From advertising to city planning, data powers the modern world. And while businesses are becoming increasingly sophisticated in leveraging data to drive decision-making, individuals don’t always have the tools to harness its power.
Mike Hanlon and Rob LaRubbio set out to solve that. Together, they launched Abett, a web app that allows users to ask questions and crowdsource answers.
Both co-founders have backgrounds in data science and tech. Hanlon was most recently an economics professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. He also happens to be Amazon’s seventh employee, working at the Seattle e-commerce giant from 1995 to 2001.
LaRubbio led the development of mobile health applications at the Grameen Foundation. He too worked at Amazon in the early days, from 1997 to 2005.
“We wanted to create a company that combined the best aspects of our experience at Amazon and what we enjoyed about global health. Our goal is to empower people to use data to make better decisions, rather than manipulate people’s behavior via advertising.”
We caught up with Hanlon for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “If you face a decision and don’t know what to do, visit abett.com and share the problem. People will vote, provide suggestions and discuss. You’ll get data to empower your decision. Working with the crowd, we can make better decisions together.
Inspiration hit us when: “Inspiration hit us when a family vacation led me to resign from a comfortable academic position. In 2014, I was traveling to Paris to present at an academic forum. My wife suggested we make a family vacation out of it. I searched for airline tickets, but then I realized that trip was a bad idea for us. The flight was long, our kids were young and I had professional commitments to worry about. Upon reflection, we decided that I should go to Paris alone, and later on, we’d take a family trip to the Grand Canyon instead.
Paris is preferable to Arizona for lots of people, but the Grand Canyon was right for us given our situation. However, after I searched for those flights to Paris, over the next few months I saw ads for Air France every single time I went online. Those ads were great for Google and Facebook, which were paid to serve them. However, they were not great for me because that was the wrong vacation for my family. Companies have all sorts of data about us, but they don’t use it to help us make better decisions. When the flagrancy of that dawned on me, I decided to resign from my academic position and focus on Abett.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We have self-funded to this point because we could. Maybe that will change someday, but I think only masochists would voluntarily raise outside money when they didn’t need it.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our product enables people to vote on your question, which gives you interesting data. However, we also have a feature that allows people to suggest new answers to your question. The quantitative aspects of it are an improvement over asking questions on social media, and the unbiased nature of the suggestions is an improvement over search engines and services like Yelp.
We aspire to build a robust analytical tool to support individuals’ decision making. We know a lot about data analysis, and we’ve done it in lots of settings. We’re excited to apply that experience to this problem.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We decided to create a company together before we identified a product. That’s unconventional, but it forced us to think very hard about our vision and brand, and also about the type of organization we wanted to create. Once those fundamental questions were settled, we started the process of building a product that was consistent with our objectives.
We think of ourselves as Tableau for individuals. Tableau’s products are fantastic at analyzing data you already have in hand. However, given you need data in hand, it’s principally a tool for organizations, not individuals. Our service enables individuals to collect data about the problems they face, and thus empowers them to make better decisions.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We initially assumed everyone was as aware as we are of how data is used by advertisers. That’s not the case. Our market research suggests most people are unaware of this issue, and many who are aware casually dismiss it. Our job is to educate people by providing a different model of how their data can be used in their interest.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Early on, executives like Jeff and Bill Gates had lots of people in their corners, and most importantly a lot of great engineers. As much as you’d love to have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner, I’d take those engineers over them any day.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Sharing parenting advice. We all have younger kids, so many of our conversations focus on parenting. We finally thought, ‘Man, somebody should build an app to get and share those kinds of insights,’ which is what we did. In a sense, our team-building activity led directly to our product.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Maturity and self-awareness. With all due respect to all the 25-year-old geniuses out there, we’re interested in connecting with people who are grounded and have delivered over a longer period of time.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Read Steve Blank’s book, The Startup Owner’s Manual. It’s better, faster and cheaper than any MBA program.”