by Marc G.

When we were first presented with the idea of having time taken out of our normal workload to dedicate to Innovation, I thought it was an excellent initiative. After all, a lot of what we do normally becomes routine, so an opportunity to work on something outside the typical workflow seemed intriguing. I could have just signed up for one of the other teams, but I wanted something more -- I wanted to step up to the plate and lead a team myself. However, to get started, I needed an idea first.

As a guy addicted to my iPhone, I realized that we didn’t have a smartphone app for our main business line, Psychic Source. I thought, how cool would that be, right? But we had just recently launched a new responsive website that looked great on smartphones, tablets, etc. so I didn’t see the value for an app to duplicate that functionality-- and that would be a massive project, beyond the scope of Innovation. I talked about the value of creating an app with my Lead Link and she said “If we were to have an app, it would need to do something different or unique that our customers can’t already get from our new website.” That got me thinking… and then the lightbulb went off!

We tend to send a lot of emails that are a result of events the customer experiences. For example, “Sorry, you just missed your psychic reading, please reschedule” or “You don’t have enough money for your next reading, please add dollars and get back in line.” The problem is, these are all reactive and not proactive messages for the customer. Smartphones have an advantage; they can send push notifications to you to alert you to events BEFORE they happen. And that’s where my idea for the Psychic Source Smartphone App was born!

The app wasn’t going to replace our newly updated website, but rather help the customer avoid unfortunate situations by alerting them in advance so they have time to take the appropriate action. In the case of Return Call, we would be able to tell them they have 30 minutes left BEFORE their time expires, so they should renew their position in line now (and make it easy for them to do it right in the app with a quick button press). Or we would tell them you are NEXT in line to receive a call, to help them be alert and by their phone, soon able to speak with a favorite psychic adviser.

Speaking of favorites, I also said that it would be great if we notified customers when their favorite advisors logged on the service, so they knew when they should call for a reading (a feature we used to have that was done via Text Messages and was highly missed after we removed it). A final bonus of the app was that if you allow your device to “Remember Me” you only ever need to log in once, and your credentials are stored. It was another time saver vs. using the website where you need to log in much more frequently.

Now that I had my idea, I prepared a presentation for our “Shark Tank” style kick off meeting to recruit team members. I was amazed how quickly and perfectly my team began to take shape, with folks from Development, UI/UX, Finance, Marketing, Q/A, Project Management and more all wanting to be on the team. This left me in a very unusual situation -- I tend to be a follower, not a leader. To take on the role of a Lead Link was a personal challenge for me that I initially was very nervous about, but quickly adapted to. I humbly received a lot of praise on how well I kept the team organized, focused and moving forward, which made me feel great about my work on the project.

I had the idea of what I wanted to do, but no clue how it should look or the technology needed to make it happen. Initially, our team brainstormed as to what the interface should look like, and the tech folks had conversations that mostly went over my head, but they had thoughts on how to make what I was envisioning a reality. In our first official meeting, we began to sketch on a white board and make a list of tasks and suddenly it became very real!

Because we only spend 20% of our time on Innovation, this didn’t happen overnight, but rather over the course of a year. We would meet during our once a month Innovation Day and sometimes for additional meetings in between as needed. But I always kept the focus of the app lean and didn’t pivot from the original intention. A few “nice to have” features didn’t make the final builds, but all in all I got almost everything I expected for a first pass!

After nearly a year of meetings, work, testing, changes, followed by more meetings, work, testing, and changes, we were finally ready to submit the app to Apple and Google. As I was expecting, Google approved the app in a few hours… but Apple, oh Apple, why did you initially reject our app? We were required to give Apple credentials to use to be able to log in and test the App, and would you believe, the account we set up for them didn’t work -- we had made a mistake on our end that we didn’t catch in time. Therefore, Apple couldn’t test the app and rejected it. I was crushed, all our hard work and it was a failure. Fortunately, we quickly discovered OUR error, resubmitted the app a few days later, and this time it was approved! Our app was officially live!

We promoted it via e-mail right away and soon added links to it on our website. The response was slow at first but it gradually started to pick up steam as more people installed and used it. We added a few additional features after the initial launch (such as the Favorite Psychic Notifications mentioned above), but it hasn’t changed too much overall. In the first 9 months since we launched the app, it has been downloaded over 1,500 times and we have sent out more than 200,000 push notifications!

In addition, as part of the Innovation Program, the past two years the company has held “People’s Choice Awards” that were voted on by the employees of VSE. The Smartphone App team has won several awards each year in categories including Most Impactful to Business, Most Benefit for Cost and Most Lean/Agile Approach towards a Valuable Outcome. But the big news is the app won the Grand Prize for most overall votes among all categories TWO YEARS IN A ROW!

The app has recently “graduated” as an Innovation Project and is now treated as part of the product. It goes through the same pipeline as any other project when we want to make changes or improvements and is simply another part of the brand now.

It is an amazing feeling to be able to take out the phone in my pocket and see an app that was an idea born out of my head and now actually exists for our customers to download and use. I can’t thank the members of my team enough for trusting in me that I could take on a Lead Link role of an Innovation project and oversee the successful launch and follow up of our smartphone app!

And it really has come full circle. One of my co-workers recently had her own idea for a new Innovation project. She sought me out as a mentor because like myself, she didn’t have much experience leading a team and wanted my insight and guidance how I took my idea from concept to reality. I was very happy to be able to pay it forward and share my learning with someone else just starting out with a new Innovation project. I even joined her team now that my team has dissolved!

It has truly been an incredible and humbling experience that I am honored to have been a part of working for VSE!