SiteSpect CEO on Web Marketing and Why Big Data is “Like Sex in High School”

4/17/12Follow @gthuang

Time to check in on another growing and profitable tech company in Boston. This one has built its business around Web and mobile marketing technologies—basically helping big retailers and banks make their websites and other marketing channels faster and more efficient, and thus more lucrative.

(Yes, you’re going to have to read a bit more before you get to the punch line.)

Boston-based SiteSpect started in 2004 and bootstrapped itself to its current position in the market. The company makes software to test website features, do marketing analytics, optimize content for mobile devices, and speed up websites; that last bit is known as Web performance optimization. The firm’s customers include Walmart, JCPenney, Wayfair, Expedia, Staples, and more recently, SurveyMonkey, 1800Dentist, and Quidsi (part of Amazon.com that includes Diapers.com, Soap.com, and other online merchants).

We last checked in with SiteSpect in June 2011, as the competition in Web performance optimization was starting to heat up. Since then, Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM) has moved into the sector by acquiring Blaze Software, and other big players like Adobe (Omniture) and Hewlett-Packard (Autonomy) have continued to push their efforts in digital marketing. Meanwhile, Boston-based Yottaa, a competitor in Web performance optimization, has broadened its offerings to include a new kind of content delivery network.

One of the most interesting things about SiteSpect’s journey is how it has grown and become profitable without taking venture money. The 50-person firm has been “over-servicing a smaller number of companies,” says founder and CEO Eric Hansen, where “smaller” still means hundreds of customers, each of whom might pay thousands of dollars a month. “It’s possible to grow organically,” he says. “We’ve never given anything away. We’ve always charged money for the product, generally in mid-to-up-market accounts.”

Hansen (see photo, left) declined to give specifics on company revenue growth or say much about upcoming products. “We’ll extend our coverage of what we do, and for whom we do it,” he says. And this year SiteSpect plans to add new customers that are “as big or bigger than our marquee customers,” he says.

He did say a bit about the company’s international growth. SiteSpect has an office in Amsterdam and is looking to expand its business in the Benelux region (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), as well as the U.K. It sounds like a big part of the company’s European strategy is to go after customers in financial services and online retail; that will require people on the ground in each country who know how things work in that market.

But Hansen, who previously founded and ran Worldmachine Technologies, reserved some of his juiciest comments for the tech trend known as “big data.” In particular, making sense of huge amounts of customer information and website analytics to boost e-retail companies’ sales. The tricky thing is the “making sense” part of it, when you’re talking about millions of end users and thousands of marketing data points for each user (clickstream data and so forth), he says. “You really need to define what you want in order to get anywhere. That’s a big challenge,” he says.

Hansen says the digital marketers and analysts he knows are experiencing a lot of “anxiety” around what they are supposed to do with all the data that’s available, and around what’s actually important to their businesses. It’s clear that big data, while hyped as a solution to lots of business problems, remains somewhat of a mystery.

“It’s like sex in high school,” he says. “Lots of people are talking about it, but few are having it.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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