My Dad said, “Never let old ways of thinking hold you back.” He would also intone that upon me growing up. He’s a climate change scientist and he’s invented all sorts of products that he’s then commercialized to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas extraction and provide net goods to the world. But if he’d believed that the status quo was the only way of doing stuff, he never would have saved the world from thousands and thousands of tons of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Parry Malm.
Parry is the CEO and co-founder of Phrasee, which empowers brands with the most advanced AI-Powered Copywriting technology. He has been working with brands to optimize marketing results for almost 20 years. Parry is an expert on digital marketing and combines this expertise with a track record in computer science, statistics, and commercializing artificial intelligence.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
In truth, the story of Phrasee started long before that morning. Probably from the time of my birth.
My mother was a language teacher who rose to become president of her local teacher’s union. My father was a physicist-turned-inventor who took an AI product to market way back in the 1990s. So perhaps I was predestined to combine these two seemingly disparate pursuits — language and technology. Who knows?
The first time I thought about combining science and language was during my first semester at university in scenic Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. This was back in the winter of 1997; I enrolled late after a 6-month sojourn to find myself. All I found out about myself during that sojourn, mind you, was that I wanted to go to university. As a result of my delayed enrollment, all the easy courses for a freshman were full. So, I wound up taking calculus, computer science, and linguistics. Who could have predicted that, more than 20 years later, I’d found a company that combined the three distinct topics of my first ever university semester?
The linguistics course I took was very niche; it specifically focused on the etymology of the English language, with a particular focus on Greek and Latin. One assignment was to take a piece of prose, and identify which words were derived from Greek, Latin, or some other language. Of course, this
seemed like a lot of work to me, so I developed a simple computer program that would take text as an input and the output would be a probability estimate of each word being derived from Greek, Latin, or some other language. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to circumvent a whole lot of repetitive work… and I wound up getting an A.
I suppose this means that the idea of applying advanced computing to language is something that has piqued my intellectual curiosity for over 20 years. Fast-forward a few more years spent in brand-side marketing, and Phrasee was born.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
What people expect from technology is mass disruption that changes everything, but those companies only come along once a generation. What we’re doing is changing the way that one small
part of the enterprise function works, but it’s a very effective change which creates new revenue streams and helps differentiate brands in a busy marketplace.
But the phrase ‘disruptive’ has become pejorative as the years have gone on, because every tech company claims to be disruptive. You go on to any tech start up’s website and they say, ‘we’re disrupting this, we’re disrupting that’. I think it’s a little bit grandiose to describe oneself as disruptive. However, what we are doing is engendering the adoption of advanced technology in ways that no one thought possible before.
Whether or not that is disruptive is by-the-by. The fact that it works, and the fact that we’re delivering value to customers around the world is what really matters.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We were less than a year old and we were invited to take part in a big UK-wide pitch contest. We went and there were all sorts of important bigwigs judging. I gave the pitch of my life! We got through to the final and I go on stage, and I’m amped and shaking with the adrenaline pumping. I was fully prepared and ready for my moment. I was thinking this is going to be the moment of Phrasee. Everything in the world is going to turn orange.
And then we finish second…
At first, I was dejected, especially because the guy who finished first seemed like a bit of a jerk and I thought. “Do nice guys really finish last?” But actually, in hindsight, finishing second was the best thing for us, because the prize was a 50k dollars contract with a big corporation to effectively develop a product that was only useful for that one particular big corporation. Instead, we were galvanized with the confidence that we had an awesome concept and we were forced to build products that many customers would want instead of just one. So it just goes to show that when you win or lose a prize, you might celebrate or commiserate at the time, but as the years go on, nobody really cares.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I don’t really have any specific, formalized mentors because I don’t believe that one should mold oneself to be someone else. I am my own person. A beautiful and unique snowflake!
Now I do have some people who have given me advice throughout the years. But it’s always been very pointed advice, and it’s also been free advice. I’ve always taken it for what it’s worth. I believe that everybody’s potential lies within them, not outside of them. I’ve never really followed the beat of anyone’s drum except my own.
From a company perspective, just after Phrasee entered its fifth year, we appointed our first ever Chairman, Steve Davis. He’s ‘been there and got the t-shirt’ when it comes to helping companies reach their potential and scale at speed so I’m super-stoked he’s on board to share his experience as we expand and grow. He’s already given us confidence based on his track record to treble the size of
our sales team in the midst of a global pandemic (not that he’s seen one of those before) and it’s already paying off in terms of our growth rates.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I think it’s important to not look at disruption as a zero-sum thing. It’s not either good or bad. For example, take the likes of social media. It’s given the ability for people like me, who live thousands of miles from their friends and family, to stay in touch and maintain relationships that probably would have been fractured over time.
But it’s also given rise and a platform to splintered hate groups, which no longer seem so splintered in the world surrounding us. So I think what the technology industry really lacks is a common sense of ethical guidelines. It’s been grow, grow, grow, blitz, blitz, blitz at any cost. Revenue is your king. But if you look at the societal impact that many disruptions have, there are some real strong benefits, but there are some net detractors and detriments as well.
I think it oversimplifies things to say disruption is good, or disruption is bad. Nothing in life is purely good, just as nothing is purely bad. What we need to do as technology leaders is focus on minimizing the bad impacts and maximizing the good impacts. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a philosophy shared by many tech leaders who are still blindly following revenue at all costs… which will ultimately likely lead to some sort of governmental regulatory intervention. And that will stifle innovation like only a government can.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each?
1. My Dad said, “Never let old ways of thinking hold you back.” He would also intone that upon me growing up. He’s a climate change scientist and he’s invented all sorts of products that he’s then commercialized to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas extraction and provide net goods to the world. But if he’d believed that the status quo was the only way of doing stuff, he never would have saved the world from thousands and thousands of tons of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.
2. I have an old buddy called Lumpy and he would always say, “The problem ain’t the problem, coping with the problem is the problem”. I think that’s a really important philosophy. It would be so easy to sit there and look at the problems in my business and the world and just wallow in that downward spiral. But instead we need the wisdom to know what problems we can solve and which ones we can’t. And when you look at the problems you can solve, you cope by finding solutions. And when you find the ones you can’t solve, you cope by accepting them and moving on with your life.
3. The third one is from my Mum who was the president of her local teacher’s union. She’s a very, small slight lady, feared by one and all because she was a very vociferous union leader who made sure that the rights of her union members were always upheld. The advice she gave me was simple, succinct and something that I live my life by: “Don’t take sh*t from anyone”.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
So, here’s the problem with the vast majority of B2B marketing: it’s just boring. When was the last time you downloaded a white paper, read through it and said that was a really good use of 20 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back? It’s so dry, it’s so dull. See, people often think that you are marketing to enterprises. But you’re not. You’re marketing to people who work at enterprises. So what we’ve done differently is we’ve attacked our B2B market with a B2C slant. We have a very distinctive tone of voice, we tell dumb jokes, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I believe this combination of humor, humility and an utter lack of hubris has really helped us stand out in the marketplace. I think that’s key.
If you do the same thing as everybody else, you’re just going to be another tech company. But instead, we’re Phrasee… and we’re the ones who people know.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
As the business has grown, things have changed. We’re no longer a 10-person shop in a little pokey office in south London. Now we’re a global team of over 50 and we’ve got multi-millions on the revenue line and investors investing millions and millions of dollars. Shaking things up is quite different now. It wouldn’t be very prudent to take a successful business and shake things up in some sort of destructive way.
What I focus on these days is marginal gains. Mapping out how things work and finding incremental improvements that we can both have at every step of that chain. It’s less exciting than going in guns-a-blazing saying we’re doing something completely new and completely different. It’s more about optimizing business processes and outcomes. A different challenge but it’s an equally exciting challenge because you break down your business into a series of composite parts, work out which is the weakest link, strengthen that one and move onto the rest.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I was taking ‘Introduction to Micro Economics’ at university, and the professor assigned us a book to read that wasn’t a standard textbook. He said, I can tell you all the theory, I can show you all the charts and graphs, explain supply and demand and all that, but what’s really going to make a difference to your lives and to your future careers is understanding the concept of scarcity… and how scarcity is different to rarity. For example, anthrax is rare, but it’s not scarce because no one wants it, therefore you can’t sell anthrax. But diamonds are rare and they are also scarce so that’s why they command such a high price. This is a concept that a lot of people don’t understand at a deep level because you need something to be scarce to effectively sell it. Phrasee is a very scarce product because we’re the only ones in the world who actually do it. The book, which I would recommend to everybody, is by an old chap called Voltaire and it’s called Candide. Add to your reading list and you’ll understand more about scarcity, rarity and why people want things more than any other textbook, any other podcast on the entire planet.
The second book I found when I interned at a place called Adbusters during uni. They are basically an anti-advertising outfit and were the guys who started the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. They were based in my hometown and I got to know the founder, Kalle Lasn, while I spent some time there as an intern. Absolutely fascinating place. I was working on marketing the Blackspot sneaker, which was the world’s most earth friendly shoe. This was in the early 2000’s, and he gave me a book and said, if you want to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, read this book. I read that book and it formed a lot of my thoughts about why it’s so important to me to run a business with the highest of ethical standards, why that actually matters, and why it annoys me that more companies don’t do it. So that book is by a lady called Naomi Klein and it’s called No Logo. In my opinion it should be mandatory reading for every MBA on the planet, because not enough seem to consider how their actions affect the wider world. And they should.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not really one for quotes from famous folks, they never really stick in my brain. I grew up listening to a lot of varied music and there’s one song that I think is the perfect song. It summarizes so many of my thoughts, it narrates so much of my childhood. The chorus goes: ‘I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily, I came in here for the special offer, Guaranteed personality.’ It’s a song called Lost in the Supermarket by The Clash. If you read through all the lyrics it talks about the nihilism of growing up in the suburbs, like I felt. It talks about the futility of just never seeing the outside world, never going to explore, never trying to be a pioneer. I think it’s a real metaphor for my ethos and my life; we have two options: we can be lost in a supermarket, or we can be out in the world. My vote is for the latter.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My belief is that the main scourge on the planet is economic inequality. How well-off kids go to fancy schools, and then they go to fancy colleges, and then they get the fancy jobs. This is a real problem. Were I Prime Minister or President, I would abolish the private school system and make education free and equal for everyone. But, that’s likely a viewpoint that will never be shared by those in power — because they all went to the fancy private schools and colleges and are completely incentivized to perpetuate the inequality of the system.
How can our readers follow you online?
66% of people think I’m good at marketing (based upon a sample of 3). You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn where I share my thoughts.