15. Aging Companies: Deanna Ballew of Widen joins Claire and Doug to talk innovation and changing behaviors




Before the pandemic, DAM was used mainly by creative teams. Now it’s a hub for all employees, teams, and customers in the business ecosystem. Here, we explore what’s changed, as well as the Widen innovation process, and how it’s all about changing behaviors. Deanna also explains what she thinks is the next big innovation, and the importance of balancing customer and employee satisfaction. 


Woman with brown eyes and neck length hair, in a dark navy jacket

Deanna is the Chief Innovation officer at DAM company Widen. Widen is a tech company 70 years young that’s developed with its customers from engraving to printing and through to software. Deanna started at the company about 15 years ago and has worked through to a senior position, heading up Product Development.



Doug Foulkes: Hello and welcome to the Future of Work and Aging Companies, the podcast that stares wholeheartedly into the future brought to you by WNDYR for their blog, Chaos and RocketFuel. Today WNDYR CEO Claire Haidar and myself, Doug Foulkes are joined by the Chief Innovation Officer at Widen, Deanna Ballew.

Deanna Ballew: Hello!

Claire Haidar: Deanna, thank you so much for taking this time out in your day to come and spend some good quality, as we say, coffee and chat time with us. I’d like to kick off with Widen and it’s absolutely fascinating history.

Deanna Ballew: And it’s always interesting to talk about the history of Widen and in some cases, we like to say, like, Widen is the only software company that existed before the invention of the Internet. So it’s always kind of a fun journey to talk through where we started and where we’ve come.

So Widen was founded in 1948 and has been privately owned since then and at that time we started off as an engraving business and it’s just been throughout the years always listening to our customers and solving more problems for our customers and as we’ve done that, we continue to evolve. And throughout that time we eventually evolved into the software company that you now know us today.

Claire Haidar: How did it come about that you started out going from a press, you know, to a photography focused organization and today to digital asset management? It’s a very fascinating transition. You can see the relationship between the three, but still it’s pretty big leaps.

Deanna Ballew: And when you think about where engraving started and then how engraving also plays into pre press and printing and then how printing turns into digital photography and retouching and how digital photography and retouching makes its move from printed paper into the software world and into the digital world. So it’s really just been a history of listening to our customers and saying, how can we solve that problem for them? And then who else might need that help along the way?

Claire Haidar: So tell me a little bit about that innovation process, because it’s one thing to listen to your customer and to ask how you can solve the next problem that they’re busy experiencing. But to actually implement that and turn the business in that direction, to be able to solve that problem at scale requires a very definitive innovation process. And if you read about you guys as an organization, you openly speak about that process. So I would love to hear about it.

Deanna Ballew: But the question always has been, what is innovation? Are we innovative? What do what do customers want? And it feels like a buzzword when in reality, innovation is everywhere. Innovation is in technology and process and in the way we work. It’s in the way that we we live. And it really starts with that problem and the need for change and working closely with customers. We get to hear the problem. We get to see the problem because we can go on site. We have that strong customer relationship. Well, they will spend time sharing their problem with their change with us. So we see that firsthand. Now, the innovation part comes in to though, is not just listening to what the customer or the person is telling you and how they want to then solve the problem. It’s understanding that problem and then finding a solution for it. So I like to say that customers are experts in their problems, but they’re not experts in their solutions.

So when we have to innovate, we have to find a solution that’s actually going to move them forward and change the way they work, change the way someone behaves. And the only way to do that is to really get uncomfortable or get comfortable being uncomfortable. Right. So it’s intimate. It’s really messy. You don’t really know where you’re going, where you’re starting. We think we know what the solution is going to be at the start. We’re like, oh yeah, if we could only do X, Y and Z, this is going to solve everything.

But in reality, we end up coming together and collaborating and we have so many ideas and so many ways to move forward that at the other end you couldn’t even imagine what we were going to come up with a solution when we started this process with that customer problem in that first conversation.

Claire Haidar: Am I hearing you correct in that you’re saying that it’s not so much that you guys have a definitive innovation department in the organization that’s tasked with KPIs related to innovation, it’s actually something that you guys are breeding into the culture, into every single employee. And the mindset is that of coming into every customer interaction and every customer conversation thinking; what is the next problem that we can solve together, and then leading the conversation in that direction, or is it both?

Deanna Ballew: It’s been a bit about both. So it has been in our culture. It has been in our DNA, I mean, from Mark Widen back in the day saying nothing ventured, nothing gained. It’s about trying something new. So that’s where in our culture over since the beginning the innovation has been within us. But then as we grow, it takes discipline, it takes expertise to actually turn some of our ideas and our concepts into solutions that do solve problems. So it’s been a bit of both throughout my time at Widen, and we’re really moving into more of the discipline innovation and making sure that we have the right skill sets over the last few years. And when I say discipline innovation, that’s using hypothesis to experiment, using data to really dig in to how users are interacting with our tools, using user research and surveys to to understand the qualitative in the quantitative side of how people feel and behave. Having those skill sets over the past five years that we’ve really been honing in our product development team to ensure that we’re solving customer problems in a way that’s going to be desirable and delight them rather than it’s just going to fix this one need, this one time.

Claire Haidar: You’ve been with Widen since 2004. That’s a very long stint of career growth in one organization. And this is where this concept of ageing and ageing career and ageing organization is very novel in today’s environment. Talk to us a little bit about that. Why have you chosen to stay so long? Why are you still there? What’s keeping you there? And how does the fact that, you know, Widen is so much older than its counterparts and its contemporaries in the industry make it different and unique and also very important as an example?

Deanna Ballew: I can say that I’ve chosen to stay at Widen for the growth and the learning. I am moving into probably my fifth career that I feel like I’m going into at Widen since 2004. So I have been able to not only grow with the company, but I have been able to grow the organization. I have been able to have a voice and to change it and to create new departments and to create new solutions and to bring new competencies from the outside world into our culture and to instil that into make change happen. And when that voice is heard by the leadership team who I am now part of, who at one point they were listening to me back when I started. That’s empowering; and you want to continue to foster that and to do that.

Doug Foulkes: Then I’m going to jump in here; you say Widen has got 70 years of experience. So 15 years of staying ahead of the curve as far as innovation and fixing problems for your new customers. What’s the next wave of innovation, do you think?

Deanna Ballew: So I feel like in the past 20 years, what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced has really been about how technology has innovated to complete tasks. They enable us to work differently. So now we can interact with society differently. We don’t have to do those day to day tasks that we might have had to done 10, 15 years ago. So as I look at what the next set of innovation brings forth, it’s now around human connectedness. It’s around that social belonging. So we’ve done so much in the last 20 years at task innovation that we’ve started to lack that social interaction, that social belonging that is innate in us.

So as innovation moves into the future, I think about how can we have human empathy at the forefront and how can we bring human connection across everything that we do. So I really see the next wave of innovation changing human behavior very similar to and I’ve tied it back to how the assembly line changed human behavior. With the rise of the assembly line, it became very task based, work became about, you know, going to work and doing the same tasks over and over and over again and punching a clock.

And now as we move forward with automation, with the integration of tools, with AI, those tasks are done for us. So we don’t have to worry about the tasks. But now we have to do different work. We have to work differently. And so that work is different, that work is being creative, that work is being collaborative, that work is strategy. And to do that work, that work has to be done by connecting humans together. That work has to be done by allowing people to work together with a diversity of thought and a diversity of experience so that we can innovate to bring back human connections into our day to day life.

Doug Foulkes: Widen as a company has been well awarded over the years, many around how it’s been built and managed. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Deanna Ballew: The awards that we have had over the years really has been a focus on the balance between customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. And this is something that I, you know, I felt from my first interview when I started at Widen. There was very much this thought that in order to do our jobs well as an employee, we needed to make sure that our employees and those would be myself included, have we have the right tools. So during my interview with our CTO, Gary Norris, who is still our CTO, I remember him saying very specifically that as an employee at Widen, if I were to join Widen, he ensures that we have the best software and hardware, because if we’re able to have the best software and hardware, then we can do our job and we can then solve the problems for our customers. And then that means that our customers are satisfied. So those two pieces of our culture have been strong throughout the years.

In 2008, when Matthew Weiner became the CEO, we really started looking at those as a KPI employee satisfaction in customer satisfaction. And we use the balanced scorecard to measure how satisfied are the employees and then to link that together with our customer satisfaction scores. And that’s just been amazing to see how that is growing. So as we have a higher satisfaction, our employees, we continue to have a high satisfaction in our customers. So that as we scale and as we grow and as we open offices around the world, we can instill this every every moment and every interaction, whether that’s through our KPIs or whether that’s through our core values or behaviors.

Claire Haidar: Deanna, there is just so many things running through my head as you speak. I want to segway back to the previous question that you and Doug were discussing before you started talking about the values and where the rewards have have come from; and that is the future of innovation, particular to your guys industry and where it needs to go. I couldn’t agree more collaboration, communication two critical human elements or components that are very much severely lacking in software today.

I want us to unpack that a little bit more and go into that, because I think it really is such an important talking point. Can you talk to me, first of all, at a very practical level, how do you think Widen as a technology is going to have to change and evolve to meet customers and to enable that more? But then how do you think the broader stack that Widen functions in within the marketing arena, particularly because that’s where your largest customer base is; how do you feel that that logistic needs to evolve? And the reason why I wanted to hone in on to these two aspects is because if you look at the tools that would be classified as the communication and collaboration tools of today, so things like Slack and Zoom and Front who, you know, do collaborative in boxing and those type of tools, your Wrike’s, your Workfront’s, your Monday’s, your Asana’s, I still think that they’ve got a very long way to go in terms of innovating and really, truly bringing collaboration and communication together. So what are your thoughts on those two things?

Deanna Ballew: Technology is only one piece of the puzzle. Great technology only gives us tools and in a way to to get our job done. So Zoom is a way to to get our job done of talking to each other with video Slack is a way for us to have conversations together with each other. But when it really comes down to collaboration, it’s not about the tool, it’s about the human behavior that comes along with it.

So as I see Widen evolving into the future and what we need to do and this is one of the pieces that as a SaaS software as a service, it’s the service component that’s really going to innovate. Yes, the technology is going to continue to drive. The technology is always going to change, is always new, new things that we can we can put in place in the technology, but really embracing the person who’s involved and understanding the service side of what we can offer around professional services and what we can bring it into organizations as far as change management, collaboration skills, tool sets its collaboration and communication, it’s not something that is innate and you just know how to do it. I mean, that is what we try to teach our kids when they go to school. But it’s something that it is a learned skill and that is also something that organizations need help with as well.

So having that capability of having the professional services to help people really adopt the tools and put them into use so then create that collaboration, that connectedness. So I think to me it’s about the service that we’ll be able to provide alongside the tools that will make the biggest impact going forward.

Claire Haidar: You’re talking about something that’s pretty controversial in the world of software and technology, because if you look at the majority of the significantly venture backed organizations in technology, the general investor mindset on the street today is that services is really bad. Where do you stand and where would you say Widen stands on that?

Deanna Ballew: There’s a misconception about services being bad; services is hard, right? Services is a challenge. Services can’t be forecasted. There’s not a recurring revenue to that. So it’s not as easy to really be able to understand it. Service is very intangible. I mean, that is something that the Widen brand, we’re known for outstanding service, but we’ve struggled to be able to say why does this matter? And when it even comes to talking with our customers and potential new customers, it’s really hard for them to understand the amazing service that they experience with Widen, until they have had bad service. Like the idea of service is really intangible. And this is something that I feel and I know that we we think it’s it’s not necessarily that big of a deal, but it is especially when you experience really good service. You shouldn’t have to be frustrated by service. Service should be able to help you move forward. I think that in the world of technology, it’s intangible, it’s unknown. Whereas in the known, knowing the black and white, if we do this and we see this user adoption and we get this recurring revenue now that is much more comfortable where a service is uncomfortable and unknown in the technology world.

Claire Haidar: Deanna, you know that I love what you say, but we’ll leave it there. We wont go on a tirade about why you’re what you’re saying is absolutely true. But yes, it is. And I think it definitely is something. And here’s where I think this actually takes me to my next question for you, which is around the pandemic that we’re all currently living in and through. And I think one of the really positive changes that I foresee coming out of this is because we’re moving into a more socially distanced society, not just in a temporary state, but I think in a more semi-permanent state moving forward, in varying shades of that. I think we’re going to see that service conversation coming to light. And you can actually see it. You know, if you look at the organizations that are currently floated on the stock exchange that actually do have that combination of software and service where they’re actually very clearly highlighting it in their financials, they’re making a pretty big impact. And I think that that mindset is starting to shift and change, which is a very exciting piece for me.

So let’s move on to that a little bit and talk about that. We’re in this pandemic right now. It’s impacting the globe and from my perspective, DAM is more important than ever before. Do you agree with that? How do you see it playing out in the actual customer base?

Deanna Ballew: Yeah, I think that’s been a learning journey, one to see how DAM and Widen is being used in our customer base, but then also just how the pandemic has impacted behaviors. Our own behaviors at work, the behaviors of other organizations, and then the behaviors of our customers. Like one of the the key things that have been interesting is about how we think about accountability of our employees and how if we can’t see them, can we trust that their job is being done? In this I also see as new behavior and experience with digital asset management, as well as the adoption of the tool more broadly, because they do have to interact with it and they have to get their job done, whereas previously they might have been able to walk up to a team member and say, can you send me the file? They now are adopting it and logging in and getting that file for themselves. So it’s not necessarily about interacting and making somebody else accountable for that task, it’s about giving you the capability to do it yourself and to get that done on your own time when it needs to be done as far as when it comes to digital asset management.

What we’re seeing now is that as everybody’s working remotely and they don’t have access to all of their internal servers, they need a place that is securely placed in the file. So we see it now turning into not just a content hub for marketing collateral, but a content hub for all of the content that might need to be available for that employees organization. We see usage growing across multiple departments and people coming in and accessing the content. We see a great increase adoption of our portals, applications with our micro sites that you’re able to create for ease of use to distribute and to organize that content for internal employees to easily understand what is their new back to work policy, what is their covid collateral and message that they’re saying as a brand. Whatever that need is, they’re now using digital asset management and the Widen services to house that so that their employees can have access to it. And the increase of content in the increase of adoption has been happening across organizations.

Doug Foulkes: You’ve explained to us whether you see them being implemented in the current situation. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see it implemented in future inside organizations?

Deanna Ballew: As we grow, what I would what I would hope that we can create and what we can see is that our solutions really bring together the teams that create their products and services and take them into the market. So seeing your research and development teams really leveraging the Widen solutions to share the information of what they’re creating and the digital assets to all of their internal team so that those teams can then quickly and launch and create collateral and get it into the market when the products are ready to go. And then using the data that is in the market to be a collaboration point and to your R&D teams to say what’s what’s resonating, what’s not resonating? How are customers interacting with this, what what feedback are we getting on our solutions, on our services? And then how can we use that to improve our products and solutions? So really making the Widen solutions being a two way street between the go to market in the innovative side of an organization. So what can we do to really bring those two together so that they can do what they do best, like more outstanding as they’ve ever done before instead of in silos? And so I would love to see Widen Solutions allowing that to happen.

Claire Haidar: Deanna, in many ways you’ve become the face of Widen because of how Matthew is actually allowing yourself and other people on the team like Jake to lead. Where do you personally want to grow yourself?

Deanna Ballew: It’s been a journey for me, especially in the past couple of years. I’ve really been honing in on my leadership skills and and my my business acumen and just completing my MBA program just a couple of weeks ago. It’s it’s been a really keen focus on just growing my confidence as a leader in my organization and in my community. And that’s something that’s always been true to me, is how can I lead and help others find their own success. If you would ask me what success means, when do I feel successful, I will tell you that is when we can achieve solving a problem together with a team. It’s always about working with others and helping overcoming some barrier to achieve success together. So how can I bring discipline and innovation and experience and expertise into what we do at Widen, so that we can deliver even better solutions to our customers in the future?

Claire Haidar: You guys very generously asked me to be one of the speakers at your conference last year, and I got to experience Maddison, which is where you guys are headquartered, small Midwestern US town. And in many ways, when I came away from that conference, I very clearly could see how the environment actually influences who you are as a business.

What are the pros and cons of of being located where you are?

Deanna Ballew: It was a great a great time having you at that conference. And I appreciate at the time that we were able to spend together over Wisconsin cheese curds and a milkshake.

Claire Haidar: Do you know how often I think back to that, and I’m like, oh, I could do I would do anything right now with the cheese curds and a milkshake.

Deanna Ballew: It’s it’s all about the comfort. And there’s just no other place in the United States that feels the same as the Midwest. Is the Midwest nice? And I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase before, but there’s just this idea of being a Midwestern nice when you’re here in this area. And that’s instilled in our culture. It’s instilled in who we are as a company and it’s instilled in our values as we continue to expand globally. So, you know, some of the great benefits that we get from that is that it is ingrained in us. And that service aspect of what I was talking about with Widen that’s ingrained in the Midwest, you won’t, you don’t experience service like you do in the Midwest. And this is not small town versus big town. I’ve noticed this in the cities. I noticed this when I go to Chicago and you go to restaurants and you have service, the service you experience in Chicago is vastly different than what you experience in San Francisco or in New York. It’s that acknowledgement of the person? It’s the acknowledgement of having a conversation and realizing that that’s the person is just as important as the work or the task, and that’s what we gain and what I gain working at Widen and being in the Midwest is that we’re putting the person before the work, we’re putting the employee before the bottom line. We put the person or user before being a customer or a number. And that’s then radical in how we’ve continued to evolve and will continue to evolve over the next seventy years.

Claire Haidar: I could absolutely not agree more with you because those things that you’ve just called out is exactly what I experienced. And as you know, my little boy was still an infant when you guys invited me to speak. And so I actually brought him with to the conference and I brought my mom with us to look after him while I was on stage with you guys. And we actually booked our flight flights back a little bit later in the afternoon so that I, you know, we could actually experience the town. And just and my mom, being a complete outsider and a visitor to the US, was actually the first one to comment on it. And she said, you know, I feel so welcome here. And that was just from the few brief interactions that she had had. One was inside one of the museum shops and another one was at the farmer’s market, where it was just the way people interacted with us, that that sense of, hey, you know, how are you really. It’s it’s not a fake. It’s it’s very real and it’s very genuine in how that culture comes across. So and I definitely felt and experienced that at the conference as well. So I couldn’t agree more.

Doug Foulkes: Deanna we’re coming towards the end of our time together. I’ve got a couple of questions for you. Could you share with me three principles that you use to lead the team at Widen?

Deanna Ballew: I think the biggest one that I have, I have learned while working at Widen when I first started and I continue to lead with, is accountability. So we’re accountable to ourselves, we’re accountable to the team and we’re accountable to our customers. If I follow through, then the others around me will follow through as well. So it’s not about one single person, it’s about the whole organization. And how are we accountable to each other to deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, but then to always improve?

The other key piece that I’ve mentioned a lot is collaboration. And collaboration isn’t easy, but that’s where the best ideas come from. And what I’ve had to wrap my mind around and over the past few years is that collaboration means getting comfortable with concepts like we talked about with Midwest life, conflict is not something that I do well or that a lot of us do do well. But in reality, conflict is part of collaboration. And that’s when the creativity really wants to come out, is when people are disagreeing and they’re saying, what about this? What about that? So really fostering collaboration within my teams and how we can push through that to be creative. And then lastly is passion and having the passion for your work and the people that you work with. I mean, you have to have passion when you go into work and to enjoy the people that you work with. So this means that, you deliberately and this means that I deliberately celebrate our wins together. I’m deliberately building relationship. I’m encouraging others to do that, to take time out of our days, to get to know each other, to build rapport. We’re so busy all the time making sure that we’re delivering for our customers that you have to be intentional to spend time with each other. But it also means pushing through the big challenges together. It also means making sure that when we’re going through some big issues or some big conflicts, that we get down in the dirt and push through it so that we all can come back and rise up through it and come out at the end on the other side with a new way forward.

Doug Foulkes: What is a message that you would like to share with potential and current customers using DAM solutions?

Deanna Ballew: Yeah, this is this is a great question. And I had to put some thought behind that. And I think, you know, throughout the history of Widen and in the direction that we continue to evolve, we listen. We listen to you and to our customers and we take that information and we’ll evolve we’ll evolve our solutions to move you forward. And by moving you forward, we move ourselves forward. We’re creating this future together. So to anyone who is curious about what Widen is about, it’s really about listening and then creating solutions together.

Claire Haidar: Deanna, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. Of course.

Deanna Ballew: Thank you so much for the conversation. This has been a really great start to my day.

Doug Foulkes: Well, there you have it. Don’t ever say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Deanna, many thanks for popping in. Virtually speaking, of course. It’s been great chatting.

Deanna Ballew: Of course. Thank you for having me. Thank you. And, Claire, thank you as always.

Claire Haidar: Amazing. Thank you, Doug. Enjoyed your time today, as I always do, starting to enjoy these podcasts with you more and more. And Deanna, I can definitely say from my side that I’ve actually learned a lot in this conversation. And you should see my desk at the moment. It’s got a lot of blue Post-it notes on it from the, the sound bites and the snippets that I took down and these will be posted up on my wall to ponder for the next few weeks.

Deanna Ballew: Well, I’m glad to hear it. Learning is the best, the best way to move forward.

Doug Foulkes: So if these conversations are for you, then make sure you pop back for more cutting edge insights from industry mavericks and global leaders. Stay safe out there and we’ll see you soon.

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