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I have designed some awful t-shirts in my life. In fact, I’ve started 3 different t-shirt companies in my life, my first at 16 (featuring some stupid quip about my virtual pet eating my family that even I don’t get anymore).  I realized today how much I have learned about business – and technology – in the eighteen years since I started out, and how different the relationship between the two is now. In fact, I posit that business and I.T. are now so intertwined that the companies treating them separately – with I.T. still viewed as a cost center, or perhaps as an execution arm – will get left behind, if they haven’t already. Hear me out.

 

When I started, the entire t-shirt business was pretty old-school. Yes, I sketched my artwork with a computer. But that’s where technology ended.  Everything else, from the printshop to the retailers I sold my designs through, were pretty much offline. Digital schmigital. People still paid by check. I still drove to the bank. My shirts were still sold in something called stores. The kind people actually drove to.

 

Today? A few years back I built a new t-shirt business from the ground up. I built an ecommerce site. I developed my own order and inventory management system, and a rudimentary CRM system to track my wholesale relationships. I integrated to shipping company API’s, built online order tracking systems, and drove visitors to my site through a tireless arsenal of paid search, social media, and press relations. I processed returns and customer service requests in a basic help system. My marketing database was tied to my customer order history and my email marketing system. All by myself, and all from behind a computer.

 

Whooptee freaking doo, right? Why does any of this matter?

 

I could never have done what I did – turned an initial $300 investment into a six figure business in a little over a year – without technology. The same stuff that enormous I.T. departments in Fortune 500 corporations do – enable transactions, track goods, support both customer and back-office facing services – I did on my own, on a much smaller scale, from a cheap laptop sitting on my sofa. Perhaps more importantly (for me, and many companies 10,000 times my size), I could never have reached the amount of customers I did a tsuch a low cost.  Sales and marketing –two pillars of the “business” – are now married at the hip to technology.  I moved $36,000 in t-shirts over 4 weeks from a single email social media engagement that made its’ way to CNN.

 

I.T. analysts talk quite a bit these days about business and IT alignment. I think it’s important to further qualify that idea a bit: everyone in business today is in the technology business.  The two may be kept separate from an organizational standpoint, but if your company is still suffering from or stoking tension between I.T. and your business units, it’s time to act swiftly and without mercy.

 

Examples of business/IT joint successes:

 

  • If you can shave a few milliseconds off a retail transaction time, how much faster does a line move? How much does customer satisfaction improve? How much more revenue does that earn? I shop at Target (almost) purely for the joy of watching my receipt print out the moment my card is swiped.
  • Brilliant business plans – like giving away games and earning through in-app purchases and advertising – are marriages between business and I.T. strategy. My daughter wants to buy smurfberries, or something like that, on her ipod touch. Smurfberries. She's 7.
  • Social media and the helpdesk - I love this one. Called a major web hosting provider and couldn't get my complaint resolved over the phone. Posted my problem publicly to twitter and their twitter support crew solved my problem in minutes. The business understands the importance of social media and ZMOT, and has clearly worked with I.T. to bridge the two - so much so, that the phone support guys may not have access to the same level of approvals to resolve customer matters.

 

I’ll argue (and I think win) that customer expectations have surpassed most company’s technical realities today.  I downloaded an airline app the other day that let me check in from my phone – but not access my boarding pass, which I was still supposed to collect at the airline counter or kiosk. Ummm, fail. Good business and technology idea, poor collaboration.

 

I’ve bought stuff online for “in-store pickup” recently where the wait for the in-store pickup line was longer than just grabbing the item off the shelves and going through the regular checkout. Meh, I’ll pass on that experience next time. Technology was there, but business process wasn’t in line (and as a result, neither was I).

 

One national chain lets me order my sandwich at the click of a button from my phone, and it’s delivered to me “freakishly fast.” The sandwich is honestly just okay, but the experience is amazing. I’ve spent hundreds with them this year. 

 

Why go the bookstore when I can flip on my Kindle?
Why buy any music ever when there is Spotify?

Why call anyone every for anything when you can do it online? And if you can’t, is it worth doing (outdoor activities and general human involvement aside)? 

 

Can’t pinpoint a similarly revolutionary experience in your industry? Good for you. Put I.T. and your business together in a room and be the one who comes out winning.

 

A few companies are setting the bar so extremely high – many of them scrappy startups with multi-billion dollar valuations overnight, a few of them very established companies that saw the vision early and smoked out the dissenters in the ranks – that customers are now disappointed by what was considered an acceptable experience just a couple years ago. We want our coffee before we order it, dammit, and that’s hardly a joke. I researched, decided on, negotiated, and financed my car purchase last month entirely online. If the car companies are listening, let’s go the extra mile: why do I need to sign 50 papers and wait in your lobby for two hours? Why do I even need to wait for an email response to my offer? Can’t we set business rules and let technology barter with me?

 

In short, It’s everyone’s job, mine included, to catch up to our customers. And knowing that, why wouldn’t your business and technology strategies – and leaders – to be joined at the hip?