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Mike McKean is the Founder and CEO of The Knowland Group. Mike’s background is in business and IT. He has a BA in Political Science and Economics for University of Colorado at Boulder. He is also currently enrolled in the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School. Mike serves on the board of the Entrepreneur Organization, Washington, D.C. chapter. Mike has worked as a software engineer and enterprise architect for the financial sector primarily but also with some other areas before he founded The Knowland Group.
The Knowland Group provides business development solutions for the hospitality industry. They help businesses sell their services with four primary products/services: TargetNet, Insight, Readers and Event Booking Center. TargetNet is a sales automation tool. Insight is a unique database of groups and events held across the country. Readers is a daily list of updated leads of any group booked into a hotel for an event or group function. Event Booking Center is a sales staff on-demand service. Together, these create The Knowland Group’s Business Development Suite. The Knowland Group has been ranked the 2nd fastest growing private company in the travel industry by Inc. magazine and the 222nd fastest growing private company in the US in 2009.
First, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I read your company’s history and it’s one of the most interesting and compelling stories I’ve read for a company in a while. You have your basic struggles that lead up to a David versus Goliath moment and you slingshot him just right. (For those curious enough to read it: http://www.knowlandgroup.com/how-we-got-started.aspx)
My first question is regarding your earliest period at the company. You make it seem like you almost stumbled upon this Readers business opportunity and had to do it. What made this particular RFP more special versus the other ones you worked on? You had been doing development work for 6 years before this, but this was the first time you said ‘we have to make this’ when a client reneged? Could you tell us about how you initially decided to pursue this and how you tested it out in the market in the early stages?
In a nutshell, we did far more work on this RFP than on ones in the past. It was presented to us as such a sure thing we’d get the work at the end of the process, it made sense to go forward. We made trips to India, we spend hundreds of man-hours developing detailed processes, it was just a tremendous amount of work.
Over the course of several months we developed an entirely new and better way to run a hotel reader board service, heavily reliant on web technology. With it our client could have revolutionized the industry. When they passed after everything we had invested in developing this new service, and, in fact, didn’t even meaningfully respond to our phone calls and emails, we felt compelled to not let our work go to waste. It was one of those moments when you have an idea you know people are going to be interested in, so you just have to go for it.
In the summer of 2004 we began talking to Directors of Sales in the Washington DC metro area, collecting reader board data, generating sample reports, and writing the code for what would become our first version of Readers. After we launched on September 1 our first few clients were also invaluable in providing us with feedback and suggestions we incorporated into Readers. More than 2,000 clients later, we have made our idea a reality.
You clearly struggled early on and had some bad client experiences. Could you tell us about one or two particularly bad situations your company got into and how you overcame them (besides the IP lawsuit). What sort of lessons for managing/running your business came out of these experiences?
Like all businesses, we have had some clients who can be a challenge to work with at times, particularly when we were first starting out (or first launching a new product). But at the end of the day we believe, more than anything else, that our business is about our clients. Our number one core value is that we believe in adding client value. It really drives all that we do. So I would say that the challenging clients sometimes present the best opportunity to prove to ourselves what we really care about. It’s easy to have clients who love you. The ones who challenge you can help make you better.
The Knowland Group revolves around data and the power that can be derived from it. You were ahead of the curve in this area starting in 2004 in possibly one of the hottest fields in IT today. What strategies and tips can you give other startups in terms of the value of their data and how to extract value from having it?
The best advice is to remember there are always multiple ways to put good data to use. Just because you’ve always packaged it one way before doesn’t mean you can’t find another way to leverage it. Take Knowland. After our field researchers had collected data for Readers for a couple of years, we realized we had compiled one of the most extensive databases of group meeting activity in the world. By creating Insight, a search engine and mapping tool to help navigate that data, we could offer hotels a whole new level of targeted lead generation.
Data collection, mining and privacy all seem to be very inter-connected. Do you ever encounter issues related to privacy/morality/legality in working with the vast amount of data you collect? How do you handle these issues?
Managing a world-wide team of field researchers isn’t easy. We occasionally encounter a few bumps along the way, but that comes with the territory. The truth is that hotels have been collecting the same data for years; we’ve just found a way to conduct and share the research that’s easier for researchers and client hotels. When an issue does arise, we have an entire department dedicated to identifying and addressing it immediately.
Having the world’s largest database of meetings and events means data privacy and security is obviously a top priority. All our information is stored and maintained at a highly-secured mega data center. These facilities have multiple redundant backup systems stored on the same types of systems used by the New York Stock Exchange and the Department of Defense. Network technicians are available 24-7 so that our clients can securely access the data anytime, anywhere.
You’ve become an expert in helping companies find and generate new business. What part of your method is unique to the hospitality industry? What part is scalable to any sort of industry? What sort of advice would you give someone trying to do something similar in another industry?
What’s great about our four-step process of business development is, although it was originally created for our clients in the hospitality industry, it can easily be applied to any other industry. Putting our proactive approach into practice can help any company systematically grow their business, whether they’re selling cutting edge software, hotel conference space, or color copiers. It all comes down to finding the right leads, developing and executing a strategy designed to best target those prospects, and carefully evaluating and adjusting your efforts.
You’ve launched a few products/services after your initial Readers service. How do you innovate and test new ideas within your organization? How do you get your clients involved in the process? Readers had a unique ‘I want that’ attraction from the industry, do all the ideas you launch get the same reaction or how do you convince people?
Our first core value says it all: We believe in adding client value. All our products and services, including Readers, have come about in response to a growing need for something better – or something entirely new. Insight was developed initially as a way to help clients get more use out of the massive amount of data we compile. The idea of Target Net evolved more in response to client feedback about existing tools. The professional business development services we offer came about after sales staffs were being drastically cut and hotels needed experienced professionals to augment their proactive sales efforts. Everything we do comes back to adding value for our clients.
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