A Series of Q&A Interviews with Innovators at the Intersection of Consumer Behavior and Business Transformation: Frank O’Brien, Founder and CEO, Five Tier.
Bruce Rogers: Tell us about Five Tier and how the idea for the business came about?
Frank O’Brien: Five Tier makes it possible to plan, create, and execute programs across all forms of marketing from one platform – quickly, effectively and affordably. When I started my career, the media world was fragmented and I disagreed with the typical agency media perspective that media should be analyzed and bought in silos. I believed that we needed to get back to a market mix. So, in 2008 I set out to consult and on the very first day, the first client said to me, “We really believe in this. We want to do this. But we don’t have one company that we can work with that can deliver everything that you’re proposing.”
The idea was for an integrated marketing and media platform. That led to the creation of an ad agency named Conversation that in its first week in business turned into 3 clients and 15 employees. After three months the recession hit. That was July of 2008 when the agency opened that predated Five Tier. We made it through 2009. Then, fast forward to 2013: We had 60 employees, three floors in a beautiful building, clients around the world like Revlon and Thomson Reuters. Name a category, we could name a client. We had won all the awards. And a few things happened.
Rogers: You also gained some notoriety through your appearance on AMC’s the Pitch show. Tell us about that.
O’Brien: We were on a show called AMC’s The Pitch where we won the Pop Chips account. And on that episode, in that show, one of the reasons we won was we were able to not just deliver a plan that was smart and aligned with the goals, we actually built out the entire program in a ten-day period. And the tools that we used to build that program, from the planning tools that gave us the research and insights to the production tools that let us build the website, the mobile apps and so forth are what would become Five Tier. We had all this technology that made me realize if we put it together we could help a lot more people and do things far more efficiently.
Rogers: You started building things because there were no alternatives? You couldn’t buy something off the shelf? Or you wanted to build it because you thought you could build it better?
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O’Brien: Having a programming background, the first step is always whether to buy versus build. And then, in the buy scenario you question cost, you question functionality. And when you start a consultancy that very quickly turns into 15 people and you have a programming background, you build a task manager. And then, the next logical step is a time sheet system. And then, the next logical step is a file manager. And this is 2008, so it’s before a lot of these tools existed.
So, over a five-year period we had clients come to us and say, “We don’t like our file manager. Improve our management solution.” And one particular client was a big cosmetics company. And then, we said, “Well, we have a file management tool. So, here are two tools you can buy. Here’s ours.” “Oh, we love your tool. Great. By the way, we have problems with our team over in Japan. We don’t speak Japanese here in the US office and they keep sending stuff out to us that doesn’t meet brand standards. How can you help us do that?” I said, “Well, you already have the file manager. We have another tool that translates into 57 different languages. So, let’s layer that in.”
Before we knew, we had a file manager for a Fortune 500 company that’s publicly traded, a big cosmetics company, that allowed them to communicate with a team in Japan – type in English, it translates to Japanese; type in Japanese, it translates to English. And ad elements change based on what country you’re in – 57 different countries. And that was the process that was very much built out of need and led to where we are today.
Rogers: There are very large businesses devoted to solving each one of those individual steps, but no one business devoted to solving all of those steps. Was that the thinking behind Five Tier?
O’Brien: I never intended to start an ad agency or a services business, they were all built out of a need to pay rent, since I don’t come from a wealthy background and we didn’t start with funding. I’m a builder and a marketer. Along the way I was challenged by a lot of people who questioned building out a more integrated platform solution, including by people that worked for or partnered with us then left and came back, which is always a nice pat on the back.
My co-founder and I almost on a daily basis kind of laugh about the fact that along the way we were called unfocused. The reality is you build a bunch of stuff and proceed towards a vision then eventually, if you have enough runway, the market comes around and other factors come into play, you end up hitting it just right.
Rogers: How is Five Tier doing today?
O’Brien: From a revenue perspective, we’re set to grow 10X a year. The big change that happened this year was that we productized our offering and really improved the way that we communicate the product and in doing that we increased our margins substantially. So, it’s a fun place to be. I pinch myself in the morning because it’s been a ride.
Rogers: Where is Five Tier five years from now?
O’Brien: At one point in our history we referred to Five Tier as the operating system for AI, or an operating system for an AI-driven economy. Now we talk about ourselves as the glue that connects these different channels intelligently. It automates the world that we live in.
But the goal really is to provide the experience of walking through this world and having it anticipate and deliver things that are just going to consistently and continually make our lives easier. Raymond Kurzweil writes about the point of “Singularity”, when humans and robots become one. Someone’s going to be at the center of that. Some company is going to come in and really bring that to fruition. There has to be someone that’s sitting in the middle connecting all the dots. That’s where I see our platform.
Rogers: Tell us about your personal journey to founding and building Five Tier?
O’Brien: I was talking to someone this morning. I shared this story that my dad died when he was 42 and I was two years old. That had an impact on me. You know, life’s too short. Get out there and live it. And that’s one of the things, I think, that’s always driven me. And the guy I was talking to said his father passed away when he was 48 and he said to me, “I have to do this before I’m 48 because if I’m going to create a company that changes the world, I want to live in the world that I changed.” I thought that was pretty powerful.
Rogers: Where did you grow up?
O’Brien: West Haven, Connecticut. I was raised by a single mother. I was the “mistake” of the family, even though she doesn’t like to admit it. I came after 16 years of difference in my siblings who are 16, 17, and 18 years older than I am, so I learned a lot from my family.
My mom owned a dance studio when she was a teenager before giving birth to my siblings who have also owned their own businesses. When I started this business, when I started to “consult” before it turned into an agency, someone said, “Oh, yeah, I knew that was going to happen because you come from a family of entrepreneurs.” And another thing that led to Five Tier becoming what it is or even starting is that when I had the agency business I couldn’t pick up the phone to help my family market their businesses because I couldn’t afford to take on any clients that were less than $25,000.00 a month and I didn’t like that. So, creating a tool that helps more people, I think, also comes from that upbringing in West Haven, Connecticut. We’re a blue collar town that rolls up our sleeves and gets to work which I think it plays into how things came to be.