After six months at the helm, Mark Rabe discusses Sojern’s flight path
Since Sojern brought him on board in April as its new CEO, Mark Rabe has been a man on the move. Rabe oversees Sojern, an Omaha-based travel advertising and data company, from an office in San Francisco, but he jokes that his travel schedule makes it feel like his "office is seat 10B" on an airplane. Earlier this month, shortly after Sojern unveiled its boarding Pass and just before the company announced the appointment of two new vice presidents, Rabe took time out of his travel-heavy schedule to visit with Silicon Prairie News. At the six-month mark of his tenure as Sojern's new chief executive, Rabe looked back over his first half-year there and forward to what the future holds for the company. (Left: Rabe, photo courtesy of Sojern.)
Silicon Prairie News: What pleases you most about what has gone on in your time at Sojern?
Mark Rabe: A whole bunch of things, actually. On the product side, we have launched a whole raft of I think really innovative and exciting new products. The first is boarding pass 2.0, which is sort of a new look and feel to the boarding pass experience as you’re traveling through that online transaction process to print your boarding card. For us, that's very exciting because it really brings that core asset of the company to life and allows us to take one step further down the path of what we’re calling personalization — so, the ability to identify a user as they're coming in based on previous travel history and what we know about them and serve up something that's very personalized. And you'll be hearing a lot more about that I think through the next three or four quarters as we continue to innovate on top of that.
So one example would be via the social graph with Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn connection buttons up at the top right-hand corner we have started that one-way dialogue. So a traveler broadcasting out to his friends that he's making a trip from Omaha to San Francisco, for example. And what you'll see in the coming quarters is opening that up for a two-way dialogue. …
And then last but certainly not least is the push around our data assets. So the idea that, armed with the data footprint we have of all those travelers in the U.S. who are checking in for flights, we can actually do some really interesting targeting for the benefit of our advertisers. … We're mining that database, using it to really drive home performance for our advertising partners, and they're looking to go to market with more targeted advertising. So I'd say that's probably the third on the product side that is super exciting.
And then I'd say the other kind of big bucket, from my perspective, in terms of what I’m really pleased with that we’ve been able to do in these six months, is to bring in more talent. Finding that technology and that media and that travel — in our case travel — talent and people who kind of cross over all three or maybe just cover off on two of those subsets is a tough thing to do, and we've brought in several people who actually have that experience. All of these folks as they're coming on board are helping us really crystallize what our strategy is and how we think about the advertising ecosystem as it pertains to travel and, you know, really helping us kind of think about how we scale and get it to the next phase of growth.
Sojern's new boarding pass, introduced in September. Screenshot courtesy of Sojern.
SPN: With the transition to a new CEO and the addition of as many people as you're bringing in, some challenges are inherent. What are some of the bigger challenges you’ve seen, and how have you tackled those?
MR: I don't know so much that I see a lot of challenges. You know, the way I kind of look at the world now is that we just have dozens of opportunities, so many things that we could be doing, that its probably my biggest single challenge is prioritization. So figuring out what it is very cleanly an concisely that we are going to go attack and then putting it on a piece of paper and having everyone look at it and agree that that’s the right set of things and then keeping everyone aligned with those – myself included.
SPN: If you had a checklist of two or three top priorities for the company moving forward, what would those be?
The things that we're really really focused on are, one, expanding our product base, so taking the boarding pass and extending it into the mobile environment. So that's one. I think building on top of the boarding pass itself and the online environment specifically doing that in a very personalized and customized way would be No. 2. And then building out the functionality of that data strategy that I talked about earlier. And we have a product – it's in market today – that we're going to start talking about shortly called SMP, Sojern Media Platform, and that really is the embodiment or at least the catalyst for extracting value out of that data.
"My biggest single challenge is prioritization. So figuring out what it is very cleanly an concisely that we are going to go attack and then putting it on a piece of paper and having everyone look at it and agree that that’s the right set of things and then keeping everyone aligned with those."
SPN: At last check Sojern's total capital raised raised stood at $25 or $26 million. Have there been any developments or changes to that number?
MR: Nope. Still the same. And we've got plenty of fuel in the tank here for quite some, which is great. So we, you know, we'll figure out the funding scenario sometime in 2012 if we need to go back to the capital markets or if we feel like we're in pretty good shape.
SPN: With close to 50 employees, do you have any plans to increase that number significantly any time soon?
MR: TBD would be my answer. You know, a lot of it just depends on the ramp of the business. I think we’re in pretty good shape right now. We're definitely hiring, and we've got a couple open (positions) to fill. But we've got a — for the size of business we are — we've got a nice base, I think. So we might have (one) and (two) here and there. But I don't — you know, at least in the next two quarters, three quarters – I don't forsee a really spiky kind of ramp rate. I've brought on probably 8-10 folks since I’ve been here, so it feels like we’re in fairly good shape for what we need to do.
SPN: How often back are you back and forth between Omaha and San Francisco?
MR: It really depends. I actually joke that my office is seat 10B on … any airline. You know, I'm pretty much on the road every week. And that's visiting clients, either advertisers or airline partners. And those are all over the place. So I tend to be in Omaha at least once a month and spend a few days here connecting with the team, and then we've got folks kind of cycling through in New York and San Francisco. It really is a very sort of transient, virtual operation.
SPN: I guess that's good thing, since you can get out and use those boarding passes?
MR: (Laughs) Yeah. I get to use the product just about every week.