Tech 101: Interview With 'Tech Catalyst' Lori H. Schwartz

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Lori Schwartz has carved out a niche as a self proclaimed 'Tech Catalyst' or what I would say is a 'tech translator' for people who are outside the tech world but want to learn how to integrate tech in a manageable way into both biz and life. Schwartz takes away the overwhelm of it all and explains in non-techie terms what's new and relevant in technology for everyone from stay-at-home moms to entrepreneurs to big name household brands. The speed of tech is so fast today, we need to slow down to figure out what will be effective in our own lives.

Here's a Q&A with Lori Schwartz on tech, biz, entrepreneurship and life:

How long have you been involved in the tech world?

I've had a 13 year career at Interpublic Group, McCann Worldgroup and various units inside that larger holding company. My first four years there were working at a digital agency before anyone was really online yet. We were building websites and creating interactive experiences.

As new devices and platforms were constantly emerging, I started talking to IPG leadership about how it difficult it was to explain to our brand clients about all of the new technology. I saw the need for a showcase or lab space to demonstrate these different solutions in a way that wasn't intimidating to a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) who demographically wasn't using the devices but was spending media dollars against those audiences. They needed a place to come to see this stuff in action, in a place where they weren't expected to understand it all...a laid back yet exciting learning center. That idea led to launching IPG Media Lab, which I ran for six years until it moved into different business unit in NY. I stayed in L.A. and became 'Chief Tech Catalyst' for McCann Worldgroup for two years before launching my own business.

How Has Tech Changed for Small Biz Marketers?

It used to be that every few years the change in tech would be seen but it wouldn't impact the consumer right away. A lot of brands in the past didn't want to be a 'first mover,' they'd want to wait and see how things would play out.

Today, brands don't have the luxury of the wait and see because of the fast pace of tech. They need to evaluate what's relevant and be agile. They need to see the bigger picture of where their industry might be headed.

An example from a trend perspective is the major disruption in the food delivery and grocery biz world. There are all sorts of new businesses now that are delivering pre-made meals or delivering ingredients and a recipe for you to cook, or you just have someone else shop for you and your groceries are delivered. It's all part of this trend of on-demand services in general.

Whats going on in the food delivery and grocery war biz is a big disruption because now we have GPS, mobile devices, wifi and back end systems that allow you to ping a request for an on-demand service and then the infrastructure of the company can immediately send it. It's the 'uberization' of everything. Who would have predicted a year ago that there'd be all these new businesses in grocery and meal prep? I've tried out several in the last few few months. I'm not saying I won't ever step into Ralph's again, but why didn't they address this need with modern tools? They weren't looking at it quickly enough so now there are third parties making things more convenient for their customers.

Now, all of a sudden, a bag of groceries from your local grocer is just as convenient as take out. Its all the same now. Either I'm ordering from a grocery store, from a delivery service, from a prepared recipe/ingredient place or having a full meal delivered.

Yes, it costs more but if you can afford the extra fees, it frees up some time. As modern women move through their life they are heavily tasked, a lot of these services are creating a better lifestyle, that's what this is all about.

Three years ago you left McCann Worldgroup to launch your own biz. How is life as an entrepreneur?

Leaving McCann was a very typical decision based on personal needs as a new mom. My daughter was traveling with me all the time for business and by two and a half years old, she had high loyalty status on several airlines! It had gotten out of hand and it was time to make the lifestyle change and be more present for my daughter. I was sacrificing a large steady paycheck, but gaining control of my time and destiny.

I launched StoryTech in 2012 with a few colleagues. I took everything I did as Chief Tech Catalyst at McCann and director of the IPG lab and created products for brands to drive innovative thinking. The concept behind StoryTech is to help facilitate collaborations between storytellers (who are brands, media or content companies) and their audience. Brands speak a language, tech people speak a language, agencies speak a language, each has their own culture that may not necessarily be compatible with each other. As a tech catalyst, I translate to help people leverage tech and find their best use for it.

Why Is StoryTech so popular at tech trade shows?

Trade shows such as CES (Consumer Electronics Show) look like a Disneyland of gadgets, it's absolutely overwhelming! Aisle after aisle, hall after hall of new technology. We walk clients around the floor and explain not only the technology being presented but for example why a flexible screen matters to their business. Things like 'How is consumer behavior going to be impacted by flexible screens? How will our homes change with screens everywhere? What does it mean to our investment in creative and content creation if flexible screens are everywhere?

In addition to CES, we do this at NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) and NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) and a variety of other big trade shows where attendees need help from tech experts to break it all down and create context that applies to their specific business. We are creating products and programs for brands to learn and innovate so their niche isn't disrupted.

What were some lessons learned from leaving corporate life for entrepreneurial life?

Be Patient: Anytime you make a big change in biz or life It's a process that takes time for the dust to settle. Build that time into your plan.

Identify Your Value Proposition:

As quickly as possible, get clear on what it is that you are offering to the marketplace that is unique and has value. Productize it so that you can explain it in a way that a potential client has something to buy where you can prove there will be ROI for them. ROI doesn't have to mean just revenue. It could mean insights, brand awareness or education. But there has to be specific return on investment.

Be Honest (with yourself) About Your Skill Set & What Makes You Happy:

At a certain point after being experienced in your career, you can't just show up day to day without passion. I can only 'bring it' if I believe it. Learn to understand your strengths and find resources/partners to work with who bring value where you need it. Navigate toward like minded colleagues and situations where everyone brings different value, and move away from things that aren't a good fit. In the end, work is work, there will always be tasks that aren't fun but that shouldn't be 70-80% of it. Being self-aware is difficult but it's critical.

How did tech actually help you make a softer landing as you took this leap into entrepreneurship?

There are many tools available to entrepreneurs now because of the democratization of tech and tools. Everyday, new apps, sites and platforms are being launched to service entrepreneurs, consultants and small businesses.

I'm a big fan of Freshbooks, which is how I track my invoices and expenses with clients. It's very user friendly and integrates with my tax software. I also love Evernote for managing project information with a variety of independent consultants and different clients. Of course, Dropbox is also a great tool. Google apps for business, has really 'professionalized' my communication abilities. I don't need a Microsoft exchange server to have a solid networked email solution which works across devices. I can also manage my social media posts and email all through drop and drag dashboard solutions which make it very easy for a non-techie to play in this world. I can manage my world now through all of these tools.

Look at what's happening with streaming video, with Periscope and Meerkat, anyone can broadcast video to the world. Now of course you still need a distribution plan and a strong strategy to engage followers, but it's not impossible to learn those techniques. There are lots of how- to webinars offering free help.

Bootstrapping and tech are a powerful combination now, right?

Yes, there's a unique understanding in the tech community right now that's fueling the birth of all of this, you don't have to spend a lot of money to set up and bootstrap a new idea for a business. That cultural shift is fueling these same startups to create tools that will serve their community and there's always been an appetite to serve the small biz community.

What are your tips for people to ease into tech to make our lives better?

Don't Be Afraid to Download: Try new things all the time. If you read about an app that sounds like something that could be useful, download it and check it out. Don't over analyze. Just give it a shot and see if you like it.

Listen to Your Communities: We've entered a world where tech is very niche oriented, very specific to a lifestyle or business need and we usually find out about great tech things through our communities. We all have different contact points but friends and family referrals are a great place to start. Whether it's about finding help to organize your baby's breastfeeding schedule or finding the best heart rate app for hiking...read and explore but stay within your needs so you don't feel overwhelmed.

We keep hearing about wearables and the 'Internet of Things,' what's your take on these?

We live in this cloud based world, where the internet is connecting devices to us to gain knowledge about our personal behaviors. There's lots of biz around creating lifestyle products that connect to the internet and this data that comes from them are creating new lifestyle services. It goes back to the 'uberization' of devices in your house.

I recently just plugged in my Echo. It's voice activated intelligent agent from Amazon, it's connected to your amazon account, to your calendar, your music lists etc. Its been out for a couple of months. Right now I'm using it for music, weather and creating my to do lists. My six year old daughter is also enjoying it and is now learning how to speak to voice activated devices. As we all know from Siri, we have to learn the code words to make commands happen, eventually the tech will get to where you can just talk.

The 'internet of things' is going to add to our lives by taking solution services, day to day tasks and operationalizing them, making them simpler so our time and energy can be focused on better things.

It's interesting and helpful and can remove the burden of certain tasks and from amazon's perspective, with Echo, they now own the shopping list and are collecting the data...and I will be ordering from amazon because it's all connected.

What Will We See Next in Tech?

Connected/Smart Home Products: We will continue to see a lot more on-demand services for the connected and smart home. Also, connected car stuff where music content data about yourself is wrapped into it. The Echo can also be connected to some smart home protocols so that it can turn the lights on. There will also be ways to leverage data to help with water and energy conservation.

Wellness, Health & Fitness: This is a big tech category with all the wearable clothing and devices that can monitor and send your health related data to doctors through broadband.

Entertainment/Music/Games: This niche is exploding too. We are seeing a hyped up virtual and augmented reality and also connected toys. Smarter things that are learning about you that will connect back to discovery and provide personalized solutions, it's the discovery of human engagement entertainment.

Every Biz Category is Being Disrupted:

I can't think of an industry that won't experience changes that will impact its entire landscape in the next year. But as a consumer, as a homemaker, as a working mom, you don't have to keep up with everything, but keep up with what's relevant to you and family and stay calm about it. Invest only in what impacts your life.

What Resources Do You Recommend for Consumer Friendly Tech Info?

There are many consumer friendly tech newsletters such as: Mashable, Engadget, NYTimes Tech section, WSJ, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at Re/code. Find online sources like these that are more about what's happening in the world and less about techie geek content.

There's also Lori's podcast, the Tech Cat Show where she serves as a liaison between high level techies and tech curious people.

It's not surprising to learn that Lori has an improvisational and comedic background. Her unique combination of geek and humor shows in all of her talks. She says, "It's at the core of my need for existence, I get joy from teaching, speaking and guiding people...with humor and accessibility. I open the tech door for anyone to simply walk in and feel comfortable learning."