Annabel & Jeff share stories and lessons they’ve learned since starting up AE back in 2019. This article is part of a series that celebrates AE’s 10th Anniversary.
Sitting down with Annabel Youens and Jeff Mitchell, the married co-founders of Appreciation Engine (AE), is smooth and easy. It’s like being curled up in a living room, with a tea or a beer (craft of course), and invites the ease of conversation that just flows. These two have quietly not only built one of the fastest-growing tech companies in British Columbia, as recently recognized by the BC Tech Accelerator, HyperGrowth; they have built a truly global enterprise that deeply touches the breadth of some of the world’s largest entertainment businesses, including Universal Music Group (UMG) and Sony Music Records. And honestly, they’ve done this practically from their living room. Now, that living room has moved. It started in 2009 in Wellington, New Zealand, where they were scouted by some thoughtful, local investors who recognized their eye for tech and business. In 2012 that living room moved to what is known as Silicon Beach, California – the hipper sister of Silicon Valley where the music industry likes to play. And then back to Victoria, Canada – the city where they both met while attending the University of Victoria and where they chose to raise their newborn daughter Ada. And now, back in Victoria, welcomed with open arms by their friends, family and a kick-ass tech community, they couldn’t be happier. “We are so thrilled to be contributing to the tech landscape in Victoria,” shares Annabel. “Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for the community we have here, the beauty of this place and how welcoming the tech community has been to us.” As start-up stories go, this one may appear to be an overnight success story, but it feels like many, many, many nights, as Jeff and Annabel share. Over those many nights, AE has evolved from the digital music label company it was at start-up (MusicHype) to what it is now — a customer insights company that simplifies data for marketers and builds relationships with the customers they’re connected to. In today’s world, it sounds simple. In the world where the concept of AE was first born, it was sacrilegious. Flashback to 2009 when customers were illegally downloading music from websites and record labels were up in arms. How do we stop them? They asked. Jeff answered: We don’t. If customers want to interact with your music in this way, why don’t we let them? Let’s invite them to play. And so tracking customer insights and developing tools to encourage customers to download music and interact with it was born. Building an engine and plugging it into social networks is the secret sauce that AE was built on. Understanding customer behavior insights and interacting with them in a way the label and the customer appreciated, created an Appreciation Engine that could. An engine that could deliver what the biggest music companies in the world wanted: real-time fan data. “We transitioned the whole company from the brand of MusicHype,” shares Jeff, “to one with a different persona, and a different way to represent ourselves. We’re talking new graphics, new logos, new technology and capabilities, and terms and language. We built solid enterprise products, a client base and we delivered results. “Many people are still surprised by how small we are as a company,” continues Jeff. “When people learn we work with companies like UMG, they assume we’re just working with a small part of their global empire. What they are surprised to hear is that we are globally deployed across their infrastructure. We’re in Italy. We’re in South America. We’re in every country UMG touches. UMG is a huge global music machine and we’re plugged right into it.” And what about data privacy? “People want to know what we’re doing with their data,” acknowledges Jeff. “Again, we’re ahead of the curve. Rules have built up around Internet usage and long-term solutions require thought and hard work. If customers choose to share their information, they will benefit from sharing it. We have always stayed inside the playing fair part of the space. Following the rules.” “And not just at the technical level,” shares Annabel. “Here at AE we’re all about building relationships. We value our customers and their data. How we manage data privacy and take care of those relationships is the key to our success.” But every start-up has a few skeletons in the closet. When asked their favorite memory with growing their company, Annabel and Jeff burst into laughter. “We were live-streaming a concert when live-streaming still wasn’t a thing,” shares Annabel. “We were so nervous and there were so many details to make sure went right. It was a huge effort to pull this thing off. So the concert starts and everything is going great when one of the brothers in the band started smashing their guitar and a huge fight broke out on stage.” “We basically live-streamed their break-up,” pipes in Jeff. “It was awful,” continues Annabel. “We were mortified and couldn’t believe that was happening. We went home that night just devastated. “And then, the next day, people were clamoring for the footage. People thought it was staged and that it was a brilliant plan! We got so much exposure out of that, so maybe no press is bad press after all.” And advice for the next tech start-up? “Trust your gut instincts more than someone else’s opinion,” shares Jeff. “What feels right to you is probably right.” Well, those gut instincts have worked for Appreciation Engine so far. Appreciation Engine celebrates 10 years in business on September 23, 2019. You can join in the celebration at their new co-working space in downtown Victoria at KWENCH. Message Jeff or Annabel for an invite! You can meet the real people behind Appreciation Engine, where online or offline, it’s all about building relationships.