Hi. I’m Sam Decker. Co-founder and Chairman of Clearhead.
I live in Austin, TX with my amazing wife (CEO of her audio post-production company for TV and Movies), my four kids (from six to 19 years old), my stepson and our new dog. Yep, I have a clan. I suppose I’ve always kept my hands full.
Early, Creative, Dot Com Startup Days
I was entrepreneurial since I was a kid. I fixed lawnmowers, sold test notes to friends, put on neighborhood festivals, and wrote computer programs for my dad’s business. Eventually, I discovered the ultimate tool I needed to launch these little businesses…the Mac SE! And that’s when I started playing with design and data.
I continued to use the Mac to start businesses in college…carpet cleaning, placemat ads, typing papers, design consulting, and a signage business. The love for Mac led me to pursue and land my first job out of college at Apple Computer.
As destiny would have it, months after joining Apple, a few of us spun our our word-of-mouth marketing division into a startup (User Group Connection). It was there, in 1994, I built my first website (see the 1996 version here).
Pushing the fast forward button, I spent the next six years in three dot-com startups leading marketing and product development. As you can imagine, we were overloaded on ideas (at Clearhead we call those ‘solution hypotheses’). At the time, I wasn’t practicing data-driven decision making or prioritization. Yet…
The Dell Deluge → Data + Change
In 1998, I took a recruiting call from Dell. At the time, the Dell culture was entrepreneurial (enough). I moved to Austin in 1999 to run ecommerce operations (and product management) of Dell.com consumer.
There was still an overload of ideas, but I was also drowned with data — web analytics, financial data and customer data. Excel became my best friend, followed by Powerpoint. Over the next four years we built the Dell digital team from four to 40 people, launched 250 projects, redesigned three times, quadrupled conversion, grew online sales to $3.5B (from 20% to 55% of revenue), and created best practices in product management and analytics. I drank from several firehoses those years, and I learned (and preached) how data can be used to improve prioritization and decision-making.
There were other things I learned running digital in a large corporation. Maybe you can relate?…
- Imagine this line chart… When revenue drops, executive creative input goes up (such as suggestions to add pop-ups, dot bursts and red buttons to the site).
- In most meetings, ideas start flowing by the 6-minute mark. The realization that we didn’t know the problem we were solving hits about two minutes after the meeting.
- At the end of a meeting the “Action-Item-Repeaters” (or A.I.R.) seem to get the upper hand in deciding what we actually do. It seemed the positioning to be the final A.I.R is what makes meetings go long.
- The development team may increase scope with a left-brain cost-benefit approach explaining how the project delivers EPS and stock growth.
- The development team can also increase scope with the right-brain tactic of having a requirements meeting over a margarita happy hour.
- It is the rare employee who can persuade the highest paid opinion in the room without data.
- I discovered Excel spreadsheets don’t paste well into Powerpoint. Also clip art has an opposite effect on persuasion.
- As you grow into ‘executivehood’, your Outlook calendar blossoms to triple-booked. You spend 30% of your emotional capacity on the career implications of those meetings.
- A one-on-one powerpoint on your big change initiative to an executive has the same effect on him/her as a healthy dose of Ambien.
- The actionability and memorability from your research, usability studies or excel-based data analysis has a half life of one to two days.
I navigated my way through a multi-billion-dollar organization as an intrepreneur. Being early in our digital transitioned into me leading other big changes, such as our customer centricity program, retail strategy, profitability segmentation, and hispanic marketing pilots. And I ran marketing for a $1.5B (B2B + B2C) division (a “startup” in Dell terms).
Looking back at these experiences, I cultivated the approach of being “middle-brained”. Combining the analytical/logical position with the design/artistic side yields the best results. In fact, today on the back of my computer, you will see a yin yang sticker symbolizing this philosophy.
Back to Startups: Creating Change Through Technology
After a seven-year career at Dell, I returned to startups on the technology side of online retail. In January 2006 I launched Bazaarvoice as founding CMO, running marketing and product development. It felt like we moved even faster than Dell, which I didn’t think was possible. In my five years we launched customer reviews into 500 online retailers such as Walmart, Best Buy, Home Depot, Tesco and others. My primary job was helping executives understand the problem of low customer trust, and persuading them to implement a validated solution of the customers’ voice on their site.
It was there, working across many corporations, that I discovered the challenges of innovation was not unique to Dell. Working across many industries, the cultural factors that accelerate or restrict launching the best (data-driven) ideas were similar.
“…the challenges of launching innovation was not unique to Dell. Working across many industries, the cultural factors that accelerate or restrict launching the best (data-driven) ideas were similar.”
In 2010 I was founder and CEO of another SaaS technology company called Mass Relevance. Here again, I was evangelizing the problem of low attention and engagement in marketing, and how the social voice in all marketing channels was a validated solution.
The Clearheaded Moment
My path to Clearhead was meeting Matty Wishnow in 2011 while running Mass Relevance. He wanted to move to Austin from NYC. He was also an ecommerce entrepreneur, but most importantly, he was a great guy. I may have invested in any business with him, but our conversation centered on how far analytics and testing tools had come, yet how organizations have not become data driven. I was on the board of a testing/analytics SaaS company at the time. We both identified the REAL problem of driving data-driven progress was not the technology, but rather the capability, capacity, process, and culture. The tools were just that: tools. Like a hammer lying on the ground. What online retailers needed most was a hand.
“We both identified the REAL problem of driving data-driven innovations was not the technology, but rather the capability, capacity, process and culture.”
Joined by co-founder, Ryan Garner (of Warner Music and JetBlue.com), we were three former ecommerce executives who started the kind of agency we would have hired in your seat.
The purpose of Clearhead was to help forward-leaning online brands drive data-driven growth and lasting change. We approach our work with “middle brains”, valuing the data as much as the data story. Our team has become expert at the tools and technology, but more importantly, we deploy the Clearhead methodology to execute optimization programs and build systems for sustainable ROI (10x to 50x ROI in fact. Client referrals available.).
After merging Mass Relevance with Spredfast in 2014, I put my mouth where my money was, moving from investment to sweat, joining Matty and Ryan as active Executive Chairman and CMO. I play a unique multi-function role helping scale Clearhead as the leader in digital optimization and helping our entrepreneurial digital clients do better every day.
I hope to see you soon!