PowerPlayer: Swipely CEO Angus Davis

Monday, November 07, 2011


This week’s PowerPlayer is Swipely CEO Angus Davis. Mr. Davis was kind enough tell GoLocalProv about his time in Silicon Valley, his commitment to education and of course, his new company.

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1) You have an interesting background, including skipping college to join Netscape as its youngest employee. Tell us about what it was like coming of age just as the Internet started to take off.

Joining Netscape at 18 gave me a front row seat to Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship at the dawn of the Internet. Start-up companies create all net new jobs in this country. In a typical year, existing firms are net job destroyers, losing 1 million jobs net combined per year, by contrast, in their first year, new firms add a combined average of 3 million jobs. The best way to boost economic growth is to make conditions favorable for entrepreneurs to start a business. Nowhere are those conditions more evident than in Silicon Valley, California.

A few years after joining Netscape, I left to co-found Tellme Networks with my mentor and fellow Netscape employee, Mike McCue. Together we built a stellar team, creating hundreds of jobs by revolutionizing the way people and businesses use the phone with speech recognition. It was a lot of hard work - I had a loft bed over my desk in the office, and we worked many 80 hour weeks. Together we grew Tellme into a billion dollar company, and ultimately it was acquired in 2007 by Microsoft, where I stayed on for 2 years.

Being successful is about taking risks, and being willing to fail. In the words of Michael Jordan, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot, and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life...and that is why I succeed." I recently gave a speech on entrepreneurship, taking risks, and making better mistakes tomorrow at the Business Innovation Factory conference in Providence, you can check it out here.

2) You recently launched Swipely, a cash-back rewards program linked to credit cards. Tell us about your latest venture.

Swipely helps local Main Street merchants grow their business. Big retailers know 80% of sales come from repeat customers, so they invest heavily in loyalty programs that increase purchase frequency by 20% or more for loyalty members. But smaller local merchants don't have the technology expertise, the budget or the time to run these programs - until now. Swipely offers local merchants big-brand marketing tools without the need for big-brand resources. We're working with hundreds of local merchant partners to help them strengthen relationships with their best customers. Merchants can check us out at http://swipelyworks.com.

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For consumers, Swipely is a great way to earn rewards shopping locally at your favorite neighborhood restaurants and stores. We want consumers to feel like Norm Peterson when he walks into Cheers - loved and appreciated for being such a loyal customer. Next month we are launching some improvements that will make it even easier for consumers to sign up and start earning rewards with Swipely. We're excited about our upcoming expansion to Boston, New York and California. Consumers can check us out at http://swipely.com.

Like many startups, one of our biggest challenges is hiring great people. Most recently, we made some big additions to our management team. Bari Harlam left CVS, where as SVP of Marketing she built the world's largest loyalty program and grew it to over 60 million members. Today she's Swipey's marketing chief, bringing her know-how to our growing network of local merchant partners. We just moved our office, doubling the size of our space. It's a thrilling time to be part of a high growth technology company right here in Providence. We hire a new person every two weeks! Those up for the challenge can check us out at http://swipely.com/jobs

3) Take us through a day in your life.

Days are busy and run late. Here's a typical day:

8:30 am. The dress code at Swipely is to dress. Most days it's jeans and sneakers for my walk to work listening to Foster the People or Coldplay on my iPhone.
9:00 am. Triage my email. I get about 400 per day. The challenge is to detect the 1 or 2 that are really important.
10:00 am. Meet with Bari Harlam, review our marketing plan for the upcoming Boston launch.
11:00 am. Product review with the front-end development team on a new Swipely product that lets local merchants send beautiful email newsletters in a way that seamlessly integrates with their loyalty program and their events calendar.
12:00 pm. My Silicon Valley friends are starting to wake up. This is a good time to check Twitter. I exchange some private Direct Messages with a hedge fund manager, talking about Apple, and with an analyst who is writing about Groupon's upcoming IPO.
1:00 pm Review a proposal our sales team has prepared showing a popular Boston restaurant group how we can help grow revenue by 5% next year with a loyalty program customized for their business. I write a personal email to the head of the restaurant group so she knows they have our full attention.
2:00 pm Follow-up email to a portfolio company. I'm an investor in Getaround, WePay, Treatful and others. Today one wants help fundraising.
2:30 pm Thinking about how we can make Swipely a bigger business faster as I walk over to Fellini's to grab a slice for lunch. Our entire office has lunch catered every day, but today I'm eating alone an enjoying a brief moment of downtime.
3:00 pm Lining up meetings for my California trip next week. Primarily checking in with my board members, and catching up with old friends and colleagues. This trip I'll see Reid Hoffman, one of our investors, Mike McCue, my Tellme cofounder, and several others.
5:00 pm. 30 minute sales pipeline review meeting with our head of sales, Matt Oley. Matt joined Swipely earlier this year from Seamless Web where he built a 7,000-merchant network of restaurants for online food ordering. Now he's working for us building something even bigger at Swipely. Today we review our sales progress in the Boston market.
7:30 pm. It's 4:30pm on the West coast. A company that wants to change the way small businesses purchase legal services is pitching me on a seed investment. I decide to pass. Unfortunately you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.
8:30 pm. Walking home for dinner with my wife Joanna. We talk about our days. We make plans for the weekend with some friends.
10:30 pm. Joanna's asleep. Back to work, replying to emails, and working on a product specification document that I collaborate on with our head of engineering.
12:00 am. Analyzing some analytics reporting on how consumers are using Swipely's service. Have a bunch of questions. Email them to our analytics product manager, who happens to live in San Francisco, where it's only 9pm. We have a back-and-forth exchange on email about my questions over the next 45 minutes.
1:00 am. Write a few emails, try to catch stuff I missed on the triage. Also a good time to check Twitter and the tech blogs.
2:00 am. Normally I'm asleep by 2 or 3.

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4) You've made education a top priority. What do you believe is the single most important way to close the achievement gap?

All net new jobs created in this country require some post secondary education, so improving our educational outcomes is an economic imperative. It's also a civil rights injustice. Rhode Island has the largest Latino-White achievement gap in the nation, which is exactly why we also have the highest rate of Hispanic unemployment in the nation. Lest anyone think brown kids can't learn, keep in mind that Hispanic children in Florida outscore the statewide average kids in Rhode Island. Demographics do not determine destiny.

Traditionally we have lacked the leadership and the political will to take on education reform. Our system is designed to serve the best interests of adults, not kids. I joined the Board of Regents in June 2007 with Bob Flanders. In a few short years, we hired a transformative leader in Commissioner Deborah Gist (the first change in leadership in 17 years), and we reformed regulations for teacher certification and charter school governance to allow more innovation and greater accountability. We raised graduation standards, and we won the $75 million Race to the Top, the largest competitive Federal grant ever won by Rhode Island. These were the biggest changes in 20 years for Rhode Island's educational trajectory. The Commissioner has an excellent strategic plan, and we must sustain it, as Rhode Island's problems won't be fixed in a single year.

Governor Chafee removed reformers including me from the Board of Regents earlier this year after he announced a "thoughtful pause" to education reform. More recently, he has come around, saying he supports the proposal to open an Achievement First Rhode Island Mayoral Academy in Providence. This is the sort of transformative school that was at the heart of our winning Race to the Top application, and last week US Secretary of Education said it makes no sense to deny the opportunity. I agree with the Secretary and I am working on this issue closely.

Education reform is not about any one silver bullet - charter schools, teacher certification, or graduation standards -- it is about doing all of them, because kids can't wait. Regardless of who serves as our governor, I remain committed to the cause of education reform. It is the single most leveraged investment our state can make to improve its long term economic well being, while our outrageous achievement gap is the greatest civil rights injustice of my generation. And it is ongoing.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

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I started a beehive this year. Oh, and Joanna and I are expecting our first child in April grin

Quick Hitters

Role Model: My late grandfather, Robert Spink Davis.

Favorite Restaurant: I love Providence restaurants, but my favorite spot for dinner is our dining room table at home with friends and family - Joanna is a terrific cook and I like making dessert.

Best Beach: On mainland, Narragansett. But, if you can find a boat ride, Quick's Hole Beach in Buzzard's Bay is awesome.

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: On education, Class Warfare by Brill. On business, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. For relatively cheap backyard thrills, Beekeeping for Dummies.

Advice for the Next Angus Davis: Be proactive. Try stuff. When you fail (and you will), try again.



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