Veering Off Topic With Salsify CEO Jason Purcell

Xconomy Boston — 

Jason Purcell is the next victim in my ongoing series of quirky conversations with local tech leaders.

Purcell heads up Salsify, which makes cloud-based product-content management software for brands and retailers. He co-founded the company in 2012 with Rob Gonzalez and Jeremy Redburn. The trio previously worked together at Cambridge, MA-based Endeca, the enterprise search and e-commerce technology company acquired by Oracle in 2011 for over $1 billion.

I recently sat down with Purcell, who grew up in Dallas, at Salsify’s headquarters in downtown Boston. We covered Salsify’s aspirations, his thoughts on the latest “Star Wars” flick, his guilty pleasure TV show, and more. Read on for highlights of our conversation.

Xconomy: Salsify was one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the Boston area last year. Can we expect that to continue?

Jason Purcell: Yeah, it’s been pretty significant growth. I think you have to take those numbers with a grain of salt. Sometimes it’s more a reflection of how much you’re spending than how much you’re growing.

We were at 30 people at the beginning of [2015], and we exited it at 80. We’re going to cross 100 here sometime in the next month.

X: What’s occupying most of your time right now?

JP: Given the rate of growth, a lot of my personal time gets sucked into people. I have a really good operating team. My executive team works well together, and they’re running the company fantastically. A lot of my time is around people, culture, where are we making mistakes.

If we hire someone and really like them, [and they leave], what could we have done better? … How do we onboard people faster?

That’s a huge part of where my time goes. And the rest of it tends to go into thinking about where does the product and the company need to be two, three years out. Who’s outflanking us?

But it’s surprising how much the people time takes. I remember that at some point, I was talking with Pete Bell, one of the co-founders of Endeca, and Rob [Gonzalez]. And he mentioned we had just crossed 50 [employees]. Pete was like, “That’s when all the high school drama starts.” He’s totally right. At 50, you get just big enough where if you’re not focused on it, it’s too easy for people to form into cliques. I don’t want that to happen. It’s a constant battle, but it’s got to be done.

I’d never been an entrepreneur [before Salsify]. It was not a particular desire. Finishing up at Oracle, I didn’t know what else to do.

I look at some of the folks in the area who have been successful [entrepreneurs], and I have completely new appreciation for what they’ve been able to do. Folks like [Endeca co-founder and CEO] Steve Papa, you saw him doing it and you were too naïve to appreciate what he was pulling off behind the scenes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, it’s a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to be successful.

X: You studied biology in college, but haven’t worked in that field. Are you able to apply anything from that degree in your career?

JP: Taking courses like organic chemistry, it was all about problem solving, about solving puzzles. The problem-solving aspect is probably the one piece that carries over. Obviously the domain is completely irrelevant.

X: In past articles, we’ve talked about how one of Salsify’s long-term goals is to change the way products are designed and developed, by enabling manufacturers and retailers to collaborate on products via the cloud. How close are you to achieving that vision?

JP: It’s less sort of about developing them. There’s a whole ecosystem around developing products. The part that blows my mind is there’s a whole digital supply chain that needs to exist for you and I to shop online. It’s not enough for the product to be drop-shipped to your door. If you want to buy it, you have to get great content about that product integrated with the experience on the buying side.

That process … was so stupidly broken. Even today it’s still a sales rep filling out a spreadsheet and sending it to a big retailer, like a Target. It’s crazy.

The vision [of Salsify] was why can’t we take the friction out of it? Why can’t a Mondelez take new pictures of one of their products, an Oreo, and press a button, and have that show up on and show up within minutes. Why can’t that happen? A big chunk of it was the lack of a big technology platform to facilitate it.

I think it changes the way brands are able to interact with the end consumer. If they’re able to … get in front of you and I faster and are able to get insights into how you and I are interacting with brands … it makes it easier for the shoppers.

Brands are eager for it. They’re still figuring out what e-commerce means to them. It’s still relatively small. They’re still doing most of their business through Amazon, through Walmart, through Target, through marketplaces. But they’re getting better and better.

I think we have a chance to transform and take the friction out of that whole supply chain. Again, it’s embarrassing how much farther we have to go to get there. But the early signs are very positive. We were very fortunate to acquire some really recognizable names early on as customers.

X: What’s your end game with Salsify?

JP: This [market] is such a rich vein. It really is. There’s not a brand or retailer in the world that doesn’t struggle with this problem. This whole area of product content is crucial to the consumer interacting with products digitally. Nobody who has ever tried to tackle this in the past has ever been able to do it at the scale we’re imagining. They’ve had hundreds of customers. We’re imagining thousands and thousands of customers.

When we hit that kind of scale, something transforms. An ecosystem emerges. Whether it’s us or a company like us, somebody is going to emerge and become a dominant player.

[We] could turn it into what CRM was 15 years ago. Think about Salesforce. Salesforce was incredibly innovative, but nobody was thinking CRM was sexy. They transformed it. I don’t mean to suggest that our category is going to be that big. But also I think it’s a lot bigger than most naive observers give it credit. … How do we enable product content as a service, and what does that unveil? No doubt this gives us the ability and the headroom to be one of Boston’s next $1 billion companies.

We’re fortunate to have investors that invested in places like HubSpot, Demandware, and Acquia. There are some nice precedents here, and I think it’s in our control whether or not we hit those heights. But the market is certainly going to allow us to.

X: Where are you most productive?

JP: For work, here actually, especially in the morning when it’s early and just a handful of folks are here. That’s when I can get a lot of stuff done. Usually by 4, 5 o’clock, I’m hitting the wall and I need to go for a run. And that’s when I might get a lot of thinking done.

X: Where do you go running?

JP: I live in South Boston. If it’s not crappy out, then I’m going running down Castle Island, down the harbor walk, around the JFK library. The last couple months I’ve been [running] on the treadmill.

X: What’s the worst job you ever had?

JP: I have to go back to high school, and it was probably pumping gas in trucks at a truck rental firm.

X: That was in Dallas?

JP: Yeah. It’s long since gone. I drove by it, and it’s not there anymore.

X: What’s your favorite podcast?

JP: “Talkin’ Cowboys.” I have all my sports talk shows from Dallas in podcast form at this point. That’s how I catch up.

X: What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the past year?

JP: I’m trying to think of a movie I have seen in the past year. I guess it would have to be “Star Wars.” It was the only one that I remember seeing, and it was so much better than the prequels.

X: What’s the most embarrassing thing you’re willing to admit publicly?

JP: My wife periodically makes me watch episodes of “Real Housewives.”

X: Follow-up question: Do you enjoy them?

JP: It depends on the city and how much wine I’ve had.