Innovators

Danielle Morrill’s guide to the galaxy

You can depend on Danielle Morrill, co-founder and CEO of Mattermark, to draw the line between what’s important and what’s industry bullshit.

Notorious for her Tweetstorms – dropping the mic on a recent one with, “Yes, I’m ‘too aggressive’ and that’s why I get what I want” – Danielle talks like she acts: fast, often punctuated with four letter words that might make your grandmother blush.

I witnessed her electric personality in full force when I met Danielle at Mattermark for this interview. I was surprised when she didn’t take me to one of those airy, glass-plated conference rooms that litter most “open plan” startup offices. Instead, she led me downstairs, walked up to a bookcase, and tugged on a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, opening the door to “The Secret Office.”

“This room gives us major nerd cred,” she told me with a grin. It’s also where she presents job offers to candidates.

In Silicon Valley, people are often inspired to go work at a startup because of the mission. But equally as often people follow the founder because of their leadership, or unique culture they set. When working with Danielle, it’s difficult to separate the woman from the work, and today, her work is Mattermark.

The data-as-a-service company organizes the world’s business information into what’s important and what’s bullshit.

If that sounds too abstract, it’s because the product is still evolving to match the vision. Today, Mattermark is best known as the go-to platform for investment teams in venture capital, especially when researching companies, sourcing new deals, and forecasting projections. However, as sales teams across all industries see Mattermark’s data as a way to get more leads and close more deals, the company is moving beyond the VC community and into the broader business world. It might sound like an ambitious leap, but Danielle isn’t afraid of venturing into the unknown.

Like Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, Danielle Morrill has harnessed what many founders resist out of fear: chaos.

Danielle accepts entropy, the force leading everything to disorder, as a conduit to her wisdom and success. This has been her modus operandi throughout her life and career in tech, but it also dominates her vision for tomorrow’s data-driven world, and points her to where she believes innovation will spring forth next.

Whether it’s for sales and development research, a fundraising deck or personal revelation, the journey to “insight” often starts when you feel completely in the dark, when the overabundance of data feels like chaos. Once you accept entropy as a source of power rather than an obstacle, Danielle knows, it’ll become the mother of your inventions, leading to progress for everything from a single metric to an entire company.

Click to Tweet: Danielle Morrill's Guide to the Galaxy: Advice to founders from the Mattermark CEO.

The power of entropy

“There’s entropy to information in companies,” Danielle says. “At times you feel completely overwhelmed, and then you reach some degree of saturation and move again toward having insight.”

Danielle uses her hands to illustrate a funnel opening up, capturing the “chaos” part (data sets, research, complex scenarios, decision trees, etc.). She closes her hands, signifying a point of clarity. She repeats the motion like waves, demonstrating that this system, fluctuating between information and insight, is continuous.

We see examples of this macro pattern in miniature all the time – in our political systems, in nature, even in something as mundane as a research project, with reams of paper and notes whittled down to a single deck of clarified bullet points.

“Ideally, when you reach that moment of tension is when you’ve reached clarity and achieve something, like funding or launching a product,” Danielle says, “Then there’s an expansion of new information, and inevitably, that insight helps you leverage the next set of data, or problems, and propels you through the next wave of information.”

This pattern also happens when companies start collecting data seriously (which often feels like collecting chaos) and then try to act on that information.

“When you’re looking at all of it, you feel like it’s just a fucking pile of crap,” says Danielle. “There’s just so much that you don’t understand it and it’s just overwhelming, and it feels like it has no purpose.”

To the founder wringing her hands in the welter of data chaos, remember this refrain from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy: “Don’t panic.”

By creating order out of the chaos (e.g. collecting data) from the beginning, a company or team can later drill into the details, maximize the data’s potential, and reveal crucial trends and insights about user behavior.

Because in business, as in life, people tend to oversimplify information in the short term when there are far more complex questions that need to be answered down the road. But Danielle learned from an early age to reject her natural desire to simplify and follow her instincts for entropy instead.

From chaos to company

When Danielle was halfway through her junior year of high school, she said, “Fuck this. I can’t be in school.”

After always having been a good student, she had reached a point of academic dissonance. Her test scores were high, but her grades were low. “My parents were like, ‘What do we do with this kid? She’s screwing up her life,’” Danielle remembers. Now, she can call it the first step towards becoming an entrepreneur – then, it just looked dumb.

She barely graduated high school and then tried a stint in community college. No dice. As it happened, though, she had been writing software for the family business since she was 14, and she used this to her advantage. Instead of more schooling, she finagled a job at a Fortune 500 logistics and shipping company, Expeditors International.

“That’s probably still my coolest job,” she remembers. “I was a ‘business process analyst’ which sounds really boring except sometimes I got to be on container ships and drive a hand truck in a factory.”

After three and a half years, Danielle took another job as the community manager for Pelago(which was turned into Whrrll, which was then acquired by Groupon ). While she was working at the location-based tech company, in 2008, she also started running the editorial section ofSeattle 2.0, a Pacific Northwest tech blog (now Geekwire).

Her jumps from software engineer to business analyst to building out marketing and media expertise may seem like disconnected dots on her career trajectory, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any value in the randomness. Soon, these disparate experiences began to make sense, and it was at Seattle 2.0 where the idea for the data-as-a-service company started taking shape without fully materializing.

“At Seattle 2.0, we covered the tech scene, and in addition to news, the publisher created this really basic index of top companies made up of a couple signals, like Alexa ranking and Comscore,” says Danielle. “While it was super controversial (people wanted to know why companies were ranked the way they were), I thought it was healthy to start this industry-wide conversation and raise the awareness of other companies, especially business-to-business ones, that were lesser known but doing well.”

Tech companies are notoriously secretive and insular in nature.

So focused on the road ahead (and the work to be accomplished in order to stay alive), startups often forget about the ecosystem around them.

Seattle 2.0 was an effort to remove the blinders and break down what a16z’s Benedict Evans recently called, corporate solipsism: “presuming all your users actually care about you and use all the features of all of your products all of the time.” With a data-based ranking system, it was harder for the companies with sexier stories or better PR connections to hog the spotlight.

Danielle Morrill selfie.

By 2009, Danielle moved south to San Francisco, where she became the first employee of Twilio, the cloud communications platform, as director of marketing. Taking Twilio’s community from a few hundred to more than 100,000 developers wasn’t easy. Danielle wryly noted in a 2013 Heavybit presentation that “developers don’t like marketing very much.”

It was in this role where Danielle reimagined marketing as a discipline “without a framework,” that instead requires “worthwhile content” to get “the mindshare of some of the most interesting and intelligent people on the planet.” The traditional marketing approach of broadcasting a single message wasn’t going to unite the developer evangelist community. It required a more complex approach, delivering highly technical information to the diverse makeup of Twilio’s customers, but the most complex approach paid off in spades.

She concluded her time at Twilio in order to start her first company called Referly, an online referral system for social networks that tracked the links users shared and rewarded them for their friends’ actions. Based on the challenges she had faced at Twilio in understanding how to use content to sway developers, Referly made sense. The founder went through Y Combinator in 2012, but within a year, the team realized it wasn’t a very good business model.

“It was very low margin, and the problem with low margin businesses is you have to grind so hard to just make money,” says Danielle. Ultimately, the online referral system was shut down and turned into Mattermark, but there wasn’t a loss of momentum. “Mattermark is pretty much the same company as Referly,” she continues. “We had the same investor, same corporate structure – everything.”

This sharp pivot from Referly to the making of Mattermark wasn’t a change of heart. Rather, Danielle views it as a point of tension where the chaos of Referly coalesced into clarity of Mattermark.

Click to Tweet: Many companies are conceived when chaos coalesces into clarity. Creating order out of chaos is the hallmark of great founders.

In her letter to her investors, she wrote that this new company is “a version of Bloomberg for startups, ranking the momentum of private companies on external signals,” as well as a business and technology publication.

In this breakthrough, she honed in on the market’s need for data-driven stories and technical analysis that cut through the constant chatter of the tech media.

Or to put a finer point on it:

“By this point, I was pretty aware of how the media machine worked in the Valley,” says Danielle, “And I really dislike TechCrunch and I felt like it would be really great to kill TechCrunch.”

Down the entrepreneurial rabbit hole

This isn’t to say that Mattermark was launched because Danielle or the team had a vendetta against tech publications like TechCrunch. Rather, Mattermark took shape around an idea of how we, as individuals and industries, absorb and function in an age of information overload. How do we process and innovate in a world where it all just feels like too much?

With headlines and articles that oversimplify complex systems and industry trends, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t provide the level of precision business leaders are looking for when closing a deal or building forecasts. The news, as a broad information source, takes time and research teams to analyze and digest before it can be applied to business decisions.

This is where Mattermark could be of service – to organize and consolidate the information about companies on the web, so professionals could easily explore and get the information they need fast. Plus, the data-as-a-service model has far better margins than running a pure media company.

“If you try to run a business around media, you have to write for a big audience,” Danielle says. This approach casts a wide net but doesn’t deliver value to people looking for very specific information. “But when giving someone a data point,” she continues, “you’re writing for an audience of one that delivers incredibly high and unique value to that one person.”

The undefined nature and flexibility of Mattermark isn’t a sign of the company floundering – it’s actually a competitive advantage. And Danielle isn’t about to put constraints on the company too early because that would keep them from following bigger opportunities in the future – from what features or products to build next to which adjacent customer to serve over time.

Most experienced founders would advise others against following intuitive paths – “building a solution in search of a problem,” some say. However, going down this entropic rabbit hole works for Mattermark because of the nature of its product and vision. Providing intel about other companies is scalable, valuable, and highly relevant to businesses.

It’s data that helps companies progress their goals and achieve something big, to work through periods of chaos and reach points of clarity and act with conviction.

Perhaps Mattermark is an edge case, but the lesson is important to remember. When a founder is too hasty to define her business, she might close the door on important ways that her product could deliver value to her customers. This pigeonholes not only a company’s profitability but also the founder and company’s drive and creativity. That’s where a lot of early-stage founders meet their demise.

“A lot of companies are one-trick ponies. This is why startups don’t scale,” Danielle tells me. “They get one insight and and capitalize on it. That could take them really far but it’s difficult to build DNA for innovation. Curiosity is a really great antidote to that.” And it turns out, Mattermark is helping professionals do just that.

Click to Tweet: Most startups are one-trick ponies. It's why they don't scale.

Having recently secured their Series B, Mattermark is entering the white space Google and other consumer-facing search engines missed – B2B Search. What Mattermark is ultimately solving for are the limitations of the Internet with a capital “I”. It’s trying to open up the doors of many internets and provide a better map to the data and answers contained inside.

The Internet vs. internets

“Search today is really focused on consumer questions. It’s focused on what can you get from the content of a page on the internet,” Danielle tells me. “It’s an incredible achievement, but it’s also in its infancy.”

“Sometimes I read history books to be reminded of how short time is, and where we are today with technology,” continues Danielle. “Google is amazing, but it didn’t even exist 25 years ago.”

In recognizing the Internet’s limitations, and innovating upon our current application of the web, Mattermark is entering another period of entropy in order to reach a point of clarity.

“There is more than one Internet,” Danielle says. “There are many internets.” So much information and data that we access through our screens is not easily accessible like a website. Think company wikis, or personal drives, and even the threads amongst friends on Slack or other messaging apps.

“There’s a lot of good stuff out there, and as soon as we stop hoarding information and make it available, people would actually start contributing to it.”

“A huge problem with the Internet is that much of it isn’t online,” she explains.

People don’t often view the Internet as a walled garden, but in reality, what we can reach through the typical search engine is very limited compared to the wilderness of information that exists.

When Mattermark began, it was a tool to surface investment opportunities. Now, it has evolved into a way for sales teams to quickly learn more about their leads. With B2B Search, Mattermark empowers the knowledge worker to pursue her curiosity, to ask more questions, and to drill down into more complex business problems.

“In the universe where B2B Search is completely realized, people can ask questions like ‘what are the top 10 CRMs out there, with the pricing of each?’ Then, information will come back in a format they can use. In a lot of instances, it’ll come back as data, not just a bunch of links you have to click into and further explore,” says Danielle.

“This might not be perfect,” she admits, “but at least with B2B Search you could answer one to two more questions than you could with today’s version of Google.” She recognizes that our innovation on the web is just beginning.

As Jeff Bezos himself is fond of saying, we’re just on “Day One” of the web. B2B Search is one way of further hinging the internet open.

Unlocking the web through made me think back to the book Danielle pulled to open the door to “The Secret Office”. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the computer named Deep Thought is asked to find “The Answer” to Everything.

But despite the noble cause, to open up the internet, it’s a difficult task to convince businesses to invest in technology with uncertain ROI. However as Danielle Morrill tells me, “innovation is about having a view of the future and fundamentally believing it’s up and to the right. When you’re selling a product that’s still unknown, you have to convince others to take the leap into the unknown with you and believe it’s going to be good for them.”

And so, Danielle Morrill ventures into the new chasm of the internet in search of “The Answer.” While the work may be “tricky,” as Deep Thought says, Danielle is determined to figure it out, embracing the chaos along the way.

Click to Tweet: What many founders resist out of fear: Chaos. Danielle Morrill on entropy.
Photographs from background imagery by Dannyqu and normalityrelief are made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Get the latest from Mixpanel
This field is required.