data.world CEO Brett Hurt Interview

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Brett Hurt is the CEO and Co-founder of data.world, which is building the most meaningful, collaborative, and abundant data resource in the world. He is also a seed-stage investor at Hurt Family Investments (HFI) in partnership with his wife, Debra. HFI are involved in 45 startups and 11 VC funds. HFI has directly made 34 startup investments, and Brett has also joined the Advisory Board of 11 additional companies. (Full disclosure: HFI has a minority investment in Gigaom). Prior to HFI, Brett founded Bazaarvoice (NASDAQ: BV) and served as CEO and President for seven and a half years, leading the company from bootstrapped concept to almost 2,000 clients worldwide and through its successful IPO. Prior to Bazaarvoice, Brett founded Coremetrics and helped grow the company into a global, leading marketing analytics solution for the eCommerce industry before its acquisition by IBM.


Byron Reese: Tell us about data.world.

data.world is the social network for data people. We’ve seen social networks for questions and answers, Quora, for friends, Facebook, for developers, GitHub. The world has not yet seen a successful social network for data and the people who work with it, and I find that kind of baffling, because data is often something that is hard to understand without proper communication and context. There are many issues which prevent it from being easily analyzed and put to use. For example, government agencies put out data, change the format year to year, change the taxonomy and the ontologies every so often, so all of that needs to be documented and understood before the data makes sense.

We’ve spent, as a nation, just a massive amount of money funding these “industrial strength” analytics platforms, but we haven’t addressed the core problem: garbage in, garbage out.

Data people are spending 50% – 80% of their time as “data janitors,” finding, cleaning, and otherwise preparing data for use—before they can get to the real exploration, analysis, and ultimately, the solutions to the problems they’re working on. We call this frustrating janitorial stage the “first mile” of data work. Most of this work happens in isolation, and all that preparation is used once and forgotten. But what if it could be shared with other data people working with the same datasets and tackling similar problems so they don’t have to needlessly repeat it? What if preparation itself could be done collaboratively?

And the most important question: What if we reduced prep time from 80% to 30%, or 10%?

Think about that productivity boost to data workers. If they spent less time preparing data, they could solve important problems faster, create new knowledge faster.

So we’re bringing them together, giving them a powerful collaboration workspace, and linking datasets to make it happen.

Where are you in the lifecycle of the company?

logo-colorOur preview release launched July 11th, and things are going extremely well. We’ve got lots of people signing up, and it’s really neat to see who comes in. From corporate analysts, to people in government, to citizen data scientists, and even cities–recently the city of San Diego and the city of Austin signed up. As we’re in preview release, we can really study exactly what users are doing, exactly what features they’re asking for. We have a daily metrics standup where we look for patterns, create experiments, share results. It’s revving very quickly, we’re coming out with around 4 or 5 new feature releases each week. This is the fastest pace of execution of any startup I’ve been with, and this is my 6th startup personally. Even though we’re in preview, the platform is already very powerful and anybody can visit data.world today and sign up for free—no waitlist. We’re working on adding more and more social features so it really has the best qualities of a social network.

Stepping back for a moment, we’ve been at this now for about a year. We stayed in stealth mode for several months prior to raising money for the company. Before any business I’ve ever launched, from Bazaarvoice to Coremetrics, to others, I spent a lot of time in analysis to make sure that the market timing is right, that we’re building the right type of team, that we’re really learning from previous people in the industry. We really felt like the market timing was great, we went out there to raise capital in December, and as you know, Byron, we’re Austin-based. We started on November 29th, for our capital raise right after Thanksgiving, and we actually signed on December 15th, for our $14M Series A, then quickly closed that round in January.

So we were off to the races on the fundraising front, and now we’re in that mode of having just launched the preview, all that initial excitement that accumulates around something that’s so ambitious, and we really believe we’ve built something that can do so much good for the world. To those ends, we’ve set up the company as a public benefit corporation, and it’s the first time in my entrepreneurial career to actually launch a public benefit corporation. I’m happy to speak about that as well.

Please do.

I’ve founded C corporations in the past, and to be honest, I didn’t know what a public benefit corporation was. I’m involved in the Henry Crown Fellowship, which is the flagship program of The Aspen Institute, and it’s really amazing. You’re basically put with 21 to 22 fellows each year, and I was fortunate enough to get in the program. The fellows are very diverse. Previous Fellows in tech include Reid Hoffman, Aneel Bhusri (co-founder and CEO of Workday), Reid Hastings, and so many others, but there’s also many prominent people from government, non-profits, musicians like Lupe Fiasco.

The program gets you really thinking about your utility as a human being, like what is your ultimate value to the world? And it has had a profound impact on me, which combined with support from my family, got me to actually step back into the arena to launch data.world. The Henry Crown program exposed me to benefit corporations, because the founders of B Lab, the leading certification service for benefit corporations, are also Henry Crown fellows and recently won an award for their work from The Aspen Institute. Benefit corps (also know as B-Corps) include Etsy, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s—there’s quite a few of them out there.

The more I dug into it, the more I realized that it was so aligned with what data.world is doing. Ultimately, the way we’re going to get to a world of clean, interoperable data, the type of data that would make that onboard computer from Star Trek possible: you talk to it, ask it any question you could think of, and boom, it would give you your answer. What we have with Siri today is just the beginning. The better the data, the better the output. But that clean data is going to take a lot of people improving it, sharing, collaborating, so that everybody has access to the fruits of that labor: the best, cleanest dataset on any subject, and thus the best starting point for data people trying to solve problems in that domain. This is what it will take to stop Zika in its tracks, to cure cancer sooner, to quickly find viable solutions to climate change—all of these critical projects are fundamentally data-driven.

The public benefit corporation structure is a lot like a C corporation, it’s really a sister or brother to the C corporation, vs. an LLC or S-corp, but it has the added benefit of protecting the mission of the company, and allowing you to publicly report on progress against that mission in kind of the same ways you would report on your finances.

Here is our public benefit statement, or mission:

“The specific public benefit purposes of the Corporation are to (a) strive to build the most meaningful, collaborative and abundant data resource in the world in order to maximize data’s societal problem-solving utility, (b) advocate publicly for improving the adoption, usability, and proliferation of open data and linked data, and (c) serve as an accessible historical repository of the world’s data.”

And it’s been extremely well-received in our launch. When we go in and we speak with people in universities where there’s lots of data silos ready to be freed and used by the public, or we go in and speak with government decision-makers, they really value our public benefit status and are much more willing to partner. The public and official nature of our mission makes us accountable and creates trust. It shows we care deeply about what we’re doing.

I’m lucky to have three co-founders who are all entrepreneurs, and all had been successful executives at HomeAway leading up to that acquisition by Expedia, and we’re proud that our mission is baked not only into the way we operate, but the actual legal structure of the company itself.

You touched on things like cancer and Zika and all of that, what are your hopes for the things that are done with the data. Where do you see the biggest contributions of what you’re doing, to the world?

Well there are so many problems in the world that would be solved faster if people were collaborating more using high-quality data. Vice President Biden launched the Cancer Moonshot after his son passed away from brain cancer, and everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer. My connection is very personal, like his, and it’s just kind of crazy to me that a lot of the data we need to fight it lives in silos, which is an artifact from the days when the world was less connected and data was stored in large data warehouses on premises, before the open data movement had picked up steam. We live in the cloud age, and networking things together is creating so much value for the world, but it’s just not happening fast enough with data. For example, the U.S. Census has some of the most valuable data available, and it powers businesses like ancestry.com and Zillow, but the U.S. Census partnered with us early on to make their data even more usable, and much more connected. Census CMO Jeff Meisel comes from private industry, and he really cares about serving the public with data in much the same way a CMO in the private sector cares about delivering value to his or her customers. And of course, he wants to know, who is using this data? How are they using it? Part of the goal with Census is to provide them with this visibility, and I think that we’re creating a framework for public entities, private firms, and individuals to continuously improve the way data is shared and used.

So you’re storing all the data, you’re normalizing across disparate data sets, and then you’re providing an API to query multiple data sets at once. Is that kind of the idea overall?

Yeah, that’s very close. As we ingest datasets from users or from supply partners like Census, we put them into a very large graph database. That allows us to break the data up into what are known as atomic triples, which makes it highly interoperable and joinable. For example, if a user uploads a dataset containing ZIP codes, and another user or data supply partner uploads a dataset containing ZIP codes, you can join the datasets quickly, run queries against it, and share the query and what it returns.

But it’s important to note that we’re not trying to replace every part of the data professional’s toolchain. We’re actually building this so it enhances a user’s existing data work toolchain, making it easy to get data into and out of the platform. So we already preview more than 30 data filetypes, we’re creating various connectors and integrations, and we’re not asking you to give up R Studio or any other tool you know and love.

What are the biggest challenges or problems you are running into?

The biggest challenge in building a business like this, versus my previous businesses, like Bazaarvoice, and Coremetrics, is that we have to win in the court of public opinion. We believe that, at scale, there’s only going to be one primary social network for data people, and we intend to be it. But to get there, you have to win the hearts and minds of the community, and that means you need to be obsessively focused on how a wide range of users use data.world. Anybody from a business analyst working inside a large company, to the data scientist at an NGO who needs advanced capabilities. So the challenge is winning over a very broad spectrum of users, across a very broad spectrum of industries, across a very broad spectrum of countries.

To achieve this, we have our daily metrics standup meetings and interviewing users every week to understand how they’re using the system and how it has to evolve. It actually takes me back to my days of creating one of the first Internet games in 1990. We were obsessively focused on how players played our game. Of course, players could show up from any country. It was one of the most popular games on the Internet by 1992, this is back in the days of TELNET, pre-HTML.

One of the things I really love about the business is how technical it is. We’re democratizing the Semantic Web, which is something that Tim Berners Lee has been advocating for a long time. But the truth is, the Semantic Web just hasn’t taken off yet. The reality is that it’s used only by the wealthiest few, it’s used by the NSA, it’s used by Palantir, it’s used by Facebook and Google, it’s used by Goldman Sachs. And it’s kind of sad that the most powerful data technology to ever come along in human history hasn’t been democratized. So we’re very mission-driven, very fired up, and you can read it in our public benefit statement, which of course is public, about what we’re all about, but it really started up as democratizing the most powerful data technology, for both the average user, as well as the more advanced user.

You’re well known for a being a strong advocate of Austin. But didn’t you raise most of the money for this out of California? Does Austin not have a vibrant fundraising scene?

Austin has a vibrant fundraising scene, but there is a limitation in terms of the size of funds. And that’s going to change over time. Used to not be the case, we used to have one megafund, in Austin Ventures, which could write $15 to 20 million checks, for the right type of bold, ambitious business that data.world is. We don’t have that type of early-stage funding capability anymore. But we’re a great city to get started in on the fundraising front. Let’s say that you’re doing something that’s still exciting, but less ambitious. And I’ve never worked on anything as ambitious as data.world, this is the most ambitious project I’ve ever worked on. So let’s say you’re starting the next Bazaarvoice. We raised $3.8M, and we actually got to cash flow breakeven on the first $2M. The amazing thing about Bazaarvoice is we went from 0 to $100M in sales in 6 years from inception. We only raised $25M in total, and we had $12M of it left in the bank when we went public. So we were incredibly capital efficient as a SaaS business. You know, I was able to raise money in Austin, for Bazaarvoice, that wasn’t a problem. And I actually raised it from Austin Ventures. And I’d be able to raise it today, I’d be able to raise it from LiveOak, Silverton, S3, as well as perhaps a few others. That type of check is not a problem in Austin. I went to Silicon Valley because we’re in the post-Austin Ventures era, and I really wanted a partner that understood building platform businesses. For all the amazing things that have happened in Austin, entrepreneurially, there aren’t a lot of big platform businesses in Austin. And I wanted that expertise from the beginning on our board, and I’m glad to say I found it in California, with Jason Pressman, someone I had actually known for 17 years prior to him joining our Board. And he’s with a firm named Shasta Ventures. Jason is particularly interesting because he’s been on the boards at Nextdoor and Smule since the beginning. Nextdoor, as you know is the largest online community for people that live in neighborhoods and own houses. Smule is one of the largest online communities now for people who love music and want to share their music, and I’m talking about individuals, not artists, but Smule has a lot of interesting functionality where individuals and artists team up and do things on that social network. It’s a kind of huge social network for music. So Jason has that experience, and they’re used to backing platform companies. So to be honest, I didn’t even start in Austin with our fundraise, I went straight to California, and I only spoke with VCs that are used to backing platform businesses. Because I wanted someone who understood exactly what we were going after, and had the capital to back it up. Having said that, I very quickly got Austin money into our company. I got our largest VC in Austin into our company, that’s LiveOak Venture Partners. And they’ve been fantastic. I got a lot of individuals in Austin into our company, like John Mackey the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods. Clayton Christopher, who founded DEEP EDDY vodka in town, and a number of others, but it is fair to say that out of the $14M we’ve raised, I would say, and these are rough numbers, I would say around $10M of it came from California, around $1.5M or so came from Austin. Around $1M came from Chicago, and then the rest came from New York. Now part of the reason for that is that I’ve got relationships all over. A lot of the people I spoke with I’ve known for many years. And that’s as a result of building several businesses that have become global businesses, and I’ve traveled a lot in my lifetime.

I know that with Bazaarvoice, and I assume before that, you were very deliberate about the culture of the company. What kind of culture are you building with this company?

You know it is a very different culture for a platform business, but I’d say we’re being very deliberate about it. And we recently we were honored as one of Austin’s best places to work by the Austin Business Journal, so it feels good to get an early win like that for such a young company. We’ve really been able to hire some of the best people that we’ve ever worked with at companies like Trilogy, Bazaarvoice, HomeAway, Indeed, and others. It’s really exceptional, the people that we have here, it’s the best early-stage startup team I’ve ever been a part of. And that’s not just the result of my experience, that’s the result of the fact that I’ve got three amazing co-founders who are also very accomplished and very well-connected in the Austin area. So the reason I tell you all that is that culture ultimately is a reflection of the foundation and the raw material, which is your people. And we’ve hired people that were the cultural standard bearers, and the performance bearers, at their previous companies.

But it is a very different type of culture than Bazaarvoice. I would say that Bazaarvoice was a very sales-driven culture. It was a verticalized, B2B SaaS company. The play was to convince the 10,000 or so VPs of e-commerce in the world to join the Bazaarvoice solution, and ultimately buy a fairly expensive enterprise-grade software solution to host something so critical, their customer reviews, which is so effective at driving online sales. There are 700M consumers each month that use Bazaarvoice, they just don’t know it. Because it’s like the Intel Inside of clients like Best Buy, Walmart, and others. So if Bazaarvoice is a very sales-driven culture, data.world is a very engineering-driven culture, and if you think about what we’re doing and building a platform business, it’s much more technical than the initial solution was at Bazaarvoice. We’re going after a slightly more technical audience, although we’re also going to win over and we are winning over the business analysts of the world. And out of the 26 people we have today, 17 of them are in engineering.

One of the ways that we stay focused on our users is through a tremendous amount of communication on Slack. I would say 80% of our communication is on Slack, vs. email, which keeps a very real-time pace.

You always feel connected to pretty much everything occurring in the company, or occurring with our users, because you even see the support channel for example hooked up to Slack. So I personally see every single support request that comes through. Obviously that won’t scale, but when you’re in a preview release mode and you have thousands of users, it’s very important to see what every single person is doing, and stay focused on that and stay very close to, ultimately, the person you’re trying to win over in that court of public opinion. We have tons of standup meetings, including a daily standup for our executive team, a daily standup for metrics, and every team has their own as well. And then we have lots and lots of user interviews.

It’s different than in the early days of Bazaarvoice. There, when you won a client, whoever won the client would hit a massive gong we had in the office. Everybody would gather around, and it was very tribal, and it was very sales-driven, where that person would talk about how they won that client over and ultimately how excited that client is to launch a very transparent form of communication on their own site. With this business, it’s much subtler when we win. You’re winning on an individual user basis, and you’re winning thousands and thousands of them over. Instead of hitting a gong, we Slack our success and recognize each other during our standups.

You mentioned Slack. What other tools are you finding to be particularly useful?

We’re also big users of Google Hangouts. We wired up all of our conference rooms with Google Hangouts in the first few weeks of having an office. We also use all the standard tools that you would imagine for this type of company. We’re obsessed users of GitHub, which obviously is the social network for coders. We manage social with Hootsuite. For our metrics, we use Segment, and Mixpanel, which allow us to see user behavior at an aggregate level, and really understand exactly how people use the platform, so we can constantly rev the technology. We’re running multiple experiments simultaneously with tools like Optimizely.

We don’t have a phone system. I mean there is no general phone number that people call into. Being a platform type of business, all of our communication with users is digital with the one exception of when we do user tests and we get on Google Hangouts and then we can see each other and see what they’re doing, or we have them into the office in person.

So why did you decide you wanted to be a CEO again?

Well, there were two reasons. One I talked about earlier, which is the impact of the Henry Crown fellowship on me. I had been backing entrepreneurs pretty heavily over a 3-year period after Bazaarvoice, and I really enjoyed that. And I still back entrepreneurs, and I invest in one startup once every 2 to 3 months right now. But I was investing at a much, much faster pace for that 3 years. When I joined the Henry Crown fellowship, it got me thinking in a very meditative way about my age, and whether I was doing the best I could to improve the world, in the way that I know. What I know is how to create innovative technologies that benefit a lot of people.

One really cool thing to think about with Bazaarvoice is that, yes, we had 10,000 VPs of e-commerce to reach, but ultimately we were helping hundreds of millions of consumers get transparent information about products. When we started Bazaarvoice, 11 years ago, there were only 3 retailers in the entire United States who had customer reviews on their site, which is kind of crazy to think about. Amazon, back then, was only around 4% of US online retail sales.

A lot has changed in 11 years, but the other thing that had a big impact on me was my family. I thought that the most important thing that I could do over that 3-year period is be Super Dad. So I was at every field trip, I would constantly be on call with my wife, kind of Super Husband as well, and was just extremely present for things. I also learned this very important lesson from my parents, which is involve your kids with your business, because if you’re not doing something you’re passionate about in business, why the hell are you doing it? If you involve your kids in it, they ultimately will see that their parents are doing something that they really care about, and they’ll pick up some lessons along the way, without you explicitly trying to teach them. During those three years, I involved our daughter in quite a few of these meetings with entrepreneurs, as well as startup competitions I was judging. And sometimes she would make the decision of whether or not we actually invested. Especially if it was a product where I thought she’s going to understand this better than we’re going to understand this as adults. She’s going to know if this product will win in the marketplace. And that was very empowering to her, and really I think helped her in a lot of ways with her development. But it’s interesting, because during the act of being Super Dad and Super Husband, Rachel turns to me one day, and she says, “Dad, when are you going to start another business?” And I said, “Well Rachel, look at what I’m doing, look at how many entrepreneurs I’m helping. Look at the different startup competitions we’re going to,” etc. And she said, “Yeah, yeah Dad, all that’s great. When are you going to start another business?”

It really kind of took me back. I didn’t know what to say. And I had to think about it for several days. And then it hit me, when she was growing up, I started Bazaarvoice when she was 6 months old, and I would bring her into Bazaarvoice, and I was very passionate about what Bazaarvoice was doing from the beginning, and I would bring her into client summits, I would bring her into all-hands meetings, I would bring her into different things in the company at Bazaarvoice, and she was a part of it. And it hit me that, and of course she would tell her friends what her dad did, and they would say, “Oh yeah we use customer reviews.” I realized that it was the best example that I could be as a parent.

Abraham Lincoln has this really beautiful quote, which goes something like: “If you would like your child to walk in a certain direction, you yourself must walk in that direction.” I started to think at that point that the best thing I could do is go back into the arena, and hopefully have an even bigger impact on society. And data.world is set up that way, where once we’re successful, we’ll totally transform the way people work with data. We’ll totally transform that problem of the data janitorial work, and Rachel and our son, Levi, years from now, will ask, “What was the world like before data.world? You actually had to go find the data in some university site and then it wasn’t documented? And then you had all these problems with it? That you needed to clean up before you could even do analysis? That doesn’t make any sense.”

It doesn’t make any sense, but that is the way the world of data is today. It’s still highly, highly-siloed. I have a lot of energy around solving that problem, and I have a lot of energy around working with my co-founders. Our COO, Matt Laessig, is just an amazing person. We first met in grad school. We told each other then that we’d start a business together, and here we are many years later doing it. He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked with, and he’s also a great family person and individual. He’s been on American Ninja Warrior for the last 7 years, and one of the only people I went to grad school with who has gotten into progressively better shape ever since we graduated. Jon Loyens is our Chief Product Officer, and he’s incredible. Not only is he the best engineering leader I’ve ever worked with, but he also has been in his own band for 15 years. He’s played with Melissa Etheridge and all types of people. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Andy Roddick Foundation, which works for underserved communities in Austin, especially children. Bryon Jacob, our CTO, was at HomeAway for the last 10 years, and one of the smartest technologists I’ve ever worked with. We’ve become very, very good friends. I get a lot of energy from being part of a team on such an ambitious and impactful mission.

Final question: Why a blue owl for the logo?

There’s a geeky reason and a non-geeky reason. So let me start with the non-geeky reason. An owl in many cultures, represents knowledge and wisdom. And data.world is clearly going to accelerate that on a global scale. The geeky reason is that it’s a nod to Tim Berners-Lee original version of the Semantic Web, the most powerful data technology to ever come along and not yet be fully realized. And the ontology language for the Semantic Web is called Web Ontology Language, but the acronym for it, strangely enough, is OWL. The query language for the semantic web is called SPARQL, it’s a WC3 standard. So we named the owl Sparkle. Everyone in the company has their own Sparkle-tar, which represents something uniquely individual about them. Of course, Matt Laessig’s is the Ninja Sparkle, and Joh Loyens’s is The Guitarist Sparkle. We have a lot of fun with it. Personality counts in business and in community.

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