David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

Inside the Mind of Mixpanel’s CEO

Founder Interview

Mixpanel’s mission is to “help the world learn from its data.” Today, we’re going to catch up with Mixpanel CEO Suhail Doshi about the state of this business, his vision for analytics and what makes him do what he does.

Tell us a bit about Mixpanel.

Mixpanel is a product analytics company that helps teams and companies build digital products that users love. Our platform empowers product, UX and developer teams to make better product decisions, every day. Today, we work with almost 20,000 customers worldwide and 14% of the Fortune 500.

Since we shifted our focus to enterprise customers in January 2017, we’ve signed 70+ new enterprise customers since, closed 100+ expansion deals, and seen a 41% increase in average new deal size.

Mixpanel provides cutting edge analytics for its customers — how does that translate to your internal analytics? What KPIs matter most to the company? And what’s the role of data in your company culture?

We use Mixpanel on Mixpanel internally to help us understand and measure how our customers use our platform. We call it “Project 3” (don’t ask what happened to Projects 1 and 2 …). Like many of our customers, we use Mixpanel to track our top KPIs: usage frequency, retention, and feature adoption. We constantly seek feedback on our new products from our customers to help us determine how we can improve them and what we should build next.

Every team — from people operations to customer success to support — is responsible for reporting on their KPIs and making the necessary adjustments to improve performance. We’ve found that our teams perform best in a transparent environment where we are all responsible for holding ourselves and our colleagues accountable.

As a kid, when did you realize your fascination with data and its impact on the world?

When I was growing up, I fell in love with programming. It felt incredible to build things that people actually wanted — to automate annoying tasks that took up all their time when they had to do it manually.

But once I was regularly building software, it became challenging to judge whether what I had built would be useful or not. I always had to rely on my instincts to decide what to change next and whether that change would be a positive one.

My fascination with data grew out of my efforts to solve that problem. I eventually learned to combine the “art” of building products with the science of quantitatively measuring the accuracy of my best guess. It felt empowering to make adjustments that way — based on data rather than a hunch. I liked knowing whether my instincts had led me astray or if I had hit the nail on the head. That feedback helped me make better predictions the next time around.

What separates a good analytics dashboard from a great analytics dashboard?

Every customer is different and their needs can vary from industry to industry, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s what makes Mixpanel unique: it’s entirely customizable based on the needs of each user. Our dashboards allow our customers the flexibility they need to surface and monitor what matters most to them.

Do you think it’s better for product people to be data-driven or data-informed? Why?

Unfortunately, data will not tell you whether the decision you made fits in a local maxima or if you’ve truly found the global maxima. That’s why I think it’s important to combine the art of creatively building products with the science of understanding whether you drove the right behavior.

For example, we all know that if we made a button in our product bigger, more people would be likely to click on it. But is that the experience we want to create? Is that really want users want? Could there be a more intuitive way to solve the same problem of discovery and engagement? Probably.

It requires ingenuity and creativity to find the best solution — that’s the art. The science is using data to determine if you were right or wrong in pursuit of that best solution. That’s why it’s important to combine the two, otherwise, teams will end up with a functional but ultimately mediocre product.

Could you share a bit about what differentiates the technology behind Mixpanel from the technology behind other analytics companies?

Our secret sauce is called ARB. It’s a system that we developed at the start of the company, and it’s the core of what makes Mixpanel different from other analytics companies. It uses a special compression algorithm that has clever methods of distributing the work of analysis, hundreds of optimizations that speed up the processes of answering user-behavior-related questions, and innovative ways to store data efficiently. As a result, it saves compute power and reduces the cost to analyze vast amounts of data for our customers.

On your LinkedIn under ‘education’ it says you are “Currently on perpetual leave.” Do you plan on returning to school? 😉 How did you know dropping out of school was the right decision for you?

At the time, I didn’t really know if it was the right decision, but when the opportunity presented itself, I just needed to go for it — to try and turn this crazy idea into a reality. I spent countless hours researching and writing code to build something that I hoped would modernize an industry that hadn’t been improved for a decade.

It eventually became clear that there was a massive hole in the market, and we were in the right place at the right time. Still, there is never a “sure thing” when it comes to building a company, but the information I gathered gave me enough confidence to take a risk. So my Co-Founder and I jumped in the deep end, knowing we could always go back to school or find jobs if it didn’t work out.

Now that you’ve raised Series A, Series B, and grown the company to 280 employees, do you — like most startup founders, myself included — fear that it could all fail? How do you combat, nurture and challenge your own negative energy through the business’s ups and downs?

All business have ups and downs– Mixpanel is no different. I try not to dwell on past problems or fixate on what could potentially go wrong in the future. I take it day by day, allowing problems to evolve with new information. Most of the time, there’s a logical solution, but you won’t see if you’re too stressed.

Of course, stress is sometimes unavoidable, and that’s why founders need a smart and hardworking team, patient mentors, and supportive friends. A team can help solve the business’s problems and keep you from trying to solve all of them yourself. A network of mentors can offer perspective and guidance based on their past experiences. And close friends can carry you through the tough times.

Learning to stay level-headed and consistent when faced with huge amounts of pressure is hard. Learning to trust other people is hard. But, if you’re willing to put in the work, it really does get easier.

It’s almost always best to learn from the people who are actually doing it IMHO. What is something about product analytics that you’ve learned from your customers?

Our smaller customers always push the envelope. They are incredibly clever and efficient in how they use certain features, and they provide use cases that we wouldn’t have necessarily come up with on our own. That helps us take those products to larger companies who want to know how the most savvy companies use data.

In our case, we learned from many mid-size teams how important is going to be to evolve our strategies as the company as it matures. For example: we’ve seen many of our customers go from analyzing only user-behavior centric data to incorporating more inputs like payment and sales data, support tickets, advertising attribution, and other information. They use all of it to inform the more complex decisions about their products’ path forward. That has informed how we make decisions about what features and integrations build out in the short-term as well as how we plan and prioritize our roadmap in the long-term.

Mixpanel recently moved to the Google Cloud Platform. It’s easier than ever to start a tech company, but even as the promising tech companies grow, it seems they still rely on Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. At the same time, you entered a market when most thought Google Analytics had a stranglehold. What’s your general approach to tech partnerships and tech competition?

Worrying too much about whether one of those monoliths will build your product can prevent you from moving forward and distract you from your goals. So I think of it as: When they build our product, why will ours prevail? I continuously evolve the company’s strategy in a way that will prepare us for that day.

At Mixpanel, we invest all of our time and resources into making the absolute best product, regardless of what happens. If we do, if we build a defensible product, we will succeed even if one of those big companies comes and picks off our top three features tomorrow.

The prospect still causes some stress for our team, but, as I like to remind us, there is a limit to how many people a company can throw at a problem and actually solve it. Small teams can have outsized impact. And persistence and the savviness of a smaller team can help build better products in the long-run, even with a short-term on the horizon.

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This Paid Story is brought to you by Mixpanel.

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