Know how to solve your customers’ problems or at least know how to find the answers quickly. The truth of the matter is that not every successful tech company is full of subject matter experts. However, if you know how to access resources to alleviate a pain point, you can still be successful. Even if you are a subject matter expert, you need to know how to identify the real problem and fix it creatively.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Paul McNeil.
He is the founder and CEO of MB Usable Security. Dr. McNeil leverages his over 10 years of interdisciplinary research and development experience to create innovative solutions to challenging problems. His research has been funded by the academic, private, and government sectors. Dr. McNeil has consulted on projects in various fields, from biomedical research to education to cybersecurity and marketing. He founded MB Usable Security to leverage artificial intelligence, user-centered design, and emerging technologies to protect customers’ journeys from awareness to retention. Dr. McNeil combines his optimization expertise, formal training, and interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving to create innovative marketing and cybersecurity software solutions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Honestly, it started when I dropped out of homeschool in high school. It was a bonehead teenager thing to do, but I eventually got a GED and went to college, Oakwood University. While I was there, I learned the importance of being exposed to different perspectives. I would spend a lot of my free time absorbing the culture of other departments on campus. I tried to learn how to speak each department’s “language” and connect similar concepts across various disciplines. This led me to get research opportunities and finding solutions that were not always obvious. I continued this throughout my graduate school career (Vanderbilt University and Tennessee State University) and now have a company, MB Usable Security, where I can take a systematically eclectic approach to solve specific marketing and cybersecurity problems creatively.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Sure. This is interesting because it validates how great opportunities come from forming great relationships. I was fortunate enough to receive an extra ticket to a large conference, which thrilled me in and of itself. I took the bus there and met a guy who turned out to be on his way to the same conference as a volunteer. We ended up splitting an Uber to the conference and had a great conversation. My new friend and I would occasionally speak in the halls. Near the end of the conference, I went to say hi to him as usual. He seemed very concerned. It turns out that he was assigned to find a person to present one of the awards at the closing ceremony. Long story short, I ended up getting to talk about my company and present an award my first time at this industry conference. It was an amazing opportunity that came simply from developing a positive relationship.
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?
When I was first starting as an entrepreneur, I thought that I had to get funding from investors to start a tech company. I wasted so much time in attending every free online course about raising funding that I could find. I thought if I could get my business pitch perfect, I would magically receive large chunks of money from investors. The truth is, I could have just started building and selling to my target customers directly. Some people end up having those large windfalls, but there is a higher chance that just getting actual customers will help more in the long run. Making sales is oxygen for any business, particularly a new one.
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?
In the early days, I used to go to conferences within a four-hour radius of my city. I couldn’t afford to attend, so I would dress and hang out in the lobby or the closest coffee shop so I could still network. Each night after the conference, I would walk through the conference rooms and pick up handouts people left behind. I would read those handouts while I slept on a friend’s couch to have something to talk about the next day at the conference coffee shop. I absolutely considered giving up. I would see friends working at major tech companies making “the big bucks.” It was hard not to want to go down that path too. I continued because I was driven by the freedom that accompanies owning your own business. I also was driven to prove to myself that I could make it work.
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?
My doctoral advisor, Dr. Sachin Shetty, is definitely one of those people. He helped me hone my natural interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving and taught me the importance of professional collaboration. I remember when we went to a conference to present research and had had a long day. I was ready to go back to my room to recharge. Instead, Dr. Shetty strongly encouraged me to join him and several other professors at some restaurant. I went begrudgingly. I ended up meeting several new people that evening, one of whom would later influence my research’s success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You have to know what drives your train.” My father used to say this all the time when I was growing up. It is so true. If you do not know what inspires you, what drives you, it is not easy to make the best decisions for your career or your business.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think that the internet has given everyone a larger, less-filtered platform. Today, a 14-year-old Black kid in Idaho has the opportunity to have their story go as viral as any Drake post. This means more stories that might not have been heard are being heard. It also means that people are forced to make decisions about problems that have existed for years and have been ignored. Stories can expose people to new and different perspectives. It is why my company put out an interactive (choose-your-own-adventure) radio dramas skill, The Other America, on Amazon Alexa earlier this year shortly after COVID-19 hit. I wanted to highlight authentic BIPOC authors and their stories in a way that allows listeners to participate in some of the character’s decisions actively. As my career will confirm, I believe knowing and understanding different perspectives is key to solving problems. But perspective minus a willingness to compromise, change, and restitute, leads to conflict.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Most reasons can be summed up into two: customers are diverse, and employees are diverse. If an organization wants to maximize reach, revenue, and potential truly, its executive team needs to understand the people they are looking to serve. Organizational culture starts at the top. A diverse executive team increases the chances of an inclusive work environment throughout an organization.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think many changes are needed to change the status quo of Black men in tech leadership, but that could be its own interview. I will focus on one I do not see mentioned often. To change Black men’s status quo in tech leadership, there needs to be a cultural shift in the community and the country’s mindset. Black men need to be able to fail, learn from those failures, and be encouraged to continue trying, especially in tech. Chris Rock interviewed with a popular magazine a few years ago, where he talked about Black people not having the luxury of failure. Will Smith also discussed the importance of failing often, and failing fast is the key to success. In an industry that focuses on making rapid iterations, failing is really a cheat code for your next opportunity. Black men in tech need to feel like they can fail and still have support to keep trying. Otherwise, the risk of tech leadership might not be as appealing, and things will never change.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
As I said earlier, MB Usable Security focuses on protecting the customer journey from awareness to retention. We use artificial intelligence, user-centered design principles, and emerging technology to create custom software solutions for marketing and cybersecurity. These fields may not seem like they initially fit together, but they go hand-in-hand to protect the customer journey. The specific pain point we address is transforming data into executable actions that affect companies’ bottom lines. This means thinking about all the things that affect the customer journey, internally and externally. On some projects, we use data to optimize how a company generates awareness or educates its potential customer; that is the marketing. On other projects, we focus on making sure that customer data stays secure by writing code that streamlines certain processes or making security recommendations; that is the information security. Still, on other projects, we leverage our internal R&D expertise to create custom software or conduct multicultural user testing to enable us to help multiple clients solve similar marketing and cybersecurity issues. We are a service company that releases products when it makes sense. But our ultimate goal is always to translate our clients’ data into practical actions, execute those actions, and help those clients achieve more profitable customer journeys.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company stands out because of our team members’ eclectic professional backgrounds. We can analyze problems and synthesize solutions that might not be obvious to other teams. Our interdisciplinary approach allows us to become a think tank for our clients. A recent story involves our user experience lead user experience designer, a former master primary school educator. We were working to solve a client problem that no one had been able to solve internally at their organization. Our user experience lead was able to leverage her years of working with Kindergarteners to connect a concept used in education to the marketing tech problem we were trying to solve.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Jamie, I’m always working on exciting new projects; it’s one of the best things about interdisciplinary work. We have been doing a lot of work with voice applications (Alexa and Google Voice). I mentioned interactive (choose-your-own-adventure) radio dramas skill, The Other America, before. This evolved out of our work with brands to create innovative engagements with their customers by building story universes around their products and services. When things like the American Dirt scandal and COVID-19 happened, we wanted to use our expertise to create an escape from the four walls of quarantining. We also wanted to give BIPOC stories and perspectives a platform. The skill has since opened doors where we are now talking with larger organizations’ diversity and human resource departments about incorporating our approach in their diversity training. What does this have to do with our mission to protect the customer journey? Research shows that happy and healthy, including mentally healthy, employees perform better in the workplace. This means better products and services. This means happier customers. This means a better customer journey!
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Two tips: listen to kids and look to optimize your product or service for growth. What do I mean by listening to the kids? This means hire younger interns who can give you a fresh perspective on what you have been doing and actually listen to them. They will also have insights into the latest trends and technologies that you can combine with your expertise. As for optimization, go back to the drawing board to identify new ways to improve your actual product or service. If that is not an option, look to optimize your process for empowering current customers to become advocates. This might be as simple as actually asking each customer for a referral.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Companies need to develop quality relationships, cultivate an internal desire to add actual value, consistently following up, and instilling the belief that everyone is part of the sales team, and following up. Did I mention consistently following up? I cannot stress how important following up is to a successful sales strategy.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I have found that having key relationships with influencers has been the most effective method to find and attract the right customers. These influencers can range from current clients to reporters to social media influencers. Figuring out how to scale word of mouth efforts has been my huge. There are countless stories where working on small projects for key people has led to larger business opportunities.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
As I mentioned earlier, MB Usable Security is focused on protecting the customer journey. There are a few lessons we have learned. The first would be to get customer feedback quickly and often. This can save time and money. The second strategy would be to communicate with your customers, honestly and effectively. Trust is important in any relationship, including your relationship with your customer. Lastly, develop processes for handling customer interactions and streamline them constantly. We have worked with many clients who do not have or do not prioritize practical customer interaction processes. There is always an improvement in customer satisfaction once we help them leverage this strategy.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
The initiative we have is to aim to add more value than our customers expect. Customers always have other options, but they will stay with you if you add disproportionate value and high-quality customer service. Then, these customers will become advocates of your business, bringing you new business for free. Even if they do not, adding real value to people around feels good.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Create cross-functional teams. Great ideas come from diverse viewpoints. I know, I know. I haven’t stressed diverse viewpoints enough during this interview. The truth is sometimes you need the DevOps team member to remember something about scripting for load balancing that might help your data scientist improve an algorithm. At the same time, your user experience person might help rein in your full stack developers when they go too far down a technical rabbit hole.
2. I said it before, and I will repeat it, follow up. It does not matter how amazing your idea is; no one will love your business as much as you do. It is highly likely that they are in love with their own idea. This means you probably will not stay top of mind. Your job is to follow up for that sale, meeting, call, or whatever else. It is also important to create a company culture where everyone understands the importance of following up.
3. Every employee should understand that they are part of the sales team. Sales may not be their primary function or even their passion, but even the intern might have the opportunity to convert new business randomly. They all must have the tools and understanding of your mission to make the most of a potential sales opportunity when it arises.
4. Develop a people-first culture. Tech companies need to understand the needs and goals of both employees and customers. This helps with internal mission alignment and product-market fit. People sustain a business, so it is important to make them the priority.
5. Know how to solve your customers’ problems or at least know how to find the answers quickly. The truth of the matter is that not every successful tech company is full of subject matter experts. However, if you know how to access resources to alleviate a pain point, you can still be successful. Even if you are a subject matter expert, you need to know how to identify the real problem and fix it creatively.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to emphasize contextual understanding. I believe that we all grow and learn over time. I think the current internet culture of punishing someone for past actions, even if they have learned and actively established a pattern of changed behavior, needs to stop. We all make mistakes. However, if we grow, make amends, and actually change our ways, we should not be treated as though we have not. I think our current “cancel” culture prohibits a lot of progress, innovation, and human development that would benefit everyone.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
This is an easy one. I would love to meet Clarence Avant. Netflix released an interesting documentary about him in 2019. I would love to discuss his negotiation strategies. I would also like to talk about how he handled the balancing act of working around some potentially dangerous people while still speaking his mind freely.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!