uOttaKnow podcast transcription

Season 4, Episode 4

Gwen Madiba: Welcome to uOttaKnow, a podcast that illuminates, inspires, and entertains, produced by the University of Ottawa. Hello, I'm Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow, and a proud two-time graduate of the faculty of social science. I'm also the president of the Equal Chance Foundation, a non-for-profit organization that empowers women and Black communities across Canada.

 uOttaKnow puts you in touch with you Ottawa alumni and researchers around the globe at the cutting edge of their fields. Listen in for thought provoking conversations on today's trending topics.

Welcome to the fourth season of uOttaKnow. This season, our theme is creativity and inspiration. We'll be talking to alumni from all different professional backgrounds, law, business, engineering, and the arts who have excelled in their careers. They'll be joining us from Montreal, Chicago, New York, and beyond for conversations on the role of inspiration and creative spark in shaping their lives.

Today's guest uOttawa Faculty of Engineering alumna, Mina Lux, is an entrepreneurial marketing, business and product leader. She combines deep dive data analysis with human behavior insights to create innovative and effective strategies and solutions. She has held a series of top online marketing and leadership positions, including as managing director and VP of online at Scientific American, where she grew the online division to profitability in less than two years.

Mina has also co-founded two tech companies. The first, FloNetwork, was an award-winning email service provider technology company. The company was named by Deloitte as a top 100 fastest growing company in Canada, and ultimately acquired by DoubleClick for $80 million. The second, Meelo Logic, an artificial intelligence technology company that helps marketers understand human behavior to reach target audiences was recognized as a tie 50 top startup with Mina earning a Gold Stevie Award for female entrepreneur of the year.

Throughout her career, Mina's results have revolved around her core expertise in crafting and executing digital strategies. She's a sought-after consultant working with diverse clients in media, entertainment, tech, and consumer goods to drive revenue, brand awareness, audience and traffic growth, and customer engagement.

Mina continues to give back to her Alma mater as a member of the New York Alumni Council, and as part of the University of Ottawa's ReImagine Campaign Cabinet. she was also recognized by uOttawa's Faculty of Engineering with an entrepreneur of the year award.

Mina, thanks for joining us today from New York.

Mina Lux: Thank you for having me, Gwen.

Gwen Madiba: I want to start off with a question that we're asking all our guests this season on creativity and inspiration, what sparks you creatively, and could you share a pivotal aha moment you had in your life where creative inspiration took hold?

Mina Lux: Most of my inspirations are rooted in solving a problem. As I'm working day in and day out, at some point, I find myself saying, "Gosh, I wish I had something that could just do this". Then when I found myself saying this enough times, that's when I jot down that idea or started drawing things out and see how I can make my own wish come true.

With FloNetwork, that was one of those aha moments. The idea really started with us not having $1 million to market our software product in the consumer market. In '95, email was the killer app and people love to hear, "You've got mail". I said to myself, wouldn't it be nice, and I wish if I had something, then I can send emails direct to the consumers, they can buy the product direct from us, and email is free. It would be so perfect, then aha. I was like, "Well, we can do this. If we just take the listserv, and we do this, and we just put these components together, wouldn't that be something?"

Another example is my AI company. On a daily basis, my marketing analytics team provides me with these reports in the morning. We'd look at the reports and talk about what needs to be done for the day. We do this every day because we have to micromanage all the traffic growth and revenue growth for our clients to make sure that they hit goal at the end of every month. In that, I kept saying to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could just know what to do by the time I put down my first cup of coffee in the morning." Then one day it hit me, "Of course we can. What if we just automate this and that?" That was another aha moment.

Gwen Madiba: Mina, you have truly had a creative career path, which is one of the reasons it is great to have you as a guest on this season. You graduated from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor of Applied Science in chemical engineering Magna Cum Laude and a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry. While in some ways it seems that your career in digital marketing has strayed far from this I know you have actually attributed your early experiences as a coder and engineer as a key foundation of your success in marketing, really an inspired pairing of two fields.

Could you tell us about how this came to be and also how you have drawn from your skillset as an engineer in the digital marketing world?

Mina Lux: In engineering, I learned that to optimize a process, for example, a pulp and paper production line we need to identify the key levers for maximum results because in manufacturing, it's not practical to make a lot of changes to a process. It's costly. Sometimes it's a matter of losing your production certifications. We need to be very careful and focused and find the levers that really matter, test it at a small scale before scaling it up to production.

By focusing on spotting trends and identifying numbers that matter and knowing which ones stood out, I was able to apply the engineering approach to marketing and taking our marketing process down to a science. Luckily for me, my first startup was FloNetwork, the email marketing platform, there I was able to apply my engineering approach to make a product for marketing. That was really the first time that I'm able to test this concept out.

The experience was great for me because I learned that I loved numbers. I love to figure out what makes people click rather than tick through these data. Then I take that data to design tests to understand what I need to do better, to sell more products, to drive more traffic. It's really an old challenge that it's actually new every day. It's an endless puzzle and I love it. Some marketers prefer to make a large test matrix for their campaigns because in marketing it's so fluid and it's easy for us to make changes. It's not in a production line where you actually have to change our machinery and change the production lanes. There's no such restrictions so you're able to really change up things very quickly.

I've always maintained we should keep it simple and keep it impactful. That's what I took from engineering until today I maintain that engineers make better marketers because of the focused approach.

Gwen Madiba: Mina, you talked about the challenge that becomes new every day and technology, the digital frontier, it all moves fast and changes fast.

Over the course of your career, you have often been at the forefront of this change. For example, with your time at FloNetwork, designing a first of its kind email technology that enabled companies to send direct emails for lead generation and revenue. Could you reflect back on what it was like to be at the forefront of innovation and some of the changes that you have seen in your field over the course of your career?

Mina Lux: It's a lot of fun being at the forefront of something new. You get to conceptualize with the small group of brilliant industry leaders and race to the finish line together. With FloNetwork, I participated in the very first worldwide webcast the grandfather of podcasts today. It was done by UDORA I think in 1996. The topic was on email direct marketing. There I was 28 years old telling the world how email would change the way we do business in the future.

It was funny because my entire company gathered around a computer and listened to the webcast like people did in the olden days when they gathered around the radio. I was very fortunate to be invited also to join direct marketing industry experts in defining policies for the direct email market to protect consumers. In this emerging technology momentum, I was able to participate in the changes as they were taking place in real time. It was really exciting.

With AI I had the good fortune of working with Beyond Limits. It's a company that was stemmed directly from the NASA Jet Propulsion labs, the team that made all that AI for the Mars Rover. We were their engine to help them on projects, to interpret human reactions, to article content. Their core engine is called Sherlock and our other major partner was IBM Watson. For a while there, we had a team of both Sherlock and Watson on our team and it was fun.

We were able to process tens of millions of content items per second to analyze human reaction and taking that to identify not just what is going on, but the cause of such reactions so that we can predict the behaviors and recommend follow up actions for topics such as identifying suicides, workplace safeties, where the next play, most common steps to approach if you see X, Y and Z.

It's very amazing to work with people, they're super brilliant every day to make knowledge is that much easier for you and I and to change how that information can be better shared with the community. For me, that's really what I live for every day.

Gwen Madiba: Absolutely. Continuing on this topic of change, what drives you to keep staying on the cutting edge of your industry to keep learning, adapting and coming up with creative solutions to new challenges?

Mina Lux: Three things drive me. First, I have to love what I do. I need to have that passion of not wanting to go to sleep or wanting to quickly wake up every morning so I can continue to work on whatever it is I'm working on. The second is I like shiny new toys that make people's lives easier and lastly, I love to understand human behavior and people are constantly evolving. We're changing all the time. Human behavior is constantly presenting new questions that need to be answered.

What worked in marketing last week or last month could have shifted this week. On a regular basis, I bump into problems I have to solve and I read a good amount of articles, research papers, so I can see what's out there and what can be done and because of my coding experience through engineering and my time in the industry, I have a good idea of what is possible and what is so new and cutting edge that I'll need to put a pin in that and come back at a later time.

I have folders in the cloud actually, a ton of them with ideas that I revisit from time to time and come back to fill in the blanks. Then when a client comes to me with a new problem and one of these ideas actually can solve that problem. That's when the fun starts. I pull all of the documents information I have in those folders and we start building the solution.

Right now, I'm in the process of building an intelligence platform for literary fund called international literary properties here in New York. They're doing something that has never been done before in the literary world. They're creating book rights to create something very similar to publishing catalogs in music industry. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but I'm sure you've heard of Bruce Springsteen catalog that was sold to Sony for over half a billion dollars or David Bowie sold his music catalog as well.

Similar to that, where a complete group of work all the rights, could be performance rights whatever, is acquired by someone and that someone takes it to grow it over time and keeping it relevant in history as humans culture develops over time. We're building a data intelligence platform that'll help international literary properties target their acquisitions worldwide based on trends that we're currently seeing that are shifting or changing.

Also, to take what they're progressing with their current acquisitions to predict, manage and optimize their return on investment and to manage how they can achieve the goals better for their authors and the estates. It's a huge project and it's a very complex one to solve, but it's quite interesting.

Gwen Madiba: That's exciting because there seems to always be something new and something new to work on.

Mina, for a good part of your career, you have been based in New York city famously the city that never sleeps. In many ways, it seems like a really good fit for someone as driven and ambitious as you. What impact do you think that being based in the United States of America has had on your path?

Mina Lux: I think Canada and US offered different benefits. I started my first startup in Canada and I have to say that the Canadian government had tremendous programs for us at that time to help small businesses. We applied and received a lot of government support and many of those government programs don't exist in the US. However, US has great BC community with a lot of investment power. Once they invest in your company, some will be very hands on and try to help you grow the company quickly or even bring on additional strategic investors.

On the career front, US is great to be in. I've been able to rise with waves of tech changes, working with companies that accept a person with a proven track record but lack the academic degree. In some countries this may be a bit more limiting where a person is only respected if they have the right degree for that job like US is a lot more open in that respect. My first job in the US was with USATODAY.com. She took a big chance on me when she hired me to lead her digital marketing and together we were able to take USATODAY.com to become the largest news website online in less than four months without spending a dime in advertising.

I've been very fortunate to continue down that path and work with a number of brands across multiple industries. Scientific American the magazine …brands such as CNN, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, True TV. They really took a huge chance on me too because when they asked me to join I really didn't have much experience in TV.

It was in book publishing and magazine and newsprint but it was all print media but they believed that perhaps they can take a chance and it would work and it did work out really well. I was also very fortunate to be involved with consuming electronics brands such as Samsung, Lenovo and earlier this year I just did a project with HP as well.

One of the projects I'm currently working on is a very interesting startup called TwoDays. TwoDays.com is like Rate My Professors but for college sports.

The university athletes they rate their coaches, their staff, facilities, campus visits to help future athletes make better decisions. If you're a current athlete that want to transfer you can pick a better school. If you're a high school athlete that wants to get into college to play a sport you can make a better decision for yourself.

This type of transparency and truth has never been there for an athlete before. Why do I bring up TwoDays is because I know very little about sports but they're fine with that. They know that I can understand the core business and then take that knowledge to build out their data product to achieve their vision. US companies tend to try harder to think outside of the box and really taking that beyond just the business strategy but into human resources. I really appreciate that. I think Canada is becoming very much so as well.

Gwen Madiba: We have a special spotlight question for you today, Mina, from alumna Aleeza Ladhani. A fellow alumna from the Faculty of Engineering. Aleeza graduated in the spring of 2020 with a bachelor of applied science in software engineering. She was also a Gee Geestrack and field athlete. She now works as a technology analyst at Accenture. She's also an entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of Choloket, an artisanal chocolate company with such diverse flavors such as Chai Masala and Rose. Aliza, thanks for joining us today from Toronto.

Aleeza Ladhani: Thanks for the introduction and thanks so much for having me on the podcast, Gwen.

Hi, Mina, it's such a pleasure to meet you. First off congratulations on your many successful businesses awards and recognitions including the Stevie Award for female entrepreneur of the year. That's truly really inspiring. Being an aspiring entrepreneur myself.

In your reflection on your engineering research and digital marketing, you mentioned that these fields have two things in common. The first being the ability to spot the trend and the second to know which numbers matter and which don't. What would you say is the common denominator or the trend behind all the successes you've had and what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs like myself in deciphering the many data points in determining which of those numbers matter and which will lead them to successes as well.

Mina Lux: Well, it's a big question. Aleeza, before I start answering the question I want you to know I had the pleasure of sampling your chocolates. They're delicious.

Aleeza Ladhani: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Mina Lux: Oh, you're welcome. Job well done. Let's start with the common denominator. What I'm seeing is that keeping a focused approach is getting more and more complicated every year. Every year new direct to consumer channels becomes available for businesses. First, we have Facebook then we have Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok is the latest wave. There's a lot more moving part today than there were even just last year.

30 years ago, businesses would go to a middleman or an agency to manage a distribution channel or a messaging. With the onset of digital age, a lot of that data capability is now taken in house and companies are now a lot more involved on all fronts. They have to manage the moving part and it's becoming complex for the teams. Keeping focus, sometimes it could be very difficult. Brands can feel like if they don't do it all, they may be missing out and to be decisive in taking a focused approach can sometimes be very hard to do.

I hear people say sometimes like, "Such and such is doing NFT. Should we do one too? Or what about Roblox? What are we doing there?" I'm seeing brands stretch too thin sometimes so I always go back to focus so you can achieve to gain that success. It's okay to not do it all if you can commit to become very good at doing what really matters right now.

On deciding what numbers matter I would say work backwards from your problem. What is that bottleneck that is causing you not to achieve your goals or achieve that growth? Once you identify that, list out the elements that contribute to that bottleneck. Then pick the ones that you have the resource to solve now that would give you the highest impact. Start there, start with what you can do today, rather than wishing on what you could do. Then identify the key performance indicators. The KPIs that help you measure this progress. Those are the numbers that matters the most right now because those are the numbers that you can actually achieve right now. Anything else you can't achieve, put it aside.

Once you've achieved progress in this current list of items, you do what we call a feedback loop in engineering. You go back to your bottleneck list again and pick out the next list of items you think you can improve on. Then you keep doing this feedback loop until you're happy with your momentum. There's a great advice that was given to me from a good friend of mine, Paul Gupta a while ago, he said to me once that when people say, "In my experience I've learned-" that really translates to in my failures I've learned. He says to me, "Don't be afraid and be thrown off by your failures because you've just started learning."

For all of your entrepreneurs out there, including you, Aleeza, take that calculated risk, don't be afraid that you may fail otherwise how can you learn?

Aleeza Ladhani: That is super helpful. Thank you so much for your advice and for taking the time to chat.

Gwen Madiba: Thank you, Aleeza, for asking this question and thanks, Mina, for taking the question from Aleeza.

Mina Lux: Of course

Gwen Madiba: Now, before we end today's conversation, I would love to get your insights on the future of marketing. Looking forward, what new trends in marketing are capturing your imagination right now as an entrepreneur?

Mina Lux: The trends this year that I'm focusing on are customized messaging, tactical results and direct to consumer. I think that going forward brands need to focus on having a consistent brand message that is customized in different ways for each specific channel aiming directly at consumers. Then taking that further to focus tactically at what works in those channels to arrive at a formula across the board. It's a lot to think about and quite complex and the idea of how to say the same thing in different ways it's not easy.

We need to do this because what works on TikTok will probably not work on Facebook or Instagram and what you may have in your commercials will need to be expressed differently in social. How do you take that high production value commercial and then merge that with a lower production value social content. Now to make it even more complicated, we need to understand how to exist in the metaverse. Not all brands can lend itself well in the metaverse, but music industry has been leading the way in channels like Roblox and we're all watching and learning and hoping someday we get a piece of that pie.

Taking all that data and then optimizing your tactics further for the desirable consumer attention to achieve your goals it's data on top of data on top of data. I've been doing a number of branding breakdowns to arrive at the customization matrix and monitoring tactical results. In a branding breakdown, it's a huge exercise that we do where we have a team of people and we answer questions such as, "What problems are you solving?" Then matching that to the brand offering, who are your target audience? What are they looking for? Then matching that to the brand message.

Then we take everything that they're doing and saying out in the various channels, in social, on the commercial, in articles, in the advertising, for example, in retail. Then we arrive at a matrix. It gets bigger and bigger and it can be quite daunting, so we're looking at ways to really simplify all that data so that our clients can achieve focus. It's an ongoing living, breathing animal that keeps me up at night.

Gwen Madiba: That's awesome. One last question, one that we have been asking all of our guests this season, who are you inspired by right now in your life and why? Honestly, it can be someone very close to you, or someone you've never even met that inspires you.

Mina Lux: This week it's Adam Sandler in the movie Hustle. Have you seen the movie Hustle on Netflix?

Gwen Madiba: Not yet.

Mina Lux: I won't give too much of the movie away. He plays his character Stanley Sugarman. Sugarman has a dream, but he keeps hitting one hurdle after another hurdle, but he doesn't give up. He's not afraid to take high-stake risks and he's not afraid to ask for help. In the movie, Sugarman used social media to solve one of his challenges and it was phenomenal. To me, the movie is a reminder that success is truly 98% sweat and hard work and 2% talent. It's very inspiring. You should watch it. I love it.

Gwen Madiba: I will definitely watch that movie. Just hearing you talk about it and the fact that success is 98% sweat and the rest is talent, is I'm sure going to motivate way more people because sometimes we feel like we need talent to be able to achieve certain things in life. Thank you so much, Mina, for sharing this and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Mina Lux: Thank you again for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Gwen Madiba: UOttaKnow is brought to you by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. It is produced by Rhea Laube, with theme music by alumnus Idris Lawal. This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unseated. For a transcript of this episode in English and French, or to find out more about uOttaKnow, please, refer to the description of this episode.