Brett Hurt

Founder & CEO of Data.World

How Data Can Make A Positive Impact - Brett Hurt of Data.World

Nov 16, 2018
Brett Hurt

How Data Can Make A Positive Impact

Brett Hurt is the Founder and CEO of Data.World, a platform that allows people to openly share data and collaborate on the data sets. Data.World is a BCorp and is on a mission to democratize the access to data and enable organisations and people to make an impact with data.

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[0:21] Maiko: In today's episode, I'm joined by Brett Hurt, CEO and co-founder of data.world, a company that helps teams collaborate using data analytics. The company's goal is to promote data as a force for good and help teams that are solving some of the world's biggest problems with the tools and platform they need to achieve their goals faster and in collaboration. Data.world is a public benefit corporation and certified B Corp and has been raising more than 30 million in funding from renowned investors such as Home Bro VC and Samsung NEXT. It is not your typical social startup that you would hear on the podcast for many reasons, so I'm very keen to actually explore together with Brett what the angle and impact is of data.world. Welcome, Brett, it's great to have you on the show. 


[01:08] Brett: Great. Thanks, so much Maiko, it's great to be on the show and I love the podcast. So inspirational, you have a lot of guests that are really impacting the world in a positive way and that's what we're trying to do with data.world.


[1:19] Maiko: Thanks very much for joining me, let me be very honest, when I first came across data.world, I didn't really think it would be a good fit, you know, I was talking to entrepreneurs that are solving food waste, that are solving sleep deprivation, and where everybody is talking about data analytics, and the role data plays and how it can be sometimes seen critical by many or sometimes seen as a positive force. It wasn't quite clear straightaway, for me, this is like an impactful startup. But the more I looked into it, and the more I learned about data.world, the more I actually saw, okay, this could really be interesting. And also, the angle of the B Corp, so tell us a bit more about that, how is data.world different? And what is really the impact you're trying to make in the world?


[2:09] Brett: Yeah, thanks for the question. So, you know, this is my sixth startup and I've been a very successful entrepreneur, very fortunately, a lot of luck involved in that. And I was looking to make a much bigger impact and data.world is the most ambitious and exciting business that I've started. And it's already having a huge impact in the world, you know, data, everybody says data is the new oil, that the reality is that data is mostly buried in the ground, it's crude, it's unrefined, it's not well documented, once you find it, you can't see how other human beings worked on it. And this is true for cancer data sets, climate change data sets, poverty alleviation data sets, as well as many data sets inside of corporations that are buried in their own corporate silos. So, I would pose that this startup should have the biggest impact that I've ever had in any startup and that's what drives the passion for me and my co-founders and the rest of the team.


[3:08] Maiko: So, do you see data.world as an enabler for others to achieve impact and really, as a platform, for those that try to make that impact?


[3:17] Brett: There's no doubt I mean, there's already a lot of universities using data.world for free to help teach their data science and data analytics courses. data.world's being used all over the world by many foundations, many governments. The US government is a big user and collaborator on data.world, one of our very first partners was the US Census, which is one of the most important data sets in the United States. And we made that data set, linkable and very accessible in the US Census had this desire to get much closer to their customers. So, of course, they're taxpayer supported, that they care about people using their data to make important decisions, on all types of demographic trends, from housing to, all types of things that you look at demographic data for, and that's their customer base, and they wanted to get much closer to their customers. 


[04:13] Brett: So yes, it's very much an enabler, and a lot of people compare us to GitHub, we've actually grown faster than GitHub grew at this stage. And I would argue that GitHub has made every coder in the world slightly better, and some dramatically better, because it's given you access to the Library of Alexandria, Open Source code, and that didn't exist for data before we came along. And now we're the world's largest collaborative data community, with the world's largest number of open data sets available for all types of use and hundreds of data partners and we're being used extensively in countries like Italy, and Spain, and India, and all over the UK, actually, as well, of course, in the United States.

 [5:02] Maiko: I'd like to dig a bit deeper just to understand the impact and make that clear to the listeners. Data is something that's being used by almost all organizations to some extent, now, it is the new oil, as you said, but the question remains, is that data, isn't that maybe just a means to an end? Is it something that could be used both for positive or negative means? And how do you design the platform? Or do you even take measures to design the platform for people to have a positive impact with it? Or do you say, the more we open up data, the more we let people collaborate, the more we can have an impact and we shouldn't be judging who does good and who does badly with it?


[5:45] Brett: Well, as I mentioned, this is my sixth startup and all of my startups have been very data driven. So, I've seen the impact of transparency and I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. And you may be familiar that, in the United States, for example, the news has been under attack. And we've been able to really help the Associated Press with transparency around data sets on things like the opioid crisis we have in the United States or on climate impact by US State, or the fact that housing inventory in the US is near 30, year low, which is a; good news, bad news thing. And the Associated Press actually use this data doubt world to collaborate with all types of news organizations, radio, television, and print in the United States, including people like good net, and Chicago Tribune. And the way this works is, let's say that they put out a data set on the opioid crisis, that's a nationwide data set that Chicago Tribune can come in and through very easy, template queries, the Associated Press is set up for them, they can say, well, I want to see what the impact is for the entire United States on the opioid crisis compared to Illinois, compared to Chicago, compared to individual zip codes in Chicago, and allows them to write very data-driven articles. 


[07:18] Brett: You know, one way that transparency plays out with data, I'll give you just a quick example, that's also a news example, Fortune magazine uploaded, how diverse the Fortune 500 companies are, meaning, you know, how many minorities, how many women, etc. work at those companies and that's a really important question. You know, something that's very important to analyze. And one of the community members of data.world just organically came in around 24 hours after that data set was posted, and said, hey, I don't believe Microsoft, could be 94% male. And the way our system works from a transparency perspective does it pain the data journalist immediately at fortune, this just happened in an automated fashion and she came back in within a couple of hour period and said, oh, my gosh, you're right, I made a mistake and I miss-keyed the data. Well, how often does that happen inside of a corporation, or a foundation working to alleviate poverty, I would pose that this happens all the time. You could actually Google this, but the Greek financial crisis was initially caused by an error in an Excel spreadsheet. so there are errors all the time in data. 


[08:39] Brett: And it's really important to have transparency to figure that out, it shouldn't be buried in silos, inside corporations around the world, we're living in a networked age, that yet data is the least networked asset that we have from a technology perspective, which makes no sense. I mean, the only data that's really linked in, kind of, a very hyperactive way is online advertising data. What about cancer data? What about climate change data? You know, we're looking when we started this company to make a huge impact and we're well on our way. And that feels really great as an entrepreneur.


[9:17] Maiko: That's really great to hear and it's great to hear that you've been able to make this impact in the last few years since you started. On your website, you talked about the need for data democratization and that's something that you just described, in the last answer as well, that transparency of data, what does data democratization actually mean for both individuals, so people that might not be professional at analyzing data, but that might have an interest and getting access to some of it? What does it mean to individuals? And what does it mean to corporate organizations?


[9:54] Brett: Yeah, so what it means is, it means having access to data and the context that exists around the data and when you do an analysis, having that stay with the data. Often when you find data, either inside of a corporation, or out there on the web, let's say data.gov.uk, or data.gov, here in the US, it's not well documented, you have no idea what other people have done before you and it's not linked to any other data set, it just sits in its own individual silo on that site, which gets, you know, some traffic that doesn't get near the traffic, for example of a data.world. And so, this is a huge problem inside of all types of companies, and the New Age companies like Airbnb and Warby Parker, and you know, of course, Google and Facebook, they're data-driven cultures from the ground up. They were designed as data-driven cultures. You know, from their inception, like Airbnb, fifth employee was a data scientist, for example, and 60% of all the employees at Airbnb, use their data portal on a regular basis, which they home grew since the beginning, at Warby Parker, 45% of people use their data portal that they also homebrew since the beginning. 


[11:27] Brett: So, these new age companies are not waiting for the old line, Fortune 500 companies to catch up. And there's, as a result, there's this huge data divide, of course, this exists in foundations and nonprofits, where you have, you know, Google and Facebook vacuuming up some of the world's best data scientist because they realize that data can be their biggest competitive edge; is their biggest competitive edge. And so, you've got the data divide both in terms of people, as well as in terms of access to the data, I bet you most Fortune 500 companies, you'd be lucky if 1% of employees really had access and regularly worked on data. And so, there are all these data bread lines, where people are lined up, waiting for their analyses to be conducted. And, you know, I'm not, I'm not naive, I don't think that data.world is going to turn everybody overnight into a data scientist or a data analyst. 


[12:30] Brett: But a lot of the features that people will use and data that world are just the discussion features and the visualization features and the fact that we're integrated with Tableau and Microsoft Power BI and Google Data Studio, and pretty much any analytics tool you can think of, allows people to very easily take a data set from data.world and be able to visualize it, including Microsoft Excel and anybody can ask questions. So, maybe you'd have an executive using data.world that's just asking about why sales are trending up. And they want to have access to the people that can actually give them the analytical answers to that instead of them being disconnected and working in their own corporate silo, as kind of the quants, you know, often do inside these companies, not because the quants want to necessarily, just because there's no tool that's been created to bring them together. And this is the problem that we're solving when we're talking about data democratization. 


[13:32] Maiko: And do you see it for corporates both as a tool to collaborate more internally in between the internal organizational silos, as well as with the outside world, is that both important to you?

 [13:47] Brett: It is very important to me so they do use it, we already have a number of companies using data.world, we actually launched personally in November and we've been in our sales goals ever since which, which feels great as an entrepreneurial team, and, you know, great market validation of what we do. They do use it to collaborate internally and the Associated Press's case, which I was discussing earlier, they use it to collaborate directly with their customers, they actually told us that nothing's taken off faster, in they're more than 100-year history than, the use of data.world by their customers, which is awesome. But, also are our corporate clients also use data that world to access important open data sets, like the US Census, like data sets from NASA and others. And these data sets are very important and if you look at, you know, the data brokerage industry, which is an industry where data sets are bought and sold, it's kind of shocking how big that industry is, in The United States alone, that's about a $240 billion a year industry and across the world, it's around a trillion dollars and it's growing extremely quickly. And a lot of those data sets that are sold today, start their life as open data sets. 


[15:11] Brett: So, one of the things that we're really passionate about doing as a B Corporation is just giving people direct access to the open data sets that we've already paid for as taxpayers, or we've already paid for through our donations to a foundation. You may not know that if you get a grant from someone like the National Science Foundation, in the US and this, of course, is true many foundations all over the world, you're required for a period of seven years to share your data so that people can create derivative work on top of it. But the sad truth that, when I went to go visit a lot of these foundations, when we're starting the company, is that they would share that data often like via USB drive, that they would physically mail someone or an FTP server with no understanding of how other people have used that data, like how is it documented? What queries are people running? And when that goes on data.world, you can see everything, you can see what queries people have run, you can see how people have added to the data dictionary, you can see the discussions that have occurred, our entire platform is built on top of the Semantic Web, which allows us to easily link data set so you can see how that data is connected to the rest of the world. These are really important things when you're working with data and really make value out of that data, which has already been paid for. So, that's something we're very passionate about as a B Corp.


[16:49] Maiko: I'd like to focus a bit more on how you first started and then decided to become a B Corporation as well. How did it go through that thought process, that you know, from day one, that data.world is going to be a B Corp and what was the thought process behind that?


[17:09] Brett: Yeah, I'm glad you asked me that question. So, I didn't know from day one that we're going to be a B Corp. I knew through my brainstorms with my co-founders, this being again, my sixth business and my prior businesses, one exited for a billion dollars and an IPO and one exited for $300 million in the sale to IBM, those were core metrics and bizarre voice respectively. I knew that you know, we all were motivated to create a business that would have a huge global impact, and that a lot of the world would be able to use for free. So, I knew that much. And a few months into founding our business, I met Jay Cohen Gilbert, who's the founder or the co-founder rather and CEO of B Lab, which created the B Corp movement. And he started to educate me on the movement and I got really passionate about it and it resonated with me, partially because my good friend Neil Grimmer who founded Plum Organics, which is baby food company, had been a B Corporation and told me a bit about them. And then secondly, I had served alongside John Mackey and others on the Conscious Capitalism board of directors. 


[18:27] Brett: So, I'd always thought of business as a force for good. But I didn't know that there was a new operating system for business and that's the really neat thing about a B Corp or the legal name for that. If you're a corporation, like us, it's, a public benefit corporation, that's actually the legal designation when you incorporate in a State like Delaware. And this operating system is very powerful, you can still have a for-profit corporation, you know, I absolutely believe data.world has to have top tier financial metrics. Like being a B Corp is no excuse for us not to be one of the best financially performing companies in the world. But, we do, it does give you this ability to put your mission statement actually as a protectable asset from activist shareholders in life. And I was with John, John Mackey is actually one of our investors' and I was with him at South by Southwest, we were speaking there to a crowd of about 1000 people. And one of the things that John Mackey said, in that context, is he said if I really wish we had been a B Corp because it would have given me some level of protection against these activist shareholders. Like he's very happy in working with Jeff Bezos, and you know, in this company, you know, being owned by Amazon, but he would have liked to least have that protection from the activist and we saw Michael Dell, you know, another local Austin hero, that's where we're based in Austin, Texas, take his company private to get away from the activists, you know, Carl Icahn, in particular. 


[20:13] Brett: And so, this is, you know, this is important, you know, movement in corporations overall, is how do we wire corporations more to the long term, as opposed to this maniacal focus on just short-termism? How are we going to do like really great things for the world if all we care about are these quarterly cycles? Like how are we going to build things that can have a long-lasting impact? And that's something I really care about, and I've been a very financially successful entrepreneur and, you know, having this new operating system approach is something that I'm very passionate about, I've become a very outspoken advocate for B Corporations. And one of the neat things that have happened as a result of us being one is that we are called on to testify in Texas, for a B Corporation legislation, and it passed, we're only one of two companies called on the testify, which is really cool. Like so now, Texas, you know, you can incorporate as a public benefit corporation here in Texas, that didn't exist when we start the company. So, this worldwide movement is, or at least this, US movement is really awesome. And I don't know, I mean, you know, I'm not sure actually, how much this kind of corporate form is taking off in other countries, but I sure love this trend in the United States.


[21:38] Maiko: It's definitely spreading also across Europe, especially in the UK, you see more and more companies adopting and obviously, the US has pioneered it. So, it's really good to see that it's spreading.


[21:48] Brett: I was just going to say one thing I saw at Conscious Capitalism being on the board of directors is, boy, we really had a lot of people that would attend our CEO Summit and our main Summit, from outside, the US. So, certainly, the energy is there, which is great.


[22:03] Maiko: Definitely. Do you see this, also, if you look at the startup landscape, and some of the founders actually taking their public company private again, and some founders deciding not to go public, do you see, for a mission-driven company like yours and for B Corps, do you see the IPOs still as one of the great outcomes, or is there a need for an alternative model that's more focused on long term results rather than quarterly reporting?


[22:33] Brett: I still think that the IPO is a very viable path for public benefit corporations, Laureate Education just went public IN the United States, they're a public benefit corporation with several billion in revenue. So yes, this path is still very viable. The corporate foundation, the public benefit corporations grew out of, were C Corporations. So, we've got all the same benefits as a C corporation but we have these additional benefits as a public benefit corporation. So, I look at as the more evolved model of capitalism, it's like, you know, capitalism 2.0, of you, say C Corporation was capitalism, 1.0 and, and so it doesn't preclude you at all from an IPO path. One of the neat things that you have the ability, what you actually have the legal requirement to do is report to your shareholders on how you're fulfilling your public benefit mission. And we decided to put our statement, our report out there, not just to our shareholders, but the public. And you can see that at data.world/benefit-statement. And that is our report for the past two years on how we're fulfilling our public benefit mission, which again, is in our charter, actually on file legally, in the State of Delaware, in our corporate charter. So, that's a pretty neat aspect of it, is that there's this, you know, it has reality, it's not just you can wave your arms and say, hey, we're a corporation, that's good for the world, you actually have to publicly report on it. And your shareholders, you're legally required to deliver that report to your shareholders. But in our case, we just decided, let's deliver that report to literally everybody in the world.


[24:34] Maiko: You mentioned that you are based in Austin, in the US in Texas and we talked a bit about the spreading movement for impact-driven companies. I took a trip earlier this year to the US and actually went to almost every corner of the US both the West and East Coast and the Midwest as well, so like a bunch of different areas, and it still felt like most impact-driven companies, would still live, mostly live in Silicon Valley, maybe some in New York, but you wouldn't hear as much outside of those areas. Do you feel that data.world is a lone exception outside of Silicon Valley? Or do you see that the movement for impact-driven companies is really spreading across The US?


[25:17] Brett: It is really spreading across the US. B Lab actually has some good information about that on their site, but there are thousands of public benefit corporations now, including quite a few that haven't chosen to become certified B Corporations. We're actually a certified B Corporation by B Lab as well. And in the last two years, we've been named in the top 10% of all B Corporations in the world, which is a really great achievement by our team and something I don't take for granted. But I see it happening in States all over, I get calls pretty frequently from people considering being a B Corp and wanting to ask me about the benefits and the downsides of it. I'll tell you what the downside is, just so I address that as the elephant in the room. The downside is that people will ask you what it is. It's like, you know, everybody wants to follow the herd, to some extent, like nobody wants to be the first to be different. As Steve Jobs said, it's kind of like the crazy ones that kind of have to, you know, get us to all move in a certain direction. And they're perceived as crazy because they're different. 


[26:34] Brett: So, that's the downside, is that people will look at you and they'll make all these assumptions. They'll say, oh, that's a bleeding heart business, which doesn't care about their financial performance. Well, that's bogus, I mean, this company is like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry's, which are top financial performers that are B Corporations. So, that, let's just throw that one out, they're for-profit companies. You know, then other people say, well, gosh, that means, you can't raise money. As you know, no VC is going to invest in a B Corp. Well, let's throw that one out. I mean, you know, Andreessen Horowitz, you know, so many others. You know, in our case, our lead investors is, Shasta Ventures, we were the first time for them to invest in a B Corp and they're very proud of that. And they've been a very successful Silicon Valley, VC and the lead partner there, Jason Pressman serves on our board of directors, and he loves the fact that we're a B Corp. So, we can throw that one out. 


[27:34] Brett: And then my favorite thing is that when people ask me that question, it actually gives me the ability to tell them why we actually care about what we're doing as entrepreneurs, which gives me an additional excuse to essentially convince them that what we're doing is good for the world. And I remember what I met the CPO of the United States under President Obama and I told her what we're up to. And you know, you could tell she gets approached by lots of people so there was a bit of this, you know, kind of, standoffishness, like, you know, who are you. And then I told her, we were a public benefit corporation, she stopped and she looked me directly in the eyes and pointed at me and she said, I've been waiting for someone like you to come along. And ever since then, we've had this amazing partnership with the US government and we've got these amazing partnerships with universities, we've got these amazing partnerships with governments all over the world, all these data supply partners, which want their data to be seen much more. So, it's become a huge advantage for us, I thought that, frankly, and have a moderate impact, us being a B Corp, it's had a major impact. Of course, it's had a recruiting benefit, as well, but it's had a major benefit as a business.


[28:57] Maiko: Well, that's really great to hear, and a really tangible example of how that can help you as well grow. We're almost running out of time, so I'd like to ask my famous last question, which is, what does the world look like where data.world succeed? What does the world look like in 10 or 20 years, in terms of, the positive impact of you're trying to achieve?


[29:20] Brett: Yeah, I'm glad you asked me that question because my very first investors in this business were my children who are 13, and 9, okay. And part of the reason I went back into the arena as an entrepreneur is our daughter when she was 10 years old and she just came out with her first book, by the way, which is amazing. But our daughter when she was 10 years old, she looked at me and she said dad, when are you going to start another business? So one day, she said, dad, when are you going to start another business? And it really pushed me to get back in the arena and do something really great for the world. And the way Rachel describes data.world, our daughter, is she says, you know, imagine you have a cancer researcher in Austin, Texas, it's working on lung cancer, which, unfortunately, my mother passed away from, she never smoked. 10% of women who get lung cancer have never smoked. And you have another lung cancer researcher, and like, in, let's say Rio, you know, in Brazil, well, data.world will bring them together, will show them that their data sets have some interesting linkage and correlation. And they would have never known about each other working on the same thing unless they discern, you know, serendipitously ran into each other at a conference. You know, but what were the chances of that be? Data.world brings them together, and now together, they hopefully can solve lung cancer. And so, it should create this exponential outcome in us solving the world's problems, like climate change, like cancer, like poverty, these are all data-driven problems, at the end of the day, they're technical problems be solved by the world and data is at the core of them. 


[31:05] Brett: So, the world looks like that, it looks like problem resolution dramatically increases, whether it's inside of a corporation, or someone, you know, looking at a declining customer trend, or it's someone at a foundation that's looking at an increasing rise of poverty in a certain region and trying to address that and quantify it and determine specific policy. It also is going to be a platform that I'll tell you, my kids are going to ask me about what the world was like when they're in college, prior to the invention of data.world. I'm going to tell them, you know, you won't believe it, you know, data was buried in silos, it wasn't well documented, nobody knew what anybody else was doing with the data. There was a massive waste in human labor as people constantly reinvented the wheel over and over again, even if you have a colleague in a different office, they could be working the same data set as you and you wouldn't even have known that they were doing the same work you were doing. And so, the world was very inefficient, and very fragmented when it came to data and very siloed, and we really helped tear down those walls.


[32:26] Maiko: That's an amazing mission to be on. It's very inspiring to hear from you, from your journey as an entrepreneur, as an investor into running data.world. I recommend for everybody to check out the website, that's data.world, very simple to remember. And I wish you all the best on that journey and hope to hear a lot from you very soon.


[32:46] Brett: Great. Thank you so much. And thank for the journey you're on and for inspiring so many people with your podcasts.