Seven and a half years after launching BloomReach, I knew we needed a framework to evaluate where we came from, and more importantly where we are going.
As a maturing startup, the framework notion became crystal clear late last year when we acquired Hippo, a content management powerhouse based in Amsterdam. It was a new era for us, just as a new era was dawning in the digital economy. And Hippo? A new era there, too. Just as we came together as one company, Forrester named Hippo a Strong Performer in its 2017 Wave for Web Content Management Systems.
Which brings us back to the framework and how to build that. I scoured literary formats for analogies. A poem? Too removed from reality. Blog? Lacks the nuance of our journey. A movie? Too continuous, without breaks.
Ultimately, I settled on a book — one story with clear breaks, namely chapters, that build on each other, leading to a climax. Each chapter is a mini-story onto itself. New characters arrive as the chapters change, and older ones move on. Some protagonists (often the founders and investors) stay constant but seek renewal. Sometimes the chapters involve taking a step back, but mostly they involve a jagged sense of forward progress.
Thinking about our start-up journey in the form of chapters has been hugely important to the psychology of BloomReachers. The chapters give our investors and our teams clarity about the primary goals, the primary leaders, the most important priorities and how each chapter connects to the previous one and leads to the next one.
Perhaps the most important thing about thinking in chapters is that it allows you to close (and celebrate) one chapter and psychologically open up a new one. At BloomReach, we’ve just embarked on Chapter 3. As we talked about our latest chapter (which started late last year), we printed T-shirts (“Welcome to Chapter 3”) and we asked everyone to come to work the next day as if they’d joined a new company.
A new chapter is all about progress and change, but there are some unmovable objects in this story – the core values, the core DNA and the core mission.
The start-up journey is long – so a framework to break it up allows everyone in the company to actively recognize that a number of things need to be different with the new chapter. Different people (allowing us to ask, “Is he or she a Chapter 3 leader?”), different priorities, different processes (We are trying a new operational scaling methodology.) and an active evolution of the strategy. It also allows us to think about our value creation in step functions – knowing that early in a chapter, we need to write more of the story to realize the next milestone.
Each of our chapters has lasted about 3 to 4 years, not coincidentally what it takes to build something meaningful and representing the average vesting period of an employee’s stock options in the fast moving world of Silicon Valley.
Our Story: Chapters 1 and 2
So, how did we arrive at Chapter 3? Naturally it makes sense to start with Chapter 1. Chapter 1 in the digital economy was all about acquiring customers. It was about optimizing organic search, driving customers to a website. It was about digital leaders competing — and working to out-compete others — for a bigger share of customer acquisition.
BloomReach was there, writing its own Chapter 1 by using machine learning and a deep understanding of consumer behavior and web-wide demand to offer organic search technology for e-commerce that instantly matched individual consumers’ intent with web owners’ content at scale. Our Organic Search was a boon for enterprises. It was good for consumers, too, providing more relevant landing pages. By the end of Chapter 1, we had a large percentage of the leading e-commerce retailers in the United States on BloomReach.
Our DNA in Chapter 1 was all about back-end data scientists and a true culture of optimization for e-commerce. Our business model hinged on that value creation. But it wasn’t enough.
In Chapter 2 of the digital economy, business leaders built on Chapter 1 and focused on maximizing their investments in digital marketing and commerce to deliver higher rates of conversion and order value. Chapter 2 for BloomReach was about making sure businesses were seeing maximum lift in traffic and revenue; making sure they were squeezing the highest possible margins out of the products and services they sold.
Chapter 2 tools were about data and data science to provide digital marketers the insights they needed to target offers, promotions, and experiences to identified customer segments. In Chapter 2, our customers sought to invest in new tools to optimize the customer buying journey. Hence, the proliferation of startups in marketing and commerce technology.
BloomReach led the way into Chapter 2 with a Commerce Search product that improved and personalized site search and navigation. And we doubled-down on that success with Compass, a tool that provides merchandisers with instantly actionable data to present the right products to the right customers. With Chapter 2, BloomReach became a multi-application company across organic, site search, personalization and merchandising —all in e-commerce. We also took our product suite international — to the United Kingdom.
We needed to build new muscles to make Chapter 2 work. We needed the ability to cross-sell, build a technology foundation for three products and the ability to find three product/market fits at the same time. It is no accident that one of the fastest growing hiring periods for BloomReach was in 2012/2013 – at the onset of Chapter 2.
Our Next Journey: Chapter 3
Which brings us to Chapter 3, just in time for the third chapter of the digital economy — a more sophisticated, real-time economy. Chapter 3 represents a world in which consumers are demanding that those providing products and service on the web not only understand them as unique individuals, but that they also understand the context of their lives and the context of the moments they are living in – knowing that sometimes they are in “research mode”, sometimes in “buy mode” and sometimes in “entertainment mode.” Chapter 3 is about building durable brand power and customer relationships by truly understanding and servicing each customer as a unique individual. Chapter 3 moves beyond optimizing the customer buying journey to optimizing the entire customer lifetime journey. Chapter 3 is about buying long-term competitive differentiation through customer experience.
The consumer in today’s age is not sympathetic to the disconnected customer experience that has come out of fragmented optimization stacks and data silos of Chapter 2. And our enterprise is tired of 100 point solutions that each claim to deliver ROI but don’t move the needle. But consumers remain in a state of extraordinary flux —rapidly moving between devices, platforms and experiences. They expect the entities they deal with, our customers, to keep up with innovation, but coherent innovation.
Chapter 3 involves bringing the outcome-driven, machine-learning technology we have applied in commerce, across every other vertical — brands, government, healthcare, education, media, financial services and others. To that end, we are focused on “horizontalizing” our technology stack. It also requires us to ensure that we don’t use one platform to build our digital experiences, and another to optimize them.
We need one, self-learning platform that powers our digital experience. To do that, we felt we needed to bring together the Web Content Management space (since content is what most of the web is) with the personalization space. The platform needed to be one thing but remain open to myriad third parties plugging in.
Chapter 3 moves beyond the science of marketing and reaches for the magic of marketing, the data-optimized ability to consistently deliver a brand’s promise with every customer interaction and at every moment that matters, all while riding on a single Digital Experience Platform – one that is open and intelligent.
Building those strong bonds with consumers is the mission of every one of BloomReach’s customers. They are intent on transforming their businesses and driving competitive advantage and digital success through customer experience. And we are intent on helping them.
Scaling Up: Leading Chapter 3 to Help our Customers Accelerate Digital
BloomReach began writing our own Chapter 3 with the acquisition of Hippo. Now Forrester research has validated both that vision and our approach to it, by naming Hippo, a Strong Performer in its Forrester Wave for Web Content Management Systems, Q1 2017.
We couldn’t be more excited to be leading the way in the latest chapter, not just for BloomReach, but for each of our customers and the digital economy as a whole. Chapter 3 changes the game for us in terms of people (we have started to bring on new leaders in new leadership roles), priorities (we are focused on the overall digital experience space), business model (simplifying our business model to enable long-term partnerships), addressable market (an expansion from commerce to multiple verticals), geography (adding in Europe, the Middle East and Africa), operational processes (using a new methodology called “Scaling Up”), product priorities (moving aggressively to ensure customers see the value of a single platform) and ecosystem (adding more channel and ISV partners). Bottom line – a lot is different for us, as it is for the market.
We are in the midst of a dramatic business transformation, the urgency of which is underscored by Hippo’s inclusion in the Forrester Wave for WCM.
We are gratified, but not surprised, that the Forrester Wave recognized the power of our Hippo team as a Strong Performer in the WCM space. It’s a tremendous beginning for Chapter 3, but we’re just getting started.