In an interview with Lief Larson, Founder & CEO of Workface, a leading-edge communication & relationship tool for talking to existing customers (and the new customers you want to create) across the Internet, we discuss the future of web-based marketing and social media, innovation, and government.
Explain the concept behind Workface. Where did you come up with the idea for this company?
The concept behind Workface is that, as customers, when we're thinking about buying something from a company it would be nice if there was a "human" option on their website, somebody you could see is online and that you could talk with in real-time. The idea came from witnessing (and personally experiencing) what a painful process it is for new customers to find real human beings online.
Our experiences with social media have increased our expectations for a more social experience, but most companies are lacking the human layer on their web sites. Many companies herd customers like cattle into "contact us" form fields or call centers. Workface was the extension of a belief that customers expect richer, more humanized engagement with companies. Most of our clients believe in what we believe in. They want to enable their sales and support teams to make instant and meaningful contact with their customers online.
What are you most passionate about as an innovator and entrepreneur?
I'm driven by seeing ideas come to life, but more importantly the creativity and process that is required to see the idea come to fruition. I'm only an entrepreneur out of necessity. It is extremely rewarding working with new aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators to help them turn their big ideas into reality.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being involved in a startup? What has been the most rewarding?
In every entrepreneurs life there will be points where you either feel demoralized or run into financing issues; these are the two leading killers of startups. The challenging part is overcoming these two issues. Having built and sold several businesses, I can speak from firsthand experience that the most rewarding part is being a survivor and knowing that your idea or business should have died, but you nevertheless persevered. Very often the early stages of the business are not about being successful, but finding out a way not to die. It sounds so cliché, but the reward is in the journey.
Since 2001, you have been working in web-based marketing and social media sciences. How do you see this field evolving in the next 20 years?
For too long the marketing pendulum has swung towards marketing automation. I believe that it will swing back in the direction of humanness. Web-based marketing is incapable of replacing humans. So, I think the next 20 years will be about creating and leveraging technology to better replicate and enhance the human experience in digital environments.
Large brands are all running head-first into social media because they know customers are social today, but their approach has been to automate their engagements with their customer and prospect audiences. I feel that defies the true opportunity to connect with customers in meaningful, humanlike, 1:1 relationships. Whether it’s a desktop, mobile, tablet or television, they are all just screens that overlay our lives. The real meaning comes from our connectedness with each other. Whether it's a customer down the street or a customer on the other side of the planet, I believe technology will evolve to be a layer that removes geographic disparity while most closely replicating what it's like for two people to be in the same room together.
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation to me has several definitions. First, I believe that it's recognizing a problem that exists and figuring out a new approach to solving that problem. Second, I think innovation is a belief that the worthwhileness of your endeavor will trump the challenges you will undoubtedly face in realizing the ultimate solution. Lastly, I feel that innovation is a spirit that lives within each of us and is a constant reminder that there is always a better way to do something.
Do you believe the government should do more to aid small businesses like Workface? If so, what should they do?
In my opinion, the best help government can provide SMBs and SOHOs is to stay out of the way. Ninety-nine percent of small businesses are created and operated by honest people with pure intentions. Regulations intended to police the one percent have instead negatively handcuffed the majority. Even with regulation, there remains an unscrupulous one percent. Therefore, regulatory policy costs have offset the benefits.
Government aid doesn't solve the problems of small businesses, it only subsidizes them. A policy of smaller government with less taxes coming out of the pockets of hard working entrepreneurs and employees would have far greater stimulus effect than the greatest program created by government. In short, small businesses don't need a silent partner extorting taxes on each and every transaction. The silent partner called government nestled itself into small businesses and exacts a first-in-line position to dividends for every dollar moving within the business.
In addition to my entrepreneurial pursuits I have held non-paying public office roles (as a public sector representative) at local and state government levels. I have witnessed the incredible amount of dollars in the hands of government and the way dollars have been spent and my conclusion is that the private sector would have better utilized those resources to more impactful outcomes. Or, better yet, those dollars would have never materialized because they are still in the hands of the business owners and employees. It wasn't always this way in the U.S. and I wish with every ounce of my being that we revert back to a social pact of reason with government before the pitchforks come out.
Lief Larson can be contacted on Twitter: @lieflarson. Find out more about Workface at http://workface.com/.