The People behind the Story…
Martin Kihn, the highly respected Gartner analyst did a great interview that teased out the strategic elements of the BlueKai journey. I enjoyed being part of Martin’s series. You can read it here: https://blogs.gartner.com/martin-kihn/from-bluekai-to-ai-the-adventures-of-omar-tawakol/
As I reflect on things, however, I realize that there is another perspective on a company’s history that rarely gets enough play. And that perspective is based on the people and relationships that drove the company. When a company has an exit, the CEO gets a disproportionate amount of attention. That attention hides the story about the people that made the company a living breathing entity. There were 150 employees at the time of our acquisition so I couldn’t possibly give that story its due, but at least I can share a taste of what that history felt like as it was unfolding.
The story starts with my wife – I dedicated too much to BlueKai to possibly deserve a family life. But she made the impossible happen and BlueKai couldn’t have existed without her. Neither could my family. I still laugh when I remember coming home with a book on empathy to which she said “you can’t learn that in a book!” In the end of the day she was the walking empathy book that I learned from the most.
Grant Ries was my co-founder and he was the best elephant hunter bar none. He solidified the buy and sell side of the exchange. He was also the man everyone should want to deal with (on all sides of any deal). He had a champion’s fighting spirit and a huge heart. If someone was smiling at BlueKai he may have been responsible for it. You can’t put a price on that contribution.
Alex Hooshmand (also a co-founder) was the best product strategist and understood the advertising domain in a very deep way. He was also the best one at keeping customer operations humming. In addition to that, Alex was able to keep a team which included executives who could each on their own run a world class product organization. That team included David who would later become the leader of all product teams at the Oracle Data Cloud. I will save an entire chapter in a future book for David (who is my co-founder at Voicera). Alex’s team also included Molly Parr (a product rock star), and the talented Hillal sisters (Sherene and Dina) who all blossomed into great leaders at BlueKai and beyond. Dina deserves credit for being the first full-time person at BlueKai. She was an army of one.
Rowena Toguchi was an unsung hero from the beginning. She was the marketing execution Queen who put BlueKai on the adtech map. She was always behind the scenes making magic happen, reliably and with a ton of energy. But somehow, she eschewed the limelight. She taught me that people who don’t ask for praise or attention are precisely the people you shouldn’t forget.
Sam Wolff, our CFO was everything I am not in every good way (great cfo, funny). If you ever build a team make sure to find your complements. Sam is the perfect example of that.
Mike Bigby and John Connelly – kept the data beast scaling through so many 10x growth spurts we stopped counting (300 billion data transactions a day!). They were both brilliant. I remember someone once asked for something unrealistic from Bigby to which he would say:
“Why don’t you s*it in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills first.”. There is a probably a Dr. Sues book that should be published in his name. Bigby recruited Lucian Lita the data science czar who later built a company and sold it to Intuit. He was a great force at the company. So was Kendra who managed to keep Lucian’s team humming. Kendra is another quiet producer whose value goes way beyond what you see.
Tyrone Anderson came to the team early. He is an executive with no ceiling. He built the best strategic services and SE teams. I have never seen a team of unicorns (people like Lawrence Gentilello, Seth Jennings and Paul Mander) (MBA plus CS degrees) like the one Tyrone built. He was also our unofficial culture czar. He was the BlueKai equivalent of the energizer.
John Sedlak, joined us in the second chapter of our journey but he was crucial to our becoming a DMP leader. He kept the enterprise sales train on the tracks and attracted some world class brands. He also managed some great sales talent in Kosta Tsaknaridis, Brigid Fitzgerald, Julie Bickoff, Karin Becker, Zander Ford and many others. Brigid and Zander were super unique super productive sellers that couldn’t have been more different each other. Brigid was with us from the beginning and stayed with us till the end. If you ever want to know what a true customer advocate looks like – talk to Brigid. Sedlak also led the entire NY team which included Amanda Swistock and Mary Tuller.
Cory Treffiletti also joined us in our second chapter and as our CMO and he was instrumental in moving BlueKai from an ad tech player to an enterprise marketing leader. Having worked with Cory twice now – he is the rare exec that can manage large teams and also shine with very small teams.
Tracksimple was an important part of our transition into a DMP. It was led by Jon Ingalls who deserves credit for coining the term “Data as a Service”. He was an amazingly calm, even keeled force for the company. He also brought Pieter De Temmerman with him who became our Marketplace GM (He is now CEO of Pacific Data Partners). Pieter was instrumental of keeping growth in the Marketplace while a huge portion of the company focused on the DMP. Finally, Jon helped recruit Ted Wallace who was for all intents and purposes our CTO when we got acquired. That whole team came from Amazon and they were all good leaders.
Jeff Frantz, Jeff Teng, Meredith Henderson and Veronica Ahern were the folks who balanced intellect and like-ability so well that every partner always wanted to deal with them. They were crucial members of Grant’s and Pieter’s teams.
Phil Sabin, Sarah Porter, Kate Burdick, and Linh Ton kept the Seattle teams beaming and productive on all fronts. The Seattle team also had a very unique taxonomy team led by Erika Chao and Johanna Brugman. Kendra Chen and Scott Gardner were both crucial people for our Cupertino engineering presence. In the later days Lin Dailey took care of the spirit of the office.
We were especially lucky with our investors specifically Chris Moore, Roger Lee, Satya Patel, Jeff Richards and Jim Simons who each brought a different excellence to the table. Chris was there from day 0. He saw the vision and stuck with us to the end. He could even be called a founder. Roger, Satya and Jeff were with us as we transitioned to a DMP. Jeff would frequently push me in exactly the ways an investor should – (when to hire, what type of person to hire, etc.) Roger had a deep understanding of what it meant to transition to SaaS. This was invaluable. They all brought something of value to the table (way beyond the money).
No company is worth its salt without its customers. But the early customers have an even more special place. In particular, I would call out Michael Katz at Interclick, Zach and Nat at Invite, Joe Zawadski from MediaMath, Jeff Green at theTradeDesk, Adam Bain at Twitter, Dara the CEO of Expedia, Dilip DaSilva at Tribal, Tyler Mobius at Adconian, Eric Roza the CEO of Datalogix, Neal Mohan at Google, Kurt Unkel at Publicis, John Harrobin at Verizon and many more.
Finally, it is unusual to admit it, but some co-opetition is too good to do anything but find a way to work with them. In that category I would list Auren Hoffman at LiveRamp and Scott Howe at Acxiom.
In our final hours we were guided by the amazing team at Morgan Stanley and Paul Kwan’s talented team. I would also call out Kris Withrow and Ted Wang at Fenwick for knowing how to give great advice. They were crucial as we entered our final chapter with Oracle. At Oracle we were especially lucky to get to meet with and work with Larry, Thomas, Steve, Doug, Safra, Mark and countless others who made that chapter an amazing one.
Finally, last but not least I would mention my parents and my Creator for whom I reserve my private gratitude which is better expressed in another medium.