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WebSideStory Mafia Part 3: Certona

by Neal Bloom

By Andrea Siedsma

In the early 2000’s, the public Internet was a new medium and the dotcom bubble was in full swing.  Tech executive Meyar Sheik, who was in the middle of all the excitement, remembers lots of promising new startups in San Diego and around the country that were going to market with innovative solutions for digital marketing. It was also the beginning of the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, which was pioneered by San Diego-based web analytics leader WebSideStory (WSS), who recruited Sheik from New York in 2000 as the company’s CMO (he was later promoted to COO).

“What I loved most about WebSideStory was the fact we were doing something completely different in a new and growing industry,” Sheik says. “Being a pioneer in real-time web analytics was our biggest achievement. Also, having survived and even prospered during a very challenging time – post-9/11 business climate, post-dotcom bust and economic recession 2001 to 2003 – was our other major accomplishment.”

WebSideStory, which had a $42.5 million IPO in 2004 and is now part of Adobe Systems, certainly widened the analytics path for others, including Sheik’s current company Certona, whose M.O. today is AI-based real-time personalization solutions.

Let’s take a look at Sheik’s journey to Certona and what the company is up to today.

Meyar Sheik, Founder & CEO Certona and former COO & CMO, WebSideStory

Backstory: Sheik, who launched Certona with some former HNC Software folks, first had the idea for real-time personalization in 2003 and believed (at that time) that online shopping and e-commerce would become commonplace over the next decade.

“I felt it was an extension and evolution of the underlying web analytics technology used by sites but needed a sophisticated predictive analytics engine that could track each individual site visitors’ behavior and then serve up personalized content and experiences predictively,” he says. “We started the company with the idea to deliver personalized product recommendations to e-commerce sites back in late 2003.”

Real Time: Certona, which formally launched in 2004,  has grown steadily ever since. The company serves over 500 of the largest global brands and retailers with e-commerce sites globally, providing over 100 billion personalized experiences delivered in real-time each month to hundreds of millions of shoppers around the world.

Kudos:  Certona ranks as the number one personalization provider to the most successful e-retailers in North America by Internet Retailer. Certona personalizes customer experiences for 93 of the top retailers, who generate $48 billion in web sales.

Tribe:  150 employees globally, with 120 of them in San Diego

San Diego Certona crew

Flashback: As he harkens back to the WebSideStory days, Sheik recalls the company’s culture being very typical of a dotcom success story for the early 2000’s – lots of energy and optimism, and young people who were willing to roll up their sleeves, work hard, learn, and grow.”

“But we also had to grow up very fast and suddenly as a company,” he adds. “In 2001, when I became the COO of the company, we had to deal with a perfect storm of a post-dotcom bust where many companies went out of business for not having sustainable business models, a very scared business climate after the 9/11 tragedy, and going into a full-swing economic recession all at once. In addition, we had a number of aggressive startup competitors we had to contend with as well. I do believe some of the tough choices we made back then made us stronger and healthier as a growing company and the results and history prove that.”

Path to Success:  “I learned a great deal in my role as the COO of WSS. I had to make many operational decisions and rely on my team to do the right things,” Sheik says. “All that operational, as well as sales/marketing experience, helped me to become more seasoned for my role as the CEO and co-founder of Certona. I consider what we do at Certona (real-time personalization) an evolution of what we started at WSS in web analytics.”

SD Analytics Family: “WSS definitely paved a path for many to go on and become successful individually or start new businesses and in that sense, it’s unique in San Diego,” Sheik says. “Another company in San Diego that produced several startups was called HNC Software, where my co-founder and CTO  (Geoffrey Hueter) used to work. Also, ID Analytics was founded by former HNC executives.”

San Diego: “I believe San Diego is a great place to start a technology company, which is why I did so. There is a tight but growing tech community here and people are willing to help each other out. Having the UCSD campus with the largest computer science department in the country is also helpful. I’m also on the board of Tech San Diego, which is dedicated to promoting the technology companies in San Diego.”

Then & Now: “The tech community in San Diego is vibrant, strong, and much more diversified than it was 18 years ago when I moved here from New York,’ Sheik says. “It still has lots of room to grow, which is why I’m part of the Tech San Diego board helping promote San Diego locally and around the country. Per capita, we have more analytics/data science brain power than any other major city in the US. It’s a very exciting time to be a tech company or an AI startup in San Diego.”

Ray Rauch, VP of Operations, Certona and former VP, Customer Success, WebSideStory

Since forming Certona, Sheik has recruited a couple of former WebSideStory colleagues to help him further grow the company. Most recently, he hired Ray Rauch as Vice President of Operations. Rauch landed at Certona by way of other companies started by WebSideStory alumni. After leaving Omniture (formerly WebSideStory) in 2009 as Vice President of Customer Success, Rauch joined another fabled San Diego tech firm, Limelight Networks (run by former WebSideStory CEO Jeff Lunsford), which filed a $240 million IPO in 2007 and is still going strong today.  Rauch then moved over to Tealium (founded by WebSideStory alumni Mike Anderson and Ali Behnam) before joining Certona in September 2018.

“WebSideStory opened up what was to me a new network of people that I’ve worked alongside over the past 15 years,” Rauch says. “Even when I pivoted my career from customer facing to M&A, it was inside the family of original WebSideStory team members.  Mike Anderson (founder of Tealium) worked for me as my principal engineer at WebSideStory, and eight years later, once he had started Tealium, we got back together and I worked for him to run Global Customer Success at Tealium.  Even my tenuous link to Meyar Sheik at Certona (we missed each other by months at WSS) was Chris Reid, who is now Certona’s head of sales, and led WebSideStory through explosive growth in between 2004 and 2007.  There are a number of other individual contributors here at Certona that are ‘old guard’ WSS folks who have progressed in their careers.  It’s an incredible group of people who have been instrumental in helping build each other’s careers spanning two decades.”

The Glory Days: “Being part of WSS was an amazing privilege.  I’m not aware of any other company that spun off as many companies or spawned so many amazingly successful careers,” Rauch says. “ It was a credit to the management and I was honored to be a part of that.  We were able to find so many incredible people to work with who were singularly driven to excellence in their work.”

“These were truly the ‘good ole days’ of SaaS and Martech.  There was an explosion of companies on the martech LUMAscape and we were growing at a pace that made it hard to catch a breath.  We were constantly hiring, adding and amending roles, finding and breaking through scalability issues, and generally breaking records became almost a pedestrian activity.  I’ve been in fast-growing tech companies since, but none that had the same sense of exploration and achievement that I can remember from the WSS days.”

Incubation: “WebSideStory was an incubator for at least half a dozen successful startups and scores of individuals that have gone on to achieve fantastic successes in management as well as high performing individual contributors,” Rauch says.

San Diego Syndicate: “I’m just happy to be included in such an elite group,” Rauch says.  “It’s been a great joy to work among such a great crew.  I’m looking forward to many more years of innovation alongside the old school ‘mafia.’”

Chris Reid, VP of Sales, Certona and former SVP, Sales, WebSideStory

Chris Reid, who joined Certona as VP of Sales August 2018, was also hired by Sheik at WebSideStory in 2001 for a similar role. Reid says what he liked most about working at WebSideStory was “the people, the comradery, and the esprit de corps. We all wanted to be the very best company in the web analytics space and crush our evil nemesis Omniture.”

Ironically, in late 2007, Omniture acquired Visual Sciences, Inc. (formerly WebSideStory), for $394 million.

“Clearly we were a pioneer in the web analytics space, but what most people don’t realize was that SaaS was new, so not only did we have to educate our clients on web analytics but also on SaaS,” Reid says. “It was a very strange thing to most companies. Our biggest achievement was introducing the e-commerce world to web analytics and the value of better understanding your visitors and their behavior on your site. Today, every company that is involved in the internet space uses web analytics, usually a combination of Google Analytics and Omniture.

Tech Culture: “There were a lot of very smart, creative people at WSS. I am not at all surprised by the number of folks who went on to start their own technology companies – Certona is certainly one. The culture was always a bit of a meritocracy. If you could cut it and add value you were rewarded. If you wanted to hide in the shadows, WSS was not the place for you. I liked to hire smart, aggressive, socially intelligent individuals who understood what web analytics could do for our prospects.”

The Buzz: “In my opinion, the local tech scene was just beginning (during the WebSideStory days),” Reid says. “Silicon Valley was on fire, but it had not traveled south yet. Companies like WSS, Active.com, and Qualcomm were poised to take advantage of the technology leaps about to happen in the Internet/mobile space.”

Start-Up Vibes:  “San Diego is probably not a top innovator in comparison to the Bay Area, but certainly the tech talent pool has significantly grown. There is lots of new talent in the area and much more active than in the early 1990’s. Do I believe San Diego is a good place to launch a startup? Yes, what a great place to live and raise a family. It may be expensive, but not like other places like SF or NY.”

Certona’s office vibe

Editor’s note: This is part 3 of a multi-part series about San Diego’s SaaS and digital analytics pioneers who rose out of the dot-com bust of the early 2000’s and went on to build extraordinary companies that still call this region home.  Read Part 1 & Part 2.

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