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Insights from an insider tour of Silicon Valley and Shanghai's multi-billion dollar companies

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PlantMiner's Steve O'Keeffe at Linkedin Headquarters
Posted by Steve O'Keeffe

August 2017 will forever remain a highlight of my working life.

It was in August 2017 that I had the honour to represent PlantMiner on Westpac's 'Businesses of Tomorrow' Global Study Tour; a 2 week adventure visiting some of the most iconic and successful companies in the world.   The tour itself was part of the wider Businesses of Tomorrow program, and Westpac's 200th birthday celebrations.  More on the program here.

We travelled to Seattle and San Francisco in the US, then onto Shanghai in China and met with global brands such as LinkedIn, Airbnb, Uber, Disney and Huawei.  Our business visits included executive briefings, behind-the-scenes tours, and some incredible open discussions with founders and senior management.  It's impossible to list out all the take-aways but there were a few key themes and observations that really resonated with me that I have taken back to PlantMiner.

These are a few of the main ones…

We're really onto something!

One thing that amazed me from many of the San Fran tech giants were the stories of unlikely success that emerged from ideas that no-one really believed in initially. Airbnb struggled to convince people that anyone would want strangers in their home. LinkedIn tried to provide a way to search professional networks, but had to deal with the reality that their early networks simply didn't have many people in it! PlantMiner on the other hand, has always had people who believed in what we are doing. From our earliest days our users have (for the most part) "got it" when we talk about the efficiencies and opportunities we can unlock for them. From family operations with a single truck and bobcat to multinational construction companies who want a better way of doing business, people right across board can instinctively understand the value of our service. It's incredible to think that compared to some of the start-up 'unicorns' we so often try to emulate, we are coming from such a stronger starting position.  With PlantMiner, we're really on to something!

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Image: The HP Garage, considered the "Birthplace" of Silicon Valley, where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard launched the company that would become HP.

We're focussing on the right areas

I never expected any 'silver bullets' from any of the business visits, but what we did get was LOTS of validation that the team at PlantMiner are focussing on the right areas of our business. It turns out that even tech-giants still agonise over pricing models and product separation. I was heartened to learn that other brilliant minds also spend their days trying to engage their users...and admit to not always getting it right! Some of the oldest companies (think 100 years kind of old!) still struggle with organising and disseminating internal knowledge and information.  Despite the fact that sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the multitude of working parts that we need to deal with, and the answers are almost NEVER easy to get to, the PlantMiner team can take comfort that we're in good company, and that we're working on the right things.

Longevity and Quality:  Correlation more than coincidence

"Ride the lightning". "Hold on to the dragon’s tail". "Speed is currency". We heard lots of metaphors and anecdotes about moving quickly in the tech space, and the wild rides that are generated in the pursuit for that pace of development. Of course, as a tech start-up, we at PlantMiner can relate. But what I found fascinating was the way the well established brands we visited such as Boeing, HP and Disney were fixated and focused on quality. There was almost fanatical talk of quality of their products, of their service, and of their brands generally.  Quality is something we have worked hard to deliver at PlantMiner, but like everything it's a constant balancing act trying to achieve it while maintaining our speed of innovation. I don't know (yet) what the answer to striking that balance is, but I do know that if we want to be around in 50 years to talk about it, we need to keep quality in our sights.

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Image: PlantMiner's Steve O'Keeffe with Dylan Smith, Global Public Relations Lead at AirBnB HQ in San Francisco (a fellow Aussie!). 

People make the product

It wasn't a revelation to hear businesses everywhere talk about the importance of the people around the products. Not just the people that put products together, but the people who use them, and the people who are impacted by them. But it was interesting to hear LinkedIn and IBM talked about "humanizing" Big Data and trying to understand how it represents the human interactions that generate it. It was also fascinating to hear about the "war for talent" and the various ways companies seek to attain and retain great people in their businesses. Of course, as part of that war there were plenty of amazing work spaces and perks, but a key theme across all businesses was how they need to empower their people to contribute not only to work, but also to other social causes that mean something to them. LinkedIn talked about their InDays, and Salesforce have their 1-1-1 philosophy. PlantMiner has always had a generous spirit, but we've been inspired to look for better ways of harnessing that goodwill to make collective contributions that make a bigger and better difference.

There's plenty more to learn (right here in Australia!)

One thing I didn't properly anticipate was the incredible talent and passion I would observe in the other delegates on the tour. Sure, I always expected to be travelling with a bunch of high achievers, but I was blown away by each and every member of the group. It's fair to say that I got just as much out of hearing their stories, experiences and insights as I did from visiting the huge global companies. The people I travelled with represented businesses that covered such a wide range of industries and disciplines, from cyber security and drone countermeasures, right through to education, entertainment, recycling, healthcare and helping babies (and parents!) get a decent night's sleep. It was such a humbling privilege to be counted among them. At PlantMiner we have big dreams, but we know we still have a lot to learn in order to fulfil them. I'm thrilled to know that through the 'Businesses of Tomorrow' program, we now have an incredible support network of like-minded professionals right here in Australia.

Steve O'Keeffe from PlantMiner & Westpac's Businesses of Tomorrow

Image: PlantMiner's Steve O'Keeffe (bottom row, third from the right) and 19 other Westpac's Businesses of Tomorrow delegates in Shanghai. 

I’d like to offer my genuine thanks to the PlantMiner leadership for their generous act in sending me on the Global Study Tour – I will work hard to do my bit in implementing what I’ve learned. A huge thank you to Westpac for facilitating such an incredible program for Australian businesses. It was honestly a once in a lifetime experience.  Finally, to my fellow Businesses of Tomorrow delegates (or “BOTs” as we were affectionately known); thank you for everything. My life is richer for having you all as part of it, and may you Always run free like wild Horses who Shimmer in the Purple Rain.

Steve O'Keeffe

Steve O'Keeffe

Steve is the Product Manager at PlantMiner, where he drives product management, design and user experience for PlantMiner’s platform. In his free time, Steve runs the occasional marathon and pursues his passion for photography.