Editor’s note: “With all the recent data analytics, customer intelligence, predictive marketing, decisioning, digital and automation technology now available, the fact that brands still don’t know their customers and can’t consistently send relevant and targeted communications is astounding,” says Dave O’Flanagan, CEO and co-founder of Boxever, a customer intelligence and predictive marketing company for airlines and travel retailers. A recent Boxever study of more than 500 travelers found that when airlines and travel providers overwhelm customers with untargeted, irrelevant communications, 59 percent of travelers said they would unsubscribe from a company’s content, 50 percent would be less likely to open that company’s next offer and 40 percent would be less inclined to buy from that company.
In this interview, O’Flanagan describes Boxever’s startup journey from its launch in Dublin, Ireland, to going global, and how it changes the vendor landscape in customer intelligence. He also shares advice for other entrepreneurs.
Please describe the inspiration for how and why you founded Boxever. What was missing in the market that your company now fulfills?
Dave O’Flanagan: I was always shocked about how much airlines struggled to effectively utilize the data they had about their customers. My light bulb moment happened when I was working at a travel tech company and a big airline told me they didn’t know if a customer booked with them more than once in the same year. The thought of that seemed crazy to me.
While the benefits of online retailing are undeniable, in many cases, the connection with customers has been lost and crucial intelligence is missing in the ecosystem. My vision was to resurrect this connection once again.
How does your company help its customers improve their customer intelligence?
Dave O’Flanagan: We develop a complete, smart and contextual view of their customers by combining transactional data with behavioral data. Our customers can now develop robust customer profiles and use this new intelligence to make accurate predictions about traveler behavior and then send relevant, hyper-targeted and hyper-personalized offers and content. We like to think of our platform as the brain behind one-to-one predictive marketing. The typical results our customers see include improved conversion rates, stronger customer retention, low acquisition costs, a better customer experience and ultimately, more revenue.
How did you get your first customer?
Dave O’Flanagan: We had a chance introduction to the incredible company, Wideroe, the largest regional airline in Scandinavia. We met with the managing director of e-commerce at the time, and he was willing to take a risk on a small company in Dublin.
Wideroe was looking for ways to improve its customer experience. Although they had lots of data about their customers, they were having trouble bringing that data together and struggled to empower the marketing and operations staff to improve bottom line results. For example, Wideroe wanted to improve customer service performance in its contact center and increase flight and ancillary revenue through targeted promotions and personalization. We studied the business needs and delivered a single view of each customer and gave Wideroe staff new insights into customer behaviors so they could anticipate their needs. Conversion and engagement rates skyrocketed.
You launched your company in Dublin. Please describe the startup scene there and how it differs from the US.
Dave O’Flanagan: The startup scene in Dublin is vibrant and strong. The government provides a lot of support, especially in helping bring ideas to market, as well as testing and validating products in new markets. We are trying to emulate a lot of the smart practices that are coming from the U.S. in terms of meet-ups and sharing ideas. In terms of exits, the Irish tech scene doesn’t have as many as you would have in Boston or Silicon Valley. We also have a lot of technical talent moving to Dublin from all over Europe.
When did you take your company global? And did you encounter challenges in that effort that you didn’t anticipate?
Dave O’Flanagan: We had challenges scaling the company and selling to big international customers like Air New Zealand, Tigerair and Wideroe because they are dispersed across the globe. Reaching those customers and selling effectively to them was a challenge. Our strategy called for a headquarters in Dublin with local sales and marketing hubs that deliver into the U.S., Europe and Asia.
With any global expansion, there are significant challenges, from managing payroll and time zones to employment law. There was a lot of overhead and complexities involved; but once those settled, we became an effective global team.
And what is your top advice for other startups considering going global?
Dave O’Flanagan: A few things come to mind. First, align with your talent needs. Finding the best talent is crucial for startups, and certain cities are known for having a larger pool than others. Next, live where your prospects are. Third, expand your horizons, but don’t go too far. Despite all the technology in the world, location still matters. From time zone differences to flight durations to the cost of travel, if you’re headquartered in Europe, there’s a substantial difference flying to Boston or New York than there would be to San Francisco.
What aspects of launching and growing your company took longer than you anticipated?
Dave O’Flanagan: It took longer than expected to get our first paying customer because of the industry’s maturity. When we started in 2011, we were revolutionary in our thinking. Most airlines didn’t really understand the potential of customer intelligence and predictive marketing. Since then, sales cycles have compressed and travel has matured and evolved. We’ve seen the industry turn to us, and we have a product that meets a very real need experienced by some of the largest travel retailers in the world.
If you could go back to the beginning of starting your company, is there something you would do differently the second time?
Dave O’Flanagan: When we started Boxever, our core team was a technical team hyper focused on product development. If I were doing it again, I would bring in specific functions like sales and marketing earlier in the process, which likely would have allowed us to get to market, educate our buyers and establish a brand presence sooner.
Have you used social media channels to market your company?
Dave O’Flanagan: Social media plays a big role in getting the Boxever message to the market. It has definitely played a role in helping us understand organizations, people and their backgrounds and educate the market on what’s next. Social media has also been a great resource for recruiting talent.
Who are your advisors?
Dave O’Flanagan: I am lucky to have really good friends who supported me throughout the journey and even worked for free in the beginning. My wife, Joanna, is my greatest asset. As the saying goes, “Behind every successful man is a strong, wise and hardworking woman,” and that has definitely been my experience.
What are the software companies you most admire, and why?
Dave O’Flanagan: First is Amazon, which has revolutionized the retail sector. Jeff Bezos said that, “For every customer, there should be a storefront for them.” I believe wholeheartedly that this line of thinking is true. One-to-one personalization.
The second company I admire is Salesforce, mostly for their scalability, integrations and flexibility, which truly defines a SaaS platform.
What do you wish someone had told you about being an entrepreneur before you set out on this journey?
Dave O’Flanagan: I wish someone would have told me that I would eat, sleep and live my dream. As an entrepreneur, you are always dialed in and you will constantly wake up in the middle of the night thinking about things, sometimes from worry and sometimes from excitement. Time typically spent with friends and family is harder to find. You need more than hard work; you need passion and drive. That’s what will pick you up when you get bad news or feel drained. You need to take everyone on the journey with you including your employees, investors and, most of all, your family. The reward is in watching your company grow and your employees flourish.
Dave O’Flanagan is the CEO and co-founder of Boxever, a customer intelligence and predictive marketing company for airlines and travel retailers. He has more than 15 years’ experience in developing and managing enterprise software in mobile telecoms, travel and cloud. Earlier he was VP of engineering at CUSP, a cloud-based document management startup and was a lead architect at CAPE Technologies.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.