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Dan Faulkner of Plannuh: “Focus on your happiness”

One recent breakthrough is that we’re now able to consistently show our customers how their plans and investment strategies differ from cohorts of other marketers, with statistical significance. Imagine being able to get a data-driven understanding of how your strategy differs from other companies like you and whether those differences are material or not. This […]

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One recent breakthrough is that we’re now able to consistently show our customers how their plans and investment strategies differ from cohorts of other marketers, with statistical significance. Imagine being able to get a data-driven understanding of how your strategy differs from other companies like you and whether those differences are material or not. This gives you a firm footing from which to make decisions, such as whether you missed something other companies are doing or simply affirming that you’re doing the right things. One example is that we proved one of our customers is significantly over-investing in physical events and under-investing in digital advertising compared to companies like them. Without our insights, marketers have had to work on hunches, gut feelings, and small-data personal experiences to make their decisions. In such a data-driven environment, that’s not going to cut it for much longer.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Faulkner, CTO of Plannuh and co-author of “The Next CMO”.

Dan is the CTO of Plannuh, responsible for delivering the world’s first AI-driven marketing leadership platform. Dan has 25 years of experience in product leadership, strategy, and general management. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics, a Masters Degree in Speech and Language Processing, and a Masters Degree in Marketing. Prior to Plannuh, Dan worked at Nuance Communications for 15 years, where he held leadership roles in Research and Strategy, and where he led various lines of business. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have been fortunate to have a wide variety of roles throughout my career. I started out in AI Research, focusing on speech and language technology. After several years in that space, I moved into Product Management and Product Strategy. Having a deep background in core technology was a huge help in that shift because I was working in a high-tech company that delivered AI-based speech and language technologies to some of the largest companies in the world. From there, I was asked to lead some of our mobile business lines, with a particular focus on mobile solutions. The company I worked for at that time — Nuance Communications — was highly acquisitive, and I was fortunate to participate in and lead multiple acquisition integrations, and to experience the operations of diverse companies. This gave me some hard-won experiences in different approaches to technical and business challenges. What I learned over that period was that at its core, AI could solve many business issues. I became intrigued by the opportunity to apply core AI and data-driven approaches to different industry problems. The challenge that Plannuh addresses — optimizing the management of marketing plans, budgets, and outcomes — was an intriguing idea. It’s a universal problem, it’s complex, and there’s a horizontal demand for it. The opportunity to solve that in a flexible yet reliable way was attractive because I feel it can help hundreds of thousands of marketers around the world be more successful and prove the value they are delivering.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There have been so many. I am sure I have a recency bias, but one of the most interesting things has been the incredibly positive response our customers have had to our product. We were confident it was useful, of course, but what has been fascinating and fulfilling to see is the visceral response our product has created in our users. There’s a huge demand in the domain we address — the area we call operational marketing excellence, which encompasses marketing strategy, planning, budget management, and ROI — for automation and guidance. Every marketer wants to know how they’re doing compared to companies like them, and because we provide a standard data model onto which we can map any marketing plan and budget, we’re able to give them insights — and confidence — they’ve never had before. What’s inspiring about this is that while we’re growing the company, we’re helping marketers to improve their careers and increase their confidence at the same time as delivering for their employers. I find it fascinating, this practical application of technology to help people do better.

Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

One recent breakthrough is that we’re now able to consistently show our customers how their plans and investment strategies differ from cohorts of other marketers, with statistical significance. Imagine being able to get a data-driven understanding of how your strategy differs from other companies like you and whether those differences are material or not. This gives you a firm footing from which to make decisions, such as whether you missed something other companies are doing or simply affirming that you’re doing the right things. One example is that we proved one of our customers is significantly over-investing in physical events and under-investing in digital advertising compared to companies like them. Without our insights, marketers have had to work on hunches, gut feelings, and small-data personal experiences to make their decisions. In such a data-driven environment, that’s not going to cut it for much longer.

How do you think this might change the world?

We can turn marketing from a black-box that lacks quantitative proof into a measurable, scientific process. That can provide huge economic and personal growth for the function of marketing, worldwide.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Really very little — we’re automating and enhancing an expensive, manual, error-prone business process, and helping marketers fo their jobs more successfully. By successful, I mean using their capital more efficiently, being more agile, getting better results, and being able to prove the ROI of their efforts.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

It’s always tempting to imagine one eureka moment with these kinds of innovation, but my experience has been that in the field of AI and data science, you make progress through hard graft and iteration. One of the insights that we have made is that we can synthesize realistic data successfully, meaning we can generate large volumes of realistic plans that allow us to explore the space of possible outcomes fruitfully without needing to see all real-world permutations occur in observed real-world data.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

In data science, more data is always your friend. The primary need for us right now is market awareness of how we can help companies. That will generate more data, which feeds back into the models and provides richer insights for those customers, creating a virtuous loop.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

We literally wrote the book on operational marketing excellence, called The Next CMO. The CEO, CMO, and I co-authored the book and it launched in September. The response to it has been overwhelmingly positive and has reaffirmed our conviction that we’re addressing a major, horizontal, global business need.

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 about that?

There are many, many people to whom I’m grateful. My family, and especially my wife, are the foundation. Within my work life, I’m particularly grateful to a good friend and mentor, Steve Chambers, who was the President of Nuance Communications. Steve believed in me and supported my transition from a pure research role into a product management role over 15 years ago. That’s not a trivial change for anyone to make without someone sponsoring it, and taking a risk on you. Without that change, I don’t believe I would have had the exposure to the diverse range of roles, people, businesses, and technologies that have led me to where I am now.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe in helping people directly at the individual level. One thing I have tried consciously to do over my career is to replicate the best management and mentoring behaviors that I have experienced and pass them on to people I believe in. That means sponsoring opportunities for people to get ahead in their careers sooner than they might have otherwise, spending extra time with them, sharing my experiences, and so on. I try to share my failures openly as well. I think it’s a myth that anyone sails through their career unscathed, and it’s important to let people know they will make mistakes — sometimes costly ones — and that they can overcome them, and indeed come out stronger from them. We all end up with scars.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Broaden your experience. I’ve had responsibility for marketing teams, sales targets, research projects, acquisitions, and full business line P&L’s. Early in your career is the perfect time to try different things. This will help you discover where your passion is. It might not be where you initially thought. Once you’ve found it, you will enjoy your work, thrive, and be much better positioned to advance your career and enjoy it. I recently encourage someone with a pure finance background to join to lead our customer success team. She had some trepidation, but she’s doing a fantastic job, and wherever she ends up in her career 15 years from now, having both finance and customer-facing experience is going to help.
  2. Find people you enjoy working with. Work takes up a lot of your life. It’s frequently stressful. If you’re able to, try to work with people you enjoy spending time with. I’ve done this throughout my career, and it makes such a difference to your happiness. By the way — this doesn’t always mean working with your friends. It means working with people who challenge and inspire you, first and foremost.
  3. Be data-driven. Get a baseline understanding of statistics and enough math to make good, data-driven, objective decisions. Importantly, learn when your data is good enough to make decisions with. You might not always like what data tells you, but it cuts through the clutter and grounds decisions.
  4. Focus on your happiness. I know lots of people who have a good career on paper but are not happy. They may not have enough time with their families or for themselves. There really is no point in making yourself unhappy for money. If you’re fortunate enough to have a job that lets you live well, use that privileged position to manage your whole life — home and work.
  5. Be bold. It is tempting to defer to others, to avoid confrontation, to not speak up in case you’re wrong. I have never regretted being honest and bringing forth my honest thoughts. Sometimes it can lead to great unexpected opportunities — I got the opportunity to create a new line of business once — and it will lead people to respect your honesty, rather than wondering if you’re telling them what you think they want you to say.

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. 🙂

There are so many things that need to be addressed — access to education at all stages of life, a liveable wage for all, and much more progress to be made on civil rights. I live in the US, where all of these are urgent issues. If I could inspire one movement — and this is perhaps wishful thinking that has nothing to do with the technology I work on — it would be to promote empathy. Every time I take a moment to put myself in someone else’s shoes, whether professionally or in my personal life, I discover a better appreciation for their situation, and feel better positioned to make decisions. It drives me nuts to see people who can’t appreciate a challenge until they’ve personally experienced it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Christopher Hitchens has been an intellectual hero of mine for many years. One theme that he emphasized and which resonates very strongly with me is to, “Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.” There really is no substitute for forming your own opinions. It is easy to fall into group-think or to just go along. If you know why you believe what you believe, you may find yourself coming to some unexpected conclusions, and you will find yourself making better decisions, forming better relationships, and enjoying life more. This has been incredibly relevant in my life, from career management, to sticking with innovative ideas in the face of resistance. I just see no downside to it.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

We are fortunate to have the backing of two great VC’s today — Glasswing in Boston, and Gradient (Google’s early-stage fund). My message to VC’s right now would be that the space for AI-driven automation of Enterprise processes represents a huge opportunity. Obviously, I’d strongly recommend looking at operational marketing excellence 🙂 but we are moving beyond just automation, to intelligent automation. Not just workflows, but insights, benchmarks, and recommendations. Expert systems that operate as coaches. That, to me, is a good investment opportunity.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/danielfaulkner/

@Dan_Faulkner on Twitter

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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