An Interview With A CEO and Entrepreneur
Before we get to my interview with Cornerstone CEO, Mat Orrego, ask yourself a Big Question: “How do you keep your tech company relevant in today’s world of constantly evolving technological progress?”
As you answer this question, don’t just give yourself your elevator speech about what your company is and what it does. Really sit down with the question and consider what efforts your company has made to truly keep forward facing in the modern world. Have you made use of new technology as it comes along? Is your business model flexible enough to adapt to change? Have you been able to avoid or retire the technical debt that plagues other tech companies?
Obviously, if you are working in a growing business – whatever you are doing is succeeding! But it’s important to really dig in to the “whys” and the “hows” of this momentum and relevance that your company has. The biggest goal is to keep that momentum going, and you can’t do that without a few moments here and there of some serious introspection.
Keeping all of that in mind, let’s see what Cornerstone’s CEO and Founder has to say about the subject:
Cornerstone and Data Automation Before The Internet
Cornerstone Information Systems was founded in 1992 “out of necessity,” says founder and CEO Mat Orrego. Orrego had worked for a travel agency before, and was on the team to help implement their first data automation protocols. He saw great potential for the project, and left once it was implemented to build his own solution for sale to other travel companies.
Now if you remember, 1992 was a year before AOL started mass distribution of their “free trials CDs”, so this was well before many places had their own internet connections. In fact, according to Orrego, this was even before many companies had access to their own computers. How did Cornerstone overcome this obstacle to sell their software?
“We used to sell our software with a computer since people couldn’t run [our product] without one”, Orrego explained. “We would buy Gateway and Dell computers – we had these things everywhere in the office – and we would copy our software on to these computers to sell [to travel companies]”.
And how did these computers connect to the airline Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) before their owners had internet?
“The GDS’s would provide dedicated ALC lines from the telephone companies to access the host”
So Cornerstone Information Systems, a little startup in Bloomington Indiana, would load their software on a desktop computer, travel to their clients and install the computer for them, splice into one of the ALC lines, using a special multiplexer and teach a travel agency how to use it.
Talk about making sure your clients are happy and productive!
But as we all know, computers and the internet became far more commonplace in the years after 1992. How did Cornerstone remain relevant? How did they evolve?
Orrego leaned back, smiled, and answered: “We thought it would be cool if we could get data out of these systems [that we’d built].”
Don’t all great companies start with the thought of “it would be cool if”? …
The Cycle of Ever Changing Technology
“When we started,” Orrego said, “already travel was becoming part of more employees jobs within organizations. It was the beginnings of globalization and if you wanted to compete you had to travel. All of that needed to be measured and managed.”
They saw where technology was going, and knew how to adapt. “We had to become an automation company that reduced operational costs and provided great data to manage the business.”
So while the travel agencies that Cornerstone counted among its clients evolved, purchased more computers, connected to the internet, and became comfortable with their own technology, Orrego knew that there was potential in evolving how his own company automated its clients’ data.
For example, “[travel] reports used to be printed and mailed. Travel agents would have these big piles of reports in the corner of their offices, all unread. We automated it with PDFs.”
Anywhere Orrego saw an opportunity within the whole ecosystem of travel to automate, Cornerstone developed an automation solution. Data insights, reporting, workflow – nothing was off limits. “It wasn’t just the reservation process anymore,” Orrego said. “It was also about everything else that needed to be in the reservation. Employee ID, authorization, financial metrics, comments to the airline or hotel”. All of these steps could be fed through a centralized process (or made in to their own automatic process) and prevent errors, or make the process faster.
“We were thinking about what we were doing and accomplishing. [We were] constantly thinking of how to ensure a level of quality and reliability with the reservation process for the customers. … Humans could make mistakes. Typos. Etc. We wanted to ensure the documentation and policies were properly done. And if it wasn’t [done properly at the beginning], then we could finish it properly. It was the next scaling step in the industry.”
Adapting For The Future
When asked where Cornerstone would be headed in the next decade, Orrego didn’t even skip a beat.
“Our customer in the future is the one that is focused on an integration and utilization of information through their entire enterprise. Our future customer wants travel to be a highly integrated and seamless process. [In this sense, integrated means that] you want decisions to come to you. You need to know about something only when a decision needs to be made.”
Right now, in order for a travel agent to be updated, they have to keep checking an app or a program. They have to keep themselves updated. They have to make the initiative.
When a traveler gets to the airport, they have to check the monitors to know if their flight is delayed, if their airplane has changed, or if their seat has been moved. But travelers don’t want that. Travelers want to know things in advance as that knowledge first comes available and when they have to make a pertinent decision about it.
In Orrego’s words, “You want to be told and updated as to where you are and what’s going on much sooner than later. [Having value means] being insightful and predictive at the moment that the insight and prediction needs the action.”
In other words, you should get a notification that alerts you to these things as soon as the GDS is aware that it is happening.
He also believes that a travel company’s data reports could use a shakeup as well. “They weren’t really read when they were being mailed, and they aren’t really read now that they’re in PDFs either.” So what can change that? Orrego has a plan to tailor travel reporting to have data that is both interesting and relevant to its consumer.
“Say your company gets discounts from an airline when booking in H class. We could incorporate that into our reports and show how many tickets are being booked in which classes and what fare classe where available at the time. You could can then show the airline that you are not able to to get a discount because H class is often not available. That would be interesting information to that company as the company could be missing its discount target.”
Even though the number of H class seats in a report may be wholly irrelevant to other companies, it is important to the particular client in the example. Not to mention, it could help their business look better to the travelers for whom they are booking flights.
And that’s really the bottom line. Helping your client look good for their clients.
So, how DO you keep your tech company relevant in today’s world of constantly evolving technological progress?
Orrego was ready for that one too.
“For us, it’s not going to just be about travel. [Travel will] always be a mainstay for us, but it touches so many other parts of the industry that we can facilitate and integrate much broader bases of processes. We will take our tech and because we can do a very integrated expansion of information and enablement of decision making … we will discover other industries that we can enable with the same mentality. Everything is about processes and automation.”
Find the need and fill it, no matter how it needs to get done.
“We spent 25 years automating the routine so frontline agents can focus on the traveler and companies get the best value for their travel purchase. We are now looking the next generation of travel automation and leveraging AI and machine learning. That’s what we do. That’s where we started. That’s where we’re going.”
So long as there is data to automate, Cornerstone Information Systems will be there … adapting to whatever needs and systems our clients operate on.
Special thanks to Cornerstone Information Systems Founder and CEO, Mat Orrego for both his time and his fantastically captivating storytelling abilities.
CEO, Cornerstone Information Systems