On this episode of Talks, we spoke to Jo Burgess. Jo is the Co-Founder and VP of Evolution at Shortcuts, who provide technology solutions to hair salons, beauty salons, spa clinics and barbershops. With over 14,000 customers across 45 countries in her purview, Jo holds a wealth of knowledge around driving growth in a tech business. She shares insight into the pro’s and con’s of transforming businesses using technology as well as her journey through the peak of COVID, and how they shifted their focus. 

 

First and foremost, we like to really sort of get to know everyone that comes on talks. The first question normally is if you can just sort of give us a background as to as an organization, what does shortcuts do as well as what is your key role in the organization, especially with the title as fancy as V.P. of Evolution? That’s a pretty innovative sort of title.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool isn’t it. Like I can kind of makeup and do whatever I want? No, it doesn’t. Yeah thanks for having me. Well, basically, for twenty six years, Shortcuts has been helping the hair and beauty industry and business owners in that industry enhance and grow their business so that they can thrive within the industry, which we absolutely love without risk or compromise. So essentially, we provide technology solutions to hair salons, beauty salons, spa clinics and barbershops. And we have currently over 14,000 customers across 45 countries throughout the world. 

So Shortcuts is part of Jonas Software, which is a company that acquires, manages and builds industry specific software companies globally and Jonas within an operating group of Constellation Software Inc., which is a public company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. So a company within a company within a really big organization.

 

Wow. Just a side note on that. How does that work the day to day? Is it sort of working within that framework with the different stakeholders?

No, it’s really not Jonas Software buy companies and let them run themselves. So they like companies to maintain their culture, their customer base. They like to keep the founders and the team in place. And we just leverage off the ability of being part of a big group. So, some of our sister companies are our competitors, but it’s actually really, really good. And they purchased software companies with the intention of growing them and they never sell them. They’ve never sold one company.

 

Wow okay. That’s definitely a different way of going about it. That’s really cool. And you’re obviously in an industry that is in this weird dichotomy of software, fast moving, the Facebook mantra, move fast and break things, etc. etc. So many software businesses and digital businesses as a whole had massive growth through the COVID-19 epidemic. But at the same time, your customer base of 14,000 customers across 45 countries, that’s a huge footprint, are in an industry that relies on direct human to human contact. How has COVID-19 affected your business, good or bad? And what have you seen sort of come out of it this year?

Yeah, cool. Well, it’s an interesting question. I’ll answer it in two ways. One, I’ll tell you internally and then externally. So internally, we were very quick to form a plan. Being a global company, we had heads up from other places in the world prior to really impacting Australia and so we moved to working from home really early on and we were pretty well equipped to do so. And we’ve actually found that our productivity hasn’t really been affected negatively at all making this shift. And now, like a lot of businesses in Australia, we’re slowly transitioning back to the office days, but it’s pretty gradual and you know I think we’re finding our new normal. But when it all did hit and we went all working from home and then we knew that the impact was going to be sort of pretty severe on our business globally. We really adopted a philosophy that if everyone suffers a little, then no one has to suffer a lot. So we asked our staff very early on to drop down to four days a week, which enabled us to retain our workforce. So we haven’t really had to make any big cuts and I think that was a really good decision that was made early on and it was embraced by all of our employees. They were very happy to be part of that. And that philosophy sort of permeated through all the different departments right across the globe within our company. So that was good. So that was kind of internally how it affected us because we didn’t know what the impact was going to be to our customer.

And then externally, obviously, during the peak, our focus, like many businesses, shifted from growth and acquiring new customers to making sure our existing customers and our industry had what they needed to ride the storm and hopefully come out the other side stronger than before. So we put a real focus on highlighting how we could help by creating and sharing ways for salons to continue making money even whilst their doors were closed, so we did that in a few ways and I think we’ve got some questions coming up where we can talk about that. But, you know, creating and sharing content and solutions that would help them. We sort of jumped on that sort of pretty quickly on. Then we also spent a lot of time working with our industry associations, of which we have really good relations with across all our regions to make sure that we were doing whatever we could. So whether that be offering a fee relief for salons on a case by case basis, which we did, which obviously had an impact to us as running a business, as well as showing salons that how our software, our solutions and us as an organisation could help keep their businesses running even if their doors aren’t open and what do they do as restrictions lift and they start to go back to business. How could we, as a technology partner for them, help them. So that was our focus. So that was what impacted us, I think the most.

 

Yeah okay. And you sort of talk there a little bit about equipping your customers and equipping their businesses with tools that they could use, where appropriate, to keep the lights on, so to speak, until their customer base sort of came back. I would imagine a big part of that. And in fact, everything that you do is obviously, technology based and as an agency, we see so many different stories coming out about businesses and in fact, end users, as we call them, or customers or individuals who have these incredible stories of technology really transforming and elevating their lives or people’s lives. At the same time, there are so many stories and there’s so much out there in the media about how technology can be very destructive in someone’s life. And there’s a big swing in the community back to, you know, living off grid or living meaningfully and living a purposeful life and things like that and enormous trending away from technology. How do you, so in the business world, just keeping those two different lines of thinking or those sort of divergent realities in mind, how do you see technology transforming businesses in good or bad or both ways? What is your view on that as a technology company? 

It’s a huge focus for us and I didn’t actually touch on what I do as VP of evolution. But what I do do in my role is research, consumer trends, industry trends, I work with key strategic partners like the likes of Google and our key customers to determine what we need to do with technology, to service our industry and to feed our road map, basically, and give us strategic opportunities in the future. So with that in mind, a huge focus that we have with building technology solutions is to make them frictionless because we built software for salon owners and businesses, but really their customers interact with our technology just as much as they do. So, you know, we’ve designed a guest experience, so a guest experience of a salon and mapped out all of the various different touch points in which our technology represents the salon’s brand in that experience. And so we try to make those as frictionless and as minimal as possible so that these days, and if you ask me what the salon of the future looks like with technology, it’s highly driven by technology, but that technology is hardly seen. So it’s very discrete touch points throughout the journey that help facilitate the journey and provide the best service and provide the operators and the hairdressers and the technicians that are doing the work with the information they need at the right time to deliver an amazing experience for the client. So even though we’re using technology more and more, it’s seen less and less. So soon, very soon I hope, there will be no reception desks in salons and there’ll be no paper and, you know, touchless payments. Everything will be completely invisible, powered by technology. So that’s a way that it can help and is good. And if that experience is not good, then that can be bad. So, for example, if a salon has an online booking experience that is clunky, hard to use, crashes, causes problems, then that can have a negative impact on the experience of the brand. If you book a haircut with a salon, you don’t go “Oh that technology they’re using is, omg it’s too hard I’m going to someone else. 

Cooper: It’s one in the same. The technology and the salon are one in the same.

Totally, so I think that that’s something that, as the head of product and managing our roadmap, that I’ve instilled in all of our employees, is that the number one stakeholder in the entire experience is the guest of the salon and making sure that we can build solutions that enable them to deliver a brand experience that is theres and not an out of the box clunky technology solution. So that’s, I think, a good way that technology can help salons. I mean, obviously, it’s invaluable for maintaining communication, particularly through this time. So whether it via email, sms, the software platform, an app or social media, I think it is transforming the way that brands can speak directly to their customers. And especially now there’s this concept of fake news and people don’t want to listen to the news anymore. And they don’t trust mainstream media that brands that are savvy and trusted and that can communicate directly through their clients, through things like social media are going to become far more influential and build a connection between the business and the customer, even if they can’t see them physically.

So I think that a salon is very much, it’s a local community, you know, social experience. And so salons, we’ve seen a huge rise in them adopting social media and using it to connect with their clients during these times, whereas before they’re not the type of people that sit on social media all day long like the rest of us, because they’ve got their hands in someone’s hair all day or they’re doing waxing some legs. So they’re not looking at social media. So they didn’t really understand fully the power of having a strong social media or digital marketing channel. And during COVID, they absolutely embraced it. So, you know, we were there to help sort of guide that.

Cooper: You’re right about the seamless experience. A customer has a bad experience. It’s not the software that’s blamed, it’s the salon or the user or the client of the software. But at the same time, yeah, they’re going to pin that pretty directly back . So it’s pretty critical. 

Absolutely, yeah totally. And things have changed, you know, I mean, we first built online booking more than a decade ago and the experience then is completely different than it needs to be today. And tolerance of guests and consumers is a lot less. They want it quick. They want it now. Click click, am I in. If not, I’ll move on to the next one. So yeah, so that’s good and bad if you don’t have it. 

I’ll also say that, you know, when COVID hit and we thought about how can we help salons. One of the things that we built was this concept of pre-arrival and ad hoc messaging to a client. So if you think about a hairdressing salon. You’ve got people finishing up their service at the same time as a whole bunch of other people are arriving for a service. So all of a sudden you’ve got double capacity in a salon. So we were like, okay, when these salons do open up and especially in areas where they’ve been closed for a long time, we need to help salons control the traffic. So we’ve built in automated and manual messages so that you can send a message to a client saying, looking forward to seeing you in an hour, please be near by the salon, but don’t come in until you receive the text saying that your technician is available for you. And then so, again, really discreet little tech touch points that service the guests and made them feel secure and really connected and considered as part of the experience of visiting the salon.

 

Yeah, yeah. Awesome. That’s fantastic. Something that I sort of thinking about before our call is, so many businesses that are technology based, are so focused on growth and it’s growth above all else. I feel like this year that has augmented or it has changed a little bit like you were touching on earlier. You know, go from growth to looking after existing customers. I guess in this new normal now and in the months and years to come, what are some of your tips and tricks or what is some of your advice around driving growth in a business? Some recommendations around how business owners can look for growth and potentially a relatively low growth world? 

Yeah, we’re definitely right in the thick of that. Number one, I’d say, lead the conversation in your industry for sure. Be the first to market whether that be features or products or initiatives. Look for how you can innovate and stand out from the pack when it comes to your competitors. Brand awareness, staying in front and center of your customers mind through tough times so that when you come out on the good. Thinking about things that you can implement potentially into your product or into your business, that is strategic, where the growth might build, but it might come in a year or 18 months time. So different features that you can build in that are scalable, start them now, because the sooner you start, the sooner you’re going to reap the rewards of growth when businesses can afford those things or when they’re ready for it. 

I would also say align with influencers or industry thought leaders and seek out brand advocates to authenticate and amplify your brand. An existing customer that has an amazing experience with you is going to help you sell and attract future customers easier than yourself talking about yourself. You know, we’re not really about that. We’re about talking about the success stories that we can be part of from our customers. So that helps us.

The other thing I would say is to listen to your customers, particularly their problems, what they need, ask them what they want, ask them how you can help and then use that knowledge to create solutions that help solve their problems. So some good examples of that would be, no time for training when you implement a new software system. A problem might be, it’s just too hard to switch over or whatever. So we’ve implemented online classrooms that run every single week at various different times so that the options are easy for them, make it easy for your customer to solve the problem or mitigate their objection potentially for not going with you.

 Another thing that we’ve done recently is we know that salons really struggle with social media because they’re not spending all day long on social media. Yes, they are in the evening, but that’s their only time and they don’t know how to execute a social media strategy. So if you look at a typical hairdressing salon or a beauty salon’s social media grid, it’s just full of headshots before and after. And after a while, they all look same same. And so they don’t get the engagement from their followers and they don’t understand what to do because they know how to do hair, so they just keep posting pictures of hair. So we created a membership platform where we provide content, by the way, of, you know, fill in the gaps, style captions and images which we take. So we go to salons and we take shots and we provide every single month enough social media images and captions for them to take and use as inspiration to fill in the gaps so that they’re not posting here all the time. So those types of things. So when we ask them, what are you struggling with, with social media, it’s the time, I don’t know how to take a good photo, I don’t know how to write a good caption, you know, and I don’t understand it. So we’re like, okay, we can solve that. We can create a membership platform every single month, provide them with education and content that they can use in their social media feed, and that saves them hours every month. 

Cooper: Yeah that’s a huge timesaver. 

But that’s an example of where that idea for that product came from, listening to our customers tell us, that this is something that we’re struggling with. And it’s not specifically software and it’s not something in Shortcuts, but it’s something that we’re good at and that we can help provide a solution. So think a little outside of the box, and I think that will give you other opportunities for growth.

 

Right yeah, listening to your customers. That’s a really great tangible example of how that can be put into action to benefit everyone. And something else that I wanted to touch on is your 14,000 customers, 45 countries, twenty seven years in business. That is a really strong track record for a software company. You must have some war stories of some of the really great experiences in building technology and building out roadmaps and working on features and pretesting and all those different things. You must have some really great stories and some real war stories on some products or challenges that you’ve seen. Have there been any standouts, really big success stories or wins from a tech perspective as well as any really big sore points or sticking points?

Yes, so many of both. So many of both. So, yeah, when I think about this, I’m like, there are so many best experiences that you had that we’d be talking for hours. But overall, it is always seeing a hypothesis be validated. So as being the first software company to produce something like two-way appointment sms confirmations, which is what we did way more than a decade ago, and just thinking that was a good idea.  And thinking that, you know, before it really was used anywhere and now to see it be the industry standard. That everybody expects to get a text message reminder for their hairdressing appointment. These days we send around two million text messages a month through our platforms. You know, those sorts of things are found are fantastic. Same with online booking, thinking that because restaurants are starting to do it and you’re booking flights online, why couldn’t that work for the hairdressing industry and the industry initially first going, we don’t want that, we don’t want access to our appointment book, this is really scary, our competitors are going to know what we’re doing, but believing that we could design it in a way that would work for the guest and would work for the business and then seeing that actually come to fruition. So all in all, I guess predicting trends or coming up with an idea and then having it validated by it being a success and helping them, therefore us. 

And so then I guess that leads to the flip side. 

Cooper: Yeah, the challenges. 

You know, the worst is building something that costs a fortune that never sees the light of day.

Cooper: Oh, yes. Yep, I know that.

Right. Doesn’t get any traction. Something that you think is going to go bananas and it costs a fortune and, you know, to the cost of something else that you couldn’t develop because you really believe and it just doesn’t get the traction, that is the worst. And coming to that decision to bin something or close the doors on something that just didn’t work. But, you know, like I always say, you either get what you want or the lessons that you need when it comes to anything. So I guess those experiences make us realise how important it is to clearly define what success looks like. When is this going to be successful and when are we going to call it a day if it’s not? And how much are we prepared to invest to get no return versus how comfortable are we that we’re going to get a decent return on investment and then, you know, I guess model out the best in the worst case scenarios of those. Whereas in the early days it was just gut and we’re just going to do this. Now we have a bit more of a considered approach to, is this really going to work and what validation have we got behind that? It’s going to give us some confidence, it’s more likely going to work than not because we don’t want too many of those bad scenarios where we bin tech.

Cooper: Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more.