On Customer Data Modeling. Q&A with Chris Selland
“ I always tell the team – don’t worry about the competition – spend that time and energy worrying about the customer.”
R: First of all, congratulations on joining Squark. How did you find the company – or did they find you?
C: Thank you Roberto – I appreciate that. I was introduced to the Squark co-founders Dan Hess & Judah Phillips in mid 2022 and agreed to be an advisor to the company. As I got to know the founders and the business, I was increasingly impressed, and decided I wanted to join full-time at the end of the year.
R: What most impressed you – was it the Squark platform?
C: Yes, and the business – it was very impressive to see that, based on a modest initial capital raise, Squark had both a V1 AI platform live, and more than a dozen customers paying to use it – and significant ARR. You don’t often see that with companies at this stage – that impressed me. I was also very impressed with the accessibility of the platform – because I feel that the market is at a very important inflection point for AI – the companies that focus more on business users and use cases will be the most successful ones.
R: Who else has joined the team?
C: I’m thrilled that my former Vertica colleague Mark Lyons has agreed to join Squark to lead Product. Mark played such a critical role in our success at Vertica, and more recently at Dremio – he has tremendous insight into the customer & market needs we need to focus on, and the trade offs we need to make – where to build, where to partner. Mark also walks the talk – he’s incredibly data driven and so disciplined about decision-making for our business.
Tim Steele has also joined to lead Sales – Tim is a dynamic sales leader I’ve worked with 2X previously, and he’s making a massive difference as our pipeline is building rapidly. What really differentiates Tim, though, is how much he cares about not just our success but the customers’ as well. He understands that to really scale Squark, our customers need to succeed – “maniacally focused on the customer” – is a good way to describe him.
R: Explain “AIaaS for Customer Data Modeling” please?
C: Sure – well first of all, the Squark platform is an AI / ML platform delivered in an online “SaaS” format. I often say we’ve designed it for “mere mortals” and what I mean by that is business users – market analysts for instance – who may – or in some cases may not – be supported by a Data Science team. In other words, by making our platform accessible & easy to use, we’re helping the business users leverage AI, and helping the data science team better leverage their time & energy.
“Customer Data Modeling” means that our platform takes in customer data files – i.e. historic data about customers – and we then build, train, implement & refine models to predict – and influence – future customer behavior. Are customers satisfied – and what can we do to make them more satisfied? Will they spend more – or will they churn – and again how can we impact? What is their lifetime value – and how do we increase it? Then we can hand the results to whoever – or whichever system – can use it so the organization can take action.
R: Can you give me some examples? Isn’t that just customer analytics & CRM?
C: Well as you may know, I spent much of my career in “CRM” and the last few in “customer analytics” – and certainly it’s analogous, but what we’re doing goes significantly further & deeper. So much of “CRM”, “analytics” and “data” right now is focused on understanding “what happened” – but what we’re doing at Squark is modeling “what is going to happen”.
I’ll give 2 examples from current customers – first of all, we do quite a bit of work in media, entertainment & gaming – both online and traditional (i.e. casino) gaming. Gamers don’t really “churn” – they just play less – or stop – or play somewhere or something else. Having a view of what happened is important – how the gamer participates, for how long, spending how much – but what’s more important is being able to model what a customer will do before they do it. Understanding what a gamer has done – and groups and cohorts in aggregate – is input for us to model the future – and to allow us to tailor the game, the offers, the pricing, etc… in a way that we can influence their future behavior.
Here’s another – we also do a lot of work in healthcare – not necessarily disease management, but areas such as patient satisfaction. For a hospital a patient is their “customer” of course – but the concept of “cross selling and upselling” is obviously quite different. One of the most important metrics in healthcare – especially to the institutions and caregivers that provide it – is patient satisfaction – because that’s what leads the patient to return the next time they need care, to make recommendations to their families & friends, to comment on social media, tell their doctor and of course to participate in patient satisfaction surveys. Reputation is massively important – and understanding the drivers of reputation is critical.
R: There are so many data companies and AI startups – including a number of “unicorns”. How are you planning to compete?
C: Yes it’s a crowded market – but it’s a huge one. I have long appreciated the annual charts that Matt Turck puts out to remind everyone how competitive the “data” space is. But the megatrend is so powerful – what companies are not looking to become more data-driven and analytically-focused these days? The answer to “how do we differentiate” is actually simple – we differentiate by our execution – our business and our customers’. If we make our customers successful, in the long-run everything else ultimately takes care of itself.
I always tell the team – don’t worry about the competition – spend that time and energy worrying about the customer. I could honestly care less about being a “unicorn” – these days especially that term is all but meaningless. Sure it’s nice to do a funding round at a billion dollar valuation – congratulations to the companies that have – but only if you build a business that can grow into that valuation. Too many former “unicorns” today haven’t gotten there – and are in big trouble now. The ultimate validation and the long-term value of an idea – and a business – isn’t whether investors put money in. It’s whether customers do.
R: Isn’t all the noise about AI around ChatGPT and other topics muddying the water for AI startups like Squark?
C: I think the excitement about what’s possible is much more important than any confusion being created. Chat GPT has certainly increased attention on generative AI & LLMs – which is only a small part of what AI can deliver – but it’s also got business execs interested and energized about potential impact. I was on a Zoom call just the other day with a number of marketing execs who are both excited and concerned about how ChatGPT will impact content marketing – and they certainly should be both excited and concerned! But the good news – and I think it’s really good news – is that businesses are realizing that investing in AI is something that can have massively positive impact on their bottom lines. Businesses are starting to see the use cases – and the ROI.
R: Are you fundraising for Squark?
C: Yes, but selectively and in line with our customer focus. I like to tell investors, I value money from customers much more than theirs – the smart ones laugh at that line. But we’ve got some great investors on board with us, and we’ll say more at the right time about that.
R: This is a tough time to raise money, isn’t it?
C: It’s an interesting time – but markets go up and down. At the moment markets are in a tough place – but if we stay laser focused on doing the right things for our customers, we’ll be fine. It might be a tough time to raise money, but it’s a fantastic time to build a business.