The Innovator’s Saga — An Interview with Jake Zarnegar

by | Sep 10, 2021 | 0 comments

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Column Editor:  Darrell W. Gunter  (President & CEO, Gunter Media Group)  

DG: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s always fun to have good friends and industry colleagues on the show, and I’m so pleased to have Mr. Jake Zarnegar, the Chief Growth Officer of Hum, as our in-studio guest.

Jake, welcome to the program.  And thank you for making time for us to talk about what’s going on with Hum and also your views on leadership.  Before we jump into Hum, if you could share with our audience a little bit about your background and experience.

Jake Zarnegar

JZ:  Sure.  Well, Darrell, we’ve known each other for quite a while.  But, this might be the first time that I’ve heard your radio voice, and I’m loving it.  So, let me just get that out of the way, first.

I’ve been in the kind of scholarly publishing technology business for quite a while, right after I came out of college.  Actually, when I went to college, I thought I was going to be in journalism.  I was a journalism major in school, and I came out and just kind of fell into this industry, which I hear a lot of people do.  And it was right at the beginning of really the Internet, and most of the scholarly and research content was moving online, and not a lot of folks knew how to do it.  So, I was in just a great position.  I learned — I taught myself the early web programming, which wasn’t too hard because it was way easier back then, and was able to really kind of be a hands-on engineer, creating content and research sites.

But, from there, I really kind of quickly, and this was at Silverchair, which was one of my current companies, which is a kind of research platform, and we were just getting started there, which was neat.  And I got to grow with the company,  and I’ve been with them now for 20-ish years, and was able to grow with them from being Employee #4. We’d launched another business out of Silverchair, that was in long-term care education.  We grew Silverchair. The platform went way beyond my abilities.  So, we hired lots of much more professional engineers to come in and work on that.  And I got to do everything in Silverchair, from being at one point the Chief Technology Officer to working with the product, to working then with the marketing and sales teams.  I was even the President for a little while.  We have a joke at Silverchair that I’ve been in every role from intern to President, luckily in that order, although I may make my way back to intern by the end.

So, just about a year ago, we decided to launch a new company, and that’s Hum.  And now, I’ve been working with them as well for about the last year or so.  I don’t know if there’s more you wanted to hear about me, but, that’s my kind of, it’s really, it’s a one company story, but I’ve had so many different experiences that I feel like I’ve worked at five or six different places.

DG:  Well, I tell you, I got to know Silverchair probably in 2008-2009, when I first met Thane.  I had him on one of my Semantic Technology panels at the Charleston Conference,  and I had the opportunity of really getting to know Silverchair, and I tell you, you guys know how to put on a user group meeting like no one else can.  I mean very informative, good food, great wine!

Well, tell us about Hum.  You know, you’ve just answered one of my questions in regard to Silverchair and Hum.  So, Hum is part of Silverchair or is this a separate, wholly-owned subsidiary?

JZ:  It is a separate company.  We like to say that Hum is a sister company of Silverchair.  In Silverchair, because we’ve launched companies out of Silverchair in the past, we actually have a corporate structure which includes a kind of parent holding company, which is basically empty.  And then we can launch companies underneath it, which sit side by side.

And so Hum is our new company that’s now kind of sitting side by side with Silverchair.  It is completely new.  It’s a completely different team with probably me being the exception of standing between both.  It’s a new team.  It’s a new technology stack, so it’s a completely separate technology approach and a technology team.  It’s a fully virtual team because it was launched during the pandemic.  So, we have folks working in the Ukraine, and in Wisconsin, in New York City, in Washington DC, and here in Charlottesville, and with a small team, that’s a lot of locations.  Oh yeah, Wisconsin, I’ve got an office in Wisconsin.

I mean, I can tell you a little bit about why we launched Hum, which might be interesting for you to hear.  Silverchair is a great business.  It’s a kind of a mature software platform, with a real strong value proposition in somewhat of a mature industry.  I mean, everyone who’s publishing research needs a platform to get that research out.  These are specialized platforms.  It’s really kind of a high specialization software.  It was very painstaking and expensive to build out all of the features we needed, but that creates barriers to entry.  So, it’s a great business to be in.  But, it’s also a little hamstrung in growth.  You know, it’s in an industry that doesn’t grow very fast.  There’s not a lot of green field.  Basically, everyone has a platform at this point, whether it’s a competitor of ours, whether it’s us or whether it’s homegrown.  And really the way to win business at Silverchair is to take it from someone else, which creates kind of some dampers on speed to grow.  So, even though it’s a great business, and we’re very happy about the position we’re in in that business, it wasn’t providing us what we thought was enough growth for a business of an enterprise of our size.

And so we, about two years ago, brought in a new employee who had been working in consulting for large, kind of, Fortune 500 companies,  and his specialty is developing new lines of business in large companies.  And this is Dustin Smith, who’s now the President of Hum.  And we gave him a charter.  We gave him a budget, which is important, and we gave him a charter and said, “Here’s what we do at Silverchair.  Here’s the skills we have.  Here’s the technology we have, the people we have.  Find us a completely separate business in a separate marketplace.”  Somewhat separate, maybe adjacent.  It’s not something that we have no idea, we didn’t want to, you know, build a self-driving car.  I mean, it’d at least be something we have some ability to access.

And he walked us through a process that, in hindsight, was a great process.  While we were doing it, it seemed arduous and long, and why aren’t we just skipping to the end.  He took us through multiple stages where we looked at a succession of different opportunities, starting out with nearly 100 that he just quickly did research and cherry picked and grabbed things together.  And he would spend less than an hour on them, that was his goal, and then we would go and review them, and we’d find maybe 30 of them.  We’d throw out 70 of them and say, “That’s crazy.  That’s never gonna work.”  And then he would spend more time on the 30.  And he started bringing in help as well.  He brought in Liz Heinberg, who’s now the co-founder of Hum.  And they worked their way through a process, that took about a year and a half, of steadily doing more and more research on a smaller number of opportunities, and then keeping us along the path with them.

And what was really great was, and I had never seen this kind of structured, I mean, it was almost like structured innovation, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.  But, he had a process that led us to kind of systematically examine a lot of different opportunities at the right level.  Before that we have been very ad hoc.  We’d hear something, and then we’d get an idea, and we’d say, “Ooh, we should do that.” And we’d spend three months intensively looking at something, and then, it would kind of fall apart at the end.  It just wouldn’t work.  He, kind of, helped us avoid that kind of ad hoc grasping at straws, and walked us through more of a funneled approach here.

So, we got down to just a few businesses, and he went deep into those.  So, we did much more market research.  We brought in experts in each of those spaces.  We paid money to bring experts in to advise us, to do external research for us.  And we found an opportunity at the end of that, and this was the kind of very early stage of Hum.  And that opportunity was that professional association.  So, I’ve been working in kind of one small corner of associations, which are kind of scientific and scholarly publishers.  There are way more professional associations than there are scholarly publishers.  So, there’s professional associations for nearly every profession and industry imaginable.  So, everyone from the golf course superintendents to the Arabian horse breeders to the cleaning industry, who’s in a boom right now because of COVID.

There’s about 20,000 to 30,000 professional associations and trade associations in the US, and it’s a very small overlap at Silverchair.  But, what we found was they are actually, and the need that Dustin and his team uncovered is that they’re in the middle of a digital transformation of their membership.  Most of them are membership organizations.  They are conveners.  They convene the industry in events.  They provide education and training and certifications, which are really important in a lot of professions, career paths, education, networking.  So, they do a lot of what we see from this kind of scholarly society.  They just tend to not have a big research publication at the end of it.

But, they were really struggling to move to digital, kind of a digital first orientation.  They were still running marketing and membership campaigns out of 20 years ago.  Their marketing strategy was, “We have an email list of the members.  Let’s send them the catalogue of the products and services we have.  And we’ll just email everyone everything.  And, you know, whoever wants this, we’ll see.”  And so they were just sending copious amounts of email to folks with no real feedback loops, as well as, “We’ll send out a survey once a year to see what people are interested in, and what they want us to do,” which is a very long feedback loop.  In the amount of time you got back the survey, their interests would probably change at that point.  So, they’ve really been struggling, the professional associations.

As a whole in the research industry, it’s actually a somewhat grim picture for professional associations.  As an industry, they’re stagnating or shrinking.  So, it’s more likely that a professional association today has less members than it did five years ago, across the industry.  Now, of course, there’s exceptions to that.  But, as a whole, joining a professional association is less of what people do.  And the other stat that just boggled my mind, when I heard it the first time, was that by 2025, about 75% of the workforce will be millennials or younger,  and they currently make up 19% of professional association membership.  So, that is a big generational problem just brewing right now.  I mean, it’s just like a time bomb that’s going to explode on these associations as their older members retire and leave the associations.  They haven’t made a connection with the kind of millennials you think of as more kind of digital first, different types of consumers.

And the attitude that the millennials have to the professional associations are that these are old, stodgy organizations that are just kind of dinosaurs, and why would I be a member? And that’s really the genesis of the kind of larger societal problem or issue that we saw, that we could address with Hum.  So that’s a long background there of how we came to see the opportunity for Hum.

DG:  But, that is some excellent, excellent background.  And to let my audience know that we are here with Mr. Jake Zarnegar, Chief Growth Officer of Hum.

And so what problem does Hum solve?  What can it do for the associations?

JZ:  Sure, sure.  So Hum is a, we call it an Association Intelligence Platform.  So, it’s a little bit of a class we made up.  I can tell you that the core of the Hum software offering is a CDP, a customer data platform.

So CDP’s are platforms that really kind of came out of the e-commerce world, about five or six years ago.  They’re very new.  And what they do is they integrate digital interactions that happen with a brand, or say an association, across the different touchpoints that the brand or association has with the customer.  So, when they are interacting with your social media or email, or they’re coming to your site, if they’re taking an educational course, if they’re attending a webinar or a meeting, these are actions that kind of paint a whole picture of that member’s interests and engagement with your organization.  What are they interested in? What do they like to do? You know, do they like to read infographics, or do they like to read white papers?  Like, it’s actually pretty important to know what people will engage with, at an individual level.  And these associations had no, even though they were offering a wide variety of digital services, digital certifications and meetings and publications and news, they weren’t actually tying together this information.

And so what Hum allows them to do, the Hum platform, so, Hum is a SaaS software platform that an association installs, and it integrates and hooks together to all of their digital platforms.  So their CMS, their content management system, where they’re pushing out their blog and their news content and their advocacy content; their learning management system, where they’re doing their training and education; of course, their MarTech,  and Hum listens to the events happening on those systems.  We like to call it kind of selective listening.  We don’t want to know everything that’s going on there, but whenever an audience member engages with a piece of content, or opens an email, and clicks through or watches a video, we want to know that.  And we want to compile that all in one place.

So, Hum listens to all these events and brings them in, and we’re just a heavy processing engine.  So, it’s a software that is kind of a high data-flow software, and we’re parsing through just millions of “events,” as we call them, that we’re listening to.  And we’re creating these unified profiles of an audience of a professional association.  And that unified profile is basically member accounts that you can look at and see interests, and then you can start predicting what content will entice this person to read,  what brings them value,  you know, when should you send this person an email.

I mean, we find out all sorts of crazy stuff.  Like, doctors love emails that shows up on Sunday morning because apparently that’s the time when a lot of physicians catch up on their reading.  They can’t really do it during the workweek.  So, if you send them a new email on Sunday morning, it’s way more likely to be read deeply than, say, a Thursday afternoon.

So, all of these insights are discoverable once you bring the data together and you start analyzing it.  And that’s what Hum brings.  It’s really a kind of unification platform for associations.  And we’re basically trying to help them engage with their audiences, their members and others, in a modern digital fashion.  You know, even though they’re not brands, they’re not trying to sell people sneakers, but they are trying to sell people something.  They’re trying to sell them…

DG:  Okay.  They want to sell them, yeah.

JZ:  Education, networking, career advice.  They’re trying to sell them, I mean, hopefully, they’re trying to sell them something that is going to help them with their career.  But, you are selling something when you’re at an association, and you need to do it well.  And that’s what we’re trying to kind of help these associations bridge that digital gap, that they’ve kind of created.

DG:  So, have you had any new installs, early adopters, who have said, “You know what, let’s try this out.” And what has been their experience?

JZ:  Yeah, so this is a very early business which is a great position to be in because you just get to learn every time you do something.  We actually decided to fund this business in the middle of last year.  And then we really started organizing and building the business around Q3-Q4.  And we were very fortunate to have three, kind of, charter customers that we’re working with.  We haven’t publicized them yet, so I can’t say their names on the radio at this point.  But, we do have three charter customers that we’re working with right now, and we’ve done installs for them, and we’re building their audience profile.  And they’re very interested in creating this kind of larger audience view of what their association is reaching.  And they have different outcomes that they’re looking for.

One of them is looking to actually launch new revenue lines.  Once they understand who their audiences are and what they’re interested in, they want to launch new sponsored products, sponsored newsletters on certain topics.  So, this is a healthcare company, and they want to launch new kinds of targeted newsletters, and they want to bring their vendor community in who want to reach their members.  But, they want to reach them around certain topics that, of course, they’re interested in. Their businesses are probably based around those topics.  And Hum is actually able to identify the audiences that are very engaged with those topics, and want to read more about them, and connect them with this content.  And then, of course, the sponsor, it doesn’t have direct access to these folks, but has indirect access through the association, the trusted association.  So they can, say, get their content, or content topics that they’d like to have covered, sent to this group.  So, that’s one of the uses.

And others are looking to, say, increase attendance at events by highlighting sessions inside of the events to individuals that they know are interested in those topics.  So, I don’t know about you, Darrell, but the agenda of events now means so much more to me when it’s only online because some events I used to go to only to see people.  Now, I usually go to events, I look at the agenda and say, “Do I want to go to these sessions?”  And so now, you have to highlight the sessions that are really relevant to people to say, “You know what?  I am going to sign up for that virtual event.”  Because there’s three or four sessions that are just right down my alley that I want to hear.

DG:  You know, SSP is happening this week.  And SSP traditionally has what, five or six concurrent sessions going on at the same time.  I’m just trying to figure out which one am I going to go to, which is the best one.

JZ:  Yeah, these are all, you know, we will be back to some aspect of it in person, whether it’s hybrid or fully in person.  But, this transition to digital is going to be an added piece.  It’s not going to go back.  It’s only going to be “digital plus” in person.  So you really have to master this digital engagement.  And we think the associations that don’t take this seriously will just continue to kind of slowly erode.  You know, it’s not an existential crisis for them.  I mean, they’re probably going to exist 10 years from now, if they’re the main association for an industry.

DG:  Let’s look at conferences that were huge but have died out.

JZ: Okay, yeah.

DG:  Let’s look at London Online and the buying and selling e-content conference that was done by Information Today, that are no more.

JZ: Yes, you are going way back.

DG:  Exactly.

JZ:  Yeah, I mean they can die.  So, what we’ve seen is that they more slowly kind of bleed.  And what I think is the most, the thing that, we really at Silverchair and at Hum, because we’re focused on mission-based organizations, we need to think about mission.

DG:  Exactly.

JZ:  And if you lose your audience and your members don’t come to you, you’re not fulfilling the mission of that organization.  You know, you’re kind of, the mission is being unfulfilled because you’re reaching less people.  When you have less dollars coming into the organization, there’s less you can do.  If you’ve been funding advocacy and fellowships, and lobbying on behalf of, you know, you can do less and less of that as your membership dwindles.  So, we really see this as a mission impact here.

DG:  This is really awesome.  Recently, well, a few years ago at the STM Annual US Conference, they had a keynote speaker.  I will put you in touch with her.  And she does some type of service for associations.  But, you know, she talked about what associations need to do for their members.  But, what you guys are doing is very digitally cutting-edge, which is extremely cool.  And so, how can someone find you? And the website, I believe, is it blog.hum.works?

JZ:  Yeah, yeah.  We’re just hum.works.  We had a lot of fun naming the company, by the way.  And it was just slightly unfortunate that the week that we came out with our name, Colgate launched a toothbrush named Hum, an electric toothbrush.  Luckily, we don’t get confused with the electric toothbrush.

DG:  That’s cool!

JZ:  So, we use, we’re not Hum.com.  We’re hum.works.  And the people who would really benefit from us are the professional associations who have lots of digital interactions, but they’re very disconnected, and they’re missing that unified picture of their audience, of their membership, and they want to have that kind of intelligence. To then make data-driven decisions moving forward. And really kind of, I hate to say it, but, more operate like a modern business, a modern web-enabled business where this type of activity has been the standard for many years and associations are playing a little bit of catch up here.

DG:  Yeah, you’re being very kind.

JZ:  Yeah, when we were in long-term care training, the long-term care industry, nursing homes, assisted living, when it came to technology, they were referred to as “the caboose” of healthcare IT.

DG:  Oh, wow.

JZ:  They were just way behind.  And professional associations aren’t that behind, but they’re still operating marketing playbooks that sophisticated, commercial customers stopped doing about 10-15 years ago, and have moved to this real personalized kind of one-to-one digital marketing approach.

DG:  The beautiful thing that Hum is doing is that not only are you helping out the general associations, but really the scholarly associations. They’ve been struggling for years and trying to pull in those young members.  So, this is very, very good for them.

JZ:  Yeah, one of the big things that we discovered was that when people think of membership, membership is a very, very high bar to have for someone to cross.  A lot of times it’s hundreds of dollars a year.  It’s a big kind of commitment for someone.  But, there are lots of folks who are engaged in a community, but may not be able to cross that membership tier.  But they will, you know, take courses from you, maybe a certification, attend one of your events, read your content or your advocacy.  They are part of your audience, and they should not be considered a lesser audience member than a member.  I mean, yes, the members are at the core of what you do, but these audiences should be catered to as well.

You should understand what your broader audience wants,  and what Hum does is it allows you to bring together your broad audience.  What we see is that people find it’s about ten times the amount of people they’re interacting with from their membership core.  So, if you have 20,000 members, if you’re an association with 20,000 members, when you start assembling your total audience across all your digital properties, a lot of times it’s around 200,000 or more individual profiles.

DG:  Wow!

JZ:  These are vendors.  These are people who come to your events, people who come to your website and read content.  You know, they’re not, they have different levels of engagement with you.  But 200,000 people are interacting with your association’s content, and rather than just 20,000.

DG:  So, Jake–

JZ:  Yeah?

DG:  We are out of time.

JZ:  Oh, no!

DG:  We gotta have you come back six months from now, when Hum is humming.  How can people get in touch with you, Jake?

JZ:  Sure.  Well, you can find me at [email protected], or visit our website at hum.works to check us out.

DG:  All right.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re so pleased to have Mr. Jake Zarnegar, Chief Growth Officer of Hum, as our in-studio guest.  Jake, thank you for coming on the program.

JZ:  Thanks, Darrell.  It’s always good to see you.

DG:  Always my friend. Ladies and gentleman, that wraps it up for this weekend on Leadership with Darrell W. Gunter on WSOU 89.5 FM, streaming on the net at wsou.net.  Have a great weekend, but always remember, Leadership Begins With You.  WSOU 89.5 FM.

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