Day in the life interview: Daniel Heer, zeotap
This week we hear from entrepreneur Daniel Heer, CEO of zeotap, a data platform that makes large-scale, deterministic data assets easily accessible to the digital advertising market and other industries for better decision making. Even more exciting is that we were able to catch up with them just after they successfully raised €12 million in Series B!
1. First can you tell us a bit about your job? What does your company do?
zeotap actively links high quality data to the advertising industry to help brands engage with the right users to drive relevant brand awareness (“On Target Reach”) efficiently at low cost per relevant contact reached. Leveraging data in advertising is the first step, we’ll go beyond into other verticals such as AI, or financial services in the future. In advertising, we use high quality data to make sure that there’s no media wastage for brands and their agencies. That’s done based on technology so we integrate with telcos to anonymise the data within their network and then we transport it and link it to the advertising ecosystem in a way where certain brands can in real time target their precise audiences on mobile.
2. What brought you to this area?
I was working at Vodafone before and I was doing an internal project where I basically saw the power the data had internally and my thoughts were ‘Wow!’ What if I could help a Telco leverage that data outside of its own boundaries and help external industries benefit from that data and improve their decision making. Because I wanted to build a company I was much too impatient to stay in a corporate, I moved back into the Berlin startup ecosystem and worked for one year in mobile advertising and within mobile advertising I saw a key problem which is that most of advertising is done without any targeting data. An example is candy crush saga which is a popular game. Basically all these ads which are shown to drive downloads for the game, are shown to everyone, no matter if this is a female or male, these ads have no idea if the request is coming from a female or male. So I thought ‘Wow’ there’s so much potential here to improve the efficiency of these markets, so then I just said ‘well I’m going to build this company’. And from the company I worked for I got to know a few good investors so I met with them and talked about my idea and they gave me the first 500k. Because I was the first employee, I was sort of building the company from scratch, it was clear that I was the CEO and also given my mentality, as I said I’m extremely impatient, very pushy and also I’m good at sales, not so much a technical guy so this role was the right fit for me.
3. What time does your day start, and what does your typical work day schedule look like?
I am usually in the office at around 9am and usually leave between 11pm to 1am. If you want to be home at 5pm and go to a Christmas market with your family, you shouldn’t become an entrepreneur, it doesn’t work. I have a family, it’s not easy, so it needs to be a clear decision that you have to take. What if I found and can recommend to other founders is I proactively block slots in their calendar for like 3 hours just for example HR, and only concentrate on that specific topic. Basically, my day is always completely blocked either with meetings or with my own meetings with myself so to speak and in the evening at 8pm or so I have time to answer all the emails. It’s like this everyday basically and obviously there’s frequent travel, we have business in Spain, Italy, India and the US. So next week I’m in Spain and the UK on Monday, the week after I’m in Italy, the week after I’m in the US, the week after I’m in Spain for Mobile world congress.
4. What kind of projects are you currently working on?
We’ve just received this large funding round, so basically I have three goals. The first is to drive revenue, so I spend a lot of time with the people monetising the data to make sure that we have the right capabilities in place and have the right tools, and that we have sufficient access to clients. The second project is our on-board more data, so the faster you on board data the faster you have a very strong position in markets, so I’m working to make sure we on board more data to our local market. And finally it’s all about people, what differentiates a startup from a large company, this may sound arrogant but on average the people are harder working and a bit smarter, so it’s so important that you continue to get the very best people for the open roles.
5. What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
When we started two and a half years ago and I tried to get the first money on board after I raised the first €500k, basically the VCs also from the UK were saying ‘this will never happen, you as a startup will never be able to convince a Telco to share their most precious and most protected asset; their data, with you’, and then I told them it will happen with even more than one Telco per market and they didn’t invest. We have now completely outperformed all that bullshit from the market, so we’re global leaders in terms of having more than 5 Telco’s on board and doing exactly this, so we’re the only guys in the market that have that data. In Spain for example, we have two Telco’s, three in India, and no one believed me. I mean these guys have a lot of money, and many have never built a company and they don’t know what it is to be an entrepreneur. And my experience is that it is only by persistency and learning the right capabilities that this is possible. Everything can be done; it’s just a matter of focus and persistency.
6. What is the one app you could not live without?
Definitely gmail, given I travel so much I really use gmail a lot. Secondly would be google maps.
7. What’s the best thing about working at your company?
What really frustrated me at Vodafone was that, you know I worked directly for one of the board members; I prepared a lot of the board level presentations so for example when the group Exco from the UK came I prepared the presentation, I orchestrated all of the stuff between the different departments, spoke to technology etc. However I didn’t join the meetings – I was sort of kept small and you know they could’ve kept me in the company much longer if they just gave me more visibility; a better platform and let me grow faster, this is so hard in a corporate unless you know the CEO very well and they support you all the time. Within zeotap I do the opposite, I let people do what they can to the maximum, so maybe it’s a huge stretch for young guys, for example we have a guy called Thani who entered at 23, first he built up the US entity and then he built up the Indian entity then he was sent to the US for four months and went into Telco sales in the US, then he built up our privacy assets and now he’s the director of global growth. And he’s completely crazy now going through this development, so to put this into abstract terms everyone can grow and develop as fast possible, if they make mistakes that’s great because they’re smart people so they will learn from it and won’t make that mistake again. If you’re not interested in being home at 5pm, if you’re interested in growing at maximum speed, we give people the freedom and the money to do that.
8. Where is the after work hangout?
We do sit in the office sometimes, and have lunch together; we bring jamon from Spain and have that together. We obviously go for dinner sometimes, in between we have team events, nothing special. I think you don’t need so much fluffy stuff if you already have a strong culture, if it becomes too unnatural it’s also not great. You can’t make a team because of great team events, it’s just a nice add on.
9. Who is your professional role model?
I was quite impressed by Steve jobs’ biography, he was probably not the nicest guy to work with, but he was very clear that will can create gravity. It’s only about persistence and iron will, and I was very impressed about this and I say it myself all of the time. It’s not so much about being the smartest, if you’re the smartest maybe you see too many problems, it’s not about the most money, it’s about having the strongest will. Secondly, I always admire people who are very good at communication, who are veer strong and to the point and can position themselves really well, because at the end of the day it’s all about communication, it’s honestly astonishing how you can achieve things with communication.
10. What makes Berlin a good city for technology and startups?
In terms of technology I think Berlin has picked up from London and the US in general, it’s traditionally more of an e-commerce city from the past however it’s still very entrepreneurial so there’s positive vibes in general, you can always feel it. Rent is also extremely cheap compared to any other global city; it’s ridiculous compared to London. There’s great current influence, we had a few Harvard people who worked for around 1.5 k per month, people are coming here to work because the city is so sexy, it’s very multicultural, Berlin has traditionally 16 different suburbs so it’s really different across.
11. Which tech trends are you most excited about?
What I think is quite exciting is the Artificial intelligence trend; some people call it machine learning or just AI. It’s exciting for me because, I can’t get to see all the outcomes of this trend, I mean there’s AI in medicine, within self-driving cars and so many other fields. The development speed is so rapid that I can’t see what’s gonna happen in 10 years. What is also exciting for me from a business perspective for zeotap is that AI is just about algorithms at the end of the day, it sounds fancy but it’s about the code and an algorithm always needs data; if the data is shit the algorithm will also be shit, if the data is great the algorithm can make the right predictions. The beautiful thing about that for us is that services are commoditised, storage is commoditised, AI will become commoditised, what will not be commoditised is very hard to get unique data, so for AI in general it will be really good to have the right data, so that’s quite exciting for me.
12. What are the top 3 qualities you look for in an employee?
Number one is hunger and passion, you can usually see this in people’s eyes, how they speak, how positively nervous they get. Secondly, this is often without noticing is how well somebody can position themselves, even if it’s non-sales guys they need to be able to speak about themselves and because they will need to be able to somehow work on themselves, it’s a question of self-reflectiveness. It’s not that somebody has to find the best words or speak like a politician; it’s more how they speak about themselves. Thirdly is probably down to earth experience, but it’s the least important because I’ve realised we made mistakes in the past by looking for senior people because of their CVs and given relationships, but they were moving much too slow like in a corporate behaviour and it’s much better to have a hungry guy; he will make the same network in much less time and he will work longer and be faster which is more important, and you don’t get a headache because somebody’s not working.
13. What is the one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting out?
Before building the business, definitely share your ideas and speak about them. The risk of not getting relevant feedback by not speaking about it is much higher than the risk of your idea being stolen, which is bullshit because the likelihood somebody stealing it is so small, so make sure to speak about the idea and let it be challenged. Secondly, would be just to start doing it and test your stuff as soon as possible, don’t waste time with business plans and presentations, get out to the market and pitch your stuff to people because then you have solid feedback and a pilot, then you can write some slides. Get people only that help you, not people that only have money but can’t help you, we have been extremely successful and lucky with that, we have zero business angels who only have money, we only have business angels which have been telco executives before, who can open a lot of doors and it creates a lot of trust. In hiring don’t just take people because you urgently need them, only take them if you’re super excited, often the inclination of ‘I really need someone so I’ll just take him’ don’t do that, it will just multiply your problems, only take someone if you’re absolutely excited about them. If you do make a mistake when hiring, on average that happens around 20-30% of the time, make sure you correct the error as soon as possible, it’s not good for you or the guy if they’re not a fit.
14. And finally, if you could do anything differently what would it be?
The thing is we’re not doing any business in Germany currently at the moment and our focus is pretty much on the United States. We have now on-boarded a large US investor, and we have been very lucky because usually US investors don’t invest up in Germany, they invest in either just the US or in Asia or the UK, but Germany is let’s say out of scope for them. If I had the knowledge of these people I would maybe have built the headquarters from the beginning in the US.