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The CEO Series: Waleed Al-Atraqchi of Affinnova

Let’s just put it out there: I am an unabashed fan of Affinnova. I think they are a VERY smart company and are a prime example of the type of firm that will flourish in the future of market research. Here is why:

  • They are a technology company first and foremost, and that technology addresses a critical business need. It’s easy to dismiss them as “conjoint on steroids”, but that is not the case: their process is proprietary, it works, it is scalable, and it is universal. That is a great recipe for a Software as a Service model.
  • They own the norms. They are the Millward Brown or Nielsen of innovation and concept optimization, except they have the added benefit of owning most of the value chain, not just the deliverable. Smart.
  • The are disciplined. Affinnova could do lots of different things that would be value adds to their offering, but they remain focused on what they do best and are happy to work with partners on those other things.
  • They make very smart hires. Three of my favorite people in the world (Jeffrey Henning, Tamara Barber, and Julie Kurd) work there, and those three alone are proof enough of the great human capital strategy they have in place.

It’s for all those reasons that I was excited to finally have a chance to talk with the CEO of the company, Waleed Al-Atraqchi. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Waleed face-to-face yet, but I hope that changes soon. Based on the thoughtful responses he gave to my questions, I suspect a conversation with him would be a real pleasure.

For those who haven’t been exposed to this great example of the modern MR firm, they will be presenting at THE Market Research Technology Event next week in Las Vegas. It’s a fitting venue for one of the companies that is helping to redefine the future of our industry. If you haven’t checked out the program yet, you can do so here. I’ll be there moderating a panel discussion on Non-Traditional Market Research with Tom Anderson of Anderson Analytics, Arjun Dev Arora of Retargeter and Phil Davis of Rapleaf. There will be a host of thought leaders in attendance, including the fine folks from Affinnova. If you haven’t registered yet you can using my discount code: MRTECH12LM

Here is my interview with Waleed. Enjoy!

LFM: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Waleed. Affinnova is one of the great research success stories of the past few years, but I suspect lots of people don’t actually know the full story. How did the company start and how did you get to where you are today?

WAA: The initial inspiration for Affinnova came from Noubar Afeyan and Kamal Malek, our founders. They tell the story best, but ultimately they recognized that combining evolutionary computation with the collective mind of the Internet could revolutionize how products are designed.

The company was started in 2000 and in the first few years we built the basis of the optimization technology we have today, for which we hold multiple patents. Commercialization began in 2004, and I joined in 2005.

Since then we’ve experienced tremendous growth and at a macro level I think we owe it to focus. Because innovation optimization is a game changer and the market is huge, our goal is very clear – own the market. We never lose sight of this. Day in and day out, we work hard to deliver new and improved technologies that make optimization increasingly valuable to existing and new customers.

In specific terms, our growth is being fueled by increasing adoption and expansion into new industries and international markets. By deploying our optimization technology as a Software-as-a-Service offering, which we announced in January, we are rapidly scaling at the enterprise level. We now have offices in Europe and plans for Asia and South America, and a growing base of customers in consumer goods, services, retail, technology and life sciences.

LFM: As a company focused on optimizing innovation, how do you internalize that? How is innovation woven into your organization?  

WAA: When it comes to optimizing innovation, we definitely eat our own dog food.

For instance, we developed our current advertising message for Affinnova Concept Studio using our own innovation platform. To start, we convened a cross-functional team to create the message structure within Concept Studio and to generate as many good ideas as possible – what we call “divergent collaboration”. Next, the messaging space that we created was optimized by our target audience using our evolutionary algorithm. The resulting top concepts were then benchmarked against one another to identify which was the strongest. As is generally the case, the results were surprising.

Too often companies move from ideation to concept selection without making sure that such selection is informed by the market. Optimization solves for this fundamental problem, and we live by it.

As far as weaving innovation into our organization, the key is doing rather than talking. We unequivocally believe that the ability to effectively innovate is the most vital competency of all successful companies. As a result, we dedicate a third of our workforce to research and development.

Also, we take a long-term view on innovation. We focus our energy on developing system-wide technologies that address serious industry problems. Affinnova’s mission is to transform innovation, not tweak the edges. The development of Concept Studio is a great example of this. What started in 2008 as a prototype has evolved iteratively every two weeks over 3 ½ years to become a web application for organizational collaboration that unleashes productivity and creativity for breakthrough innovation.

LFM: That single minded focus and discipline is inspiring; so often companies jump for the low hanging fruit at the expense of the big picture opportunity. That said, nimbleness in a rapidly changing market, especially one that intersects the technology space, can be important as well. How do you reconcile the 2 imperatives?

WAA: To truly succeed in innovation, a company must reconcile these 2 imperatives. As a result, we have adopted a hybrid system for product development that mixes elements from plan and agile driven approaches.

At Affinnova, we always start with a goal in mind – solve for x. We then structure a project plan based on its critical parts, identifying interdependencies and target dates. Importantly, within the plan, we build in time for additional learnings and the potential for risk or surprises. For example, if part of the plan includes building new features into Concept Studio, we will set aside time for prototyping and user feedback. At the extreme, if we think part of the plan is high risk, we will develop multiple, simultaneous approaches to ensure certainty.

Within our system, we can and do reprioritize items or projects but it is always based on the tradeoff value.

It is also worth noting that when we develop point solutions we rarely do it for that purpose alone. What might appear to be a single point improvement is part of a cumulative plan that will later result in a major product or entry into a new market. This clearly helps focus the mind on priorities and tradeoffs, too.

Last but not least, while each project can be more planned or more agile, what does not change is our belief in the power of teams and collaboration. All project teams are cross-functional teams with representation from customer stakeholders, R&D, operations and finance. Also as projects progress, teams smartly self organize – individual team members are added or switched out based on the needs at that juncture.

LFM: It would seem that the Affinnova platform would be an ideal extension to communities and crowdsourcing; are you working on any plans to embed your products into a more holistic framework?   

WAA: That’s a great question because I think that Affinnova is already crowdsourcing and the opportunity is to extend reach.

Concept Studio allows our customers to create a team and develop a space of possible ideas for each innovation. While these teams are generally cross-functional, which is the right approach, they tend to be circumscribed to employees within the company and proximate functions. There is every reason to extend that reach to suppliers, vendors and partners as an everyday practice. Furthermore, Concept Studio functions like an employee idea management system and as such the opportunity exists to engage mass participation.

Also, interestingly, some of the thought leaders I have spoken to in the industry think of our optimization as “crowd-optimization”. This characterization is evocative because, while today our customers source the ideas, we could extend our reach directly to consumers as well.

We know the opportunity is ripe and within our sights.

LFM: One of the most impressive aspects of your story (to me at least!) has been your ability to attract top shelf talent. What principles or philosophies make up the foundation of your human capital strategy?

WAA: Your compliment is very much appreciated. In my view, it’s the greatest compliment a company can receive because ultimately it’s the quality of the people that define a firm.

Philosophically, we believe in the investor adage that over the long run A teams outperform A products. Inevitably markets change and products become antiquated. The only certainty is your company’s need to foresee change and innovate effectively. A teams do this well and control their destiny. B teams are at the whims of the market. C teams go out of business.

In practice, we identify A players based on performance, experience and characteristics.

Our view on performance is very straightforward: Past performance is the best predictor of future performance. As a result, we only look for people with successful, consistent track records.

With regard to experience, we want experts not generalists (and this should not be confused with versatility). Experience without depth is oxymoronic. Apparently, Steve Jobs believed this too and GE has recently come to a similar realization.

From a characteristics perspective, we want people high on three traits: AQ, EQ and IQ.

People with high Adversity Quotients (AQ) have tremendous grit and determination. Study after study shows that, all things being equal, high AQ is the single most important determinant of success.

Emotional Quotient (EQ), which Stephen Covey popularized, succinctly put, is about a person’s ability to collaborate. Given the world today, high EQ is not a nice to have: it is an absolute necessity. And while we agree with Covey that EQ is learned, we believe that two antecedents must be present: a high level of security and a high level of self-awareness. Otherwise, a person cannot improve.

IQ is not a singular ability. There are many varieties of intelligence from strategic to analytical to creative, and all kinds of combinations in between. We look for a balance of abilities in every person we hire because we think that work today requires such versatility. With specific roles, we then weight up on those abilities that differentiate the function.

Fundamentally, top shelf talent is a must for all high growth companies. Hiring demands in growth companies are exponential in terms of new job and role creation and the need for leadership. Therefore, at Affinnova each person we hire is vital to our success.

LFM: Looking ahead on your product roadmap, what are some of the new innovations we can expect to see in 2012? 

WAA: The more we’ve studied innovation, the more we understand that collaboration is an absolute requirement for successful innovation.

The stereotype of the lone innovator and the anecdotes about inspiration are clearly not true. Edison was not a lone inventor. He built the first modern day industrial lab. Steve Jobs was not a lone genius. His alchemy was instigation and circulating ideas through his people.

To reliably innovate, companies must adopt collaboration platforms that empower workforces to interact. Platforms that enable teams to better disseminate ideas, share information and importantly work together.

That’s why I’m really excited about our Q3 Concept Studio release. The new features and improved functionality expand our collaboration capabilities and are elegantly easy. User feedback has been nothing short of terrific.

We also have a huge optimization launch planned for January. The good news is that Affinnova’s pipeline is full and there are plenty more innovations to come.

LFM: This has been great Waleed; thank you for taking the time. I hope we have the chance to meet soon and discus some of this more in depth.

WAA: It was my pleasure Lenny. Thank you and see you soon.

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