Podcast Interview with Martina King, CEO, Featurespace
Martina King, CEO of Featurespace, was the third guest in the csuite podcast series of episodes recorded in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto, where they are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies, or those close to reach unicorn status, to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications. Given the timing of the interviews, they also discussed how the company is adapting to working in through the coronavirus pandemic and their plans for when we are hopefully on the other side.
Featurespace is the world leader in fraud and financial crime prevention. Whilst they aren’t quite yet a unicorn, they’re certainly heading in that direction.
The company was founded in 2005 by Professor Bill Fitzgerald, who was the head of signal processing and statistics at Cambridge University and a fellow of Christ College. Bill started Featurespace to fund PHD students and it didn’t come out of the university and become a company until 2008 when Betfair was looking for a new type of fraud solution.
Martina said that Bill has made two major contributions to the world of machine learning:
- Separating signal from noise – an expression most people are familiar with these days.
- Anomaly detection
One of the consequences of anomaly detection and separating from noise is that you have greater accuracy in understanding what it is you’re looking for.
Martina gave the example of ‘False positives’, the number of times we get something right versus the number of times we get something wrong, which is now a common phrase due to the tests that are being carried out around the COVID-19 virus. However, it was very uncommon in the business environment, as typically you would model what bad looks like and apply that to the whole dataset, but what Bill and David Excell, one of his PHD students and co Founder of Featurespace, were suggesting, is that you model what good looks like and therefore the bad starts to stick out like a sore thumb.
Martina believes that companies have a duty to ensure that before they launch technology, they understand what the impact on society is going to be. She said that there is a huge amount of experimenting that takes place but as soon as you start winning serious customers, big banks, for instance, big payment companies, there’s an expectation that you’re going to operate at the same level as them and that the same professionalism is going to pervade your business in the same ways it pervades theirs.
She said that if there is one thing to learn from America, it’s not to be shy about trying to commercialise your organisation. It’s the why, the how and the relationship you build, and then the people that are able to work and encourage you to come along.
Martina’s overarching single aim through the Covid-19 crisis has been to protect the team that they have built. The first priority is that they’ve all got to take care of themselves, simple things which require a great deal of common sense. For example, have they got all the equipment they need in order to be able to work a home? If they haven’t, then without breaking any of the rules, they were going to have to try and get chairs and consoles to the team. They also had to get the secure network up and running for hundreds of people to be able to access it. On top of that, the company has been running mental health and wellbeing seminars online as then reaching out to people individually
Martina added that they have invested an awful lot in managerial and leadership training over the years. She said that in times of crisis, it’s about values – people do need to know what the values are. They tried to articulate them and now they’re taught, and they are trying to live by them. The first value at Featurespace is to tell the truth; tell the truth kindly and if you can’t tell the truth kindly, just tell the truth.
In terms of being an external communicator for the business around coronavirus, Martina said that trying to have an uneducated voice enter into a debate on something that is so incredibly important at the moment could be vacuous and there are classic traps to look out for. If you’re running a business, the only audience that really matters is first of all, your customers, secondly, all your team members and then thirdly, all your investors. She strongly advises avoiding any political commentary, unless your company is directly to do with politics. She said that one of the jobs as leader is to be a great teacher and telling is not the best way to teach.
One of her biggest challenges throughout the years has been PR. There have been experiences in her career where she came up against campaigning journalism – she said that once you’ve learned that the Internet has enabled things that really it shouldn’t have enabled, you’ve then got to address it.
Her communication tip is about messaging. She said that whilst it’s very tempting to try and stuff everything into a press release, but she used the analogy that if she threw five balls at you, how many do you think you’ll catch? But if she only threw one, there’s a fair chance you’ll actually catch it! So, when you’re thinking about your communications, think of the one message that you want to try and convey.
Martina’s big piece of advice on communications for company leaders was, you can’t do this on your own. You’ve got to learn. She said ‘make sure you’ve got the best people you can possibly surround yourself with. Learn from them, take their advice and practice.’