Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.
Today, my guest is Marc Zionts, CEO of Automated Insights. Automated Insights is the creator of Wordsmith, the world’s first public natural language generation platform. Wordsmith allows users to generate human-sounding narratives from data.
Prior to Automated Insights, Marc has been a leader in both technology and market research for two decades.
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Marc Zionts – Happy Market Research Podcast Transcript
Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted. Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Marc Zionts, CEO of Automated Insights. Automated Insights is a creator of Wordsmith, the world’s first language public international platform. Wordsmith allows users to generate human sounding narratives from data. Prior to Automated Insights, Marc has been a leader in and research firms for over two decades. Marc, thanks very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.
Thank you, and I am delighted to be here.
So talk to us a little bit about your early days, about your parents and where you were raised, and how that has impacted your career.
Well, thank you. I am fortunate that my parents were both working throughout my entire life –as I was growing up. I was born up North and then we moved down to Florida when I was young. My mother is an educator, and my father always worked in the electronics industry. And a couple of stands-outs from there that were great inspirations for me. First of all, my mother as an educator just really focused on the importance of being a life-long learner, you could be reader. And she set a couple of examples by doing a couple of things. One, going back to school at her mid-age and getting an advanced degree. And I think that thing is very admirable. At the same time, once my parents got older, they had not traveled a lot. And by the time they were 50, I think they had just traveled to maybe two countries. But since then, they have traveled to 125 countries. So I think that the whole quest for knowledge, understanding and learning, is something that my mother –as an educator, certainly imparted upon me.
On my father’s side, there have always been good careers. But I have to honestly say that my father never enjoyed working. So that actually set another good example for me. And that is, life is short, you better love what you do, you better be passionate about what you do. And if you are fortunate enough to have those things occur, as they say, work doesn’t become work, it becomes a part of your life –it becomes something where you become hungry for knowledge, you’re continuously interested in getting better, improving and learning more.
So in different ways, my parents have had an impact on me. But certainly I think it was a foundation for me in terms of developing.
Yeah, I found that as I enjoy what I am doing for a living, it creates this beautiful bleed into every other area of my life. And it winds up that work can be an enhancer of my relationships because it is not just a start-and-stop experience. And when I get home, I don’t need to plug out and sit on the couch to have a beer or think that I have to do that in any other way. You can engage and then… There is not this “Oh, I have to go to work right now” mentality. It is more of a “get-to experience”.
By all means.
The point about your mom and dad traveling and going to just 2 to 125 countries is really interesting. Have you done a significant amount of travel as well?
I have. I have probably been to more countries than that. And my wife is a traveler too. And then, our four adult children, that is something they have always been exposed to. That is, they have always been on a plane going everywhere around the world. And subsequently, they have a passion for it as well. A number of them have spent time abroad with their college, or in between college and running overseas, spending extended periods of time, months abroad. So our children, I think, have a passion for it. And you are privileged to have that but the way you pay that back, I think, is in terms of your understanding of the world. As it relates to our business, be it technology or whatever perspective you have, I think you have a much broader and a more balanced view and hopefully you can give it back to whatever field you are in and help you relate to others. Hopefully, there is goodness in all that because I realize that is something that not everybody gets to do so hopefully you can take it and be respectful and fortunate for that but at the same time hopefully get something back and be able to contribute back as a result.
Yeah, a lot of times people think that it’s only for the rich and famous. You know, going overseas once every few years. But the reality is that you can do it fairly inexpensively, even today. You have to be very mindful obviously about planning things out and controlling your costs, you know, where you stay, etc. But it is feasible to get overseas. What I hear from the people I have interacted with that have decided not to travel is that it seems that their biggest barrier is just this fear of unknown as opposed to it being a financial constraint. Of course, you are 100% correct that we are very fortunate to travel, and I am not trying to impose that. We are not. But the fact is that it really provides a ton of value for you as an individual, and obviously your family as well, in the event that you can expose yourself to other cultures, other cuisines. That opens your world view. And provides you with a fuller idea on what it is to be human and on what we should be focusing.
I absolutely agree with you.
So in the context of your background, because you have quite a storied career, maybe you can you talk to us about one of the biggest challenges that you faced.
I think what’s really interesting as I look back, and I frankly look forward is that I have always worked in technology. But I have been very careful to not define myself too narrowly. And I think that is really important. I think you need to focus on what is it that you are trying to do, what is it that you are trying to accomplish. If you dig your heels in, for example, if you say you “I am a C+ programmer”, your career will be limited. The issue should be more like I am excellent world class at UI/UX design and by the way, the tools I use may change. But I am not married to a language or something very narrow.
In my world, if you look back at technology 30 years ago, a lot of what we were doing was in the role of hardware. Today, to a large extent, hardware, storage, bandwidth have all become more ubiquitous and accessible to businesses. So there is a lot more of innovation and development around the world of software. And software is a service. So I feel I have moved from hardware to proprietary software what opens up in the sense that software is a service and is therefore, more like a journey. I would summarize that as “you better be able to deal with change”, and “you better be agile”, and “you also need to be a learning individual”.
I am so excited about what we do as a company. I am so excited about technology. And I have been doing this since high school. So since the 70’s, I have been involved in tech, and I feel we are scratching the surface of what’s possible. I continually have moved my career from one innovative area to another innovative area. So it’s fresh. I am learning. I am working with other people that are maybe early in their careers, and they have a lot to teach me about new technologies or how they solve problems. So I guess my big summary would be: “If you’re not comfortable with change, I think the business world, whether it is technology or anything else, is going to be very cruel to you. And if you want to be relevant, currently and in the future, you better be a learning individual.”
So humble, open to change… when I was reviewing your bio, you actually read your snippet on LinkedIn talking about your cycling passion, specifically cyclocross stood out?
Competitiveness is a major part of any cycling sport. I have done cycling on and off for about 20 years, and it is such a love-hate relationship. Ha! Well, it’s all love, I should say. But it can be bitter sweet sometimes when performances are not up to snob. Do you feel that your competitive nature is expressed in business in a way that you have to be humble? In other words, you can’t just assume you are going to win, and you have to be adaptable because the world is changing?
Yes, I believe that there is a tremendous amount of analogies between sports and business, or even more broadly, sports and life. One, as you mentioned, is humility. I mean, you may think you are great compared to the general population but when you get with a bunch of people like you, all of a sudden is very humbling and very hard when you are competing, so that’s a valuable lesson because you encounter that in life, be that in business, you may be very smart but when you are around other smart people, how do you stand out, how do you differentiate? The other thing with sports is that sports is all about setting goals. Are you goal-oriented? Are you disciplined to train? To do the hard work necessary? I mean the hard work isn’t the race. The hard work is everything that leads up to the race. If you have done your homework, you are going to have a good race, just like in business. So when I see people that have an outside passion, and it can be competitive or non-competitive, I think that is a great characteristic about somebody from the work perspective because I think that translates into the work. They want to continuously improve, they want to set goals and accomplish goals. They want to be the best that they can be. They have passion in their life. It may also imply that you have some balance. I mean, you have got to take care of yourself and feel good about yourself. You have got to take care of your family or your partners or your friends, and feel good about that. If those things are in order, work is pretty good. If those things are not in order, maybe work is good for a little bit of time but that’s when you hear about “the burnout”, or that’s when you hear about the person that says: “I am a workaholic, and I am unhappy”. Well, of course you are because you didn’t have any balance in yourself and you weren’t take care of the things in your life that are really important. You know, yourself, your friends, your family, those are the things that matter. So when I find somebody that has an outside passion, be it sports or something else, I know that they are disciplined because they are trying to work on get it done and itself, and improve but at the same time they have a life. So it brings a balance to the whole equation.
Yeah, totally. My most productive years are always when I am maintaining a level of balance, specifically relative to family and also, cycling or triathlons or CrossFit or whatever it is that’s hitting me at that particular point. The thing that I think you are right that protects us from burnout is… I will call it “balance”. And I put that in quotation marks, air quotes, by the way. We are often times working a lot. So there are a lot of hours that are still happening. It is just that our view of that work is much more in line of an enjoyment as opposed to that hard drum, “have to” sort of framing. The thing that I want to pull out a bit more on though is what you said about the preparation for the competition. It really isn’t the case that businesses or a competition is won at that particular event. I mean, it is but you might know that you can get to the top three based on the actual work that you put in to that effort, right? Or to that event. I think that analogy, carrying it out a little bit, is exactly relevant for all of us. The scariest times for me in businesses, when everything is going great and then I wind up taking off my foot of the gas pedal, and then resting on my laurels a little bit. Have you had experiences like that or seen that happen to other companies?
Without a doubt. That kind of brings up another characteristic that you look for in people, which is often reflected in competitive people as well, and that is, resiliency. I think it is pretty clear that if everything is going well, you need to be humble because I guarantee you it won’t continue forever and things will go downhill at some point. And you have to deal with that. And on the flipside of that, you need to be resilient and determined because when things are at rock bottom, at the end of the cycle, you should take some solace in knowing that it’s not going to stay there forever, and it will get better.
So if you have a wave in the top and the bottom, it’s going to be some sort of a wave when you are at the top, you know where it’s going next, and when you’re at the bottom, you know where it will go next. It’s important to keep that in mind.
It feeds the whole journey thing, right? Which is exactly what you are describing. I love that. I love that vision, or that picture. You came into this space, this company, Automated Insights, really from the outside, after it had already been launched. What was the initial focus of Automated Insights?
The company was well under way when I joined. In terms of the focus, the company in its earliest days was very much about innovation and product as it should be in a young company. I came in invited by our private equity owner to take the company really to the next level, to work on scaling it up and building it up and adding, if you will, the commercial emphasis to the business. The challenges… I love what we do from a product perspective. I have nothing but admiration for our founder and for the founding team around innovation and product. And I did not want to take any spotlight off of that. But I wanted to equal weight that with a commercial business around sales and partnerships and business development and channels and in marketing. So that was the challenge: to preserve the initial focus around product and innovation, and retain those chops if you will, while adding in the other components, which to me simply validates that “yup, we got great product”. If we are the leader, if our business is growing, and customers are benefiting from our solution, that is a complete validation of everything the product team is doing. For me it was that focus of transitioning culture to equal weight the commercial side in the same way we had initially done around product and innovation.
The point that you are making here is really important, and I think a lot of founders forget about that. And that is that the reason it is a business is that its’ making money, and it is easy to get caught up in the actual product. But the point is that there is a much broader play, and that is overall organization and the investment in the organization or organism needs to be complete, not just with the head. You need the ability to move around and grab things and that sort of thing. And that infrastructure is vital throughout the life cycle of any business, and it’s good to hear that institutionalization is a big part of what you guys are doing, and obviously, as you said, equal partner with the product in moving the market in the right direction and bringing value. Can you talk to us a little bit specifically about what Automated Insights is, and the value it is bringing to the market?
The natural language generation, or NLG as we referred to it, is taking in structure data and writing stories, reports or narratives in software that sound like they were created by a person. So there is many business use cases for this, and we work into major whelms: one where we take in data and we create this directly, or two, where we integrate with business intelligence software. Products like Tableau or Click or Micro-strategy or Tipco or Power BI. The use case around BI is that according to Gartner, two thirds of the people in the enterprise, when they look at the dashboard visualization, they think it’s very interesting but they have one fundamental question, and that question is “What does that mean?” So they don’t actually process if you will, the meaning that was intended by the analyst –the business analyst that created that dashboard. So as a result, what companies end up doing is they might screenshot or export a dashboard and then the analyst writes up bullets, narrative by hand saying what it means. Or worse yet, someone may think they know what it means, they misinterpret the data and they make a business decision based on their understanding of the data, and that is very expensive. Or even a third scenario: we see people going into a meeting that is an hour long, and they spend 50 minutes of the meeting debating what the data means, and they only reserve the last 10 minutes of the meeting to discuss what they are going to do about it. All three of these cases are not productive. So when you can add in narrative to dashboards that fully interact with the dashboard as you are clicking around and looking at different scenarios, and there is narrative there to explain to you what it means, that becomes incredibly valuable to an enterprise. It is also great for the BI software because it means more people in the enterprise can use BI software. So it expands the total available market for the BI software provider. So our BI partners benefit, we benefit, and most importantly, the customer benefits. So that’s one big set of use cases. A lot use cases is just when we take structure data and with the structure data we can create these narratives, reports and stories. And there is a good chance that you have seen our work and not necessarily realize it’s us. For example, we are quite visible in the world of journalism. There are lot of stories that are data-driven stories. A data-driven story could be a financial story, a sport story, a weather story, anything that has really data at the core. As an example, the associated press writes and sells stories on all public companies four times a year when they announce their quarterly earnings. All of those stories are written by our software, not by a business journalist. Likewise, the associated press sells stories on all 16,000 minor league baseball games. Once again, that is being written by our software.
Or many people like to play fantasy football, be it with Yahoo, be it with a national football league, and part of that experience is getting a weekly recap telling you how your fantasy team is doing. It is a totally customized story about you and your team, and once a week you get a recap that tries to keep you engaged in the season, and frankly tries to draw you back into those software platforms so that you spend more time trying to improve your team as the season goes on. And why do they care about that? Well, they make their money with add revenue monetization. So if you are more engaged, they can make more money. So all of those narratives are created by our software as well. If you think about an NFL football season, you could be talking about over 100 million individualized stories a season that are being written through our software. There are many places where people can see us, Dow Jones Group, The Economist, Standard & Poor’s. There are many visible places where our software is being used to write stories that are personalized, or at scale, or based on somebody’s role but all these are cases where we are using data to create narrative, reports, stories and help people understand what the data means or engage them with the data.
Story is the number 1 gap that has come up in the conversations I have had with large brands. The block and tackling of getting the data in a presentable format just doesn’t seem to be the issue. And there is a million different ways and tools that they are using and vendors partners to get that to those consumers insights. But the magic for them is that last bit in the red zone when the delivery is happening to the executives. The more powerful the story, the more powerful it connects with that executive and then, the bigger lever it has in moving the decision-process throughout the whole organization. Are you seeing market research data as well as journalism playing out with using your tools?
Many people use, take survey data, which is again data story to create that into a narrative or report that people can understand and they are using our software. So we see it in the area of market research, market surveys, voting information… We have a lot of customers in the CPG space. Brands that are doing constant reports on attribution around share data, around competitive data. It is very common for them to be using that information as the data input to create the narrative, or if they are looking into business intelligence, to add the data in so that more people correctly understand what that information is. So yes, certainly a great area for us because there is good data available.
Voice is on the rise. The way we are consuming information is moving from the written word… It’s never going to go to zero, it’s a huge part of our consumption but… there is more and more audio being consumed through podcasts like this one or audiobooks or what have you. Are you guys looking into that space as well as a distribution area?
We are already there. When we think about publishing the output of our narrative, our API puts out it’s what’s called “a J-sound file” –it’s Java script object. That allows you to publish the output as an email, as a text, in html, in your application, in a game console, or write to a device like Alexa or Google Home. We have customers in the world of gaming, in the world of weather where you are simply asking Google Home or you are asking Alexa about the weather or the weather for an activity or “what should I wear today to go golf?” Or if you just YouTube “Alexa call of duty”, you will see an example of our software. Because that’s how YouTube works now. You are asking Alexa a call of duty, and it tells you your story.
That’s super interesting! So from a J-sound file you are able to generate any sort of output natively to the specific platform.
That’s right. So we basically data in, runs through our software in the cloud, the data is not retained so there is no privacy issues, J-sound back up, publish it to any platform.
What are you seeing as a macro trend inside the market research space right now?
I think it’s actually… I can answer this more broadly than just the market research space, and I just think it is very simple. People are overwhelmed by the amount of data that is now being created, and being able to try to process that and understand that is becoming a challenge that is surpassing people’s ability to consume it. So we get right back to what people really want is to understand the data. They don’t need the data to view the data. In fact, our vision statement as a company is “We make the world’s data understandable”.
I say… The way I like to take people into this discovery is say: “Just go back in time, go into a cave and look in the wall. There is not a spreadsheet, there is not a chart, there is not a dashboard; there is not a visualization. There is a story there. So someone is trying to tell you a story about what something means.” And I think that’s what people just need. They don’t have fifteen minutes, twenty minutes to be playing around with the data. They just want to know what are the three key drivers that I need to focus on. “What are my KPI?” “Just tell me about my KPIs that are more than plus or minus 3% out of range.” “Are there any anomalies that I should be aware of?”
And people are looking for that to be fed to them because of the amount of data they have to deal with in making business decisions and the constraints on their time to make those accurate and actionable decisions.
This next question I think is probably one of the more important questions that we are going to wind up covering today, and that is, a large portion of our audience are executives inside of the market research world specifically, and you come into this space with a tremendous amount of relevant experience. What is one piece of advice or secret that you leverage to achieve success for shareholders and the company?
So I think what’s vital here is defining the problem that you are trying to solve or the value proposition you are trying to offer. So the definition of what that is, the problem statement and what is that corresponding value proposition you have to address that problem statement. Now the magic is… “Is this a niche issue or is it a mainstream issue?” And I think that will drive a lot of success factors in your business. I guess, for example, if you are talking about the whole role of data analytics, you have market research, you have survey data that you want to get to the bottom of, to know what does that mean.
It means that capabilities like ours probably need to be incorporated into every solution over the next few years. So how are you going to get there? Are you going to work with somebody like us? Are you going to want OAM us, build us into your products so that you can provide that capability for your clients directly? Are you going to try to build it yourself? I think people are going to wrestle with these solutions to do what we do. But as it relates to the space in general, I think that the most fundamental issue is that original definition. We see the problem as this. Our solution will address the problem by doing these things. So I think that, to me, is fundamental because look, you can create the coolest thing in the world and if there isn’t just a big enough problem out there, it’s going to be really interesting, it’s not going to be super relevant. Maybe you will have a little niche product that you are not going to have go mainstreaming and create tremendous amount of value.
What do you see as the three characteristics of an all-star employee? Not just at Automated Insights but more broadly given the depth of your career?
Three things that I would name right away would be passion, agility and accountability.
First, and I touch on it earlier in our discussion, you got to love what you do. If you don’t, it’s a job. If you don’t, you’ll be there for a period of time. But thinking that at the end of the day, you really have to love what it is that you are doing. And by the way, that kind of extend to who you are working with, who you are working for, what is the culture. The most basic building block of that aspect is “do you believe in the product?”, “do you believe in what the company does?”, “do you believe in the mission?” I think people in our company get really excited about the fact that we help people understand their data. And they see data as a huge problem, and they see there is something that is creating value. So I think that people have a passion around that because they think it’s a big challenge, and it creates a tremendous amount of value. So that passion, I think, is just vital. The second one I mentioned was agility. And I spoke on this earlier, if you don’t like change, you don’t like having to zig instead of zag sometimes, if you think everything is going to go perfectly under your 3 to 5 year plan, good luck! That’s not my experience. I am always suspect when somebody tells me: “This is my plan from the beginning. We did it perfectly. And this was our outcome.” And I just smile, and I am polite. Because when I look back on everything, many times we ended up in great places but it certainly wasn’t a smooth road. There were bumps along the way. And then finally, accountability. I think it is accountability to yourself, accountability to your colleagues, accountability to your customers. And I think that if you have people that are accountable, it also affords you great freedom. It is freedom for people who work remotely when they want to work remotely. Or if they have something in the middle of the day with their kids, and they are going to get their deliverable out that evening, it enables that to happen. So you can have a trust-based organization where people are accountable. I think that our company is an example. Many companies do this these days. We have unlimited vacation. The interesting that happens is that if you look across companies in America and you say “in a white collar job, what is the general time of vacation that people are allotted?” It works out to be three weeks. We give unlimited vacation. So what do you think the average person in our company ends up taking?
I am going to go with three weeks.
Bingo! But we do not have a documentation system. We do not have a traditional hierarchy. We do not have the “apply for vacation”. We have accountable people. So you trust them, and they deliver, and you end up with the same result. But it is based on accountability, and it is based on trust. So to me, these are three key things in recruiting: passion, agility, accountability. Now, these are characteristics. Before we even get there, we are big on being very selective in hiring. And I think this is also something people need to consider. When you have a software company, you don’t have a factory, you don’t have a warehouse, you don’t have a distribution network, you have code. You better have the best people you can. If you want to satisfy the customer, you need the best people. So our front of the process, the way we evaluate, the way we test people, it is extensive, it is selective but we think it produces really excellent results.
What is the role of culture inside the organizations that you have managed? And has it evolved over the years?
Absolutely! Culture is not a static thing. It is a living, breathing thing. I think culture is often staffed and influenced heavily by the CEO and senior team. But it is also a function of the people within the company, and it is at the stage of the company. For example, you can say “our culture is to work hard” but if the CEO does not work hard, that may not be part of it. We try to have one where part of our culture, and things that are core to our values are enjoying the journey, enjoying what you do. And we try to set that example. If you do not have fun, and levity and enjoy who you work with, again, life is going to be a bit tough. One of our values is “no jerks in the business”. That doesn’t mean that everybody charmed with each other. But they should respect each other. And you do not want disrespectful people because that is unhealthy in the organization. So I think culture is very important. I think culture though is also a product of the passion that you have for the problem that you are solving. So you can’t just go to a company where you say: “Oh, that’s the coolest company in the world because they have off every Friday and Thursday afternoons they have barbecues. And the sliding door between the first and second floor is part of their fun culture.” Well, that’s interesting but if they do not do something relevant, that probably does not last for too long. It gets you in the door. It does not keep you in the door. So culture is part of the ingredient that, to me, is got to be you got to love what you do, you got to love what your company does, believe in the mission of the company, and if there is a great culture that you feel comfortable within, that you feel it respects who you are, that allows you to have positive and constructive relationships, that you feel comfortable in, that you feel safe in, and hopefully that culture has a lot of diversity and inclusion as part of it so that you get a lot more broad perspectives to help you create better products for customers, I think that can be a great combination. But you cannot isolate it as one variable and say: “I think people are here because of their great culture”. I hope people are also because of their mission of the company as well.
So I have a personal question for you: Are you still cycling?
Absolutely! I commute to work. Well, I have to do one of two things: I Uber to the airport or I bike to and from work during the weekdays. And on the weekends, I am either racing or biking 4 to 5 hours a day.
Okay! That’s awesome! So you kind of answered my question there. One of the challenges for me in cycling has been actually dedicating cycling time just because it tends to take a little bit longer than other sports. How do you manage it when you travel because I know you have an extensive travel schedule?
So when I travel, unless I travel some place for a week, I am not going to typically rent a bike or bring a bike. Mainly during the week, it could three or four days but usually my schedules are not like that. So I am working on the road. So I am doing cross train. I am in the gym, I am out running, I am doing other things. But I never miss a day of working out.
My guest today has been Marc Zionts, CEO of Automated Insights. Mark, thanks very much for being in the Happy Market Research Podcast.
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