Driving Disruption: Steve Durkee of BrightSign On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industry

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Primarily, as brands look to create more immersive visual experiences and digital signage applications for their customers, the content they need to share becomes much more sophisticated. Sharing that content most effectively requires the latest back-end technology. Our software team constantly innovates our operating system to support these applications. This not only helps our products disrupt the industry, but also empowers our partners to create more disruptive and innovative experiences.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Durkee.

As CEO of BrightSign, Steve Durkee is committed to advancing the organization’s mission to create innovative digital experiences and empower brands to elevate every engagement with their customers.

He brings more than two decades of experience in the audio/visual industry. Prior to his current position, he served as president of Legrand AV where he focused on championing customer experience efforts. He believes strong partnerships between hardware and software partners are crucial to best support customers and drive the industry forward.

At BrightSign, he guides the company’s growth strategy in addition to supporting his internal team, partners, and customers as they tackle emerging opportunities in the evolving digital signage space together. Steve prioritizes people and puts collaboration and transparency at the center of his leadership strategy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I grew up in Minnesota in a family of engineers. We were always working on something. We did all of our own repairs and home projects, which taught me a lot about problem solving and innovation. If we didn’t have the right tools, we would figure out another way to get the job done. We would continually look for better ways to do something and create solutions if we didn’t have the right tools.

As a result, I decided to pursue my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. But, I also had an interest in business, so I decided to pursue an MBA following my undergraduate degree. From there, I knew I wanted to ultimately work on the business and leadership side of a company.

In 2004, after spending over 10 years in various engineering, product management, and leadership roles in other industries, I entered the AV space when a job opportunity came up to support the growth of an already-expanding projector and display mount company. Once I started my AV career, I never left because it’s such a great industry and community of people. During my first 19 years in AV, I was fortunate to be part of building a larger business of AV infrastructure products. Then in the middle of last year, I got an opportunity to join BrightSign to support its continued expansion. What drew me to BrightSign was the potential in the digital signage market, the products, the people, and the brand. The company has such a unique value proposition and technology that disrupted the digital signage industry and created an entirely new product category.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

BrightSign’s ability to stand out centers on three things. 1. The quality, reliability, and security of our technology. 2. The hardware and our operating system, which are purpose-built for the exact use cases our customers require: to power digital signage experiences. 3. Our people and our partner ecosystem that position us to elevate experiences across industries and applications.

The story I’ll share is one we’ve all seen: the transition from static signage to digital and immersive signage and experiences. From restaurants and retailers to airports, stadiums, hospitals, and more, we’ve all become reliant on digital signage for information, wayfinding, entertainment, and other communication. And the features noted above are critical to making it all work. Simply put, if the experience isn’t working or the display is blank, you have nothing. That’s why the BrightSign purpose-built hardware and software value proposition was created. The quality, reliability, and security of our technology is designed to make sure that doesn’t happen. Combined with our ecosystem of partners, ranging from content software providers to display manufacturers integrating the BrightSign Built-In solution, we can power experiences for all applications.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

While many different styles and traits can make someone successful, I’d say critical thinking, communication, and team building are top of mind for me.

First, I think most leaders have to be good critical thinkers. You have a lot of information, often less than perfect, that comes at you each day. Being able to digest that and make good decisions is an important trait. Also, there are often more ideas and opinions than a business can implement. In many instances, I’m listening to a lot of ideas and looking for similarities to help take 20 ideas and package them into three or four themes that we can execute. If you can do that, you’ll strike a good balance between ideation, team collaboration, and execution. Also, don’t strive for perfection — I like the “7 out of 10” rule. Get seven decisions right and fix the other three. If you wait to get everything perfect, you won’t make much progress.

Second is communication. If you can’t communicate and align an organization around goals and strategies, you typically don’t get very far. Specifically, before working on the details of plans and initiatives, it’s important to align around the big picture goals. This is often easier to do and helps with detailed execution and change management. You want to be able to connect the actions and changes to the agreed upon bigger picture objectives. All of this takes constant communication and an openness to feedback.

Finally, and this could have easily been the first trait, you need a great team to make any of this work. Effective teambuilding that transforms the team structure and culture might be the most important trait!

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

I wish there was a formula for making difficult decisions or hard choices, but frankly at some point you have to make a call — welcome to leadership. As noted above, you can’t strive to get every decision right, but try to get enough input to achieve the “7 out of 10” rule and have the discipline and openness to quickly identify the three that need corrective actions. Another phrase I like to use when the team is potentially overthinking a problem or path is “perfection is the enemy of good.”

I don’t have one story or example that stands out, but I can think of many things I’d do differently in my career regarding strategies, people, and products. I think our mistakes probably help shape all of us as much or more than successes. The key is learning and trying not to repeat them!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

In the context of business, disruption centers on pushing industry norms and standards through innovation. It also means not being afraid to try something new and reimagine what is possible. Many times, “disruption” involves taking the customer experience to a new place by understanding and, importantly, anticipating their needs. In that sense, the establishment of BrightSign disrupted the industry. At the time, there were no media players built purposely for digital signage. The options available couldn’t reliably power the experiences they wanted to create, complicating the user experience, and limiting what was possible. That’s why BrightSign focused on developing a unique operating system purpose-built for digital signage and continues to expand its capabilities every day.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

In the media player and broader professional AV industry, disruption really comes down to solving pain points and delivering an enhanced customer experience. In that sense, disruption is a necessity. Our founding disrupted the industry and created an entirely new product category. In AV you see this happen in different categories all the time. Currently, you’re seeing it even more frequently as AI is changing work and experiences in almost every industry. We’ve certainly embraced this technology and are actively working on how it can improve our products and customer experiences.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

It’s easy for teams to lean towards conventional wisdom and be risk averse when solving problems, but that doesn’t drive innovation. I’ve found that it’s important to focus on the problem you’re solving and be explicit about the pros and cons of risk. If you clarify the problem and then begin brainstorming, you can come up with some interesting ideas. If some are riskier than others, just be explicit and realistic about it. Pick those innovations that can have the biggest impact on your long-term success.

From a leadership perspective, it’s important to create an environment that allows for new ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. You often need to be explicit that challenging conventions is ok. At a previous company, we used design thinking, which provided a foundation to enable this. To be clear, design thinking doesn’t come up with great ideas — that takes smart and creative people. It does, however, provide a good framework to support the process.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Navigating opposition or resistance to disruption often comes down to balancing time, resources, and innovation. There’s a common adage that I would say for any project: pick two! There are situations when time and resources are the most important. However, it can also diminish the innovations you deliver. That’s why some companies set up a “skunkworks” team to separate the time and resource constraints of projects and let teams focus on innovation. I don’t think every business can or needs to do that, but being explicit about managing these three constraints can help identify those opportunities to focus on innovation and disruption.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

  1. Primarily, as brands look to create more immersive visual experiences and digital signage applications for their customers, the content they need to share becomes much more sophisticated. Sharing that content most effectively requires the latest back-end technology. Our software team constantly innovates our operating system to support these applications. This not only helps our products disrupt the industry, but also empowers our partners to create more disruptive and innovative experiences.
  2. We are also focused on making technology simpler. Those operating our media players won’t always have a technical background. Therefore, we work hard to ensure our platform is flexible and easy to operate. We’ve also diversified our product portfolio to ensure we offer solutions that meet all types of customer needs. From our BrightSign Built-In solution, which eliminates the need for managing multiple assets and extensive set-up time, to BSN.cloud, which enables content managers to remotely control their content. Our goal is to make the platform powerful and easy!
  3. While our expertise is in the media player space, we also make sure we find ways to incorporate the latest technology trends into our offerings. For instance, we’re exploring ways we can leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the product and customer experience. Using AI, we see opportunities to both improve the support and experience of our current products and the functionality and management of new products.
  4. We also see partnerships as critical to our innovation efforts. Collaboration is a key component of our corporate culture. We extend that collaborative culture to our partners. For instance, we worked closely with our display partners to develop BrightSign Built-In. This solution integrates the BrightSign media player directly into displays of all shapes and form factors, creating an all-in-one platform that eliminates the need for managing multiple assets. Likewise, we recently launched Bright Alliance, a program that affirms our commitment to empowering our partner ecosystem by offering comprehensive support to enhance technical, sales, and marketing efforts for CMS partners.
  5. We’re also committed to advancing the end-user experience. We know our customers’ priority is having the ability to interact with their audience in new and innovative ways. That’s why we’re always looking to create new use cases for customers in each vertical industry. For example, in retail environments, when customers pick up an item, our media players will switch the content on a nearby display to share additional information on that specific product. This creates a more immersive and dynamic environment for retailers to engage with their customers.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

Being disruptive has inspired me and my teams to look for new ways to solve customer challenges. Overall, it has helped me arrive at a better understanding of how to integrate customer feedback into a successful innovation strategy. The surprising or interesting part for me is how often a customer will describe a solution instead of a problem. In some cases, they don’t know what to ask for so it’s important to keep asking ‘why,’ beyond the first question, to really get to the root cause of the problem.

If you do so, you’ll have a better understanding of their challenges and potential solutions. For example, if you did customer research on ovens before the invention of the microwave, I doubt anyone would have suggested that particular product because they didn’t know the technology existed. But if you asked enough ‘why’ questions, they likely would’ve described the benefits, like faster cooking and no pre-heating.

I have one specific example during my career that I think about regularly and has helped define how I think about disruption and innovation. When I was working as a product manager for a company that made solutions for coating roofs, I spoke with a customer about the challenges he was having with a machine. He had to take the machine apart multiple times a day to clean it. So when I asked how we could make it better, naturally, he wanted a solution that would speed up the cleaning process. That’s what he thought was possible. But what if we could find a way to prevent the machine from clogging so he wouldn’t have to clean it at all! Some of the best innovations come from understanding what customers mean, not what they say.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

Embracing disruption in a business context has helped me to bring that same mentality of innovation to personal projects and activities. Particularly, when it comes to situations like home repairs and projects, I’m always looking for ways to do things better. One specific suggestion that I remind myself of regularly, is taking the time to understand the problem and potential solutions. A little extra time spent brainstorming ideas can save time later at work and at home.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

There is a lot of gravity in business towards incrementalism. Solid business management foundations tend to reinforce this approach. This can cause companies to become risk averse and focus on how decisions will impact short-term ROI. While this is an important business fundamental, it can impede innovation, especially disruptive innovation. One common example is a new product that has the potential to replace the sale of an existing one. If you take an internal or incremental view you might be hesitant to do so. However, if you stay focused on the needs of your customer, you might find that disrupting even your own products is the right long-term answer.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In the spirit of disruption, I’d work on helping teams communicate in a way that focuses on the root cause of problems versus the symptoms. Bridging that could enable them to spend more time ideating, solving the real problem and ultimately accelerating innovation.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow me on LinkedIn and follow the latest updates from BrightSign via our website and social channels (LinkedInXInstagram, and Facebook).

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these insights. We wish you and your team continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.