Data Technology Veteran, Dave Tucker, Joins Iron Comps as Senior Advisor6/29/2020
“You know, sometimes failures are just another great source of data” – Dave Tucker
The following article is a conversation between Dave Tucker, the new Senior Advisor to Tractor Zoom, and Andy Campbell, Marketing Director for Iron Comps, the solution powered by Tractor Zoom.
In mid-June I had the opportunity to video chat with Dave Tucker, the new Senior Advisor to Tractor Zoom. We discussed his recent move into a tech consulting and advisory role, and the Iron Comps product, powered by Tractor Zoom. Our conversation also broadened into topics like customer discovery, new trends within tech, and why Iowa makes such a great home to tech companies. The timing of this interview was just days before Tractor Zoom was awarded the Technology Association of Iowa’s Prometheus Award for Tech Start-up of the Year. This conversation begins with Dave providing background of his work experience and how he met Kyle McMahon (Founder and CEO of Tractor Zoom).
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was in Silicon Valley with Hewlett-Packard. Then, after taking a position as a Senior Software Engineer with another company for four years, our family returned to Iowa. We knew we wanted to raise our family in a good environment like Iowa. That initial return position was with a company called Engineering Animation in Ames, which went public back in the nineties. I stayed on with them through several acquisitions. Eventually it ended up part of Siemens. I joined WebFilings in 2009, which later became Workiva. Only about 10 people were working there at that point. I was there for 11 years and just recently stepped down.
Now I am doing consulting on my own and getting more engaged in the startup community, which I have already been involved with for the last 10 years. As a past chair of the Technology Association of Iowa, I have gotten to know many of the entrepreneurs around this area. It is funny because I saw Kyle’s pitch the first time out, and it was really bad. It was one of the early times he had delivered it, and I just was not very impressed. At the time he was outsourcing his product development. That's okay for a first iteration, but not a strong, sustainable solution.
As one of the investors in the Ag Startup Engine up in Ames, I have been able to witness Tractor Zoom’s progress. It is just getting better and better. I also now understand a little bit more as they go along. Then Mike Colwell from Square One suggested I talk with Kyle again. It was a very different conversation this time around. It was clear he had really gotten his head around Tractor Zoom’s strategy it’s execution. Their progression is cool. A very different story now.
You have seen the Tractor Zoom pitch evolve over the years and have had an opportunity to sit down with the development team in Des Moines recently to experience the product that is being used by farm equipment dealers and ag lenders. Can you summarize the advice that you gave the team?
I have been building cloud computing businesses for the past 11 years. You first need to come to terms with what you are good at and what you are not.
You must understand that data is at the heart of everything. The more that you can learn and understand what the data is that you have, and the ways that that data can provide value to people, the more likely you are to build a successful niche in the marketplace. However, that niche is never exactly where you think it is, but that is always the opportunity. This understanding is what a lot of organizations are doing these days and have a lot of success doing it.
On that point, Tractor Zoom has been adding quite a few more customers lately, with whom they have frequent check-ins to ensure a smooth onboarding process. During these calls the TZ team is discovering that some new partners are using the product in unintended ways. How do you react when you see your product being used in a new, different, manner?
This is where you have got to let your business ultimately be driven by the customer. When you see somebody, who is getting value from your product that you had not anticipated, it is up to you to dive into that and understand why. You have got to balance your vision of where you are going with your product, with being able to take a step back and say “Why is this valuable to somebody? Why should they care?”. If you do that and you start listening and incorporating their feedback, it ends up building a very customer centric culture. This is what we found at WebFilings and Workiva. In general, this balancing act leads to good things. You are providing value that people are seeking, and eventually, your Iron Comps product will begin providing them value they had not yet anticipated needing.
I think the [Tractor Zoom team] is on the right track when they do this method of customer service and communication.
Tractor Zoom, and their Iron Comps product are both continually improving and evolving. How do you balance agile iterative changes vs seeing through a longer-term strategic plan? Do you have any advice on the best way for companies to grow and evolve?
Your engineers have got to be involved. Be on those calls with your customers watching them walk through the product. ‘Reference Customers’, as we called them. We would always say you should have six customers say they really liked something before it's ready for prime time.
We focused on connecting customers to the technology team members. Instead of having a support line for people to call, we gave them the cell phone number of a customer success person. If the customer hit a snag, they had somebody on speed dial to immediately call. What that helped us do is a couple of things. One, when our software was not ready, somebody could help them work them through it. Two, it was a great source of feedback. That is how we continued to grow.
For [the Iron Comps product] specifically, I don't know the product well enough yet to know where Tractor Zoom needs to go. When I talk with the team, what I reinforce is, “Here's where I would come in as a new user, and here's what trips me up.”, and “Here's what I think this product is. Here is where I'm learning that. Here is what's preventing me from figuring the solution out.” I try to emphasize the importance of listening to that outside information and figuring out how to internalize it. Because, for Iron Comps, success is determined by how quickly and easily they get their banker and equipment dealer to their answer. What I do is play those roles and talk through it.
Finally, at the end of the day it is Kyle's job to internalize all this customer feedback and formulate it into a direction that people can rally around. I think he’s doing that really well.
Dave’s Comments on Observing Customer Experience:
Those little hang-ups that customers have are great source of data because the more you can streamline getting them to an answer that they are happy with, the more value you bring to them. Whether it is a dealer, banker, farmer, or auctioneer. The more you can anticipate and help them get to where they are going, at the end of the day that is what is going to determine how valuable you are to them. You know, [dealers and lenders] used to get their equipment information out of catalogs that were mailed to them. That is a year or two late. It is such a different world now. We have an opportunity to take advantage of that.
It was at this point that Dave unexpected turned the tables and began grilling me about the value of our Tractor Zoom data. I’ve removed the paragraph or so of my deer in the headlights inaudible ‘ummmm’s ‘
Dave: So let me ask you then. What has been the biggest insight you have found during the time you spent working with the Tractor Zoom data?
The biggest insights have got to be the predictive ability of the data to track market trends, directions, and nuances that you can pick up on. By just looking at the data I can now pick up the phone and call family members and friends who are farmers and have a full, informed, conversation about the equipment market. Now I know that draper sales took a dive in 2019, or what to expect for large tractor sales later this summer. Even some my friends who are big machinery nuts, we can really challenge each other’s thinking and prediction of the market trends. On my screen I can quickly visualize the knowledge others have gained by spending all their time in the industry.
What emerging tech trends excite you?
Well, I think, it would be the whole machine learning ability. That is just a golden opportunity right now. The tools are becoming more readily available now, and they are becoming available as services from Amazon, Google, or whoever. Google’s services are a little bit better, bit Amazon does a better job packaging and commercializing. Regardless, the more you can apply machine learning, the more you can start to give people insights as they are working with your data set. The more you can help them understand where they are trying to go. I think there is going to be huge breakthroughs in this area. It is accelerating right now at a pace unlike I have ever seen. The fact that you have virtually unlimited storage, for almost no cost, compared to a few years ago. It is easier to build user interfaces. It is easier to build on the cloud and have databases. All of that is so service oriented.
The real cutting edge is in leveraging [machine learning] to be able to better connect with your customer at the end of the day. The more you can reach them through a simple interaction like texting a question to your service and receiving answer automatically. A combination of accessibility and AIML interface. There are a lot of people are beginning to push the boundaries of what is possible here. I think it all comes down to making it super accessible.
It is here where almost all Iowa first-time meetings unavoidably elevate. The simple questions of “Where are you from?” and “Do you know ___?” result in the inevitable one degree of separation that makes Iowa so wonderfully home. I will spare you our indulgences into life in Rudd, Paton, Churdan, and Jefferson that ensued.
You have spent a lot time here in Iowa, but you have also lived and worked in the Silicon Valley for years. What advantages or disadvantages do you think a tech startup company, nestled here in the Heartland, has compared with being on one of the coasts?
The thing we found during my experience at WebFilings, now Workiva, is people will stay longer if you treat them well. If you go to the Valley, you are not going to keep any employee more than two to three years, on average. You are dealing with this constant turnover. Now, granted, you have got a lot more people there to choose from, but you have to pay outrageous salaries. We found that if you create a good culture, a good environment, and pay people reasonably well, they will stick around. When people get five, six years’ experience, they are all the sudden thinking of solutions because they completely understand your business. They are thinking of ideas that you have not even considered yet. I think that is one of the greatest value-adds that someplace like Iowa has. You can have this continuity and this level of learning that stays with the company, instead of leaving it every two to three years. I do think some people take that for granted. They do not realize how valuable this retention is to them. So again, it is another form of data. This learning that you can keep within the company. That is part of the advantage [Iowa] has because we do not have an oversupply of tech companies like the Valley. I came back [to Iowa] and thought I will probably work in an insurance company. That was okay with us because we ultimately just wanted to raise our kids here. We decided that is what was most important to us. The reality is, I have had two more Silicon Valley-style experiences here than I may have had even being in the Bay area. This is because of the type of culture that I was able to find at the the companies I worked for here in Iowa.
Plus, I think Iowa just has a lot of good people. There are people who will simply give you a good effort and put a lot of pride into their work. I truly think you can create an environment here that is hard to create in a lot of other places in the country.