As a businessperson, my career has spanned many disciplines: Law, electronic publishing, cloud computing and, now, germ-zapping robots. (Really. More on that later.) But each of these work experiences has convinced me of the value of one, overriding business lesson: Companies succeed when they have a very clearly defined purpose, and focus tightly on carving out a key differentiator that separates them from the rest of the market in an easy-to-understand way.
The best companies stand out by “owning” something significant. Some companies’ mission is to deliver packages quicker than anyone else (FedEx). FedEx owns the word “overnight.” Others own safety (Volvo) or “direct” (Dell.) At Rackspace Holdings, a cloud-hosting company I co-founded that now has a market cap of more than $4 billion, we wanted customers to have a world-class customer service experience similar to that at Ritz-Carlton, Lexus or Federal Express. We called it “fanatical support.”
Fanatical support meant that if a customer called us with an urgent tech problem over a weekend, or in the middle of the night, we fixed it and got them up and running immediately. We refunded their money if they had downtime – and challenged them to call us on holidays to verify our responsiveness. We let them pay on a month-to-month basis, which was unheard of in our industry.
Plenty of other companies have succeeded by focusing on other things. There are hugely successful restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Subway or PF Chang’s, for instance, at which the food is inexpensive, ubiquitous or savory, and the customer service is good to OK. But those factors are not the differentiators. I think it’s imperative in any enterprise for leadership to establish what differentiates the company—and make sure you are communicating that to customers, prospects and investors loud and clear. This differentiation should pervade all aspects of company culture. At Rackspace, we called ourselves “Rackers” and rewarded employees for outstanding customer support and service.
Now I run a medical-technology company called Xenex whose mission is, literally, saving lives. Xenex makes a pulsed-xenon, UV room disinfection system for healthcare facilities. Our Germ-Zapping Robots™—standing waist high—go into hospital rooms and dispense Full Spectrum™ high-energy, ultraviolet light from a xenon lamp to eliminate deadly pathogens like MRSA and C.diff. These pathogens lurk on high-touch surfaces in hospitals and cause healthcare-associated infections, the deadly and costly infections you often read about. They infect two million Americans each year and kill 100,000, making them the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S.
There are some other products on the market that also try to wipe out these pathogens and curb deadly infections. We stand apart from them for a few reasons, including that we don’t use mercury, a toxic substance, in our system, and that our UV light robot is faster and more powerful. This matters a lot when it comes to room turnover time in hospitals. We’re the only UV light disinfection company that has had customers publish studies in peer-reviewed journals about their HAI reductions. But more important than that is that every day, my team wakes up and thinks about our mission and what we can do save people’s lives.
We know it’s imperative that hospitals use our robots in order to bring down the bacterial burden in their facilities, so we reward our account managers for customer usage. We also give a “Robot of the Month” award to customers to recognize their dedication to patient safety. Every day we hear amazing and heartwarming stories from our customers about how our robots are stopping outbreaks and saving lives. We frequently provide our robots to schools and hospitals experiencing an outbreak – from norovirus to MRSA to MERS. We know, without a doubt, that our robots are helping hospitals stop infections and saving lives.
Like “fanatical support” as a descriptor for a differentiated service, Germ-Zapping Robots™ describes a differentiated technology — and people instantly know what our technology does.
I see plenty of companies today, particularly in the technology space, that don’t really “own” anything big. They’re innovating on an already-existing technology or creating a new feature for a gadget, website or service. I think the best companies address big problems and own big things—service or support or safety, not online calendar add-ons or new ways to get a sandwich delivered to your house. These companies may argue they own “time management” or “convenience”, but I think their focus is too narrow.
In 2013, Xenex devices disinfected 1.5 million rooms—we estimate we prevented 75,000 infections and saved approximately 3,750 lives. To us, that’s an exciting and meaningful differentiator and one of which we are very proud.
Morris Miller is the CEO of Xenex and the founder of Sequel and Cutstone Ventures.