Marketing dashboards ‘as easy as a Zynga game’: Captain Dash is on a mission

Captain Dash is a new dashboard for marketing. Its promise is both simple and bold: it brings all the data from your social media streams, CRM, planning software, your social media and even the weather together in an intuitive, visually appealing dashboard. The idea is to unlock big data that is hardly usable because there’s no decent way to access it and present it.

It’s big data marketing, Zynga style: “We wanted to develop a marketing dashboard that is as easy to use as a Zynga game,” says cofounder Gilles Babinet.

And the Captain is racking up awards like a man on a mission: Microsoft Bizspark One membership (an exclusive club of 60 startups worldwide). IBM Smartcamp winner for France (September), EMEA (November) – the global competition is in New York in January. Plus a host of design awards. This week, the founding team was forced to deny rumors that it was about to be acquired by Microsoft. All this, and the product was only released in October: Captain Dash is clearly on to something.

Captain Dash was founded by Bruno Walther, former CEO of OgilvyOne worldwide, and Gilles Babinet, who can rightly be called a serial entrepreneur: Captain Dash is his ninth company.

Gilles Babinet: a dashboard for marketing as simple as a Zynga game

Gilles Babinet, co-founder of Captain Dash

Gilles Babinet: “The idea for Captain Dash came during a discussion with my cofounder Bruno Walther, who was then CEO of OgilvyOne. He was telling me that companies like Walmart pay fortunes for custom dashboards for all the data that their marketing department needs.”

“So we started thinking about this a bit, trying to come up with a market size for a single, standard product that we could develop to replace all the custom work. We ended up concluding that to find a market that was extremely scalable, we needed a product that was really simple, as easy as a game.”

In marketing, the interface is the product

The interface of Captain Dash reflects this – it’s vaguely reminiscent of the quirkiness of MailChimp (we go much further than Mailchimp! says Babinet). “Some people even told us: you can’t go that far with a US business audience. But we try to smash the user with a funny and original experience.”

marketing dashboard captain dash

In marketing, the interface is the product: Captain Dash is proud of its friendly, accessible design.

It reminds me of someone who said that “the interface is the product,” I tell him. “Yes! Exactly! Especially in marketing, the interface is the product. If you take Omniture, that’s a great product, but it was not developed and designed for marketing people. We try to be more like Macintosh: it’s a great product, but it looks like a toy.”

“I would say that’s the core value of Captain Dash: it’s a marketing dashboard that is as simple to use as a Zynga game. It’s a structural idea, even, because everything we did in terms of development was pushed to the extreme standardization and user friendliness. Which eventually even led us to offer a freemium product, which is very rare in this industry.”

“That also pushed us to go for the big data approach and the Hadoop scene – which looked weird to many people back then. Today it’s almost obvious, but when we started Captain Dash, big data was, still very much the exclusive terrain of the R&D departments of huge corporations.”

“That was maybe the good insight that we had: we thought it was inevitable that this interest in big data would trickle down to the rest of the corporation and business world, and we really wanted to be as much ahead of this curve as possible. It would increase the risk, but it would also increase our chances to develop something really great.”

The marketing department will drive innovation

The main challenge when developing Captain Dash, says Babinet, was not to get overwhelmed by the sheer technical complexity of it, and to always keep focusing on ease of use. “I’m very happy that it’s still so simple that everyone can use it. You can start playing with it, minutes after signing up. That’s pretty unique for a business intelligence tool.”

Captain Dash might seem to attack a very broad spectrum of the market, but that’s actually a bit of an optical illusion, says Babinet. “Because we offer a freemium solution, obviously there are a lot of users – we are aiming for something like 400 000 users in a few years. But in terms of paid usage, you’re looking at marketing departments of the big corporations, the Fortune 500. In terms of paid usage, the market is not that large, but bankable.”

Marketing IT budget is on the rise

Captain Dash is a culmination of two convictions that Babinet holds: one, that big data is the future. But two, that the marketing departments and chief marketing officers will be the main drivers of innovation inside enterprises.

“It’s not just me saying that, it’s IBM and Gartner,” says Babinet. “In a lot of companies, the CIO budget is stable, while the marketing IT budget is rising steeply. The chief marketing officer is the one responsible for CRM (customer relationship management), the website, the social stuff, etc.”

“IBM recently organised a CIO-CMO conference, because they also feel that more of their revenue is now coming from the marketing department, and they want to address this market more efficiently. That’s also why companies like IBM are more willing to set up partnerships with companies like ours.”

Of course, Babinet knows that a lot of CMO’s today are somewhat software illiterate, but he expects that to change – and on the other hand he believes that solutions like Captain Dash will make the data more accessible and digestible for marketing executives.

Babinet: “Marketing people will become more and more ROI driven. And we’ll probably see more synchronisation than in the past. The challenge today is to have a clear set of KPI’s, and to track them transparently in a very complex world. As a CMO, you used to manage 3 or 4 channels – basically: newspaper, tv, billbaords. Now, there’s a zillion channels on the web, and even tv has 200 channels. Also, corporations used to operate in a push market, but now you have to adapt to a market where demand – the consumer – dictates the tempo.”

“The only way to manage this is to have a clear, synchronised view of all your consumer channel data – your research, media, social. Plus some exogenous factors like the weather and the traffic. That’s what we do: we’re a one stop shop for marketing people who need to synchronise their data.”

A one stop platform for marketing tools

Captain Dash definitely wants to expand from being a solution to a platform: next year it will release a software development kit (sdk) so that third party solutions can sell their wares, data or algorithms through Captain Dash.

But if Captain Dash is putting more power into the hands of the CMO, don’t they face some resistance from the CIO? “Not really,” says Babinet. “A CIO is trying to keep the IT infrastructure to work. “Vertical” needs like marketing are a hassle for them, and I don’t have the feeling that they resist. Sometimes they might resist on giving up data which is needed to input in Captain Dash. But when it’s critical for us, marketing managers manage to get it.”

The game in this world, as Babinet sees it, is to bring data together and digest it. Since the world is no longer organised by pools of knowledge but streams, you offer value by channeling the streams rather than by trying to protect them. “Our asset and skill is that we build connectors in the field of marketing. We just synchronize everything: ERP’s, social. It’s just a trend: everybody is moving towards platforms and webservices, including SAP, SAS, you name them.”

How about the prediction by Sanu Desai that SAP, Microsoft and Cisco would soon be toppled by hungry startups? “I wouldn’t say that as a general comment. It’s possible that one of them dies, yes. But they are trying to evolve, and I’m confident that some of them will be able to set themselves up as some kind of app store. IBM has been around for a century almost – they’ve been at the verge of dying several times, but look: they are flourishing today. But for sure: as a software company you have to have a permanent focus on strategy, much more than when you’re – say – a water supplier.”

So, talking about Microsoft: this week Lettre de Petit Web said that Captain Dash was about to be sold to Microsoft. Any truth to that? Babinet: “It’s very difficult to comment. We don’t want to sell the company, and I was very surprised to see that rumor. I can say that the company will stay with us for quite some time.” So: Microsoft took a nibble but you declined? “I can’t say.”

Digital Champion for France at the European Commission

Apart from his responsibilities at Captain Dash, Babinet is also the “Digital Champion” of France, who is supposed to represent France at Neelie Kroes’ department in the European Commission.

Babinet: “Basically, we’re trying to convince the EU that it’s better to invest less in roads and more in the future,” he says. “Like in education, making sure that kids have access to computers and that they know how they work, that schools and universities offer knowledge about digital innovation.”

“There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently saying that we will need another 200 000 data scientists in the US alone. Same goes for the EU. And against all – I would say, common thinking, I think regulation can help here. To fund universities, to make sure that they can address the new needs of the markets. That’s the type of debate we’re having. It’s very interesting, and we’ll see soon whether we’re efficient, because some crucial voting is already planned for early next year.”

“We’re lagging behind what tech can do for the first time in history”

A wider problem Babinet sees for innovation in Europe is that, maybe for the first time in history, we’re actually lagging behind what technology can do. He subscribes to the same idea that Peter Thiel and Gary Kasparov expressed in the Financial Times recently: we say we are innovating at an incredible pace, but we’re not.

Babinet: “Usually, the human race has been ahead of its technology. Now we’ve been overtaken by the potential, that is far bigger than the innovation that we create. We can crunch DNA, parse data from scanners to find out which diseases we can predict ahead of time. But we don’t do it. Not because we don’t have the computers, but because we don’t have the processes. I spoke to a guy who was trying to get data from scanners, to see which common diseases might show up very early as a pattern. I think it’s very strange that we’re not doing that.”

“It’s fairly typical that innovation doesn’t happen from inside the institutions. Innovators come from outside a field. Google cars are not developed at General Motors, and the newest rockets are not developed by NASA but by Elon Musk. And so on. We should make sure that we remember that innovators are outsiders – the countries that will win are the countries that organise their society around this concept.”

As a VC said recently: our European immigration laws are hampering innovation and entrepreneurship? Babinet: “Yes. We suck at that. From a combination of fear, conservatism and racism – and it’s missing the point. We should open our borders big time for any person who has a degree or some skill in the innovative space.”

Serial entrepreneur, working on Company #9

There’s serial entrepreneurship and real serial entrepreneurship. Captain Dash is Babinet’s ninth company.

He’s been through all the ups and downs as an entrepreneur. The dotcom crisis wiped him out completely, he says. It was 2000, he had just made nice money by selling a company, and he lost it all by investing in dotcom stocks. “I really believed in the tech sector. I thought: they’re going to clean up! And they did, but not that time (laughs).” There’s a video on the web from 2005 (which incidentally, was shot about an hour before he concluded the sale of Musiwave for 14 million $) where Babinet  sums up the episode like this: “I was poorer after I sold my company than before.”

Another time, he started a company that failed. “I had a very simple idea, gave it to some guys and said: do it! It will work! And it didn’t.”

Believe, believe, believe

The big lesson he learned, he says, is not to be overconfident. In a team, or yourself, or an idea. And yet, I say, in that same video of 2005, his lesson was: as an entrepreneur you should believe, believe, believe.

Babinet: “Yes, but that’s not a contradiction, I think. Believing in something is not the same as being overly confident. When you believe, you want to listen to people who destroy your idea. Because it helps you succeed. It might sound bizarre, but I’ve experienced that several times. Let them tear the idea apart, it will only make me want to succeed more. But when you’re overconfident you don’t listen. And that kills you every time.”

Watch the Captain Dash team pitch at the IBM Smartcamp EMEA:

ibmglobalentrepreneur on Broadcast Live Free

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Feature image: CNN France, other images courtesy Gilles Babinet/Captain Dash

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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