Show 103 – Unicorn Interviews – Martina King – Featurespace
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This is the third in our special series of episodes that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto, and their own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications.
The world has changed somewhat since our first interview in the series with Poppy Gustafsson of DarkTrace, which we recorded just before Christmas. And so naturally we’re going to be looking at how companies are adapting to working through the current lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic and their plans for when we are hopefully through the other side.
We were joined online by Martina King, CEO of Featurespace, the World Leader in Fraud and Financial Crime Prevention. Featurespace aren’t quite yet a unicorn, but they’re certainly heading in that direction.
Martina joined us from her home in Suffolk and confessed that she enjoyed not having to travel too much for a little while. She agreed that people have gained a few more hours in the day by not having to travel for work and said that the question around productivity is a fascinating one. She recounted what somebody had said to her about how this current situation is a very interesting social experiment. It’s not the same as a typical ‘oh, can I work from home today?’ because everyone is having to do it, so, it’s going to be fascinating to see what we can take from this social experiment into our regular lives when we can all go back into work.
Martina then went on to give an overview of Featurespace and its history. She explained that the company was founded in 2005 by Professor Bill Fitzgerald, who was the head of signal processing and statistics at Cambridge University and a fellow of Christ College. She added that he was an extraordinary man who she had the privilege of working with for two years. She said that Bill could play almost every musical instrument you can imagine, his rooms in Christ College were exactly what you’d expect of a wire-haired professor; full of white papers everywhere, dust, lots of different types of musical instruments and in his ancient fireplace was an iPad that was playing a digital version of a fire. Martina continued the story by saying that with Bill in his room when she met him was David Excell, one of his PHD students. Bill started Featurespace in 2005 purely to fund PHD students and it didn’t come out of the university and become a company until 2008 when Betfair was looking for a new type of fraud solution. Betfair were told to go and meet with Bill and Dave, who explained to them that was a totally new way of solving the problem. They were asked to enter a request for proposal (RFP) as they’d never done anything like that before. Martina went on to say that you had, these two academics entering this business environment and Betfair appointed them, gave them some money to found the company, to take it out of the university and also to build them the technology.
Martina explained that when she started with Featurespace back in 2012 and when she met Bill, she remembers thinking that she didn’t really understand what exactly he was talking about. But she said that the person who introduced her to Bill, Mike Lynch, was a lifelong friend of Bill’s, so she felt as if she could trust Mike’s judgement. From there Martina said that is was just a case of if she could get her head around the technology, could she explain it to other people? Could she get organisations to trust them with their data? Could they find something extraordinary? Could they prove to themselves that the technology was genuinely something that was revolutionary? And then after that, could they persuade more companies to contract with them? And then could they scale? So, there were many challenges that they needed to go through from the start. When Martina joined at the end of 2012, she said that they were running out of money, explaining that it’s that typical story, which is that there was a whole host of other experiments taking place because at the end of 2012, machine learning was something that was described in an academic environment but it wasn’t a term that we anyone was familiar with in the business world.
Martina said that there are two major contributions that Bill has made to the world of machine learning, one of which was separating signal from noise, which is an expression most people are familiar with these days. The second, which is anomaly detection and one of the consequences of anomaly detection and separating from noise is you have greater accuracy in understanding what it is you’re looking for. She continued that there’s an expression that we’re all very familiar with at the moment because of the tests that we’re doing and the COVID-19 virus, and that is ‘false positives’. So, she explained that we’re taking tests at the moment and there’s the false positive rate which is the number of times that we get something right versus the number of times that we get something wrong. It was those types of expressions and language back in 2012 that Bill and Dave were using, but it was very uncommon in the business environment. Applying that to the fraud world, what was happening in the fraud industry was that people were writing machine learning models based on what known fraud looked like. The consequence of that was that good transactions or good payments would get caught up, for example, a card being regularly declined can be referred to as a false positive, meaning that the cost of declined transactions was actually greater than the fraud loss. So, trying to find a new way of identifying new fraud attacks as well as allowing more transactions to go through was really revolutionary. Martina added that the way in which Bill and Dave did it, was by turning convention on its head. She said that typically would model what bad looks like and apply that to the whole dataset, but what they were suggesting is you model what good looks like and therefore the bad starts to stick out like a sore thumb. Whenever you challenge conventional thinking, it takes a great deal of time to be able to get people to experiment with you. But once they had got through those experiments, Martina explained, they realized that there really was a eureka moment in fraud prevention and fraud detection, and that really was the creation of Featurespace’s, business in anti-fraud.
Martina explained that whilst this was a very different background to what she’s been used to, she has always been inquisitive about new technology and its impact on the world. She is able to come at it, not from an academic’s perspective, but more of a layman’s perspective on how technology can impact society. One of the things that she said she has learnt over the years is there aren’t enough people in technology who really question the impact that these new inventions can have on society. She explained that there’s an awful lot of people out there who will build and say, ‘just because I’ve got it, I’ll launch it’ and then it’s out into the world. She believes that we have a duty to ensure that we, before we launch technology, understand what the impact on society is going to be.
Speaking on Bills passing, Martina said that it was such a cruel irony that he developed a brain tumour, for somebody with such extraordinary intellectual capacity that it was a brain tumour that killed him. She said that when he was in the hospital, he asked to see her and said, ‘Martina, can you help me make my company as commercially successful as I’ve been academically’, Martina explained that this is a very rare mission and a promise that you make to somebody where there’s never any end to it. Bill was one of the top five machine learning experts in the world, so that means, according to Martina, they’ve got to be one of the top five companies in the world. Dave and Bill created the company and Dave and Martina have continued that mission together. She added that there is hardly a moment when she doesn’t have Bill in the back of her mind, wondering how and if they’ve come close yet to being able to achieve the ambition they had for the company.
Martina went on to say that the thing about Dave is that he’s an extraordinary intellect, but he’s also the loveliest man. He’s very selfless and she can remember him saying to her that, ‘Martina, I don’t mind you being the CEO. I just want great things for my company, and I know I can learn a lot from your experience.’ She said that it’s funny, because over the years Dave’s become an accomplished businessman, but she can’t say that she has become an accomplished mathematician.
Martina made the point that now the company is on its way to the billion-dollar valuation milestone, it shows that she and the company have grown up. She said that there is a huge amount of experimenting that takes place but as soon as you start winning serious customers, big banks, for instance, big payment companies, there’s an expectation that you’re going to operate at the same level as them and that the same professionalism is going to pervade your business in the same ways it pervades theirs. She went on to explain that in the early days where you can behave in a naive way, you absolutely cannot do that once you are recognized as being an equal and as a challenger brand to some of the more established companies out there, there comes a point where all of a sudden you go from being the underdog to also now being seen as a successful company. Somebody said to her, ‘well, of course you’re the big guys now’, Martina shared how this took her breath away because having been part of that battle to drag a company into being something that has become relatively successful, you often don’t see it. She further explained that of course, to others, they look at you and see you the success that you’ve achieved, whereas when you’re living in it every day, you just don’t see that, you still see that struggle.
Martina believes that her personal ambition when she became involved with Featurespace was to see if it was possible to take a great British invention and turn it into a great global success. One of the things that’s very admirable about the big US technology companies is that they are brilliant at commercializing their inventions, if there’s one thing we can learn in Britain from those companies is the ability to do that and not to be shy about trying to commercialize your organisation. She explained that when she initially went into Featurespace, there was the classic debate about ‘we’re going to build this technology and they will come’ but Martina expresses that ‘they’ is unknown, who is they? She goes on to explain that the answer to that is there’s no such thing if you don’t let people know about your technology in simple terms and in business terms. Then why will anybody find you? How will they find you? Why would they use your technology? So, she thinks that the US are masters at that. Obviously, they have an enormous home market. There are so many British technology companies that have tried to go to the US and haven’t made it. So, Featurespace decided that they were going to point themselves at that market and do everything they could to succeed. Which is a long journey, but they have made some incredible inroads there, with Dave running the US business.
Martina continued, it comes back to being clear that there are ways in which you can crack a market, just turning up with a flag and dropping it into a piece of land doesn’t necessarily mean to say you’re going to be successful. It’s the why, the how and the relationship you build, and then the people that are able to work and encourage you to come along. She explained that they have been able to make some really senior relationships very early on in the US and those people have been instrumental in bringing the success of Featurespace to that market.
When asked about some of her biggest challenges as a CEO during the current climate surrounding Coronavirus, Martina explained that her first challenge was overcoming suspected COVID first-hand. She added that she first became ill on the 6th of March, with symptoms very similar to a colleague who had been told they did not have the virus, however, as time went on and more information came out about the virus and it’s other, more subtle symptoms, Martina explained that it almost could not have been anything else. She said that understanding the impact that this virus has on the individual enables you to have great empathy with what’s going on more broadly in the world and to feel enormously grateful that it she didn’t require any hospitalization. She added that thankfully, nobody on the Featurespace team has caught it to the extent that they’ve required hospitalization. She believes that that in itself was a real leveller. And when it came to listening to, and heeding the government’s advice, the overarching single aim is to protect the wonderful team that they have built in order to be able to look after the amazing customers that they’ve got. For Martina, there was absolutely no debate, she said that the first thing was a priorities change. The first priority is that they’ve all got to take care of themselves, so, go home and be safe. Martina explained that for her, that was a very simple, clear and easy decision to make. And then you can start your other decisions around the business about how you enact that. So, simple things which require a great deal of common sense, for example, have you got all the equipment you need in order to be able to work a home? No, we haven’t. Right. Okay. Without breaking any of the rules, we’re going to have to try and get chairs and consoles to you. And we have to get the secure network up and running for hundreds of people to be able to access it. So, there were lots of very practical, simple things in the first instance that require a great deal of common sense. She explained that when your teams see that you are taking those decisions to do the best you possibly can for them, then the reward starts coming back because people go the extra mile for their company.
Martina continued that first of all, it’s about trying to ensure that everybody has a working environment that’s commensurate with trying to be effective from home. But on top of that, she explained that they are trying to use this as an opportunity to keep themselves fit. She said that at Featurespace they have an eight o’clock in the morning workout class, which everybody does remotely, it’s obviously not compulsory, but Martina and her family get up at eight o’clock every morning to join in. This meant that for her, even though the beginning of this journey started with the illness, she now doesn’t think she has been as fit as she is now for years. She expressed her gratitude to their HR team for putting on the fitness class. On top of that, they have mental health and wellbeing seminars that they are doing as well as then reaching out to people individually to try and ensure that people are feeling in a good place during this difficult time. They have also been running surveys, some of the results of these surveys have surprised Martina, going back to the idea of it being a social experiment. She explained that there are people who have got young children at home and with a couple who are both working, that’s incredibly difficult, so expecting productivity levels to be high when people have got those sorts of home challenges, doesn’t seem right. In this case, Featurespace are giving advice, which is just close the laptop and play with your kids for a bit, and then just try to do the best you possibly can. Focus on the top things that you can do on a day to day basis. On the other side of it, is the people who live on their own, which is quite tough as well. So, it’s how do we make sure we really look after those individuals to help?
This is where the strength of management becomes important, too. So, Martina explained how they have invested an awful lot in managerial and leadership training over the years. They are making sure the managers are fully trained and equipped, with these training sessions. Dealing with these complex situations by helping their managers be technically fit themselves for being able to motivate their teams of people during this situation. They also have a leadership coach that they, as a leadership team, work with. They are trying to make sure that the leadership coach helps them to make sure that they are doing the right things.
In times of crisis, it’s about values. Martina said that when they started scaling Featurespace, as a leadership team, they went off, sat in a room and thought long and hard about what the values of the company should be. She explained that for those who have worked together as a leadership team for a long time, there’s a shorthand for these values that they know and don’t need to be articulated within the team. But, when you grow rapidly with lots of new people joining, then people do need to know what the values are. So, she said that they went away, thought about them, articulated them and now they’re taught, and they are trying to live by them. At times like this, this is when they get tested in particular. The first value at Featurespace is to tell the truth; tell the truth kindly and if you can’t tell the truth kindly, just tell the truth.
As a company scales, you get lots of different teams of people and layers of management so sometimes messages are a bit like ‘Chinese whispers’, they can get interpreted and misinterpreted. Martina said that she now does an all hands with everybody, because it’s quite tough at the moment and there’s a lot of serious information to convey. However, at the same time, she said, you want to leave everybody feeling confident and secure with a bit of light-heartedness at the end. She told the story of at the very first virtual all hands, she had her daughter play the guitar and Martina sang ‘Close to you’ by The Carpenters. After that, every week they have somebody from the Featurespace team displaying their real talent. So, they talk about all the important things and how the business is faring, they haven’t had to furlough anybody, which Martina points out is a very privileged position they are in at the moment. She explained how the board have said they do want to continue to develop the product and keep going. She added that it’s interesting trying to get the tone right. But, what they do at the end of all hands is to try and lift the spirit by making it about somebody else.
When asked about what her role as an external spokesperson means to her, Martina explained that it is something to comes in layers. The first layer being, at the moment, wanting to hear from the country’s leaders and for them to say what the right thing to do right now is, and then they can go and do what they possibly can. Secondly, it’s about your own sphere of influence, Martina continued. She said that trying to have an uneducated voice enter into a debate on something that is so incredibly important at the moment could be vacuous. She would consider herself to have a very quiet voice during this moment in time externally, because the voice that really matters are the voices of the people who are trying to keep us safe.
Martina said that the main thing she has learnt over the years is that there are some classic traps to look out for, and if you’re running a business, the only audience that really matters is first of all, your customers, secondly, all your team members and then thirdly, all your investors. She said that it’s very easy to offend and it’s particularly easy to offend in a modern media environment. She would strongly advise avoiding any political commentary, unless your company is directly to do with politics. Featurespace is a totally apolitical company and so her advice as a leader of a company is try to make sure that those personal passions are something that are very much on the backburner when you’re representing your business.
Martina explained that she has always been somebody who’s opinionated and she’s a lot more experienced than lots of people, so, when some people start talking, it’s very tempting to say, ‘well, I’ve got the answer to that’. She added that when she was younger, she was a bit of a people pleaser, but she said that what she needed to do was to totally suppress herself. One of the jobs as leader is to be a great teacher and telling is not the best way to teach. Letting people work things out for themselves very often is the best technique and that requires the skill of good questions, but also requires a better skill of listening. Over the years, Martina explained, if there’s one skill-set she has really worked hard to develop, it’s those listening skills. If you listen to your customers, if you listen to your investors, if you listen to the team members, there’s a great chance that you’ll have something much better than if you relied on just talking.
Marina told us that one of her biggest challenges throughout the years has been PR, stating that it can be terrifying. She added that if you’re a spokesperson of your organization, there are so many people that you can disappoint, and you’ve got to be quite brave to put yourself out there in the first place. She went on to explain that she has had lots of experiences in her career where she came up against campaigning journalism, and that can be very terrifying to be on the receiving end of. She was particularly on it when she was at Yahoo! She explained that it was the time when the Internet was being a meeting place for paedophiles and for them to be able to groom children, and when she was involved with that as a PR campaign, as a leader within Yahoo! UK, the journalists who were campaigning felt deeply, passionately about this thing. But for those people who were on the Internet at the time, these issues were brand new. There was a huge amount of naivety, as well as also working through layers of technologies that were built in one country where laws were different to the countries where those technologies were then being promoted. She explained that we still see this today. She said that it has been intellectually challenging, but emotionally incredibly wearing and nobody with the experience really to be able to give you the right advice, and then journalists who would print things that wouldn’t necessarily be what you said and bosses who would then get completely worked up over things that were said in the media. You end up thinking, where’s the greatest challenge? Is it the internal one? Or is it the external one? She added that you see it again and again with senior businesspeople who are quite rightly held to account. In her personal experience, in that environment, was to really do something about it because once you’ve learned that the Internet has enabled things that really it shouldn’t have enabled, you’ve then got to address it.
When Martina worked at Capital Radio, she said that she worked with a brilliant team of people that one gentleman in particular was Richard Eyre, who was the CEO of the company. She explained that he had a poster in his office, which was a poster of sheep, and they were all white and one of them was black and it said: ‘when the world Zigs, Zag’. She added that there was another piece of advice that he gave which was about trying to be clear in communication. Particularly when you write press releases, it’s very tempting to try and stuff everything into a press release and you see people doing it again and again. Martina talked about the analogy that if she threw five balls at you, how many do you think you’ll catch? But if she only threw one, there’s a fair chance you’ll actually catch it. So, when you’re thinking about your communication, what’s the one message that you want to try and convey? Martina went on to explain that it can be a lot more complex, and, when taking about Featurespace, you can’t just say ‘we’re the best at preventing fraud, allowing transactions through in the world’.
She added that even during the current climate, the modus operandi is identical in as much as the criminals. What they’re doing is they are using fear as a motivator, and the difference at the moment is the world is fearful. The criminals have a great playing field at the moment, which is we’re all terrified and worried about our finances. Which makes it very easy for them to prey on that and that natural human instinct of fear. And when we’re scared, we sometimes don’t think as clearly or as logically as we might do normally. Particularly if we are applying for loans, for instance, or we receive emails from somebody saying, ‘oh, look, here I am and I’m here to help you’. So, that vulnerability just needs to be really clearly understood. Martina said that we just need to pause and think before we respond to these criminals. They are operating in, effectively, nine to five environments where you’ve got people who are professionally sitting there campaigning. Martina added that they use exactly the kind of techniques that Featurespace would use in their marketing, they are experts at being able to manipulate us and we’ve got to be on the watch out right now, because the best way to stop them is not to be caught. The second way then is, until particularly large banks would have modern technology, it would be about analysts who’d be sitting writing rules. A customer would phone up and say, this type of attack has occurred, and they’d write a rule. You’d then get all the blocks, lots of transactions, cards, all stopped. She explained that it would be much better if you’ve got a smarter technology that’s sitting there doing all that. So, if the first line of defence, which is the individual’s been had, which we all have been. Then the second line of defence has got to be smart technology against it. At Featurespace, they monitor the patterns of behaviour of individuals, without knowing who they are, and then they’re able to say this individual would normally never behave in this way and they can send a real time alert. A very typical example of where they would be able to spot, in real time, an account acting differently to normal would be being able to watch transactions flow out of bank accounts.
Martina once said, in an interview with the Evening Standard, that “people who attack a recession or invest in a downturn tend to prosper when growth returns”. In this interview she elaborated and explained that we’re living through something that none of us have ever lived through before. She said that she has had a long career and lived through loads of ups and downs, but this one is unique. She believes that if we can concentrate, if we’ve got the luxury of a company that’s continuing to exist and teams of people that are still employed and customers that are willing to pay us, then that’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. She added that it is then their duty to ensure that they double down and that they use their imaginations to build stronger and better technology on the back end of it. The great privilege for Featurespace is that their board and investors have exactly the same point of view. The great thing about most investors is that they do take the long term, if you choose your investors correctly, they are looking at the long term. So therefore, she said that they certainly see this as a period that they need to get through, but they still want to make sure that they’ve backed the right companies for the long-term return on their investment. In this period of time, if there is a slight hiatus in new deals coming through, for instance, Martina said, they have to double down and make sure that their technology comes out stronger and better. There’s an opportunity here, which is while some companies may be distracted just by having to deal with a crisis on a day to day basis, those who can do things that are really smart and clever and really service that customer during this period of time should be able to come out stronger.
When asked what her greatest piece of advice would be to her past self, Martina said, first to hire the right agency. But her main point here was that you can’t do this on your own. You’ve got to learn, a bit like anything in business. She said that if you’re going to be a good general manager, then you’ve got to be able to identify great teams of people and rely on them to excel at the areas that they are experts in. Nobody is born a natural communicator; you have to learn it as a skill set. She added that she has been very lucky in her career and has worked with some terrific people who, she was really able to listen to and then rehearse. There’s lots of great opportunities for you to practice before you go out onto that stage. So, to end, Martina said; ‘make sure you’ve got the best people you can possibly surround yourself with. Learn from them, take their advice and practice.’
After the interview, Brendon and Russell left their final thoughts. Brendon said that having a conversation like this is very interesting in such unprecedented times. He said that it really shows the different pieces of advice and wisdom that people apply to the current environment are actually also the bits of advice and wisdom that are relevant in “normal” times as well. The extreme environment we’re in really highlights the most important things from a communication standpoint. He said that one of the values that Martina spoke about was, tell the truth nicely and if you can’t tell the truth nicely, just tell the truth. Brendon believes that this was a great piece of advice, along with the notion of really focusing on the audiences that mattered for your business. Although sometimes in communications, it’s tempting to get involved in discussions and debates that are maybe slightly outside of your immediate focus, you should steer clear of that and just focus on your team, your customers and your ambassadors.
Tyto are also running a series of live webinars during lockdown with some fantastic guests that are absolutely free to join. The series is called New Horizons and you can find out all the info by following them on Twitter.