Data served direct-to-exec with Napkyn

We’ve heard about shortage of data-analysis help, and about senior execs who pooh-pooh the influence of analysis in decision-making, and about the “dead” self-service analysis. So when a vendor tells me about a direct-to-exec service, featuring a sort of concierge of analytics, I pull up a chair to listen.

Napkyn, five years old last month and major brands under its belt, assigns a senior analyst to lead a long-term relationship with one executive. Behind the analyst stands a 13-person team that collaborates on the exec’s behalf, putting forward experts as needed. One team member, for example, has 15 years’ experience in multi-variate testing. The CEO and founder, Jim Cain, comes with 15 years in marketing-data alignment.

Cain explains that it all began as a response to a gap he saw: execs’ inability to find answers in the data analysis tools they had, and their inability to hire people who could help. “It’s impossible,” he said, “to hire people in a discipline that’s no older than a first grader.”

He sketched his idea on a napkin and capitalized Napkyn with a $10,000 severance check, and then spent the first five years “aggressively bootstrapping.” It has served 40 major brands, he says, and now has 15 current clients.

The service runs on a flat fee with no overages — which made me wonder how they protect themselves from unreasonable demands? He says it took time to learn how. In the first few years, they worked with anyone who wanted the service, which apparently attracted some who just weren’t ready. “It’s hard to keep the interest of someone who wears too many hats,” he says. That sounds like some people I know, but that’s a long dark hallway I’ll look into another time.

Now Napkyn concentrates on “tier-one brands,” $10 million-plus organizations and only vice president and up. “They have the experience to know what they want and what to do with it.”

Napkyn also protects itself, he says, by “earning the right” to say no. “We earn the right with senior stakeholders. ‘You’ve asked for five things and we only have time for two.'” Deferring to later is usually a better option.

From the start, the lead analyst wants to know what the exec cares about most. The first question is, “What do you care about? What answers can’t you get and complain about to someone close to you?” From there, the Napkyn analyst plugs in with people below to find the data and the answers. He described the role as “half bartender and half mathematician.”

I suppose the lead analyst is something like what Wayne Eckerson, author of Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights from Information Insiders, would call a “purple person.” This is the person in the middle, the non-specialist who’s neither business blue nor IT red and who empathizes with both sides.

I’ve always liked those roles, but not many others seem to. Napkyn analysts get more training in asking questions, Cain says, than in running analysis tools or in complex implementation.

At first, the reaction within the organization is a little bit “Sharks and Jets,” he says, referring to the “West Side Story” street-gang drama. But sooner or later people realize that Napkyn is an asset. Their presence tends to change ways people use information and agreeing what things mean. He says, “Getting organizations to align is surprisingly disruptive. We don’t do it with technology.”

“We’re kind of the KPMG of measurement,” says Cain. When the organization uses Napkyn, “everybody can assume that the information the exec gets is accurate and not biased.” Cain says it’s one of the benefits of a direct path to the top stakeholder mediated by senior analytics people.

Wait, does the analyst have a pistol under the napkin? Does he really exude such adult presence?

Pistol or not, it’s a service to watch.

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