By Danny Bradbury, Contributor
Small businesses around the world have been struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—and so have their customers.
When things get tough, true leaders lean in to find opportunity in the face of adversity. That’s what happened with two members of the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN), who leveraged technology as a tool to help customers through these strange times.
Caring for Customers at a Distance
When the health crisis hit, Cathi Coan, CEO of Techway Services—a Dallas-based company that refreshes customers’ technology solutions while disposing of their old products responsibly and securely—found herself unable to help customers on-site.”Our technicians go on site to wipe or shred the hard drives,” says Coan, but Dallas County’s shelter-at-home policy caused many customers to ban on-site visits for health reasons. Still they couldn’t afford to have mounds of sensitive data piling up on unsupported equipment in the office, and needed it erased.
“The number one concern of most companies is data protection,” Coan continues. “When any laptop or other device leaves a facility without being either encrypted or wiped or shredded, there’s a risk.”
So Techway worked with its data-wiping software provider to adapt the product for remote wiping. Techway preceded a June 1, 2020 product launch with a pilot enabling its technicians to send a link to clients. When they clicked it, they were guided through a secure erasing process that obliterates all data on the device’s drive.
“It’s an easy user interface that lets the customer click and wipe the drives, and verify them afterwards,” she says. It sends a message to the cloud confirming that the data has been deleted, so the company has a record that it is complying with data protection rules. “It saves time and it helps their people because they don’t have to be in contact with a human being during this scary time,” Coan adds. “It’s more cost-effective for them as well.”
Innovating in Virtual Worlds
While Coan’s solution enables her customers to safely destroy data, Amber Allen’s enables them to build new worlds with it. As the founder of experiential marketing company Double A Labs, Allen produces immersive events utilizing technology for entertainment, media, and tech companies. But, COVID-19 caused conference organizers to cancel events across the board—South By Southwest, E3, and Comic-Con were among the high-profile gatherings off the agenda.
As a result, Allen had to find other ways to help clients reach their audiences. Among them was YouTube, which hosts regular small dinner parties to teach YouTubers how to use its technology better. Those events, which targeted a couple dozen influencers at a time, were no longer possible in a quarantined world.
Allen created a virtual dinner party. She contacted the CEO of OpenTable to find the best restaurants local to invitees. She arranged for Uber Eats to deliver takeout food from the restaurants simultaneously to all guests at their own homes as they participated in an interactive learning game and conversed with each other via Google Meet.
That was a one-off project for YouTube, organized in just a week and a half, but Allen had bigger plans: Her team took a piloted project that was developed in 2017 and refocused its efforts from physical events into a cloud-based platform, delivering a valuable product that continued to drive measurable connections beyond the confines of the physical space.
The cloud-based platform, called Phygital World, hosts custom digital spaces for companies stymied by the coronavirus. Online visitors can see virtual environments using a web browser (and soon smartphones).
Double A Labs uses the Unity 3D Gaming Engine to develop this content, enabling companies to quickly spin up digital alternatives to physical environments. “The whole idea is to have an open channel with your community. And that’s what we’ve always been passionate about,” Allen says.
The Phygital World platform has helped companies continue engaging people during a health crisis that has stopped them from visiting physical spaces. For example, Double A had built a physical lab for Verizon in October 2019 to demonstrate new products and services to investors, high-level customer executives, and journalists. The coronavirus made that difficult to use, so Allen’s team built a virtual version of the lab that it will use externally to market its 5G services.
Some of the larger events that she’s worked on include a launch of new Dell Alienware PCs (see image on the left) to engage with customers in a world that’s still sheltering at home. About 10,000 visitors stopped by that virtual space during the 14-hour event. This wouldn’t have been possible without the power of the cloud, Allen explains. “Learning how to scale up has been really powerful. We’ve worked with different teams to stress test our system.”
Phygital also helps companies link the content attendees are viewing in the virtual world to later stages in their client’s journey. That lets Double A’s customers gauge the success of their marketing activities. This digital data analysis is the Holy Grail for companies eager to ensure they’re investing their marketing dollars wisely.
Preparing For the New Normal
Thanks to benefits like these, Allen doesn’t think things will return to normal after the health crisis has abated. In the long run, Phygital won’t go away, she says. Neither will it replace physical conferences. Instead, it will enhance them. It will allow companies to overlay augmented reality components into physical environments, meaning that as conferences and other events reopen, companies will combine physical and digital events together.
COVID-19 has helped her accelerate a business plan that she had already laid out, she explains—she was just waiting for the market to catch up. “What was in my three-year business plan has now happened in six months,” Allen says. “It accelerated the digital business that we had already built. We didn’t pivot—it was the clients who pivoted.”
Coan is also convinced that the pandemic has changed the future for Techway Services and does not believe that business will be the same moving forward. Her remote-wiping concept is here to stay. “This solution will still be used to assist in remote locations and one-off projects,” she says.
Advanced technology resources alone won’t help a business to weather adversity, but combined with creativity, character, and pure chutzpah, it can turn a problem into a possibility.