Jared is a recognized expert in the field of retail data analytics after shaping how over 500 consumer goods companies leverage retail, point of sale (POS) data. Prior to co-founding InfoScout, Jared led product, professional services, customer operations, and business development for Retail Solutions. Jared’s storied past includes a few hacks at MIT, co-founding the Pat Tillman Foundation, throwing the javelin, and playing Australian Rules Football.
Tell me about your early career.
I worked odd jobs throughout college to fund my education. My first job out of high school was for a moving company in Phoenix, Arizona during the summer heat, where I quickly realized first-hand that it’s better to use your brains than your brawn to earn a living. Soon after, I became a shoe salesman at Big 5 Sporting Goods, a door-to-door salesman for a local marketing agency, a clerk, store manager for Blockbuster Video, and finally a non-accredited Physical Education and Algebra teacher at a local Christian school, all while taking classes, playing football, and competing in track & field.
I had been so focused on teaching, taking classes, and competing in track & field that I nearly graduated without even interviewing for a job. Fortunately, a manager at Intel sat in on a class where I presented my capstone project. He promptly grabbed me after the class and offered me an internship on the spot. My five years at Intel were eye-opening to the corporate world and full of personal growth and development, thanks to the excellent training and mentoring the company provided. Unfortunately for Intel, but very fortunately for me personally, the “dot-com bubble” burst in 2000, just as I had been promoted to lead capacity planning for much of Intel’s supply chain. Almost overnight, the company went from being supply-constrained to producing twice as many computer chips as it was shipping, which resulted in overflowing warehouses. Intel promptly shipped me off to Asia to figure out what was going on. The more I interviewed people across different functions to piece a cohesive story together, the more I realized that they were all working off of different sets of data related to forecasts, plans and actual performance related to supply and demand. I immediately started to pull those disparate data sets together, having to teach myself to code in SQL and Visual Basic to wrangle that data into a harmonized view of Intel’s supply chain. In doing so, I created a decision support system that served as the basis for establishing integrated sales & operations planning (S&OP) across Intel’s marketing, sales, customer service, logistics, production scheduling and finance organizations. This work launched my career, while also exposing me to the world of software development and data-driven business intelligence.
I knew this was the kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my career, but that I would be most satisfied if I could apply it to an entire industry, rather than within just one company. I also had a bit of an entrepreneurial bug, so I sought a master’s program that would best position me to become a software-industry entrepreneur. MIT was the obvious choice. After failing to get into their MBA program, the Master of Engineering program in logistics reached out to me and snuck me into MIT through the back door. I took every entrepreneurship course I could and competed in the MIT $50k (now $100k) start-up competition by founding FantasySeats, a futures market for playoff tickets. Want to see the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the World Series? FantasySeats would sell you a seat in the pre-season. If the Red Sox made it to the World Series, you’d get a ticket to the game. If not, we’d keep your money and throughout the season, you’d have a tradable asset in an open market with a price that fluctuates based on the team’s performance.
That would have been fun to pursue, but the business model was likely to run afoul with gambling laws, so I punted on the idea and looked to join someone else’s startup instead. I had learned so much about what to look for in startups during my year at MIT that I struggled to find one that met all of my criteria: 1) experienced founders who had built a business together before, 2) solid funding from top firms, 3) early traction with industry-leading clients, 4) and huge market potential if they could find product-market fit. Fortunately, I fell into a role at Teradata leading their “go-to-market” for the consumer good vertical that would allow me to learn strategy, marketing, business development, as well as sales and consulting. None of which I had been properly exposed to at Intel. During my short stint at Teradata, I continued to look for a startup to join. I came across a Series A funded company in Silicon Valley called T3Ci that was the early leader in RFID data analytics for retailers and consumer goods manufacturers. I convinced T3Ci to create a job for me leading client services, and when it became clear that RFID had been overhyped (back in 2005), I helped pivot the company into retail POS data analytics under a new name, Retail Solutions. There, we convinced retailers to freely share their POS data with the brands who sold products through them so that both parties could use the same data and analytics to create joint business plans, more accurate sales forecasts, optimized promotions and sufficient inventory. Over the course of six years, we grew the business globally to over 75 retailers and 500 consumer goods manufacturers as clients, earning many accolades along the way.
How did the concept for InfoScout come about?
Given that I was not a founder of Retail Solutions, I was continuously looking for opportunities to start my own venture. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far, as my customers brought the idea to me. As the head of products & services, they kept bringing me business questions that required access to the retailers’ shopper-level data, but they were only willing to share aggregate store-level sales data (e.g., Store Number 917 sold five boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios on May 20th, 2017), with no breakouts for how many boxes each shopper bought, or any information about who the shoppers were. After failing to convince any retailers to share shopper-level data, I began to wonder why clients such as Kraft and Procter & Gamble were coming to me with these questions, instead of getting their answer from the billion-dollar incumbents, such as Nielsen and dunnhumby. The more I researched how those companies sourced their shopper data, the more I realized how limited their data was and how challenged they were to answer incredibly valuable business questions such as, “Did the Tide promotion at Target last month truly drive incremental profits or did existing buyers of Tide stuff their pantries at a big discount?”
With retailers unwilling to share their shopper-level data in a meaningful way, it became clear that the data had to be sourced directly from hundreds of thousands of shoppers. Since 1979, Nielsen has incentivized shoppers to use an in-home barcode scanner connected to their modem/router to scan the barcode on every product they buy. Then, they have to use this clunky device to thumb in the regular price for the item and the price they actually paid, resulting in a cumbersome experience and questionable data quality. There’s simply no way to get hundreds of thousands of Americans to consistently report all of their purchases through such a process.
Smartphones to the rescue. Back in 2011, the year that I co-founded InfoScout with Jon Brelig, one-third of American households owned a smartphone and our simple bet was that nearly everyone would own a smartphone within five years. Believe it or not, many smart people weren’t convinced of this bet at the time. Smartphones would allow us to appify, gamify, and most importantly, simplify the experience for people willing to participate in our panel. Our idea for simplifying the panelist experience was to allow them to simply take a picture of their receipt, instead of scanning the barcode on each product and thumbing in its price. This meant that someone who had just bought thirty items at the grocery store could report their item-level purchases via a picture of their receipt in fifteen seconds, rather than spending fifteen minutes scanning in barcodes and thumbing in prices.
To get the products and their prices off of the receipt pictures, we’ve built technology to harness both computer vision and crowdsourcing to transcribe the receipt contents. We then built machine learning technology to match the short descriptions of products on receipts to information about the real-world products they represent.
How was the first year in business?
InfoScout’s first year (2012) was the single most challenging year of my adult life. I had moved my wife and kids into her parents’ home in Budapest, Hungary in part so that we could afford for me to go without a salary. The company and my co-founder, however, were based in San Francisco, California. I spent weeks at a time sleeping on my co-founders couch and working from his dining table as we tried to go from zero to one, and secure funding. Given the fact that he had already founded two start-ups with successful exits, and that I had built a reasonably large business in an adjacent market space, we thought it would be easy to secure initial seed or Series A funding. As it turned out, a PowerPoint presentation about how awesome InfoScout was, wasn’t enough. If we wanted to raise money, we had to show traction, yet no one could tell us what traction actually meant. Was it clients using our product? Was it revenue? Was it shoppers uploading their receipts? How many of them? How often? What would the investor consider enough ‘traction’ for us to be worthy of their investment?
In April 2012, after dozens of failed pitches to angel investors and VCs accompanied by tense, silent drives with my co-founder from Sand Hill Road (where most of the VCs were located in Menlo Park) back up to his apartment in San Francisco, I finally broke down. I literally sat in my co-founder’s hallway and cried like a baby. I might’ve been fine if I had truly understood why we weren’t getting funded, but I really was clueless and therefore had no idea how best to proceed. I was also exhausted from giving up a very comfortable lifestyle to sleep on a couch for weeks at a time, thousands of miles away from my family, without a salary and dwindling cash in the bank.
Thank goodness my CTO and co-founder just started to build something, anything, that could start to show a semblance of whatever traction was. It was to be our first mobile app that would pay people to upload pictures of their receipts after every shopping trip. I was pretty much worthless as the business guy, up until the point where I proposed that we call the app Receipt Hog and add some gamifcation, instead of just simply paying the users directly for each receipt. Instead, new users would be adopting a virtual runt and feeding it pictures of their grocery receipts, leveling up to a fat and happy hog. Each receipt earned coins in a piggy bank from which users could cash out via PayPal. That first version is laughable now, but as a minimum viable product (MVP), it worked. People used it, and more importantly, they invited their friends to use it as well. Before we even knew what was happening, we had traction and landed our first angel investors!
We used the seed money to grow Receipt Hog’s user base and to build another complementary app called Shoparoo, which turns receipt pictures into school donations (akin to Box Tops for Education, but better). Unilever signed on as Shoparoo’s launch partner and Procter & Gamble paid to evaluate the potential of our technology to scale. And as both Receipt Hog and Shoparoo rapidly scaled towards capturing as many shopping trips a day as the largest incumbent, Nielsen, we were able to secure $4.5 million in Series A funding at the close of our first year, in December 2012.
What was your marketing strategy?
We have always erred on the side of a direct sales strategy, as opposed to marketing as a way to reach prospects. We have twenty-five salespeople and just one person in marketing who oversees our website and coordinates our presence at industry events where our sales reps can interface directly with prospects. Ours is a complex sale that can only result from having a direct conversation with the prospect, and it’s my belief that the most cost-effective way to make those conversations happen is to hire a sales rep and give them a dozen accounts to service.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We had slightly over $200,000 of revenue in 2012, and again 2013, before breaking out in 2014 with over $2 million, after licensing access to our data (via a SaaS business intelligence interface) to several major consumer packaged goods (CPG) clients. We have more than doubled our revenue every year since, and have just started to turn a profit. At the end of 2015, the San Francisco Business Times named InfoScout the #1 fastest-growing software company in Silicon Valley over the prior three-year period. “Inc. 500” also placed us at #3.
How do you define success?
Success for me is achieving my potential in a way that positively impacts the lives of others. If my actions only benefited me, I don’t think I would be proud of myself, especially later in life when I have an opportunity to reflect on everything I have and haven’t done. I would like to be known as someone who continuously strove to make himself a better person and in doing so, led others to do the same. I would like to be remembered for having applied my talent and energy to touch the lives of many people, rather than having done so to accumulate wealth or fame.
What is the key to success?
You must have some concept of what success looks like and have the discipline to continuously plod forward in its direction. Behaviors and choices that don’t advance you in that direction may as well be taking you in the wrong direction. If you’re truly serious about being successful, you’ll be very conscious about how your thoughts and actions actively advance you towards your vision of success on an almost daily basis.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
There will always be people more talented that you are. More intelligent, more clever, more persuasive, better networked. You name it. Focus on being the best you that you can be. Continuously improve yourself. Focus on what you can control, which are your actions and efforts, not on what may or may not happen or what others may or may not be doing. Work as smart as you can, but absolutely don’t ever let anyone work harder towards the same goal.
What are some of your favorite books?
A couple of my favorite entrepreneurship books are Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future and The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. I also really love books that help explain how the world works in some fundamental way, like The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn (scientific discovery), Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life by Albert-laszlo Barabasi (systems), and The Rules of the Game: International Money and Exchange Rates by Ronald I. McKinnon (money).
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Besides the day when I broke down, I’ll never forget turning down our first Series A term sheet. After a year of trying to raise a Series A, we finally got our first term sheet in late 2012. The terms weren’t great, but in the absence of an alternative, they were acceptable. If finally earning a paycheck meant a lower valuation and giving up two board seats instead of just one, then so be it. But then another VC firm, Bain Capital Ventures, was suddenly interested in funding us. There was just one catch. They could get us in to pitch their partners on Monday, after which they would make a decision to invest or not. Meanwhile, the first term sheet we had finally gotten after a year of effort would expire on Friday, three days before we could pitch Bain’s partners. Ajay Agarwal of Bain convinced me that the firm that had already given us the term sheet and would still want to invest in us on Monday, even if we let their offer expire. It was a nerve-wracking decision. I agreed to let the competing term sheet expire, in hopes that our pitch to Bain’s partners would go well the following Monday. Why? Because I asked Ajay to commit to a better set of terms (with a higher valuation and just one board seat) if his partners decided to invest in InfoScout. He made that commitment and kept his word and we’ve had an excellent partnership ever since.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I had the privilege of befriending the late, great Pat Tillman. The man was driven to continuously improve himself seemingly at all times and in every possible way that a person can improve. He was an overachieving underdog throughout his career. Someone who always found a way to achieve more than others thought he was capable of. When I face adversity, I often think of Pat. I imagine him relishing the challenge and taking it head on with full force. I imagine him by my side, encouraging me to push ahead. To push myself beyond those false barriers that seem to hold us all back.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s your ability to execute against an idea that matters. Don’t be afraid to share your idea with others and get their feedback. Their feedback and your refinement of the idea is more valuable than the risk of someone stealing your idea. If your idea can be stolen, then it probably isn’t that good anyway. That’s a sign that it’s not very defensible and/or that you’re not uniquely positioned to execute on the idea.
Don’t worry about maximizing your slice of the pie. Focus on making the pie as large as possible. Tiny fractions of big pies are much larger and more valuable than large fractions of tiny pies.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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