Making Sense of the Data Deluge

Ana Athayde, one of the founders of Spotter, a software company that provides reliable analytical models to feed decision making in the fields of strategy, risk, marketing, PR and communicationsAna Athayde is one of the founders of Spotter, a software company that provides reliable analytical models to feed decision making in the fields of strategy, risk, marketing, PR and communications.

Ana leads the company research and innovation strategy in the field of analytics methodologies and solutions, and assists the production team during the foundation stages of new, complex international projects. 

She has 12 years management experience in international and European media monitoring and analysis projects, including the management of European Commission projects along with other international clients such as the French Foreign Affairs Minister, the European Commission, Goodyear-Dunlop Europe, Havas Media communication group, Gaz de France, Aventis, Airbus, Coca-Cola, the Council of Europe, and the Home Office (UK), amongst others.

Ana is of Portuguese origin and speaks 5 languages. She is married, with one child and has lived and/or worked in both Portugal and in France.  She has an international vision of events and strong experience in the management of ‘international’ teams. Attending University to Masters Level, she has a strong understanding of statistical analysis of data as well as analysis of media output.

We spoke to Ana about starting Spotter, creating the best team and expanding internationally. 

TNW: What made you decide to take the leap from working for the European Commission to becoming an entrepreneur? What were some of the challenges that you encountered during the transition and what did you enjoy about it?

AA: Actually, I went straight from University to setting up Spotter. You could safely say that I caught the entrepreneurial bug in my last year in Sports Marketing at Montpellier University. At the time, setting up Spotter didn’t seem a huge challenge; it was a natural progression from studying strategy in textbooks and a good way of starting my professional life in a foreign country (I am originally from Portugal and did my third level studies in France).

I wanted to facilitate the business decision-making process with relevant, strategic information and insights from multiple external sources, and I was already researching how to analyse public perceptions using the information available on the Internet.

It was only after a couple of years working for international clients such as the International Olympic Committee that we realised the sophisticated technology required to dig out the insights in multi-national media just didn’t exist.

As a result, we decided to design our own software and created an R&D team, pouring 20% of our annual turnover into developing algorithms and programmes we needed.

I am so proud of the team as this venture has enabled us to design technology that can be customised to suit the most complex client needs – multi-sources, multi-languages and multi-users.

TNW: How did you secure such an important client as the International Olympic Committee? Dealing with the allegations of corruption must have been an enormous challenge for a new company. What have you learned from this experience?

AA: We won the International Olympic Committee in 1998, some months after we set up the company and with a small team monitoring and analysing global media. Life sometimes gives you great opportunities and shortly after presenting our solutions to the IOC, they called us to see if we could start straight away as they had a crisis in the offing. We jumped on this opportunity. Every day we wrote up analytical reports on issues emerging in different media across the world so that the communications team could prioritise messages and streamline their evaluation of how the crisis was evolving from the US to Europe and Australia, as well as analysing the impact of IOC messages in the different countries.

Probably the most memorable work we did for the IOC was during the Sydney Olympic Games. This offered us the opportunity to have our own analytical team in Sydney where we did the daily international monitoring and analysis for the IOC Executive Committee and sponsors.

It was an extraordinarily exciting time for a young woman like myself - 23 years old, working with the most important organisation in the sports world and being right in the centre of everything.

(And having the opportunity to see the games!). This was a fantastic learning curve for us working directly with top management of not only the IOC but also their large communication and marketing agencies who were advising the IOC.

TNW: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs with limited time and money wishing to monitor and analyse their own media and social media channels?

AA: I would advise an entrepreneur, particularly someone in the B2C business, to include social media monitoring in their marketing campaigns probably more so than media. Most small enterprises nowadays go to social media to promote themselves and their products. Engaging with their customers is a fantastic cost-effective way to increase their visibility, credibility and SEO ratings. There are some good free software packages for beginners such as Hootsuite.

A lot depends on the size of the team doing the monitoring however, once you reach a certain number of comments or enquiries few companies have the internal resources to cope with what is commonly known as ‘big data’ and can get lost in the vortex. Companies like ourselves turn ‘big data’ into “smart data” and ensure that managers can do what needs to be done to satisfy customers, adapt their products and increase the bottom line.

I would suggest that the most important criteria, for small or large companies, is to clearly define objectives before starting the project.

Validating what you want to do, to measure and to achieve with the data you gather, and how to create value for your company is key.

Obtaining information and carrying out assessments is only relevant if it helps you improve your work and if you are capable of integrating it into your decision making process. We frequently tell clients not to focus on tools, as this is peripheral, but to focus on the objectives, on the question / problem and what you want to discover and achieve.

TNW: Since Spotter’s launch in 1998 the company has expanded into several other countries, including the US, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Dubai, Portugal and the UK. Why did you choose these particular places for international expansion? What were the difficulties you encountered along the way and how did you manage to overcome them?

AA: From the very beginning of Spotter, and probably because I am Portuguese and we are an international team, we have always worked internationally, generating more than 50% of our turnover that way.

Our work span is global and our growth was organic until 3 years ago.  As our client base grew, we expanded to follow them, putting staff in strategic markets. From France, we expanded into Belgium as a result of our work with the European Commission. It made perfect sense to set up a sister R&D department alongside back-office services, near the University of Coimbra in Portugal. This set-up mirrors our HQ in Montpellier where we work with Linguistics and IT PhD students at the nearby University.

The US is an interesting case study as we did not achieve our objectives and had to pull back from this market three years ago. Who was it said that these type of lessons are invaluable? We had to go back to basics, pulled our strategy apart, started again and three years later we have a new approach that we are testing in the UK market, prior to returning to the US.

Canada is a wonderful success story that started with the University of Montreal. Dubai is also a very vibrant and fast-growing market, as are Doha and Abu-Dhabi.

What we are most happy about is having achieved our ambitious growth targets whilst still owning 60% of the business, which is unheard of in this industry.

TNW: Do you see any differences in the way different cultures use social media? Do you have to alter your service offerings in different countries?

AA: One of our core values is customer satisfaction – yes, you might say that applies to every business – however, we push the limits of what we do so that our clients are satisfied with the work we provide for them. We overthink client needs, we can change anything to personalise the tools to make their lives easy. So, yes, we do change our software and service to make sure that clients in different countries get what they want. After all, we’re selling analytics and doing the crunching down of huge sources of information into something concrete that guides strategic thinking and actions.

Yes, different cultures use social media differently. Look what is happening in social media in China where millions express their opinions on Weibo, Tencent and constantly find creative ways of circumventing official policy. Humour, satire and sarcasm differ from one country to another, however, blogs and forums are where customers and experts share some of the most data-rich discussions – a veritable goldmine for marketers looking to develop or enhance products and services.

Our experience with Air France showed us that Twitter is a very valuable source to get clients’ instantaneous opinions / sentiments as they tweet during their journey expressing their satisfaction / dissatisfaction or pleasure / annoyance on a specific issue. This is very valuable for evaluating campaign impact, to test the perception / reception of a new product, service or concept, and to identify problems that you must solve immediately or that you need to improve.

However, due to the limited number of characters, people cannot fully express their perceptions, and discuss with others as they can do on forums. Consequently, in-depth forum discussions are of premium value for marketers who want to increase their customer knowledge and understanding (or prospects) to adapt their strategies, offers, ways of communicating and engaging.

This in turn helps them to create new valuable experiences for their clients.

So according to the project needs, goals and expectations we propose the most adapted monitoring strategy to deliver the right information, at the right time, to the right people.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

AA: Size. You’re never the right size. You’re either too big or too small. Managing growth and the economic typhoons such as experienced in 2008. I read on one of your interviews that sleep, family and regular exercise are crucial to keeping an entrepreneur grounded. I couldn’t agree more. However, one learns to live on less sleep and running for a train is sometimes my idea of exercise!

Funding is a strategic fundamental and is entirely personal for each and every entrepreneur. Some want to make it big and sell out, others, like ourselves, want to grow and build a business as well as the people within the company who help make this possible.

And lastly, people.

This is the most valuable asset any company can have: good teams, fully implicated, wanting to serve our clients, ambitious, ready to run faster than the others, accepting challenges, open to the other cultures, etc.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

AA: Entrepreneurship was my first choice once I discovered how much sport meant to me during my studies in this field, probably because I was looking for something more exciting, with a less clear path. Possibly, the only other area I am passionate about / interested in would be politics.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors? What about a motto which sums up your approach to business, or to life?

AA: Everybody is valuable and deserves respect which is why when we have a project we simply ask ourselves if we are capable of doing it and then get on with it.

Secondly, whatever you do, do it thoroughly, regardless of size or level of complexity. Be proud of your work and always look to improve. Never give up.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs themselves?

AA: When I look at Spotter, I see the people in the team - some of whom have been with the company from the onset - we all work hard, enjoy what we do and go that extra mile to do our level best for our clients. Believe in yourself; believe in your team, after all, human beings are at the centre stage of everything we do so be nice.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but which you would like to share with our community?

AA: We are in a data deluge and analytics is first and foremost a means of making sense of this data. It is a big dark hole that can be harnessed to build and capitalise on customer sentiment and opinions. Look at how smartphones are being used in Asia and how they have changed our lives; this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I would be very interested to know what your members have to say on this subject.

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