Tech Trek East put a unique spin on education. Over the course of three days, we met with 20 companies at offices scattered across New York City, where we asked numerous questions of top executives regarding topics such as their company, the future of technology, or the future of technology at their company. In this way, we were able to hear about developments in technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship straight from the source. I left the trip with a notebook filled with key points and themes from every visit. Therefore, I am going to use this final blog to publish a sort of Sparknotes of my trip notes for myself, the rest of the Tech Trek East squad, and the public to highlight themes that transcended across company lines.
One of the most important factors to any great tech company is culture. Culture defines a company, and it often is the difference-maker for success. Culture begins with the company leaders, who must work to foster community values and precedent, whether the company has five team members or 5,000. As stated by Charles Birnbaum of Bessemer, Frances Schweip of Two Sigma, and many other prominent venture capitalists, it is important to invest in teams before ideas. People are the drivers behind great ideas, great cultures, and great companies. The companies we saw where culture is a main focus were Lovepop, Acquia, Ceros, and TED. For Lovepop, part of their business model revolves around culture, and for CEO and co-founder Wombi Rose, it is the most important aspect of the business. Acquia has a totally different culture that is centered around in-house competition, which drives teams to produce their best work and exceed goals. Like Lovepop, Ceros has placed an extreme emphasis on culture, with five phrases that define its culture, such as “we wear our chicken suits.” Finally, TED’s culture was noticeably upbeat and friendly, most likely stemming from the company’s mission as a non-profit that works to educate rather than meet profit goals. Culture is fundamental to modern tech companies and often success in the tech world.
Another common theme across companies was leadership change throughout expansion. At Acquia, the panelists noted that leadership changes were made, such as bringing in Michael Sullivan for the CEO position, to help the company continue to move forward and innovate into its next stage of growth. Similarly, Uber recently named Dara Khosrowshahi as CEO, replacing co-founder Travis Kalanick. Pat Twomey (Director of Data Science/Product Strategy at Uber) said that this change altered Uber’s focus, as Dara moved it from Kalanick’s emphasis on visionary product innovation to improving safety and company culture. Technology companies grow rapidly, and, as Uber and Acquia are proving, continuous growth is sometimes best guided by different leaders.
Fear, Discomfort, and Chaos
During our first office visit on the New York City trip, we met with Carlos Dominguez, the President of Sprinklr. Carlos is a very inspiring man, who has innovatively worked his way from a college dropout to an industry leader. During our conversation with Carlos, he told us to be “fearless but constantly scared.” This quote really registered with me because it reminded me to approach challenges with a balance of confidence and reservation. Being scared is a natural human tendency that shows you value a situation and want to do your best, but it is still important to approach this situation with self-confidence. On our last visit of Tech Trek East, we heard from Mary-Louise Kidaha from Goldman Sachs. Similarly, she told us to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” and to “pick things that are chaotic.” Mary-Louise challenged us to get outside of our comfort zones and learn from novel experiences. During our first visit of Day 3, MetLife’s CMO Hugh Dineen said, “if you are NOT uncomfortable, you are not growing.” All three of these business leaders across a variety of industries encouraged scary, uncomfortable, and chaotic experiences. These challenging experiences only lead to growth, so we should embrace them beginning today!
Data, Data, Data
On Tech Trek East, I learned that the hype about big data and data analytics is real! Obvious data-focused companies, such as Sprinklr, Ceros, Facebook, ClassPass, Spotify, and Google mentioned data, but even Freshly’s CEO and Co-Founder Michael Wystrach stated that his meal preparation and delivery service was 60% data focused and 40% food focused. When I heard this, I knew that data was the real deal. However, with big data comes other things. For one, privacy is a concern. Interestingly, Carlos Dominguez, in agreement with Professor Jere Doyle, stated that the benefits of sharing data with companies outweighs the costs of doing so. Both said that they feel they get more positives than negatives out of sharing personal data with enterprises. However, the media and countless Americans are concerned about data privacy, and they desire limitations on what companies can know about us. Similar to privacy, data security is another issue. The tech world has recently been rocked by data security scandals, so data security is just as relevant as all this talk of data. One final note on data regards interpretation and analysis. Data only matters when it is analyzed and used to inform decisions. The key in this last statement is the word “inform.” At Freshly, Michael and CTO Alberto Lopez discussed that it is important to be willing to change your mind based on new data. At Two Sigma, Frances shared that her investment strategy involves a mix of gut reaction and hard data. She told us a story of when one of her potential investments “cooked the books,” altering their numbers to make it look like they were doing better than they actually were. Trusting the data, Frances would have made the investment. But, using her gut reaction, she chose not to invest, later learning of the fraudulent data. Frances advised us to do the same when using data to make a decision, and she went even further to encourage us to investigate and verify the data of others for ourselves. With this trend toward big data, it is important to consider privacy, security, and trust.
Second to data, a flywheel approach to marketing and sales strategy was one of the biggest buzz words from Tech Trek East. Among top tech companies, the flywheel approach is gaining momentum over the more traditional funnel strategy. In the flywheel, marketing and sales mix together, through continuous, rotating campaigns. As Hugh of MetLife mentioned, consumers are king in today’s world. The flywheel places customers at the center, rather than at the end of the funnel. In this system, the customer drives marketing efforts through engagements. In addition, the flywheel accounts for multiple customer purchases over time, compared to the funnel’s goal of leading to an individual transaction. Similarly, no one campaign leads the customer to a purchase, but rather various marketing efforts combine to lead to a sale. At Wayfair, the speakers touched on their flywheel strategy for marketing and sales. They emphasized the importance of continuous campaigns and engagements with consumers for conversions. Interestingly, Wayfair’s policy is to give credit to the first engagement for a sales conversion, even though it is the continuous cycle of the flywheel that brings in customers. Freshly also mentioned that they used the flywheel to drive leads and conversions. This new marketing strategy will only continue to grow, as companies work to use contemporary avenues, such as social media and streaming services, to reach consumers and drive sales.
Product Manager was a title that I had never heard of at the beginning of Tech Trek East, but it was a job that I realized might be for me by the end of the trip. Product Management is a field that sits between the engineering, design, and business (sales and marketing) teams to turn an idea into a product. Handy’s Chief Product Officer Rebecca Greene, as well as Product Managers David Wang and Manuj Goyal, spoke a lot about this role and its importance in a technology company. They mentioned that product managers need no technical expertise, but they explained that a background in data (and SQL/Sequel), design (mentioned several times on the trip!), computer science, and leadership goes a long way. For business students looking for a non-traditional profession at a technology company, product management may be the perfect fit!
Tech Hubs — NYC and beyond
Another popular topic of discussion on Tech Trek was NYC tech culture and emerging tech hotspots around the U.S. At the NYC Tech Council panel as well as the fintech panel, the different speakers touched on the advantage of the size of NYC’s tech scene. Being smaller and still somewhat on the rise, the NYC tech network is highly connected, meaning that often someone you know can connect you with someone you are looking to meet in tech in the city. In addition, they spoke about the benefit of being a big fish in a small pond, compared to San Francisco, where almost everyone is involved in technology and has the next best product idea. In addition, various executives at companies across our visit, such as Bread COO Daniel Simon, Bessemer Partner Charles Birnbaum, and ClassPass Group Product Manager Ankit Lai, mentioned new, emerging tech scenes in states like Ohio, Montana, and Minnesota, that offer similar advantages for entrepreneurs.
A final take away from Tech Trek East was the idea of constantly working to better oneself. Charles from Bessemer advised us to work to educate ourselves continuously and to admit when we do not know something. Pat Twomey of Uber told us his personal motto — “Always Be Learning.” He uses this idea to evaluate his professional development and encourage constant self-improvement. As technology continues to change with innovation, it is important to work to stay on top of trends with the necessary technical understanding. The final piece of personal development is to realize the importance of your network and maintaining relationships. My most significant take away from the trip was the breadth and power of the Boston College network. Not only are BC alums impressive professionally, but they maintain the fundamental Jesuit motto to be “men and women for others” by being willing to give back to those who follow them. Now, it is up to us to continue to strengthen this network and always remember to look back to help those who follow us.
Trends in tech are constantly changing, and, as a college student, it is sometimes hard to keep track of it all. With Tech Trek East, I was given the opportunity to hear about developments and trends in technology straight from the movers themselves. I have done my best to summarize these trends here, but the next big thing will be here before we know it.