Monday afternoon I find myself walking onto a familiar stage: Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville TN, home of annual the 36/86 Conference. Now in its fifth year, this technology conference highlights innovation, culture, startups and food from the southeast and attracts entrepreneurs from across the region as well as investors, nationally. This year, attendees had access to insights from Steve Case (in a lively opening banter with TechCrunch's Senior Editor Jon Shieber), Sen. Bill Frist MD (at a jam-packed "Ask Me Anything" session) and FedEx CEO Fred Smith (interviewed by none other than the Governor of Tennessee himself, Bill Haslam). Beyond heavy hitters on stage and cutting edge innovators from the southeast in the audience, 36/86 is powered by Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership fostering entrepreneurship with the bold aim of making Tennessee the most startup friendly state in the country.
My role at 36/86 this year (it's my third trip to Nashville specifically to contribute to this event) - was to moderate the closing keynote conversation with Walmart's Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Jeremy King.
Thirty minutes under the bright lights on the big stage with the executive responsible for technology - online, on mobile devices and in Walmart's 4692 U.S. stores, plus integrating recent eCommerce acquisitions (ModCloth, MooseJaw, Shoes.com, Hayneedle,and Jet.com) - and stop for a second, let's step back to remind ourselves that this 52 year-old company is number one on the Fortune 500 list and with 155 stores in the state is Tennessee's number one employer. No pressure, right?
For an executive overseeing a massive range of innovation responsibilities (U.S. retail technology (i.e. cash registers), Walmart Labs, and Jet technology as well as global presence in infrastructure, cloud, and data platforms) Jeremy is surprisingly, well-relaxed and in his MooseJaw t-shirt, Walmart Labs socks and blazer could be mistaken for a startup founder. Jeremy's a geek (he has a bachelor's degree in information technology from San Jose State University) and displays an infectious enthusiasm when talking about technology.
Jeremy's big mandate is to create a seamless shopping experience for Walmart customers - anytime and anywhere - in retail stores, online, and through their mobile devices. To achieve this he's reorganized a number of project teams (the tech team working on in-store technology now works alongside the eCommerce team) to ensure the customer's experience and expectation (from display to pricing to delivery) is in the forefront of everything they implement.
In 30 minutes, Jeremy and I cover a wide-range of topics from the number one selling beer in Tennessee (no, it is not locally-brewed favorite Yazoo) to managing dispersed teams (while he's based in Silicon Valley, Jeremy has tech teams located across the country including Bentonville, Hoboken, Bangalore, Portland, Reston, and Carlsbad), to delivering on the customer expectations (hello! Free shipping!) to lousy mobile / wifi coverage plus the technology he's geeking out on right now.
But it's the lessons from the organizational and digital transformation he's tackling head on that 36/86 audience (and now you) can implement right now into your business (regardless of size) that are the biggest (start doing this today) takeaways:
1. Focus on the customer! This should be obvious for all startups, but it is a good reminder, as sometimes founders get too enamored with their product and technology.
2. On hiring and leadership: Don't procrastinate on making changes! Jeremy notes you'll never go back and say, "I made people changes too early".
3. Delivering today beats future vision everyday! It is great to look ahead and have an expanded vision for your product however, if you don't get that next customer there isn't an "ahead". It's up to you to consistently deliver on your customer promise - nobody else is going to do it for you.
4. Be deliberate about your culture! You're likely heard it before but culture is almost impossible to change later and "culture eats strategy for lunch" every day of the week.
5. Think about scale (before pitching to a strategic customer or partner such as Walmart). While it doesn't mean you have to have scaled your product already, it does mean that you shouldn't pitch Jeremy something that would be impractical at scale for 4,692 stores, 50+ million items, 2+ million world-wide employees, etc.
And as for what Jeremy is geeking out on right now, with all the data Walmart collects, it's machine learning (which FYI is used in many parts of their business including search, catalog, pricing, competitive intelligence, assortment, real estate, sourcing, supply chain, Sam's club....and the list goes on).
Find out more about 36/86 South. Yes, 36/86 records each year's sessions to post later on line (you can find my 2016 session featuring investor Joanne Wilson, here). And I'd suggest following Jeremy King @jeremybking on Twitter (to see what's geeking on next).