This episode of the Happy Market Research Podcast was recorded in June 2020.
In this episode, we’ll hear from Aaron Burcell, CEO of methinks on his opinions and experiences about diversity in consumer insights.
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Jamin Brazil: Hi, I’m Jamin. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest, today, is Aaron Burcell, CEO of Methinks. Founded in 2015, methinks was founded in Korea by developers to help them add the customer point of view into their product decisions. Now, methinks is an online research platform allowing product developers, researchers, product managers, and companies the ability to interview and gather valuable insights for real consumers on demand. Prior to joining methinks, Aaron has been an executive serving as CMO to CEO, as well as lots of other roles, from many companies, including WebTV, one of my favorite acquisitions of Microsoft. And now he’s – Sorry. He’s also been one of the OGs in podcasting. Aaron, thanks for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Aaron Burcell: Thank you. It’s great to chat.
Jamin Brazil: Let’s start with some context of who you are. Tell us a little bit about your parents, and how they informed who you are today.
Aaron Burcell: Wow. That’s a great question. I love how you start this, by the way. It brings people in instantly.
Jamin Brazil: Thank you.
Aaron Burcell: I was – I’m almost full-blood Native American. My mother and father actually met at a Native American rights demonstration. It was actually an occupation. And in that process, they fell very much in love. My father was a real rabble rouser. He’s full-blooded Native American; he’s half Cheyenne and half Oglala Sioux. And I was living in my mom’s stomach during the siege of Wounded Knee in the Dakotas, and ended up getting out of there, with my mom, and essentially smuggled off reservation, and driven all the way down to Gallup, New Mexico, to be born at the Native American hospital there in Gallup. And my parents had a kind of rough go of it. My father was a Vietnam vet. He had a lot of addiction to pain killers and alcoholism, and struggled personally. And my mother left him when I was very young – I want to say three years old. We were living out in Calumet, Mexico. I’m sorry, Calumet, Oklahoma. She basically stole me, fled the state, and took me to California, where I was living for a long time, on couches, and sometimes sleeping in cars, with distant relatives, before she finally got her legs underneath her, and started a long career in social work. She worked initially in California, with what was then the poorly named California Crippled Children Services. She worked in welfare and WIC, and was, really, dedicated to helping people of – who were historically disenfranchised populations. She spent much of her career doing that. She was one of the first people in California to work with AIDS patients and HIV patients, and she set a great example for me in a lot of different ways. But eventually, she recovered and got married again. I have a brother and sister. And they are also service-oriented people. They work in fire and in health care. You can tell they were directly influenced. I was not like the rest of my family. I had big dreams of kicking a dent in the universe, and so I sought out the influence of people who had different lives and different economic backgrounds, and learned how I might change the path of our family. And for me, at that time, Silicon Valley was it. And, to a certain degree, it still is a place, sort of last corner of the Wild Wild West. And it’s – I know a lot of that’s gone, but it certainly was that when I walked on campus at Stanford in 1991.
Jamin Brazil: I think – It’s interesting, the perspective that is. You’re right: The world has gotten a lot smaller, I guess, is a way of thinking about it. But the amount of innovation that’s happening out of the Valley – and other areas, too, actually. It seems like that’s increasing. You just think about the number of technology companies that are around consumer insights, for example. I think that number has probably tripled in the last 24 months. So, it’s – brings a really interesting arc right now, from the innovation perspective. And I – In our space, consumer insights, how are you framing that? Because methinks, a relatively young company that has had a tremendously successful track record, and obviously growing really well. Is there going to be a move towards consolidation inside of this space, or do you think we’re going to see continued fracturing with all these different tools?
Aaron Burcell: If you were to ask me three months ago, I would have said that there’s going to be massive consolidation, there’s going to be significant investment of late-stage capital into our space. I think everything’s sort of changed in the last three months. I’m not feeling the same fear or uncertainty and doubt from venture capitalists as I felt in, “08 and, “01, but it’s – There’s a sort of “Wait and see” attitude about significant up-rounds and consolidation right now. And because it’s just too topsy turvy, and impossible to put a finger on valuations. And valuations is – It’s the heart of every decision to invest, every MA conversation, is “What does this business mean in the existing marketplace, and as a part of another business?” And those determinations, which I’ve been a part of for the better part of 20 years, first from the investor side and secondarily as an entrepreneur raising capital. Those are really tenuous conversations that are driven primarily by a scent of momentum and confidence in ongoing spend, and ongoing economic certainty. We had 1 great years – a good run in the economy. But now we’re in a different time period where, I think, everybody who’s going through value determination exercises just doesn’t know, just doesn’t know what to do.
Jamin Brazil: I think, with the backdrop right now – This is not, obviously, a show on economics, but I’d love to get your take on it. I always personalize our GDP, as a nation. And I think about my household, and how much we’re spending, and where we’re spending it. And that usually helps inform other people, but inform, “OK, what are the bets that I’m going to place?” And we’re spending a lot less money, as a household – a lot less money. I wouldn’t say it was frivolous before, but we just didn’t have that same level of care that we do right now, relative to our personal budgets. And we don’t have the opportunities to do things, either, right? No travel, no restaurants, etc. So, if you fast-forward six months, the current NASDAQ and DOW, etc., those markets, they’ve pretty much been – I’m not going to say stable, but from the overall perspective, they’re performing really, really well right now. But do you feel like this is – Actually, the question, instead of being binary: How do you interpret that?
Aaron Burcell: The S&P fully recovered yesterday from the impact. I think there’s a lot of different things happening in this marketplace, versus past recessions and past downturns in industries that were – that sort of pulled the whole economy down, like the mortgage and loan crisis, tech in, “08 and, “01. I think the fundamental difference is there wasn’t really a crisis of confidence going into this. There was an artificial closure, and that artificial closure effectively put everything on pause. And, I think, over the last 90 days, the wide fluctuations you saw in the market was the effect of two things algorithms doing their work, saying, “Hey, these parts of the economy are bringing in no revenues; they’re going to have poor performance. So, we’re going to dump these airline stocks. We’re going to dump petrol. We’re going to dump this stuff.” And it resulted in some really weird and odd things, where petrol was virtually free for a day. There’s been some widespread dumping and buying of stocks. And that was all either fundamentals being interpreted by algorithms, or doing what’s known as pricing in. And I think there’s been a tremendous amount of pricing in, of setting aside algorithms and setting aside people just dumping industries that are vastly impacted by COVID-19 and restrictions on travel. I think there’s a lot of pricing in of two things. One is some hedging about who the next president’s going to be. And I’d argue, in more recent days, that there’s been a fight to quality stocks that represent that hedge. And then, I also think that there’s something going on that is pricing in massive change in the fall, because you’re not seeing traditional stocks that are favored by the GOP, like defense spending, defense contractors. You’re not seeing those prices really move. You’re seeing a continued interest and optimism about tech. And, I think, underneath the optimism and the numbers that are being put out in the earnings report, that’s a shift. That’s either a hedge or pricing in of a new president. And that’s not me speaking optimistically. Setting aside whatever your political beliefs are, this is what happens in an election year. There are people who are trying to either hedge or price in a new presidency. And trying to figure out how to make money in the next two years, based on a new presidency. And that’s something that happens. But I think that’s kind of what’s going on right now, when you see the S&P fully recovered, you’re seeing the DOW not too far below where it was when we went into shelter-in-place. And, of course, tech stocks are doing great.
Jamin Brazil: Yeah, tech stocks are just dominant. And it’s funny, because right before the whole thing happened, I wound up dumping my Amazon position, because I thought, “You know what? It’s just such a stable company at this point.” Oops. Anyway. Yeah, that happened. So, obviously, shelter-in-place has been a big part of our narrative in the last free months. My son just graduated from high school, and we literally did a drive-in. It was like a drive-in movie, where you turn your radio to the channel, and that was the ceremony. Very unusual sorts of ways that we, as a globe – at a global level, as humans – have been reacting to this. But then, of course, we had the issues with Mr. Floyd. And that, of course, impacted our nation, and continues to impact our nation. I’m really interested in your perspective, as a Native American. What role does research play in helping companies build empathy to all people groups?
Aaron Burcell: Look. A lot of people don’t know this, but almost every African American in the U. S., certainly those who have lineage in slavery, almost all of them have Native American blood. And that was a function of slavery, early slavery. The first slaves in America were Native Americans. And the slavery of Native Americans continued well into the 1860s. Native Americans made for poor slaves, because they were able to run away, and hide, and travel, and they knew the lands. So, African Americans, of course, were different, because they were captured and brought to a new country. But Native American slavery was still a huge part of the population of slaves. And so, a ton of Native Americans know their history, and they know that they’re related to African Americans, and that most African Americans have Native blood. And same thing with Latinos, by the way. You look at the genetics of Native Americans from Arizona versus Hermosillo, and there’s no difference. The tribes were – They just had different names on different sides of the borders. And the Mestizo culture ensures that basically everyone from Mexico’s at least some Native American. So, this identity thing is big for Native Americans, because we identify with those two populations in a fundamental way, down at the family level. And it’s hard right now. It’s hard for Native Americans, because they’re seeing violence in urban centers, where African Americans are getting killed, and they relate to it because they see the same sort of reckless disregard for human rights on reservations. And so they identify with it, even though the setting is different. And they identify with the systemic sense of inequality and injustice. This administration, and others, have perpetually disregarded the plight of Native American women who suffer the highest instances of domestic abuse and rape. And those Native American women are totally – They’re not protected, by federal laws or even state laws. And investigation and jurisdiction issues constantly inhibit justice for Native American women. And so there’s this continuity of injustice and inequality in American history, that Native Americans are very much a part of, at the familial level, at the genetic level, at the blood-type level, all the way to the common experiences they have in interaction with law enforcement and interaction with state and federal authorities. I think you might know, right now, about the standoff going on in the Dakotas, where, literally, governors are trying to tell Native Americans to stop roadblocks, and the Native Americans are saying, “You know, send us some help. We need to quarantine our people. We have no hospitals.” Some of these reservations have five, six, nine hospital beds that are servicing huge areas. And the people that live in those huge areas, while they’re isolated, they live in small village with, in many instances, third-world conditions. So they – Transmittable diseases are a pretty scary notion if everyone’s getting their water from the same well. And everyone’s sharing food and tools. And it’s a much different proposition for those folks. I think there’s a great sense of identification with what’s going on. With me, personally, I’ve been – Since 2017, I’ve shifted the focus of my mentorship with young entrepreneurs to focus almost entirely with start-up founders from historically disenfranchised backgrounds. So, the last two weeks, in particular, I’ve been having conversations with African American founders, and they actually gave me permission to talk about this. And I’m going to write a blog about this – a blog post. There is a sense of bewilderment and a desire to talk about what’s going on that previously was – I don’t want to say verboten, but there was a social stigma about talking about race as a business leader, as a company leader, as an innovator and entrepreneur. There was a hesitancy to talk about it. And there are a lot of reasons why. And I’m totally empathetic to them. But what I’m encouraged by is the desire to talk now, and the desire to communicate their feelings, their perceptions, their frustrations, and talk about systemic change, not just in the law and the judicial system – which, I think, needs as much reform as policing. But more in the context of why isn’t opportunity there for African American entrepreneurs? Why are start-up – Why are VCs, VC-funded start-ups, why are they suddenly 7.1% white? Why is only 1% of VC-funded entrepreneurs African American? It’s only slightly better for women entrepreneurs, and even worse for Latinos. I don’t want to tell you how bad it is for Native Americans, because there isn’t – It’s just too many zeros behind the decimal. But the reality is, people are starting to wake up to these injustices in the broader American community. But for African Americans, there’s a new level of frustration and pain. And they’re talking about it. One of the things I found interesting was, in talking with these young mentors – I’ll bring up Daricus Releford. He’s a friend of mine. He’s the founder of StoreCash – great company. We have a weekly one-on-one. And he started talking about how hard it was to watch all of it, and how painful it is, and that previously, there was, for him, a sense of social stigma around talking about instances of racism – either a viral video, or something caught on video that was re-broadcast 100 times, like the Floyd incident. It’s not an incident; the Floyd murder. And people aren’t aware of this, but African Americans have hesitated to talk about it for a lot of important reasons. First and foremost, there’s the need and desire to remain composed. There’s a different level of composure that is required of African Americans in social settings. Not just in business, but, I think, just in public. They always have to – There’s a sense and a feeling that they have to remain composed and steadfast. And it’s about maintaining an image of the stable leader, and the image of composure. Because there are negative stereotypes in the other direction. And that is a difficult thing for them to wrestle with. I think it’s a difficult thing for any minority to wrestle with. Last night, I watched a viral video of a young Native American woman in a Phoenix-area gas station who, when pushed by a white woman and told to “Go back to Mexico,” she lashed out, and she slapped this woman. By midnight, there were six million views, and it was already a trending topic on Twitter. And I started to think about my conversation with Daricus and say, “What I want to do right now is just nothing, and say nothing, and hope this goes away. Because you don’t want the negative stereotype of Native Americans to be somebody who lashes out and is violent in response to racism.” But that’s a dangerous and unhealthy mental process. And it’s something that we all have to be cognizant of. Because right now, I feel like we all have to appreciate the long history of composed African American leaders, but we also have to listen right now, as they start to articulate the pain, the injustice, all the things that they’re saying right now. It’s not really for other minority groups to remain quiet either, at this point in time. I think it’s important that anyone who’s been oppressed by the police and anybody who has been struck or attacked by police in these protests, which have just become increasingly more aggressive, it’s time for them to talk; it’s time for them to share their experiences. But, I think, right now, everyone, especially people who come from privileged backgrounds, they need to listen. I think one of the frustrating things, as I watch what’s happening, and as I talk to my friends who are African American, who confide in me, there is a real sense of frustration at how even protests are being appropriated. How Instagram influencers are racing down to protests, getting their pictures taken with protesters and bailing on the protests. That – I saw a bunch of that captured this week, and it was really sort of disturbing. I don’t want to discourage allies of people who have been discriminated against or impacted or oppressed. I feel like it’s really, really sad to see white people appropriating protests. And that’s something that just, for me, it makes me say, “You know, maybe we should all just have – take a moment, reflect, not post, not put up our black square on social media, and not do those things that sort of are hijacking of the moment, and just relax and listen; try to internalize some of the frustration.”
Jamin Brazil: It think this point that you’re raising is probably the most – Not probably, is the most important point that we’ve had on the podcast in 350 episodes. For me, it’s a been a very interesting two months leading up to this. I’m finishing an episode. And by the time this episode airs, the others will already have been published. But I’m finishing a series on the importance and role of diversity among the research team, in order to flesh out a correct viewpoint on the people groups. And as I went through – It was about ten interviews. I personally grew a lot, just – I thought I respected it and understood it as a white man. But, as it turns out, I realize that I really didn’t have a thorough understanding, by any stretch of the imagination. And my ideas were really more drawn in crayon. And so, I think there’s a level of humility that we need to have when we’re thinking about minority people groups. And it doesn’t just have to be limited, of course, to just race and gender, but, of course, everything else: sexual orientation, disabilities, and so on. So, people have such a – We are such a diverse society, and it’s time for us, I think, to take up that flag that you’re talking about, which is, we just need to listen and then subsequently build empathy. And one of the things that I think is happening at the corporate level is, I’m seeing companies put on hold projects that were commissioned even a week ago because they’re just not socially relevant anymore. I do feel like the role of research inside of companies is becoming more important as the surrogate or the conduit of the consumer’s point of view, helping educate the executives. And not just executives, but wherever business decisions are being-or product decisions are being made. Is that something that you’re seeing inside of methinks?
Aaron Burcell: That’s a great question. I can’t really talk that much about our customers. And to provide some context, we work with a lot of large enterprise multinationals. We started off as a UX company that was building some UX testing capabilities as part of a games company. Our founders have this long history in building games. And anyway, our origins started off in games and figuring out how to do beta tests in games, and do video interviews via the mobile phone. And that was back in-even before 2015 before they got their initial funding. That was their initial aim and effort. And I think what we’ve seen of our customers in the more recent years, big companies, giants in consumer electronics, in auto and banking, and, of course, games and media, they’re always very concerned about specific audiences, and they either have a cultivated opinion about who their audience and their customer is that’s derivative of quant. So much of qual work that we do is derivative of the why questions resulting from quant. And so they’re looking at their data and they’re like, wow, women age 18 to 38 really love this product, let’s go find out why. And so they ask us, and they come to us with these projects. And we’ve built a product that allows them to invite their own customers in so they can have a control group, and it’s all very clever. But I think there’s still a sense of product development in marketing being driven by tribalism, and less of a factor, less of a sort of conscious effort to reach mainstream audiences with their first generation of product, so. The idea of let’s find a beachhead with a specific type of user that’s interesting and relevant to advertisers, or has a huge control over household income purchase or this type of purchase, and let’s build that beachhead and it’ll create an early majority by grabbing near and adjunct populations. And inevitably, race is a factor in all that. I worked many years in music, in the music industry. And the pursuit of the “urban market” was just like, it was just a different form of tribalism, just the same way that some of our customers who work in front of their washer and dryers just are dying to talk to educated white women age 35 and older, because that’s what they envision for their product. And they have a marketing strategy behind that and everything. I think, today, there’s still a sense of tribalism driving the approach to products. I think there’s, at a game and paid-media level, there’s a sense of let’s try to throw this product out there and see who it appeals to, and then go ask why, which is sort of backing into a customer strategy, which is more in line with lean development. And we work with those customers a lot as well to help them understand their customers. But once product and marketing people find a customer type that they can identify with or maybe they start to feel like they can understand, there’s a lot of momentum which takes over and they build their business around that customer and that customer perspective, and the product needs to take on a personality and a brand identity. And typically, it just sort of, it hovers around whoever that initial customer is. And for a lot of reasons, because, tethered to funding, people want to find a younger, white customer, certainly in media and games, and then in premium products-auto, banking, other areas. They want to find a premium, high-earning, white, educated customer. And so, as a guy who’s been building products ranging from massive media companies to banking companies to software companies, one of the things I’m cognizant of all the time is that innovation at its core is driven by funding, initial funding, and the funding is tethered to who owns the market, who has the money to spend in America. And there’s just no denying that the wealth concentration in America is upper-class and middle-class and it’s predominantly white. And so when you think about how products are developed, how they’re marketed, of course, any product that we’re working on that’s intended for the US market is the ideal customer, for all the people working on it, is a white, affluent customer, be it young and college student, be it an accomplished professional who’s in midlife. That’s who we build products for, that’s who America serves. And it’s not just in terms of product and innovation, it’s also in terms of justice, it’s in terms of policing, and we see a lot of evidence of that fact all over the place.
Jamin Brazil: It’s interesting. One of the guests I had on the podcast, Pepper, she is African American, based in Chicago, has a market research company that specializes in the black point of view, so. And she also does, of course, broad-reaching stuff, but that’s really her-the niche. And I mean, it’s just amazing. She said, actually, to me on the podcast that racism is alive and well inside of America, which in a lot of ways caught me by surprise. And it gets to the point, I think that you had before, which is, we haven’t done a great job of listening and there is this self-perpetuating bias, and even down to an economic framework. And so that’s where I’m wondering, as a society, and-well, obviously, we’re not going to solve the world’s problems-but as a society, do you have recommendations or practical things that we should be doing or implementing or thinking about even, in order to build more empathy and knowledge as a community, as a people.
Aaron Burcell: It’s a great question. I think, right now, the advice I’m giving people is just listen, just listen to people who are now finally willing to talk. I think there’s a sense of empowerment that’s coming out of this most recent summer of violence. That is, it’s just new and it’s different. And people are [INAUDIBLE], and they’re talking about-they’re asking the hard questions, and it’s very informative. And I think there’s a lot to learn right now. And so listening is, I feel like it’s a strange thing because we’re all born with two ears and one mouth, but for whatever reason, we want to talk twice as much as we listen. And if we go, I’ll just listen right now to what’s going on and listen to the people who are posting blogs and all that stuff and sharing their experiences, and the African American leaders in politics and business and government, giving them an opportunity to just listen. Give them an opportunity to talk and just listen. I think that’s so important. But for the last 10 years, I’ve been challenging a lot of my friends in the venture capital community-talk to me about the minority-funded, the minority-started businesses, the minority-founded businesses that you’ve invested in. And it’s a difficult conversation. It’s funny. There is one venture capitalist I know that is Native American, and I know this because he and I were both catchers on the Stanford baseball team. And we lead these parallel lives, me as an entrepreneur constantly looking for funding, him as this venture capitalist who’s constantly looking for things to invest in, and we keep in close touch. And periodically, I’ll just say, talk to me-have you invested in any women founders this year. And there’s this just difficult sort of response, and we really wanted to get into this one deal, in this one deal. I’m like, that company looks amazing and the founder happens to be a woman, but talk to me about the ones I haven’t heard about. And unless we’re talking about big women, it’s very hard for women to raise capital right now. And I’ve advised a lot of women entrepreneurs over the years, and one of my favorites is Leah Busque, who I worked with initially when she was just starting TaskRabbit. I helped her and her marketing team periodically between 2010 and 2016. I still keep in touch with her. She’s now a partner at Fuel Capital. But she gave me a front-row seat to stuff that I just didn’t even understand the way that she was treated as a female entrepreneur, the challenges she had from not only her existing investors but raising capital. And I won’t share her story because it is amazing, but she helped me understand how it’s not just a difficult issue for minorities, but for women as well. And I advise a couple of governors who are not African American or Native American, who are immigrants from other countries, and they suffer a lot of the same sort of challenges. And the thing that I’ve learned over time is that there’s a thing that’s hard to separate in investment models, and that is risk and racism, risk and discrimination, risk and prejudice, the sense of, are we going to take a risk on Daricus Releford, who didn’t go to a Stanford, Harvard, Princeton. He doesn’t have an MBA from Haas GSB. He has successfully been an entrepreneur in his past. He has been on the Steve Harvey Show. He has been on the cover of magazines. But he’s always sort of raised capital outside of Silicon Valley. Who’s going to give him capital this time? And to his credit, he has raised 1 million in capital and he’s creating something that could get profitable very quickly. But when I talk to him about fundraising, he says venture capitalists always want to de-risk their investment. Because they’re in such high-risk investments by nature, they want to de-risk everything, so they’re looking for the team, the strength of the team, the background of the team, the success of the team. They do plenty of evaluation of the sector, the product, the technology, and of course, proofing the idea. Here at methinks, we have a number of venture capital firms who actually use our product to test proof of concept and beta apps that they’re going to invest in. One of them’s a very high-profile firm. And I get it. They’re de-risking, constantly de-risking their investment. And I understand this because I worked at Goldman Sachs and I worked at Marcus and the bank, and I understand risk management development. But at some point, consciously or not, with bias, opportunities to invest in any kind of minority business, that sort of plays a factor in whether or not those investments go forward. And if you want to call it de-risk or risk evaluation, I mean, I feel like it’s weird and it’s awkward. But the reality is, investors, when they look at a minority-owned business, they question who those founders are, what their background is, will they be able to succeed, will they-I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, but in the back of their minds, they have to be considering whether or not prejudice at large will impact the success of these entrepreneurs, and does it make sense to invest in a company where the founders are going to experience that prejudice, are going to experience that discrimination.
Jamin Brazil: It’s such an interesting point of view. And it’s–
Aaron Burcell: People don’t want to think about race being a factor in investment, in entrepreneurs, or gender or sexual orientation, but it’s a factor. And whether or not investors are conscious of their bias or not there, it’s there. And the LPs, I question whether or not they’re doing the right thing for their LPs, and I question whether or not the LPs would care. But the need to succeed with the investment, the responsibility you feel making that investment, it’s a big deal. And it’s not a little bit of money we’re playing with here. Companies are asking for millions of dollars at a time, tens of millions in most cases. And so it’s got to creep up at least in their subconscious as they think about making investments. And I think that plays a huge factor in how few minority-started businesses and startups get funding and get support from banks and get government grants. I think there’s a lot of government grants that are just geared at minority-owned businesses, and that’s great, and they’re certainly needed, and a lot of great success stories there. But you look at the rest of sources of funding and, for me, I think one of the more interesting things this is, can we talk about risk in terms of race and the profiles of the founders, can we talk about that, or is that just too taboo. I don’t know. But what I love is, right now, so many people talking about race, so many people talking about discrimination, African Americans talking about, in the business sense, why so few, why so little funding directed their way. I’m hoping that there’s an opportunity to talk about how race factors into risk assessment and investment decisions. Because I’ve always felt that it’s there. I know so many incredibly talented minority businesspeople that I’ve worked with at Microsoft and other places who just struggled to get funding for great ideas. And I’m not talking about people who are different in any other way than other startup founders. I’m talking about my classmates at Stanford. I’m talking about guys with PhD’s from MIT in machine learning heuristics, in AI. Those guys struggle. Those guys struggle to get funding, and I’ve always wondered why. And after looking at this problem for a long time, I realized a few things. One is, I don’t think people are necessarily in control or aware of their biases. Second thing I looked at is, a lot of decisions are made without ever meeting a person. So if you look at banking, for example, I worked at Marcus for a little while, Marcus by Goldman Sachs. You start looking at the profile of the people that have the right credit scores, have the right sort of risk profile, and it’s all on paper, it’s completely devoid of an image or a picture, and in many cases, a last name. But you just look at this profile and you extrapolate onto the greater population of America and you think about who that person is ethnically, racially, and it’s overwhelmingly white and affluent. And that’s just because the factors, the math, the metrics that are of relevance in indeed risking any kind of investment inherently favors African Americans-or, I’m sorry-inherently discriminates against African Americans and favors white and affluent Americans. And one of the funniest things is, I was really against standardized testing for the last 10-15 years in particular. My children are now in high school and they’re of an age where they should be preparing for standardized tests. I worked at Grockit, which was a social learning product that was geared at helping kids get prepared for standardized tests. The company was acquired by Kaplan, which is now part of Washington Post group and Jeff Bezos and his empire. But I was working on this product where we were helping kids learn from each other and from tutors, and helping them get better scores and get into schools that they probably didn’t have a chance of getting into before working with Grockit. And I’m so excited about it because I understood inherently the racial bias in standardized tests. And when I started working here at methinks-and by the way, we did incredible work at Grockit. I’m very proud of that company and that experience. But when I started working here at methinks, we had a company, a customer company that was very far into standardized test evaluation. They’re studying efficacy of learning and trying to help people broadly prepare for standardized tests. Not just high school or college admissions tests, but graduate school tests and other things, language tests. And one of the interesting things is that project was killed by COVID-19, and here’s why. American universities are going to have to do without standardized tests as a screening and a metric, screening tool and a metric admissions for the next couple of years. Nobody’s taking the SAT right now. And maybe we schedule one for August, but it’s going to be seniors first. There’s this sort of snowball effect in the lack of standardized testing that eventually will make it something of the past and make it a-or relegate it to history. And I feel bad for our customer who went through this project, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel that there’s some sort of victory in there and that UC and CSUs are going to drop it as a requirement for the next couple of years and phase it out eventually, I think by 2023. That means of determining winners and losers in society, and was so racially biased for so long, hopefully it’s going away. And that’s a victory.
Jamin Brazil: I love how you’re finding the victories at this particular point in our history, because I do think that we need to make it a point to call those things out so that it can help create other opportunities. It’s kind of like with my children, if I only point out the bad things, then it can be difficult for them to understand how I actually feel about them. And I’ve noticed that, now I’ve raised five kids so, or in the process of raising five kids, I don’t know think that’s ever done, but-and my parents are still raising me, thankfully. But as I focus on the things that they do well, then it sort of creates this feedback loop for them, and all of sudden, they’ll become more likely to be a first-time listener. I mean, my kids are nowhere near perfect. But getting to that point that you’re making about the inherent bias inside of our standardized tests, and then that getting potentially canned, which would be fantastic, then those kinds of things and understanding the why behind it is something that we need to have more visibility in as a community. I want to shift gears a little bit because this is going to probably have to be a two-part-not have to be but get to be-a two-part episode given the length, and I want to make sure that we cover a couple of other questions if you have the time.
Aaron Burcell: Sure. Absolutely.
Jamin Brazil: So you’ve had a very successful career. There’s just, I mean, you kind of cut down to it, you were fortunate that you landed at WebTV and that’s a great springboard. I can’t help but be super-jealous of your relationship with Adam Curry, who is considered to be the godfather of podcasting, and starting a company with him in 2005, which is amazing. What are some tips or keys to managing a successful career?
Aaron Burcell: Wow, that’s a great question. So, I’m going to share a story that I’ve told a few times in conferences and other places. And that’s, my first job at WebTV, where I was really just hired on because they needed people to build a web service and do repetitive work all day long and use Dreamweaver and a few other basic tool. And one of the things I did there that was very different than I think a lot of the other entry-level people was, I asked a lot of questions. Going back to the earlier comment about annoying my manager by asking why, why, why. Today, that behavior is very much rewarded, the idea of a lifelong learner, an inquisitive mind. That sort of diversity in its own respect is highly valued in Silicon Valley. And the asking of the why was something that my mother never discouraged, going back to Mom. And I think that comes from her background where my grandfather was superintendent of Sacramento Unified School District and then Anchorage Alaska Unified. That is really important. You have to turn on and engage your questioning mind. And in order to do that, you have to suspend the need to share knowledge. Because what happens is, in a workplace, your compulsions to share information that are driven from ego, like to sort of symbolize your subject matter expertise, those compulsions are very dangerous, not because they’re not helpful. It’s always helpful to share your knowledge and help other people learn, especially when they’ve asked a question. But that compulsive decision to do so, which is really close to a person’s sense of security, insecurity, their ego, all that stuff, if you can’t restrain that and suppress it to a certain extent, then you missed out on opportunities to ask great why questions, because you’re not listening. And so listening is fundamental, but asking the why questions and not being afraid to look like an idiot in asking those questions. So when I came to Silicon Valley, when I say, when I stepped off Stanford’s campus and accepted basically an entry-level job at WebTV, the working culture there was very derivative of Apple. The founders had come from there. A lot of the early engineers and even some of the marketing people were from Apple. And Apple was very much a nowhere culture. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked there or worked with people from Apple. But there’s – it’s not cool to be perceived as new or not understanding or out of the loop in that culture that Steve Jobs created. Now thankfully, more recently Silicon Valley has grown to become much more of a questioning and why company. And some of the earliest successes that I had in my career where I got promotions, where I got new opportunities, was where I challenged a logical fallacy. Being able to recognize a logical fallacy where everyone just agrees and assumes that something is – makes sense because logically it makes sense, it’s a bizarre and dangerous phenomenon. And if you can challenge those, you’re gonna unlock success and find success in your career. Now when I was at WebTV and asking all those why questions, there was a guy who found me entertaining, and his name was Randy Komisar. And Randy – this was back when VCs were actually operational experts. They weren’t portfolio managers or guys from Wall Street, and they had to have shipped some stuff in their life and suffered some failures and success. And Randy was certainly qualified there. But he was our virtual CEO I think between B and C rounds when we were raising hundreds of millions of dollars. And it’s important to have somebody there like Randy to do that. But he really sort of encouraged my why questioning. And I’ll never forget what he told me after asking a bunch of ‘why’ questions. Clearly I annoyed somebody being young and inquisitive, and he said, “You know, you may not want to do that all the time.” Or basically, he was telling me to understand social cues a little bit better, and he explained why. He said, “You know, the rest of the world is six degrees of separation. Silicon Valley is too. So every relationship you have, you have to be careful in every interface you have.” And I love Randy; I still talk to him to this day. But the experience there helped me understand my access to Bill Campbell and Randy Komisar and Jeff Brody because they were the original mold of VCs who went in the office every day of the companies that they invest in. It taught me a lot. I had a huge opportunity to learn there, and I got a lot better asking questions, not asking questions in an uncomfortable way. It’s like, why are you doing this? Help me explain why you’re doing this. Help me understand; why are you making this decision? And they became a lot more, I guess, approachable questions, a lot more welcoming questions. And my career sort of accelerated after that. And that was a very important moment in my career because it helped me understand that just as important as asking why questions was being perceived as non-hostile, as friendly. Now the second thing I learned very early on from Chris Jacob, who I still work with today, one of the founders of SportsLine – we started a venture firm together, he was the conduit between me and Adam Curry at that podcasting startup – was that the single – the single most ingratiating thing you can do as a human is ask another person for help. If you need something, anything, from a person, try to formulate the question as a request for help. It is – it is an optimistic view of people to assume that all people want to help. But in the last 25 years, I’ve never been let down by a request for help. Somebody has always responded with kindness and taken the opportunity to do something good. And I think at our hearts, all of us humans are karma thieves. We’re always looking for an opportunity to do something good. And so we get selfish about the opportunity to do something to create a favor. Now the base of that could be the desire to create a favor for a future favor, which is OK. That’s maybe not so optimistic. But I think, for the most part, people in the back of their minds are still trying to find their – their virtual path to Nirvana, be it belief in Heaven and doing good deeds, which I don’t subscribe to, or just wanting to do good because you know it makes you feel good. Those things are – those things are important and powerful elements in business. And if you can’t acknowledge and figure out how to work with them, then you don’t – you don’t have a chance to learn and grow as an individual, develop expertise, create empathy, become sympathetic to all of your workers, get good at creating human relationships, and understanding how to lead and motivate. So those are really, really important things I learned early on. I would say later in my career, I learned the value of finding relationships that work for you and work for that person. So I have a really good advocacy relationship with Michael Sertiford whom I worked with a half dozen times. I have a really good key-check and collegial relationship with Chris Jacob for whom I’ve worked, and now he works for me. And then I’ve had other really strong manager relationships with Jon Niermann, where at the end, I realized the one thing that we really had in common was that we were determined not to be assholes. And I’m sorry for using that word. But I think in the media industry where so much of the leadership is driven by ego and the sort of ethos of juice – you know, who’s got the juice in the conversation – working hard not to be an egotistical jerk – I think that’s slightly better than the other word I used – that’s a – that’s a – I mean that is a – that is a trap. Can you imagine being Jon Niermann? You’ve worked ten years – you’ve worked thirty years in the entertainment industry.
Jamin Brazil: Right.
Aaron Burcell: You worked with Disney, you’re former President of Disney Asia, the former President of EA Asia, and you’re still driving yourself to meetings. You don’t have a -.
Jamin Brazil: [LAUGHTER]
Aaron Burcell: You’re helping out the bagger. Like we’ve gone shopping together, and he like – he loves to bag his own groceries. He’s like the most amazing, nice human being you’ve ever met. He’s the only guy I know in his position who, when he sees a fellow worker in the elevator, he insists on talking to them and making sure that they’re – you know, starting a conversation, “How was your weekend?” “You have a dog, right? You went out with your dog this weekend?” Like the insistence, and I want to say just the insistence on maintaining polite, friendly conversation with everyone he’s ever met is just – it’s something – it’s marvelous. It feels anomalous in the entertainment industry. I’d like to say that it’s, you know, that it’s – it’s more common in tech, but it just isn’t. And he’s [CROSSTALK] –
Jamin Brazil: More human and humble.
Aaron Burcell: Yeah, and it’s – it’s – working with him was such an amazing experience for me because I was trying to figure out how to act and how to deal with -. You know, having come off of a pretty high-profile gig where I had done a lot, I ‘d had a number of – a series of wins. And I was trying – I was really struggling with how – how to be perceived, and how much I should say. And he kept saying, “You know, you’re so understated; you’re so understated. The way you talk about your accomplishments is so understated.” And I was telling him, like – like I’ve got to be honest with you. We’re going into these meetings with the music labels, with these huge training media companies, and these executives that I’ve read about in my career, and I’m kind of struggling with how to act. He’s like, “Well –“, he’s like, “The way I look at it is act like you’ve done nothing. And if they know who you are, and they know what you’ve done, and you’re acting like you’ve done nothing yet, they’re gonna take you seriously because you’re excited about what you’re doing next.” I think that was – that was really important for me to hear because my next question was, “Well, how do you think I should act?” And he kind of stopped for a second, looked at me quizzically. I’ll never forget this. We were in Nashville. And he said, “Dude, you’re an awesome guy. You’re a lot of fun and you’re great to talk to. Just be that guy.” And he said, “That’s the guy I hired.” I was like, “Yes, you’re right, that is who I am.” And it sort of took this – it took this burden of trying to be somebody else, or trying to represent something as accomplishment, which I felt like the previous years working in some high-profile startups in the entertainment industry really sort of was -. It separated me from who I was as a person, and I started – I had started to develop something of a business persona. And I think that’s a really dangerous place to go. So those are kind of the key lessons I’ve had along the way, with Jon’s being the most recent. And it was incredibly instructive from Jon. It’s really helped me at methinks. It’s really helped me going back and talking to potential customers for methinks because they were my industry peers and colleagues. And because I could talk to them being – being the first methinks customer, being the guy who’s used this product and created significant nine-figure increases in revenue, having used this product and experienced that, then becoming the CEO – I can talk to all these potential customers and say, “I’ve been in your shoes. I know what it’s like.” I know what it’s like to look at a mountain of qualitative data and say, this is amazing; this is telling me exactly what happens with my customers. Now I need to know why, and having that sense of panic. The honesty that you need to have in those moment to connect with a customer, and those conversations that say, “Look, I’ve been where you are. I know exactly what you’re going through.” And I’ve built massive consumer services. It’s painful because you’ve got to figure out how to grow it. You’ve got to figure out how to keep the momentum up, how to maintain the growth trajectory. And you’ve done a great job divining that from quant data. Now it’s time to ask the questions, the customers, to figure out why because that’s the only way you could create sustained growth.
Jamin Brazil: And it gets down to the rule of empathy and building that connection to – to the customers.
Aaron Burcell: Right.
Jamin Brazil: When – if you could go back in time and tell your 20 or younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Aaron Burcell: Twenty-year old -. So when I was 20-years old, I was – I had just finished my first year in Stanford. I was playing on a nationally-ranked baseball team, and I had decided to be – I had decided on my major. I was – I had already met my wife, which is amazing. But I think the thing that I didn’t do when I was 20 that I wished I would have done was understand what was important, and have a sense of what was important. And for me, what was important at that time was – it was all social. I was coming out of my shell. I had – I was in an environment that was incredibly accepting. It was – Stanford in the early 90’s was a nerd’s Nirvana. There was no criticism of you for being a nerd; everybody was a nerd. Everybody was super smart. And I felt like because I had grown up in an isolated – a small world setting where I was different for a lot of reasons -. I took my high school classes in the university. I was athletically gifted, and I was different. I was Native American and I was highly nerdy and all these things. For me, I was just really focused on the social and creating a lot of social relationships. And while that has worked out very well for me, I wasn’t focused on the things that were important. And I didn’t have a great sense of focus in general. And there’s – there’s a tendency with young people when they’re sort of surrounded by a lot of stimulus to lose focus and not really develop that sense of life perspective. And that comes down to interviewing and engaging with touchstones in your life. And I think it’s really challenging when you’re 20-years old and you’re away from school and your college. Or maybe you’re in the military or you’re out of the home. I think at that age, you just want to surround yourself with other people that are young and learn from other people that are young, and learn about their life and their experience, and learn about what they’re studying about, learn about their experience in sports, etcetera. And I did all of that, and that was important learning. But the thing that I didn’t – didn’t really sort of do a good was learning from other people who had already been through life. It reminds me of a conversation I had last night with my daughter who’s 16-years old, and she’s really into the questioning of why I put so much emphasis on academics and academic performance. I just said – I said to her, “Look I wish somebody told me this at your age.” I said, “There’s two of us in this room. I’m the only one who has been successful in life so far. You should probably listen to the things I’m saying.” And she said, “You know, it’s hard. I get it, but,” she said, “I’m just kind of tired to listening to you.” And I think when you’re 20-years old, you’re tired of listening to coaches. You’re tired of listening to any kind of adult. And – and I think that there’s just – there’s not enough – there’s not, amongst young people right now, there’s not enough conversation with people who have got life experience. And that’s the one thing I would have done differently. I would have – I would have embraced the idea of mentorship more. I would have – I would tell myself to go meet with people who are starting businesses. And the crazy thing was the opportunity was there; it was around me. I was friends with guys who had played in the major leagues, who were playing in the major leagues for -. I was working out with the first basement for the Oakland A’s all the time. I was – I was hanging out every Wednesday talking to a guy who was playing second base with the Phillies at the time. And I wasn’t asking any kind of question that would have helped me in my baseball career. And I was talking to guys that -. I was getting instruction from people that run major political campaigns. I had access to everyone I wanted to at Stanford who could have helped me in any direction or way. And I just didn’t, I didn’t – I didn’t do it, and I didn’t focus. I focused almost entirely on the social and getting to know my peer group and all that stuff, and that was – I feel like – I know it sounds like a weird thing to focus on. I know it sounds like a weird thing to regret. But I really truly do regret that I didn’t spend more time with my professors, that I didn’t spend more time with my teaching assistants, with the coaches that I worked with, the strength and conditioning coaches. Didn’t spend more time with my family members even. But that’s – I think that’s something that’s kind of quite common amongst people.
Jamin Brazil: It certainly was – certainly was for me. all right, last question. What is your personal motto?
Aaron Burcell: So my personal motto is, do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. And this is – this is something I say to my son – my son and daughter almost all – almost every week. But I say it – I say it because it is a very difficult thing to do. So easy to say, very difficult thing to do. And a couple of times in my career, I have left a company because I felt like we were doing something that was wrong, and doing the right thing was hard to do, was hard in the context of it created awkward conversations. It challenged the leadership of the organization. It was counter-intuitive to what the investors thought we should be doing. Or I saw something that was just wrong, right. I saw people acting poorly. I saw people being treated unfairly. And I think it’s – even where it creates personal cost, you have to live by something. And for me it’s that, doing the right thing even though it’s a hard thing. And a couple of times it cost me, I wouldn’t say personally and professionally, but I was always doing the right thing. I had this one working experience where a COO – they had just hired and they were telling me, we’re gonna put you in this new position. And there’s somebody there, we’re not telling them why. And then that person – there’s this other person; we’re gonna take this responsibility from them because they’re out sick. They’ve got personal illness that they’re dealing with, and it’s serious. And all this information was shared with me. And, you know, when people ask me about the conversation, I literally just said – I repeated what was told to me. And that created a lot of problems. And sometimes, being honest about what people are saying, and being honest about what’s going on with the business and the company, it can create real challenges for you professionally. Interoffice politics are always ugly. But I feel like in larger organizations, there is this desire to figure out and navigate situations, and figure out who’s making decisions, who’s got favor, all this stuff. I’ve never been really good at that. I think doing the right thing was a hard thing; it inherently makes you an honest person, a transparent person, a person who’s, as the kids say, authentic. I’m don’t feel like that has ever been hard for me because I always feel like in any given situation, as long as I’m – I’m willing to do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing, I’m being true to myself. And that – at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your business card says. You still have to go home and live with yourself. You have to be able to sleep at night. And I feel like I just can’t do it if – if I’m being fake or going along with something I totally disagree with, or doing something – doing something that I feel strongly – doing something I feel is strongly the wrong thing to do just because it’s what the investors want to do, or it’s what the CEO wants to do. Those things are – those things are difficult. And for that reason, I’ve got to imagine that, at times, I’m a difficult person to work with [LAUGHTER]. I’m sure Philip would agree with me; he’s worked with me a few times. I’ve actually worked for him a few times, so this is a great relationship working with him now here at methinks.
Jamin Brazil: My guest today has been Aaron Burcell, CEO of methinks. Thank you Aaron for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Aaron Burcell: Thank you.