Getting To Know You: Steve King

What do you currently do?
I’m CEO of Black Swan, a Data Science & Creative Technology Company. We help our clients find insights and solutions that quite simply change the way they think about their business. We analyse consumer behaviour, then build cutting edge technology to create better outcomes for our clients.

Our name is derived from an ancient assumption that all swans were white, until a European explorer travelling to Australia in 1697 saw some black swans and had what is known as a ‘black swan moment’. Our goal as a business is to provide our clients with ‘black swan moments’ as often as we can!

We’ve just been awarded a share of a Digital Innovation Fund judged by Google for our “Influenza Early Warning System” work with a major Pharma company, predicting the tide of cold and flu across Indonesia. In essence we won the award for building a health trends dashboard, allowing our client to drill down into the data and to segment, map and target the spread of disease; and identify points of intervention.

2 years after launch, we’re already 120 people. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve grown – we’ve already moved offices 6 times and now have offices in Waterloo, Exeter, Hong Kong, Hungary and California.

What is your inspiration in business?
As a business, we use agile thinking to unlock data problems, which in some instances businesses have faced for a while. Our swift innovations means we are continuously creating technology solutions including some groundbreaking products such Visual Saliency testing tools which shortcut months of web tracking research. I guess the scope of the technology is my inspiration – how far can we take true digital performance measurement and real time econometric modeling? Well, this, solving new problems every day and working alongside people I admire.

Who do you admire?
The true list of inspiration is pretty extensive, but if you asked me to boil it down to just 3 it would have to be Stephen Hawking for being a genius, the mathematician Alan Turing who was so far ahead of his time, and Nate Silver for his inspirational book Signals in the Noise (which I would highly recommend reading).

Looking back would you have done things differently?
Not really; given the speed of Black Swan’s growth we have had to act as an effective leadership powerhouse from day 1! We definitely learn lessons from everything we do but I think being surrounded by great, trustworthy people who are very, very good at what they do has helped make this a reality. However, if I had to pick one thing, I probably wouldn’t have almost taken the company under by betting our first 3 months revenue on a maths problem.

What defines your way of doing business?
Curiosity, empathy and a lot of hard work. We try to work as a true partner to our clients, helping them solve problems and identify opportunities to grow their revenues. We are working with some very smart brands on some game changing projects at the moment; unfortunately most of these are confidential as they involve commercial data, but they are broad ranging from providing seat back internet enabled technology to 70 per cent of the worlds passenger aircraft, to predicting (to the day) key seasonal events for retailers and large scale entertainment brands.

At the core of our business is a data unification engine. A very smart tech platform, “the brain” which ingests public data from a myriad of social and public sources, then re-assembles it to define correlations of significance to brands.

We start with smart pilots to prove data concepts and results, and then scale them up swiftly. Some of our partners don’t have a data science capability and we know winning the argument to invest with us can sometimes be a challenge, so we provide this capability as part of our service. Our business model is based on helping our partners develop these competencies and ideally over time we hand back the reins, as and when required.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
I graduated from Exeter’s School of Cognitive Science and it was always something of a dream to convert my passion for analytics into my career… it’s sometimes quite hard to believe what we’ve achieved with Black Swan Data. But my advice would definitely be: take on the really difficult problems that at first you might balk at, and dare to think the unthinkable. In our experience, some of the longest standing business challenges just need to be looked at in the right way. That said, don’t overthink things! We seem to say that a lot in the office; it creates decision paralysis! Our mantra is pretty much: Define, Test, Grow.

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