An Interview with Michael Sher, Founder and CEO of Groupdolists

For twenty years, Michael Sher has been an innovator in both emergency notification and crisis management solutions. Shortly after 9/11, Michael and his NYC-based team developed the emergency notification system Send Word Now. In 2018, he founded Groupdolists, a leading crisis management mobile response team application. Groupdolists spoke with Michael about his career and his views on the differences between emergency notification and crisis management solutions.

GDL: Michael, you’ve long been involved in developing both emergency notification and crisis management solutions. How do they differ and how do they relate to each other?

MS: Emergency notification systems out on the market today are not crisis management solutions. They’re completely different animals. Yet, unfortunately, many organizations historically have been utilizing emergency notification systems to try to coordinate teams in their response to incidents. Emergency notification solutions are a very inefficient, ineffective way to manage crises.

Groupdolists succeeds where notification cannot for three key reasons. One, Groupdolists is genuinely interactive. At best, mass notification is bidirectional: it delivers a canned message and collects canned responses. There’s no new inbound information. You can’t manage a team or a changing situation without interaction. Groupdolists offers real situational updates and real coordination. Second, Groupdolists is intuitive. This sounds subjective, but there’s a simple measure: could a user who has never seen the software begin using it successfully for the first time during a crisis? The answer for a lot of enterprise software, including mass notification and older crisis management tools, is no—but being effective and usable with little or no training is a Groupdolists benchmark. Finally, Groupdolists is natively mobile. Mass notification tools excel at reaching people wherever they are, but not organizing them wherever they are. Groupdolists puts all the critical and meaningful capabilities in the palm of every person’s hand.

Really, although we developed mass notification first, the crisis management technology is parent to the emergency notification technology, not the other way around. What an organization always need to do first is instigate safety steps to protect people, assets, reputation, etc. That’s crisis management in a nutshell: guiding response immediately and reliably until the situation is resolved. Yes, the response could very well include sending out an emergency notification, but notification is just one step, just one task. And this is the point organizations are finally coming to understand.

GDL: There’s a clear progression in your work, evolving from Send Word Now, an emergency notification service to Groupdolists, a crisis management service. How did that happen?

MS: Throughout my nine years with Send Word Now, I noticed that big brands like Walmart, Disney, Bloomberg, and others were attempting to manage crises and unexpected disruptions using voice and text alerting. But this is a very inefficient way to coordinate anybody on the organization’s front lines, those responsible for controlling and managing the situation. Groupdolists is actually very complementary to emergency notification ecosystems. It seamlessly incorporates a number of the big EN systems in our interface for common customers.

Emergency notification implementations are enterprise-wide. Thousands of employees can be alerted simultaneously. That’s great and valuable power, but a crisis management platform needs to synchronize and tightly coordinate the actions of a much smaller group of people: the organization’s response team.

If I’m in charge of the response team, I need to know I can assign a task to someone and be able to follow that person’s progress (or lack thereof). I need to be able to see and evaluate their actions. I must be able to coordinate with all team members in real time.

So I think it’s clear why I started Groupdolists. We provide an organization’s response team a superior ability to coordinate a response via tracked, interactive, step-by-step guidelines, to foster real-time informational updates, and create automatic documentation of everything the team does, adds, or says. The person who activates Groupdolists might be the same person who decides to send out emergency notifications, but either way, emergency notification is only one tactic in responding to the overarching incident.

GDL: The distinction you describe seems clear and compelling, so why is it that you’re seeing so many businesses and government agencies confusing emergency notification with crisis management?

MS: There just hasn’t been enough education in the marketplace. Many organizations have historically invested a lot of time, energy, resources and dollars in emergency notification. In fact, more than 85% of organizations today have some form of emergency notification solution. But, too many of them are complacent and think they are sufficiently covered because that’s been the only available standard, until now.

“What we have in place right now is enough,” some say. When a crisis strikes, many will learn the hard way that they in fact don’t have in place all they need. They could be managing their response in a better, faster, smarter, next-generation paradigm.

When we demonstrate our crisis management platform Groupdolists, one of the most common responses we hear is: “I didn’t realize we had this problem until you showed me your solution.”

So, whether to address complacency or a lack of awareness, the remedy is education. We’re now seeing leading notification providers following our lead and developing their own crisis management offerings. These companies recognized there’s a solution missing in the marketplace, crisis management, which actually complements emergency notification. A rising tide of offerings and education should lift many boats.

One of the technical constraints these organizations may suffer is that emergency notification technology was built way back when. Today’s leading providers were on the cutting edge 15-20 years ago. They’re hardly technology innovators now. We’re talking about underlying platforms that preceded smartphones by 5-10 years. It’s often not possible to add best-of-breed crisis management functionality on top of these older platforms. Of course, the companies will try, and they should—but Groupdolists has a natural advantage, because it’s a generation more advanced and evolved than legacy notification platforms are. A lot of the competition is having challenges re-architecting their core technology in order to accommodate the flexibility and feature set next-generation crisis management solutions require.

Groupdolists is natively mobile, supporting a mobile and distributed customer base. We scale using technologies that didn’t exist 5 years ago. And that’s one reason our next-generation platform integrates easily with numerous complementary providers. It is also why Groupdolists simply outperforms most of the other software out there. Think of it this way: if an old Blackberry with a chiclet keyboard or a Motorola Razr could outperform today’s iPhones and Androids, then organizations would be supplying these to their employees. Of course, they aren’t. Our native technology is that distinctly advanced compared to browser-based apps. Frankly, if your dining and social media apps make your SaaS response software look old and tired, you really need to be looking at Groupdolists.

GDL: How did you get started in the business of emergency notification and, subsequently, crisis management?

MS: Send Word Now was very purpose-built to be an emergency notification system. It was a direct result of my own experience and those of my colleague Sandy Cohen, after 9/11. Sadly, Sandy recently passed away.

Sandy and I were both in New York City during 9/11. We witnessed, first-hand, numerous communication challenges. Email was inconsistent. The Verizon cell network housed in the World Trade Center was gone, and cell service everywhere else was hopelessly overloaded. People were desperate to communicate with family, friends, business associates, and so on. It was a very uncertain and shaky time, especially when it came to communication and confirming that everyone was ok.

The 9/11 tragedy made us ask ourselves, what would be a better way to try to ensure communication with employees during an emergency? We started Send Word Now to answer that question.

We created an alerting service where an organization could create one message and have that message converted to voice and text and sent to multiple contact points on multiple devices. Then we added the ability for recipients of these messages to respond via any of those devices. For example, we could send out a mass notification about an emergency power outage, and recipients could press 1 for, “I’m okay” or press 2 for, “I need help.”

Send Word Now was one of the industry pioneers for mass notification, as were Everbridge, MIR3, and a couple of others. Believe it or not, there were around 50 emergency notification companies that started up as a result of 9/11, and today there are only a few remaining.

From my background in emergency notification, I realized its importance, but I also became keenly aware of its limitations for actually managing an organizations response and response team.

GDL: What distinguishes the Groupdolists crisis management technology?

MS: First and foremost is our leadership team. Many of our core team members have been together since the early days of Send Word Now. Nothing can replace the comradery, trust, vision and passion for developing crisis communication and crisis coordination solutions over the past 20 years. Our main driver has always been to make a difference, to have a positive impact, and maybe even save lives.

Second is our technology. When we created Send Word Now, cloud-based subscription applications, accessed via web browsers—SaaS apps—were cutting-edge. The mobile Internet has long since surpassed web browsers in utilization. As I noted, we are distinguished in being a mobile-first offering grounded solidly in the best and smartest mobile technologies to support our customers’ crisis management efforts wherever they are, whenever they need. Based on our relationships and experiences, we’ve listened very carefully and learned in detail what organizations need, and we’ve kept their needs firmly in mind as we delivered not just a new technology platform, but a new vision about how to use software for response. The result is that we empower organizations to manage any disruption of business as usual, big or small, efficiently via virtual command and control. Whether from their mobile phones or web browsers, customers can reduce risk quickly and restore normal operations faster than ever before.

Third, consider our Security Advisory Council: we have an incredibly experienced, proven, connected, wildly respected team of advisors whom we’ve hand-picked to help us execute our vision.

Our Council are not just cheerleaders. They actively advise us based upon world-class experience. Steve Bernard, for example, was head of EH&S for Sony Pictures Entertainment and was center point during their hack by North Korea in 2014. Another of our advisors, Mike Howard was the Chief Security Officer for Microsoft Corporation for 16 years.

Each and every one of our advisors is accomplished, proven and adds regular value that helps execute our mission.

Among the things we’ve learned from our Security Advisory Council is how we can not merely streamline coordination among the response team, but also how we can address what’s important to a top executive who is typically not involved in the day-to-day crisis response. That’s why we recently launched an executive leadership dashboard. With it, a top executive can follow along as the team responds to an incident. The dashboard enables executive leaders to see a chronological record of who’s doing what, what resources are being allocated, etc.

GDL: In addition to the crisis management function of Groupdolists, you also supply a library of resources. Tell us about that.

MS: Originally, we were not planning on creating content, but as we were talking to prospects, they were very interested to learn about best-of-breed plans, response plans for HazMat, for a power outage, for workplace violence, and so on. They kept asking us, “Do you have experts who have plans to which we can compare ours?”

So, we engaged with former emergency management government and corporate response professionals who helped us create a library containing over 200 response plans. We provide these plans free of charge as part of our service. Our customers can augment their readiness or simply compare some very good plans with their own. A customer can take, say, two steps from this plan, one step from that, and so on. Customers access our library regularly to customize and improve their own plans.

GDL: Who in an organization is the decision maker for purchasing a Groupdolists mobile app? How does this decision maker vary depending upon the organization?

MS: The decisionmaker changes from organization to organization, but we do see some trends. Historically, our sweet spot was the CSO or the Director of Global Security. As the number and sophistication of cyberattacks steadily increased we’ve been led more and more to the CISO or head of IT. We also work a lot with BCP, Incident Management, Continuity of Operations, Crisis Management, Asset Protection, and other departments.

Today, many organizations are forming Enterprise Risk departments, the head of which very well could be the decisionmaker. Business continuity, crisis management, IT, and other units are folded into or at least contribute key members. That group often reports to the CFO, General Counsel, or someone else in the C-suite or on the Board of Directors. Everything must flow upward in this model, and our technology fulfills this requirement.

GDL: What happens if the organization’s plan that you’re digitizing and making part of your platform isn’t good?

MS: Well, as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out, and we don’t want that ever to happen. So, part of our service is to evaluate our customers’ plans in collaboration with them. We help them to improve their plans, and then streamline them.

Many organizations may have plans that are 20-50 pages, or more. We help turn a 50-page plan into a single, interactive plan—a Groupdolists procedure—that greatly increases response efficiencies. Instead of a 50-page Word doc that nobody wants to (or can!) consume quickly in an emergency, Groupdolists provides an effective step-by-step roadmap with all actions, tasks, expectations, etc. clearly spelled out (and accessible from any device).

GDL: What do you see in the future for crisis response technology?

MS: We believe artificial intelligence could play a big role in the future. When threats are detected, being able to automate teams and automatically activate plans is just around the corner.

But even without fully fledged AI there’s going to be a big push for automation that activates plans and brings teams together without human intervention. Teams will be brought together and work in response to a crisis without the need for a leader to hit GO. It would automatically happen as a result of external triggers, third-party software, such as intrusion detection technology, threat level changing, etc. Hardware with external triggering will be a very big trend.

GDL: Any last words you’d like to leave us with, Michael?

MS: At Groupdolists we are purpose driven. That means we strive to provide what crisis response teams actually need so that they can respond to and manage any incident better, smarter and faster, bringing disruption to an end as quickly as possible, and going back to fulfilling their mission.

That’s our purpose at Groupdolists. It’s in our core; our DNA.

Simply put, we’re committed to making a positive difference every single day.