With its unique origin story and approach to e-commerce, the St. Petersburg tech company strikes a chord with multi-location brands and franchises. Can it manage rapid growth while maintaining its culture?
PowerChord Inc., a St. Petersburg digital marketing company, comes by its cool name honestly. Prior to having a go at entrepreneurship in 2001, founder Pat Schunk played guitar for classic rock icon Stevie Nicks and wrote music for Seven Witches, a New Jersey heavy metal band. He also contributed to the soundtrack of the 1991 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie.
The firm's coolness added a level of competence in 2015 with CEO Lanny Tucker, who came to PowerChord from Celebration-based Channel Intelligence, acquired in 2013 by Google. Tucker, 69, broke into the tech sector with Hewlett Packard and in 2005 moved to Florida from California.
PowerChord’s genesis, Tucker says, stems from Schunk’s frustration with buying music equipment online in the early days of e-commerce. “The websites were disjointed and the product descriptions weren’t there. He said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
There was, and by finding it, PowerChord, with some recent success, has bumped into a noted business challenge: Managing rapid growth without diluting the service that led to the growth in the first place.
“Great ideas don’t always come from your top dozen executives. They come from people who are out there facing the customer, who understand the customer and deal with them every day.” Lanny Tucker, CEO of PowerChord Inc.
Schunk, in launching the firm, saw an opportunity to create dynamic, geo-targeted “digital storefronts” for multi-location brands and franchises. Think products such as Kohler bathroom fixtures and Stihl power tools primarily sold via dealership networks. Using location-based data and advanced search engine optimization tools, the PowerChord platform converts online browsers into in-store shoppers.
Take Stihl, which has 10,000 dealers nationwide, Tucker says, “many of whom are independent businesspeople."
PowerChord provides a digital storefront for each Stihl dealer, and, says Tucker, the company has the unique ability to control storefronts on a customized basis.
“So imagine if you’ve got a hurricane blowing through Miami, you want to be talking about chainsaws, for example, or brush-clearing equipment," Tucker says "But let’s say that same weekend you’ve got a snowstorm in Boston and New England, so you want to talk about snow removal. We have the ability to change all of that dynamically.”
PowerChord’s solutions have been the equivalent of a Top 40 hit — in Stevie Nicks parlance, a "Landslide." Its platform powers about 15,000 digital storefronts in more than 30 countries, and it has also worked with household names including Spotify, Hulu, PayPal and Facebook. Its revenue has doubled during the past three years, reaching $25 million in 2018, and Tucker expects revenue growth to accelerate even more in the coming years.
Rapid growth can sometimes be too much of a good thing, though, because it presents staffing challenges. Tucker says PowerChord has about 70 employees, with a significant chunk hired in the past year as the company strives to keep up with rising sales. “We’re interviewing every day,” he says, “for a broad selection” of positions.
Tucker says hiring employees who want to stay and grow with the company is a priority. That's one reason why PowerChord has been diligent about implementing a unique organizational culture that involves staff from all departments in high-level decisions.
“I want to hire people who are smarter than me,” Tucker says. “What I’ve found is that great ideas, whether related to products or strategy or anything else, don’t always come from your top dozen executives. They come from people who are out there facing the customer, who understand the customer and deal with them every day.”
Proving the theory, Tucker involved some 30 employees outside PowerChord’s C-suite in the firm’s 2019 strategic planning sessions. That means hundreds of ideas can be brought forward. Then, through a distillation process, the sessions will produce a few key companywide strategic initiatives, as well as department-level goals ripe for execution.
Tucker, in the process, balances pushing staff with realistic expectations. "We’ve got to challenge employees, but we’ve also got to guide them," he says. "As employees grow and mature, and as the company grows, you can start taking on more things and still not have plates hit the floor.”
Employee empowerment is also a major part of PowerChord’s culture. Company policy allows for a generous amount of paid time off, for one, and managers are instructed to be tolerant of mistakes. “You have to be able to accept good news and bad news equally quick,” he says. “I’m a huge believer in that because if you’re not out there trying, you can say, ‘Well, I've never had a failure.’ But if you say that, you've never pushed yourself and you've never really tried.”
(This story has been updated to clarify that PowerChord does not offer unlimited paid time off to employees.)