Jun 4, 2019
I joined Tanner McGrath, Head of Growth Engineering and Product Analytics at Amplitude, in San Francisco to hear about the circumstances that brought about the need for Amplitude's product. Tanner also shared his personal story of making moves from video game development to Postmates product manager to the tech renaissance man he is today at Amplitude.
PJ Bruno: Hello, again. Welcome back to Braze for impact, your Martech industry discussed digest. Thrilled to have with me today for a partner spotlight, Tanner McGrath from Amplitude, their head of growth engineering and product analytics. How's it going, Tanner?
Tanner McGrath: It's great. Happy to be here.
PJ Bruno: Yeah man, I'm looking at your Linkedin here, and you're a real Renaissance man. Product Manager, Developer, Data Engineer, Data Scientist, Growth Marketing, UX Designer. I mean, do you have any other hobbies that we need to know about right now upfront?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of different aspects of making a company grow.
PJ Bruno: I love it. I guess it touches every part of the company, too. Well, before we get into your journey that led you here to Amplitude, I love the tagline, and I heard this first. We were doing interviews, and I think it was someone on the partnerships team for Amplitude that said, “Helping companies build better products.” It just is such a clean description, but for people out there who might not know more specifically what Amplitude is doing, can you break that down for us a bit?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah. The way we look at building better products here at Amplitude is, really, if you look at how everything's been changing in the industry, is product is now the revenue center for most companies. Building a better product means building a better company. Here at Amplitude, we see people spending 200 plus minutes within these products ever day. It's like the world is being eaten alive by the digital revolution.
PJ Bruno: Right.
Tanner McGrath: What we see is, building a better product is not only helping those companies be more successful, but it's also helping everyone out there be more successful in their everyday life. That's the mission here at Amplitude.
PJ Bruno: That makes sense. I mean, that's usually the place that people get most exposure to the brand, right? Is living in the product, so it tethers back to every single department, right?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, absolutely.
PJ Bruno: Cool. Well, let's rewind, let's take a step back, because one thing that interests me and made me want to talk to you more was the fact that you started off as a client of Braze, back in the day when you were at Postmates. What year was this back at Postmates, when you started there?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, 2015.
PJ Bruno: 2015. Seems like eons ago. So what did the Postmates stack look like when you started there? What kind of set up did they have?
Tanner McGrath: They had the standard start up, setup. Query and off your production data bases, no AB testing. It really was that standard loading CSVs into MailChimp and it was-
PJ Bruno: That really does date it doesn't it? Talking about it, its only four years, but Jesus. So no analytics outside of your product database at all?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, there was nothing trustworthy in the organization. I really remember coming in, we were having a really, really big delivery volume day, and the whole team was trying to see if we were going to break our previous record, and that meant query in the production data base, and we actually caused an outage from querying in the production data base too much monitoring that. Yeah, it really was no analytics outside of that.
PJ Bruno: Do you guys hold that up as a victory, when you make something crash like that?
Tanner McGrath: I don't know if we hold it up as a victory, but definitely a learning.
PJ Bruno: And that's a victory in some token, sure.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, yeah. Definitely made us rethink how we were looking at our growth and our analytics, and really lit a fire in that direction.
PJ Bruno: Totally. And the stuff that you were doing in Postmates, this was kind of not much competition was around you at this time, right?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, yeah, this was pre-competition. This was when everything is up and to the right. I work with a lot of startups here as well, and they're often in cases like that, where this pre-competition, things are up and to the right. You don't ask many questions when you're hitting your growth targets every week.
PJ Bruno: There's no real need for pushing the envelope on innovation or really big bets.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, if you're not taking a close look, everything you're doing is what you're attributing to you making the company successful.
PJ Bruno: What were the factors that brought Amplitude and Braze into the marketing strategy for Postmates?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, it really came down to competition. As the environment becomes more competitive, you're really looking to find an edge and to keep that edge.
PJ Bruno: So this was 2016, 2017?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, yeah, we start to see Uber Eats, DoorDash, other people entering the market, and the space is blowing up. With that, growth becomes a little bit harder when you're not the only one there really creating your category, you really need to know what's working. It's like when you're at a casino, and you're the only one playing a slot machine that's weighted in your favor. And then, all of a sudden the casino starts to be filling up because everyone's winning, but the house is only going to let so much out. You need to become a better gambler. That's what really brought Braze and analytics into the strategy, was we needed to start making more systematic bets as a company, to really keep that competitive edge.
PJ Bruno: Yeah, that makes sense. It's gotta be tough though, too, because there's just so many different product services and directions you can go, whereas you're given a budget, you need to keep those numbers going up and to the right, how do you choose the right products even? You said systematic bets, I love that. Can you say more about that?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah. When we think about ... Especially when I think about building better products, it's not just the product you need to improve, it's the team you need to improve. That fundamentally comes down to understanding and learning. You're really only able to do that with certain products. There's many products out there in the landscape that will let you understand what happened. "Was this email, what was its open rate? What was its conversion? Did it actually accomplish that end goal?" But, usually the end of that questioning is, "Why? Why did it have the highest open rate?" Or, "Why did it have the highest conversion?" Or, "Why didn't it?" Being able to answer that "Why" question is not only how you improve your product, but it's also how you improve your team, because your team had a hypothesis at the start, and they're trying to understand why was I right, or why was I wrong, and that's how the team gets better. When the team gets better, the product also gets better. That's really what was the driving force between how do we actually balance getting things done as quickly and efficiently possible, but also making sure that we learn and get better while we're doing that, so that it compounds over time.
PJ Bruno: So, getting Amplitude and Braze in the mix of your stack, did that inform the makeup of your team? You're saying it takes the right team, so did that service things for you guys?
Tanner McGrath: That was one of the biggest driving factor for us building our stack, was being able to answer that why. If we can't, as a team, understand why we were actually living or losing, we couldn't get better over time. That was something where we actually tried many different software vendors out there, probably, almost that whole MarTech landscape we gave a try.
PJ Bruno: It's kind of nice to do a sampling, right? A little tasting.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah. What we found was that no one really let us offer that why. Then we came across Amplitude, and that really enabled what we called frictionless curiosity at the company, was really being able to be curious about what your customers are doing in your product, and why they're doing that. And then Braze built out currents for us, and that really unlocked a whole new world of being able to answer the why that was not possible in any other tool that we had ever used before.
PJ Bruno: And the competitors, you adding those two pieces to your stack, that was spurred on by competition. As you guys moved forward, people were copying your approach along the way, right? That was kind of ...
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, and that's the biggest piece of flattery out there, is when you come up with something creative, and then someone else replicates that, it just adds to that pressure to constantly innovate. That's why we're actually seeing better and better products.
PJ Bruno: Yeah, these stacks got to be turning into Megazords at this point, just huge transformers.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah.
PJ Bruno: Autobots. Talk to me about the transition from client to tech partner, because now your role here at Amplitude is quite different than it was at Postmates.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, it's very different and very, very similar in the same way. I spend about 50% of my time, really, thinking about what is the future of product analytics and how can we help companies really set a strategy, set goals, really understand customer health, and really model out their business. It's a lot of things I've been doing in the past, but with a lot of different companies now, which is great. It's almost like what I was doing before, but at scale. There is a slight change, of course, from going from consumer marketplace growth to B2B growth. Definitely a set of nuanced complexities, building out an enterprise B2B Growth Engineering team right here at Amplitude. But, it's great. It's been an awesome transition.
PJ Bruno: That's great to hear. Let's move onto Amplitude. Amplitude has surfaced, and it's the noise as a best in class product analytics tool. From your experience, what gives Amplitude that competitive edge? What's the differentiator.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, the differentiator is, it really goes back to what I was talking about before, is frictionless curiosity, as that the best teams are curious. It's really, really painful to be curious today. Think about what it takes to be curious about your customers, we're talking hundreds, thousands of lines of sequel, ETL jobs, and you've gotta wait a couple days for that compute job to come back, you've got to ask an analyst or a data scientist. It really differentiates by completely flipping that whole paradigm on this head. It's "would you rather hire a product engineer on your team or a data engineer?" With Amplitude, you can invest in your product, and you can enable that team building, that product to really understand what's going on with their customers, so that you actually let your data scientists and analysts use their PhD to actually answer a differentiated question.
PJ Bruno: That's smart, that makes sense. I was going to ask, what is that a-ha moment for clients and prospects, when it actually hits them, the power of the tool? You mentioned curiosity, so I have to assume that plays into it a little bit.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, I think all of that curiosity, what it really results in is people being able to actually better model out, understand their business, and understand customer health. When you talk to a lot of teams today and you ask them, "How do you grow?" You'll get 10 different answers. With Amplitude, what you're able to actually do is, you're enabling the team to see the inputs, measure the outputs, and actually start to understand and model that system over time. That's really the a-ha moment, is when you actually can go into a company and talk about, "Well, how do you grow?" And the teams actually know.
PJ Bruno: What are some of the best uses of Amplitude that you've seen in your time here?
Tanner McGrath: Oh, so many. We can go from personalization to even just some of the lowest hanging fruit. I'll call out two things that I always love seeing, one is, especially with user acquisition teams, is when I think about great user acquisition teams, they're doing all the stuff that good user acquisition teams are doing. Good user acquisition teams, they actually optimize ads, change images, change copy, all of the things that are table stakes, they're doing all of that. But, when you meet a great user acquisition team, they actually go a couple steps further. When they have an ad that's not performing or a channel that's not working, they start to answer the question why, "Why is it not working?" If I have a lot of engagement in this ad, I remember this happening at Postmates. We had a lot of engagement on iPhone charger ads. We knew iPhone users, high value users, retained very well. We also saw some of our best customers were purchasing accessories for their iPhones. We'd take some ads out, worst performing ads we've had. The team, good team for user acquisition, they would change the copy, change the images, do a couple cycles of that, and then probably throw it to the side. A great team looks into the product, they understand why is this happening, and turns out, didn't have item search at that time. People actually wanted to purchase these things, they literally just couldn't find it.
PJ Bruno: Oh, they just didn't have the means.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, they couldn't find it in the product. They didn't realize that they needed to search for a Best Buy or an Apple Store, and then go and find the charger. Yeah, what's the team do? They do a quick test, they actually pull together a very proof of concept item search for this specific ad, takes you right to the item, becomes some of the best performing ads. It's like, that's what a great team does, but without that frictionless curiosity, if those people on that UA team actually had to ask a data scientist or an analyst, "Hey, what's going on with my ad?" They probably would have never gotten to the bottom of it. But, with that frictionless curiosity, they're able to actually help transform and build a better product.
PJ Bruno: So, Amplitude quite literally facilitates teams asking questions.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah.
PJ Bruno: Because otherwise, you might not have the means to go inside, and actually dig, and see what's going on.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah. I'd say that it elevates the level of questions that people are actually asking. One of my favorite Einstein quotes is him saying that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he'd spend the first 55 minutes on actually figuring out the question that he was trying to answer. Last five minutes just answering it. I think that that's really what I mean when I say "frictionless curiosity," is being able to actually ask the right question. The first question you ask is never the right question. I hear people asking me all the time, "How did that experiment perform?" That's not a real question. No one should ever ask that question. "What was your hypothesis and did it actuality accomplish your learning objective?" Usually, that's the 10th, 20th question that someone asks, so without that frictionless curiosity, the right questions never get asked. You see this at scale with companies, and the whole organization is asking better questions, and that compounds over time. Instead of taking 20 questions for you to get there, you're now asking that two questions away from the actual right question.
PJ Bruno: And I guess you just get better and better as time goes on.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, something people often miss is that this concept of learning actually compounds over time, just like interest. The more you invest in it, the more you invest in your team, the better your team's going to be over time. The same with your product, too.
PJ Bruno: That's good stuff. I gotta remember that. Throw away the first question, because it's no good.
Tanner McGrath: Just make it smarter.
PJ Bruno: All right, cool, let's get into some final thoughts here with you. As tech evolves, companies often pivot their main focus based on innovations in the competitive landscape. We've already talked a bit about competition here today. Do you see a new frontier for Amplitude to expand into?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah. The way I see the space playing out is that today, really smart people leverage Amplitude to get to causal inference, to really understand what's [causaling] their product. I think tomorrow, we'll be able to help do that a lot faster, so that anyone can do it, or maybe it's done for you. On top of that, that really enables, when you understand what's causal, especially for different people, different cohorts, that really enables this emerging space of personalization. I think one of the biggest challenges that's often not talked about, related to personalization, is "How do you do the analytics for personalization?" If everyone gets a different version of your product, how do you actually make sense of that?
PJ Bruno: Yeah, that's a good one.
Tanner McGrath: Yeah, I think Amplitude's got a whole new landscape to build out there, and that's really the future.
PJ Bruno: Yeah, especially because personalization is quickly becoming the norm. If you're not using that, then your message is getting lost in the sweep, right?
Tanner McGrath: Yeah. Helping people understand how to do that at scale is something that is definitely needed, because there's a lot of teams experimenting with personalization, but very few teams actually understand it.
PJ Bruno: You guys are set up to provide the right analytics on personalization, on real times, on all this stuff?
Tanner McGrath: Absolutely.
PJ Bruno: Al light, well, I'm excited to see what's next for you guys. Tanner, thanks for joining me today, buddy.
Tanner McGrath: All right, thank you.