In an effort to rid the world of “one survey fits all” data collection, Covington-based Wyzerr
(pronounced “wiser”) is taking on some of the world’s biggest names in research. Founder and CEO Natasia Malaihollo isn’t surprised to see her technology platform taking off.
But after following a circuitous path from California and New York to Over-the-Rhine, where Wyzerr just finished its Brandery business incubator class, Malaihollo is a bit surprised she’s become so attached to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky so quickly.
“Here people are really invested in startup success,” she says, and are much more supportive than the startup scenes she’d worked in during the company’s earliest days. She’d like to keep Wyzerr in Greater Cincinnati “for a long time,” she says, “so we want to figure out how we can be of the most help to our community.”
Soapbox talked with Malaihollo, 28, about Wyzerr’s product rollout, Brandery experience and plans for getting young Cincinnatians excited about tech careers.
Give us an overview of how Wyzerr works.
Wyzerr started off as a way to reach customers while still in the store. For example, you’d walk into a Target and, depending on how long you were there, you’d get a different survey. As we were pitching the idea, someone suggested that our technology was too good to be delivered through Survey Monkey. That format is just so boring, and, even if you reach a customer, they don’t want to do a whole survey.
So we decided to design our own surveys, and from there we started asking ourselves what people really enjoy
doing. Of course the answer was mobile games and Facebook and other social media apps. We designed Wyzerr to mimic those.
It seems like that type of technology could be used in a lot of different ways. What projects do you hope to take on immediately?
Our immediate business plan is to pursue hospitality clients — hotels, airlines and other service-based businesses that rely heavily on customer feedback — but our most exciting plans are community-focused.
Wyzerr is going to be here for a long time, so we want to figure out how we can be of the most help to our community. A big area of focus is mentoring youth and minority entrepreneurs.
I met with (Covington businessman and former mayor) Chuck Scheper, and he showed me where Covington is headed and how Wyzerr can be involved, whether that means helping to attract other businesses to the area or getting students to start thinking about tech as a viable career path. I talk about this all the time with other entrepreneurs: Imagine what you could have accomplished by now if you had started when you were 16.
So you’ll work with youth in area schools?
Yes. I recently attended a meeting with several board members, teachers and principals from the Covington Independent School District
to hear how they were able to drastically improve their state testing scores. I believe the district went from being last place in Kentucky (#174 out of 174) to now in the top percentile because of schools like Glen O. Swing Elementary.
I often think about how much more I could do if I had started earlier in life. My dad was an entrepreneur, but I never thought I would be an entrepreneur myself. In retrospect, I never thought I could do it. The goal was always to work for someone else. But over time I started to see that running my own business was something realistic and doable.
I think to really see a dramatic change in the economy here we have to start earlier and get kids excited about tech and entrepreneurship. I honestly believe we can build Wyzerr into a Google here in Covington, where employees are being paid well over the average salary, have insane perks like free lunch and dinner every day for not just them but their families — I learned yesterday that a large population of students in Covington don’t have access to dinner every night — and feel excited to get up and go to work every day.
What inspired you to get into surveys in the first place?
My initial plan was law school, but I dropped out a few years ago to work on a social media app that I was very passionate about. While participating in an accelerator program in New York, it started to become obvious that the market just wasn’t ready for what we were trying to do. Ultimately we had to abandon it, and that was a really hard decision because I’d committed so much to it.
In the post-mortem phase, I tried to figure out what I could have done differently. I realized that I should have been getting more user feedback. I was discussing it with colleagues one night and someone said, “It would be cool if we could do those surveys like the ones on the back of receipts from Subway,” and I thought, “That’s it. We’re going to do surveys.”
As a student I used to take surveys all the time to get coupons and free food and stuff. (Laughs) I’ve probably taken hundreds of surveys in my life, so it seemed logical to be in that space.
How did you get connected to The Brandery? Describe that experience.
I was at a pitch event in Detroit last April and met (Brandery heads) Rob McDonald and Tony Alexander. Rob, who was actually a judge, approached me afterwards and said he thought that Wyzerr’s consumer focus could be a perfect fit for his accelerator. As soon as he mentioned The Brandery
, my ears perked up. I’ve been a huge fan of The Brandery for years — it was first on my list when I was looking for accelerator programs for my first startup.
It’s been a crazy six months, but joining The Brandery has been the best decision I’ve ever made. We came in knowing that we couldn’t operate like a traditional startup because we’re competing against huge market researchers like Survey Monkey. We’ve had so much help honing our message and articulating our position.
Our three main goals were to redesign our platform, choose clients and, of course, get funded. We accomplished all three of those goals with The Brandery’s help.
They connected us to creative agencies that gave us, at minimum, $25,000 in pro-bono creative work. We were actually the only Brandery startup using two creative agencies at once, Possible
and Seed Strategy
. They created our logo and redesigned the 25 user interfaces that make up our platform. It was a lot of work.
How does being in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky business community compare to your previous experiences?
The number one thing is that here people are really invested in startup success. We’ve worked in Southern California, Northern California, New York — lots of larger markets — and this area is by far the most supportive.
In the Bay Area, there are a lot of big tech companies with mentors and other resources, but there’s also a lot of competition. Resources are spread so thin that they end up not being helpful. We had some great champions there, but we were sharing them with 100 other startups at the same stage. In New York, we had mentors who seemed really excited talking about what they could do to help us, but then they wouldn’t respond to a follow-up email. People (in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky) move quickly and follow through on their word. It’s just such a different vibe.
What level of interest in Wyzerr has there been so far?
We’ve been fortunate that so many enterprise companies are taking an interest in customer feedback. We’ve enjoyed a lot of visibility within the databases these companies are using to find help with their market research. We work with mostly Fortune 500 companies — some of the biggest retailers and car companies in the country.
We work with a lot of market research departments in these large companies where they employ hundreds of analysts and associates who are ingrained with rules they have to follow to ensure the data is unbiased. We sell Wyzerr by saying, “Give us the survey you’re using and we’ll run ours simultaneously to see which one gets better data.” Of course Wyzerr always gets better data, so the sales process goes very quickly because clients are able to automatically see value.
When we started going into these market research departments and talking to directors who have been in the industry for 10-20 years, we assumed we’d hear concerns that we’re too Millennial-focused or that we’re going to bias the data, but we’ve actually had many users age 45 and over who are quick to embrace this technology. What’s more, they’re ready to use it the way it was built to be used.
That’s been really validating for us. It helped us make the hard decision going forward to turn down potential clients if they aren’t willing to use Wyzerr the way we intended it.