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ValuStrat’s COO, Saad Umerani, discusses how he spearheaded the company’s transition in line with the digital age and how firms should harness technology to gain a competitive advantage.
In a world of fast disappearing boundaries, it has become imperative for decisions to be taken at light speed. Technology now more than ever plays a vital role in making sure that what can be thought can be delivered. Bill Gates claimed back in 1999 that business needs the help and support of technology, in his famous book – Business @ the Speed of Thought. Businesses, however, are still struggling to realize technology’s full potential. Unlike Gates, early economists held an undesirable view of the services sector, labelling it non-productive. As businesses matured, services itself became an industry. Today, we stand witness to the ashes of corporate giants that refused to embrace technology.
Looking back, Kodak was once the epitome of photographic excellence. However, Kodak failed to accept that photography was going digital. As a result, a decline in demand for photographic film cameras and the rise in digital photography led the company to file for bankruptcy in 2012. Although it’s still around, the company is a now a mere shadow of its former existence. Similar fate awaited Blockbuster, an American provider of home movie and video game rental services through video rental shops. At its peak, the company had become a byword for the global home entertainment industry with nearly 60,000 employees and over 8,000 stores. As DVD rental became a thing of the past due to services like Netflix, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Technology will continue to disrupt industries and companies need to harness it to their advantage. It has become part of everything from banking to accounting to document management.
Saad Umerani was always an avid supporter of technology. He was the guiding force behind ValuStrat’s in-house valuation software – Speedy, which launched in 2014. In a competitive field, Speedy provided major time savings. Turnaround time for a real estate valuation report was cut from 48 hours to 7 hours. Clients can now review and approve their reports online at anytime from anywhere in the world within a few hours after inspection. Saad was also the brains behind ValuStrat Labs – the company’s in-house technology research center based in its Dubai headquarters.
Technology, according to Umerani, is doing more with less. “The simplest way to realize how technology has brought ease to our professional lives is to look at email. Twenty-five years back businesses hired typists to write an official correspondence on a typewriter and have it sent by the rider, requiring hours of labor. Today, in that time you can probably send dozens of messages via email.” Technology has allowed businesses to communicate more in less time and with less effort. Saad concurs that if new technology is not adopted, it can lead to unwanted consequences as exemplified by Kodak and Blockbuster. That’s where he believes the opportunity lies.
“Technology helps you make major cost savings, increasing efficiency in the process,” continued Saad. “Both of these result in higher net profits, which is the bottom line for every commercial entity. It is therefore critical for businesses to harness technology rather than to ignore it.”
In the UAE, with a population of 9 million, restaurants are reaching a larger customer base, courtesy of food delivery systems like Deliveroo and UberEats. Smaller restaurants and cafes are no longer required to hire drivers, buy delivery vehicles and set up a complete distribution system, they can simply benefit from using Deliveroo. The latter also claims to boost restaurant sales by 30% and increases exposure. Not accepting this technological change would lead to a loss in revenue for restaurants.
As Saad observes, “Small companies or SMEs are better placed to take most advantage of technology as being smaller allows them to make decisions and move faster, keeping overheads low, unlike large corporates. By identifying opportunities and acting fast, SMEs can gain a competitive advantage.”
How does a company start thinking about introducing technology in its business? According to Umerani, the question is quite sector and domain specific and does not have a one-fits-all answer. He provided the following framework:
Understand the biggest pain-point of your customer and make changes accordingly. The change has to add value to the end customer, whether internal or external. For ValuStrat’s clients – banks in this case, the challenge was turn-around time and getting from loan application to approval faster. One of the most time-consuming parts was the physical verification of the bank’s clients and their assets. If valuers could receive the complete information faster, banks would have an edge over others in loan processing times and customers would be happier to get approvals faster.
Map out the process and identify where improvement can be made. What are the different components involved in the process? In ValuStrat’s case, the most time-consuming part of the process was getting information from the client’s site to the researcher. In a paper based process, surveyors would do numerous surveys before returning to the office with the information and the valuers could not start the research till they had the information.
3. Ready Solutions
Off-the-shelf apps/software are good. Most companies believe that they need sophisticated teams to develop complex software. This, according to Umerani, is usually a misconception. Saad’s first proof of concept had an iPad with the built-in camera app and a Dropbox application. “I practically created a proof of concept for free,” Umerani added. “You don’t have to spend millions on it, you just need to be a little creative and work with what you have.”
Once you have a proof of concept and the complexities start to grow, that is the time when you need to start thinking about engaging developers to create a bespoke product that fits your needs and allows you to continue innovating. This is just a starting point to add efficiency to the business, to bring about true innovation is another topic.
Businesses that do not leverage technology or rewire their offering in line with the technological needs of the people will continue to face serious threat from those who identify gaps and act on them. Competition is tough so companies better be geared to do what other’s may only think of doing.