Interacting With Interactive CEO Don Brown
Interactive Intelligence company founder dishes on the role in communications he sees for artificial intelligence, analytics, the cloud, self-service, and more.
Dr. Don Brown, CEO of Interactive Intelligence, is a serial entrepreneur with a history of success. His first software company caught the attention of EDS four years after its launch, and his second company, Software Artistry, grabbed IBM's notice in just seven years. Next came Interactive, which he founded in 1994 and took public in 1999. Today Interactive's contact center and UC products are in use at more than 6,000 companies.
Like his previous companies, Interactive is based in Indiana, where Don has lived since the '60s. The company has more than 2,000 employees today.
Don, who is also Interactive's chairman and president, makes for an impressive role model. The "Dr." prefix in his name comes from his 1985 degree from Indiana University School of Medicine. Don has a tech education background, as well -- he holds a master's degree in computer science and a bachelor's degree in physics (both obtained at IU), and is about halfway through a master's program in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University.
He balances his workday between his corporate and student roles, then presumably enjoys a quiet time at home... with his eight kids, ages 17 to 30. That's a full load, but I don't think Don sees it that way. He tends to look at things differently. That might explain why he enjoys rock climbing and is an instrumented-rated pilot even though he's afraid of heights.
Tell me, how does a doctor of medicine end up founding and running several technology companies?
I actually enrolled in med school as part of an M.D./Ph.D. program intended to churn out medical researchers. I thought I'd end up in a lab someplace. I started off working on a doctorate in biochemistry but really didn't enjoy the laboratory part of it. So I switched to the then-new field of computer science where I fell in love with programming. After earning my master's in CS, I started a little software company with a buddy while finishing up my last two years of med school. After graduation, I started working full time in software and never looked back.
Looking back to when you founded Interactive, which part of your plans did you get right and what did you get totally wrong?
Interactive was my third company, so I applied what I had learned from my many previous mistakes. The first thing we did right was to set out a clear goal -- develop a software-based communications system. I personally was able to fund the company until its IPO in 1999, which meant that we never had to take venture capital. As a result, I'm still the largest shareholder 20 years later, and we have an unusual concentration of internal ownership, which gives us a great deal of freedom despite being a public company.
Our biggest mistake was growing too rapidly before the dot.com crash and then having to work through a couple of painful rounds of layoffs.
In terms of our business plan, we were pretty much spot on. You can always do things better though. In hindsight, I wish we had designed for large organizations from the beginning. We originally intended our product as an all-in-one communications device for small and mid-sized organizations. However, we were quickly pulled into large opportunities and had to grow our way up, which was somewhat painful.
Interactive has gone through several phases, from VoIP to UC to cloud. What's next?
One trend we're excited about is the use of collaboration technologies in customer service. Customers increasingly expect to be able to use video, screen sharing, document sharing, and other collaborative tools when they receive service from a vendor.
Beyond that, I think the next big period is going to involve harnessing [artificial intelligence] (AI) to both become a more intelligent organization as well as to offer more powerful products and services. AI is like a freight train barreling down the tracks. I first worked in AI back in grad school in the '80s. There was initial disillusionment as it failed to yield the grandiose benefits predicted. But steady advances in both hardware and software have brought us to the precipice of amazing capabilities that will also play important roles in internal collaboration as well as in interactions with customers.
Click to the next page to learn more of what Brown thinks about AI, and other hot topics