Interview with Candace Fleming

April 19, 2010

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Data is abundant on the web, and information is free. But meaning is what matters, and uncovering it requires a good deal more than counting keyword mentions across the social web. Crimson Hexagon's technology – based on groundbreaking work conducted at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science – distills meaning about brands, products, services, markets and competitors from the online conversation.

Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming has worked to take Crimson Hexagon from a nascent research technology to a successful commercial application. She and her merry band of believers in social media have created a technology that large and small companies use to derive meaning from the online conversation. Via a software-as-a-service offering, their clients can understand daily what thousands of people are saying about their brand, their competitors, and pretty much any topic being discussed (some of which sure are doozies). She does all the crazy things a small-company CEO does, ranging from negotiating big contracts and hiring an outstanding team, to reading Tweets on snack food fetishes (anything for our clients!)
Candace brings many years of consulting and operations expertise to Crimson Hexagon, with a range of experience at both big and small companies including Mercer Management Consulting, the Strategic Planning and Modeling (SPaM) group at Hewlett Packard, Optiant, and Agilent Technologies. Most recently she was President of Icosystem, where they developed software to incorporate word-of-mouth into multichannel advertising strategies. There she managed a team of research scientists and consultant to create and apply novel analytical approaches to solve business strategy challenges for Global1000 clients.
The application of cutting edge analytics to business problems has been the core focus of her career across a range of industries including advertising and marketing, consumer electronics, consumer packaged goods, food and beverage, entertainment, industrial products, and transportation. Candace has a BS in Industrial Engineering and BA in English from Stanford University, and an MBA with Distinction from Harvard Business School.

Candace Fleming

Transcript: 

An Interview with Candace Fleming CEO and Co-founder, Crimson Hexagon

Date: April 19, 2010

Entrepreneurial Heroes Interview with Candace Fleming [music]

Lee: Hi, this is Lee Kennedy. I am a board member for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT, and I'm also the CEO of Boulder Search. This is part of a series of interviews that we are having with fabulous entrepreneurs, they are women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors, all of whom have just fabulous stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs, and with me today is Larry Nelson from W3W3. Hey Larry.

Larry Nelson: I'm very happy to be here, and this is a wonderful so reason and you make sure you pass these interviews along to others that you know would be interested and they can give it here at NCWIT.org or W3W3.com.

Lee: Great, and I also have Lucy Sanders, who is the CEO of NCWIT. Hi Lucy.

Lucy Sanders: Hello.

Lee: Great to have you. Well, and just to get right to it, we are interviewing Candace Fleming. Candace is the CEO and co-founder of Crimson Hexagon. Crimson Hexagon's technology analyzes the vast social Internet, so blog posts, forum messages, tweets et cetera, and it's done by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics. And the product is called Foxtrot, and it helps you to develop your listening approach to many different Internet channels. So without further ado, I would love to introduce Candace, and have her tell us a little bit about her background and experience. Candace, welcome.

Candace Fleming: Thank you, it is great to be here, I am excited about this opportunity to share.

Lee: Well, if you could tell us just little bit about Crimson Hexagon, that would be great.

Candace: At a very high level, what Crimson Hexagon does is, we have technology that goes out and find millions and millions of blogs and forums and tweets, product reviews and things that are probably available on Facebook, and reads them all everyday and can summarize opinions that are being expressed. So in some ways it's a little bit like an automatic opinion poll, but you are not actually asking a poll question because you are really just harvesting values from conversations that are already happening.

Lee: Wow.

Candace: And we are a 15% company based here in Boston.

Lee: So basically, you have got bots or robots that go out and hit all of these different social sites and pull back the data and then analyze it, is that kind of a nutshell for our novice technology listeners? [laughter]

Candace: It is that idea where we get data from lot of different sources, we license some data streams, we also do our own call link, but it is not so much the data collection that is special about what we do, it is really in the content analysis of what we do. So if you imagine, I think a lot of your listeners are familiar with Google Alert, were you can very efficiently and very quickly use keywords, and every day multiple times a day, you will get an email in your in-box with the links to mention of those words. But the problem is, when you start to build a large brand or you have a large company, there are so many mentions that it is nearly impossible to stay on top of them. We end up speaking with marketers and brand managers or PR agencies who sit down with a list of 30,000 links and they say, "How do I make meaning out of all this?" So our technology really allows you... It quantifies for you in that list of 30,000 links, what percentage of people are saying they like a specific feature of your product or what percent of people are saying they actually like your competitor's product better or really getting down to the opinions of what's being said. Lee: So we could use it to figure out what people are saying about Larry.

Larry: Uh oh.

Candace: Exactly. That's right.

Larry: That's a different dinner gig. Lee: I'm liking this more and more.

Candace: The only limitation is that people have to actually be talking about the topic.

Lee: Oh don't worry, we've got plenty of info, don't worry.

Lucy: So Candace, back to you. We'd love to hear about how you first got into technology.

Candace: Ever since I was little, I have been noticing how technology improves our lives every day. My dad was an electrical engineering professor, and so we were always talking about science and technology and new innovations and seeing how the world progressed. And so, I've been thinking about it from a very early age, and went on to get an engineering degree in college and have always done work in my professional career around technology and algorithms and the application of technology.

Larry: Oh.

Lucy: So as a little add on, what technologies do you think are cool today?

Candace: Well, of course our technology.

Lee: Of course, you want a list.

Candace: I could be honest, that I'm very biased about that. Actually I think there are a couple of things, I think there are some really neat consumer electronics coming out like they talk about 3-D TV or the Nexus One phone. But even maybe a little bit less mainstream, I heard about a technology that a Harvard biologist named Pete Gergen developed in microbial fuel cells, and it sounds like a lot of big words, but essentially what he's developed is a way to harness energy as microbes that decompose organic matter. And what that means is you can basically take a bucket of trash, stick one of his apparati into it and have light, or have enough to charge a cell phone. Stuff like that, if you think about the implications of that for third world countries or differences parts of our lives, I think it's incredible. So there's a lot of good stuff laying around.

Larry: Yeah. Wow. I'm ordering one of each. Candace, let me ask this. What is it about being an entrepreneur that turns you on? Talk about that.

Candace: I think for me it was all about this particular opportunity. I didn't set out to one day start a company of my own necessarily, and so in this instance I saw a huge opportunity that was so exciting that I wanted to literally drop everything and get this off the ground. I think in general, nothing is more exciting for me than pulling together a team and seeing what we can collectively accomplish. And I think in small companies, you really can see the impact of that. Where I walk into our conference room for a team meeting, and a year and a half ago these people didn't even know each other, and now they're doing things for big brands and big name companies, and really doing things that even the people on their team never knew they could accomplish.

Lee: Well and forming those teams and forming something from nothing is really an exciting part of entrepreneurship. Now Candace, you mentioned that your father from a very early age was talking about technology, talking about engineering, and we find that that's very typical, especially for women. That their father or mother played a role in their early sort of sense of technology. Can you tell us a bit more about who else influenced or supported you in your career paths, or role models or mentors? Candace: So I would have to say that number one on that list is actually my husband.

Lee: Yay husbands!

Lucy: Yay!

Candace: His name is Lee Fleming. And you know I was at a breakfast on Friday and there was a female entrepreneur who said, "Well you know, everyone knows the saying 'Behind every good man is a good woman,'" and I say the exact opposite is true as well, especially as it applies to start-ups. Behind every entrepreneur, especially if it's one who is a family, there's got to be a supportive spouse there." And so I think my husband wanted me to do this even more than I did. And so even before day one, when I heard about this opportunity, he's been helping me every step of the way. Quite literally, because he happens to be a professor at Harvard Business School, and he teaches a class on commercializing technologies and innovations, so I get some good coaching over the dinner table.

Lucy: That's pretty handy!

Candace: Very handy! Other than my parents, of course, who have been so supportive along the way, my co-founder, actually, who is also a professor at Harvard, his name is Gary King. He's the one who invented the algorithms that we've commercialized. So, from day one, he has said, "I think you're the one who should grow this company, I think you can make this happen and I want to work with you to do this." So having someone who believes in you so completely, and stands by you every step of the way, and is so fantastic to work with is a great gift.

Lucy: That is really exciting.

Lee: I downloaded his paper to read.

Candace: Did you read it?

Lee: Not yet, it was a little long for me, but I downloaded it for plane reading.

Lucy: We just had interviewed somebody about advisory boards, and I'm thinking you've got these great built-in advisory boards. So to switch topics just a smidge from all these wonderful things, what's the toughest thing you've had to do in your career?

Candace: It's actually what I'm doing now, but more specifically, starting and growing a successful company. Basically, in 2008 which is when we had the worst economic meltdown since the Depression, is by far the hardest thing that I've ever had to do. Or, at least chosen to do. But, as I'm sitting here, we just finished putting together our financial plan for the year, and I think it's going to be a great year. I feel like we've made it through and we have a lot of momentum. But, the economy has not been necessarily the friend of any entrepreneur, I think, in the last 18 to 24 months.

Lee: You're right.

Lucy: That's the truth.

Lee: It hasn't been good to anyone.

Larry: Yeah, well, boy, that's an interesting lead-in to the question I'm going to ask, and that is: If you were sitting down right now with an entrepreneur and you were going to give them some advice, what advice would you give them today?

Candace: That's a great question. I would say maybe three things. First, and I mean this both perhaps literally and figuratively, eat your broccoli. Eat your broccoli because it's good for you, and it will make you healthy. But, figuratively, I mean being an entrepreneur, there are a lot of things that you need to do that are good for you even though you may not want to do them. They're good for the company, they're good for your own personal growth, and so I would say don't shy away from those things. The second thing, also I mean both literally and figuratively is to play team sports. I think, literally, go out there and play volleyball and basketball, soccer, because I think playing in a team is actually very much like working in a small company. You have the same small team environment, you need to give and take and you have rules in a company just like you do on a sports team. Learning about leadership and teamwork, I think sports is an incredible way to learn that. And then the last thing is again, both figuratively and literally, put things to bed earlier than you want to. [laughter] By that, I mean definitely get more sleep than you want to get, but metaphorically, don't set perfection as the bar for everything. I think that in many, many cases good is enough. And if I had learned earlier, I think I would have saved myself a lot of time and stress.

Lucy: Well, so, my next question is about the characteristics that make you a great entrepreneur. What we just saw in that last answer was one of them is wisdom. [laughter]

Lucy: So, perhaps you can, other things that come to your mind when you think about yourself and entrepreneurship. Those characteristics that you think give you an edge.

Candace: I think that I'm an optimist. I think entrepreneurs have to be willing to look reality in the face and convince themselves to see the rosy side of it, perhaps. [laughs] You need to say you can be so focused and drive for something even though there are going to be a lot of obstacles in your way. The second thing is I'm not scared of hard work. That's something that I think is crucial to being able to get a company off the ground. I think the last thing is I'm fairly direct and honest. I think when you're working in a small company environment, there's - somewhat thankfully from my perspective - there's not as much politics. You sit in a room with people, you decide things and you get things done. There's not ten layers of approvals. So, I think being straightforward with people and being honest with people really carries you a long way in being successful, particularly in a small group.

Lucy: I have to agree with all of the above. When you have that small group, you just have to be really direct and honest.

Candace: Limit to cycles.

Lucy: Yeah.

Candace: That's it.

Lucy: It really does. So, Candace, one of our favorite questions is with building start-ups and being an entrepreneur, as you'd mentioned earlier, it's a ton of work. So, how do you bring balance into your personal and professional life?

Candace: Yeah, I think this is a great question. As I thought about this, I have, perhaps, an ironic take on this. And, that is I view my family as an enabler of my professional success. I think that I have a fantastic husband, I mentioned earlier. I have two little kids. I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old. I actually started Crimson Hexagon when my two-year-old was two weeks.

Lucy: Oh, my goodness!

Lee: Oh, my God!

Candace: There is no better way to give you perspective back in life than when you come home from a hard day of work and you get tackle-hugged by these two little people before you can even put your briefcase down. [laughs] So, I actually think that, by having a family, it allows me to be successful at work. Because I work just as hard as the next person and just as many hours. But, I think the trick is, even if it's 15 minutes that you sit down and talk with them in a day, you make that time. And, that time gets paid back to you in a thousand different ways that help you in the rest of your life. So, I just think you have to make sure that you spend time on each, even if the time is very little. But, mentally, it's what keeps me balanced.

Lucy: Absolutely the case. Those are great ages for kids, just great, full of energy. So, Candace, you've already achieved a lot. What's next for you?

Candace: I have achieved some good things, but I don't view myself as being done here. [laughs] I plan to continue running and growing small companies. I think that what we're doing here at Crimson Hexagon is so exciting. This type of activity is something I want to do for a long, long time.

Lucy: Crimson Hexagon is exciting. That is just a cool company. And, I feel like I want to make a plug for a Boulder-based company that's one of your partners. Because we have a lot of Boulder listeners here. Room 214 is a partner of Crimson Hexagon. So, we're just excited about that. If you come out here to Boulder, you need to stop by. It would be great to have you. Thank you so much, Candace. We all appreciate your time. I want to remind listeners where they can find this interview.

Larry: At W3W3.com as well as NCWIT.org.

Lucy: All right. Thank you very much, Candace. We appreciate it.

Lee: Yes.

Candace: Thank you.

Larry: Bye-bye. [music]