by John Gallant

How Intuit Liberated IT to Embrace Mobile, Social and the Cloud

Dec 19, 201129 mins
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipMobile

Intuit CEO Brad Smith has deftly steered what was once only a shrink-wrap software company into the cloud and mobile worlds and has led a re-engineering of Intuit's IT organization into a customer-focused, driver of innovation and value.


Intuit, known for personal financial products like TurboTax and Quickbooks, isn’t considered a corporate IT company nor does it have any grand designs to expand beyond its consumer and small business roots into the enterprise. That would seem to make Intuit CEO Brad Smith an odd candidate for the IDG Enterprise CEO Interview Series. But Smith has deftly steered what was once only a shrink-wrap software company into the cloud and mobile worlds and has led a re-engineering of Intuit’s IT organization into a customer-focused (actually, ‘customer back’ focused), driver of innovation and value.

In this conversation with IDGE Chief Content Officer John Gallant, Smith talks about that IT journey — which included five CIO changes in half a dozen years — and what it means to really be a ‘connected services’ company in this new age of consumer IT. This discussion is invaluable for any business or IT leader struggling to embrace mobility, social media and the cloud. You’ll find it reassuring to learn — according to Smith — that you already have the transformational IT employees you need. You just have to liberate them.

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Q: Let’s start by talking about Intuit’s ‘connected services’ strategy. What does that mean and what does that transformation entail?

A: As a company that’s 28 years old, we’ve seen a lot of technology and business model transformation. We’ve seen it go from DOS to Windows, from Windows to the Web. In 2008, when we were celebrating our 25th anniversary, we recognized that this next generation of customer usage was going to be what we call ‘connected services’. Connected services are multi-platform, multi-device, often with data in the cloud. There are a couple of key components to connected services that we focus on. One is the ability to harness and capitalize on social. [That means] user contribution, where more people contributing creates greater value for the total ecosystem, and the oil, or the gold, in that is the data. The data that creates better customer delight, the data that helps people make better decisions in their financial lives. So, connected services has an element of social to it.

It also has an element of mobile, because the computer’s moved to the palm of our hand. We’ve talked about [that] we need to stop thinking about these as phones. Very few people even make a phone call on an iPhone anymore. It’s about the 1,000 times processing power of what landed a man on the moon in the 60’s now walking around in the palm of our hand. It’s bridging this digital divide where you look at seven billion people in the world, two billion have a PC. And you have five-and-a half billion with phones in their hands that are getting smarter every day. That gives us the ability to help solve important financial problems for customer groups we could have never reached through just software and services. The third element for us in connected services is [that] there really are no natural barriers now, which is where global came into play for us. You have customers adopting products and services that may not have been designed or localized for their markets. But we have a world economy now and we can see that with everything from the Euro and sovereign debt and the implications to us of China’s GDP going down, to you name it. We are now very interconnected.

Our transformation as a company is we have moved past DOS, past desktop and Windows, to now we have 62% of our revenue that comes from connected, recurring revenue. 35 million of our 50 million customers use our cloud-based products, and every new R&D dollar we invest, every new product or service we try to sell now has a mobile-first or a cloud-based implication to it. And the more open our platforms can be, the better, because that enables user contribution and social to happen.

Q: What’s next in that ‘connected services’ strategy?

A: Well, we don’t see any of those things diminishing. We think those are going to be enduring. In fact, you hear a lot of people talking now social, local, video, mobile, those kinds of concepts. I do think there are two underpinning elements we’re starting to see emerge. One is more of a platform, as opposed to an application approach – the ability for us to open up our platforms for third-party developers, for end users to contribute value. At our [recent] leadership offsite, we spent time talking about this. How do we actually start to recognize that we have a platform here that others can build and add value to, and extract value from? The second is data. Data not as an asset for us, but data to create delight. We view the data as the customer’s data.

I’ll give you a tangible example. Today we have 4 million small businesses that use QuickBooks. The loneliest job in the United States is being a small business owner. They have their uncles and their aunts giving them all kinds of advice on, “Here’s the real estate you should buy, and here’s who you should buy your supplies from.” What you often find is they want to talk to somebody who looks like them, not in size, but industry, and the whole nine yards. So now we have the ability to take the data in the cloud, using QuickBooks online, and help a four-person florist in Boston know whether the money they’re spending on their seeds is the best price they could have gotten, or whether their accounts receivable is pretty much the norm of others who look like them, and to make better informed decisions. Our ability to start to leverage data to create customer delight by helping them make better decisions is the next big chapter we’re working on as well.

Q: Do the kinds of customers you deal with understand that they’re buying cloud? Do you sell them cloud? With this new strategy, how do you change the way you market to customers?

A: We never use the industry terms. We define it in their terms, which is: what is the problem they’re trying to solve, and what’s the solution or benefit this gives them? So, for example, our online services are always focused on ‘anytime, anywhere’ automatic backup; and that is what they need. Or the ability for you to begin [work] on the PC and then access it on your smartphone, or be able to grab your tablet to finish the process. That’s the problem they need to solve.

We have GoPayment, which is the mobile payment solution that takes your regular smartphone, you put a piece into the ear jack and then swipe a credit card. It sends you an email receipt and it updates QuickBooks back in the office, so you never have to go back to the office to do your accounting. You just go from one carpet cleaning job to the next and everything’s already reconciled for you. The cloud never comes out in our conversation with them.

Q: How does the ‘connected services’ strategy change the relationship with the customer? Instead of them using the product at discrete points during the month or the year — say, if it’s a tax product – do they have a much deeper relationship with the company now?

A: Absolutely. In fact, with Mint, which originally was a Web-based personal finance product and then began to move to mobile, now over half of all the users that interact with Mint interact on the mobile device, and their engagement level is three X what it was on the Web. We’re seeing the same thing happen with online banking. People come to their banking Web site 150 times a year, on average; the people who want to pay their bills through Bank of America. When they use our mobile banking solution it’s 230 times a year. It increases the engagement and the relationship and the touch points you have with the customer by embracing more of a connected services, multi-platform experience.

Q: You’ve been very aggressive in moving toward this services-focused strategy. What have you learned that you would share with other companies that are also considering what the cloud, mobile and social mean for their businesses?

A: I would say the fundamental thing you have to avoid is forcing the business model on the customer. We don’t do that. We’ve learned the hard way never to do that. We have a desktop version of the product, we have a mobile, we have the online, but the customer can choose the platform and the service. Then we simply make sure that the product works with that device to solve the problem they want [to solve]. You have a lot of pure-play companies that are only cloud-based or are only desktop-based. What you find is for a different kind of job, customers don’t want that particular kind of solution. You need to give them choice. Think customer back. What’s the problem they’re solving? How best to solve it? Then use the technology that best does that.

I’ll give you a great example. When we first rolled out mobile in 2008, one of our engineers in our TurboTax business, who had worked closely with me when I was in that business unit, was candid enough to look me in the eye and say, “What the hell do mobile phones have to do with doing your taxes?” And I said, “I have no idea, but you’re smarter than me and I’ll bet you there’s going to be some way down the road that this mobile computing device will have implications for our tax product.”

Small team, no bigger than two pizzas can feed, came up with a solution called SnapTax. They used the sensory capabilities in the phone that you could never get on a PC. Take a picture of a W-2. Optical character recognition reads it, prefills your entire tax form. You answer a couple questions. You’re done in less than 10 minutes. For 22 million Americans to get their taxes done in less than 10 minutes is something we would have never been able to do with TurboTax through the Web. We didn’t impose the, “Hey, we’re going to put TurboTax screen by screen on the mobile phone, and that’s the way you buy it.” We instead said, “How can we solve this problem differently using this device?” And let the customer choose. That’s the big message that I would share with others.

The other is that the line between product development, product management, and IT is now completely blurred.

Q: Meaning what?

A: There is no way I can imagine a company transforming or capitalizing on cloud-based or mobile solutions if you don’t have your engineers, your IT people, your business leaders sitting in the same room, and solving the problem together as equals. We’ve had to move our IT organization from service providers to change agents. They’ve gotten much clearer, in the new cloud-based world, about what is core and what is context. Core is the work that can add unique value so that a customer’s going to see benefit. Context is where it’s become an industry service that you can capitalize on from somebody else and you don’t have to own it. Just tap into somebody else, like Amazon and their data centers. [IT] helped us get clear on the areas we’re going to focus on now and add value, and where we’re going to leverage the industry’s capability.

The third thing that was done is we’ve challenged our IT organization to be as innovative as our product engineers are. I’ll give you an interesting little proof point here. It used to take us three to four hours to submit a trouble ticket to the help desk and get an IT issue resolved. Three of our IT specialists, in their unstructured time — we have 10% of our time for employees, any function, to basically work on anything that will improve our customers’ lives or improve their productivity — they said, “We just came back from the Apple store. Let’s do a Genius Bar.” They set up these things called Techno Bars and now these problems are getting solved within 10 to 30 minutes. It saved us $1.4 million in service cost. But, more importantly, it just delighted all the employees and the engineers where every minute that they’re not able to write code is unproductive.

I’ve been doing chats when I go out to all the locations every quarter. I said, “I don’t want to have any more chats with engineers without IT in the room.”

Q: So what was the most difficult part for your IT team in making that transition?

A: They needed to move to customer back, versus data and technology out.

Q: Customer back?

A: So, we had an outage and I said, “Take me through the problem.” They said, “We were down 17 minutes.” I said, “How many customers were affected?” “We don’t know. We were down 17 minutes.” I said, “I want you to come back and take me through this in customer terms.” They came back and said, “We impacted 237,000 customers, and now the call center is backed up by 6 hours, which impacts 4,000 employees.” And then the pain was very different. It sure made 17 minutes sound different.

It’s the old Six Sigma rule. Planes are OK 99.999% of the time okay, but talk to me about the .0001 that costs 72 lives. People play at a different level when you do that. Our IT teams needed to move beyond the technology out and service levels out, and move to the customer impact back. Then start to apply innovation to improve that customer impact. That’s really what our team’s been going through.

Q: You have a new CIO, Sasan Goodarzi, who came aboard in August. What did you tell him about your mission and what’s the mission you gave him?

A: Actually, our CIO was a veteran of Intuit. In the interest of full transparency, [we’ve had] five CIOs in about a half a dozen years – all unbelievably talented, all technically proven and proficient. But we were still stumbling in terms of some of the things that we needed to do to drive change. I had great counsel from one of our board members, Diane Greene, who was the founder of VMware. She said, “You need to be thinking of your CIO as a candidate who could soon run the company as a CEO, because in a cloud-based world they need to have a good understanding of all the above.”

So at that time, in 2008, I put one of our best general managers, Ginny Lee, as our CIO. She had tremendous business acumen. She was not an engineer. She had never led anything other than product development teams. She came in, she learned and she listened. She brought business acumen and a customer-back orientation. We made transformational change under her leadership. She had really good technical people under her and, by the way, they grew because they got business experience and exposure. Now we have this tremendous leadership bench of people who can be CIOs in companies or could actually go run businesses for us who used to be, quote unquote, always viewed as “IT.”

When it was time for her to roll back into a business unit, one of our business leaders who had left the company for about four months to be the CEO of a startup decided that wasn’t the right decision for him, and wanted to come back. I said, “I’ve got the perfect job for you. You have aspirations of being a CEO, you went out to run a company, you’ve been running a big business. I’d like you to be our CIO.” He jumped on it, because he knows it’s a tremendous learning experience. He knows our vision and our strategy to be a cloud-based, connected services company that is highly available 24 by 7. [He knows] we need to think end to end and not let organizational boundaries and departments get in the way, and help drive this change across the company. Bring your innovation and your customer-backed training from running a business unit to the IT organization.

Q: How does this transformation change the skill set you need in IT? What are you looking for now with your IT leaders?

A: The skill set is already there. Great employees are problem-solvers, by definition, but leaders can create an environment where we condition them to behave a certain way. For many, many years — and I was culpable in this process too – we conditioned our IT people to be service providers, SLAs. Trouble ticket in. Get it out by this amount of time, check the box, move on.

What we’ve asked them to do now is to actually be change agents, to innovate, to think about the customer and come to us with different ways that they would deliver the services. And that’s where the things like the Techno Bars come up, or our ability now to provision a hosting environment for engineers in a matter of hours that used to take three months. It’s a template-driven process. They can select and provision their own hosting capabilities. We’ve challenged and unleashed the creativity in our IT organization to say, “Think differently about your job.” We haven’t had to do a wholesale swap-out of people. People are great. We just simply needed to redefine what we thought success looked like.

Q: Let’s talk about the competition now. I love the idea that this services-based approach essentially opens up the entire world to you. But what does it do to the competitive landscape? Doesn’t it make it easier for people to come in and bite away at different pieces of the market as well?

A: Absolutely, yes. That’s why the key to winning for us are the love metrics. We talk about the love metrics as, first, is the customer getting the benefit they hired the product to do? When they hired the product to help them save time, did it save time, and can you prove it? If they hired it to help them get more customers through their Website, can you prove it? Our people have rapid prototypes they run before they put a product out to market, and they have to demonstrate they can do it. The second thing is, do they love it so much that they’ve replaced their substitute methods? Most people are solving the problem already – an Excel spreadsheet, a competitive piece of software or going to a store and having somebody do it for them. The third is net promoter. Are they recommending it to their friends and family members?

Q: How do you measure that?

A: The Bain Net Promoter Score, NPS. We actually have a survey of all of our customers, and on a zero-to-10 scale we ask them, “Would you recommend this product or service to a friend, family member or peer?” They give you a nine or 10, they’re promoters. They give you a six or seven, they’re neutral or passive. And a zero to six, they’re detractors. The word “net” is you take the nine and 10s, and you subtract the zero to sixes, and that’s actually the indicator how strong your word of mouth is. It’s been proven across dozens of industries to be the number one most correlated question to profitable growth and market leadership. We adopted it in 2003 when it was [written up in] Harvard Business Review. Now Apple uses it, GE uses it. There’s a book out called The Ultimate Question.

The fourth love metric is whether we’re able to create a profitable business as a result? And that’s where the economics piece comes in.

Q: Using those love metrics, how do you determine where you’re most at risk from competitors in the cloud space? There are single- purpose cloud services popping up all over the place.

A: We do two things. One, when we measure our net promoter score, we measure all the competitive alternatives in the market that we can see. We have a goal of a 10 point advantage in Net Promoter over the second closest alternative. Now there are thousands of competitors and I’m not going to tell you that our surveys are able to capture thousands. But we can capture the 20 or 25 top competitors for all of our products.

The second is, to capture that long tail of the thousands, we do quarterly operating reviews. I’m flying down to TurboTax tomorrow to do it in San Diego. In these reviews I ask the leaders to take us through two or three competitors that I haven’t heard about yet that are in your space. Tell me what you’ve learned from them and what you plan to begin adopting and doing tomorrow. Not how you’re going to stop them because you’re bigger and you’ve got more money, but what did you learn from them? We call that ‘pick a fight with the new guy’. It is going to be an open market, customers will choose. But do we at least have our eye on the ball of knowing what the customer cares about?

Q: This movement to services also creates opportunities for you to partner more broadly. For example, you have a partnership with What are the most important partnerships today and how do you see the partnerships expanding?

A: You asked me about what’s the next chapter over the next year. I said more platform, more data. As we’re starting to open up our platforms and enable third-party developers to help us solve problems that our engineers would never have the time to focus on, we’ve also had to recognize that we have to be very comfortable with co-opetition. It comes down to this: who’s going to solve the problem better? You can try to artificially block people out and the customer will go around you. They’ll find a way to get the solution to work the way they want it. What we do now is identify the areas where we basically open up the platform. We let anybody who wants to build on it do it. Then the ones who seem to be getting the most traction are the ones that, if they’re small startups, we give them better access [to our technology] or we buy them.

If they’re an established player, like salesforce, then we take the time to go in and say, “How do we take this to a deeper level?” We actually deepen the integration and experience for the customer.

Q: As you make this transition to a connected services company, what keeps you up at night? What’s the most challenging part of this for you now?

A: The number one thing that we have had to learn is that the most important feature in a connected services offering is 24-by-7 availability. When you grow up a desktop company, your entire orientation was to put new features in so that next year, when you put the 2012 version of QuickBooks out, the customer had to have a reason to buy it. You shift that to, no, actually, no new features would be preferred in lieu of the ability to actually make sure you’re up all the time the customer needs the product. We’ve had to rethink what service means, and what high availability means when you now have 35 million customers in the cloud. That keeps me up at night. The other thing that keeps me up at night is, obviously, data privacy and security. Cybercriminals continue to get smarter every day. We’ve adopted best practices that we have been exposed to. We’ve got a great chief information security officer that came to us from a prior life that knows how to do this stuff really well in the financial services industry. But we’re dealing with information here that’s people’s tax returns or their banking information, their invoices. We have to really take special care to make sure that we’re on the leading edge of that.

Q: How do you get that small business over that security concern? How do you convince them it’s safe?

A: You do a couple things. One is you earn it. You earn it through having four or five million customers already doing it, and you can point to them and say, “Look, here are the other customers you can talk to.”

The second thing you do is you help people understand that they’re already doing a lot of this in their personal life. Applying it to their business life isn’t that big a leap. Most people do online banking now. Most people are downloading apps on the iPhone using iTunes, using their credit cards to purchase things, using PayPal. Just look at what Apple’s done. Apple came solved a consumer problem with the smartphone and tablet. Now every IT department in the Fortune 500 companies is trying to find a way to make that an enterprise app. The consumers are pulled in. Same thing’s happening for us. Their consumer life bleeds over into their small business, or their professional life.

Q: Where do you see the mobile trend going? What other opportunity does it offer you down the road?

A: I think it does a couple things. It will allow us to continue to look at new ways of solving old problems. I gave you an example of SnapTax – the ability to basically do a tax return by taking a picture. Now you have players in the market that literally know your GPS as you walk into the store. It recognizes you’re in the store and it pulls up the credit card that you typically use in that store. It’s just changing the way you can solve old problems. The second thing I think it’s doing is training all service providers that you have to serve things up in bite-sized apps. I heard a great quote, “A feature in a piece of software becomes an app on a mobile device.” It’s a very narrow, thin sliver, transactional sort of problem. You have to focus on getting uncomfortably narrow and nailing that one problem extremely well.

The last trend that I would see in mobile is multi-platform connectivity. We learned last year that people would start out using that picture on their iPhone to do their taxes in SnapTax. Then they would discover that their taxes were a little more complex and they wanted to have the ability to just pick it up on a tablet or PC and continue. They want that experience to be seamless. It’s kind of like the TV commercial, for DirecTV, I think, where you hit “pause” in the middle of the action movie, and then you open it up in the bathroom, and then you open it up on the way out the door. You can’t have individual experiences. You’ve got to have an experience that can continue across multiple platforms.

Q: Does the move to a cloud-based and services-based model open up the market vertically for you as well? Would you move up beyond small- to medium-sized businesses into the enterprise?

A: We have a midmarket version of our product today in QuickBooks. It goes up to companies with over 500 employees. I love the story that [former CEO] Eric Schmidt would tell that Google ran on QuickBooks until 2002 or 2003. It was quite a while. A lot of companies do. So, we aren’t looking to become an enterprise company. We’re not looking to move into the midmarket. We actually like to serve the under-served. But the good news about cloud services is that they will appeal to whomever.

Q: So that market will define itself.

A: It will define itself. But we will be very cautious to avoid the innovator’s dilemma, and start to move up market, and then leave our underbelly exposed. That’s where most disruption happens is someone coming in underneath you.

Q: Let’s explore social in some more depth. How are you using social not only to drive sales, but to improve customer service, and to improve the customer experience?

A: We took one of our best general managers, who happened to be an engineer by training, and moved her into a role that now leads the company’s social design, data, and marketing efforts. You might ask: “What do the three of those have to do with each other?”

If you think back to when the Internet came [to be] in the 90’s, the first thing that happened was everybody said, “Hey, we’ve got to be on the Internet,” and the marketers stepped up and said, “Hey, I’ll put our hours of operation up there, and all of our collateral up there, and our 1-800 number, and we’re Internet companies.”

Then chapter two was someone said, “Well, if we can market on the Internet, we ought to be able to sell.’ So we put shopping carts and accept credit cards, and a Buy Now button.

Chapter three, here we are now in 2011, and three out of four of all tax returns are done through the Internet. It’s basically the business model. TurboTax online is three out of four returns, and the desktop is only one out of four.

Same thing’s happening with social. I think everybody’s chapter one right now is using Twitter and Facebook, and putting their products up there and having people talk about it. That’s social marketing. Chapter two is we’re designing social into products now. So if you said, “I like that SnapTax,” I could say, “Here, give me your email address, and I’ll just forward it to you.” You don’t have to go to the app store and download it out of 400,000 apps. Chapter three is when it’s no longer your product being talked about by people, it’s people actually helping you create the value that leads to your product. Imagine QuickBooks customers who have written custom reports. They upload them and let other QuickBooks customers access that kind of a report too. They just share it with the larger community. Here’s the tangible example, very quickly: TurboTax.

Three years ago, one of our engineers said, “Why don’t we put a community in where customers can ask each other questions?” Our response was, “No one’s going to want to talk to anybody while they’re doing their taxes.” They said, “Humor me.” We did. Now, 40% of all the customer support questions get answered by the customers at an accuracy rate that’s higher than any level we’ve been able to provide ourselves. That’s how social’s coming into our journey now.

Q: As we wrap up, what is the key thing you want people to know about Intuit.

A: The key thing that I would need you to know about Intuit is that we are single-mindedly focused on helping people improve their financial lives in a way that would never have them go back to the old way of doing it. The proof points are today that we’ve returned $500 million of savings to families through Mint and Quicken through this recession, by helping them identify better savings.

We now have about 40% of all the US tax returns flow through our products, and our QuickBooks customers represent 20% of the United States gross domestic product, $2.6 trillion. It’s all by simply staying focused on helping an individual person or business improve their financial lives, and they add up. That bag full of pennies adds up to 20% of the US GDP.

Q: That’s amazing. How do you keep this innovation culture going? I noticed in one of your presentations you said the innovation pipeline has improved 5X. How do you measure that?

A: We’ve got three principles that we’ve applied. We’ve borrowed them from everybody else. The first is we take an 8,000-person company and break them down into teams no bigger than two pizzas can feed. Four- to six-person teams, completely empowered. They use customer-driven innovation and ‘design for delight’ to develop the products. Customer-driven innovation means they go out and observe the customers in their natural environment, doing ‘follow-me homes’. We do 10,000 hours as a company a year watching customers. Not interviewing them, watching them, and writing notes down of what’s getting in their way. They then come back and they ‘go broad to go narrow’. They identify at least seven different ways to solve that problem, and they iterate with real rapid experiments with customers until they get down to the one they think is going to work. Then they test the love metrics. So everybody’s job is to do that. Everybody does follow me homes. So, small teams no bigger than two pizzas can feed. Second, a rapid experimentation culture. The rougher the prototype the better. I’ll give you my big learning at Pepsi. I came out of college and went to work, first managing the truck drivers who deliver to supermarkets. We were building a Halloween display of Pepsi cans in Michigan. We had it all built out to look like a haunted house and it was beautiful. Just before we were getting back on the truck, the veteran driver took four of the twelve-packs off the display and kind of messed it up. He started to wheel back to the truck, and I went and filled it back up. And he said, “No, no, no, rookie.” He took it back off. He said, “You don’t understand. No one will shop this display if it looks perfect. You have to create a starter gap.” What we’ve learned with our experiments is the rougher the prototype, the more involved the customer will get in helping you make it better. Don’t wait for your idea to be perfect. Get it out there. That’s the starter-gap concept. And then the last premise that we work on is to celebrate failure as much as you do success. If your batting average is as good as a [venture capitalist], one out of 10 things will work. If you’re lucky you may get three out of ten. But if you don’t take the lessons, and celebrate people trying, then you’re going to have people solving for perfection. That’s how we’ve got our pipeline going. Small teams, rapid experimentation with rough prototypes, and getting customers in the kitchen, and celebrate failure as much as you do success.

In the IDG Enterprise CEO Interview Series, you’ll hear from technology CEOs on today’s burgeoning trends, ongoing headaches and upcoming product plans. Check out more in this informative series from IDG Enterprise Chief Content Officer John Gallant and his team of editors.