Interview with Stephen Wakeling, Founder and CEO, Phobio

Stephen Wakeling

“It is essential to create robust knowledge bases that drive operational efficiencies, scalability and growth that can be automated through AI.”

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Tell us about your role at Phobio and how you got here. What galvanized you to start the company?

As a founding CEO of a boot-strapped, high-growth company, my role has continually evolved on what seems like a daily basis. Over the last decade so much has happened that got me here today, though, I think it could be broken down into two primary phases – starting it and running it.

During the “starting it” phase it was all about building and proving the product. We were trying to achieve something with little or no regard for our lack of resources or the fact that we had very little idea what we were doing beyond the goal of finding a better way for the mobile phone trade-in process. It started off with a couple of people wearing a dozen hats and working at all hours in garages and sleeping in their car to get it done. For me, this was the most fun. We were lucky that the need in the marketplace had been established and most of our competitors had failed in execution. All we had to do was prove we could do it better. For Phobio, it was more about winning trust, rather than educating the market on a need.

Once we had proven the product with a customer, my focus immediately shifted into the “running it” phase. We had to build a team around the product, establish a company, culture, and the systems to make our continued growth possible. Truthfully, we’re still in this phase.

As we continue to grow from year to year, and as the world changes around us, it’s important to us to continually expand what works, prune what doesn’t, and consider if we’re prepared for what is next.

What does your ‘Ideal Customer’ Profile look like? How do you build your audience segments?

Phobio primarily works with wireless carriers, mobile device manufacturers and electronics retailers. Our ideal customer values partnership, open communication and continuous improvement. We don’t like to work under a software services “set it and forget it” model. We like to understand the whole picture our customers are facing and continually improve our engagement for them. Sometimes we may even develop new platforms and products based on needs or challenges unrelated to our initial engagement.

Given the changing dynamic of marketing technology landscape, where do you see Phobio fitting into the stack?

We’ve had so much success playing in the niches. We look for disruption points as technology changes the current marketplace, and plan to enter as legacy systems wash out. As the big communication and retail revolutions have been shaking up how we work, shop, and connect we’ve had so many opportunities for both strategies. I think we will continue to be dominant in several software service verticals in these niches for the foreseeable future. Our devotion to continuous improvement and desire to build flexibility for an unknown future will insulate us from being a legacy enterprise system that can’t adapt to new and ever-changing customer expectations.

What data points do you work on to make Phobio more effective for optimized omnichannel campaigns?

We partner with our customers to combine data, optimize our campaigns and deliver the right message, at the right time, and to the right channel. We strive to balance the use of customer data and consumer insights to personalize the messages and accurately target channels customers have the highest propensity to buy.

How is the global market for flexible device trade-in platforms shaping up with the greater maturity of DMPs and AI-driven analytics?

Your AI is only as good as the data it has access to. It is essential to create robust knowledge bases that drive operational efficiencies, scalability and growth that can be automated through AI. This allows users to quickly get answers to questions in milliseconds.

There is a great opportunity for Phobio and other like services to achieve continued success due to AI. All three of these working in tandem will provide powerful insights for us, our customers, and ultimately further ease the transaction process.

How do you see the recent changes in data privacy laws (GDPR) impacting personalized customer experiences in your business? How are you preparing for the post-GDPR disruptions?

Phobio takes data privacy very seriously. When devices are traded in using our service we ensure 100% data erasure prior to that device being sold on the secondary market. If for any reason that device’s data can’t be erased, we will immediately destroy the device. Phobio partners with very sophisticated device erasure partners to ensure all data is permanently erased and we comply with all state, federal, and international data privacy regulations and guidelines.

We are constantly auditing existing third-party contracts and processes to ensure they adhere to the new regulatory changes.

What startups are you watching/keen on right now?

I’m fascinated by experience-oriented AI and natural language chat bot start-ups that are changing the way humans interact with systems. Automated Insights and our partner Conversable, are ones to watch.

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

We currently use Salesforce Marketing Cloud to build out all of our customer journey strategies and communications. The Marketing Cloud gives us the ability to automate and personalize our messaging based on specific customer needs. This platform also gives us in-depth insights on how the recipient engages with the communication once it’s received.

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

Our success depends on the success of our customers. As part of our service, we support our customer through digital campaigns and marketing programs to drive awareness. Our standout digital campaign was for one of the largest OEMs in the market. In support of a flagship device launch, the goal was to target wireless customers with specific device models, entice them to trade-in their old smartphone, and upgrade to the latest model. By combining device trade-in values with the OEMs’ customer data, we were able to provide dollar values to the prospect that could use towards an upgrade. The campaign successfully ran for 70 days and generated over $38M in revenue for our customer. The promotion was tracked via a promotional code through our software and exceeded the goal of the campaign by 257%.

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

I embrace it. It’s a new industrial revolution. So many business processes can be automated and we can more fluidly connect humans with systems that create space to focus on customer experience and business results. We really have to prepare our organizations to look for new AI-driven applications and blockchain technology. Our teams should really be incentivized to replace respective and administrative tasks with AI. As this revolution continues, so many teams feel the security of their jobs is threatened. I see the opposite. The skills required to identify opportunity for AI are so much more valuable than those required to carry out a repetitive task. It’s really an opportunity to reorient our workforce around the things that human teams do so well, which is finding creative ways to solve problems and deliver ever better experiences.

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

I love technology and I think when you’re passionate about something it tends to be infectious.

One word that best describes how you work.


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

At this point, I’m pretty dependent on Rodio, a Phobio product for workforce communication. As a parent of young children, YouTube can be a lifesaver. And I’m still pretty geeked about Tesla Autopilot.

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

Without a doubt, it is Dropbox Paper. It’s such a great collaboration tool for ideation with distributed teams. We share our weekly updates in Paper; in a second you can see who’s up to speed and what comments or questions the team has. The presentation tool essentially turns any outline into a PowerPoint—It totally factors out the time it takes to think about fonts and colors and puts the focus on the content. I really think Paper will eliminate most of our needs for meetings and will eliminate the time people spend building decks for internal consumption of information.

What are you currently reading? 

I read every day. I usually have a couple of books going at any time. Right now, it’s:

  • “It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best” by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz
  • “Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors that Drive Effective Selling” by Frank V. Cespedes
  • “Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years” by Michael Palin

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

When you’re an entrepreneur you don’t stop until the company is bankrupt or you’re dead.

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

I’m always so excited about the future. I love to get others excited about the future as well.

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

Glenn Lurie

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

Stephen Wakeling is a wireless industry entrepreneur with a track record of developing disruptive, technology-powered services. He’s worked for the better part of the last 10 years in the niche space of wireless buyback; first as an early manager at Flipswap (acquired by Hyla Mobile) and more recently as the founder and CEO of Phobio LLC.

Stephen is a journalist by education and a technologist at heart. He has moved frequently in his career, living throughout the US, Australia and Asia and enjoys exploring new places. He thrives on start-up culture and his personal mission is to build things better. Stephen is an avid pilot and lives with his wife and son in Atlanta.

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Phobio builds flexible device trade-in and collaboration platforms that elevate brands and delight customers.

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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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