Conversation with Tim Neal
Good day, and welcome to episode 105 of our digital leadership podcast, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. Today I’m pleased to introduce Tim Neal, CEO of GoExpedi, a Momenta client.
Tim spent 4-plus years living in China, where he led global marketing strategy for TSE, a leading drilling parts equipment manufacturer. At TSE Tim helped identify multi-million-dollar opportunities for introducing new product lines in global markets. Prior to that, Tim led Arsenal Football Club’s digital marketing efforts in China. Tim earned his BA at the University of Oregon, Lundquist College of Business, with double major in business administration, and Mandarin Chinese. Welcome Tim
Thanks Ken, it’s good to be here today.
And it’s great to have you as well. Just a little of the back story, GoExpedi one of their key investors is Crosslink Capital, a gentleman of the name Matt Bigge introduced us not too long ago, and we have coinvested via Momenta Ventures, and some other companies that Crosslink has invested in, like AKUA. So, it was good to have a chance to meet GoExpedi a little bit, and Tim and I spoke just recently about some of the background stuff, I was so impressed with his story, especially the bootstrap story that I said, “Ah, I’ve got to feature you in a podcast”, so that’s the back story on this for those who are interested.
So, Tim let’s start with your professional journey, tell us a bit about your background and how it has informed your views of what we like to call digital industry.
I’d say it’s a bit unconventional, so out of the international ski-racer which brought me to college, and somehow ended up in China, and so I spent like you mentioned 4-plus years in China, but really started in more a digital front role with leading Arsenal’s digital efforts, and so it was really a kind of unique path there in that it was in a foreign language, foreign country, and had to understand the user. So, it made me reflect on the digital industry from the outside – in, rather than having a formulaic approach, and figuring out what resonated with the ultimate client at the end of the day.
You made an early decision to focus on this dual degree of Mandarin Chinese, and business administration, which I must say is quite forethoughtful, or foresightful if you will. What was your inspiration for taking this path?
I’d say ultimately it was wanting to take the road less travelled. I’ve always been intrigued by language, was never really good at language, and took a trip out to Beijing right before I started college. I was actually signed up for French I think in college, went out to Beijing and really saw the scale in China, was just in awe and said, “I need to figure out a way to be here”. So, immediately got home, added that double major, and the rest is history.
So, international ski-racer, then heading up digital marketing for Arsenal Football Club, what took you into the oil and gas sector, and specifically to TSE?
Yeah, I’d say at the end of the day it was the scale of the industry. Working in sport was great, I’d say being a fan of sport is even greater! But really with oil and gas it’s amazing when you look at the industry, there are multi-billion-dollar companies that nobody has heard of. No pun intended; the world is fueled off of this sector. So it was really being able to have a chance to go inside a large organization that was building rigs, building equipment for them, but then be able to make change within that organization being the only ex-pat in the company with over 3,000 employees, and being able to see the industry from a broader perspective was really attractive.
So, you had the unique opportunity to work at the intersection of China and the US, in this as you said, very large sector of oil and gas, and at a very formative time 2013-2016. What were some of your key learnings during this time, relative to the differences in business between US and China?
Yeah, it was actually a crazy time in China right when I started, China was known as the copycat in the world, it was the Baidu’s of the world were coming up, the Wabi’s, you can name Google, you can name AIM, you can name all these different apps and companies they’re really trying to replace with their own localized version. But from 2013 to 2016, basically when I would take a trip, come back after a week, you’d see radical change within the country, you’d see new infrastructure being built, there was a bridge put up in 72 hours on a four lane highway outside of my house, which was just mind-blowing.
Then at the other end you saw the innovation. I think during that time China really took a step and said, “We’re not copying, we can innovate on our own”, and so by the time I left in 2016, I paid all my bills, I paid for restaurants all through one centralized app. I was able to transfer all my friend’s money, chat with them, and it was an amazing experience there. I could also get food delivered, or a chef arrive within 10 minutes, and we really saw the digitization of an entire country. I think seeing that rapid change, and that government incentivized change was really fascinating during that time.
I remember at the beginning of the COVID crisis, there was this time lapse sequence of them setting up a temporary medical facility of course, in the zero-city if you will. It was just fascinating, I think it was also 72 hours if I remember right, how quickly they put it up! So, it is amazing to see when you get the human minds in action completely aligned, what one can accomplish.
Fast-forwarding to what I’ll say are the on-going challenging relationships between the US and China today, as we’re recording this I think Trump over the weekend was supposed to ban TikTok as an example, as an app. But what would you advise any company considering doing business in China today, based on your experience?
I’d say the first is to do due diligence. China is a land of lots of opportunity in terms of supplier base and relationships, but it also comes with being a foreign country, where there’s a language disconnect and there is greed inherently in an emerging economy. So, I think the key is – there’s a Chinese word, ‘guān xì’ which means “relationships”, and being able to build relationships with factories, with supply chain personnel is essential, because then you can build that level of trust. If you have that already established when something like COVID happens, where the supply chain have “hurdles” need to be jumped over, the relationships are what helps you push through it. Whereas, if these are non-existent, you’re kind of just sending an email to an empty box, much like anywhere else in the world. And so, I think it’s important to keep a cautious eye, but to really work those relationships.
Yeah, I’ve had similar experiences working with Japanese companies during the time that I worked with them too, and the relationships there are developed over time, and of course for a very-very long time. So, even as we look at partnerships, many times an acquisition as an example will start with a commercial relationship, and then move to a joint venture, and then an investment, and ultimately will be an acquisition over time, it never jumps directly into it, it seems.
And those are the most successful, definitely.
Oh yes, yes, well said. So, all of this has culminated in your founding of GoExpedi, which you describe as intelligent industrial procurement solutions to the oil and gas industry. So, what problem are you trying to solve, and why?
Basically, we were in the energy MRO space, anything that wears out, runs out, or breaks on an energy asset. This industry has been doing well for so long, its kind was of the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, mentality. But at the end of the day we’re not unlike the bookseller market or others, in that people are buying critical products from bricks and mortar storefronts, when they don’t need to anymore in this digital age. So, what we’re really trying to do is put tech in the hands of our end users, so that they can get the parts that they need in a really rapid manner.
I think what was fascinating for me and some of our early conversations, was how you guys went around bootstrapping this. And again, as I think you identified coming in, you’re a non-traditional background coming in, certainly the oil and gas experience and everything, but how did you start the company? Tell us about some of your early experiences in that as well.
Yes, so if you want to know any gas station microwave in Texas, I can probably tell you! But we basically started the business grounding and pounding; we had a value proposition that we believed in, and that having a “Digital First” text storefront would resonate with our end users in being able to find the right parts, but also get those delivered. But at the end of the day we were a young startup and didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to drive our pick-up trucks 3,000 miles a week and convince the market that change could happen. So, we did that for about a year, just going from Houston to West Texas back and forth, driving 18 hours a day, so a lot of 5 Hour Energy’s in there.
I’ve been there, I appreciate that! So, tell us a bit about the way you’re deployed into your market, how do you engage with both your clients and customers, and then the suppliers who are supplying some of the MRO parts as well?
So, for our customers I’d say it’s a top-down bottom-up approach, we have a management control center that allows C-level supply chain directors to really view all the expenditure of assets in real time, with live interactive dashboards that just frankly didn’t exist in the industry before. But then we also have a robust ecosystem of private labelled procurement websites that are deployed at the field level. So, if I’m an asset manager, I can go onto my website, place an order, and then within three days that product arrives in full. So, it’s really a robust ecosystem to enable transferring end-to-end supply chains.
On the manufacturers side I’d say we work with over 400 manufacturers, and really the value to the manufacturer is unlike the traditional opaque distributorship model of, “I’m a distributor, I place an order with you, and hope that you have them in stock as a manufacturer”. We provide data insights to help with their manufacturers’ strategies, so I can tell you glove size variances in different regions, and that really helps you manage your business as a manufacturer in more real-time, rather than just putting the grass up to the wind and seeing what direction it flows.
In a recent article from our advisory team, we predicted that supply chain end-to-end invisibility would be a bigger wave than the ERP, or Enterprise Resource Planning of the 2000’s, outlining that supply chain is still one of the least digitized of company processes. Why do you think this is the case?
I think it had been something that just was ongoing in organizations, and was not really seeing as the critical path, so it was ignored. I think today with the B2C world putting supply chain in focus where I get mad if Amazon doesn’t arrive in two days now. I set a new expectation, I think that expectation is being set in the B2B space where people are needing equipment supplies in a consistent manner that it’s important to digitize the process of supply chain, to understand where bottle-necks exist, and to really make that more efficient. Especially with uncertainty in the world, it’s important that you at least can manage the variables that you can manage, otherwise it leads to really catastrophic situations.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities in your overall extensive, I guess, capitalizable and non-capitalizable parts, or direct and indirect I guess I should say, spend?
I’d say that the biggest opportunity is really being able to take on entire assets and manage that expenditure, and then from there the network effect of asset by asset comparisons. But I think the key is the end-to-end transparency there that makes it really seamless. What I mean by that is, in our industry if I place an order on a Monday, I might get it on Friday, but I might get it on Saturday, and I don’t know when it’s actually going to arrive. What we can do is really provide lightening transparencies, so you can even see where the vehicle is driving your products to your assets.
I think that ultimately is what drives success, because then it becomes less about people placing orders, it’s more a pro-active seamless recurrence of supply. Because at the end of the say people don’t need to be making six-figures to place orders for toilet paper. This is something that through data, if we really empower the data, we can make sure that this is on a recurring basis, because we understand the actual trends, and most things in the world if you get down to it, are really trend-based.
And of course where you have a trend, you have the ability then to predict, and that’s where true value-add and service can be provided, right? Not to say you need to stock through your pumps, but based on our other client’s usage, your pumps are going to have this much life, so you’ve got this much coverage depending on your fields, or something to that effect, right?
We often like to talk about the world economics forms and their term, ‘The Great Reset’, when referring to the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you see as the impact of this, “Reset on supply chain”? And I guess more specifically, your oil and gas clientele?
I’d say it was a double punch that led to a catalyst, and what I mean by that is, we had the pandemic lead to the work from home environment, but also a compression of the economy. In response to that, I’d say when the economy shrunk and people were working from home, there was less energy demand, and so oil prices at the same time took a massive fall, where we saw negative oil for the first time, in forever. What really happened there was, companies had to react, the world was moving very fast, and typically in oil and gas people freeze, they don’t react.
What we saw was 30-40 percent head-count reductions. But that changed the incentive in the industry, people needed to look at their books, they needed to manage opex in real-time, and really get their hands on business, there was no longer, “This business has been here for 200 years, and it will just continue”, it was more an action mode. With that came the lens on supply chain, and really wanting to see everything in the supply chain, but also understand where discrepancies lie. Traditionally people could just use credit cards and buy whatever they wanted, that’s no longer the case in this new reality.
My opinion in seeing it from other clients when I was in the digital arm and publicist group before, was once you gave data to somebody, they never say, “I don’t want data anymore”. It always becomes kind of a black hole that you want to dive deeper into. And so, I don’t think this kind of impact will change because the economy will do better in the long term, I think people will reset to a data-driven approach.
Yes I’d fully agree with you. One of the comments we’ve made on past podcasts is on the Momenta Ventures portfolio companies, because we deal with remote asset management as a general thematic, i.e. remotely controlling, operating and maintaining, if you will, a piece of equipment, and obviously where people can’t get out to it you need to have more of the digital touch in there. So, all of our companies have actually done pretty well during this downturn.
1) The buyers tend to be at home, so they’re actually more available.
2) A lot of this remote worker-spending on IT-spending also had implications across the board on enterprise and OT spending, as well.
3) Generally, this thematic which I think you capture very well in this idea of data, and the ability to utilize that to be more efficient and effective.
Tell me a bit, how was your guy’s traction at this point at GoExpedi?
We’ve been able to see significant growth in the past couple of quarters. I think, like I’ve mentioned about being able to get hold of data, we are the only one in the sector that offers live data; and so we’re really seeing a lot of customer interest around wanting to do this at an enterprise level scale is see their data, manage their data in real-time, and get the products that they need, when they need it. And it’s not just drilling, its midstream, its super major, its upstream and international, we’re seeing a consistent theme across the sector.
So, as a successful entrepreneur yourself, what advice would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those in this digital industry space?
I’d say what’s most important is the early days. I really think being an entrepreneur especially precedes age, it’s a lot like being a cockroach, it’s not really attractive, you look at yourself in the mirror and you’re not always happy, you pass up on a good salary but at the end of the day it’s very hard to kill a cockroach. I think an entrepreneur with that fire inside of them is very similar, and it’s important to just embrace that and continue through the hard times. We got to a point where we had a thousand dollars in our bank account, but by persevering through that we were able to see the end of the tunnel. And I think that’s just as important is to remember who you are as an entrepreneur, and why you did this journey, because it isn’t always easy.
Passion plus perseverance, absolutely key, and it is a common theme as we’ve asked this question on other podcasts of successful entrepreneurs as well. Some would say you have to be absolutely idealistic about the domain that you’re in! I’ve never heard of anybody refer to it as being a cockroach, but I like the idea of that tenacity, and for those of us who have lived in Atlanta you do know those things live forever and come out of the weirdest places! So, no matter what they are always there.
In closing we always like to ask if you have any recommendations of books or resources, that inspire you?
I’d say the best book that I’ve read recently is a book called ‘Billion Dollar Lessons’, by Paul Carroll. It’s businesses that have failed, and why they failed, and actions that they took that led to failure. I think you can read a lot about success stories, but you can learn a lot from failures. Its short stories but extremely informative about what not to do.
That’s a great suggestion, I hadn’t read that but I’m a big fan of the Silicon Valley style of fail fast, if you’re going to do it, do it quick! And anything that gives you some sense of what that future is certainly would be helpful. So, ‘Billion Dollar Lessons’ by Paul Carroll, thank you for that.
So, Tim, thank you for this insightful interview.
No problem, it’s been great. Thanks for having me.
Yeah as well. So, this has been Tim Neal, CEO and founder of GoExpedi, and I’ll say intelligent supply chain leader. Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for episode 106 of our Digital Industry Leadership Podcast series, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. Thank you and have a great day.