Ben Waber – President and CEO at Humanyze

I like making small prototypes that actually work (even if only some of the time), and testing things out. If it doesn’t really work in practice, at least you learned something.

Ben Waber is recognized worldwide as an expert in people analytics, collaboration, and wearable technology. He is the leader of Humanyze, a behavioral analytics company that uses wearable sensing technology to transform how companies are managed.  He is also a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, where he received his PhD, and he was previously a senior researcher at Harvard Business School.  Ben has been featured in Wired, CNN, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among other outlets, and his work was selected for the Harvard Business Review’s List of Breakthrough Ideas and the Technology Review’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies.  His book, People Analytics, is an international bestseller and was released in 2013 by the Financial Times Press.

Where did the idea for Humanyze come from?

A lot of our inspiration comes from moneyball. The idea behind moneyball is to use behavioral data to build an organization, in that case a baseball team. But fundamentally, batting average, errors, home runs, etc. are data about behavior. I find it fascinating that companies are so data driven when it comes to their customers, but they forget about all those lessons when it comes to their people. We actually have so much data about how people work, from digital sources such as e-mail and IM to physical sensors like cell phones and company ID badges.

Despite all of this data, there are basic questions that almost no companies today can answer: how much does sales talk to engineering, how much should salespeople talk to a customer in a store? These are core to company success, and yet the best we can do today is “well, I think this is what happens.”

During my PhD at MIT, my cofounders and I hit upon the idea of leveraging all that data about people to understand how companies actually work. In particular, we created wearable sensor badges that can measure who talks to whom, how people talk to each other, and how people move around. Importantly we don’t record what people say or give individual data to companies, everything is aggregated and anonymous. At MIT using this technology we gained an unprecedented view into how people work, and eventually started using our analytics to change how companies are managed. That’s how Humanyze was born.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I start out answering e-mails on the train ride into work for about an hour, mostly from our Asian customers. I’ll say hello to everyone in the office when I get in (if we’re in town, we’re in the office), then I’m scheduled nearly back to back in phone calls and meetings until I have to head home. However, I always eat lunch with my coworkers. I also will call every one of my direct reports for around 5 minutes to talk about anything. It probably ends up being work related 75% of the time, but we also talk about movies we saw, how are kids are doing, etc. These informal chats are the most productive part of my day, since it improves the performance of the entire company, not just my individual output.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I like making small prototypes that actually work (even if only some of the time), and testing things out. If it doesn’t really work in practice, at least you learned something.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

We’re slowly seeing the integration of sensors and actuators into everything around us: clothing, desks, lights, etc. I see this future, magical Harry Potter-esque world that’s coming, and it’s going to bring tremendous opportunity as well as create a more human technological experience.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Whenever I have an opportunity to meet some new, I take it. I’ll also try to connect those people to others I know who can help them in whatever they’re working on. This might not always pay off immediately, but it makes the community around me stronger and more vibrant. Eventually, these things come back to you.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve been fortunate to not to have a job that I truly despised. One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had was as a computer vision researcher, where I essentially had to build large, functional image analysis software solo. My “office” was essentially a broom closet, and my boss was out of the office so much that I probably only interacted with other humans at work for about 15 minutes/week on average. That made me appreciate the psychological importance of communication at work, but also the challenges of coming up with new ideas in an environment where you are completely isolated.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

As a B2B company, we’re constantly balancing immediate customer demands and our long term roadmap. I think at first we tried to hard to cater to customer requests and didn’t demand enough internal effort and ask tough questions of our customers. Taking that approach today has been immensely helpful both to us and our customers.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Chatting with coworkers, especially when people are traveling, needs to become a habit. It’s the only way to keep tabs on everything that’s going on and create trusting relationships. You’ll need that when your startup hits bumps in the road.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Writing articles about our work from a non-commercial perspective helps us become leaders in our field. When I write an article, I’m not pushing our product. I’m giving our perspective on what we believe is important and interesting in the world, oftentimes bringing our technology to bear on the problem. This is a genuine way to contribute to your field and grow your reputation, and will eventually lead to business in the mid and long term.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I can only pick one? There have been many failures and missteps, one in particular that sticks out is overpromising what our technology could deliver. One customer in particular was just expecting so much of the technology, and rather than temper those expectations I fed into it. It may be cliche, but you really need to underpromise. Then you can wow customers. In my case, my team had to work their buts off to deliver, and in the end it wasn’t worth it since we spent far too much time doing things that weren’t useful long term.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Create a wearables platform that can be embedded into actual clothing with the goal of creating immersive, real world experiences from the data the platform creates.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently took an interesting technology executive out for a nice dinner. Had a great conversation and great food, can’t ask for much more.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

This is a broad question, but since I use Gmail for external communication I’ve found two plugins that I can’t live without. One is rapportive, which shows the LinkedIn profile information of recipients/senders of an e-mail. This is great for quickly connecting, but also for understanding someone’s exact role and learning more about them in a quick glance. The second plugin is Streak. This lets you know when someone opens one of your e-mails without a read receipt. Is someone ignoring your e-mails, or actually not reading them? That’s huge for sales efforts in particular.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I could selfishly recommend my own book, People Analytics, but I’ll take the high road and recommend The Alliance by Reid Hoffman. It is the perfect way to think about employer/employee relations in the modern economy, and can be finished in a few hours.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I always browse the arXiv to learn about new technology and science that’s coming out around social networks and machine learning. Only a small percentage of these papers are going to be directly relevant to your work, but you can spot them quickly. This work is years, sometimes more than a decade, ahead of where startups and large companies are, so this is incredibly useful for getting ahead of the game.


Ben Waber on LinkedIn:
Humanyze on LinkedIn:
Ben Waber on Twitter: @bwaber
Humanyze on Twitter: @humanyze