Interview with Stefan Koenig, Co- Founder and CEO, Hull.io

Stefan Koenig
Stefan Koenig

“Identity resolution has always been a tricky problem because each service has its own way of identifying customers.”

Tell us about your role at Hull and how you got here. What inspired you to start a technology company?

I’m the co-founder and CEO of Hull. Prior to joining Hull, I was running US operations for a European Software company that was acquired by SAP. Once the merger was completed, I decided to leave and was introduced to Hull, where I met Romain and Stephane. Hull’s initial focus was an identity management & gamification platform. We pivoted successfully in 2016, and I lead the company pivot and Hull’s growth path.

With companies and business departments acquiring new cloud SaaS services at a rapid pace to help them and their departments, they’ve created new data silos that are harder to integrate to better serve the customer end-to-end.

We saw the opportunity to build a real-time Customer Data Platform for data engineers that helps companies easily ingest data from all of their services and databases, unify all that data into profiles for each person and company (what’s called identity resolution), then help teams enrich, segment, cleanse, and compute data, before syncing it across all their tools in real-time. With this, they can orchestrate all their tools, teams, and data at scale, and create a better experience for each of their customers.

How is the Identity Management and Resolution different from when you first started?

Identity resolution has always been a tricky problem because each service has its own way of identifying customers. Furthermore, they handle different concepts between the tools. For instance, Salesforce talks about Accounts and Opportunities, whereas Marketing Automation software often doesn’t have such concepts. Sometimes tools offer one-too-many relationships between Users and Accounts and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make a difference between Leads and Contacts, sometimes they just refer to them as Users. It’s that discrepancy that is the hardest to reconcile and requires tons of experience to manage properly.

The second thing that is challenging about Identity Resolution is the timeliness of the data. All APIs are limited in abilities and rate; yet to do a good job, you want to ensure the most transparent synchronization possible. If that requires huge volumes of data to be transferred, then there’s no way you can do it the “simple” way. You need to apply more advanced techniques to only synchronize the minimum of data possible so that your latency is short, and discrepancies don’t appear between your tools.

For instance, if you’re collecting web traffic and form submissions from Hubspot, and you want to reconcile this with the data in your Salesforce account, you need to be smart about what you’re synchronizing so you can do this in a way that doesn’t create too much latency and ends up creating duplicated data that’s hard to reconcile.

All of these challenges were there initially. What changed is that we have more and more capabilities in the APIs of each service so we can eliminate some of the complexity to achieve these operations, but the road to simplicity is still an ongoing “work in progress.”

What is the State of the Customer Data Platform industry? How does Hull fit into a modern CMO’s martech stack?

Customer data sits across every team – sales, marketing, support, product, finance and engineering. But each of these teams sit in silos. What we see is teams moving customer data to a central operations role. Whilst marketing might be the driver of many projects and initiatives, they don’t “own” the job of data integration across an entire organization.

This is where customer data platforms like Hull fit in – right at the heart of the Martech stack.

Here’s two already-public examples of internal documentation from Drift and Mention where Hull sits. You can see how all the data flows through Hull:

 

 

What are your predictions on CRM and Marketing Automation technologies?

Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot – these marketing automation platforms were born over 10 years ago, and since [2008], the way people buy has changed, which means the way we market and sell has changed. As marketers, there’s been an explosion in data, channels, and tactics. Most scaling B2B companies we see are trying to harness different data sets like product usage, intent data, social data, firmographics, technographics – all on top of the data we’ve already had in our email and CRM tools.

The challenge is yesteryear’s CRMs and marketing automation platforms aren’t built for modern marketing best practices that we’re seeing in 2018. “All-in-one” platforms aren’t the best in their field at every category. Today, we see teams testing, buying, and changing best-in-breed tools to one that do one specific thing instead. They orchestrate all those tools through a customer data platform like Hull.

What major disruptions do you expect with the maturity of data science?

Practical uses of AI will be packaged into products and made accessible to sales and marketing teams – particularly around machine learning. AI is very good at solving well-defined problems like lead qualification and predictive personalization. We’re beginning to see some very powerful applications of AI amongst some of our customers that’s been integrated through Hull.

What data points do you work on to make Hull more competitive for optimized results?

We use Hull extensively for our own sales, marketing, and account management. Every person who touches or interacts with our brand or product is captured in our Users and Account lists inside the platform. We sync these across CRMs (Salesforce) and various messaging tools (Drift, Intercom, Customer.io), support, but also with our backend and systems like Stripe, Quickbooks, and Forest Admin.

Our goal is to build a foundation based on the best practices we see in our (later stage) customers’ companies. We think the way people will build companies in the future will start more and more from the data layer.

How excited are you about the trends in Data Management Platforms (DMPs) versus Customer Data Platforms (CDPs)? How does Hull.io prepare for this?

Data management platforms are abstracted away from the problem we solve. Customer data management has many specific problems that customer data platforms are purposefully built to tackle.

We’re about customer data!

That means aggregating data from the entire customer journey, using identity resolution strategies to create a unified customer profile (and unified company profile in B2B – together with the relationships between people and companies), then computing the attributes and segments, and syncing across all your tools in real-time.

There’s a lot of very specific logic that goes into that. Customer data platforms are built for these specific sets of problems. Outside of industry observers, we don’t see DMPs coming up in product comparisons.

How can organizations overcome biases in marketing data analytics, and focus to increase customer-centricity?

The problem in most organizations is they’re blind to their customers. Unless you’re a tiny Mom ‘n’ Pop shop (where you can remember every customer and everything about them), you have to lean on data to give you that context to make better decisions. So without data, our reps and marketers “fill in the blanks” themselves. They default to their biases.

We see teams transform when they share the same data. Particularly with sales and marketing, once they have a complete and common understanding of their leads, who is a best-fit lead, where they are in their buyers’ journey, what are they trying to do – it means sales reps and marketers become much more “in tune” with where a customer (or potential customer) is at, and they can respond accordingly right there and then.

What startups in the industry are you watching keenly right now?

We’re impressed with Drift’s demand gen machine. The story they paint around a new category of ‘conversational marketing,’ their brand building, their demand gen tactics, and the way they orchestrate their tools, teams, and customer data. Their platform has the potential to be really quite disruptive too – they mentioned things like voice and video are coming in their recent Series C. We look forward to seeing that.

Another one to watch is Appcues – another team of ex-HubSpotters. They’ve been using data in a really smart way from quite early on, and that shows in their growth. They prove you don’t have to be a much bigger, much later stage startup to adopt the smartest data-driven strategies. The team’s really humble too.

Here in Atlanta, I think Kyle Porter’s done a phenomenal job leading growth at Salesloft. It’s impressive how he maintains their unique culture in a fast-paced company like that. People are clearly proud to work there.

What marketing and sales automation tools and technologies do you use?

We mimic the same stack we see our customers using:

  • Clearbit for data enrichment
  • hull.js for tracking
  • Customer.io for email marketing
  • Drift for website messaging
  • Intercom for in-app messaging & help
  • Salesforce for CRM
  • Outreach for sales engagement
  • Stripe for payments
  • Hull to orchestrate all our tools

Could you tell us about a standout digital campaign at Hull? 

Last November, we launched the Complete Guide to Product Qualified Leads. Many SaaS companies have a free trial sales model, but few are able to engage those leads in a meaningful way before those trials end and the selling begins. We wanted to put together the mother of all guides here to teach the best practices we’ve seen to demand gen, sales, and product managers in scaling SaaS startups.

Instead of bundling as one downloadable eBook like many demand gen teams, we publish chapter-by-chapter on our microsite with a subscription box to get the next post. With a few chapters live, we launched on ProductHunt and saw over 1,500 product managers, entrepreneurs, and marketers subscribe for the complete guide.

We also followed up with a paid campaign. The nature of having the content upfront, but still an opt-in offer to get more later meant we had very high conversion rates. Our cost per lead moved to about $0.20 per lead (compared to about $6 per lead for comparable campaigns we ran with gated content).

We also used Landing Lion for this, a Techstars Atlanta startup that does a really good job of improving quality score compared with other landing page creators.

How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a business leader?

We’ve more experience than most managing AI by the nature of being a customer data platform.

The challenge of AI is first understanding the problems AI can solve. For a problem like qualifying leads or personalizing a website, it helps to have tried things out “manually” before inserting machine learning and intelligent algorithms to do the learning for you. Training the model, gain confidence and apply it.

AI can often “discover” things which from an outside perspective you can’t understand or infer. Optimization is not the same thing as learning.

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

You have to have a general curiosity around technology and data, who want to take ownership, and value having a high-caliber team around them. Then, you remind them of the problem we’re all solving. But it starts with the curiosity across the board, regardless of the department.

Additionally, I’ve always tried to lead by example, and with integrity, which is gained in drops and lost in buckets.

One word that best describes how you work.

Relentless.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

  • Gmail/ Slack/ Whatsapp (communication)
  • Hull Internal SaaS Dashboard, Forest Admin, QuickBooks, Salesforce, Stripe, Gusto (company intel)
  • Linkedin / Twitter (social)
  • iA Writer, Grammarly, 1Password, Day one, Spotify, others

What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?

Mute notifications i.e. email, messenger, text– you won’t believe the impact. If someone needs to reach you urgently, they can always pick up the phone.

What are you currently reading?

  • Lost and Founder – Rand Fishkin (just finished)
  • Why we sleep – Matthew Walker (reading)
  • High Growth Handbook – Elad Gil (just purchased)
  • Kindle, Podcasts
  • What works best for me is very early in the morning when the rest of the family still sleeps.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My dad taught me not to rush decisions. But once you make a decision you stick with it.

Something you do better than others – the secret of your success?

Focus and big-picture thinking. I think some agencies focus on deadlines and immediate solutions. To me, in its best form, software focuses on problem-solving for long periods of time. I like to tell people I’m a distance runner and not a sprinter.

Tag the one person (or more) in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:

Jackson Noel – Appcues

Thank you, Stefan! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

Stefan is a Co-Founder and the Chief Executive Officer at Hull. Hull gives companies the power to build audiences, learn from their actions and make customer experiences personal.

Stefan started 15+ years ago his career as an engineer and progressed through multiple technical positions eventually settling into a business role. He most recently assisted two European tech companies to jumpstart their North American Business Operations; the organization was acquired by SAP as one of the first 3 cloud acquisitions to fuel SAP’s cloud strategy. Post acquisition, Stefan led SAP Cloud sales for NA & LAC region.

In his spare time, Stefan is involved in the Atlanta tech community supporting young entrepreneurs with business development related topics. He enjoys mountain biking and sailing.

Hull
Most often when you’re doing Sales, Marketing or Customer Success, the data you need is in another place. Hull solves this by collecting, enriching and synchronizing customer data across all your services without writing any code. People deserve better than the sales, marketing and support of today. It’s never been easier to use data and technology to find, acquire and care for customers. But, that data so often sits siloed within tools and teams. Hull connects and combines that data so you can orchestrate a personal, relevant experience at every touch using your existing tools today. A seamless experience for customers and for the sales, marketing and support teams producing that.

The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.

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