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Benn Stancil of Mode: “Little decisions set precedents”

Little decisions set precedents. Be aware that what you do early will have cultural reverberations, for better or for worse. Small precedents matter, partly because people will hold you to them, but more because they serve as the model for how things are done next time. A seemingly small decision about a process to follow […]

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Little decisions set precedents. Be aware that what you do early will have cultural reverberations, for better or for worse. Small precedents matter, partly because people will hold you to them, but more because they serve as the model for how things are done next time. A seemingly small decision about a process to follow or a judgement about what you value can snowball into “the way we do things.” While this can cause problems, it can also help build powerful habits that are critical to a company’s success.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benn Stancil, an accomplished data analyst with deep expertise in collaborative Business Intelligence and Interactive Data Science.

Stancil is Co-founder, President, and Chief Analytics Officer of Mode, an award-winning SaaS company that combines the best elements of Business Intelligence (ABI), Data Science (DS) and Machine Learning (ML) to empower data teams to answer impactful questions and collaborate on analysis across a range of business functions. Under Stancil’s leadership, the Mode platform has evolved to enable data teams to explore, visualize, analyze and share data in a powerful end-to-end workflow. Prior to founding Mode, Stancil served in senior Analytics positions at Microsoft and Yammer, and worked as a researcher for the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Stancil also served as an Undergraduate Research Fellow at Wake Forest University, where he received his B.S. in Mathematics and Economics. He believes in fostering a shared sense of humility and gratitude.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/b06af1f36ab7359dbad89f50781464b6


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

After graduating from Wake Forest with a degree in economics, I took a job doing economic policy research for a think tank in Washington DC. Structurally speaking, my job wasn’t too different from what a data analyst does, quantitatively analyzing a situation and making policy recommendations. After a few years, I ended up leaving that job to try something different, largely because I found the work to be very removed from actually shaping policy — although the work matters within the economic community, you’re several steps removed from decision makers. You can work on something for a few years, but never know if it had an impact on policy. I was looking for a tighter feedback loop and quicker pace, and I was interested in technology, so I ended up getting a job in data analytics at Yammer. That’s where I met Derek and Josh, and that led to the opportunity to found Mode, a technology company that provides a platform for collaborative Business Intelligence and Interactive Data Science.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Yammer was a relatively early adopter of analytics, and they modeled themselves after social media and gaming companies by leaning heavily into A/B testing and using data to inform product decisions. To support this work, we built our own internal toolset to distribute data within Yammer. After the Microsoft acquisition of Yammer in 2012, we started having conversations with other people in Silicon Valley who were working in data analytics at other leading tech companies (e.g. Uber, LinkedIn, Spotify, Pinterest, AirBnB, etc.), and found that they were facing similar challenges, and building their own tools, too. At that moment in time, we were seeing the rise of teams across many companies that were doing similar things to help businesses to make better decisions with data. They were developing a host of new technical tools based on SQL, Python, and R, rather than continuing to use Excel to manage data. It occurred to us that this market was going to continue to grow, and it didn’t make sense for everyone to be building the same thing — and if we created something that data analysts could use across many companies, people would buy it. So, that was the genesis of Mode.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. You feel this more acutely in the early years because everything problem feels existential. At that point, we had a very basic product and not many customers or employees, so there were many single points of failure and various obstacles to overcome. As first-time founders, we had to learn when to be stressed and when not to be. We wanted to build our organization on a foundation that was sound, both ethically and from a business perspective, so we had to learn to avoid certain landmines.

We also learned that the market is a very powerful thing, and it’s hard to sway. In the beginning, it’s easy to see the portion of the market that you know, and assume everyone does — or will soon — think like you. That doesn’t always work. Sometimes, we needed to change our convictions, based on the feedback we were hearing in conversations with customers. We had to find the right balance of staying true to our vision while adjusting it when necessary to meet the realities of the market.

In terms of getting through the tough times, the best piece of advice I was given is to keep some sense of separation between myself and my job. As the co-founder of a startup, that’s not easy because everything feels so personal. It’s hard to know where you end and the company begins. But a startup veteran once told me, one of the privileges Silicon Valley provides is that startups can still just be a job — you can hit the reset button if you need to. Knowing that, even if you don’t have any intent to push it, helps offload some of the stress.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

As many people have said, overnight success doesn’t happen overnight. Often people become aware of a company all at once, but most of those organizations actually existed in the wilderness for some time, grinding away long before we became aware of them.

A big part of what makes a startup successful is finding the right market at the right time. Some of that is beyond your control, but some has to do with continuing to develop what you have to offer, knowing that the market will move in your direction. For example, if you think about Zoom’s success, a big part of it came from the global pandemic, but they wouldn’t be the huge success story that we hold it up to be today if they weren’t in a perfect position to take advantage of the market opportunity when it happened.

In all startups, there are times when things don’t go perfectly — that’s part of the process. But if there are signs that what you are doing is meaningful to the market, and if you respond to those signals, you’ll keep making progress.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Fundraising is a weird process. It sometimes feels like corporate speed-dating, and it often lends itself to some absurd situations. Venture Capitalists are ostensibly interested in what you have to offer, but sometimes they are just trying to understand the market better. And Silicon Valley is really small, so every interaction you have seems to come back around somehow. If you have a bad interaction with someone, inevitably that person will show up again at some inopportune moment — in another pitch, as a potential customer, or even at a dinner among friends. But this cuts both ways — we have customers, employees, and investors who work with Mode because of a small, seemingly trivial interaction they had with us years earlier.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Mode, we’ve been very intentional about building our culture around a defined set of core values. In Mode’s early days, we were very thoughtful about the culture we wanted to build, largely because many of Mode’s early employees knew the kind of company we wanted to create and the common toxic elements we wanted to avoid. We were fortunate that some of Mode’s team members were instrumental in bringing issues like diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront in Silicon Valley. While these things have become more mainstream as of late — movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter have put DEI initiatives at the top of a lot of CEOs’ priority lists — we’ve still got a long way to go, both as an industry and a company. And unless we stay committed to these issues, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get there, especially if the cultural and political moment fades.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

If you choose to spend your career at a well-established company like Microsoft, you don’t join it thinking, “I’m going to see this through.” For most huge enterprise organizations, there is no finish line. Startups, on the other hand, talk about “exits” — IPOs, acquisitions (or sometimes spectacular flameouts). This framing suggests there’s some ending coming. But there may not be — some companies never have dramatic exits. You may be chasing a mirage on the horizon. Moreover, even if there is an exit, we don’t know how far off that horizon is — it could be 6 weeks, it could be 7 years, or it could be even longer. So, my recommendation to anyone working in a technology startup is to settle in and prepare for it as a long-term thing. Don’t try to sprint through it, because you might find yourself just trying to hold on for a very long time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are many people who come to mind, but the people I’m most grateful for are people who took chances on Mode, especially when we were still very small. They took a big leap of faith in coming to work with us, and have shouldered a lot of work and responsibility. They’ve been there when things get tough, doing incredibly hard things, They’ve defined what kind of company we are, by explicitly writing our values and operational principles, and implicitly, by being examples for everyone else.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Mode has an active community consisting of thousands of users.

Here are three steps we’ve taken to help build our base:

1. Build a product that serves the needs of real users. We needed to know our audience well enough to empathize with their needs and understand what they were really looking for. Then, we asked ourselves questions like “How do they interact with software? What would make them happy?”

2. Speak with people, not at them. We made an effort to interact and engage with the market in a genuine way. In the very beginning, our entire marketing effort consisted of me writing blog posts about pop culture (our very first blog post was called A Data-Driven Look at the VMAs). I assumed that if I was interested in these topics, others in my position might be, too. We wrote what we knew and what we wanted to read, rather than trying to write what we thought other people would want to hear.

3. Participate in the community. You can’t fake it — in order to build a community, you need to be a member of that community. It doesn’t work if you try to come in from the outside and say, “I’m here to lead.” In order to have a voice in the community, you have to be part of it.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Our monetization model is pretty straightforward — we sell annual subscriptions to companies who want to use our product. We’re more open with our product than a lot of other enterprise vendors though; we offer a freemium product for individuals who don’t have budgets for purchasing software, and we let people sign up for Mode without any direct hand-holding from sales first. We do this because we don’t sell to IT, but rather to the data analysts who ultimately use our product. We don’t want to create any hurdles for the end-users who want to actually see the product and try it out.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Make sure you are starting your company for the right reason. There’s a certain amount of uncertainty associated with any startup. You can’t always count on a particular outcome, so it’s very important to feel good about what you’re doing, even if it doesn’t work. Ask yourself, if things don’t go well, will you still feel good about the effort you’ve made? Does it motivate you to try to solve the problem you’re solving, even if you don’t solve it as well as you might hope to? If the answer is no, you may be setting yourself up for a challenging situation.

2. Markets matter a ton. You really can’t get around the opinion of the market. If there is demand for what you have to offer, you’ll be successful. If you are constantly having to convince people to use your product to solve a problem they don’t feel they have yet, it’s a much tougher road to success.

3. Listen to your customers. In Silicon Valley, it’s sometimes tempting to think that you know the best way to do everything, based on what the big tech companies are doing, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problems that most businesses are facing. We want to build data products for the 99% — not necessarily for the Facebooks and Googles of the world who are trying to deploy massive machine learning models for billions of customers, but for the vast majority of other businesses that have simpler needs and questions.

4. Little decisions set precedents. Be aware that what you do early will have cultural reverberations, for better or for worse. Small precedents matter, partly because people will hold you to them, but more because they serve as the model for how things are done next time. A seemingly small decision about a process to follow or a judgement about what you value can snowball into “the way we do things.” While this can cause problems, it can also help build powerful habits that are critical to a company’s success.

5. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t try to be a hero and try to sprint through it all at once. Be prepared to go the long haul, and recognize when you need to lean on others to get through it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

The foundations of our country are shifting in the wrong directions. Half of our political elites have committed to an agenda that disenfranchises our democracy, undermines our public health, erodes our climate, and hardens our racial caste system. If you want to bring the most good to the most people, it’s not hard to see the problems we need to solve.

But, people in Silicon Valley have a common response to this: “I don’t like it, but I don’t know what to do.” It’s an odd response from a community that prides itself for its entrepreneurial spirit. When we see a problem that we could get paid to solve, we tell ourselves we can figure out the solution if we just understand the problem. The problem is all the inspiration we need.

If we want to fix the political and social problems facing our country, we should look for the same inspiration. We won’t know what to do until we throw ourselves on the problem. As Yoda might have said, do, or do not. There is no figuring it all out first.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/benn-stancil/, on Twitter at https://www.linkedin.com/in/benn-stancil/ and on the Mode blog.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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