Tech exec offers lessons in data-driven entrepreneurship, and ‘how to speak search engine’

Christian Ward, executive vice president of partnerships with location data platform Yext, spoke at the Koury Business Center on Sept. 22 as part of the C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture Series. 

One might typically envision an entrepreneur working diligently to produce a working prototype to set on the conference table to “wow” potential investors and convince them to part with their money. Not anymore, says Christian Ward, executive vice president of New York-based tech company Yext, which specializes in structuring location data for a broad range of companies. 

Today, that first step is gathering the data to show that consumers are clamoring for a next new thing before even working to build that new product or service, said Ward, speaking Thursday at the Koury Business Center as part of the C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture Series.

“It used to be you had to build things and then see what the demand is,” Ward said to the crowd in the LaRose Digital Theater. “Now, you can test things in seconds. You can promote things and learn what the market demand is. … Creating is often the second or third act. The first act is defining and understanding what the market it.”

Ward speaks from experience, but admits that this current approach differs from how his earlier entrepreneurial ventures. Ward co-founded Jaywalk, a platform that normalized ratings and research reports for the financial industry, with Sean McMahon, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Elon, in 1999, with that company later sold to the Bank of New York. He’s served as global head of content innovation for Thomson Reuters and as chief data officer at Infogroup before joining Yext in 2013.

We live in an increasingly data-driven society with more tools to track consumer habits, preferences and purchase, and it’s that data that should be the foundation of new business ventures, whether it’s promoting a new book for sale, opening a restaurant or launching the next great tech startup, Ward said.

The success of a venture is often dependent upon being able to leverage that data you gather from consumers, as well as how well you structure the data about your own business so that consumers can learn about it and search engines promote it, Ward said.

​Often, data that companies produce during the course of doing business, sometimes called “data exhaust,” can become its own product. Ward cited a company that gathered data about its own attempts to reach out to decision makers at small businesses as part of its sales operations, and was able to repackage that data to sell to other companies also trying to connect with small businesses.

“Any information you can track, you want to track,” Ward said. “You always need to think about new data elements you can find. Sometimes, what we call ‘data exhaust,’ is worth more money than the thing you’re actually doing.”

Beyond a data-centric approach, Ward said making sure you choose the right people to partner with is key. He pointed to his work with McMahon, who offered his own thoughts about knowing the right time to step forward to take the lead, and the right time to step back and follow. Ward said you should select partners who complement you, not just those that compliment you.

The C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture Series, named for Elon University trustee C. Ashton Newhall ’98, brings successful entrepreneurs to campus to share their knowledge and experience managing the risks and rewards of entrepreneurial endeavors.