Vancouver-based online feedback community software firm Vision Critical recently announced it had hired industry veteran Kobi Ofir as Chief Technology Officer. Vision Critical has expanded massively in recent years, guided by Andrew Reid on the basis of his father Angus’s polling firm, a decidedly 20th-century phone and paper-based operation.
Reid has transformed the family business into a high-tech and incredibly versatile market research company, partly by retaining the best aspects of old-school information gathering methods (talking to actual people), and applying the use of technology to combine demographic information with insights gathered through innovative data gathering methods to drive both business and political decision-making.
Ofir brings something of that ability to apply analogue thinking to digital innovation through his 20-plus year track record of developing companies such as Rypple (acquired by Salesforce.com in 2011) and Eloqua (sold to Oracle almost exactly one year ago). Cantech Letter chatted with Kobi by phone in Vancouver.
Kobi, how are you settling in?
I’m having a lot of fun. I joined back on September 16, so it’s two months now. We put out a press release just recently. And I was actually introduced to Vision Critical through a board member, so I got the opportunity to meet the company back in July. And when I met the company, we were speaking about sort of the places I’ve been at with similar tech companies and their growth trajectory and how a tech product development organization would grow through maturity and market cycles, as well. And it turned out that meeting Vision Critical and the team here sort of evolved into, “Well, doesn’t it make sense for me to join?” And it kind of did, and it’s been a blast so far.
You have quite a history. You were the vice-president of product development at Eloqua before it got snapped up by Oracle, as well as CTO at Rypple before it got bought by Salesforce.com, so it’s a pretty extensive background in performance management type software and the use of feedback, especially. Can you tell us a little about your life before Vision Critical and maybe some of the lessons you learned?
As you said, immediately before Vision Critical, I spent a few years at Eloqua. And during those years, we went through a pretty significant ramp-up in revenues. The details of revenues when we were acquired by Oracle were just around the $100 million level, but when I joined they were down around the $60s. And we’ve seen quite a tremendous difference during that time in how organizations view the marketing world. Eloqua was focused at top-of-funnel, leaching over to the sales process. But there are actually quite a few similarities with Vision Critical, in that Vision Critical sells to a different part of the marketing organization that’s more focused around, “How do we use the insights and people that you already have as customers to be able to make better product pricing/packaging decisions?” As well as a whole bunch of other decision vectors that we enabled those business leaders to make. Before Eloqua, as you said, I spent time at Rypple, a very, very raw start-up. So really very different scales, as far as organizations. And prior to that, I was at a bunch of other companies, either start-up or more mature organizations, that had gone through ramp-ups, ramp-downs at times, and other acquisitions. I’ve spent the entire span of my career, whether it was as a software developer or moving through the ranks, always on large-scale, internet-connected enterprise systems, whether it was credit card transactions in the early days, or HR, or marketing software these days.
One of the key things that Vision Critical has is, through the insight communities and engaging with your community members, you can get very high response rates to studies, which lets you quickly get feedback on things you want to test.
Vision Critical is an organization of a larger scale, compared to the earlier start-up culture you came from. It seems like every time I read a story about Vision Critical now, it’s got an international slant. There’s a new office opening in Manhattan, there are big initiatives in the UK and Australia, there’s a partnership recently with a firm in India specializing in fast-moving consumer goods. As the CTO, how big picture do you need to think in order to really be part of this organization?
When you think of what the company does, while one critical capability that we have is a survey engine, a very good survey engine, it really enables a whole bunch of solutions that our customers need, from a business perspective. The survey engine by itself is just interesting. But it’s not useful, because it doesn’t do anything by itself. You need to actually know, what are the right questions to ask? Or provide good templates, or make sure that you enable, through services which we have as well, the capabilities to address those solutions for the business. So whether it be, let’s say, the co-creation product that we recently released, the co-creation product really is a business solution on top of the existing technology stack. Now, as you mentioned, when you go wide, as far as geography, there are technical things you need to worry about, such as localization and compliance with the regulatory requirements of the regions. But you also need to worry about, not just localizing the app from a language perspective, but also localizing it from a cultural perspective. So, for example, on the responding side, one of the key things that Vision Critical has is, through the insight communities and engaging with your community members, you can get very high response rates to studies, which lets you quickly get feedback on things you want to test. Now, if different cultures react differently to how those studies are delivered or how questions are presented, you’re going to have differences in the value prop of the product. So you need to make sure that those things that you do from a cultural perspective, and from geography, fit just as well as they do in North America, Western Europe and Asia-Pacific.
That’s super-interesting, the differences in culture.
We actually see that within a single culture, we just look at the medium that people use to respond to these studies. So we have a team that actually looks at research on research, and how the same question being asked on mobile vs. tablet vs. desktop, depending on how it’s presented on the smaller screen factors could actually result in different data. And that’s really important, because you don’t necessarily want the responding interface to cause mediation in your data and cause biases there. So we take that very seriously, and one of our key focuses is testing out different question types and how we present them, and testing them across different groups, so that we can assure that the implementation doesn’t cause bias in data.
If you look at Vision Critical’s history, it too has evolved. So, in the early days, it was really a market research enabling company that was mostly services-focused, that had technology. I think where we are now is really a technology company that’s focused on innovative, unique technology in our space, but has augmented services into it.
Interesting, especially given that mobile is blowing up so much faster in the rest of the world, as opposed to here which is more that we’ve watched the development from desktop culture to mobile culture. It seems like there, they’re just going straight to mobile. Everyone has a cell phone, as opposed to a home computer.
Yeah, totally skipping one generation of computing.
I was just reading an article, thinking about feedback, Neil Parker, the vice president of product marketing at Vision Critical, wrote an article about Facebook’s recent decision to start an invite-only Feedback Panel, gathering the input of about 10,000 Facebook users. What struck me about that fact was that it’s surprising to me that it’s taken them this long. They’ve suddenly realized they need to do something like that. It’s something that Vision Critical has been doing for a long time. In contrast to that, Twitter in the UK has opened up a feedback channel called #birdsignals, built on Vision Critical’s technology platform. I know you just got into the job, but do you have any insight into how that come about?
I don’t have any insights on specifically how that came about with Twitter. However, I can say that we have large accounts similar to that, that we just can’t talk about. But I would say, the underlying observation that you’re making, that even these Big Data enterprises such as Facebook and Twitter are actually looking at how you can make better business decisions by taking a smaller view, just focusing on, we use the term “insight community” and we coined that term. So how you focus on your communities to extract insights out of them is a key validation of what it is that we do. And we’re focused heavily on doubling down on that. As I said, having a good survey tool? Important. But the power of the insight community goes well beyond that.
One of the terms that we use internally is, make that type of research and decision-making process more accessible to people and democratizing it, so that it’s not just a niche that certain multi-billion dollar companies that have access to the sort of horsepower, mental power and technology can do. It becomes more accessible to the SMB level and those mid-size companies as well.
Right. Knowing which questions to ask and how to interpret that data, I suppose.
Yeah, and then also a key to that is just managing engagement of the community. So, it’s only interesting to have a large community, but when you actually reach out to them to get some feedback on a product or a concept that you want to do, if they don’t respond to you then it’s useless to have a community. We have a unique combination of technology and services that really helps ensure that the community remains engaged, keeps them connected, so that when you need to use them for specific business decisions, that they’re there and they’re available to you.
It seems like Vision Critical has insight into that particular point you just made because it has a legacy that’s so firmly rooted in the survey culture of the 20th century. And I’m thinking this is via Andrew Reid’s father, Angus, basically. Do you notice that that differentiates the company, the culture of Vision Critical, from other market research-type tech firms you’ve dealt with?
I would say yes. And I would say also, if you look at Vision Critical’s history, it too has evolved. So, in the early days, it was really a market research enabling company that was mostly services-focused, that had technology. I think where we are now is really a technology company that’s focused on innovative, unique technology in our space, but has augmented services into it. And part of the value of those services is just to make some higher-end market research accessible to folks that may not necessarily have full-time market researchers on staff. I think when you look at, say, some of the 1,000 different survey tools out there, it’s really just a blank canvas. It’s a survey tool. They may have a couple of templates. But if you need to bounce ideas off of someone, you need to go to a market research firm to help you with that. And when you look at Vision Critical, it’s a one-stop shop. You have the very good basic surveying tool, so you can actually get the work done. You actually have good templates that you can use for specific verticals. We have solutions that are built on top of the technology for things such as ideation, co-creation, etc. But then, if you also need to step a bit out the box, you have capabilities that enable that as well. Some of the other assets that we have at Vision Critical include a way for you to augment your insight community with general population data, so that if you wanted to test how your fans, your insight community members, react to one thing vs. what a general population sample may do, we have core assets in that space as well, in Canada, the U.S. and in the U.K. That’s literally hundreds of thousands of citizens, and the assets are called The Angus Reid Forum in Canada, and then Springboard U.S. and Springboard U.K.
Amazing. On a more general note, we’re always hearing about Big Data, and there’s no doubt that it’s going to affect all aspects of business and of everyday life in a pretty big way. How do you see it affecting what you do in your job in the future?
When you look at Vision Critical as a tech company, we do have a lot of data that we need to digest. And because of that, there are Big Data technologies and other techniques that we use internally to be able to cope with all that data and assess it. I think if you take a step back a little and you look at the key premise of Vision Critical and insight communities, really what you’re talking about is taking a subset of your customers, a subset of the data, and using that as your focus group. So using that as your insight community that you can test things against, and then you can take that data and test it against a broader audience, whether it be more of your customers or the general population. And I think that same notion of Big Data, and then zoom in to have a look at some concrete examples that you want to dive more into may get some insight, and then pull back up to Big Data and analyze it across the board. Those two models are quite similar. I would actually say they’re quite synonymous conceptually, in that you have a big picture that gives you Big Data, but the average, like say your average customer may be female with 2.5 kids, but no female just has exactly 2.5 kids. Like, you may not find that actual average. But that and some of the other terms that people have been throwing around recently have been Little Data, through zooming in and taking a look at that insight community or Little Data, you can get a better picture, get more insights, make them applicable to an actual individual, and see how you can raise that persona and apply it across to your population more broadly. Does that sort of make sense?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s reassuring to know that we’ll still probably need our brains for certain things.
And look, Big Data, it’s a capability that you just need to have. It’s a cost of entry. But data in aggregate can give you trends and high-level data, but to actually look at concrete examples, that’s where you have to zoom in.
It just seems like the type of thing that’s going to do particular, highly specific tasks for us, but we kind of have to know how to ask the right questions and where to point the data miners, how to actually use it effectively.
And again, one of the key things that we’re focused on is enabling customers to more easily ask the right questions through an inventory of things that we’ve standardized, or best practices that we’ve developed, if it’s something that we haven’t put into our library through our services function. One of the terms that we use internally is, make that type of research and decision-making process more accessible to people and democratizing it, so that it’s not just a niche that certain multi-billion dollar companies that have access to the sort of horsepower, mental power and technology can do. It becomes more accessible to the SMB level and those mid-size companies as well. To make it more accessible so that people are not intimidated by doing research, because the combination of the tools and templates and technology make that easy.