Fixing Digital Media with AI: In conversation with Shirley Chen from Narrativ

Shirley Chen, founder Narrativ

In this series, we talk to the amazing founders who are part of the SAP.iO Foundry in New York — Women-led Enterprise Tech Program. This 16 week program, launched April 19th, provides access to SAP technologies and tailored mentorship to help these incredible startups scale. Current SAP.iO Foundries are in major startup hubs, including Berlin, Tel Aviv, New York City, and San Francisco.

Shirley Chen is — by her own admission — an unlikely entrepreneur. A former bio-chemist, management consultant and head of marketing at an online luxury fashion retailer, Shirley has also been featured on the ‘Forbes 30 under 30 in Marketing and Advertising’ list for the pathbreaking technology she is developing at Narrativ. Narrativ was also recently recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer.

Here we catch up with Shirley to talk about her experience as a founder and what brought her on this journey.

  1. Let’s talk about your journey as an entrepreneur. What inspired you to start Narrativ?

I’m an unlikely entrepreneur — a biochemist turned Vogue intern turned McKinsey consultant turned Head of marketing for luxury e-commerce retailer Moda Operandi turned tech Founder. At McKinsey, I worked with top media brands and learned firsthand the challenges many faced as they tried to adapt to a brave new digital world. At M’O, our drumbeat was customer growth and loyalty.

I quickly realized that commerce content had the potential to be a prime marketing channel but that the experience for the reader, publisher and advertiser was fundamentally broken. These roles laid the foundation for Narrativ.

My eureka moment came in a conference room in Vogue when I started to run the numbers in my head- building a functioning market in commerce content was a multi-billion dollar opportunity! With that, Narrativ was born.

2. What was your previous experience in Enterprise tech and how did it prepare you for the role?

This is my first foray into enterprise technology. However, I think of my naivete as an interesting competitive advantage. As we built Narrativ, we weren’t approaching it from the lens of existing B2B tech companies. This allowed us to write our own playbook on how to build, monetize and market the company.

We don’t fit neatly into an existing category — Narrativ is blazing ground in a new category of technology that will grow in lockstep with online shoppers.

3. Narrativ has such a unique product. Tell us a little bit more about the SmartLink technology you have developed.

I’m proud to! SmartLink is a patent-pending technology that creates a real-time marketplace around links in commerce content. Additionally, SmartLink repairs 404 pages and ensures that all prices and information in links is kept up to date, ending the pandemic of link rot.

For context, “commerce content” is an editorial category that drives $60B of consumer spend per year. This category includes sites like the New York Times’ Wirecutter, Conde Nast’s GQ and Allure, and Buzzfeed.

Amazon monopolizes this content today, crippling publisher profits to one third of market value while stripping out consumer choice in retail destinations. Beyond that, commerce content uses static links — and 40% of the time, consumers encounter dead or out of stock landing pages or are not always presented with the best price.

Narrativ’s technology rewires publisher content to unlock the economic value behind these links. Our core mission is to build a better internet for shoppers.

We’re excited to see SmartLink create value for all sides of the ecosystem: a sustainable revenue stream for publishers, a new source of growth for marketers and a better experience for users. Having the capability to alter the status quo of two industries makes it pretty damn exciting to come to work every day.

Finally, SmartLink is the core technology behind “The Sustainable Internet Initiative,” a coalition we are launching with leading publishers, brands and technologists to #EndThe404. To date, we’ve restored more than 1B links and aim to 10X that number this year. Look out for much more news on this initiative in the months to come.

4. You’ve been around 3 years but have seen such phenomenal growth. There is a need in the market for the software — but do you see large Enterprises really keeping pace?

Narrativ operates in a $60B industry, $25B of which is captured by Amazon. We’ve seen 10X year-on-year growth already — and unlocking $600MM in 2018 is just the beginning.

The beautiful thing about a business model tied to generating purchases and ROI is that it can scale at the pace of shoppers on the internet. If a large enterprise sees returns from an advertising channel, they continue to ramp up the spend level. If you think about it, the meteoric growth of Facebook and Google is based on this principle.

Innovative marketers know that in order to hit growth targets, they need an edge in unlocking new revenue streams. We’re confident about the outsized returns that partners are seeing in the Narrativ channel and their investment in commerce content.

5. As a founder, what do you think have been the most challenging aspects of building an Enterprise tech startup?

Transitioning from nailing product-market fit to preparing for hyper-growth and scale. As we cross the 30+ employee mark, I’m constantly reminded that vision without execution is just a hallucination. Process, culture, and the right team are supreme.

Founders, by nature, have a bias for action. I’ve had to evolve away from doing to empowering. My favorite part of my job is when someone on my team comes to me with a bold new idea for how to grow our business.

6. What advice would you have for other women entrepreneurs out there who are thinking about venturing out on their own?

First — be honest with yourself, do you want the biggest job in the room? You can be a successful person without taking risk, but you can’t be a Founder.

If the answer is yes, then have confidence that it’s never been easier to get access to both financial and technological resources than it is today. Building a company from the ground up is always a climb, but as a young female founder, I’m keenly aware of the women who’ve come before. It’s on us to do justice to the foundation they’ve built.

Prioritize relationships with mentors and colleagues who push you. Women in my life have been instrumental in encouraging me to take chances: An editor at Vogue recommended that I apply to McKinsey after college. The founder of Moda Operandi encouraged me to start my own company and connected me to our first investor.

Nothing worth doing is a sure thing. I’ve been fortunate to learn from driven leaders who pushed me to face my challenges. I’m dedicated to helping more women find that same courage.

7. As a parting shot, what’s your favorite part of being in the SAP.iO Foundry in New York?

Smart marketing decisions come from clear attribution — we’re starting to explore how SAP Marketing and Attribution solutions within SAP Customer Experience can bring the power of Narrativ to the broader SAP ecosystem of retail clients. Beyond that, the Foundry community has been a true game changer! We’ve been connected to entrepreneurs like Heidi Messer and Omri Bloch — as a solo founder, having a group of badass founders to share war stories with and learn from means the world.