well. But so that was one thing. You know, we set up online teams, where we had like a COVID watch, and people were posting things they were hearing from customers, like, Hey, these are, these are some of the challenges our customers are seeing. And we regularly watch those posts to kind of assess ourselves daily around, okay, do we want to pivot here? Do we want to, there’s a lot of pivots, right, everyone used that term through the pandemic, we were doing that a lot. So kind of daily, daily insight into, you know, especially early days when nobody knew what this really was. We were posting and getting everybody in the company to post what they’re seeing what they’re hearing, whether it’s through colleagues through customers, and then we would take that in as a leadership team to say, Okay, what is there anything we’re going to change here? Or how are we going to adapt here and make quick decisions around that, that that piece for sure? So that was kind of having our ear to the ground was really important for us.

Andy Halko 37:38
One thing I found through the whole COVID piece is that the reality is, as you grow an organization, as much as you find people that fit your values, you end up with a diverse workforce and a diverse mindset. You know, one of the things that I found was that there were a lot of different opinions and approaches and ideas on how things can go. And so I’m more curious, from your perspective how leaders can handle as they grow, that there is so many different views and personalities and approaches, and how to manage that because it’s hard, you know, make a policy hear someone else is saying, I don’t think that’s a great idea, while other people embrace it. So how do you handle that as a founder?

Nicola Dickinson 38:28
Ah, yeah, I mean, I guess, um, you know, you have to draw the line, the hard-line? And I think there are times Yeah, there are people that don’t agree. I mean, I think, you know, the general rule of thumb is to Be curious as much as you can, and, and I guess, you know, you’re not going to be able to convince everybody, you know, what, the vision, you know, nobody, and I think I liked that you asked this question, because it is really something that I think all founders have to figure out. And, and, and not even know what it is at the time, right? When this is all happening. It’s like, why aren’t they understanding this? Like, gosh, it’s so you know, but I think, you know, I think over the years, the more you can be curious, the better. Because even though if they don’t completely buy-in, at least you understand why they’re not buying in, and then that way, you know, eventually maybe they can come around, or even maybe some of the points of why they’re not buying in do make sense to think as much as you can be curious, the better.

Andy Halko 39:33
Yeah, I’ve, you know, personally found that a challenge is that, you know, you have a whole group that you’re developing a strategy and everybody’s behind it, but there’s always sometimes some some folks that don’t, don’t see the vision and, you know, as a leader, it’s tough that, you know, as an organization grows, and you have a lot more people how you really create that, you know, excitement and vision behind everything.

Nicola Dickinson 39:58
Yeah, and I think I think that too. I mean, we have a leadership team, we have a, you know, leadership team and we have other you know, love different levels of leadership we tried to implement into our, we were only 75 people, but our HR leader really tried to instill this culture of, you know, showing opportunities to grow within an organization. So that we call an SLT and an ELT and, and we are, we’re really trying to kind of hone it in and embrace it and give people those voices. And so I think I think that’s part of it, as well as building the structure around it. So I think the, I think the other piece to it is holding each other accountable. So, you know, we may not all buy in at the leadership level, or the SLT level at different levels, but at least we’re holding each other accountable that we decided as a team. And yes, you know, a couple of you were completely on board with it, but we decided as a team. And so we have to hold each other accountable for the fact that, that that’s what the company is doing, and what’s best for the company. And so, you know, you know, so that we don’t have, I guess, in a way, you know, you don’t you have these people like kind of understanding that, okay, I’m accountable to and held accountably. I understand the company’s made this decision. And, you know, and so, so there’s that understanding as well. And I think that goes both ways. Right, we’re held accountable to each other so that we were fulfilling and trying to stick to a plan, as well. As much as we can.

Andy Halko 41:27
Yeah, actually love Amazon has a, you know, disagree and commend, you know, yeah, you could disagree, and state that, but then you have to commit to it fully. Whether you disagree or not. And I really think that I mean, that’s the that’s the ideal scenario, right? Is that everybody on the team, it’s fine. I disagree. But once we make a decision, we’re all 100% committed to this, and we’re not gonna, you know, go back on that.

Nicola Dickinson 41:56
Yeah. And I think that’s, it has to be part of your culture, right? It just like the disagreeing commit has to be part of your culture. Because that’s, that’s just how you’re going to function and grow, or you’re going to be all over the place, you need the direction and focus.

Tony Zayas 42:12
So Nicola, how do you and your co founder and the leadership team, how do you guys go about the strategic planning process? Like on an ongoing basis? And how do you communicate with one another? What does that look like?

Nicola Dickinson 42:26
Yeah, I mean, we, about six years ago, now, maybe seven years ago, we, we embraced a very specific, kind of, in a way, a structured strategic planning process. So each year, when we started in the new fiscal year, by about the third or second quarter, we’re planning for the future fiscal year. So so what we’re doing in the planning phase is we’re starting to build what we call our annual operating plan AOP. And we’re thinking about the future fiscal year’s AOP. And then we break that down by quarters, departmental quarterly objectives through to departmental objectives through to individual objectives. So that’s kind of how it streams through. And so that’s the planning phase, and the leadership team is regularly meeting, like weekly around our ALP, the planning of it, future planning of it through to the management of it. So when we’re in the fiscal year, and we’re managing to the strategic plan, which has it set up, you know, we have the key Essos key strategic objectives, those get revisited every year. And when we revisit those, we’re revisiting those thinking out three years. So each key each year when we release our key strategic objectives, they’re reflecting how we look in three years. And so we’re continually updating them and then we’re communicating and across the organization. So those VSOs are getting you to know, kind of revisited and generated year over year. We have quarterly business reviews where we’re looking at the quarter that has been and the future quarter, and then we do monthly business reviews that look at the month that happens. And then kind of again, as a leadership team, really getting into the specifics of anything we want to change or what’s Off Plan that we need to think about all those kinds of things. So we’ve been doing that now for six or seven years. And it’s been it’s just been so critical for our scale, how we sought some advice and they put us through the wringer in the first couple of years getting into that rhythm but now it’s just natural for us and the company is aware of it and they expect it you know when we hit fiscal year start, it’s like okay, case you look at our case CIOs Now, let’s talk about the plan for the year and so so it’s really ingrained in our business.

Tony Zayas 44:47
So that was something you’ve worked with someone to develop that process and cadence.

Nicola Dickinson 44:54
Yeah, we sought outside help. And really, you know, we actually knew A couple of other technology companies that had used this outside help. And we had to fight really hard to get his attention and say we were worth his time too because he’s just so amazing at what he did. He lived through lots of technology startups and going public and all these things. So we really valued that whole that history and experience he had. We got on his butt, you know, we got on his radar. And then, and there’s, you know, there was a lot of like, hard work in the early years, but it paid off because it got us into the right rhythm as a leadership team to kind of keep moving the needle forward.

Tony Zayas 45:35
That’s great. We will talk about strategic planning, you know, quite often on the show, but I love your approach, as structured as it is, I think that’s great. And I think, a lot of takeaways for people that are watching, so thank you.

Andy Halko 45:51
I’m curious how you determine when was the right time, if I’m a founder, you know, when do I know it’s time to up my game with strategy and organization? You know, is it day one, I just need to be thinking about that and be, but I can’t afford to bring somebody in to do it. You know, is there any thought to like, when is the right time to really be improving these systems in major ways?

Nicola Dickinson 46:20
I mean, I think, yeah, I mean, as entrepreneurs, you’re constantly always strategically planning, and it’s kind of that that goes without saying from day one. But I think, you know, I really think it’s about your product readiness, your market growth, you know, I think there are those indicators for you to know, okay, what, you know, you look at, you know, for example, your customer journey, and you look at, you look at also what’s happening in the market, and even just your product, your product maturity, and I think if you if you have a good feeling that the there’s an opportunity, your products ready for the market, as well as it’s at that right maturity level, to really take it to that whole next level, from a scale perspective, I think those are the indicators around when you’re ready to ready to do it, because because because it is an investment, it’s an investment of your time, it’s a, it’s an investment, you know, from a dollars perspective, and so it has to pay off. And so you, you don’t want to do it too soon. Because in the early days, you need to be super agile. And you just got to kind of add some ad hoc components to how you do your strategic planning. And that’s just kind of how it has to work. To me, that’s my perspective. But then when she started to get to a certain size or your products got a certain maturity level, and I know not saying certainly very mature, but like at that kind of beyond early adopter level, then I think, then you get serious with building that structure. Because the advantages I’ve seen too if you’re doing it early enough is the rest of the company really gets on board with it. And then all of a sudden, it really does start to catapult and I think, and so it’s not too late, I think it has to be if you have means financial means try to do it as soon as possible for sure.

Andy Halko 48:06
Was there anything and I know, this is really hard to think of one thing, but like, a catalyst for you? Was there a certain hire or implementation of a system? Or, you know, a marketing approach? That was a catalyst for, you know, some some solid traction of growth? Was there anything that you’ve seen over your time that really impacted in a big way?

Nicola Dickinson 48:34
Yeah, I mean, I think I think the biggest one for me was early days, like, you know, when we started the company, we decided to pursue an opportunity that, you know, was a big deal. And, and, and we just said, Let’s go for it, we’re gonna give it our best shot and see how it goes. And that opportunity was actually the Vancouver Olympics. And we were not much of we weren’t a brand, we were competing against big names like Oracle and, and, and even Microsoft, actually, at that time with another product. And, and so we just said, we’re going to go for it. And so we, we went out there, we really worked hard to get this organized. It was at the time, they weren’t the organizing committee, so they were in a big organization at the time, they were probably maybe 100 people and just went for it. And even despite advice, we were getting, like you’re crazy, they’re not even getting there’s no way the Vancouver Olympics is going to use your product or, you know, to run their operations from an administration perspective. And, and, you know, I think I think, you know, it never takes relationships for granted. And I built a great relationship or my probably my co-founder, with the CFO there we, it just worked. And they selected us and it was you know, it was super exciting. And then after that, I think it really opened our eyes to the possibilities, like the fact that we, we won that business being even not local, at the time, we were flying back and forth, the other competitors were down the street, they just saw us as somebody that really understood that you know, their business. And, and then, you know, being able to tell that story. And you talked earlier about, you know, a risk-averse market. Well, you know, imagine how they’re, you know, the confidence that builds when they hear about an organization, you know, out in front, you know, you know, had to be successful, you know, the Olympics needed to run well. And so being able to say, the Olympics ran well, we were there technology provided that helped them do it, they went from that 100 employees to 2000 employees, over that time we worked with them. And, and so that I think really put us on the map, for sure, it kind of helped it built our confidence that we, we, you know, we could persevere. And, and I think it also, you know, indicated the market that, that, that we should be considered as a technology partner.

Andy Halko 51:12
Great stories.

Tony Zayas 51:15
So, Nicola, what’s on the horizon for the next, you know, 12 months here, in SparkRock.

Nicola Dickinson 51:22
For us, you know, we are really embracing, you know, the Microsoft technology stack, you know, so we’re, you know, one of the great things that have happened for us is that Microsoft, about three or four years ago, came up with a team called Tech for social impact, and that really aligns to our business vision, our culture, our product, and so we’re going to continue to embrace the data verse, you know, all of the capabilities within the Microsoft technology stack, like AI, and analytics, they’re, you know, we’re gonna really kind of hone in on those capabilities. You know, the key thing is that we’re gonna, we’re gonna, we’re going to be the other big thing for us is the data protection, the data, cloud security, and data, we’re gonna embrace that more and more, we’re gonna go deeper into that. And so the roadmap is super exciting for us as we start to release more and more of those capabilities. I mean, from a growth perspective, we’re going to continue to grow in North America, we have plans to grow globally, that’s kind of that’s out as well as part of our K I K. K. So as well, so it’s, it’s about how we continue to grow the product and get the foot the customer base outside of North America and the long term future.

Andy Halko 52:38
Fantastic. So a final question that I like to ask every founder, if you were able to go back in time to before you started the business and having coffee with yourself? What advice would you give?

Nicola Dickinson 52:53
Oh, um, I would say, it’s, it’s, yeah, it’s, I would say that there’ll be bad days, but there’ll be a lot of great rewarding days, and write out those bad days. Because, you know, the next day will be just fine. I think. Yeah, I mean, I think and believe in your people, you know, believe in your network and your support system and your colleagues. And, you know, you know, make sure you know, continue, but you know, that that I think is a big one, too. It’s just kind of you don’t have to do it alone.

Andy Halko 53:28
Yeah, that’s great.

Tony Zayas 53:30
That’s great. For those who are tuned in and Nicola, can you share where people can pay attention to SparkRock? You know, what website, obviously, but also on social and also how they can pay attention to you in your journey?

Nicola Dickinson 53:44
Absolutely. So we’re at SparkRock, sparkrock.com. You can find me on LinkedIn. Under your Nikola Dickinson, you can follow us on LinkedIn as well. You know, that’s we find SparkRock. We put out lots of good stuff about the work we do with our customers if you want to learn more about that. So you’ll see that a lot on all those social media channels on our website.

Tony Zayas 54:11
Awesome. Well, Nicola, thank you so much. Really, really appreciate your time here today. Thanks, everyone, to the end. We will see you again.

Andy Halko 54:23
Thanks, everybody. Thank you, Nicola.

Nicola Dickinson 54:25
Hey, thank you very much, guys!

Tony Zayas 54:27
Take care. Bye

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