Building the Perfect Tech Stack

Julie Runez

November 1, 2023

Nothing is more elusive than the perfect tech stack. I know this is true, because I stood in a room full of executives and said, “who loves their tech stack?” The answer is, almost no one.

Our company sells automation. When manufacturers need custom equipment and seamless integration, they come to us. But we didn’t have a way to automate our own process. While we were helping our customers streamline their production and reduce errors, we were bogged down in a paper-laden, error-riddled, manual system of enterprise management that was holding us back.

So, we embarked on a search for an app that would bring it all together. MAP, CRM, ERP, project management, finance – the holy grail. The one app to rule them all… but it doesn’t exist.

So, we refocused. Maybe there isn’t a single app that does it all, but surely there’s a magic combination that is objectively the best solution, right? Wrong again.

“What’s the point?” you might say. “Why did you lead us down this road only to disappoint us?”

Stay with me. There may not be a universal winning combination, but there IS a best combination for you and your company.

Our journey was not a straight line. It was messy. It is ongoing. But along the way, we’ve gained insight that would have made the process infinitely smoother had we found it earlier. If we had known then what we know now, this would have been our approach:

Map Your Process

Whether you’re starting from scratch, looking to switch apps, or improve the way you use what you already have, start by mapping your entire internal process. From brand awareness efforts all the way through to post-project/ post-purchase outreach for customer feedback. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the stages of our process? Ex. Marketing, Sales, Customer Acquisition, Project, Billing, Delivery, Feedback. Some stages may be very closely intertwined, others may be more independent of one another.
  • What are the steps within each stage?
  • Do we move through those stages and steps in the same way every time? (If not, consider standardizing your process as much as possible before moving on.)
  • What actions or conditions trigger the next step in the process?
  • At what point does information move or need to move into another app or module?
  • What functionality do we need from our tech tools at each stage of our process?
  • What parts of the process do we want the app(s) to handle without human intervention?

If you find that you can’t answer all of these questions at first, that’s okay. It just means that you have some fog to clear before you jump into your research. Clearly defining your process in consistent and repeatable stages with consistent and repeatable steps within those stages is crucial for your tech stack success.

Keep Your Customers Front and Center

At every stage of the process, ask yourself how your workflow and your tech tools help you serve your customers better. Think ahead to their needs and how the apps you consider can meet them. Will you need a customer portal? Will you need to share project information, support secure document transfer, or manage service tickets? How granular do you need to be with permissions for guest users? Dig deep here. Make sure the apps you consider can deliver. Your customers should benefit from every investment you make. Your tech stack is no different.

Know the Pitfalls

While every company’s experience is different, we all seem to run into trouble in the same places. Plan ahead to navigate these three common problems.

  • Beware the over-promising vendor! Salespeople are motivated by sales, and if that means making promises their product can’t keep… well…

    Recently, a friend told me about her experience with a SaaS representative in which he finally admitted that he didn’t really understand exactly what the software does. What do you do with that?

  • Make sure your decision makers have a deep understanding of both the company’s needs and the details of the applications under consideration.
  • Don’t rush.

Avoiding these pitfalls requires expert knowledge. How you attain that knowledge will depend on your timeline and budget.

Lots of time and limited funds? Plan to spend at least six months delving into apps and educating yourself. Stock up on coffee and buy an extra pair of blue light blocking glasses. You will need them.

More money than time? Hire a consultant. Preferably one who is an expert in the app you’re testing, but who is independent of the selling company. They will tend to be more forthcoming about capabilities and limitations than a company rep, and may actually be more knowledgeable.

YouTube is a great resource for finding your application spirit guide. There are thousands of consultants making instructional videos for every app on the market. Watch as many as you can stomach, and you will start to gravitate toward a guru who speaks your language. By the time you’re ready to reach out, you’ll have established baseline knowledge through their content. Win, win.

Enlist the “Cool Kids”

Create a team of power users as early as possible. These will be your early adopters and system advocates within the company. Choose them wisely!

Include at least one person from each department who is respected by their peers and influential within the company culture. If possible, include a range of levels of computer savvy. Not everyone is a tech wizard, and the system you choose must be accessible to everyone if it’s going to be useful.

This group should be involved in all stages of implementation, including but not limited to early research, software selection, process development, SOP development, roll-out, adoption, and recurring training.

Be sure to designate one person or subcommittee who will assume ultimate responsibility for adoption, usage, and adherence to the system long-term. Depending on the size of your company, this may be the sole responsibility of this person or team.

Your power users will continue to be the point people in their respective departments long-term, but their intensive involvement should be short-term, ending once the system has been fully implemented.

If your company is a ship, these are your navigators. Their first, and arguably most important job is to locate the North Star. They should come to a consensus on the functions and features that are most important to your company and to each department. Have them list those functions in order of importance and make the first addition to your tech stack the app that best addresses priority number one. Focus in on the apps that perform that function well and give special attention to apps that also reasonably handle other items on your list.

Keep it Simple

No amount of API integration makes apps communicate better than a single app can communicate with itself. The smaller the tech stack, the better – as long as it does what you need.

There is no app that does everything well, but there are many that do some things well enough. If you find an app that addresses your number one priority beautifully, and it manages your fourth and fifth priorities pretty well, the tradeoff might be worth considering. Maybe you need to bring in another app to handle priorities two and three, but look for ways to knock out more than one function per app when possible.

Think of it this way – when it’s more frustrating or difficult to perform function X in your first chosen app than it is to make a second app communicate well with the first, it’s time to consider an addition to your tech stack.

Crawl

As my Army veteran brother-in-law likes to say, “slow is smooth, smooth is swift.” Boy, is that true when building a tech stack. That doesn’t mean you should waste time, but it does mean that you shouldn’t skip steps. Be thorough. Your future self will thank you.

Do your research. Once your team of power users has narrowed the field, take the time to interact with your top contenders. Most apps have a free version or free trial period that you can experiment with. Be curious, be creative, but don’t be in a hurry. Watch videos, play with a copy of your company’s data, communicate frequently with customer support as you experiment. If you are not able to make the app do something you need, ask for their help before deciding it’s not possible. Often, the functionality is there but our lack of expertise is holding us back.

Every power user should take notes on each app under consideration. What do you like, what do you not like? What does the app do well, where does it fall short? Discuss your findings with the rest of the power user team. Keep in mind that different departments will interact with data and databases differently, so come with an open mind, but be prepared to make a case for your favorites.

We’ll talk more about this in a minute, but if you even suspect that you will need more than one app or that you will need to customize a single app, be sure to prioritize open application programming interface (API). It’s important. Trust me.

Walk

Once your winners have been chosen, let your power user team get dirty. Create copies of your data for them to import and manipulate. Test out the native integrations, if they exist. See if your data can move smoothly through every phase of your process using the apps you’ve chosen. It’s okay if it can’t at this point. Don’t despair. (Even if you decided against hiring a consultant in your research phase, you may want to do so now if you want to shorten your timeline in this phase.)

Have your power users take note of the gaps, both within and between your chosen apps. Be as detailed as possible with questions, observations, and concerns. The minute your first hitch is identified, think about engaging a developer… which brings us back around to the importance of open API.

If you need more than one app (and don’t we all?), a good developer is the secret sauce. Even when your apps claim to interact with each other, customizing one or both apps can throw a wrench in that native integration. Often integration claims come with a caveat: they require a third-party, like Zapier, to achieve. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you’ll still likely have to designate someone to be the Zapier integrator, and it’s yet another monthly subscription. Best practice, if you can swing it, is to work with an experienced developer and get those integrations running just the way you want them through the API.

You’ve built your tech stack! All the apps are chosen and installed, and they actually communicate with each other. Congratulations! You’re not done.

Once your power users are proficient, consider how each department will use and interact with your tech stack. By this point, each of them will have developed a pretty good idea of how they’d like to see these new tools deployed in their realms. They will likely have strong opinions about what information and functions are relevant to their jobs and which are distracting. (Good on you for having the foresight to include at least one person from each department on your power user team!)

If possible, use your team’s insight and feedback to create unique views and/or dashboards for each department to streamline their experience and keep things simple for them. If your shiny new tech stack is confusing or frustrating, it will not get used.

Finally, create detailed SOPs to keep your data clean. This must be a full power user team effort. The unintended consequences of creating siloed SOPs by department can be crippling, and you may not see them coming until it’s too late. It may take some time up front, but it is well worth the effort.

Run

Roll out your new system in a way that is relevant to every user. Start with a company-wide meeting introducing the tech stack and giving a high-level explanation of why it is being adopted. Be sure to include the basics of both how this system will simplify their lives and how it will move the company forward. The importance of adherence to SOPs cannot be overstressed.

For the details, have each of your power users run department-specific training. No need to muddy the waters by teaching every user the minutiae of every function. The more relevant and specific you can make the initial introduction, the better your adoption rates will be.

Train, iterate, train, iterate, train. You’ve done your best to build a tech stack that can do it all. But you’ve hired smart people. They will inevitably find ways to make it better. Keep the door open, ask for feedback and suggestions. Update your SOPs and make sure any changes are properly communicated. (Power users, activate!)

There may be pushback. Expect that. Change is hard, but it’s only made harder by living in the past. Make a clean break and commit to the new system. It only stings for a minute. Support your employees as they navigate the unfamiliar, and keep your power users at the ready to ease the transition. Clean data is essential, but you’ll never get it if even one person operates outside of the system.

Stay the Course

When there is a problem, and there will be, resist the temptation to blame the app. Remember, garbage in, garbage out. Instead, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are we using this app as it was intended to be used, or are we trying to force an old method on a new tool that functions differently to get the same result? Or – are we embracing the app’s logic, or fighting it? (Your app’s customer service or an expert consultant are great resources to help you determine the answer to this question.)
  • Is everyone in the company using the system consistently? Is all the necessary information going in the right way on a regular basis? (Enlist your power users to help answer this question.)
  • Is everyone following the SOPs? If so, do the SOPs need updating?

 Identify and address the issues, then follow up with retraining. If the problem can’t be traced back to user error, set up a meeting with your power users and your developer(s) to dig deeper.

Don’t Forget About Security

Understand your vulnerabilities. Whether you choose an on-site or cloud-based system, know how and where your information is being backed up and what your confidentiality responsibilities are regarding customer information and intellectual property.

Cyberattack is always a threat, even though it may be tempting to believe your company is too small to be a target. We hear about the giants – Microsoft, Target, Apple, Equifax – but they are newsworthy because of their size. That doesn’t mean small businesses are safe. A local company here in New Hampshire with an annual revenue of between five and seven million dollars was a victim of ransomware. Twice.

So, take security seriously. Consider a managed detection and response (MDR) service. Pay for a penetration test to find the blind spots in your security. Most importantly, unless you have a security expert in-house, find a reputable security consultant to guide you.

Understand Your Investment

There will be sticker shock. Brace yourself. Breathe through it and keep moving. It is easy to quantify the cost of implementing a fully functional tech stack. It is much harder to quantify the cost of not doing it. Only you can decide if the investment is worth the price tag, but consider the ways your lack of process automation may be hurting your business.

Do you lose business due to lack of agility? Slow response times from sales or customer service, slow turnaround when fulfilling customer requests, and missed deadlines can all be a direct result of lack of automation in your process. Our business is building custom capex equipment for life science companies. If we are able to win or retain only one customer by streamlining our operations with tech, it’s worth the investment. Your company may have a harder time putting a number on lost business, but I’d encourage you to try.

Is your growth potential limited by your current system? You may have plenty of demand for your product or service, but how much of that market share can your company handle? If your system isn’t scalable, you can’t grow. It’s just that simple.

How often are you finding costly mistakes? Whether it’s manual data entry and transfer, trying to keep track of inventory, or that stack of paper POs on the corner of your desk, it’s too much to ask of a human brain to keep it all straight and error-free. Imagine ordering thousands of dollars’ worth of parts based on a bill of materials generated from an outdated CAD drawing. That could never happen, right? (It can. It’s just one of the reasons we’re investing in making our whole process digital.)

Are your employees bogged down with manual processes? Time spent on work better left to automation is time lost to zero revenue tasks. Keep your team focused on the work that brings in new dollars.

But…

Don’t Let Limited Resources Stop You from Starting

If your company is small, or if funds are limited, all is not lost. In fact, if you’re small, start now! So many of the powerhouse apps out there have functional, feature-rich free versions. Use them. Do your research, follow the steps, just execute on a smaller scale. But, don’t think that just because your tech stack is free that it doesn’t require the same scrutiny in your decision-making process. On the contrary, make sure to choose an app or system of apps that will grow with you as your business grows.

Build organically. Don’t bump up to the next paid package or add a new app until you’re at risk of outgrowing your current investment level.

Understanding your needs and implementing the fundamentals correctly while you’re still small makes scaling up a breeze.

Hey, Manufacturers! Don’t Stop There

You’ve gone through the whole process and come out on the other side with a dialed-in tech stack that keeps your business humming – except for that siloed or manually collected data from the factory floor. If you’re ready to take the next step and upgrade or retrofit your manufacturing machinery with custom software that will communicate with your ERP system, give us a call. We’ll help you seamlessly integrate your data so you can stay on top of OEE, quality control, lotting, serialization, and more.