We talked to Mitchell Catoen of Phonic about surveys and COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mitchell Catoen: My family and I are doing as well as we can be. Phonic is currently based in the Bay Area, and my family lives back in Toronto. Everyone is healthy and well. While conditions in these areas are very different, we make sure to keep close contact with routine calls.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Phonic.
Mitchell Catoen: Starting with my post-secondary education, I attended the University of Waterloo for a degree in Mechatronics Engineering. I’ve always been drawn to AI systems, and early in my career, I was privileged to apply this interest to some fantastic companies. Before starting Phonic, I worked as an applied ML engineer for Google, Uber, Yahoo, and Hive AI. My Co-founder David and I started our entrepreneurship journey together as entrants to the 2019 Hult Prize, a global competition for youth entrepreneurs. As we moved through the various competition stages, we delivered pitches together in Toronto, Mexico City, London, and even the United Nations headquarters. It was on the Hult journey that Phonic was born.
How does Phonic innovate?
Mitchell Catoen: We innovate by thinking from first principles. The market research industry is one which holds tightly onto processes and best practices from decades before us, and it’s easy to understand why. Things work, and the massive $70B+ market size shows it. In our case, being so new to the industry has helped us look beyond the ways things are done and more into the 30k ft view of what researchers are trying to accomplish.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Mitchell Catoen: Phonic has been fairly fortunate when it comes to COVID impact. While we’ve had to work through the conversion to a remote-first work environment, our product itself is one that remains unaffected.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mitchell Catoen: As a startup founder, making difficult decisions is practically in the job title. We’re constantly making game-breaking decisions on engineering focus, target markets, talent, and culture.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Phonic in the future?
Mitchell Catoen: I must credit Adam Goldstein for his insight on anxiety and stress. During our time in YCombinator, he delivered a legendary speech on what he calls “The Anxiety Algorithm.” The basic premise is that we can think of our bodies as risk management systems. With regards to our health, any potential downside significantly outweighs an overreacting to a false positive. Thinking of stress as a symptom of uncertainty has been helpful in managing it. A healthy mix of motivation and stress can lead entrepreneurs to break significant ground.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mitchell Catoen: Our competitors come from a budding sub-industry within market research called “Agile Qualitative.” In the market research world, qualitative research techniques such as in-depth interviews and focus groups are very time-consuming and don’t quite scale-like quantitative research does. The agile movement in qualitative research comes from a set of companies that believe qualitative research can experience the same scale.
We’re building the most general, un-opinionated platform for agile qualitative research available and pairing it with state of the art models to understand this high dimensional data at scale. In other words, we’re providing a toolkit that makes agile qual accessible and useful to any researcher in the industry.
Your final thoughts?
Mitchell Catoen: While COVID brings tough times for all companies of all sizes, it’s important that entrepreneurs around the world don’t lose their drive. The times ahead call for drastic innovation.