William came from a scrappy, startup software background and his co-founder, Will, came from the more traditional, formal agency background. In 2015 Sweet Briar College, a historic women’s college in Virginia, was closing. Having attended the all-men’s counterpart, Hampden-Sydney College, William knew he wanted to help and knew his background in marketing could make a difference. William launched a HSC for SBC campaign and Shop for Sweet Briar shopping event to raise awareness and funding. Sweet Briar was ultimately saved and William saw a need to help alumni connect and fundraise easier. Recognizing this paint point, William created Alum, a mobile app for alumni chat and giving, used by alumni from over 300 colleges. William began to understand how different selling to school administrators was compared to e-commerce entrepreneurs. With the end goal being to optimize his own marketing, William envisioned a personality marketing tool. William and Will built Sorter to establish a more subconsciously beautiful internet. Sorter predicts personality traits and suggests marketing and interface adjustments based on the psychology of the recipient. Learn how Will and William are on a mission to fundamentally alter the way people and brands say hello in this week’s episode.
Shantel: Hey, William, welcome to the show.
William: Hey, how is it going? Thanks for having me.
Shantel: Of course, yeah, thank you so much for carving out the time. We're certainly excited to learn more about Sorter, and how you got started. We'd love to share with our listeners, if you don't mind kicking thing off with what does your company do?
William: Yeah, absolutely. Sorter makes neuromarketing easy for digital marketing teams. What we do is we take a company's customer marketing list, we analyze that list, and look for personality indicators, then sort the list by the personality type of the customers, and recommend marketing actions based on the psychology of that end customer. So, for example, if someone is highly analytical, their call to action might say, "Lean more." Because they need more data to make a decision. Whereas if someone is action oriented, it might say, "Start now," or, "Buy now."
Shantel: Wow. That is fascinating. Initial thing that kind of comes to mind, how from an email list can you determine personality indicators?
William: Yeah, that's a really good question. The short answer is just we aggregate all of the data that could be available on someone. So demographic data, social data, any biographical data, purchase or interest level data, and run that against models to predict where they might fall on a personality spectrum. But we built it to be very simple to the marketer, where all they really need to have is just an email address, and we can fill in the gaps. But of course, if their CRM, or their database, has other data, we can incorporate that as well.
Shantel: That is really interesting. How did you get into this? And how do they get started?
| A LIGHT BULB MOMENT |
William: Yeah, it's an interesting founding story. There's a lot of different dots that connect. But my background has been in e-commerce, e-commerce marketing, and e-commerce marketing tech. Out of college, several years ago, I started off at an e-commerce, startup in Atlanta, I was very early on there, and then eventually ended up at a marketing automation e-commerce company called Springbot, which came out of the Georgia Tech ATDC Incubator. While I was there, something loud happened. There was this women's college in Virginia, very historic, Sweet Briar College, and in 2015 they announced they were closing. By chance, I also had gone to a very small, an old college in Virginia, Hampden-Sydney College, which is an all men's college. So you can imagine these two colleges were closed by, and very, very, very friendly. There are friends' girlfriends, now some of my friends' wives into the school. So when they announced they were closing, I wanted to help them. I had a background on e-commerce and online marketing, so I launched a series of campaigns to help raise awareness and funding for this women's college that was closing. One of them was a shopping event, my e-commerce background shop for SweetBriar.com. This got a lot of traction, it was covered in The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, several publications in Virginia. I started seeing this inefficiency in how alumni fundraising was going. And how it was being done, especially for young alumni. So I did what anyone else would do, I quit my job, and I started Alum, and the idea was it was going to be a mobile engagement, and mobile fundraising app for college and high school alumni. What people don't know is that even if you give $1 to your school, it helps their overall giving percentage, it's really good. So it's optimized for micro-donations. What I learned, though, after quitting my job to pursue this startup was that schools typically were not as early adopting of new technology as I had seen when I was dealing with entrepreneurs and digital marketers. So I had a really hard time getting traction. I was a solo founder, I bootstrap it for almost two years, and it was really challenging. There are 300 schools in the platform, but very few are paying. When it came to sell, I remember it very distinctly, this one school in Virginia agreed to use it, they wanted to pay me for it, everything went really well, then they asked, "Who are your other customers?" I didn't have any. And then they backed out of the deal. By contrast, my very customer, paying customer, was a school in New York. The headmaster told me, "The only reason we're signing up for this is because we want to be the first people to have it." That was a light bulb moment for me. The buying process of the person who needed proof points of other people coming before them was vastly different than this other gentleman who had this innate desire to be the first person to have it. He was more vision focused, more open to trying new things. I started thinking, "What if I could segment my database of potential school customers by their personality type? Then do different types of engagements based on how they thought through a buying decision." That was a light bulb moment that eventually led me into a lot of academic research around this topic. Eventually meeting my co-founder, and pivoting from doing the ed-tech alumni business into doing this marketing business for personality segmentation.
Shantel: Okay. When that kind of started to roll off your plate, and you weren't pursuing that anymore, the Alum app, I mean, did you hop back into a job to help pay the bills? Or were you just bootstrapping everything?
William: Interesting question. The way I actually funded the Alum app was I had launched, this is like a side story, I had launched an e-commerce store, it was around the time that Snapchat started allowing people to create custom filters, but they had not released their own filter editor yet. So you had to be a designer in order to release custom Snapchat filters. So I launched an e-commerce store that sold custom Snapchat filters to brands, and to consumers for events like weddings, birthdays, Christmas, things like that. I was the only provider on Groupon, and LivingSocial in US and Canada for about six months, and then I sold that company to a guy in Europe. I gave some of the seed capital to keep Alum going. But when I had the idea for Sorter, and this idea of segmenting by personality. Outside of just marketing, I saw this opportunity to really build technology that would help make the internet in general more subconsciously beautiful, and more resonant with the way people want to perceive content. In a wild twist of events, I ended up presenting and pitching this idea at a competition in Atlanta, Techstars Startup Weekend. We won, I met my co-founder there. We won the competition. It was just very obvious at that time that the ground swell and the interest we had from potential customers, and investors and things like that, just after one weekend of working on this. It was much larger than I experienced in the educational technology market over the past year and a half, two years. So we pivoted immediately. My co-founder quit his job the next day and came on full-time. So there's no intermediate job, it was like from right when we saw the opportunity, and that it had legs, we went right into Sorter full time.
Shantel: That's still fascinating. So you met your co-founder, and in one day you're like, "You are the person that's going to help me grow this company."
William: It was really interesting. His name is also Will. It was kind of serendipitous. We're at this competition, he's sitting literally in the row in front of me, and the way they kick off the competition, they kind of break the ice, is they have this ... the entire room plays a game of rock, paper, scissors. So you turn to the person to your right, and you play rock, paper, scissors, and whoever wins, plays the next person to their right, and so on and so forth until there's a final winner of the entire room. Will was like the second or third person I played. He beat me. Originally, I was like, "You know, this guy, I'm skeptical of him, because he beat me at rock, paper, scissors." But then I pitched the idea, and he actually pitched his own idea. But he came up to me after I pitched, and they started doing like the voting, and there's a whole process to get your idea to be one of the final ones that people work on. He just got it immediately. He came from the more traditional, formal agency background, where I'd come from more of a scrappy startup software background, and he had experienced the pain point that I was envisioning solving with his own clients at the agency. Just trying to really understand who the customers were at a level that's deeper than the traditional persona. So that night, and on the team we had ourselves and a couple other people from the competition, who all went home somewhat early, but Will and I stayed back until like 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. at the Atlanta Tech Village, where it was being hosted. Just white boarded out my vision for Sorter, what I had been thinking on over the past few months as I'd been researching it, and then he brought in his input from his background, and we just looked at it as like a movie. You know, here's how we see the full story unfolding, the full potential for the technology, and this weekend competition is just like the opening credits. Just getting the platform started. He was bought in and his work ethic through the weekend, he was there both nights with me until the wee the hours of the morning. I think by the end of it we had covered every white board on the fourth floor of the Atlanta Tech Village with notes, and it was very obvious that he had the right work ethic, and he was looking at the problem and the solution in similar ways as I had. It hasn't changed since, he's been a great co-founder through thick and thin. I think in the early days, one of the things that is really important, because we can't fully get a sense of someone when you're just meeting them outside of the passion that they can bring, and the work ethic they bring. So we got to know each other over the course of the past year, and have become great friends, and I'm close to his family and whatnot. But originally, the two things that really stood out to me were just the passion for the space, and the work ethic involved. We were fortunate that we met there. I know people always have trouble finding great co-founders.
Shantel: Yeah. I really appreciate you sharing that story. I think it's fascinating to hear how people find co-founders. Sometimes, even Margot and I, my business partner, we get asked, "How did you guys connect? Do I work with my best friend?" We have a very similar story, and it was just kind of like in the moment, we got connected, and thank goodness for it, because I couldn't imagine doing it without her. But I do feel like we're very lucky to kind of have those moments of just like, "Okay, this makes sense, your strengths complement my weaknesses. We're moving in the same direction." How do you guys split roles currently?
| COMPLEMENTARY BRAINS |
William: Yeah. We're small, we're a small startup, so there's lots of overlap when, you're wearing multiple hats just by nature. Formally, I'm CEO, and he's COO. He has an agency background, so he interfaces more with agencies. He is very interested in process development, and building process for scale. So, I'll have an objective, maybe a longer-term objective, and he'll work with me to whittle that down into here's the exact process, to make that at scalable internally. For example, one of the things that we're going through now is building up our onboarding, and our knowledge database so that marketers can really easily implement the personality base segments, even if they're not a psychologist, getting them up to speed on what neuromarketing is, and how to use that. So he's really great at that. Also, he's really fascinated, as am I, but he loves to just dive deep and read all the academic papers that are coming out about this. So while we do share roles, it definitely skews more toward me on sales and vision, and him on process and data, which actually correlates really well with how we think through decisions. You go back to having complementary skillsets with co-founders, but it's also really important to have complementary brains, which is a big thing that we think about. It's interesting, I early was first introduced to this way of thinking when I was actually doing the fundraiser for Sweet Briar, one of the ladies that had donated to the campaign I was running was the mother of a friend of mine that went to the women's college. She is a consultant in DC for the government and like Fortune 100 boards in this thing known as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument. What it essentially says is that people think through decisions or opportunities in four primary quadrants, they're essentially action, vision, people, and data. Everyone goes into all four of these quadrants when they're thinking through a decision, but everyone goes into them in different orders, and different magnitudes. And everyone has their dominant quadrant. When you're thinking about how do you structure a leadership team, this is what the government and these large companies are doing, is putting someone who's dominant in each of those quadrants, or in two of those quadrants on the same team, so that when something comes across the table, they're looking at it in this holistic way. It just so happens, we've had our HBDI test administered to us, and Will and I have that complementary decision-making thought process. So the things that I'm not seeing, he can see. And the things that he's not seeing, I'm able to see.
Shantel: That's so neat. So what is the HD ...What did you say?
William: HB, as in boy, so it's the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, it's a decision-making hierarchy. I think maybe for clarity, for the podcast, I should define a couple things. First, let's define personality. Personality is typically looked at through what's known as the five-factor model, the big five, or the acronym OCEAN. OCEAN stands for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, or emotional stability. Everyone has a spectrum across those five pillars, but that's what comprises your personality. The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, it's your decision-making priorities, so you first go to the vision, and then maybe you lack in the data. In that case, you probably act with your gut without really digging into the details, or by contrast, many people are very, very analytical, they want to dive into the details, but they may not see the big picture. So these all come together to determine how people perceive the world. Then another good keyword to define, I've used it a couple times, is neuromarketing. Neuromarketing, traditionally, is the combination of neuroscience, psychology and marketing. This has been used for the past 10 or so years by very large organizations for widespread, mostly, television content. What they typically do is they'll put in, bring a focus group, and put EEGs or brain wave monitors on them, eye dilation monitors on them, and other tools, and they'll monitor the subconscious or neurological response to the stimuli that they're seeing, for example, a Super Bowl commercial. They'll see when that audience loses interest or gains interest on the neurological level, and they'll adjust their content based on that. So, as you can imagine, it's very expensive, it's very technical, medically even, and it's not really scalable. So what we're building at Sorter is a data science based version of that, by using personality and decision making as that lens into the brain. So instead of having to bring in a focus group, the marketer can individualize what neuromarketing does, and get you or another individual consumer that really tell an experience based on how you're thinking through the world.
Shantel: It makes me think quite a bit about like a DISC profile. Are you familiar with that?
William: Yeah. DISC is another blend of personality research, exactly.
Shantel: Yeah. As you were talking about the complementary or the opposite, Margot and I, my business partner, kind of also are on complete opposite spectrum. So she is like great with the team, and wants harmony in the organization, and structure, and stability. Whereas, I'm high D, and kind of like change, and shiny object syndrome. So that's a good balance. But just thinking through this-
William: That's how my co-founder and I are actually.
Shantel: Nice. It's good to hear. I'm curious, knowing kind of all of this data now, can you have a conversation with someone and you almost just based on how they're responding to things, or hearing a little bit more about how they purchase something, you can kind of place them in one of those four quadrants?
William: Yeah, I think we've definitely gotten better at picking up on some of these indicators, but that's not the ... there's still human error involved. In fact, one of the first people, advisors, investors, et cetera, that came on board with us, he actually used personality-based selling in the late '80s and early '90s at like Hewlett-Packard and Oracle. He would train his team to look for personality indicators, and then adjust their sales pitch accordingly. But the issue in that situation is that there's still the room for human error, or just human perception in general. You might not like that sales person. Even if that sales person got your personality correct. When we came to him with this idea of using digital data, and serving digital content, and removing that human element for it, it was immediately apparent how this removes that margin of error in human prediction, and also just how one human might perceive the other person in a conversation. But I think you're right. If you know how someone else communicates, it makes it much easier to either ... just it communicates them in a way that they're more comfortable with. Maybe it's more casual, or more formal, or someone might need additional details to tie the dots together, and being aware of that definitely helps to have smoother conversations.
Shantel: I'm already kind of probably pigeonholing my husband. It's like hours before purchasing something, he'll read every review, go on multiple sites to see if there's different perspectives on whatever product, and really just like weighs heavy on every purchase decision, and he must be more on like kind of that data driven type.
William: Yeah, potentially. That's a really good story. It reminds me of one that we experienced during the competition. There was a gentleman that I knew from the Atlanta Tech Village, who was, you know, past life, he was a sales trainer at Aflac. They trained their sales team in just selling. He was consulting with us during the weekend, and did a DISC assessment on our team, and the team was myself and Will, who went on to be the founders, and then we had two engineers that were part of the team for the weekend. He asked us, "How did you guys buy your last television?" And myself and Will, who maybe more on the big picture, vision side, "Wait a second, we went to the store, and we looked for a TV that was in our price range, and had a good picture, and it looked good, and it would look good in our house. Then we purchased it." By contrast, one of the engineers in the team said he spent three months researching the last TV that he bought. If you're like Best Buy, or you're trying to sell a TV, the way you'd want to speak to myself and Will, and the content you'd want to show us, and the images you'd want to show us, and the product description you'd want to show us would be way different than the engineer, who wants to know all the details, and how it compares to other models. So, your example with your husband is perfect. It's exactly what we're aiming toward.
Shantel: It would make no sense for people not to take what you've created and start using it, and implementing it. Has there been a challenge ... I'm sorry.
William: That's the goal.
Shantel: Has there been a challenge of getting these agencies involved? What has kind of been that barrier?
| MARKETING STARTS WITH THE BRAIN |
William: Yeah. That's a really good question. I think, one of the biggest challenges for us is that this is kind of a new way to look at how to structure your content. People right now are very focused on either behavioral optimization, or largely persona building. We think personas have a really good place. Take for example, you have the organic whole food shopper, that's like a persona. But what people are missing in that is that within that persona of the organic whole food shopper, they still think through. It might match that on their interest, or demographic based persona, but within that there are still four different ways that people are thinking through their decisions. So, adding that extra layer, we like to say the marketer should really start with the brain, and then layer on these other data points like a persona on top of that. So you'd have four different types of healthy whole food shopper personas. But with that, comes additional level of implementation effort. So you now have to create four campaigns instead of one. I think that's the biggest challenge for the average marketer. The agencies have been more receptive, because they have a little bit of extra bandwidth for some of the larger ones. Whereas an individual startup brand, it might have one marketer, two marketers, and they're doing lots of things, and it might a little bit more time consuming for them. So we've had mixed results on that. But that's something that we're very presently aware of. Right we do a lot of hand holding to provide recommendations to the marketer on how they can implement these different personas, or segments, and what we're building toward is to make that more automated. As we start to track more data going through Sorter, Sorter becomes more intelligent. Not just about the actual people that we're making predictions on, but what types of content that actual person is going to receive the best. So what we're building toward is a more automated recommendation system, where it's really simple for the marketer to just embed this in their marketing stack, and implement these suggestions without adding too much extra time. But right now, that's the biggest hurdle is just the fact they have to create multiple campaigns.
Shantel: When you're talking to these different agencies, are you finding that there are different people that you're talking to, and so your messaging to them has to change as well, so you're almost able to use your sales process as like a guinea pig to test your software?
William: That's a good question. I think it's become kind of innate now. Not just within business relationships, but even just talking to my friends. Some of my friends communicate in different ways, and I think the more that we become aware of these nuances, we just get better at structuring conversations in a way that giving people the amount of information that they need, but not overwhelming them. But then for the ones that need more information, knowing when to give them that information. There's something known as cognitive load, which is really important. Cognitive load, as a basic level, is just some people are able to interpret, and perceive, and understand denser and more content than others. You might overwhelm someone if you give them too much information. Whereas, for someone that can handle a large cognitive load, if you don't give them enough information, you just give them bullet points, then they're going to feel like they're missing something, and it wasn't all there. Knowing when to give the right amount of information I think is the most important in these kind of sales conversations.
Shantel: That's really interesting. I just have a couple more questions to wrap things up. One that's coming to mind is, because you've been an entrepreneur, you've started different things, any point in that process have you asked yourself, "What am I doing? I need to probably go find a job." Did you have any moments where you're like, "I think I needed to stop this." Or like, "I'm so stuck that it's scary and I need to find a full-time job again."
William: I probably can't even count high enough to know the times that that happened. When I was a solo-founder bootstrapping a product in the education market, and I quit my job, that was the hugest test of will I think that I'll go through for, knock on wood, but for being an entrepreneur. There were times when I was like a day away from having to find a job, and then something would happen, I'd meet someone who needed some consulting, and then just kept the dream alive a little bit longer. It was always, it goes back to like, they always say like, "Don't compare yourselves to your friends on Instagram or something like that." But I see all my friends, they're all traveling the world, and having all this fun, and I'm just trying to sacrifice that to keep the idea, of not having to go work for someone else, alive. There were numerous times where I made massive sacrifices to do this, and came so close to getting a job. But then, I have my close friends, who are also in some way entrepreneurial, and they would just say, "Don't, [inaudible 00:25:48] something will happen." It always did, but I always had to create that opportunity to keep it alive. My advice there is if you really want to do that, you just have to keep persevering through it. For me, I couldn't imagine do anything else, I just have this innate desire to create, and this is the best channel for me to do it. Even when things got really, really tough, that was what just kept me kind of going through it.
Shantel: I imagine, I can't speak for you, but having a co-founder to share some of these ups and downs with has been, when I was doing it alone as well, it was like, "Oh, this is." It's still tough. But at least now we can talk about, "Okay, that was a low, and how we're going to recover together." As opposed to it being this lonely ... just all-consuming thought.
William: It's such a different experience. You're exactly right. When you're doing it alone, and especially if you don't have friends that are also trying to be entrepreneurs, or are entrepreneurs, and there's not that support network that really understands it, form the outside looking in, they're just like, "What are you doing? Get a job." So doing it as a solo founder was a much more isolating and challenging experience when things would go poorly. Having a co-founder that's in it with you, 24 hours a day, and is seeing all the same problems and opportunities that are coming across the company, it's a much better experience, I can't stress that enough. But that said, I spent a long time, when I was doing the last business, looking for a co-founder because I thought I needed one just to fill in skill gaps and things like that. But looking back, what you really need is someone that really is in it completely, on that personal level, which is why Will and I, I think, match so well, because when we have something that goes wrong, and just like any other startup, when things go wrong, we just put our heads down and we come up with a solution. Doing that alone is such a much more challenging experience.
Shantel: I've certainly loved chatting and learning from you, and excited to follow along. How can our listeners get in touch, learn more about Sorter, and connect if they have followup questions?
William: Yeah. Absolutely. Our website is just Sorter.com. Then we also have a good story that we tell on our Instagram, @sorterlabs, they can also email me directly, it's wmb, as in boy, @sorter.com.
Shantel: Thanks, William, I really appreciate your time.
William: Yeah. Thank you. It was great.