Keith Nealon Transcript

Clint Betts

Keith, thank you so much for coming on the show. It is an honor to talk to you and learn more about Bazaarvoice. I don't know if people know a lot about Bazaarvoice, but it's a pretty incredible company. Has over 1,300 employees, founded in 2005, helps 12,000 plus brands and retailers. It's a pretty incredible business of growing concern, as they say. Keith, what is Bazaarvoice?

Keith Nealon

Well, first, Clint, thanks for having me. It's my honor to be here, so I appreciate the time. Bazaarvoice. My favorite topic. So BazaarVoice, a great company for about 18 years in existence now, we have almost 13,000 brands as clients and we do many things. The thing we're most known for is ratings and reviews. So when you go online and you're looking to make a purchase on a product, you'll read ratings and reviews and see what the consumer feels about products. We were first to market in that space. So many of the major brands and retailers that offer products to consumers, we support them with our software and content to help them be successful in their commerce objectives.

The way I like to think about it is harnessing the voice of the customer at scale to help other customers make informed purchases, and also harnessing the voice of the customer at scale to help brands and retailers really connect with those consumers and create and innovate together. Because you're bringing a collaborative relationship between the brand and the consumer, harnessing all that input for really greater innovation, right? Around your products. You're getting unlimited consumer feedback at scale, and so that accelerates the kind of innovation cycle for customers too. That's it in a nutshell. We do plenty of things, but sort of a simple analogy of what we do.

Clint Betts

And how were you the first to market to this? What was the idea? I mean, this seems like an obvious idea now in 2023. Did it seem as obvious in 2005?

Keith Nealon

Probably not, and I don't get credit for that. I joined the company as CEO four years ago. I'm not the founder, but our founder was a new parent and was trying to decide what stroller to buy for his new baby. He asked a lot of people their perspective, got a lot of different opinions, but noticed that there were reviews only on Amazon at that point in time. And our founder had built a business in web analytics, so he decided to work with one of his clients to install reviews and see what would happen to conversion on the product detail page.

And lo and behold, conversion went through the charts, through the roof. And the reason for that is, and it's not the fault of brands, when consumers read reviews, the human psychology is consumers just trust other consumers more than they trust brands. So it's an incredibly powerful conversion tactic, and through seeing that working, he ultimately started a business and built Bazaarvoice up to a considerable size. And for the next few years, and as I say, we're about 18 years old, and I joined about four years ago, so I've been extending the mission to sort of a far broader platform with more offerings, but the root of our story begins there with that stroller back in 2005.

Clint Betts

What's the root of your story, Keith? How did you get started in this world?

Keith Nealon

Oh, that's a long one. Like all of these life stories, they begin in the formative years. I was actually born in Ireland in the seventies, which was actually a fairly —

Clint Betts

By the way, Keith, I can tell that you were born in Ireland. I love it.

Keith Nealon

You can hear the brogue?

Clint Betts

I can hear it.

Keith Nealon

Well, that time back in Ireland, that was a fairly grim time economically. And in the US the phrase is there's folks that are blue collar or white collar, I would argue there's also no collar. And so we were actually, life started out in the no collar environment. And so I ultimately started there and just I remember that just not feeling great, having limited means. The answer to most of my childhood asks were no, because we didn't have the money. And so that just sort of gave me the drive early on to say, right, "This isn't fun, so I'm going to have to push my way out of this environment."

Which ultimately meant obviously just a lot of hard work in school and then a lot of hard work to ultimately get to a place where success started to materialize, as it's 90% perspiration with these things. And I ultimately built a business in Ireland in the late nineties that we were riding the dotcom wave, and that was going great while there was a wave to ride, but then it crashed and that wasn't so great. And at the time we were riding high, I thought, "Wow, this CEO thing is easy." But then when we had the dotcom crash on 9/11, and we were a systems integration company, we were project based on our revenue.

When the business crashed, I realized as a young kid you thought you knew everything, you actually knew nothing. And so I sold the business, or I should say I gave it away. I was lucky enough to find a couple of brothers at the time who were successful entrepreneurs. They bought the business and they asked me if I would help them in the states to build a business or if they were acquiring businesses in the US and I was kind of like, internally, “Are you kidding? I would love to." I played it cool in the negotiation, but I had always wanted to move to the US again, being of no collar. I remember watching on black and white televisions in the seventies, shows like The Streets of San Francisco, which will age me and Hawaii 5-0 and things like that, and thinking, "It seems so wonderful and amazing and opulent in the US."

So I was super excited to get the opportunity to join forces with them. And they were buying assets, which basically were data centers because data centers went through a tough time as well. But the beauty of data centers in that timeframe is they had strong recurring revenue.

And when I heard that phrase, recurring revenue, I fell in love because the reason my business crashed was we were project-based, we didn't have recurring revenue, or the momentum of more and more recurring revenue builds up each year and you have a stable base of revenue from which to predict your costs.

So I became fascinated with that. And for the last 20 years from that time, I've been in essentially the recurring revenue business, which is really originally, data centers and then cloud technology software in a range of different industries. But most commonly the most frequent tours of duty in terms of industry I've been in is the marketing technology space, which BazaarVoice is in servicing the B2C community or the B2B community.

And it's just been over those 20 years, it's been a combination of hard work, good luck, bad luck, timing, good bosses, bad bosses, failures, successes, therapy, meditation. All of these things are stirred into the pot to become whoever this individual is today.

Clint Betts

Do you remember the moment you were like, "Hey, I'm going to buckle down and I'm going to make something out of my life." Do you remember that key moment or was it gradual?

Keith Nealon

I think it was gradual. There were a couple of things really that get to the root of the question you're asking. It wasn't like an epiphany, but for me those early days being poor is kind of more of a state of mind I guess than anything else . It's factually true, but it's a state of mind.

One of the challenges was I went through a lot of bullying and I just remember that created on the unhealthy side initially until you master the negative byproduct of it. But I remember that creating in me an incredible fire and willpower to really want to supercharge where I was going and never be bullied again.

So that sort of fed into that early drive. But I also had encouragement from my mother and members of my extended family, uncles and aunts who saw I had I guess a gift early on in math and they just kept saying, "You're going to be great, you're going to be successful, you're going to do great things." Which is actually a lot of pressure for a little kid.

But at the same time, it created this sort of indelible imprint in my brain that I like, "I can't let them down, so I'm going to make sure I'm never bullied again and I'm going to be in charge and I can't let people that thought I was going to be successful down." And I feel like it just as I grew and matured, it just sort of steamrolled and got the momentum inside me built up more and more.

So I would say it was gradual originally, for possibly unhealthy reasons, but eventually for healthy reasons as I really saw the impact of being in a leadership role and how the light comes on when you're coaching people and you watch them shine and be successful. But I would say that's more some of the elements of what got me to a place where I wanted to do this.

Clint Betts

I want to ask you about leadership and how you do that within your company, but maybe following along those lines and what you were just talking about, how do you think about self-leadership, and self-motivation, and how you lead yourself? I've told this story a lot to the people who are listening. I was at an event with Reed Hastings, he actually just spoke at an event at ours recently. He’s the Netflix co-founder, former CEO, and current chairman. He said, "If you can't lead yourself, how could you possibly lead others?" That has stuck with me, I think about once a week. I'm like, "Yeah, that makes sense." What do you think about that? What do you think about self-leadership?

Keith Nealon

Yeah, I couldn't agree with it more. And it's something that I think is a sign of great wisdom from Reed, and not surprisingly, he is an incredibly successful guy, but I think it takes years to come to that realization. So what I would say is based on my formative years, and again back to the bullying, you end up in a place where you think, "I'm not good enough or there's something wrong with me."

And later in life that can manifest itself as imposter syndrome. But what was comforting to me, actually, was at a Forester Summit once, and there was a coach there who said, "Every year he works with 6 to 10 of the top Fortune 500 CEOs, and they say the same thing every year." "If my employees knew who I really was, the game would be up." Meaning I'm just a regular person, but I have the helm with 100,000 people.

In theory, folks might think I'm superhuman or something, but I'm really just a regular person. So hearing that was very helpful to me because many of the best CEOs I know have imposter syndrome, but that can kind of mean you're down on yourself and that's not a good place to be. So you really do need to be good to yourself.

Life is tough enough, and I remember working with a coach who said, "Look, part of the challenge here is when you have these formative experiences, and most people have negative self-talk, is that because things weren't okay when you were younger? As you imagine the future, you just project that things won't be okay and therefore start worrying about them and stressing." And the phrase that he gave me was he said, "Just repeat this to yourself. I have nothing to worry about except what I'm worrying myself about."

And when you think about that, that's true. We're inside our own heads and in reality, if you look at the arc of my life or most people's lives, things ultimately work out for you. So why do we worry? And so that removal of worry really freed the mind, but part of that self-leadership is being able to figure out these tools to get a handle on yourself.

And so your greatest responsibility is to your own wellness because when you're not just hopefully CEOs, they need to be smart, but more importantly, they need smart people. But of course they're smart, but if they're not well and in control of their own wellness and their own kind both mentally, physically, and emotionally, you can't be an inspiring leader and you need to be for people to follow you.

And so I couldn't agree more with that notion of self-leadership and learning the tools and mastering the self so that you can lead others. It's incredibly right on the money and true, and it's been my experience as well.

Clint Betts

As somebody who double majored in math and computer science, as you mentioned before in your childhood, you were known as someone who's really good at math. This is going to be incredible, this is your ticket in the world, your excellence in math.

At what point did you realize nobody knows anything? And that was kind of just along the same lines that you were just saying. It's like nobody knows anything, so you can kind of also do anything, given that that's true. And I remember not to keep bringing up these tech CEOs or whatever, but as you were talking, I was thinking about a story of Steve Jobs where he is. He just looked around everything that had been built, and he is like, "These people were no smarter or dumber than me. Why don't I just build things too?" At what point were you like, "Yeah, I got this?"

Keith Nealon

It's a good question. I think it takes, again, a journey. I don't know if it's a moment in time, more of a journey that ultimately, you're mastering the self over many years, and then you kind of get a sense, I mean, what was really helpful to me is there's a network called YPO, which is it's a global network of CEOs and —

Clint Betts

Great network.

Keith Nealon

Yeah, it's phenomenal. And if you roll it up, the YPO CEO network runs 15% to 20% of the GDP according to YPO. And I believe that. It's a huge network, but you'll find that many of the CEOs in talking with them, either great folks could have imposter syndrome, regular people, who are smart people, but have had access to good fortune, or great coaches, or whatever. The starting points may be different, but the experiences are quite common, and there's something comforting in that, there is no superhuman person as a CEO.

Of course, there's certain folks like Steve Jobs or maybe pre-Twitter Elon Musk or Reed who folks will attribute the X-factor, and maybe they do, right? Because they've done amazing things. I wouldn't take that away from anyone. But for 99% of us, we're just regular humans. And I try to normalize that actually, versus creating this notion that the CEO is superhuman because I want everybody to believe that they can rise as far up the organization as possible to being CEO.

Maybe they can't, but to believe that you can, you will go further than if you look on the corner office as something never to be attainable. So I think it's been more of a journey than a moment of just realizing that I'm not that different to many others, and I don't need to be superhuman in order to do this. That plus then obviously just a lifetime of good experiences. I've always been very mindful of what I've seen done well and what greatness looks like in each role and what I've seen done badly. So as not to repeat or mimic that, as part of the toolbox of experiences as you go forward, expand your responsibility and lead larger and larger companies.

Clint Betts

What do you think about leadership within your company? And how do you create a culture? And you touched on it a little bit there, making other people believe that they can also rise all the way to the ranks as CEO, but as you think about the day-to-day, there are some KPIs, there are some things you have to hit here. It is a business, we are trying to make money, and create value, and all that type of stuff and serve clients. How do you think about leadership from you got to get all that stuff done, plus you've got to make them feel like it's possible and they can do anything?

Keith Nealon

Yeah, I mean there's a lot in that for sure. So for me, it just starts a kind of a cultural view of people. So there's a great Andrew Carnegie quote that says, "An organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value." Might sound obvious, but if you take that to heart, to me, what that says is right. So people create value, therefore, the best people will create the most value.

And so I instill in our hiring managers to really not sacrifice for quality. Just because someone can do the job doesn't mean they're the right hire. And so it's on us to try and find the best people possible. If you start with that as the root, all these KPIs and all the things you want to do get easier because you have the right people. But beyond that, then we can't just be, I think Reed said this, "Brilliant assholes." We have to be great members of teams.

And so the most, I think, competitive weapon a company has is having great teams. I'm trying to remember that Patrick Lencioni quote. He says, "Not finance, not strategy, not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it's so powerful and so rare." So focusing on hiring the best people, creating a culture of teamwork and putting that in your values. We have a value called Stronger Together, which is all about teamwork, which is really important.

So that's sort of some of the foundation. Then as you realize, obviously the role of CEO changes depending on the scale of the company, but as you said, we're almost 1,500 employees now at 1,500 employees or even at 1,000. Your job is to guide the company, not run the company. Yes, you're responsible, you're the ultimate throat to choke, back to pat, if you will, but your job is to guide the company and lead it forward, and look out into the future.

Your executive team are the ones that are really running the company. And so the next thing for me is really thinking very thoughtfully about who we hire on the executive team. Part of it is obviously looking for the right skills, but more than that, I'm assessing character and DNA. So passion, drive, teamwork. I'm looking for high impact, low ego, low politics kind of personas.

And I'm also looking for creative execs versus reactive execs. And what I mean by that is a reactive exec, again, if it's a large public company that doesn't like risk, you want a reactive exec, you can hand them a plan and without fail, they will execute that plan and miss no KPI. Nothing wrong with that. But in a high growth company, I think a creative exec is even better. That's someone that takes your plan and improves on it is a risk-taker and produces a result greater than you even expected. And I look for those given our stage and our evolution more than anything else.

So when you've got that focus on hiring great people, values around teamwork, and you're looking for those creative execs that are high impact, low politics, low ego, a lot more things fall into place more easily. When you create hopefully an inspiring vision that everyone wants to follow, we can now go hit it because we have all of those things in place. And yes, there are things that can get in the way, like the macroeconomic environment and things like that, but the journey is much more fun and you're more likely to have success when you have, as I say, inspiring vision, great people, and a great culture.

Clint Betts

You said a lot of really aha things that I hope people who are watching or listening took some notes on, but let's put it into practice a little bit around work from home versus, like when the pandemic hit for Bazaarvoice and everybody had to work from home or do whatever had to happen. And now we're kind of past that. There's some people who say, we're not, but the pandemic's over for the most part, and now we have this decision to make leaders have this decision to make. Leaders of companies and CEOs of companies like yourself have this decision to make, to either bring them all back to the office like it was before, do a hybrid version, or an entirely work from anywhere version. How have you managed that? Where have you landed on that, and what was your thinking behind it?

Keith Nealon

Sure. Yeah, it's ironic. We had a two hour all-hands today, and I spoke specifically to this. It was really about our culture. But within our culture, the question about the work environment came up. So in the technology industry, firstly, we were fortunate in that it is much easier for tech companies to have remote employees. We don't need to be on a factory floor line per se, right? We're writing code and we're selling that software. We're knowledge workers essentially. So we don't need to be on a factory floor, for example. So it was much easier for us to be able to work from home and work remotely.

But the thing we were talking about today was there's four C's for scaling employee success, and those four C's are coaching, connections, collaboration, and creativity. And so the notion of coaching is not just a manager to coach you, but if you're a new employee or you have a new role, interacting with peers that have the same role or similar role, you're going to get coaching, you're going to learn best practices.

You're going to see them do things that you will pick up real quickly by just observing them because they're next to you. When you're in meetings that are cross-functional, if you're on a Zoom call, that's great. You talk to everybody, say your things, whatever's got to get done, and then you move on to the next call. But within an in-person meeting, you're building human connections and then somebody might say something interesting that you want to just chat with them after the meeting because you're both right there. You don't do that on a Zoom call. So you're building more connections.

With those things together, you're obviously increasing the collaboration across the company, especially on cross-functional projects, which are usually the ones that drive the real value. And all of that enhances creativity. So is it possible to work remotely? Absolutely. But you're not getting the same coaching connection, collaboration, which unleashes creativity, remotely. So is it feasible? Yes. Is it optimal? No. So what we're trying to do is say, "Rather than just a mandate of everybody back to the office for three days a week or something, what's right based on employee tenure?"

Like new employees should just be in the office to ramp fast and get all the right coaching, connection, and collaboration if you change roles, makes sense. But then on a role by role basis, what makes sense to be one day, two days, three days a week? And I've literally asked our leaders and management team to figure that out with employees to get to an optimal environment. I haven't discovered what that is. There's no blueprint yet. We're in the middle of that exercise. But if you, through your conversations with CEOs, have figured out the magic ball of an answer, we'll pay handsomely to know what it is.

Clint Betts

I haven't, But the way you've thought through that is fascinating. Another quick question on this around leadership and looking to the future and how you orient your team is around artificial intelligence and how that's going to change your company and your business.

I could see artificial intelligence, particularly for a company like Bazaarvoice, being super helpful, and also there could be some challenges there. You have an AI that somehow is writing all these negative reviews or I don't know, but I imagine there's some upside for Bazaarvoice and there's some downside.

Keith Nealon

Yeah, totally. So let's see, where shall we start with that one? We've been working with AI for years. What's new, which has sort of been unleashed upon the world in the last year, is generative AI. And so generative AI could certainly represent an existential threat because now you can have this explosion of fake content generated by bots, right? And what is key for consumers is trust in reviews.

Now, we have led the market for years in authenticity around making sure that reviews are real and authentic, and then also moderation, which is even if something is authentic, we have to scan for things like profanity, or making sure that a review for a baby Tylenol is not associated with adult Tylenol in a heavily regulated industry. So there's a lot of things we have to do to make sure that a review is appropriately matched to the right product, is authentic, etc.

And gen AI could start a war on truth, if you will, or a crisis of truth and trust. So we've led the way for years, we continue to invest here to make sure that we are rigorous and ruthless about the authenticity of reviews, and we see it as our job to keep our clients safe, especially in a world where the FTC is now, and rightly so, increasing the fines for brands or retailers that manipulate reviews, either create fake reviews or suppress negative reviews, or everything in that world of manipulation. So we have strong technology and continue to invest to make sure that doesn't happen. That's on the downside.

The upside, obviously, is there's tremendous productivity improvements in the solution. So often we use our AI to make sure that we're matching images with the right products and reviews with the right products so that there's no kind of orphaned content. Everything is absolutely matched correctly to the right kind of products. But we're looking at how we save our customers time.

We have things like a content coach. So if you're a consumer, you're going to write a review. How do you write a review for mayonnaise, for example? Does it taste great? Is that a helpful review? So using our AI will give you themes to think about, we're not telling you what to write, but for example, maybe you want to talk about taste, smell, texture. Those are just categories. And as you write a review, it checks off. Yeah, you're touching on those things.

That's a helpful review for somebody else to read. You can be negative if you want on taste, smell, texture, that's fine. We're just giving you categories to comment on, or think about. In apparel, one of the biggest challenges that industry has is returns. So commenting in your review on how it fits to size, as an example, like giving you useful categories of commentary to put in your review.

We are also using that to help our customers save time. So when I talked about using the voice of the customer, capturing that sentiment of customers when you're creating social posts versus for a lot of social media managers trying to think of, what will I say about an image? Well, consumers are telling you what to say. So it's extracting a lot of that feedback and just helping auto-post some of the language of the consumer.

And there's a ton of different ways that AI and ML can improve the efficacy of products, of the feedback for customers, or even just extracting the voice of the customer at scale to deliver the true sentiment from customers in a concise way that a brand can take that feedback and deliver it to their R&D org to improve their products for the betterment of the consumer experience. I see more good than bad, but you're right, there's some challenges as well that we just have to watch out for and make sure we're protecting our clients.

Clint Betts

Yeah, it's a fascinating new world. Keith, I can't thank you enough for coming on, talking to us today, spending some time with us. We end every interview the same way at CEO.com, and that is, we believe the chances one gives is just as important as the chances one takes. I wonder when you hear that, if there's someone who comes to mind who gave you a chance to get you to where you are today?

Keith Nealon

Yeah. Well, there's probably several, but a couple of them that come to mind. I mentioned the two brothers I sold my business to, and it was a small business. It hadn't been successful, but the entrepreneur that I saw, his name was Gabriel. Gabe for short, obviously saw something in me where he said, "Not only am I going to buy this business, not only am I going to bring you to the US, but I'm going to trust you to run half the US sales because I believe in you." And he was an uber successful and uber humble individual, which taught me a lot as well about retaining that humility despite his success. And that really got me started in the US and on this current career.

And then there was another person that was actually a recruiter called Darren, who when I was going for a job in my first SaaS company, I had no earthly right to be amongst the competition that he as a good recruiter, a headhunter, put in front of the hiring team at this SaaS company. These were phenomenal sales leaders who'd grown businesses to hundreds of millions of dollars and run teams of several hundred. I had not. So I had no earthly reason to be in the mix, but he saw something in me and insisted to that CEO and their investors talk to me and think about me just as a candidate.

Somehow I nailed those interviews, got the job as the CRO, and I think everything after that has fallen into place because of my tenure there. So I'd say I owe Gabriel and Darren quite a bit of thanks for how I've ended up where I have.

Clint Betts

That's incredible. Keith, thank you so much. Really appreciate it, and we'll catch you down the line, and it's incredible what you're doing, what you've done so far and what you're continuing to do. Thank you so much for joining us.

Keith Nealon

My pleasure, Clint. Good to be with you. Thanks a lot. Take care of yourself.

Clint Betts

See you. You too.

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