Datapico: the trials, the successes and the decision to close it down
You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
said hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky
I love innovation. I mentor, (angel) invest in startups and find conversations with digital entrepreneurs invigorating. I read the blogs, listen to the podcasts and have a decent understanding of the key elements of building a digital centered business. This is a good start, but more often than not, insufficient to ensure success. This story will be about an innovation that didn't go according to plan.
TL;DR: DATAPICO.COM -> right problem, wrong solution, almost but not quite.
In 2018 we built a product called Datapico in response to a problem that needed to be solved.
The backstory: we had had a lot of experience in search engine marketing and what drives success (to a large extent) in this branch of marketing is links to your website. The history (if you can call something around 20 years old) of SEO is best characterized by vendors and clients doing whatever it takes to get links from other web properties. We had helped a plethora of companies improve their search engine rankings, generate more traffic and exceed their targets. It felt good, at least for a while. What caused the SEO business to lose its luster (for me at least) was the blackhat/grayhat world of links-at-any-cost; it got to the point where it appeared to be a field dominated by tricks and dubious tactics, and an absence of great marketing strategy. At worst some of these tactics put client businesses at extreme risk. We saw how some tactics could deliver incredible short term gains, only for Google to penalize the tactic and cause website traffic to collapse. Which led to profit slumps and layoffs and acrimony with the SEO vendor. Or perhaps I just got bored and needed a change.
The challenge we set for ourselves: can we produce content that is compelling enough such that mainstream media would publish it, generate kudos (ie. links) and that clients would pay us for. We felt that this brought SEO firmly inside the frame of formal marketing, and that this tracked well for a field that was entering maturity.
The (other) motivation: we love to work in ways that improve the world, we love to work on topics that change people's minds and behaviors (not always possible), and the emerging zeitgeist was that of fake news. And I had a penchant for journalism and an expertise in data.
How it worked: we would find datasets on interesting topics, explore those datasets for interesting trends and behaviors, pitch news editors in mainstream media, work with their journalists to combine our analysis and data visualization with their editorial line. We would provide this work to the news outlets for free, in exchange for ‘Brought to you by CLIENT’ link. News media did not typically have the team or the time to produce this rich analysis, and news editors understood the quid-pro-quo opportunity.
The successes: we formed a great relationship with mainstream media including USA Today who published our pieces on the Texas Mid-term elections (voter registration analysis, sentiment analysis), pedestrian accidents, car accident hotspots and others. We also published notable work on the Opioid Crisis, as well the emerging scandal of nursing home abuses (PDF), and how this correlated to instances of COVID-19 outbreaks.
For one client we achieved a jump in organic traffic of 367% in 2 months and this resulted in an exponential increase in their business (a law firm), not to mention the boost in branding right across Texas thanks to the USA Today outlets that all published our work.
The client was thrilled, signed on for a one year contract. For us this meant validation of the core idea, that we could now replicate multiple times, reduce marginal costs, grow the team and grow profits. Good times!
The business didn’t fail. We put Datapico on ice because it wasn’t successful enough. The main reason for this is that we could not control enough of the outcomes. For instance, we could not guarantee that a dataset would reveal anything interesting. In Atlanta we saw that urban traffic accidents were average when compared to other states. There was no story, and if there was no story then we had no basis with which to pitch media, and there is no result for our client. (We actually saw that pickups accounted for a disproportionate number of fatalities but got pushback from an editor who felt that it would be an unpopular angle.) And our upfront work to prepare and analyze the data was time consuming, with no guaranteed result.
The learnings: media love data journalism yet don't usually have the resources to produce such work, clients love to get published in mainstream media, sometimes data doesn't tell a story, sometimes media won't publish your work, sometimes you get the desired result and sometimes you don’t. In other words, while Datapico was bona fide marketing with a possibility of success, we concluded that the upfront costs, required a high price point, but the risk of low or no success was simply too high for most clients. In broader terms, it was a fresh and timely solution, the need and execution was validated, however the path to growth was not as clear as we had expected.
The decision to retire the service was difficult; after so much effort, by so many people, who deserve all the credit for conceive of, and deliver the service: David, Julian H, Julian M, Göran, Veronica, Nati, Sebas, Paola, Juan José, James, Jhony, Seema, Andrea
Ps. we took some inspiration from Unsplash origin story, and despite the blood, sweat and tears we highly recommend the entrepreneurial journey for those who have that particular set of attributes. You know who you are!