Influ2 founder Dmitri Lisitski on making advertising great (again)

On Thursday, September 14th, 2017, the San Francisco chapter of the Columbia Venture Community will host CVC’s biggest West Coast event of the year: Columbia Startup Demo Night! We always look forward to this opportunity to meet, mingle and shine the spotlight on innovative startups from the Bay Area. This time, six startups, all with at least one founder who graduated from Columbia, will take the stage to demo their startup and compete for a cash prize in front of a panel of experienced judges.

As we gear up for the event, we’re speaking with all our Demo Night founding teams so that we can share their diverse, inspiring stories with the CVC community.

Dmitri Lisitski, Founder, Influ2

Dmitri Lisitski has been growing companies for over 15 years and leading them for the last several. He founded Influ2 to address one of the biggest problems faced by marketers: wasted resources due to poor ad targeting in business-to-business advertising.

Dmitri studied cybernetics at Kiev National Taras Shevchenko University, and earned EMBAs from London Business School and Columbia Business School. His background in machine learning combined with his marketing experience has led him to some unique insights into how to improve B2B marketing that he shared during our recent email conversation.

IM: Could you expand on why you chose this type of problem to work on? Why is targeted B2B marketing so interesting to you?

DL: I started my career in the consumer marketing world working for large advertisers like P&G, Coca-Cola and Mondelez, to name a few. When I started my IT services businesses (the company is currently called GlobalLogic), I was quite sure that my experience in marketing would be helpful to grow my company. It turned out that B2B world runs under completely different rules that I had to learn from scratch.

Advertising is the primary brand-building tool in consumer marketing, but it has never worked well for B2B. I couldn’t stop thinking how to make ads work for business-to-business relationships.

The second thing that inspires me is the fact that advertising is, well, a bad thing. As John Wannamaker said, half of the money spent on advertising is a waste, the trouble I don’t know which half!

Advertising is extremely inefficient for advertisers because it’s shown to wrong people, or to the people who don’t care about what we are trying to say via ads.

Advertising can be a bad thing for customers, too. The rise of ad blocking is perfect evidence for this fact. I remember when I started my work in an advertising agency, I was proud to say that I work for such great clients, but I frequently heard the same thing from consumers: “I hate advertising.”

I believe the reason ads are inefficient for advertisers is the same reason that customers hate it. If advertising were precise and relevant, customers would enjoy it and advertisers would get much more value from it. We’ve created Influ2 with the purpose to make advertising good… again! Influ2 helps B2B companies to personally target advertising to their prospective customers, so you know exactly who has seen your ads, and when.

You have been leading technology companies for a long time. Of your past experiences, which has been the most important in preparing you for what you are doing today?

It feels like every step in my career was preparing me to launch this business. In fact, I sold my IT services company back in 2006 with the idea I want to start a software product business. But, the transition from IT services to IT product mindset is extremely tough. Very few people make that transition successfully.

This was one of the reasons why I wanted to study at Columbia: I was hungry to learn. I’ve led a few successful launches and turnarounds in media and e-commerce businesses since that, being at the VP and CEO levels. I used those opportunities to develop my product thinking while learning from my teams: what worked, what didn’t, observing how they think about their products.

How about your experience at Columbia business school — what was most important about that time? Did it prepare you for what came next?

I would give entrepreneurial students a word of caution: Business education teaches you how to lead large organizations. If you are beginning a startup, you’ll need to break almost every rule you’ve learned. As your business grows, your business education will become more and more useful.

The great thing about studying at Columbia is the fact you can visualize the blueprint of the great company you dream to build. Even when you have a small, five-person team, you can imagine how these five will become five thousand. If entrepreneurship is a long and dangerous endeavor on a small boat, business education is your compass, your map to the desired destination.

What advice do you have for your younger self or for young grads who are thinking about starting their own careers and companies?

I have a somewhat unorthodox view on choosing the subjects we study. I think our brains are smart enough to choose the right topics for us. We just need to study whatever feels exciting. Yes, an advanced corporate finance course could be helpful for those who are planning to launch a FinTech startup. But, if you think this course is boring (which it is not in my opinion, by the way, but some might say so), you won’t get as much out of it. You’ll be bored, you’ll forget it once you leave school. If you choose what is exciting to you, you’re more likely to truly take the knowledge with you.

This is supported by recent developments in artificial intelligence. Data scientists have bumped into an unexpected problem: they often can’t explain why a deep learning network makes this or that conclusion. A good example is a famous move of Google’s AlphaGo in its game against Go world champion, Lee Sedol. It looked like a mistake according to known strategies of playing Go. Though nobody understood why AlphaGo made this move, it turned to be successful. It later inspired humans to build new strategies for Go, but nobody can explain until now how AlphaGo came up with this, we can only admit that this strategy hasn’t been hardcoded my humans.

To some extent, our brain is super-complex version of a deep learning network. And likewise, we can’t always reflect how this or that piece of knowledge helped us develop a new idea. But it doesn’t mean it didn’t help. Focusing only on what we think is “useful” can block us from getting the knowledge that can be extremely helpful though we can’t trace in what way. This idea echoes what professor William Duggan teaches in his Creative Innovation course at Columbia Business School that I highly recommend for startup founders.

Thanks for sharing your insights and stories, Dmitri! We’ll see you at CVC West Demo Night on September 14.

To learn more about Influ2 or request a live demo, visit influ2.com.

— Irene Malatesta is a writer, marketer and CVC West board member. You can find her @irenekaoru.