When I conceived of RIWI on my (then) two-year old daughter’s sketch pad in 2006 and showed the drawing to my brother Bob, I imagined RIWI to emerge one day to become the global survey and Big Data “router” of the Internet – in search of trusted, diverse, real-time data – anywhere.
The closest any company had come to that over the ensuing 10 years was Google. Over time, Google’s product suite enabled researchers like me to analyze and trend country sentiment on keywords inputted by its users. Google drew inferences from what people submitted as questions or searches. I loved this early-stage “inferential logic”. Yet I wanted to work with technologists and data innovators to build something more immediately practical which I knew clients in the global health, finance, university and international development sectors told me they needed: a new “ask” technology that could reach reliably and in real-time into monitored and complex information environments such as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia, Russia and China – and I wanted what my former colleagues at IBM called a “turnkey solution” for these types of clients.
I ultimately wanted a turnkey solution that could reach as diverse a population online as possible – in all parts of the world. I frequently used blog and social media analytics tools, but especially in the early days, these tools were highly limited in reach and depth and data quality. I encountered tough critics who said the data diversity and global reach that I sought – broad-based real-time data – was just not possible to acquire reliably in most of the world. If it wasn’t for those early (generally constructive) critics, we couldn’t have improved our data offerings. So, a big thank you to the critics!
Scalability and the Data Restaurant
“Turnkey” is a jargon word for what often matters in a software firm, or for a data company like RIWI – which is a form of scalability arising from product packages that require minimal reconfigurations and professional services when implemented for new clients. Abraham Thomas, co-founder of the data firm Quandl (acquired by Nasdaq), wrote an excellent blog in January 2022 on how scalability dramatically alters the economics of data companies. In my view, scalability can come from carefully selected people, products, and things that amplify the value of proprietary, proven data sets and that also attract other adjacent data sets, making the whole worth much more than the sum of its parts.
Scalability offers RIWI the capacity to be far more than a delicious dish at a global data restaurant. With scale, RIWI becomes the global virtual restaurant – ingesting information every day about what dishes new customers want and why, tweaking the menu of data offerings in real time, building novel offerings, and embracing a universe of new customers at the big, bustling restaurant.
The data restaurant is vast today. Before we commercialized RIWI, many leading methodologists in the field of survey sampling called RIWI an innovative, futuristic, “router” system that could access otherwise inaccessible survey or message test respondents in all countries. In this way, RIWI gives “voice to the voiceless” online, as we like to say at RIWI. RIWI stands for “real-time interactive worldwide intelligence,” and I chose the name in part because I saw major events in the world coming closer together in terms of cause and effect, and because I believe strongly in “data inclusivity”.
Panel research companies, global research marketplaces and market research firms (what I call the “3 Rs of data”), and all the firms serviced by the 3 Rs, wanted to leverage RIWI survey respondents. According to researchers at Harvard University and elsewhere, RIWI respondents were less jaded, and less habitual respondents (i.e., they infrequently answered surveys) than other types of respondents. For this reason and for many other reasons, leaders in the fast-changing data industry increasingly respected the “RIWI respondent.” As RIWI’s head of global research, Danielle Goldfarb, described in her superb TEDx talk, RIWI respondents were the “quiet voices,” the respondents you interviewed online whom you needed to hear from if you wanted to learn things like who would win the next referendum or election; if people were feeling the early effects of inflation; if people were feeling threatened by local gangs or authoritarian regimes; or if they were buying or selling a certain stock or consumer good. It’s not so much “Big Data” which matters today; the world needs more “smart data” – clean data, and without noise, which in some situations can be predictive. RIWI sells clean data. We wrote about the smart data concept in a report published by the capital markets and investment group CLSA (now owned by CITIC Securities) in December 2012.
ROM and RIWI Together in Scale
In the past, RIWI learned after trial and error that the unit economics of servicing the 3 Rs didn’t make sense as a revenue growth priority for RIWI unless we had built a supplemental, global automated and dynamic router that: (a) was situated in the center between advertising technology (“ad tech”) and research technology (“res tech”) worldwide, and (b) “worked while we slept” to continually and algorithmically find qualified respondents in any country and “route” them in microseconds to the most appropriate surveys to deliver healthy, growing revenues to RIWI – and new, actionable insights to happy clients – every day. On global research marketplaces, there are roughly 100,000 of these surveys running each day. Outside of these marketplaces, panel companies and market research firms and large corporations want routed respondents to fill the quotas they need to pose surveys in a manner that is representative of their target audience (e.g., adults with teenage children living in Mexico, or in any country in demand by the end client). The RIWI and ROM systems offer “citizen voice” data to companies and NGOs to predict the future and manage the present.
With the acquisition of ROM, the two firms fused together – and, importantly, bringing in the technology acumen of the amazing, passionate people behind ROM – enables RIWI to rise to emerge as the definitive global data router I envisioned back in 2007, to be the global data restaurant.
Why Founders of Data Businesses answer RIWI’s Call
At RIWI, we didn’t want to distract our small but mighty tech team to try to build the same technology that ROM has constructed so expertly. Instead, RIWI focused mainly on end-to-end data solutions for our clients with a major early focus and success in international development. Our client satisfaction scores average about 4.8 out of 5, which continues to astonish me.
We had built up a strong cash reserve from historic years of tenacity and hard work; we won great clients and built a strong pedigree, again, thanks to disproving the critics, so that when RIWI calls up founders in the data industry, they tend to find the value proposition of reaching global scalability together with RIWI much more interesting, meaningful and impactful than a call from a “roll-up” firm whose vision is unclear, theoretical or unproven.
In the data sector, where data quality and proven pedigree are vital, “sourcing a deal” in M&A successfully requires that you have a proven and trusted brand and business model. And since the RIWI platform is truly global – we collected data in 229 countries and territories in one study alone! – the value proposition of scaling your data firm alongside RIWI gets more interesting to a data business that wants to grow, or to the founders of a complementary technology firm.
RIWI and a Beautiful World
As I explained in this short YouTube video clip in February 2013 – describing my enduring love of map puzzles of the world – it’s important to observe what people think, feel and want in different parts of the world if you want to understand the present, and the future, in any country, or inside a conflict zone. The first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, proved just how deeply interconnected the modern world is, and why this interconnectivity matters. I discussed related themes in April 2017 at the “Places as Brands Conference” at New York University in a talk I gave on novel international relations data, a talk which I later called “RIWI and a Beautiful World.”
Born at RIWI, not Silicon Valley
I like to say we were “born at RIWI” – not Silicon Valley. We care about proving our positive impact, driving forward innovation that matters to clients, and we care about intelligent growth. The mantra of “move fast and break things” has never made business or logical sense to me. RIWI’s values are different. As I have noted before, it is important to “be different to win,” and to “stay different to win” in the global data marketplace. All meaningful entrepreneurship is very hard work. But it’s worth it.
When Greg Wong took over as CEO of RIWI in September 2021, he shared the RIWI vision and values – he had proven through his past technology and public company leadership that he could design a winning long-term strategy, align a great team to that strategy, and deliver impactful results.
RIWI and the “Flywheel effect”
This is where ROM technology fits in. ROM enables RIWI to elegantly service the 3 Rs which I discussed earlier in this essay, and to reach that early RIWI vision of being the Internet backbone of global public opinion and data collection: the “global data restaurant.”
Together RIWI and ROM enjoy a robust router system with a strong moat. For any country of interest to a client, we now have: (i) RIWI respondents who are randomly accessed with no pre-profiled data (except knowing where and from what device they are answering from) before they enter our system and start answering RIWI surveys and message tests in any country; and, we also now have (ii) ROM respondent samples who are algorithmically accessed in 80 countries – with pre-profiled characteristics about who they are (such as age, income, education level, marital status, zip/postal code), and these ROM respondents get automatically routed to the most profitable surveys running in a country – offering RIWI transactional revenue over and above the subscription and recurring revenue from RIWI’s other business. In this way, RIWI can make money while it sleeps.
“Making money while you sleep” is often referred to in business strategy as a “flywheel,” the concept developed by Jim Collins in his extraordinary book, Good to Great, about how to build a lasting and thriving business. Once you have a flywheel, however, this doesn’t mean you’re done and you stop innovating. Always strive a little bit further; I am of the view that everyone is 50 times more capable than they initially imagine themselves to be. RIWI has miles to go before it sleeps.
As RIWI CEO Greg Wong and I noted in RIWI’s April 2022 annual letter to shareholders, we are just getting started.
Neil Seeman, RIWI Founder and Chairman, June 29, 2022