Leading for Success With Your Secure Data Room

In the first installment of this series, we examined what Altvia Answers is and how private equity firms can differentiate with data.

In the second part of the series, Altvia’s VP of Products, Jeff Williams, takes a deeper look into why interest in data is on the rise, and why firms and fund managers are actively looking for data solutions. We’ll also discuss how Altvia Answers operates behind the scenes to bring data together for firms and business users to access and interact with.

A recent article published by FundFire reported that private equity managers are dramatically ramping up initiatives around how data is accessed and used in order to gather more accurate information and make better business decisions. Industry reports and trends are telling us that data is becoming the most significant operational challenge that firms are facing. Have you observed this in the industry as well?

Absolutely. We’re seeing “data” make more and more appearances in industry studies, headlines and even keynote topics at large industry events. And, it’s a trend that’s coming up more often. Data has long been an issue for firms, but it’s becoming a bigger priority to have faster and simpler access to data, and it has only been in the last couple of years that talks have increased. It’s a topic that’s definitely growing in importance.

What are some of the specific challenges that firms are facing right now regarding data?

Firstly, firms need to understand what data they need, then how to find it in order to gain insights and make better decisions. Firms have data; they just may not have good or efficient access to it. The value chain of taking data and pulling insights out of it is complicated, and it’s a multi-step and slightly different process for every firm. But on a basic level, the process involves acquiring the data itself, then recognizing, structuring and bringing it together, and finally analyzing and consuming it. That sounds straightforward enough, but when a firm actually attempts this–even on a small scale, much less a large scale–it’s much harder to follow a clear and defined process for how to perform these steps; where to do them, when to do them, and once it’s done, how to know that it’s been done properly. There are enough challenges just in a single step of this process, and a whole host of unique problems can escalate quickly for individuals and firms at any point. So, for a firm to be successful with a data process, it’s really a matter of looking at what they are trying to accomplish and what the problems really are, then finding out how best to solve them.

Firms and managers are finding that an inability to access and use the data they have is a problem. What are some of the contributing factors, and what’s a good way for firms to approach these issues while searching for a data solution?

The process of acquiring data, then organizing, storing, accessing, analyzing, and reporting on it is definitely harder than it sounds. When you look at this process across firms, many are still relying on data in spreadsheets for the majority of these steps. A lot of extra time, resources, expertise, version control issues, and risk is involved with spreadsheet dependency, and it can ultimately be far more complicated than it should be to answer data questions. With Altvia Answers, we have tried to help eliminate this kind of dependency. We focused on the problems that people had, and how we could solve those problems in a way that helps eliminate human error and compliance risks. Technology is at the core of the product in terms of how problems are solved, freeing up teams to focus on more human-centric work.

With the release of new solutions comes new terminology and buzzwords. What are data warehousing and ETL, and why is it helpful for individuals in the private equity industry to know what they are?

On a high level, data warehousing is the storage of data. You might ask then, isn’t all data stored? And yes, it is, but in the absence of warehouses, you end up with data stored in many different places and any number of different versions. A data warehouse is designed to store and warehouse data to allow technology to provide leverage.

 

ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) is a buzzword as well and is largely misunderstood. Basically, you need to acquire data, then prepare, analyze, and consume it. ETL the process of extracting data from a place, then transforming and organizing it properly. Once extracted and put into usable formats, it can be served up for analysis and consumption in forms such as simple queries, visualization, charting, tables, and more. ETL is one of the major keys to solving data problems: extracting, transforming and loading data is a technology process, and we can eliminate human error risk and save time and resources by allowing technology to do these processes.

 

Combining the two concepts of data warehousing and ETL allows data to be stored in a single place. In addition, there are no questions as to version control issues, and by allowing technology to do the steps, your firm’s skills and resources can instead prepare for analysis.

 

In addition, with Altvia Answers, business users can get that information themselves, without swivel chair between programs or waiting to get data from other teams. The way we have approached Altvia Answers is to make technology do all of this work instead of humans, then enable the end consumer–like  business users without IT skills and time to do all of those things–to be able to interact with the properly-prepared data out of the ETL process, and in a matter of clicks in seconds, filter down the criteria they’re looking for, ask questions that they have, and get the answers back immediately in real-time without human intervention, time or risk.

How does Altvia Answers help firms surpass the competition by becoming more operationally efficient?

Data continues to grow in importance because these challenges are becoming more persistent. Many people are aware that data is the key to these issues, but they may not know how to actually implement solutions that create leverage around data instead of hassle or struggle.

 

Operational challenges differ between firms, but can largely be boiled down to an increase in demand for reporting–financial reporting, regulatory reporting, investor reporting, and so on. In spite of differences between firms, data is what drives much of the process, along with relationships with customers and investors. In relation to financial reporting, this means ensuring that data is accessible, consumable and workable so that we can understand our business and therefore make competent decisions on how it’s run.

 

Altvia Answers is designed to make working with data painless, easy, less error-prone, and independent of specific resources or wrong, miscalculated or outdated data. With Altvia Answers, a business user can get real-time data in three clicks, rather than three weeks, allowing teams to focus on finding new investment opportunities and prospects. What we’re developing with Altvia Answers is the future of differentiation: the ability not only to answer the questions that people are asking, but to allow them to ask questions and answer them themselves as well. We believe that not only can you differentiate by optimizing your firm’s operationally competency, but we believe you can take it further and start to enable your customers, investors or constituents to self-serve, and that’s not something a lot of people are yet doing. That provides the level of differentiation that people in our industry are chasing.

A traditional crm was built for general ‘customer’ scenarios

Software platforms have made the world a better place by making work a better place. Indeed the world is better off when people enjoy their jobs even marginally more, and workplace applications on big CRM platforms like Salesforce.com have done that and much more.

But the potential that platforms like these offer presents diminishing returns: once the platform provider has engineered too many industry specific components into its platform, its usefulness for other industries begins to be threatened, and with that so do the usefulness of the component tools built into the platform.

So it is with the CRM category that Salesforce.com has defined: it is generic enough to work for many industries, and yet still offers the potential for others to round off the edges and nail more vertically-oriented and extremely tailored software solutions.

Private capital markets are actually a great demonstration of this dynamic. Where generic CRM platforms simplify — appropriately so — to assume there’s a business, a customer, a sale, and service of that customer, there are a few industry-specific pieces that are missing.

Take for example, that investors become customers by investing through legal entities the GP raises. It’s a subtle but important nuance that just doesn’t make sense at a platform-as-a-service level (because it’s overly complicated for a simple one-time sale that many industries require), but which can easily be added without 10 years or software engineering. Once provided, the rest of the platform’s components become tremendously powerful again and you’re set to take over the world.

As a traditional CRM in our pillars methodology, these nuances must be present to properly account for investors in these legal entities, potential target companies and which are owned by these entities, the context of all interactions with these parties (as well as the appropriate overlap, ie co-investments), and how you’re arriving at finding these opportunities on both sides of the equation, such that you’re able to piece together what’s effective and what’s not. Not just because we say so, but because these are the very relationships and data that are key to the motivation behind a CRM in any industry.

It’s critical, too, that the valuable publicly-available information that helps to enrich CRM systems and save users painful steps of entering it themselves is fully-integrated at the platform level.

Again, look no further than the 3,000+ pre-built integrations that Salesforce.com — the creator of the CRM platform concept — has at a platform level to do so, and which only exists by way of holding just short of overly-specifying certain industry workflows that would present challenges to properly integrate.

Stakeholder reporting and communication (investor relations) draws on a range of datasets

The traditional “customer service” model of CRM systems once again makes overly-simplified assumptions about the customer relationship when applied to private capital markets.

In fifteen years I personally have yet to hear the terms “warranty” or “service call” in this market because it’s just not the same. But make no mistake, as uncomfortable as it may be to say aloud, customer service is more important now than ever and it’s constantly happening; the industry is, after all, considered to be a financial “service”.

As it turns out, that service is primarily information-based — it’s driven by data and takes the form of reports and analysis that drive decisions, and then end up again in investor-facing reports and analysis.

The foundational elements of a private capital markets CRM must be built such that they accommodate this data (like we discussed above), but so too that it can accommodate additional supporting data that investors (customers!) need in the context of service.

Oftentimes this supporting data — financial metrics and time-based values, for example — is believed not to meet the traditional definition of CRM and the natural thought is “well, better do this in Excel!”.

While I happen to believe Excel is still the greatest software application ever built, its introduction to this value chain we’ve discussed herein actually creates the problem many firms suffer from: key data needed to provide customer service (again: effectively the entirety of a firm’s reports and analysis) is now in disparate systems and detached.

Both of those dynamics are important and distinct: not only is this supplemental data disparate, but when brought together there is no logical association that can be made between the two data sets.

Allow me, then, to make the point very simply: not only can this financial and time-based value data (you may be thinking about is as “portfolio monitoring” or “accounting”) be a part of a CRM, it is arguably the most important part of a CRM because it’s at the core of what providing service to the customer entails — information that comes out of data!

Firms need a digital method to engage stakeholders (ie investor portals)

Investor portals are not new; in fact, for many of us — including myself — they conjure up horrifying nightmares in which we’re aimlessly guessing at folders to find the newest document we need.

So in lies the opportunity: not only have the portals we’ve come to hate not simplified the process of acquiring information, they’ve failed to create an entirely new experience that is “customer service” driven.

To be fair, this is not a B2C market where you’d be long out of business for not having focused on customer service and thus the customer’s technology-driven experience. But don’t expect to be around too much longer if you aren’t thinking about this shift.

Today’s institutional investors increasingly expect this same consumer-like experience, and a massive opportunity is being missed by not providing it. It’s not about providing them the experience they desire; it’s more about the ability to measure engagement that is had in return.

Put simply: what’s keeping the market from providing this experience is the availability of the information that’s required to create the service that provides the experience.

If you’ve hung in this long, you know that by focusing on your CRM, you have the data that’s required to manage the customer relationship and the technology-driven experience through which that information is shared to create a differentiated and opportunistic customer experience.

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