Heidi Messer, Co-Founder, Collective[i]: Dream Big, Recruit the Right People, Stay Focused & Execute

Heidi Messer is Co-founder and Chairman of Collective[i]™, a cloud-based business intelligence platform that enables business leaders to answer their toughest questions through big data analysis. Heidi is also Co-Founder and CEO of World Evolved, a global investment and expansion platform.

Prior to Collective[i]™and World Evolved, Hiedi and her brother, Stephen Messer, co-founded LinkShare Corporation, which is host to one of the world’s largest online affiliate networks. Heidi and her brother built and managed LinkShare until its sale to Rakuten for $425 million in 2005.

Recognized as an authority on online marketing, Heidi is a frequent speaker at major industry events. She is often referenced in written trade publications and has appeared on national television and radio programs.

We spoke to Heidi about her advice for scaling a business; her motto for life; and how it felt to walk away from LinkShare after a decade at the helm.

TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch Collective[i]?

HM: When we started LinkShare in the mid-1990s, the digital world was all new.  Everything required reinvention and innovation because nothing existed.  The area we focused on was quantifying the value of advertising space, and a method that could support the creation and proliferation of free Internet based content.

LinkShare, created and patented a new form of measurement.  We also launched a network that spurred the development of an entire industry.  In short, LinkShare allowed the creators of quality websites to monetize their content.  Many, many entrepreneurs and businesses flourished as a result—something I found to be immensely gratifying. 

When it came time to launch a new venture, my goal was to recreate portions of that experience by identifying an area ripe for innovation and one that would empower businesses and innovation through technology.

My co-founders and I saw that what’s now referred to as “Big Data” was exactly that.  We believe that the next generation of highly successful companies will be organized around data.  You see the seeds of this happening as companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon demonstrate that they can sustain billion dollar valuations by incorporating the data they collect into their strategy, operations and marketing.  

The opportunity is huge and the market need astounding.  So large that I’m not sure people have fully internalized how much of their organizations are compromised by the pain of managing the incredible amount of data they now collect. The solutions to how to manage data sets that large aren’t easy.  Equally important is making sure that data is accessible within an organization so that it becomes a useful compass for important creative and strategic thinking.  We spent three years creating a platform to accomplish that purpose. 

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your company?

HM: Great technology matters. I have been fortunate to work with some incredible developers, engineers, software architects and visionaries.  LinkShare’s technology is still the gold standard in that segment.  Collective[i]’s platform is absolutely breath taking.  I’m so proud of what our team has created.    

When you built the Collective[i] team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

HM: It’s key to have the best players on your team. 

Smart people can fix almost any problem whereas in the battle between an idea and mediocre people, you can expect that mediocrity will win. 

I recently heard Reed Hoffman, CEO of NetFlix, speak about the importance of speaking honestly about what you expect from employees.  His point was that great companies are like championship sports teams where the culture is based on recruiting the right people and judging them based on execution.  I think that is a pretty sound strategy.   

TNW: What is next for Collective[i]? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

HM: Collective[i] is an unbelievable platform for marketing and business executives who want to leap frog non-data driven competitors. At the core of our technology is that it removes the complexity around data so that the numbers can be used to establish goals, enable collaboration and execute creative strategies with precision.  We are technology that enables the art of doing business that had been compromised by the pain of collecting and organizing information. 

My prediction is that Collective[i]’s platform will be ubiquitous and a defining attribute for the winners of the next generation of leading companies. 

TNW: Did you learn lessons when launching LinkShare which you applied to the launch of Collective[i]? Which aspects of your launch strategy did you keep the same?

HM: A key lesson I learned was how important it was to find and manage talent.  We spend a lot of time recruiting, vetting and training. 

I also learned that entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting companies; it’s about being adaptable and focused at the same time.  

We are applying the same intense focus that we had at LinkShare to Collective[i].  In both instances, the companies had a clear strategy but remained very agile about the tactics we used to execute.

TNW: How did you manage exit process for LinksShare? How did it feel when you sold it and was it difficult to leave the company behind, having founded and run it for nearly a decade? 

HM: Managing a sale process and running a company is not easy.  Fortunately, we had an amazing team of operators in place that kept everything running smoothly during the process.  In that end, I am extremely proud because we delivered winning results to our customers, employees and our investors through our exit.  While it was hard to leave the company, we picked a buyer based on their ability to provide opportunities for growth and they have done great things with the company since we left.  They inherited an incredible infrastructure and team.  The opportunity was theirs to lose, which fortunately they did not.  In the end, it was a win win for all. 

TNW: When you sold LinkShare, was there any doubt in your mind that you would go on to found another company?

HM: No. 

TNW: A topic which often comes up in The NextWomen and DWEN communities is scalability. What is your advice for entrepreneurs looking to scale their businesses?

Make sure you have the foundation in place—the right people, the right funding and the right technology—and then stay focused.

TNW: Which three golden rules of online marketing would you advise entrepreneurs to follow?

HM: Listen to your customer either directly or through data you collect and respond rapidly.
Enlist partners who are smarter than you and focus deeply on areas outside of your core business.  Know your goals and socialize them through metrics and rewards. 

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

HM: I’ve made some terrific friends and business contacts through DWEN who have, in turn, expanded my network. DWEN is unique in its global focus and by the amount of support it has from Dell’s senior management, I have also been very impressed with the extraordinary team they have assembled to manage and grow the network.

TNW: Do you have a motto which sums up your approach to business, and to life? 

Dream big, recruit the right people, stay focused and execute.  

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

HM: I have had many great mentors.  I’m very fortunate in that respect.  Dick Parsons, the former CEO of AOL Time Warner is terrific.  He’s incredible in his ability to manage and motivate people to excel even in very challenging situations.  Julian Brodsky, the co-founder and former CFO of Comcast, is the best dealmaker and financial mind I know.  My mother is an extraordinary businessperson and role model.  She inspires me in every way.  My business partners (who also happen to be my husband, Tad Martin and my brother, Stephen Messer) provide me with invaluable advice and encouragement. 

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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