How Inkling Turned McDonald's and Starbucks Into Mobile Workforces

By Rob Marvin Features PCmag

Matt MacInnis left Apple in 2009 thinking he would revolutionize the digital textbook industry for tablets. The Harvard graduate and native Nova Scotian worked for Apple on education and e-books as the company geared up to release the iPad, but left to found Inkling with the vision of being a mobile-optimized e-commerce marketplace and content platform for interactive digital textbooks. Then in late 2012, Starbucks called.

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"We got a call from Starbucks and they asked, 'Hey, can we use your software?' We said, 'uh…sure, why?" said MacInnis. "Starbucks was shipping binders every single quarter to every district manager and wanted to figure out a way to move that onto iPads, but had no way to build and manage the content. So they started using it, taught us a lot of lessons, and very quickly opened our eyes to the opportunity to build a next-generation front line worker platform."

Four years later, Inkling is a late-stage startup that has sold more than a million end-user licenses. The mobile document management and training software runs behind the scenes for customers including retail giants such as the GAP and Kohl's, chain restaurants including Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, and Starbucks, and in use for field workers and salespeople across the oil and gas industry, cruise lines, construction equipment giant Caterpillar (CAT), tech consulting corporations such as Accenture, and others.

The San Francisco-based company of around 160 employees also recently raised a new (and according to MacInnis, likely final) $25 million Series E funding round led by SAP's Sapphire Ventures and Sequoia Capital. The company has raised around $100 million in total since 2010, and thanks to the multinational brands its platform powers, Inkling already has a global footprint. According to MacInnis, typical per-customer contracts run six-to-seven figures annually for these big brands and as a result Inkling is generating tens of millions of dollars in recurring revenue.

"You've got people who are front line workers, whether it's in retail or restaurants or oil and gas pipeline inspectors; there's this whole class of worker that's been effectively untouched by information technology at many levels of their job," said MacInnis. "The fact is, a mobile device has now come down in cost to about that of a binder, and the manageability of those devices has gotten to a point where it's feasible for workers to carry around phones and tablets in a productive way."

Did Somebody Say McDonald's?

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This past September, McDonald's announced it had deployed Inkling's mobile platform to standardize and streamline restaurant operations across its more than 14,500 North American restaurant locations. Inkling gives McDonald's the ability to onboard employees in a much more efficient, hands-on manner, as well as centrally updating corporate manuals and documents, gathering user and store-level analytics and business intelligence (BI), and giving employees interactive access to on-the-fly information with features such as document collaboration and predictive search built in when they're interacting with customer at the point-of-sale (POS).

"McDonald's has 1.1 million workers in the US and the average shelf life of a McDonald's employee is about six months. This means they're doing somewhere in the ballpark of 750,000 new crew member onboardings every year across the country," explained MacInnis.

"The way McDonald's used to do it is the new employee would come in, go to the back, sit in front of a PC, click through a bunch of that old school e-training stuff, and then you'd leave the back room and go out to the fry station or drive thru window and demonstrate to the shift manager that you know what to do," said MacInnis. "The shift manager would take out a piece of paper and go 'check, check, check, check, check,' sign it, throw it into a file. Then they would go onto the computer and log into the labor management system, find your name in the drop-down, and schedule you for the fry station or what have you."

Today, the shift manager comes in carrying an iPad, and pulls up video in Inkling and a step-by-step guide for what to do at a given station. The employee then demonstrates they know what to do at the station, and the shift manager actively updates the labor system from within Inkling. From the employee's perspective, they're watching onboarding videos on a tablet and then swiping through interactive training.

Inkling began working with McDonald's in 2015, and has now digitized the company's entire 1,200-plus page Operations and Training Manual (OTM). The paper manuals are still in use at some locations, but instead of sending out new 1,200-page binders to 14,500 locations any time the corporation updates the manual, the company updates the manual in Inkling and instantly deploys the new manual to all locations. McDonald's then gets analytics on which restaurants are using the updated information so, for example, the corporate HQ would see if restaurant 3219 has a device offline.

"We're also the system of engagement for McDonald's," said MacInnis. "We have integrated at McDonald's with Adobe Experience Manager upstream as a digital asset manager, and then downstream at the end-user point integrating with their labor system. We want to be the mobile platform for the deskless worker across retail, quick serve and fast casual restaurants, beyond. The millions of people who work in those environments will have these devices in front of them and need software to manage those employees."

Inside the Platform

Inkling isn't just a mobile document management platform. The tool—which includes mobile and tablet applicationss for Android, iOS, and Windows—also includes collaborative content authoring and a detailed reporting dashboard that integrates with third-party BI tools including Google Data Studio and Tableau. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) app also includes desktop access for the managers sitting down in their office.

"We look at any space that's got deskless workers. In field sales, EcoLab is a customer where all their field sales people get access to maintenance information for their washers and dryers and chemical equipment in the field," said MacInnis.

"Caterpillar is also a good example," he continued. "CAT uses us across their dealer network. Most of the margin for CAT's business is in services, not on the actual sale of hardware. So they'll sell you a giant CAT Earthmover, and that machine will be in use for 20 years and you'll be paying for service on that over time. So all of the service technicians and dealers use Inkling to get information about all the products, which you can imagine is a significant undertaking."

MacInnis said Inkling's secret sauce and advantage over competitors is its comprehensive authoring environment, which he likened to a cloud-based publishing app such as Adobe InDesign with some project management and workflow tools built in. Also important to note is that Inkling doesn't support typical file types. No PDFs. No PowerPoints. The system only works with structured HTML, which will dynamically re-size based on device screen size.

"We never use the term content management system, because the minute an IT person hears that they think it's a traditional CMS. It's not a word processor. It's got infinite revision history, and workflows to ticket things and assign tasks to people. If you see the revision of a document, you can do a side-by-side comparison of any version against any other version. Then if you have permissions, you can click a button and instantly deploy that new version across all devices and blow away the old one."


Source: Inkling

The next step on Inkling's product roadmap is chat. MacInnis didn't reveal too many details, but talked about the idea of integrating its HTML-based mobile document management with live chat functionality for workers in the field.

"We're trying to bring some of the more modern approaches to communication into a system like this, and combine it with an HTML-only content system. People buy us just because finally someone lets them put content on a device that doesn't totally suck. That's fine with me as a start," said MacInnis. Our vision for this long-term is that, if I've got a front-line employee or store manager in the retail context who's got a question, they can either use one of those old-fashioned clip-on radios or they can chat. A 24-year-old is much more likely to want to just chat it, and there are a lot more of those coming into the workforce than 55-year-olds."

Where Mobile Workers Meet All-In-One HR

MacInnis said there's a whole emerging space of companies swarming the opportunity to engage mobile workers, but believes Inkling's first-mover advantage has given the company a leg up. Inkling has been on this track since early 2013, working to build what the CEO calls a new category of apps.

"We've got four and a half years of research development into this content engine that lets you push content out to a device, measure how it's being used, and give you data about what people are doing with it," said MacInnis.

The question MacInnis has now is whether startups such as Inkling will define the space or whether this class of mobile capabilities will be rolled into human resources (HR) software as that industry including players such as Zenefits, Gusto, and others re-brand as "all-in-one HR platforms" combining HR, payroll, benefits, applicant tracking (AT), performance management, and mobile employee engagement.

"The question is whether it's going to be a roll-up into something like SAP SuccessFactors and Workday; the big HR platforms used to manage workers already," said MacInnis. "Does the deskless worker become a whole product line under the umbrella of those systems, or does it become a new category of platform? The other big question we all have to answer is where value is going to be created. Where is moving something to a mobile device actually going to deliver real business value, versus just sounding nice but having no practical applicability."

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.