Interview with Sidney Minassian (Founder of Contexti & SalesNative)

Sidney Minassian is the influential and inspirational Founder and CEO of Contexti, the successful Big Data Analytics Solutions & Training company, and the Founder of SalesNative, which provides sales coaching to first-time tech founders.

In this interview, he offers some invaluable insights on launching a tech business, and also provides advice on how to increase your value as a Data Scientist:

You’re the CEO and founder of the widely successful Big Data & Analytics company Contexti. Can you please tell us a bit about the company, what inspired you to start it, and some of its greatest successes?

Contexti is a Big Data Analytics solutions company. Our mission is to help customers create value from data. We partner with Australian companies who have identified data as a key enabler in the future success of their business.

Our contribution and specialisation is the design, build and managed services of big data platforms, also known as data lakes or data hubs which enables our customers’ data science teams to focus on value creating insights and integrating those insights into their businesses processes while we focus on cloud infrastructure, data platform, data ingestion and data governance.

We are fortunate to serve customers like Seven West Media, Caltex, Healthdirect and SAI Global to name a few.

One of our proud case studies was partnering with Seven West Media (SWM) for the Rio Olympic Games. Leveraging our managed big data platform (Cloudera on AWS) and SWM’s data science team we achieved a 29% lift on user engagement during the games. This capability will have a significant impact on SWM’s future business as they shift their focus from ‘TV in the living room’ to ‘premium digital content, anywhere, anytime on any device’.

Our partnership with SWM has expanded we have since worked on the Australian Open, Rugby World Cup, Winter Olympics and we’re set for the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

Contexti was born as a result of a few colliding events. I’d just gotten back from five years in Silicon Valley with my previous venture that reached some amazing heights then came crashing down to a spectacular failure. I grew and learned a lot from that experience and was keen to take my learnings into my next venture. While I’m not a technologist or data scientist I have a passion for innovation, value creation and new ventures which I’ve now been doing for 20 years. Looking at the market I believed data and cloud were going to be massive enablers of business transformation and given my two previous startups were focused on ‘data capture for decision making’, big data just made sense to me. Same goal, different technology and approach, so I took a swing.

As for the name, Contexti, I was looking for a short, brandable name where the dot com domains and social media handles were available, so I combined the words context and intelligence to come up with Contexti.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and I think we have a massive opportunity ahead as more organisations come to realise the importance of data as strategic asset.

What’s your view of the role of Big Data, especially in the Government sector, and its growth and change since founding Contexti?

Big data is definitely on the agenda in the government sector. For some it’s still at ‘talk’ stage but for many they’re investing, upskilling and in a handful of cases implementing solutions.

Given Contexti has a big data training service we have direct insight into Federal and State government departments who have invested in the technologies and call on us to upskill their teams.

This trend will only continue to grow.

As for their effectiveness I expect they struggle with the same challenges as the private sector which I will address in the next question but in short lack of leadership and change management is the problem, not data, technology or skills.

What are your views on the growth of Data Science, and more broadly, data driven decision making throughout both the private and public sectors? What are some of the challenges organizations face?

There are a number of indicators that show ‘activity’ and so called uptake, but we are far off ‘data driven decision making’ being the norm.

There are plenty of jobs being advertised for Data Scientist and from our vendor friends I know there is significant spend on tools and technologies.

However, before we deal with skills gap or technology decisions there is a fundamental leadership and change management gap and until these are addressed organisations will continue to waste dollars on people and tools with no ROI and will then continue the rhetoric that ‘data science does not deliver’.

I wrote an article about this topic which you can read on the Contexti website called the 6 Missing Drivers Of Failed Big Data Projects In Australia.

Given your success and influence, you’ve recently founded SalesNative, with the aim of inspiring, training and coaching first-time tech founders. Can you please tell us a bit more about its aim and why you saw a niche for this valuable company?

SalesNative is sales training and coaching company serving tech founders.

I’ve been doing tech ventures for the past 20 years and I’ve consistently found myself in conversations with other founders who have a technology, engineering or science background and needed help with sales – which happens to be my area of strength.

Looking around I can see the world is full of intelligent hard working tech founders who have a great vision to transform lives, industries and countries but will never succeed because they don’t have the right sales mindset, know-how and connections.

And when you look at what options there are for these tech founders, it’s very limited. They either have to be in Silicon Valley where they’ll benefit from the ecosystem, or they need to get into a proper accelerator or they need to strike it lucky by finding a ‘business co-founder’. The odds are stacked against them.

So we’re changing this with SalesNative. Our sales training and coaching programs are specifically designed for tech founders (not sales people), it’s all online making it available on-demand, scalable and affordable.

As part of our commitment to ‘inspiration’, we’ve also launched the SalesNative Podcast where tech founders share their most valuable sales lessons. Available on the SalesNative website, SalesNative Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify.

If this is of interest to the readers I’d also welcome you to check out my free talk the 10 Sales Essentials For First Time Tech Founders.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome these?

On the one hand I could argue I’ve not had much of a ‘career’ in the traditional sense. I got my first job right out of high school at 18 years of age working for a Japanese investment bank while I did my uni at nights. After a few years I joined KPMG in the Treasury & Risk Consulting group at which point I realised I had the gift of the gab and was too ambitious and impatient to follow the traditional career path. So from the age of 23 I’ve been doing my own thing, I’m 43 this year.

On the other hand, I guess ‘entrepreneurship’ has been my career and I’ve faced many challenges on the journey.

The ‘theme’ of my challenges has always been that I’ve had to attempt things that were new to me (e.g. selling software is way different to selling your own consulting time, raising over $10million in private and venture capital, closing partnering deals with Cisco, Telstra & AWS, hiring people 15+ years my senior in age, launching a new venture in the US, etc). If I’d worked for another startup or a tech company some of these things would not have been so difficult, but it is what it is and I think I am now a better strategist and coach as I have the battle scars.

My way of overcoming challenges has been to be open and transparent with my goals and gaps and to treat people with massive respect for their emotions, aspirations and intellect but not be overwhelmed or threatened by their age, title or position in the organisation.

When you’re vulnerable with your gaps and transparent with your goals people open up and are only too willing to help.

Along the way I’ve had some very hard knocks, this builds resilience and stamina. So if you’re experiencing some pain with a career challenge, I encourage you to embrace it, understand it, feel it and grow from it. You will smile down the track and be thankful for going through it.

You meet and work with some successful and inspirational people. Are there any that stand out that you feel have really inspired you, and that you’ve learned from them?

I’d like to think that I’m finding inspiration and learning from everyone.  However, you’re right I’m really fortunate to have had some amazing people on my journey. I’ll call out three of them:

My first boss, David Tattam who took the time and interest to mentor me and redirect my energy :). If it wasn’t for him I might have ended up being a goofy trader in the dealing room. He exposed me to the inner workings of a bank and got me involved in projects across technology, operations, risk management and project management.

My first investor, Glenn Fielding who for me has set the standard in doing business the right way and as a good human being. As he cut me the cheque he said “Don’t lose your family over your business and things will change, it’s ok, if you’re stuck come back and chat, we’ll find a way together”. He’s been true to his word. As I’ve experienced ups and downs he remained a supportive backer and didn’t change his tune when things got tough.

And Darren Klein who over a 20 year period has been a friend, business partner, boss and employee. In addition to a crazy work ethic, grit and determination to face life, business and work challenges, I am constantly inspired by how committed Darren is to constantly improve himself, his relationships and his capabilities.

What’s your advice to Data Scientists wanting to grow their careers and really make a mark within an organisation?

If you get the chance read an article I wrote about the 7 Ways To Increase Your Value As a Data Scientist.

The big takeaways are to step away from the data, understand the business drivers, build relationships, communicate, understand the ‘why’ not just the ‘what, seek action from your work and secure a seat at the table.

With the proliferation of tools and technologies in the Data Science field, Big Data, Deep Learning and AI, and the huge growth in the interest and study in Data Science itself, what are some of your predictions for the coming trends?

Ok you asked for it….

I think the cloud vendors will dominate over time (AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Alibaba Cloud). They have the data, they have the compute and now they are all working on the intelligence and application pieces.

The role of the Data Scientist (if we’re still calling it that in the future) will evolve into a strategist, evangelist and integrator because technology will outperform what any individual could achieve on the number crunching and insights finding front. So go back and read my piece on how to step away from the data, increase your value as a data scientist and make sure you’ve got a seat at the table.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by Sidney represent his own personal views and not those of his employer.

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