/ Entrepreneurship

33 Sticks: A Utah Startup Turning Data Into Action

We started 33 Sticks because we wanted to do something different.

As a young boy, 33 Sticks Co-Founder Jason Thompson always believed he would one day grow up to be a geologist. For fun, he would pore over his mother’s old geology textbooks from her time at BYU. Most kids see a rock and want to either throw it or kick it. Thompson wanted to examine it, to study its origins, and to understand everything he could possibly know about it.

“My grandpa was a rock hound,” said Thompson. “We’d always go out in the hills and pick up rocks and fossils. It was awesome.”

It wasn’t until Thompson began to prepare to go to college that he realized his dreams of becoming a geologist didn’t quite square with reality.

“There’s just no money in geology. I knew I had to do something else,” said Thompson.

While his childhood aspirations may have been dashed, Thompson’s curiosity and thirst for minutiae remained in tact. He decided to major in Information Systems at Utah State University.

“I really started to think about analytics after taking a lot of stats classes, logic classes, and critical thinking classes,” said Thompson.

At the beginning of his senior year, Thompson was asked to teach a course on software design. The teaching gig provided him with an opportunity to continue his education. He went on to earn a Master’s degree in Management Information Systems.

After college, Thompson was offered a software engineer job at Novell. He joined the company at the tail end of its glory days. Eric Schmidt was still CEO. Stock prices were still high. It was a great time to be a part of one of the biggest tech success stories in Utah’s history.

A year later Schmidt left the Provo-based company to run Google. Stock prices began to steadily decline, and layoffs soon followed. Thompson managed to hang on for another five years, but eventually he too was let go.

Soon after leaving Novell, Thompson received a call from a friend encouraging him to go work for Omniture. He’d never heard of the company, or its founder Josh James. Omniture was still a relatively small company when Thompson arrived. In fact, they were still holding meetings in the company’s break room.

“I joined their implementation consulting team,” said Thompson. “There was no process. They had just one directive: make our clients happy. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just trying to figure everything out.”

Thompson worked at Omniture for about three years.

“It was a great time to get hired for that company,” said Thompson. “A great place to learn. I learned a ton. I left thinking I knew everything there was to know about analytics.”

Thompson left Omniture to go work for Spark Networks, who had just purchased LDSSingles.com. He was responsible for building their analytics division from scratch.

“I quickly found out I knew very little,” he said. “I knew a lot about the technical implementation side of it, but that, in the grand scheme of things, was very small. It was an awesome learning experience. I took them from no analytics to being a very analytics-driven organization in about four years. When I left, I felt it would be able to sustain itself.”

While working at Spark Networks, Thompson met Hila Dahan. The company was based out of Beverly Hills, which is where Dahan worked; Thompson worked out of the company’s Provo office.

“We quickly connected, and together we were able to provide guidance for the executive team,” said Dahan. “We helped the product and marketing groups optimize the site in ways they had not considered before.”

Although they were in different states, the two formed a connection by including popsicle sticks in the mail that was sent between the two offices. They would write observations about the company, or funny jokes on the sticks. They both had a Mason jar on their desk with a collection of popsicle sticks.

“It was a fun way to stay in touch,” said Thompson.

In March 2013, when the two eventually decided to start their own business, they knew the popsicle sticks had to be a part of their overall brand.

“I was like, ‘I think I have 33 in my jar right now.’ She said, ‘Alright, that’s good, 33 Sticks it is,’” said Thompson.

33 Sticks is not your typical web analytics company. They’re more like business advisors that just happen to be really good with data.

“We started 33 Sticks because we wanted to do something different,” said Dahan. “We saw a very crowded analytics consulting market, but we didn’t see the type of company we wanted to work for. We wanted a company that was hyper-focused on customer success and delivering value.”

Having worked in analytics for most of his career, Thompson wasn’t interested in patterning his company after those already in the market.

“All of the consulting agencies I’ve ever worked with, starting at Ominiture and all the way through, it was about how many hours can I bill you. Which from a customer perspective is kind of in direct violation of what I want. I want you to give me the highest quality product the quickest,” said Thompson. “But from a consulting perspective, I want it to take the longest so I can get paid more. That just always rubbed me the wrong way. We talked about our ideals. About really being focused on high quality deliverables. More focused on billing for the value we give, rather than the time we spend. We kind of built the business on that.”

Taking a value-based approach makes 33 Sticks unique in terms of how they bill their clients.

“We never bill by the hour, we bill for the value that each project generates. This allows our clients to become true partners with us. They never have to worry about picking up the phone or sending an email to ask for our help. We are open and available at any time, may it be to dive deeper into a complex solution a client is interested in building, or spending a couple of days preparing a one-sheet for investors a client is preparing for,” said Dahan.

In the short term, it may not be the most profitable approach, but Thompson believes it will pay off in the end.

“I think we would have made more money in year one had we taken on more of those tactical projects,” said Thompson. “I think in the long term, though, this is going to serve us better.”

While they still live in different states (Dahan lives in California, while Thompson is headquarted in Utah), the founders of 33 Sticks have cultivated a solid working relationship.

“Working with Jason over the years has been an amazing transformation for me,” said Dahan. “We have a very unique dynamic where he’s much stronger than I am on the technical aspects of data manipulation, while I bring in the storytelling and investigative aspects within our work. Together, we find ourselves helping clients like a swat team that comes in to peel off the insights and discover strategic opportunities for optimization within their business.

“For Jason and I, our way of thinking, our methodology, our vision, and our outlook on life in general is continuously aligned, and so starting a company together was a natural progression of our friendship and an inevitable phase in our growth as professionals in the space.

“Besides all of that, he’s an amazing chef, so I figured that our company get-together’s at his house would be full of amazing food and Italian desserts.”

In her spare time, Dahan teaches an Online Analytics & Measurement class at UC Irvine, and she also mentors Startup Workshops at Lean Startup Machine. In that context, she had some advice for budding entrepreneurs.

“A lot of people can get excited about an idea,” said Dahan. “But it takes knowing the details and having a deep understanding of the market and the potential of the solution to actually execute and build a viable product successfully. My advice is to be objective about how your product is behaving, how your customers may be using it, and how you need to improve it. You must invest in properly capturing data around user-behavior and constantly be looking at what the data is telling you, and not get stuck in your desire to make it work the way you envisioned.”

What’s the best piece of startup advice she’s received?

“The best startup advice I’ve received was around sharing my ideas,” said Dahan. “If you have an amazing idea, surround yourself with people from the space and talk about the idea to as many people as possible. The feedback you’ll get will be extremely valuable for your execution path and your go-to-market strategy.”

Although he would likely rather be studying rocks and participating in other geology-related activities, Thompson has built a business analytics and advisement company that is helping the founders of Fortune 500 companies, startups, and marketing agencies achieve their own childhood dreams. That’s not a bad consolation prize. It might even be better. From what I hear, geologists spend most of their time feeling like people just take them for granite (nailed it!).

“At 33 Sticks, Jason and I don’t have clearly defined roles. We have developed a unique chemistry that allows us to wear different hats when needed and be totally supportive of each other,” said Dahan. “Sometimes I take a strong lead on the analytical work while Jason is working on marketing and biz dev, and other times I will be focused on the operational portions of running the business, while Jason is crafting an optimization strategy for one of our clients. And there are other times where I just have to calm Jason down when he is being overly dramatic and moody.”

We all have our own unique personality traits. Thompson’s can be easily excused. We all know geologists can be very sedimental (this is too easy).

Don’t be surprised to hear more about 33 Sticks in the months and years ahead. The company plans to create physical co-working locations to facilitate mentoring for new talent, and they are currently fleshing out plans for several new products.

Rock on!

Published 1/16/2014