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21 Years Feature: Medallia LivingLens CEO Carl Wong

October 14 2020

Continuing our focus on Data Visualization, the LivingLens co-founder talks in-depth with MrWeb's Nick Thomas about family influences; starting, financing, building and selling the business; the huge potential for video and the importance of good data viz. Video version also available.

Carl Wong
Watch this interview in full at www.mrweb.com/drno/carl.htm . The following abridgement includes about 2/3 of the content.

Wong Dynasty

NT: Tell us about the influence your parents had on your career and outlook.

CW: My mum and dad played a huge part in terms of my value set, and indeed their parents as well. I am from a working class background - when I was a youngster my dad worked in a car making factory and my mum worked in one of the local shops, but they always worked hard. I'm a quarter Chinese - my Chinese grandfather came to the UK without knowing a single person many, many years ago, and built networks and built confidence, and built great businesses. He was a restaurateur, in the end very successful. Things didn't pan out quite as expected, I'm not running the Wong Dynasty of restaurants - but he was an entrepreneur very much and that always stuck with me as a child - as did my mum and dad's hard work of trying to raise two kids with a good value set, and keep us on the straight and narrow.

I was the first one of my broad family to go to university, which made my mum and dad immensely proud - they were always very supportive, very open-minded and always positive. Having gone to university I thought success therefore for me is to go and work for a large company, and wear a suit! That's what success looked like for me, from a working class background.

NT: You've failed, Carl! [Carl is in a T-shirt]

CW: Indeed, miserably. I'm delighted about that - but I actually did that for a decade, so I left uni and enrolled in a graduate training programme as many people do, and I grew up in the corporate world.

Birth of LivingLens

CW: I learnt about working in a large organisation, and I ended up after a couple of years, in the MR function at RSA Group, one of the country's biggest insurers, and really something stuck with me there, I got a passion for understanding what makes people tick. Then I left the corporate world and ran a company called Curiosity Research for 6 years.

The thing that was missing for me, in working with a handful of great agencies at RSA, whilst they were great at helping us understand the consumer, my team's job was to drive organisational change and that was really hard. It starts off with getting the hearts and minds of leadership, and that's what we focused on, doing the bread and butter well, and then helping them, the insight buyer, drive change internally and that is fundamentally about storytelling, about trying to synthesize the data and the analysis that we've arrived at into something that people can connect with. We focused more and more on storytelling, and that effectively meant using more and more video. Anybody who's done any video editing in their professional or indeed personal lives knows that to get from this much video [hands wide] to that meaningful content is excruciating, time-consuming agony. I'd never ever seen a senior stakeholder in a brand side organisation see video of their customer and not engage with it, so why aren't big brands awash with sharp, customer-centric videos? The answer to that is that it's absolute agony to make them, resource-intensive, consequently expensive, it takes a very specialist skill set, it used to take a load of specialist kit and software so we don't do it as agencies because we're market researchers, not film-makers. So Curiosity were doing more and more storytelling, putting more and more time into video editing, so we set out to solve our own problem - how do you make that process that much more efficient?

We started LivingLens as an idea in early 2013, then formed the business and went full tilt at it from the start of 2014. From my own R&D I had the dawning realisation that we would create much more shareholder wealth through technology, so what could we do effectively with technology to solve real problems in the industry, and that was the genesis of LivingLens. So we built a prototype for our own needs, saw that it could catch fire, and re-evaluated what we were going to do to scale the business.

NT: Would I be right in thinking that you had more competition at some stages of what you did than at others - in other words there were a few people out there doing data capture - which is part of what you do - but they would fall apart later in the process with ways to analyse it quickly, is that a fair assumption? Your USP?

CW: Yes that's absolutely spot-on, there were many capture solutions out there, because the growth of smartphones was already happening, and in lots of people's pockets was the ability to record video, and we could see that scaling / the industry shifting towards mobile solutions, but the problem to solve wasn't capturing video in our opinion, that's pretty easy with new tech. The difficulty was turning video content into unstructured data that could be mined efficiently as a true data source, and then consequently using that to arrive at the meaningful moments much more efficiently.

...and that's hard, that's really, really hard to put that process together and over time to iterate on it from an AI perspective, to understand APIs, delivery mechanisms, cloud storage... it gets very, very complicated quite quickly. The principle of it is simple but the principle we were trying to solve is turning multimedia into a data source, and when we were doing that frankly nobody else was doing it. Then around the same time as we started to get little bit of traction in the market we had a company called Big Sofa that had been around for a bit as an agency starting to put more tech around video at its heart, we had Voxpopme who started to build great traction particularly from a capture and a panel perspective, so actually all of a sudden in the course of the first 18 months to 2 years there was a competitive space, which actually validates what you're doing - and unusually that tech led solution including the competitors, we were all in the UK, and largely leading it from a qualitative research perspective, and I like to think that the world's best qual researchers are in the UK - the ones who want to truly understand behaviour and do that professionally are in this country, and it's quite unusual for a new tech space to be UK-centric, you know a lot of it is driven from North America.

Finance and Growth

I had no idea about equity finance, no idea of that world, didn't even know it existed. My co-founder and I David, to this day we still call it Narnia, you know it's that place nobody knows is there but you go through the back of the wardrobe - if you know how to access it - and there is this vibrant world of funding and support and experience that can be tapped into, and it's a secret, or it was a secret then...

First we went to the bank and asked for a loan, and the bank are sort of... 'Computer says No'. Then I found out about a government-funded course which is part of a programme called Growth Accelerator, and there's this particular module called Access to Finance which is basically Equity Finance 1.01, which will give you a mentor programme and some introductions and networks.

...through that we understood the mechanism - then it's all about being resilient - get out there, make your pitch. It's a learnt skill, and you need to just go again and again, believe in yourself, never take No for an answer, keep going.

Over the course of 6 years we raised about £5m, but we did that in a number of different tranches... I'd say it was a steady ramp-up. We didn't really throw the kitchen sink at headcount. When we first started there were two of us, and then quite quickly there were 5 of us by the middle of 2014. We had about 30 people at the time of the exit. We set targets... we always and rigorously hit those targets that were meaningful metrics for growth.

In the early days ... almost all our conversations started with Why you should be considering video intelligence within your toolkit, but probably around 2017 that conversation started to shift, you could see more and more adoption, with some big agencies. We very, very specifically rather than going to big brands directly built the tool to be there for agencies, to be a workflow partner, to adapt to your workflows as an agency for lots of different scenarios, knowing that if we got enough agencies using and benefitting from LivingLens, brands would benefit from that ultimately anyway. Now we probably work with more brands directly than we do with agencies, but agencies are still our friend, very much, and we would never replace the job of an agency. I'm quite proud of that, that's my background, my heritage, that's what we wanted to solve for.

Data Visualization Throughout the Process

NT: It's very tempting always to think of data viz as just being at the end of a project, your presentations, your report, your charts, but I guess the more we work in a digital way with iterative research projects, little bits of research and going backwards and forwards very quickly, the more you have to think about visualizing things earlier on in the process. Tell me a bit about those challenges.

CW: That is the key enabler, within LivingLens or any organisation. Data viz is the enabler for efficient storytelling, without it you can't arrive at what the story is. At LivingLens, we capture video from lots of different places, whether it be our apps or our Zoom integration (which is exploding for us at the moment), or in-survey, whether it be 3rd party surveys or our own survey tools; or indeed focus groups facilities where we integrate into their techs and clouds; or good ol' fashioned doing it yourself with your own equipment and uploading it yourself. This is the core part: we strip out what people say, and we turn it into text, how people feel and we turn that into scaled emotional data; we strip out object and content recognition, particularly useful for people in product tests, in-store - and you can understand usage, and where people are in context.

So we have this raw data set, but once you've got to that actual tangible data, like any other structured or unstructured data we can then look for patterns, we can then run tests on it, we can very easily say 'These are the key themes that are emerging', and overlay that with a cluster analysis or with just simple profile - your own segmentations, or simple binary A/B testing - and when you overlay that with key themes and emotions attached to them, for different types of groups, in a way that can be consumable and configurable - that's the story right there.

We have a number of different user types for LivingLens, but let's start with the qual insights professional: typically you're doing some depths yourself... there's a project manager, you'll all have a view of the world, but it's an informed view from the groups of interviews for example, and with all of that content from LivingLens you already have hypotheses about what's going on, and you have the data behind that hypotheses, or it can show you that your hypothesis is not there, but typically as a team you're already starting to iterate on the 3 or 4 different themes coming out, through lots of conversation and being in the room. LivingLens supports that by enabling you to look at that theme across large data sets, and that large data set is lots and lots of groups or lots of interviews or lots of video diaries. So you can take your keyhole view, which often drives a lot of the hypotheses that we bring forward for clients - and you can test that against the entire base of content, so you can see Here are our key themes, these are the emotional drivers, this is the profile and indices of these people, and thru simply clicking in that dynamic chart, you can arrive at the precise content behind those themes, and indeed you can do that without any language skills, and that's where it really raised the bar as a knowledge hub for large brands.

Video is Best

NT: So, sell me the idea of video feedback against other forms. What does video feedback give me that other forms could never give, and what other things does it do better?

CW: Unfortunately I can't name this client, but the following summarises it for me. A major client in the retail space has just been telling me that after years and years of getting feedback and reporting it to the executives, they've just had an emotional reaction, and won the hearts of the exec in a way they've never seen before from their traditional reporting. Video evokes emotion and empathy - you don't get that from PowerPoint data presented in slide fashion. For me it's the silver bullet for how we can get large organisations to act more effectively in terms of their insight spend and ROI - it's the only mechanism through which in my experience you see emotive discussion, regularly, by putting the customers in front of senior decision-makers.

It's also much, much easier to socialise - it's that 2-minute video that catches fire in the organisation, not the 60-page report behind it. So that for me is the no.1 use case of why you should be using video. And frankly I'd go on to say If you're not using video in your programmes now, you're about to become the minority, I think there's a tipping point that we're in this year because we're all adopting video communications, our business has gone through the roof, because people have now really finally landed at the fact that we can all be productive working from home, we can continue our insights programmes by shifting to digital, that actually the deliverables that we give to our clients can be really effective at helping them move forwards in these difficult times.

So No.1 it's about impact, but no.2 it *can* be more insightful. In the right circumstances, particularly if you just don't know why something is happening, just getting people to explain that on video, even if it's just in the simplest terms, as a substitute for, and alternative to an open-ended verbatim in a survey. You simply get more - statistically you will get about 6x more people say than they will type. And as we move more into an interactive world in terms of experience, within the next 3 or 4 years, more than 50% of our experiences as consumer are going to involve AI / machine learning and gestures - with video feedback, we can tap into that. Consumers are going to become much more comfortable sharing video as a core mechanism of feedback, not just in qual research where it's always had a home, but in survey and other signals, there's a lot of content that can be analysed out there that we're not looking at today.

The Acquisition

NT: You have been bought by Medallia...

CW: We have been acquired, in February of this year for $26m - an incredible experience. It's always been the ambition of my co-founder David and I, and indeed our investors, that we sell the business, and on a specific timeframe and to certain valuations etc.., but we found ourselves in 2019 and indeed 2018, working more and more in-survey and with the CX leaders of the world. Obviously we know the insight industry and the CX industry are very closely linked, so we made strides into CX into 2018, and after putting a fair amount of effort into that for maybe a year, we were the formal partners of 6 of the top 10 CX businesses as defined by Forrester at the time. So we knew that we were partnering in the right way, but actually we also knew that there was an acceleration of adoption in the industry as well, and there aren't that many true tech players in our broad space, whether it be insight or CX: and what I mean by that is firms that truly have built tech at the heart of the business from day 1; are recognised as such from the multiples achieved in terms of valuations versus revenue; and we also knew who we really liked working with, where we really enjoyed the people.

... I've been so lucky working with so many great people in LivingLens, we have an absolute riot, a great time together, everybody works really hard, but everybody enjoys each other's company. Lots of diversity, lots of different types of people but with core value sets similar - and Medallia is the same, you know I've been so impressed by the quality of the people.

... we were able to do the deal pretty quickly in the scheme of things, because of their integrity and their desire to move fast, ad because of the support teams we had working with us, and I've gotta say, I thought that the other side of the acquisition it might be, from my own personal perspective, a bit of a sterile, corporate sort of culture, and I might struggle to enjoy that environment, and I couldn't be further from the truth. I've really, really enjoyed working in Medallia for the last 6 months or so, which is why I'm still here.

NT: What's the most exciting thing you're going to be able to do now that you're part of this bigger thing?

CW: Medallia as a company and in terms of their product set - it's really expansive. The very narrow view of the CX world is that basically we're being surveyed to death by all these surveys we're receiving asking for feedback on a product or service experience we've just had, and whilst that is a fundamental of CX, the amount of signals that are out there by which we can understand customers' experiences and journeys, and then intelligently understand and analyse them so that we can drive great outcomes and impact... it's much, much broader than the survey. Call centres, social media... it's about where we can take video in all these feedback mechanisms, and in delivery mechanisms to help drive change in organisations - it can touch every part of the CX loop and close that loop and drive change. So the road map is exciting, a very busy place as these things always are, but... just being able to integrate video into solutions for customers is already getting great traction.

NT: but you're never going to forget your roots in MR...

CW: For me personally, the most exciting thing right now is building out and taking to market the Medallia Insight Suite, which is LivingLens; Crowdicity, a fantastic ideation platform; [quick survey tool] Promoter... I'm still thinking about how can we help market researchers day in, day out and I'm taking a lot of joy from that.


NT: Do you have a personal motto, or a favourite phrase which you can and do relate to your work?

CW: I don't really have a motto as such, but there are two organisations whose mottos I really use and buy into. One is Believe, Believe in Yourself - as a massive Liverpool fan, with 30 years of false dawns behind me... other people might not believe in you, just believe in yourself and just keep going and going. The second one is actually from Liverpool's old youth academy director, a guy called Hugh Macaulay who runs a kids football academy and on the wall at Melwood where they train, there is a motto, and it's 'Hard work beats talent, if talent doesn't work hard'. There's no short cuts in life, you've got to work hard in life if you want to achieve your dreams. If you want your dreams to be goals rather than lofty aspirations, that's what you've got to do.

NT: Carl, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I'm a Gooner, and it's never been so enjoyable talking to a Liverpool fan for an hour. Thank you very much indeed, great to have met.

Other 21 YEARS / Data Visualization content now available (read and download the full supplement here):

A Dream Team to Fight Budget Cuts? - Great visuals and wide-ranging automation are a powerful combination for market researchers looking to justify budgets in the Covid era, says Confirmit Chief Product Officer Torbjörn (Tobi) Andersson.

All Change at Toluna - Paul Twite, Toluna's MD EMEA and LatAm, looking at the company's recent big announcements - rebranding and the launch of Toluna Start.

E-Tabs Guide to Good Data Viz - Six key considerations for creating clear and engaging visuals, from the team at E-Tabs.

Tip of the Iceberg Ipsos.Digital CEO Andrei Postoaca backs AI to unlock its full potential behind the scenes within ten years, allowing business needs to return to centre stage.

Faster, Better, More - Debbie Senior, Toluna's VP Product Automation, looks at the 'need for speed', and other factors driving changes in the way we process, share and display data.

Beauty, Clarity or Both? - Joe Parker, Brand Director of London-based Motif puts an insight professional's spin on one of the longest-running debates in design.

MrWeb 21 Years Feature: Board Builder - Medallia's Senior Director of Product Management Vache Moroyan and his team are tasked with building dashboards that are a pleasure for research professionals to work with.

Didier Truchot on Finding Clarity in 2020 - Ipsos co-founder & CEO Didier Truchot talks about clients' need for clarity, AI's potential to change our industry, and why insight professionals should be confident about the future.

MrWeb 21 Years Feature: Data Viz and DIY Research - Ipsos.Digital CEO Andrei Postoaca talks about the challenges involved in developing a DIY research platform for one of the world's biggest and best known insight groups.

All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas, 2024- by Nick Thomas, unless otherwise stated.

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