Max Bennett (Edition # 12)
Max Bennett (Co-founder & Chief Product Officer at Bluecore)
|Michael Spiro||May 4, 2020||2|
(Max Bennett, Co-founder & Chief Product Officer at Bluecore)
We are excited about today’s Edition of The Takeoff. Today’s interview is with Max Bennett, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Bluecore. The interview took place via a phone call between Max and Michael Spiro (Founder at The Takeoff) in early April.
Bluecore is a “retail marketing technology that reimagines how retailers communicate with their customers through email marketing and website personalization.” Bluecore’s customers include leading brands such as Sephora, Nike, Gap, Perry Ellis, Pendleton, and Tommy Hilfiger, among many others.
We hope you enjoy today’s Edition.
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And now, onto the interview with Max!
Michael: To start, what exactly is Bluecore, and what is the company's mission?
Max: Our mission statement is to personalize every eCommerce interaction that you have with a brand. What Bluecore is, is a marketing automation platform. One way you can think about that is if you go to one of our clients' websites, what we do is we personalize the website experience to make sure the right products are being shown to customers based on what we infer their preferences to be.
The emails you get from our clients are curated and personalized. We auto-generate those messages based on what we think you'll care about. When we see things like price drops or new products being added, we personalize the recommendations of the offer and we auto-generate those messages and deploy them.
Bluecore is a platform that looks at all of the information around a business and consumers and then makes decisions, autonomously, as to what products to show customers, offers to show them, and concepts to show them.
Michael: I'm wondering, how exactly did you come to found the company, and what does your role as Chief Product Officer entail?
Max: My role is primarily to make sure that we are building the right things. The vast majority of products fail not because they don't work, but because they ended up not providing the anticipated value. So, the purpose of a product organization is to make sure that we're putting our effort in the right places to maximize the likelihood of a given feature or product investment succeeding.
In terms of how the company started, my co-founders actually had the original technical insight, which was identifying what they found to be a diagnosis as to why the vast majority of digital marketing we get is completely not personalized. Our email inboxes suck, the ads we see on websites suck, and we're just getting bombarded with messages.
If you asked a retailer, “Why are you not personalizing more?”, what you would find out is that problem number one is getting the requisite data on which to train any sort of machine learning model, even if it's not sophisticated and it's just rules-based to automatically make personalized decisions. The data aggregation process was a complete nightmare and it ended up not being worth the IT costs.
The technical insight that he [my co-founder] originally came up with was a mechanism for really accelerating the process of aggregating data. We actually patented that mechanism, and without going into too much detail, it is a way to actually aggregate data from the website and turn the unstructured website data into really structured data for AI training.
So, that original insight enabled us to make the process of deploying originally triggered personalized messages from a six to twelve-month project, into a six-week project. Since then, we have expanded that original sort of point solution to an entire platform that takes in large amounts of unstructured data, structures it, and then enables our clients to automate a bunch of decisions across their website, their mobile app, email, etc.
My co-founders came up with the original kernel of the idea. We met while they were in Techstars and then I joined forces with them.
The key thing that I thought was really interesting was, there was way more we can do with the data than just deploy trigger communications. And, one of the first things we worked on was putting in a predictive analytics layer, so being able to predict how much someone is going to spend, what their likelihood of ever buying again is, and what their likelihood is to even care about a given email they are going to receive. So far, that has been very successful.
Michael: Really interesting there, and I love the data-driven approach that you discussed. What exactly has the growth looked like so far at Bluecore, and where do you see the company in five or ten years?
Max: We have definitely made tons of mistakes and hiccups along the way, but if we zoom out, we're very grateful for how awesome the story has been. We were founded about seven years ago and have raised close to $100M. We are now north of $40M in annual revenue and have about 240 employees. It's been a really special growth story.
In five to ten years, it's always hard to predict the future, but the intention is to get to a place where the interface between businesses or marketers and their tools stops being something manual, where they're designing a piece of creative and they're pushing deploy to all 2 million email subscribers or putting it on their website, but that they’re giving machines these objectives.
We call this vision autopilot. So, they say, “Hey, I need to sell inventory of these specific Nike shoes,” and the machine figures out how to deploy marketing, optimize ad spend, and change the website to accomplish that goal.
It's really handing a lot of control to machine learning tools, such that they can make decisions on behalf of people. The interface ceases to be, let me hardcode some rules or do some work manually. It becomes, let me give a machine objectives and let the machine figure out how to accomplish those objectives.
So, our sort of five-year goal is to get to a place where humans are inserting objectives and the machine runs key parts of the business on its own. We think that is obviously a multi-billion dollar opportunity, especially given that retailers today are spending billions of dollars on tools where all they’re doing is uploading a rule and then having that rule be automatically followed.
Michael: Well, I really love that. I know that the company is headquartered in New York City. What do you like most about the NYC tech and startup scene?
Max: What I like most is that we're a minority of the scene. I like that New York is not just all tech. I like the diversity of different roles here. I like that it's newer. I like that a lot of the people that are moving into tech in NYC have not always been in tech, so you get sort of a diversity of opinions and perspectives and experience.
I also really love a lot of the people in the scene. I love the VC community here. I think there's a culture of NYC tech being a little bit, maybe, of the underdogs, so people help each other more and it feels more like a cohesive group, as opposed to it being like The Hunger Games.
Michael: Awesome! I know that you were included in the 2017 Forbes 30 under 30 list for Enterprise Technology, which is a huge accomplishment in itself. I'm wondering, how did being included on that list help increase brand and personal recognition, if at all?
Max: Recognition like that feels nice and I appreciate it, but I like to focus how I assess myself and other people based on what is real and what the actual impact they've had on things is, as opposed to focusing too much on the accolades and the labels that they get. I appreciate it, but I don't really focus too much on that.
I don't really think being on that list had too much of an impact. That said, visibility for Bluecore is always nice, and being presented in these publications helps put Bluecore more on the map, which helps with recruiting. I think anything that helps with recruiting is useful, but I don't put too much credence in labels and accolades. I focus more on actual impact.
Michael: Maybe in a 60-second or so response, if that's even possible for this question, what do you think makes a good product manager?
Max: In sixty seconds! If I had to simplify it completely, I'd say it's probably three things. One, the job of a product manager is to make decisions and product managers are constantly prioritizing. So, being a really, really amazing decision-maker, is one. Being a good decision maker means that you can make the right decision as to when you can stop analyzing data. Being able to make the right call as to how much to analyze data and knowing when to make a decision with imperfect information is a very useful skill.
Then, also using your intuition to figure out what the right trade-offs are between possible states of the world, understanding optionality and considering leverage, so knowing how we can invest in something that maybe isn't great for the next three months but gives us leverage in the future. Decision making is such a complex skill that is very hard to be good at. So, one is being a great decision-maker.
Two is being a really great communicator. One really hard thing for organizing teams with very different skill sets is that it is really important for people to be on the same page. As a product manager, you need to make sure everyone is going in the right direction and being a really phenomenal communicator, which means listening very well and also communicating ideas very effectively, is really essential.
Lastly, I'd probably say, is being a really good inspirer. So, really being good at accessing people's intrinsic motivation to want to accomplish things and do things that matter and rallying groups of people around impact to prevent people from getting bogged down in just what they are doing, but focusing on why they’re doing it, is a really essential skill to product management.
Michael: Amazing insights there. The next few questions are advice-related questions for our subscribers. The first question I have here is, what advice would you give to a student who is interested in starting a company, either while in school or maybe post-graduation?
Max: I think it's important to go through the introspection as to why you want to start a company. I forget who said this quote, but it has always stuck with me: “people either start a company for control, or they start it for success.”
Some people just don't like having a boss. They don't want to work for anyone, and they want to have control of their own destiny. The other group cares less about the control but they really care about having an impact in some area. What tends to be the case is that companies are much more successful if the founders are actually optimizing for success and not just optimizing for control.
A question for a lot of people that want to start companies is what is the driving factor. If you're doing it just because you want to be the boss, it tends to not be as effective. But, if you're doing it because you really want to solve a problem, that ends up being a much more successful starting point. That’d be one piece of advice.
The other is, there's no reason to rush things. If what you are optimizing for is the success towards some objective over the next 20 years, you don’t have to start a company right now. There are of course stories of people that start companies in college and are greatly successful, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I would always pose the question, “Do you feel like you have enough domain knowledge to be dangerous in the area that you're solving a problem?”
Even Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, for instance, had extreme experience in computer science by the time they started their company. There's nothing wrong with saying, “You know what, to solve the problems that I want to solve, I need to take three years and learn. I don't care about the money I make or the salary I make, but I just want to learn about these things and find someone that can educate me and teach me. I want to take a role so I can learn about a given space, and then I want to start my company.”
Assuming you're in a financial position where you can make that call, I think being strategic about what you're learning and how you get to the point where you're ready to start a company is useful because there are also a string of people that only want to start their own thing and are six failed companies through and just really don't take the time to try and learn from someone else. That's another piece of advice.
And, then the third piece of advice is, which is maybe for the more skittish or risk-averse people, really assess how bad the risk of failure is. I think people tend to overestimate how scary failure is.
Jeff Bezos always talks about his Regret Minimization Framework, which is basically if you really want to start something, don't be so afraid of failure because even a failed company over the course of three years is an amazing experience that can be parlayed into other things. So, at some point, you have to just take the plunge. Those would be my three pieces of advice.
Michael: I really love that advice and as a student, personally, it resonates really well. I'm wondering, given everything that's going on in the market and in the world right now, do you have any advice for students who may feel some anxiety about where the market and job opportunities will be when they graduate?
Max: I think that's hard. There are still studies that show people who graduated during the 2008 period took a while to jump back. I think a lot of it comes down to whenever there's a crisis and it creates change, there are two ways to look at it. One is to look at it as if something is happening to you, and the other is to ask yourself, how can you take advantage of the thing that is occurring?
In a situation where funding might be harder to get, or the corporate job that one wanted might be harder to get, what that means is, perhaps the relative tradeoff between joining one of those things versus learning something on your own or extending your learning period, whether by spending more time in school, starting your company earlier, or saying, “Look, I'm going to find someone who I want to be my mentor and ask if I can intern for them for six months,” changes.
It gives you a framework for your first few years out of school, not as optimizing for salary, assuming again you have the financial means to do this, but optimizing for learning. It feels a little bit less scary because it's not as hard to find someone who wants to take someone smart and hungry under their wing and help them. I think if you look at it as, here's an obstacle of which I can overcome, that can make it a little bit less scary.
Michael: Awesome. I’m really fond of your perspective there. I just have two more questions, both of which are on more of a personal level. Hopefully they're not too uncomfortable answering.
The first question here is, do you have any favorite books, movies, podcasts, or anything of that nature that you would recommend to our subscribers?
Max: For people who are looking to start companies, I think there are two learning forms that are useful. One is learning the basics of entrepreneurship. Books that I love here are Zone to Win by Geoffrey Moore, the less known version that I think is actually better than his other book, Crossing the Chasm. Zero To One is a phenomenal book by Peter Thiel, The Innovator's Dilemma is a classic that is good to read, and What Customers Want by Anthony Ulwick is also a really good one.
Depending on if you're building a consumer product or enterprise product, design may be really key. I think The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is a great read. If you're starting a company, it's not only about strategy, you also have to be great at managing the people. In terms of management, I think Radical Candor is probably one of my favorite books. Five Dysfunctions of a Team is another good one about management.
So, there are the basics about entrepreneurship, but there are also stories. Stories are one of the best ways to learn about things, just by hearing anecdotes and stories about how other people did it. Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff, the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, and The Everything Store - the Amazon story - are all great. There is also a new Edison biography that is good (here). Hearing about how other people did it is always great.
Michael: Great recommendations. The last question I have is, how do you stay physically and mentally fit given the high demands of your job at Bluecore. I'm wondering if you have any type of fitness routine, if you meditate, or anything like that?
Max: Probably not as much as I should. I think for me, it's all about managing inspiration and curiosity. Angela Duckworth said something in her book Grit that has always resonated with me, which is to try to focus less on a novelty and focus more on nuance. That always helps me, which is getting more and more excited about the nuances of things that I'm learning.
Calm is a great app, which I use every once in a while. Another thing that has been a theme to Bluecore, I haven't done it recently, but in the early days of Bluecore I always did, is improv. Improv is an amazing technique that not only makes you a better listener but also makes your life feel lighter at times when you feel a lot of pressure.
Michael: Sweet. I really enjoyed that. Thanks for coming on The Takeoff!
Max: I'm always happy to help. I hope that was useful. Best of luck with everything!
** Please note that our interviews may be edited for length, content, and clarity **
I’m on Twitter @mspiro3 👋