SBJ: Next Level Solutions is a young company, but still, your growth has been progressive each year. What have you determined as the keys to your success?
Michael Smith: A lot of it just has to do with a lot of focus on presence in the industry. We took a different approach to the Duck Creek space than some of our competitors do. We’ve really focused on client relationships and really trying to deliver the highest quality products. In doing that, we’ve been able to build an image for ourselves.
SBJ: On the employee side, you’ve implemented a layered leadership approach. That seems to lend itself to opportunities for advancement and growth within the company. How critical has that shift been to recruit and retain people in this weird labor market?
Smith: It definitely is. We’re seeing some battles that we have to face. It’s definitely an employee’s market. Back in the fall, we were at an insurance technology conference in Vegas and there’s a lot of startups that attend a conference like that. When we would make introductions and start trying to develop partnerships with some of these firms, everybody that we were talking to, you know, this 2-year-old company, they were all C-suite. It just got me thinking about how NLS did not come into existence like that. When we started, we had a president/CEO, Chris Sawyer, and I actually came in as just a managing director and we were around for about a year before I took on the title of COO. The highest-ranking role that we created originally was a director position. As we’ve continued to expand kind of horizontally, we’ve been able to create associate vice president roles and we have room in our organization for vice president roles. We’ve never taken that mindset of let’s create the top layer first and then we’ll fill in the gaps. We’ve always provided an avenue where people can take on responsibility and then grow.
SBJ: How have you expanded your service offerings beyond the scope of the traditional Duck Creek products?
Smith: With our existing client base, we’ve had business needs come out of those clients that really require some sort of expansion to the Duck Creek suite. Some of that is integrations with Salesforce, some of it is custom. We’ve also found evidence of there needing to be more of a quality assurance avenue. We actually have a client that we just do quality assurance for. We have conversations about future work with other sets of clients that are looking for just different alternatives in this property and casualty market. We’re not intentionally trying to stay away from Duck, that’s what we built the company around, but we’re finding that there are a lot of opportunities and avenues for us as an organization.
SBJ: Do you anticipate continuing to grow at the level you have been?
Smith: I don’t think that we can continue to grow at doubling our resource count and things like that year on year. It’s not for the lack of wanting to, it’s more of just the lack of sustainability. It’s one thing to grow an organization out of the gate to meet the demands and the needs of the projects that you have. It’s another thing to create a sustainable environment to continue to grow but also maintain the need of what you already have. Our pipeline is still continuing to expand. We have plenty of opportunities, but it becomes much more difficult to continue to find work for 300 people, as well as add another 100 people versus maintain workload for 75 people and add another 75 people. I think one of the best problems that you can try to solve for is you’re growing too fast.
SBJ: What’s next?
Smith: In this calendar year, we’ve took a larger focus on our branding. We’ve done a lot of our success off word of mouth and reputation off projects and clients that we’ve worked on. We want to kind of get out ahead of that and start pushing our name, growing our brand more. We’re going to have more investment in those areas so that we can continue to see those play out because it offers us the ability to reach a different resource and candidate pool too. For the first three and a half years, we’ve been really focused on Duck Creek talent, Duck Creek skill sets. As we start to look in other avenues, it kind of broadens our reach a little bit. We’re definitely not going to slow down in the Duck Creek space. That’s our bread and butter. I think we’re just providing ourselves with additional opportunity.
SBJ: What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
Smith: Those are the things you try to forget. [Laughs] I did approach some people prior to us starting NLS about an idea like this. Their advice was that it didn’t seem sustainable. Why would you do something like that in Springfield, Missouri? It’s definitely something that I had to face when I was evaluating what I was wanting to do.
A lot happens behind the scenes at the Springfield Art Museum.