Chris Stegner ADT podcast cover
Episode: 100

Chris Stegner - Product-led digital transformation

Posted on: 20 Jul 2023
Chris Stegner ADT podcast cover

Chris Stegner is a visionary tech entrepreneur and the founder & CEO of the award-winning digital products agency Very Big Things.

In this episode, we talk about product-led digital transformation, covering the differences with product-led growth and the leadership mindset necessary for effective product-led digital transformation, as well as examples of successful product-led DT in practice from Very Big Things' work with their clients. We close with a look at procrastination and how it factors into the product-led digital transformation mindset.


Links & mentions:


“If you’re a leader inside of that company and you know you could make something a whole lot better – like, it could be better; maybe it’s really good right now, but it could be better – don’t procrastinate. There will never be that day, that, like, oh, we have to get this done, or else – until it’s too late.”

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. I’m joined today by Chris Stegner, visionary tech entrepreneur and founder & CEO of the award-winning digital product agency Very Big Things. The topic of our conversation for today is product-led digital transformation. And Chris will be sharing some excellent examples of successful product-led digital transformation initiatives from his work with clients.

Chris, welcome to the podcast, it’s awesome having you here today, thanks for joining us. Want to add anything here before we proceed with our discussion?

Chris Stegner: No, thank you very much for having me. As you mentioned, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Very Big Things. Super high level version of it is, we use technology, innovation and excellence to make companies the greatest version of themselves. So, I think that’s what we’ll be talking about today.

Tim Butara: Awesome. Yeah, I think that the meat of the episode will be dedicated to you sharing awesome examples of client works. But obviously, we need to clear the basics first. And the first thing that I want to ask you is, obviously, what even is product-led digital transformation?

Because we’ve had an episode on our podcast already about product-led growth. But, if I understand it correctly – I mean, both terms, both concepts are still fairly new, but if I understand it correctly, those aren’t actually the same thing. So, what is product-led DT, and what are the differences between product-led growth and product-led digital transformation?

Chris Stegner: Yeah, so, to your point – product-led growth is a bit more known about. Product-led digital transformation is something that I think we’re helping to champion to the market. So, explaining that could be really helpful for a lot of people.

So, product-led growth, which is, like I said, a little bit more known, is more or less replacing traditional marketing around a product instead with just creating a really great product itself. So, product-led growth, you could think of as now attracting your customers, converting your customers and retaining your customers based off the idea of just creating a really great product.

There’s millions of examples of this – basically every product you probably love using is an example of this. But if you think more recently, like ChatGPT, which I’ve seen four billion articles on, heard so many people talk about, had more downloads than anything else in history, faster than anything in history; but there hasn’t been one advertisement for it. There hasn’t been one TV ad, there hasn’t been one Facebook ad, one Instagram ad, nothing, just a really exceptional, innovative, great product. So that is what product-led growth is.

Product-led digital transformation is very different, but also kind of based on some of the same rules. So, product-led digital transformation is fundamentally changing how a company does business, how they interact with their clients and how, at the end of the day, they deliver value. 

So, this starts by understanding that your product or service is not a tangible thing. What it is is an experience. It’s an experience that starts from the very first time that your customer ever hears about your company and it never ends. And every step of that journey is an opportunity for you to surprise your customers, for you to delight your customers, for you to win their hearts and minds. And often this gets forgotten – I’d say the vast majority of the time this gets forgotten.

So now, product-led digital transformation is infusing technology, innovation and excellence into every step of that journey, to see how amazing of a journey for your customer you can make it. So, once again, you’re no longer just selling a product or a service to them. Instead, you’re selling an experience, you’re creating an experience for them. And that is when you make your company something special. That’s powerful, when all of a sudden it becomes a story, not just a product. And that’s what changes, or I should say, differentiates the vast majority of very forgettable companies from the unforgettable ones.

So, an example to help people wrap their head around this would be, say, Acura the car manufacturer, versus Tesla the car manufacturer. So I’ve bought Acuras. I think Acura’s made some great cars. Every once in a while an Acura will come out and it’ll look really cool, it’ll get really good reviews, it’ll go fast. And I’ll read about, maybe it’s like MotorTrend car of the year or something, and I’ll say, cool, I’ll go buy that car. And that car might be a great car.

That’s an awesome example of what product-led growth would be. They attracted me, they retained me inside of that one car, that one vehicle, that standalone piece. However, after owning that, I’m never going to go back and say, hey, it’s time to get another vehicle. Let me just swing over to the Acura dealership. Let me just see what they have. Because I love them so much as a company that, you know, now it’s time for me to move from a car to an SUV. I want to see what they have as an SUV offering. Cause I don’t really think of Acura that way. I think of, they had a great car, I’d like that car, right.

You flip this to Tesla. Tesla, from every interaction, for the first time you ever heard about them, they’re changing the world. They’ve been innovative. They’ve excellently polished their vehicles. From when you go to the website – I mean, they’ve got a beautiful website. The whole process of purchasing the vehicle – way better than it is at a traditional dealership. Instead, it’s all run by technology, and very well executed, innovative technology.

After that, when you take delivery of the vehicle – I’ve heard so many people that got their Tesla and were like, I have to tell you the story about when I got delivery of my vehicle. They walked me through this, they showed me this, it does this cool thing, etc., to then owning the vehicle. So much technology inside of it.

And then, once again, even when things go horribly wrong – I think just recently they had a callback for, like, two million cars. And it was like, oh no, this is going to be horrible. And it’s like, oh, no, don’t worry. It’s going to happen over the air. Your car stays in your driveway. And now, years after you bought it, your car’s safer than it was before. Thank you to technology, and not only that, this is how Tesla is seen. 

So now, I think, more people than not, they start their car journey and they say, you know, I don’t know if I want an SUV, a big car, a little car, etc. But let me go to the Tesla dealership. I know I want a Tesla. I just don’t know which one yet. And that’s a huge fundamental shift. Cause now it’s also in the brand, it’s who that company is. They have loyal followers, people are evangelizing them, etc. So I’d say part of the biggest difference there. That make sense?

Tim Butara: Yeah, that was an awesome example, an awesome showcase of the differences. Because when you started talking about the first company, I was like, I mean, ok… It looks like you’re satisfied, but it doesn’t seem in line with what you were telling me about digital transformation. So, I really love that contrast. 

So, it’s really something that… Product-led digital transformation has a lot of benefits both for the customers – so, the customers get better experiences – and, you just said that the brands get loyalty. You know, it’s been said often, especially in the past few years with the digitalization and everything, that it’s much easier, it costs much less, to retain existing customers than to constantly acquire new ones.

So, a product-led digital transformation, one of the main benefits seems like this. And, obviously, also if you don’t have to invest that much money into acquiring new customers, you can invest that much more money into the quality of your product, so it just makes perfect sense.

Chris Stegner: Yup. It’s a snowball, right, it just keeps growing. And I think there’s something important that you mentioned there. Which is, when I was first going through the Acura example, you were like, ok, so it sounds like this one’s doing everything you kind of need it to do. That seems like a good company.

And that’s the problem, I think. 99% of companies, it’s not that they are saying, hey, we know we’re not really operating at this higher level, this level that ends up being drastically better for our company and makes us the greatest version of ourselves, and we just don’t want to do it. The problem is, most people go, you know, we’re doing a pretty good job. Let’s pat ourselves on the back. And Acura’s doing a pretty good job. But there is a version of their company that is drastically better than the one that they are.

Tim Butara: This reminds me of a quote that I’m recently really fond of. I’m not sure by who it is, but it’s something like “The worst part about low aspirations is reaching them.” And, man, that really hits differently. So, basically, what you’re saying is, if they wanted to, they could totally optimize their whole process; but because they’re satisfied with what they have, they don’t even consider that as a viable possibility.

Chris Stegner: You nailed it. The other quote is “good is the ultimate enemy of great”.

Tim Butara: The first thing I wrote down in my notes was good vs. great, and then I remembered the part about low aspirations, yeah.

Chris Stegner: I like yours because we haven’t all heard it twenty times.

Tim Butara: Yeah, ok, that’s true. Now, if only I could remember who to attribute it to, so that I give proper credit, but I’m not going to go googling for it now.

Chris Stegner: We’ll just say it was Tim, we’ll just say it was you.

Tim Butara: Ok, but I don’t want to take the credit for something that I didn’t come up with, so maybe with the caveat of this.

You know, another thing that I’m wondering in this context, so we talked about the automotive industry right now. And this is obviously a case where such an approach is super relevant and super helpful both for the brand and the customer; are there any other specific industries or types of companies that product-led transformation is a really good fit for, or is it kind of an across the board thing?

Chris Stegner: So, the answer is “yes” to both those, right. It should be an across the board thing. I would say that the best companies – or the companies who it applies to the most, or who are maybe the most successful – are companies with a very driven and ambitious leader.

To your point on setting low aspirations, right – if your company is the type of company that has a leader, the person that’s going to be making the decision to invest in something or to move forward on something, and they’re not an ambitious leader; if they don’t have high aspirations; if they’re not driven to be one of the best, then it’s probably not going to succeed for you. It’ll end up probably being a waste of time and effort, because it requires a commitment, it requires a commitment to saying, we want to matter. We want to be something special.

But I think about it; if you think about any of the most ambitious leaders. And I like this practice in my head of thinking, say, if Steve Jobs was still with us today. And you took him and you put him inside of any company. I don’t even know what this would be; say, the local dog grooming place down the street from your house that has three employees and does $200,000 a year. And he said, this is your business, now go and make it work. I don’t see a world where he would say, you know, let’s skip the product-led digital transformation.

Like, that would just never happen. Cause he’s so driven, he’s so ambitious, he’s so aspirational. The second you put him in that three-person, two hundred grand a year dog grooming facility, the first thought on his head is, how are we going to make this the best in the world? How are we going to make this a business that changes the world, that matters to people?

And immediately, he would start the journey of saying, what does this look like for people coming here? How do we make that better with technology? Cause, you know, as he always famously said, technology is the bicycle for the mind, right, it just makes everything better. 

So, he would just jump in; and, by doing that, I guarantee you, all of a sudden, it’d be like, ok, now there’s six of these, and they’re the most scalable, the most efficient, the best dog grooming places ever. Within three years, people would care about dog grooming. And they never cared about it before. Not only would they care about it, but they have to go to one certain brand, because that matters the most to them.

So, the way I would explain it is, you need that. You need the ambitious leader. And then from there, they just need to now exist. And then they should charge fully in on it. But it doesn’t matter the type of company, it just matters who’s at the company. Does that make sense?

Tim Butara: I mean, it totally reinforces the point you made in the previous question, right. I mean, if you have somebody like Musk at the helm of the company, then it makes sense that somebody as ambitious as that would just naturally, as you just pointed out with the Steve Jobs example and the dog grooming, would just naturally gravitate towards a product-led transformation approach.

Chris Stegner: Yup. And to your point, there’s 20 million of these unsung heroes, of ambitious leaders out there. We’re fortunate at Very Big Things, we get to work with them constantly, cause that is our client base. Some of the greatest, most ambitious people I’ve ever met. And you start realizing that, yeah, there are so many of these people everywhere. But they are an important ingredient.

Tim Butara: Well, and speaking of clients that you work with, can you share some examples of really good, really successful product-led transformation approaches and projects from your work with clients at Very Big Things?

Chris Stegner: Yeah, I can share two I can hit. I can’t mention them by name.

Tim Butara: That’s cool.

Chris Stegner: And there’s about fifteen more that are 80% of the way there right now. So on the next podcast we do, you know, six months from now or twelve months from now, I’ll tell you a bunch more.

Tim Butara: Ok, awesome.

Chris Stegner: Some really cool ones in the works. Cause, keep in mind, we started Very Big Things five years ago. Five years ago it was seven of us. So, now, people have heard – because we’ve won all the best awards you can get, and now we’ve got really big clients, like Royal Caribbean and Ryder and Samsung and Motorola and fun stuff like that – so they forget that we started five years ago. And now we’ve got 70 people.

Tim Butara: So, you’re making very big things for very big clients.

Chris Stegner: You got it, you nailed it. But these stories take, often, more than five years to play out; these are journeys, right. But, so, two of them that we started working with on our second year have now seen a humongous success from it. 

One is a medical technology company. So they were already in the technology world; however, they hadn’t really embraced this, seeing the entire journey of the client and what that looks like for them. That journey was hospitals, as well as people at the hospitals, as well as nurses that they were interacting with and remote workers. And they hadn’t really thought about the entire journey of that; so, we helped them to look at that.

So, the problem they came to us with, though, was: they had built technology, they had sold it to a bunch of hospitals, ten years ago they were selling a bunch. And around four to five years before working with us, they just stopped selling it. And new people started coming to the market, they had cooler stuff, and all of a sudden the hospitals were buying the software of these other companies instead of theirs.

However, they were still doing I think like 40 million a year based off of just the software that was already sold. It was a sticky product, once it was in the hospital, it was hard to get rid of it. So, hospitals kept renewing, but they plateaued, they just completely flatlined as far as revenue goes, for about a four-year period.

And so they came to us saying, hey, we want to start winning these contracts again, we want to see our revenue go up, you know. And at the time, before using it, we didn’t even know this was called product-led digital digital transformation. We hadn’t even come up with that term for it. We were just like, we knew in our gut what seemed right and we had analyzed everything with them and we walked in and said, here’s your solution.

But, so, doing that, we went through this process with them. We went through the entire journey and started finding where we can make technology just really improve it. And not just technology, but I think innovation’s a huge piece there. And I think excellence is a huge piece there. It’s not about just having technology, it’s got to be good technology, it has to be something that can vow the client. But then it needs to be meticulously pulled off, because that all reflects back on your brand. But we did this process and, long story short, twelve months after launching it, they had raised their revenue by 500%.

Tim Butara: Wow.

Chris Stegner: Wow, right? Not only that, but the enterprise value of the company obviously shot through the roof as well. And the enterprise value wasn’t even, like, yeah, went up with the revenue – the multiple went up drastically. Because, now, the company was no longer being seen as just a company that provides a good product that sometimes people buy that product. 

Instead they were being seen as a company that really is a pioneer in the digital-first world. They’re seen as somebody who gets it, they’ve really built a brand that these hospitals care about. So now the hospitals start saying, hey, what other products do you make? We want those too! And it all just starts adding up.

So, that was one example. From that exact same year, cause once again, it’s had time to kind of play out, there was a company that had been in business for 25 years. They were building software for a specific industry – I’m trying to think of the best way of saying it without saying who they are. They sold their product to states – so, to Washington state, to Florida, to New York, etc. And it was used to run a huge department for the state.

And they’ve been in business 20, 25 years. And, very similar, they had had success for a long time. And for them, it was brutal because these state contracts only come up once every five to seven years. So, once you win it, you’re good for five–seven years, but if you lose it, you don’t get another opportunity – and there’s only 50 states, you know.

So, they would invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on each one of these pitches to win, right. And, not only that, they practiced for like a year and a half, preparing to win the contract – cause, once again, it’s like seven years, it’s a seven-year contract, they didn’t want to miss it.

Before coming to us, two things had happened. One – they’d started to lose those contracts. Just one after the other after the other, which just meant spending tons of money, tons of time, and having nothing to show for it. And not only was it beating down the revenues, but it was also beating down the morale of the company. And suddenly, the employees didn’t really believe in the story anymore, they didn’t believe in the vision, because they weren’t seeing the success.

And then the other part was, the state of California, the residents of the state of California were getting so upset with how horrible this experience was for them – cause it was something that actually had an end user, like the main population. They were threatening, they put up a poll to get the CIO of California fired, cause it was bad. So the CIO reached out to their client and said, you better fix this pronto, or you’ll never sell to any state ever again. And California was by far their largest client. And so, from all of that, they reached out to us to help them solve this problem.

And, once again, we did our process. It starts by looking at the journey, the user’s journey, and the user can be internal or external, and just asking how every step of that can be improved with technology, innovation, excellence; getting the company’s culture to embrace that excellence and to embrace iterating and iterating and iterating. So, that’s how it happens, it’s iterate, iterate, iterate.

But by doing that, they ended up winning, like, the next seven contracts in a row. Just one after the other. And New York was the next one they won, Florida was the next one – they made these huge contracts. They won a contract for all of Canada, they won a contract for all of Australia, and it just kept going. And about seven months ago I get a text message from the CEO saying, hey, I just want you to know, we just sold the company, and thank you. Just, like, amazing. They had huge investors, this is a huge company, so it was very meaningful.

But, yeah, so those are those stories of how this can work. And today, we have so many stories of publicly traded companies where we’re going to be able to see their actual market cap shoot up. And we have a lot of stories around very cool mid-market that are completely pivoting the direction of their company. So, there’s a lot of cool stuff. Like I said, in six months, I’ll be able to tell you a bunch more stories.

Tim Butara: I love the combination of innovation plus excellence, that this is what kind of drives this approach. I wrote down in my notes that it seems to be, because you said that for the first client, when you started doing it, you didn’t even know or you didn’t even call it product-led transformation. And to me, it just seems like a very intuitive approach, right. It’s just, like, what you should be doing if you want to give your best out into the world no matter what you’re committed to, basically.

Chris Stegner: You nailed it, you nailed it. But then people are asking, hey, what do you do for a living? And it’s like, ok, let’s spend 30 minutes teaching you about what this means, it’s basically this whole podcast, right. So, we’re trying to make sure that people are educated, not just for our sake, for their sake as well. Like, what this is, and think of it as a real methodology, so that they can put into place; but also make it a whole lot easier for us to explain in the future what it is we actually do. Cause I think we’re the only agency that I know that has a core focus on product-led digital transformation.

Tim Butara: So, based on everything we talked about, in closing, do you have any final tips or can you share some best practices for business owners, leaders, managers listening right now that want to pursue this approach, so, product-led digital transformation, maybe want to look more into it?

Chris Stegner: Yeah, I would say – this is going to sound weird – but there’s a TED Talk given by a guy that constantly procrastinates, it was a TED Talk on procrastination, right. And he was talking about, the whole talk TED Talk I think was like 18 minutes. It was 15 minutes of him talking about the fact that he’s really good at procrastination. At the end of the day, he’ll be, 30 minutes before he’s supposed to have something done, he rushes, and he kicks ass, and he’s gotten really good at it. And so, boom boom boom boom boom, 30 minutes later, here it is. It’s delivered. And it’s awesome.

Even though the fact that the TED Talk itself, he said, I prepared this TED Talk the day before. And look, it’s a great TED Talk, and guess what, it was a great TED Talk. But the last sentence that he mentioned, the last thing he said, just hit me, it was so powerful. He goes, what about all the things in life that don’t have deadlines? Being a better father, investing the time in your relationships? Those things don’t have deadlines. 

So if you’re in this world of doing something an hour before, and that before never shows up, you just never get around to it. And he mentioned the fact of how much of his life he could end up having regrets on when his time came because of that, because the due date never came. So it was that thing he was always going to do one day.

So, I’d say that the first step would be for leaders – and, we see it because we’re working with these larger companies – people at all levels of the organization. So, if you’re a leader inside of that company and you know you could make something a whole lot better – like, it could be better; maybe it’s really good right now, but it could be better – don’t procrastinate. There will never be that day, that, like, oh, we have to get this done, or else – until it’s too late.

That’s when it happens for companies. Companies don’t get the, hey, I’ll pick it up now. Once it’s too late, it’s usually too late. So, I’d just say, don’t procrastinate. And then once you make the decision, hey, we actually want to be a great company, we want to be a company that matters – if there is that yearning inside and you haven’t procrastinated on, you’re like, yeah, I actually want to make that happen and it’s important today, today is that day, then the first step is: start looking at the entire journey. Look at your customers. What is their experience from the first time they hear about you, to every single step along the way?

As you start looking, then start asking yourself, how could technology, innovation and excellence play a part in that? And even these days, ChatGPT is changing the entire world very quickly. And I think things like blockchain and crypto and metaverse, they all have their place, they’re important things, but they’re all overhyped. I don’t believe that’s the case with ChatGPT at all, I think it’s impossible for it to be overhyped. And when I say ChatGPT, I really just mean generative AI in general.

So, start asking yourself how that’s going to play a role in each one of those steps, and how each one can be improved and what that best version looks like. And then at that point, start saying, hey, what things do we have to do inside of the culture of the company to get people to really embrace this mindset of, like, we are going to be great, and we are going to push things, customer experience matters.

And then at that point, start taking swings at them, and then iterate, iterate, iterate, iterate. You start figuring out what works, what doesn’t work. Talk to your users, see what they’re liking, what they’re not liking. Make new versions, make new versions. Nobody nails this stuff the first time out of the gate. It’s about knowing that and just knowing like, hey, we’re going to get there, and keep pushing, and that makes you better than 99% of the competition.

And then, ultimately, if you need to look at the selfish side of it, right – cause at the end of the day, it’s a leader’s job to make a business better, that is what their job is. And so, on that selfish side of just making the business better, it’ll improve the customer experience. It’ll improve efficiency, which will reduce your costs. It’ll make it more innovative which will matter more to people. It’ll better position your brand as one of these pioneers in a digital-first world.

All of that makes your brand one worth caring about. When you have a brand worth caring about, you make more revenue. You make more profits. Your enterprise value grows. In other words, it makes you an amazing leader and it makes your company the greatest version that it could ever could have been. So, there’s a selfish side there as well.

Tim Butara: Great points here at the end, Chris, and the perfect way to round off an excellent conversation. I really enjoyed speaking with you today. Really great stuff, great points, enjoyable and insightful. Just before we wrap things up, if people listening right now would like to reach out to you or learn more about you, learn more about your company, where would you point them to?

Chris Stegner: Our website is, so that’s pretty easy. Also, once again, my name is Chris Stegner. Feel free to shoot me a message on LinkedIn, reference this episode if you want. And I’m always here just as a friend, to help; I love meeting great leaders as well, or great aspiring leaders, so feel free to reach out. Yeah, those would be the best routes.

Tim Butara: And you need to send me a link to the TED Talk about procrastination and I’ll include that as well.

Chris Stegner: Sounds great. Will do, will do.

Tim Butara: Awesome. Thanks again, Chris, and have an awesome day.

Chris Stegner: Thank you so much for having me, it was great.

Tim Butara: Well, to our listeners, that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.

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