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Show 128 – Unicorn Interviews – Mario Ciabarra – Quantum Metric

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In the 14th episode of our series where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies, that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Tyto and their own Without Borders podcast, Russell Goldsmith and Tyto’s founder Brendon Craigie were joined online from Colorado Springs in the US by Mario Ciabarra, Founder and CEO of Quantum Metric. Quantum Metric raised 200 million dollars in Series B financing in January of this year, they were the first unicorn of 2021 with a valuation exceeding one billion dollars.

Mario began by explaining that Quantum Metric helps businesses become truly digitally customer obsessed and they specialise in a category that they call continuous product design. He said they essentially help businesses listen to customers’ digital touch points at every aspect of their daily life, from mobile banking, buying clothes online to booking vaccine appointments and as we interact with those brands, they want to ensure that customers on the side of those brands are having the most simple, fast, quick digital experiences that they can have.

In terms of companies that Mario has previously founded, he said the similarities between all of them is finding a pain point, going after it and being passionate about that pain point. He said you can’t start a company unless you’re in love with the problem and then the solution. Mario explained that specifically, he loves creating product and this has been exemplified in all four companies he’s founded but what he’s come to find with Quantum is to get to this scale, you can’t just create great product, you actually have to focus, most importantly, on people. He said what he’s learned on that journey and what’s differentiated this business is you’ve got to get the greatest talent and the greatest people on your team, and then everything will come into place.

Continuous Product Design

Mario explained that with continuous product design, truth is, they looked at the best organisations that they were working with, for example Netflix and what made Netflix so successful was they became agile, had continuous delivery and integration. He said they took all these methodologies that made their teams move faster and if you look at where they moved faster, it was on the tech side of their business, but they figured out that they had to be beyond just tech, they had to understand from the business perspective how to listen to customers and learn about customer experiences. Mario explained that what differentiates companies today is, you don’t have to be the smartest organisation, you have to be the fastest organisation with speed of listening and learning about what is enlightening in your customers and what’s frustrating your customers. He said about two years ago he asked their customers to describe Quantum in one word, the two most common words were speed and confidence and that speed incumbents aligning the entire organisation around the customer. He said Quantum Metric introduced continuous product design to the world in March of 2020, but it was an effort of learning from what do the best digital organisations do from an organisational alignment, from a culture perspective, how do they get their teams to do the simplest of things, things that Jeff Bezos says over and over, not many of us fully understand, listen to your customer, obsess around your customer. This is the foundation of continuous product design.

Unique Value Proposition

Mario explained that if we think about marketing analytics, marketers use this, you don’t see engineers in the marketing analytics tools and vice versa, he said the problem is they miss align teams. He said if he called the leaders of another organisation’s teams into one room and said, what is the number one thing that you can do that would have the biggest impact to the business, they would all have a different answer and use different data to prove that they’re right. He said what’s different about Quantum is they align the entire organisation around serving their customer, the customers’ experiences, viewpoints, and perspectives around customer data. Mario said Quantum collect first party, the experience that everyone is having on a website or native app, replay it as if they were standing next to them so they aggregately understand the experience. He said when you think about the individual point solutions of digital analytics, experience analytics, product analytics, user monitoring, marketing analytics etc, they’re valuable, but what’s differentiated about Quantum is they pull all of that together and align the entire organisation.

Common Challenges for Customers

Mario explained that he likes to divide the company into two things that they address, one is finding and fixing problems, the other is how he gets the teams to learn faster about where they delight. He said he gets questions like, where do I even experiment? How do you decide? He was talking to an organisation and they said, “we took a look at what Amazon did and we copied everything”.  He said that sounds good, but you can do better, you can understand that your audience is unique to you and how to use data to make those decisions. Mario said a common friction point is behavioural indicators like raise clicking ‘add to cart’ before it works, and they can aggregate around these behavioural indicators. He said they also found technical indicators like an API slow or failing and they’re looking for that friction point in the world of e-commerce and seeing if it led to a less likely purchase. At Quantum, he said they’re taking a petabyte scale analytics platform, feeding it tens of thousands of what he would call “guesses” or “suspect segments” and using the aggregate analytics, evaluating the tens of thousands of guesses and it then says which one of them leads to a negative outcome. He then highlights that, quantifies it and prioritises it and says, for example, this is a $17 million issue. So, Mario said being able to specify a dollar amount and then tie that to the experience, they can show that an organisation is losing $17 million, and they want to show the exact thing that’s going to make the biggest impact to your business.

The Pandemic

Mario explained that Covid has had a massive impact on all of our lives but in the world of digital, there was a little bit of angst and anxiety because they were all under so much pressure to eight times their business in just a few weeks. However, he said it’s also an exciting time where people in digital are the centre of attention and getting that right, you can have the best products, marketing, pricing, the best distribution, logistics, but if you don’t get the experience with the customer online, everything else doesn’t matter anymore. Mario explained that they were set up for massive growth but in March, April, and May of 2020, he was resisting. However, he said in May they thought, we don’t know what the future holds and two months later it all came into play, they realised it was a massive accelerator for the business. He said everyone was moving online and they needed to scale with that, so they were absolutely set up for growth, they contracted a little bit but now it’s been massive. He said the $200 million Series B, that’s about investing in their forward growth and they cannot get enough feet on the ground, they need more team members and they’re hiring at a scale they have never done before.

Becoming a Unicorn

Mario said becoming a unicorn, especially a unique one in the world of Colorado Springs, seeing tech expand outside of the umbrella of Silicon Valley is amazing however, every entrepreneur in the early stages is vying for their voice to be heard amongst a sea of entrepreneurs. He said there’s this breakaway moment when you hit unicorn status and you realise, this is a real company, people understand it because when you want to create a new category, it’s so much more difficult to get organisations to buy into that vision. He said when you hit that unicorn status it’s basically the world screaming, this has taken off, don’t miss the boat and it allows them to have faster introductions to new opportunities and be able to connect with more executives. However, he said the biggest highlight is getting the calibre of talent that they get at volume, he said it makes everything a little bit easier. However, they have the demands of their board saying, OK, but now you need to double again. Mario said when you get when you get to this massive size, obviously things are a little bit harder but when you get access to better talent at a greater velocity, it makes it offsets that skill challenge that you have as well.

Colorado Springs vs Silicon Valley

Mario said when he was working with people in the US and thinking about investors and so on and so forth, he got asked about if the location affected hiring talent a lot. He said the company from the beginning has completely been distributed with about 20 / 25% of the organisation in Colorado, about 30 to 40 in the UK and the rest of it is distributed in the US. He said he’s actually got a lot of pushback from Silicon Valley and investors saying this isn’t going to work distributed, but of course, the whole world’s now distributed, of course it works. Mario said obviously Quantum has been successful, but they’ve always thought about where is the best talent, they’ve never limited themselves to Colorado Springs, he said wherever you are, there is massive talent out there. He said there isn’t a lot of tech unicorns in Colorado Springs, but a lot of the tech talent actually work remotely because there isn’t hub to aggregate around, they’re there but you’ve just got to go find them. Mario said the best analogy he could give you is you’ve got to shake the trees and when you shake them, these talented engineers fall out, they are working remotely already, they have found some incredible talent in Colorado, but of course, the world is a playground for everybody today because we’ve all realised that remote work actually works. He said the biggest fear people had about remote work is wondering if people are actually working hard. Mario said his secret to this is they have three attributes that they hire on and they ask every single candidate, tell them what, passion, persistence and integrity means to them. He said passionate, if people show up to work and they love what they do, persistence, the only difference between success and failure to him is that people that fail stop trying and integrity. He said if people have passion and persistence, they can make an impact to the business, but he won’t enjoy working with them when they can’t be honest with themselves, their peers or customers. So those three attributes are a growth hack and a secret to how you make a remote culture successful.

The future of Quantum Metric

Mario said they have six company objectives that they’ve shared with their entire organisation, but the number one item is happy people, healthy culture. He explained that it is not about returning shareholder wealth, it’s not about hitting some specific goal, it is not about creating a dragon and making a 10-to-50-billion-dollar company, which they will become. He said it’s about creating a space where people can be happy and having a healthy culture and when they do that, he said they will exceed their shareholder expectations, deliver on their goals and the best way to do it is around people. He said in the future he would like to  see their geographical space expanding, continue to dominate new industries. He added that they’re not going to go after everyone all at once, they’re going to solve it for a specific industry and repeat that process across industries one at a time. Mario said they’re growing their team to service all of them, creating new product, and investing in machine learning and AI to try and automate these processes. He said there’s turning points in your business, one of them was when they invested in AI and built some of the data science into their platform and they want to continue to advance all of that. However, he said he wants to do all of that under the umbrella of having fun, he wants to have a good time, the team to have a great time. He said if you look at their Glassdoor rating, talk to their team members, what you’ll hear over and over again is how happy they are and that is what’s most important to him, creating an environment where you can have a good time. Mario said, for him, the purpose and happiness for life is, let’s have a great time and share that happiness with others, with the team and the customers. He said he even hears it from their customers, how excited they are about the culture that they have at Quantum.

Mario said his brother is an entrepreneur who is on to his sixth or seventh endeavour today and he has learned from watching him and the way he interacted with his team. Mario said they have just announced John Chambers joined their board last week, who is a mentor, advisor, but most importantly, a close personal friend to him now. He said he’s watched the way that John interacts with either his portfolio companies, other executives and his team and what was amazing about John is he led eighty thousand plus people at Cisco and his culture resonated throughout eighty thousand people. He said when you have a small company, you can control the culture, you’re interacting with 50 people but when you get to eighty thousand, he didn’t know all eighty thousand faces, yet his culture was pervasive throughout the organisation. Mario said simply just try to learn from others and watch what they do, look at who can mentor you, who’s done this well before and learn from them.

Building the Company Culture Through the Pandemic

Mario said he’s been very intentional about every meeting that they had during the early days of the pandemic, as he was a little bit nervous about everyone’s feelings and the first thing they start with is their people. He said they introduce the new people on the team, talk about passion, persistence and integrity and ask someone an example of where they’ve seen that in their team the last two weeks. He said he interviews every employee, gets together in groups of teams from across the organisation to make sure he has his ear to the ground. He added that you have to be intentional, you have to find a way to connect with people and you have to highlight those core values over and over. Mario said really being intentional about where he spends his time and their leadership’s time on what’s most important to their business, he would love to double or triple their business this year and the best way to do it is focus on their people.

Differentiating the Company in a Noisy Environment

Mario explained that when you sign up to start a company, be the CEO or an executive leader, what you’re signing up for is solving problems. He said when you go to create a category, you’re basically asking for punishment because if you want to just do what someone else is doing, but a little bit better, it’s easy. However, he said when you come in and say, I want to change your world, it’s really hard. He explained that to do that, you have to position yourself as a thought leader, connect with executive leaders (when we could get together physically) you can have that happen almost by accident, it can happen very casually. However, he said now it’s a little bit more intentional and a lot of work around getting together with thought leaders, with visionaries, with early adopters and communicating. He said creating a category is hard, and one of the things he is most proud about from that context of the business is if you think about vendors and ISV’s, software companies, SAS companies, like Quantum, a lot of executives don’t really buy into it, they sign a cheque and say, leave me alone, let me get my business done. He said what’s really exciting about Quantum because they’re changing culture, executives, senior level executives from Fortune 100 companies are being spokespeople for them, sharing the impact that they’re having to an organisation.  Mario said no one wants to listen to him because he is a salesperson and it’s hard to get that trust foundation with someone that might be selling something, so best way for him to share and communicate, he lets people that have used the product that have changed their organisation share their story. He said getting champions, getting spokespeople, especially senior level executives, speak out on behalf of a vendor, that was transformative for their business.

External Spokesperson

Mario said he remembers when Steve Jobs was stepping down, he thought it’s one guy and ten thousand people with all these developers what is he really doing? And then he saw it hiccup. He said Tim has done a great job, but he was amazed about the impact one leader can have. He said it turns out there’s a lot of sports culture and competition in the world of sales, so he’s been able to interact with coaches, other incredibly successful sports leaders and he came to find out that coaches do that same thing as executives do in their companies, they squeeze talent out of people, somehow coaches, leaders inspire their team to give 120 percent and you get more out of it when you motivate them, when you get that inch of passion, you know it’s in there, but you’ve got to go find it. Mario said that communication role of a leader is finding how a human being can inspire other humans to over deliver, to overachieve and that is the role of a leader, to be that rock of resilience, of inspiration. He explained that when Covid hit, he didn’t want to show his fears, leaders need to have that solid resiliency, that’s what people flock to. Mario said that’s something he’s learned along the way, especially in times of trouble and fear, your true colours shine and for him, it was learning about what does a true leader do for an organisation, that was the biggest impact of the pandemic for him.

Biggest Communications Challenge

Mario said he talks to other C levels, CEOs, founders, and he asks, how do you change and adapt when your organisation is changing underneath you? He said for example, he knew everyone’s name and their wives and husbands, kids, and dogs and now, he doesn’t. He said he missed it and wanted to be able to connect and so he found ways to, he doesn’t have time to connect with every single team member for an hour every week, that’s not possible, so he’s changed his behaviour and meets with eight to ten people in a group and from that he’s got incredible feedback. So, he said adapting as the organisation is changing, that’s what we have to be mindful of, it’s a living thing these companies and so the communication has to change as the company grows as well.

Mario said everything they do in terms of communication is about practice, getting into that zone and to that comfort level. He said repetition and practice, is how you deliver on that oration, if he has to talk about a topic, he’s not confident about he will probably get really nervous pretty quickly but if you want to talk to him about people, about his organisation, about his journey, it’s natural. Mario said speaking about things that you’re confident about can help you project your confidence.

Relaxation Away From Work

Mario said he loves carpentry, and he built his own house over 18 months, designing, architecting, and doing some of the carpentry.  He said in life we have to have our passions and he is extremely passionate about Quantum and the work that he does there, but he has to have other passions. Mario has three children who are a passion of his and the best way to lead your family and have this relationship with your children from his perspective, is to find a common passion that you could share with them. His are skiing together, playing piano, Minecraft, and rock climbing. Mario said he talks about passion, persistence, and integrity, which is important to their culture, finding something that you love and chasing that dream, life is about being passionate about anything and then following that dream.

Mario said that if he had to go back in time and speak to his old self, the guidance he would you give himself about communications is the vision of the company is so important and getting everyone behind that shared goal, that shared mission. He said he wishes he understood it earlier, have everyone understanding where the company is going, why they we doing this, and it can’t be just for money.