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The Weather Company’s Vikram Somaya Is Taking the Digital World By Storm

The Weather Company’s Vikram Somaya Is Taking the Digital World By Storm

 

vikram

One of the pleasures of working at NYC Media Lab is having the opportunity to engage with innovators across the media arena, getting a window into how each of them goes about their craft. From R&D outfits to venture teams, from emerging technologies trendspotters to business innovation gurus, there is no one model for organizing around innovation.

But there is one aspect in common between even the most sophisticated efforts—the recognition that the answers aren’t always in the room. Building externally aware teams and enterprises that can take advantage of new technologies and market opportunities is a skill unto itself, and is as much about a way of thinking as a way of working.

Vikram Somaya, General Manager of The Weather Company’s startup division, WeatherFX, is building a business with these ideas at its heart. Somaya sat down with us to discuss his views on the industry, technology and talent, and the opportunity for WeatherFX to exploit all three and drive significant growth for the company.

The following is an edited version of the transcripted conversation.

NYC Media Lab: Why is The Weather Company building WeatherFX?

Somaya: The Weather Company’s been sitting on top of weather data for its whole 30-year career. With the new management that’s come in— David Kenny and Curt Hecht and some of the others who have been digital natives their whole careers—they realize that they’re sitting on top of an incredibly powerful resource.

Data has quickly become the currency of modern technology and people are building incredibly large businesses on its back. They knew they were sitting on something that’s not just any sort of trove of data, but the original, the biggest, the most real-time and the most real-world, if you will. We realized that it made sense to do something about it in a more active way than has been done before.

NYC Media Lab: What’s unique about the data that you have?

Somaya: It’s two things. One, obviously we collect data from a lot of the standard sources. We have acquired a company recently called Weather Underground, which has created an incredible secondary network of weather stations that plugs data back in to us. We compile that in ways that are proprietary. And then we have a team of 200-plus meteorologists who work in-house to refine that data and make it more usable for us. On top of that, we then build teams of data scientists who play with the data in all sorts of interesting ways.

“Data has quickly become the currency of modern technology and people are building incredibly large businesses on its back.”

NYC Media Lab: Talk to us about how you’re organizing around that opportunity, when you think about building those teams of data scientists.

Somaya: When we first looked at the opportunity, the most obvious way to think about it was in the digital space, because it’s so data conversant and it’s kind of part of the DNA. A lot of the talent we were looking at came from the digital world –  people who are used to dealing with extremely large data sets and doing it with technologies that have become very economically feasible these days. That’s where we started pulling talent from—the ad technology world and the data sciences world that dealt with technology.

As we get deeper into it—obviously, most people know us for The Weather Channel, the TV network that we own. We’re looking very closely now at applications that can be built for TV as well.

The third part of our business—that people don’t know as much about—is the B2B business. We provide data to everyone from pilots to local TV stations. We’re looking to see how we can build applications from the data for those pieces as well.

NYC Media Lab: And who are the big customers of WeatherFX?

Somaya: Today, they’re primarily the largest marketers of the world: insurance, retail, consumer packaged goods, etc. Companies, certainly the weather-endemic companies, are very much in the fray. We’re now finding more and more utilities for companies that sit outside of what was historically considered hugely weather-affected. That’s what’a really interesting for us: it’s not just the intuitive clients whom you would expect, but it’s marketers who would not have thought to use weather before this, but are finding new applications for it as we get deeper into it.

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does much about it.”

NYC Media Lab: So is this really an innovation exercise for The Weather Company?

Somaya: Very much so. David Kenny has made very smart bets about things that he was curious about and he wanted to investigate deeper. His management team has taken those balls and run with them.

With WeatherFX, we found that there is a tremendous native understanding, both from a human perspective—people understand the sell we’re trying to make, because every human being has their own relationship with weather—but from a corporate perspective as well, because we push WeatherFX through the marketing funnel. Most companies are very familiar with it through logistics and supply chain, right? They’ve got to truck staff, they’ve got to move things, they’ve got to put stuff on shelves. They know that weather affects their businesses. So when we translated that into a marketing paradigm, the sell was actually a lot more intuitive than we thought it would be, and that has helped to move the ball very quickly.

NYC Media Lab: Is there a kind of innovation philosophy at play in The Weather Company?

Somaya: That’s a great question. I don’t know if there’s a pithy way to talk about it, but there’s a famous Mark Twain quote where he says, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does much about it.” I think what we’re looking to see is that we, in a large way, have represented this vertical for a long time. We’re sitting on top of tons of data and different ways to look at it. We’ve done that from a scientific point view. We’ve done that certainly from a cable and visual point of view.

The aim now is to actually look at the ingredients we were playing with the whole time and see other applications for them. We have inbounds, in terms of people coming in from the breadth and field of our enterprise and beyond, saying, “Here’s a possible way that we’d be interested in working with you that we would never have thought of on our own.”

NYC Media Lab: Let’s talk about that for a second. How do you source ideas from the marketplace?

Somaya: That’s a great question. Again, it’s why we’re looking to work with folks like the NYC Media Lab and others. We are looking at academia. We have people coming to us from medicine. They bring kernels of suggestions or thought-starters that they want to get kicked off with, and they need to have access to our data to understand how to fully flesh out those ideas.

I think there are two things that are happening: one is we know that we can build certain marketing-related products that will do very well around, so we’re focusing on that. What we’ve opened up as well is an ecosystem set of conversations that allow us to say, “We’re open for business around finding new ways to utilize our data, so come to us with ideas. Come to us with suggestions.” We’re looking to find the right channels to do that. So far, it’s been a really interesting exercise.

NYC Media Lab: In a way, you’re making WeatherFX as an externally-aware entity.

Somaya: That is the hope. For us, it’s become more about that WeatherFX is not just this division. It really should be an ingredient that goes out through the company and that everyone starts to think about, whether it’s graphics on the TV channel or whether it’s some new way to visualize data for our professional services businesses, that they can then present to their clients.

We need to be thinking about everything as data-driven in some ways, right? Then we bring new points of view to it. We’ve been very good at doing that from a network perspective, and from a digital channel perspective. We have a lot of that DNA in-house. Essentially, we’re now looking for new stories that can be told, utilizing the data that we have.

NYC Media Lab: You’ve been in media for a while. Is this a new way of thinking for you or for the company?

Somaya: I think the company’s going through some evolution, yes, for sure. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s some new blood that’s come in. A lot of it has to do with the amount of digital-native and data-native folks who are now part of the company. Some of it has to do with the fact that we have people who’ve been around and who know weather better than anyone else.

When you put those together and you can bring these storytellers and these new channel makers and introduce them to something that has so much depth, you can create a whole bunch of interesting things from it. What we’re looking to do is to explore as many of those as we can. A lot of it really hinges on us continuing to bring in the right kind of talent, and managing around it.

“There’s no variable like weather that is so local and so true and so impactful.”

NYC Media Lab: Are you finding more serendipity in your business development opportunities than perhaps in other roles you’ve had in the past?

Somaya: Yes. There are certainly a lot of opportunities that we wouldn’t have thought we’d have. The sheer breadth of the data, and how much it impacts, surprises us every day. I think in previous lives, I’ve certainly dealt with big data sets, but they’ve been much more focused, much more niche. Weather is one of these incredibly broad things that affects everything about the world we live in. It impacts what we do, it impacts what we wear, it impacts what we eat, where we decide to go, how we spend time with our families, at work. And it’s that breadth that makes those opportunities so interesting.

NYC Media Lab: One of the things that you talk about a lot when you speak to the press is the fact that weather is so intensely local, or personal, even. How important is that to your business?

Somaya: Very. One of the things that we quickly realized when we were talking to marketers was there really isn’t a good proxy for understanding how people react when you have a lot of local presence on the ground. We work with large retailers and have tons of local stores. What they’re trying to do is create messaging for each one of those stores or each one of those opportunities in a way that can be scaled.

There’s no variable like weather that is so local and so true and so impactful. So we’ve been able to create a very powerful system that essentially creates that marketing messaging on-the-fly.

We do the same thing with insurance companies who are trying to understand when severe weather moves through certain locations, how do they adapt to it? How do they make sure the messaging looks right? That it comes in at the right time, with the right message pushed out at the right time? All of that is only enabled if you truly understand what’s happening on the ground at a very granular level. Weather allows us to do that.

NYC Media Lab: That leads us to mobile. Mobile is probably in some ways a challenge for the core business and a big opportunity, we’re sure, for your business.

Somaya: We’ve embraced mobile in a pretty serious way. We’ve always had a very large presence. We have 110 million app downloads. Whenever we have a severe weather event, we start seeing people really switching to mobile. When you think about what happens when you’re in a severe weather event, people start checking on the hour, or even more expressly than that.

We have to deal with both the spikes when something like that happens, as well as the broad audience we have created through mobile. We’ve tried to be very revolutionary about how we attack mobile. We’ve created new ad formats that we think are pretty special.

In terms of how we’re beginning to use it for the weather, as you said, local and mobile speak really elegantly together. What we’re figuring out as we go is: how do we make sure that the messaging is not interruptive, but rather is part of the engagement experience? I think that’s what everyone strives to do, is not to break what the user is trying to come in to do, but to find ways to elegantly surround that with the right messaging. I think we’ve been doing the right kind of experimentation there.

NYC Media Lab: You’re running WeatherFX kind of like a startup. How are you thinking about scaling your efforts?

Somaya: That’s a good question. We did it in the way that most startups do. We said,
“Here’s our initial thesis.” We built a small, lean, smart team. We proved that it works the way it’s supposed to, and now we’re sort of in our second phase of expansion. We have a few more heads that we can play with. We’ve got some great clients who are coming online or have been online. In each one of the verticals, we’re looking to find the right clients to make the points that we want to make.

We’ve had the advantage that, again, we already had an infrastructure that was out there talking to the largest marketers in the world. We were not coming into this much the way that most startups do—sort of poor and unloved in a lot of ways, right? We had the advantages of a large company, but the nimbleness of a startup. That combination has been very powerful for us.

“We’re trying to create the frameworks where we can then start fitting in people, fitting in ideas, and like you said, fitting in new innovative applications as we get deeper into this, knowing that today we don’t know what those might look like.”

NYC Media Lab: How are you thinking about talent in this equation?

Somaya: To my mind, talent is the single most important ingredient for us to succeed. There isn’t anything that comes close, frankly. You’ve heard that the GM of a business should be spending 15% of that time looking for the right people, and that’s at least as much time as I spend on it.

We’ve taken our time to find the right people, because that quick decision can have years’ worth of ramifications. So we’ve looked very carefully. We’ve fought hard for the right people and we continue to look for the right channels because, as we grow, we’re expanding into areas that even I’m not familiar with. To find the right talent for it, we need to go out and find help.

NYC Media Lab: That leads us to how you think differently about the talent sets that you’re looking for. Obviously, the technology is changing, the environment is changing, the competitive landscape is changing very quickly. I assume you know that the skill sets you’re looking for are peculiar, but you’re looking for something maybe a little bit more?

Somaya: I think of the Lord of the Rings series, about how they started filming the films without knowing whether or not they would have the technology to finish them. Peter Jackson said, “We’ve got to go, and I don’t know whether we’ll get there, but we’re going to do our best to do it.” And he did.

I think we’re in the same boat. We know that there are scientific applications and talent that we do not have in-house today. We don’t have it at all. We’re beginning to create frameworks for it. We know that we have to go into academia, because a lot of this pure research work – that’s where it’s done. We know we’ll have to go further into ad tech. We know we’ll have to go into particular vertical spaces like better understanding retail, better understanding insurance, better understanding auto. But we’ve had to create broad frameworks for it now.

So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create the frameworks where we can then start fitting in people, fitting in ideas, and like you said, fitting in new innovative applications as we get deeper into this, knowing that today we don’t know what those might look like.

“I think a lot of media companies have allowed themselves, perhaps, to become a little indulgent. With the space changing and the ecosystem changing and the rate of growth and success becoming much, much quicker, they have to evolve faster.”

NYC Media Lab: That’s different from the way media companies have operated in the past.

Somaya: Yes. That’s absolutely true. I think if we used to be a media company, we’re now a media technology player, for sure. I think that transition has happened. It’s the way the senior management thinks about this organization. WeatherFX represents one of the strong drivers for that transition.

NYC Media Lab: So you studied art at Yale.

Somaya: I studied the history of art, so one step removed, even. Actually, I focused on architecture. My mother and my sister are both architects and there’s a natural love for it. But it’s also a natural love for order and structure and organization. I think all those things translate fairly well.

NYC Media Lab: That’s interesting. Does the discipline of architecture inspire your way of thinking about business?

Somaya: I think it does. Structure is one of those things that’s not respected quite as much as it should be. I might not be the data scientist, I might not be the ad tech guru— though I’ve been called that, oddly. What I do is I create structures for people smarter than myself to come in and succeed. I think that’s the way any organization that’s focused on talent should evolve.

NYC Media Lab: This model that you’re laying out, the idea of a media company that employs Ph.D.s, that has access to large gobs of data—it sounds like you’re in a pretty good position when you think about a competitive advantage or the peculiarity of your offering. Putting that aside for a second, what do you think other media companies could learn from this adventure?

Somaya: Not to be scared of the unknown, I think, is perhaps the strongest thing. I think a lot of media companies have allowed themselves, perhaps, to become a little indulgent. With the space changing and the ecosystem changing and the rate of growth and success becoming much, much quicker, they have to evolve faster. They can’t evolve at the rate that they used to.

I think looking at the way we’ve created these incubator situations where we’ve allowed innovation to flourish, not all of them are going to succeed. I think that both those things have to be allowed. You have to build for more flexible success and you have to allow for more failure. I think those things tend to go hand-in-hand. And be able to get nimbler about moving around those pieces. But also allowing new forms of talent to enter the enterprise and call out things that might not look right, given the way the world is changing today.

Because again, I think, in any sort of established business you don’t necessarily want to be told that your way of operating for the last 20 years is not the way it’s going to be for the next 20. I think everyone in the ecosystem today knows that change is a must and ongoing change is a must. That’s not necessarily news. We’ve always had Ph.D.s at the company, just a particular kind. I think now what we’re doing is we’re saying there’s a new need for people who have incredible skills, but now in a much broader context.

NYC Media Lab: What is the ‘different’ thing about the people that you’re looking for now?

Somaya: I spend a lot of time with startups. I’m looking for entrepreneurs: people who are smart and talented and skilled, but are willing to take risks. I’ve tended to find that those qualities live much more in the entrepreneurial startup world and less so in the media world. I think we’re beginning to see transitions, where people are willing to come here because the management is willing to support that kind of risk-taking, which historically was not the case.

NYC Media Lab: Who are you competing with, then, when it comes to talent?

Somaya: Everyone, right? The finest technology platforms out there, the Facebooks and others, and the small startups who could represent vast amounts of wealth, if they can make it right.

I think we’re trying to do the same thing, both in terms of allowing ideas to live and true innovation to breed, as well as doing it in a company that has some heft in the vertical in which we’re working.

The aim is to try and bring both aspects of that to bear when we’re actually recruiting people. We represent weather very fundamentally and in plenty of ways. We have money to invest. We’re nimble and smart and we’re eager to learn.

“I’m looking for entrepreneurs, people who are smart and talented and skilled, but are willing to take risks.”

NYC Media Lab: Switching gears, one of the big problems we hear from other industry players is this problem of fragmentation of consumption, which introduces such a degree of complexity to business models. How are you thinking about this problem?

Somaya: It’s an excellent problem for us to be thinking about with regard to our channels. One of the cool things about WeatherFX is that we want to use weather across every channel we can find. To some extent, we’re not restricted by our own media channels, because weather works, whether it comes through our media channels or others. We’re taking the same weather data that we’ve used across our channels with so much success and we want to apply it across any media channel that makes sense. That allows us a level of sort of meta growth that is not restricted by our own scale.

NYC Media Lab: If you had one piece of advice for students in university or graduate school today who might want to work in media, what would it be?

Somaya: Be curious. That statement, I’ve always thought it was something that helped me structure my life. I studied something that has almost nothing to do, some would say, with what I do today. The threads around curiosity and logic and analysis and thinking through structure are unchanged. That’s what I would advocate to anyone who’s making it through school today.

“Be curious…The threads around curiosity and logic and analysis and thinking through structure are unchanged.”

NYC Media Lab: Is there anything else that you wanted to tell us today when you thought about doing this interview?

Somaya: I think about the questions you ask every day. I think you’ve asked a lot of very good ones. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had managers who have allowed me to do what I wanted. When you find a team that gives you the freedom to do what you want and allows you to go out there and build something real, there’s nothing quite like it.

Republished with permission from the NYC Media Lab blog. Interview conducted by Justin Hendrix, Acting Executive Director at NYC Media Lab.

 

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About the author: NYC Media Lab

NYC Media Lab connects companies seeking to advance new media technologies with university labs and talent in New York City. Launched by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, NYU-Poly, and Columbia University, NYC Media Lab is a public-private partnership encompassing all the universities of NYC. NYC Media Lab corporate members include AT&T, HBO, Hearst, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. The Lab tackles the big questions facing the media industry today, with the goal of generating research and development, knowledge transfer, and talent development.

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