Meet the veteran CEO who survived the first dotcom bust
Business Management

Meet the veteran CEO who survived the first dotcom bust

Rob LoCascio is that unusual specimen from the US technology world – a survivor. He has been CEO of his company LivePerson for 21 years (16 of them on the public markets) making him the third longest-serving tech CEO, he reckons. He may not have the fame or the billions of a Larry Ellison, John Chambers or Bill Gates who also had lengthy tenures at the top but his status as a constant fixture of the tech scene makes him a sort of smarter version of Forrest Gump for the web generation, a soldier who survived the carnage of the 1990s digital trenches and lived to fight another day.

LoCascio, born in New York where LivePerson still has its HQ, saw the company float at a time, April 2000, when the first dotcommers were swiftly swapping boom for bust. He says it was the last internet IPO of that gold-rush period and he is probably right. LivePerson, with just $2m in annual revenues at the time, survived, but only by shrinking from 189 people down to 40.

At least LoCascio had form here: his previous company had failed and he says he had “lost everything” at the age of 27, leaving him with a camp bed in the office as his place of residence and reduced to scratching a living designing websites. In retrospect, he says, this queasy experience served him well.

“That was the thing that gave me perspective,” he recalls. “A lot of guys didn’t have that experience. I’d had it once and didn’t want to do it twice.”

 

Then and now

Of course not everyone at the time was heartbroken by the first online collapse, I suggest, with some seeing it as karma for a group of arrogant and ruthless individuals that wanted to get rich quick.

“Actually there’s more assholes now than back then,” LoCascio jumps in. “We were pioneering technology that’s now standard. I remember meeting the guys from Sun Microsystems doing Java. We thought the internet was going to change the whole world.”

The change in the financial markets weather also helped LoCascio and LivePerson focus, he says, leading indirectly to the company’s current strategy to deliver cloud-based online customer service via messaging, voice or content delivery channels.

That long stint as CEO allows him to take a sanguine view of market and analyst sentiment. LivePerson took a hit on its stock recently because it was investing heavily in R&D to revamp its product line. It’s painful when that happens, he says, but also understandable as nobody can say for sure that the bet will pay off. Despite this, he’s predictably bullish about the rise of a smarter customer service.

It’s the “digital connection between brand and consumer”, he suggests, an important bridge but one that is still deployed relatively rarely. Interactions are still split about 90 per cent in favour of analogue voice to 10 per cent digital chat. Customer service accounts for about 260 billion calls a year - but isn’t that because many of us still like the warmth of human vocal communication?

 

Acts of madness

LoCascio thinks not and says he is confident that the combination of strong brands and ubiquitous mobile messaging will mean voice finally starts to lose primacy and that his product, LiveEngage, will fly and help customers literally “get in the pants” of customers via smartphones.

“We will be able to disrupt voice,” he says. “I just needed mobile messaging to be there and to align it with a brand. We’re right on the edge and it’s a no brainer for digital natives. If you’re a millennial you don’t know what a voice call is. Speaking with a brand is an act of madness and it’s going to go quickly.”

Looking further out he thinks there can be scope for more augmented reality in customer interaction and expresses surprise that there haven’t been more Amazon-style digital commerce success stories. It won’t be easy: some companies will create their own apps and there might need to be integrations with the many messaging apps that are popular in different parts of the world. But he’s confident that his “windy road” and patient investment will pay off in the end and he talks up customers like Royal Bank of Scotland and telcos as leading the way in demonstrating best practice.

For LoCascio, patience might yet be a virtue.

“To go after big things you have to prepare… I’m playing it out right now,” he says.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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