Titania Jordan – Bark.us

Titania Jordan is the CPO of Bark.us, an internet safety solution that helps keep children safer on social media, text messaging, and email. As the former host of NBC Atlanta affiliate WXIA’s weekly television show Atlanta Tech Edge, Titania had the honor of covering the latest in tech news and talent across both the city and the globe.

In her early career, Titania started her own full-service marketing consulting firm after gaining experience as an account executive with Lincoln Financial Media, working with clients like Whole Foods, Nikon, Samsung, and Zerorez to create copy, radio ad campaigns, and digital promotions targeting women in the Atlanta market. Past roles also include serving as the CMO of KidsLink, co-founder and CMO of PRIVET, Executive Director of Band of Coders Girls Academy, and Director of Marketing and Programming for SuperNova South.

Titania enjoys helping startups (like RedRover and Hirewire) launch in the Atlanta market and frequently appears as a tech contributor across the nation and on Atlanta & Company. She travels the country appearing on programs such as The Doctors, Today Show, CBS This Morning, and The Steve Harvey Show, speaking at esteemed conferences such as DigSouth, Mom 2.0 and Dad 2.0, and emceeing events like the Atlanta Hawks Agency Shootout. Titania was named a tech innovator and a mother of invention by The Atlantan in 2015 and one of the “Women Who Lead & Light Up Atlanta’s Tech Ecosystem” by Hypepotamus in 2016. Titania enjoys painting and building some pretty sweet LEGO cities with her family in her downtime.

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J Cornelius: Keeping kids safe on social media is a big, important issue, what with sexting, cyber bullying, and all. Bark is an app that monitors your kids’ accounts and reports what’s happening. And, by listening to parents, they discovered there’s a lot more to the puzzle. We get the details, coming right up.

Intro: This is Design Driven, a podcast about using designed thinking to build great products and lasting companies. Whether you’re running a startup, or trying something new inside a Fortune 1000, the tools, methods, and insights we talk about will help you create things people love. And now, your host, J Cornelius.

J: You know, it’s not every day you get somebody as interesting as Titania Jordan on the show. She has been a television personality, or is a television personality, a tech entrepreneur with multiple startups, and is currently the CPO of Bark. Titania, welcome to the show, and what is Bark?

Titania Jordan: Well, thank you so much for having me. And Bark is an internet safety solution that helps keep children safer online.

J: Oh, interesting.

Titania: Yeah. So, it’s a website, and it’s an app that you can download in both the iOS and Google Play stores. Just go to www.Bark.us. And what’s really cool about it is that it uses machine learning algorithms and conversational analysis to monitor what’s going on in your children’s email, social media, and texting accounts. And then it will detect any problematic behavior that revolves around cyber bullying, sexting, thoughts of suicide and depression, and then it will alert parents via text or email. Because we want to differentiate ourselves with regards to privacy, there are certain technologies out there that will just give you everything. And I know, as a busy parent, whether you’re working full time in or out of the home, you don’t have time to go through all of that. So, we keep an eye out for the most concerning things, and then bring them to your attention, and then help you figure out how to deal with them, and the best next steps.

J: Wow, that’s super interesting. So, you mentioned that it also monitors techs, and obviously, web app activity, or social network activity; how are you doing that?

Titania: So, we have an amazing team of data scientists, and our chief technology officer is absolutely brilliant. He’s also a dad of two. Our CEO, Brian Bason, has worked with multiple startups in the text-based. His most recent company he sold to Twitter. So, none of us are newbies to this tech and data science space, and we’re all parents, and we’re all trying to navigate this landscape of, “Wow, our kids are the first kids to have access to the internet, to digital devices,” and, “How are we going to protect them without being helicopter parents?”

J: Yeah, exactly. I’ve got three kids myself and monitoring all of that can be quite a chore. I certainly relate to … We talk about looking at business problems, and looking at startups, and innovation ideas, and thinking that first you have to validate the problem, and then you have to validate your solution. I mean, the problem seems pretty obvious. So, how did you validate that people would pay for this type of service? Or, how did you validate that they wanted it?

Titania: Well, it was loud and clear, the problem, and that it was surmounting, and growing, and there wasn’t a clear, easy solution to it that could save parents time, yet protect your tween and teen’s growing individual privacy. Certainly, you could ask for your child’s device and just look through everything, but again, that’s very uncomfortable, and doesn’t help them learn independence, and learn from their mistakes, and navigate that world on their own. So, just like you when you first heard about it, it sounds like you think, “Hey, this is a really good idea.”

And, when multiple people, and investors, and schools, and organizations, and even teens and tweens all agree that is something that is not out there, and is needed, and is so valuable because it actually saves lives; people will pay for it. And, obviously, if you’re a family that can’t afford it, that shouldn’t preclude you from the ability to access it, so we work with families who can’t afford it. But, if families are paying for Netflix, they certainly should be considering a service like this that helps to keep their children safer online.

J: Yeah. It seems like a matter of priorities, right?

Titania: Right.

J: Yeah. So, how long has Bark been around, and what kind of growth have you seen, and what have you learned as you’ve learned more about your customers?

Titania: So, Bark was, I guess, born about two years ago, but we’ve really hit the ground running in terms of growth and traction over the past year. Before I came on board, the CTO and CEO actually had a lot of success, they were part of TechCrunch Disrupt. Again, when you hear about something like this, when you hear about technology that enhances, and saves people’s lives, and protects families; you will get a lot of rallying around it.

J: Yeah.

Titania: When I came aboard, the team had recently just been accepted into Tech Stars Accelerated Program, the Atlantic contingent. And so, I joined the team, and am just so blown away by how awesome the team is, their skill sets, how well we work together, what we’re doing, how our customers are responding to it, how the general public is responding to it, how the media is responding to it. So, yeah, everybody loves it, and they want more. I mean, every time a new technology comes out, we want to be able to integrate with their API, and their internal team right away. We want to become a preferred service provider that is accepted by their engineering team.

So, it’s just staying on top of things and making sure, if children are using this medium, whatever it might be, that we can integrate with it and help keep them safe, but also protect their privacy.

J: Yeah. It seems like a never ending challenge, because I know, watching the behavior of our kids with their devices, they switch back and forth between a bunch of different apps. One week Instagram is cool, the next week it’s Snapchat, and the next week it’s Kick, and the next week it’s something else. It’s constantly moving around. So, how do you monitor that and stay on top of it? Do you have any processes or tools that you’re using to monitor that kind of behavior?

Titania: I can’t disclose the exact process by which-

J: It’s the secret sauce, huh?

Titania: Yeah, our secret sauce, right? But, what I can say is we’re on top of it as much as a tech company can be. The second it’s out on its hit, and it’s blowing up among that segment of the population, we’re on it, and we’re learning how to use it, how to work with it, and working on getting it integrated with our API ASAP, right?

J: Right.

Titania: Because we don’t want a single child to be hurt, or cyber bullied, or fall into some sort of unfortunate situation that will affect their life.

J: Yeah, of course. So, as the market shifts around you, how are you paying attention to that, and then what’s your process like for making sure that your messaging, and all of your marketing materials, or all of your outreach, and that type of thing, is on point and staying current?

Titania: Great question. So, we live and die by our systems and processes, and basic things like our MARCOM calendar. But then, we also keep tabs, just like the platforms that we’re using to monitor … Well, that’s how we find out about what’s breaking. Working with organizations like Common Sense media, and PR firms, and parent influencers in the parenting and tech space, for example, like CoolMomTech.com, just anyone who is super immersed in this space, and especially subscribing to all the trade publications. Bottom line is, if something hits, we know about it before the general public does, and then we work to address it head on.

J: Yeah. You’re just keeping your ear close to the ground.

Titania: Yeah. You have to. You have-

J: And then, did I heard that you’re kind of using your own tool to listen in on what the next new thing might be?

Titania: Yes. It’s a combination of just being plugged into the space … You know, I’ve been in the parenting and tech space for so long that my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Flipboard feeds are so curated too that, right?

J: Right.

Titania: I couldn’t just come in and be like, “I want to know everything about this.” But, over time, that’s just where it has gone. And now that those platforms are actually using algorithms to tailor things even more to my liking … Like, for example, on Linked In, it’s being served to me on a silver platter. I love it.

J: Right. Yeah. So, that’s kind of your unfair advantage; you’ve just been in that space for so long, and you’ve been listening to the right things for so long, that the pulse of what’s happening kind of comes to you now.

Titania: It absolutely does. And for that I am thankful. Even as most recently as LinkedIn. When I go on LinkedIn now, the content that’s being served to me, I’m actually quite pleased with. So-

J: Yeah, it’s impressive to see how they’ve updated their algorithms to actually be more effective and more relevant.

Titania: Exactly. And same with Twitter. I was a purist, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the Twitter algorithms being tailored, instead of a real-time live feed, but I have to say, I actually spend more time on Twitter now because it is more relevant to me. I’m not having to sift through the clutter of following the amount of people I do … Which isn’t a lot, but it can be noisy.

J: Yeah, it can add up quick.

Titania: Yeah.

J: So, when you’re thinking about … The business model’s pretty clear, so I think I get that, but when you’re thinking about how to communicate the value to a parent, or how to communicate to a partner organization that you’d want to hook into their API; what are the different ways that you’d go about codifying that? Are you doing different exercises to figure out what to say? How do you think about that?

Titania: Love that question. And that’s probably something that I should print out on my wall to just center myself with every day, because it’s the most important, right? Like, how are you communicating your value proposition? What is-

J: Mm-hmm.

Titania: -due to clutter. And what works well for us is data, obviously. Hard data. For example, 56% of children who are signed up on the Bark platform have experienced an issue since being on Bark.

J: Wow.

Titania: Yeah. So, bringing it to parents’ attention that it is real, and it is happening … It’s not like stranger danger where you warn your children about not talking to strangers, but the actuality of them being kidnapped is very, very low, thank god.

J: Right.

Titania: Cyber bullying, sexting; they are very, very real. And they are happening, if not to your children, to their friends. And then, the incidences of suicide and rising rates of depression … They’re skyrocketing. That is a real and prevalent problem in our society. So, just speaking to that raises parents’ awareness. And not only parents, but organizations, and schools. Schools are trying to deal with this. It disrupts learning. It’s a major, major issue, and they need help. They need technology to solve this problem.

J: Yeah, because they’re not equipped to deal with that level of counseling. They’re not … I mean, school counselors are obviously trained, but can they deal with the volume of people that are requesting some help?

Titania: Right. And then, two other points I wanted to make … One is, this is also a wonderful benefit for HR programs for large corporations. We’re integrating-

J: Oh, interesting.

Titania: Yeah. So, they can offer this as a benefit to their employees, which we’re seeing is very well received. And then, finally, case studies. When we get customer feedback … Which we do every single day about how somebody loves this, how somebody’s so thankful for this, or how an issue was flagged, and somebody got to address this in real time; that’s real. You can’t argue with that. That really happened, these parents are thankful. And what makes me just feel validated that this is the right career choice for me right now is the fact that we’ve been able to prevent 15 suicides alone, this year.

J: Wow.

Titania: Yeah. Because the technology brought it to the parents’ attention, they were able to address it, and get their child help before it escalated. And that, to me, is just … I mean, that’s everything.

J: Yeah. That’s super powerful.

Titania: Mm-hmm.

J: So, you mentioned collecting customer feedback. Are you doing that in a formal way, or is it just people emailing you? How does that work?

Titania: Yes, people email us, but as you scale, your customer service protocol has to as well. So, we use Intercom right now, and-

J: Oh, yeah, great tool.

Titania: Yeah. That worked very well for us on so many levels, so we’re really, really happy with that.

J: So, as people come in … For those of you who don’t know how Intercom works, it’s basically a little thing that sits on your website, and it can collect text-based feedback. It can turn into a live chat, or it goes to email; there’s a couple different ways that it can get filtered in. So, as you’re going through that, are you looking for common threads? Or, how are you sorting and filtering things you’re going to pay attention to and then, how does that help drive decisions about where the product is going to go?

Titania: Yes. So, specific example, we noticed an influx of customer comments coming in about iCloud. You know, iCloud, and iTunes, and Apple, they have very stringent security standards and they’re getting more and more… I don’t know what the word is, but… They’re clamping down in preparation for this newest release, and as a result, certain technologies, including ours, might suffer from just a widespread lockout where parents have to reset their iCloud passwords because it might have been deemed a security threat. And so once we saw 5 or 10 of them come in, we were alerted, and we decided we need to do a mass email letting the parents who are hooked up with iOS on our system know, “Here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, here’s how to help make it better, and we’re here for you to help walk you through it.”

J:                                             Mm-hmm.

Titania: And so, that helps to drive what our product team is working on, how our marketing communication processes are updated. Even just little things like how many parents on our system are signed up with iOS versus Android or desktop.

J: Yeah. I guess by listening to that feedback, that helps you understand where you might need to make the app clearer, or easier to use, or maybe change the process in some way, right?

Titania: Yes. Yes. Because working with such large tech companies like Facebook, and Apple, and Google, it’s not always easy to just call up the phone and be like, “Hey, you guys-”

J: That’s really hard, actually.

Titania: And it’s affecting us and our customers, so we need to know about this ahead of time so that we can iterate and pivot. So, yeah. I think any startup that is working with a major player feels these growing pains. But, we just, in our communication style, try to be as upfront, and clear, and authentic as possible. We don’t use tech speak. It’s like, “Hey. Here’s what happened, here’s how we fix it.” We can’t predict what Apple, and Facebook, and Snapchat, and any other platform is going to do, but rest assured that whatever they do, we’re on top of it, and we’re going to make sure we’re doing everything that can be done to protect your children online from a technological standpoint, given the resources that are out there.

J: Yeah. So, it sounds like you’re positioning yourself as an advocate for the parents to be a watchdog for all that’s happening on their kids’ social presence, or digital presence, as it may be.

Titania: Absolutely. And that speaks to our larger marketing communication efforts in that we’re not just technology, we’re not just a website, we’re not just an app. We have a blog where we don’t just blog for the sake of blogging and building SEO. We’re actually investigating different topics like the history of cyber bullying, and just so many things that parents are looking for. Like, I want to know how to choose the best cell phone for when it’s time to give my … Well, now he’s eight, but soon he’ll be 10, and 12, and what do I get for him? And how do I set the parental controls? As a mom in tech, I know these things, but there are so many parents who don’t, and don’t even know where to begin. So, we really want to be your families’ tech and cyber safety advocate throughout this process of raising digital natives.

J: Yeah. That concept of a digital native is still new, I think, to a lot of people. Because, well, being a digital native is new.

Titania: Mm-hmm.

J: If we stop and think about it, these kids are the first kids who have really grown up with the internet all the time. It’s always on.

Titania: Always.

J: They don’t even know what a modem is. They don’t know that concept of dialing up, much less the concept of there not being an internet at all, right?

Titania: Right.

J: And so, their communication patterns, and the way that they think about the world is drastically different form the way we think about the world.

Titania: Mm-hmm.

J: Which kind of brings me to another question about, when you go and you have kids … I guess you have to have the kid’s permission, or you get their passwords, whatever, to get access to their social accounts, what have you seen in terms of how do you have that conversation? How are you, as a company, assisting the parents in having that conversation? And what have you learned through research?

Titania: Well, we give the parents, when they sign up, four different options for getting that initial connection made. And that’s one of the biggest hurdles, because there’s so many different accounts, there’s different devices, different operating systems, different levels of comfort with tech. So, that’s definitely a hurdle that we have to continuously work on and refine. But, we give them the option of connecting the accounts right there, because their teen or tween is with them. So, there’s that inference of, “Hey, this should be an open, and honest, and ongoing conversation. You shouldn’t have to hide.” However, we realize that there are some parents that have their children’s passwords, and are not doing to have that conversation with them right now. And so, we give them a way to connect accounts as long as they have the passwords. Then, there is a way to text your child and email your child, that way they can connect it after the fact.

But, in all that we do, and all that we communicate, we’re saying, “Look. This is an issue. This is something that you need to talk about with your children, because it’s not going away. History and data show that having an open, and honest, and ongoing conversation about any issue results in the best outcome versus acting by force, or acting in a threatening or authoritarian way … It doesn’t always have the best outcome.

J: Right, so it seems like a lot of your work is really focusing on being empathetic towards the situation that both the parent is in, and then the child is in and kind of helping them have that conversation, helping them facilitate it. I downloaded the app in the background, and I got to that point where you’re connecting your kids’ accounts, and I see the thing where you say, “Here are some ways to start the conversation.”

Titania: Yes.

J: So, it looks like you’ve done a pretty good job of anticipating, or maybe you’re listening to the feedback you’re getting, but anticipating that need, and providing some solutions kind of preemptively to help them use the product.

Titania: Absolutely. Because, again, we don’t want to just give a problem without a solution. For example, let’s say that you get an alert that your son has received and inappropriate text from somebody asking him to GNOC, get naked on camera, or who knows what, right? Well, beyond just sending you the fact that that actually happened, and who it came from, and on what platform it came, we also give you best recommended next steps of how to talk to your child about sexting, and the ramifications of it, and how do you address it? What should you do next? Should you block that person? Should you reach out to their parents? This is a lot to navigate with this, and we want to be your advocate and your partner in this, because it’s some heavy stuff, man.

J: Yeah. It really is. I’m fascinated by the fact that you’ve identified that it’s not just about solving the actual problem, or what might actually be perceived as the actual problem of monitoring what’s happening on all of these networks. But, maybe the problem is, once that happens, how do you have a conversation about that? How do you have a healthy conversation about that and maintain the trust in your children in that this is in their best interest as well.

Titania: Absolutely. And I think that’s why our product is more well-received than other monitoring technology that doesn’t respect that relationship.

J: Yeah, right. So, I’m curious; when did that realization strike, that the problem isn’t as much the monitoring piece, as much as it is the having the conversation and maintaining that relationship? Because it seems like that’s the business you’re in more so than just the monitoring.

Titania: That was clear from the beginning. Brian Bason, our CEO, and Brandon Hilkert, our CTO; they are a lot like you and I, where they’re … I think I just called ourselves “cool”. But, we’re cool. Like, we get it. Kids are going to be kids, we were kids at one point, but nobody’s going to get anywhere in a good way if we’re not cool about it. You’ve got to be realistic. You’ve got to be fair. You’ve got to think about how this will result in the best outcome. And you have to do it differently. You cannot do it the normal, corporate, standard way. You’ve got to think outside the box and really cut through the clutter.

J: Yeah. So, that goes to something that we talk about a lot, is really understanding the users’ needs and the goals that they’re trying to accomplish.

Titania: Mm-hmm.

J: And it sounds like the primary goal, or the one that is most obvious, is monitoring of the activity. But, the secondary goal being having that conversation, and keeping that doorway open. Knowing that from the very beginning is what led to the success of the platform.

Titania: Correct. Yes, exactly. And, as parents on the team, we’re all actually dealing with this. We have children, and we’re trying to figure out, “How do we talk about this stuff with them?” And, “How do we protect them and not,” you know, “ruin their innocence by telling them too much too early.” But, at the same time, we want to be the person that thwarts any issues arises with them versus them falling into an unfortunate situation. So, we got built in use cases on the team.

J: Yeah, exactly. So, I’m curious, what’s next now that you’ve got all these networks? I mean, you talked about monitoring, and when a new app, or a new network pops up you want to obviously be on top of that.

Titania: Mm-hmm.

J: But, what’s next for the future of Bark? And how are you going to make the decisions on which direction to take the company?

Titania: Great questions. So, right now, we have a lot of levers in place, and we are figuring out which ones to turn on more, and which ones to pause more. So, we’ve got a pilot rolling out with a major school system in the northeast, and we are so excited to see the result with that. Once we get learnings from that, we’ll know if we need to take it across the country, or if we need to tweak it and then try it again. At the same time, we’re also working with large corporations to be a preferred HR benefit. Again, if it’s well-received with the various employees, there isn’t a lot of confusion, the customer support aspect is able to support their questions and various needs, then we’ll know, “Hey, this is really awesome and valuable, and we can scale this across multiple corporations. If it’s not, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

And then, there’s the basic B to C, straight to consumer, continuously staying top of mind that we are an option, we feel we are the best option, and you need to be using our option. And, in this world of so much clutter … I mean, everywhere you look … I think you and I have actually had a conversation about this offline before about, back in the day, there were three TV stations, and a handful of radio stations, and a newspaper. And if you put a message out, it was seen.

J: Yep.

Titania: Now, people aren’t always on those mediums. If they are, you never know when. And not only that, but there’s a whole … They’re on their mobile devices, so how are you going to hit them with enough impact, and frequency, and reach so that they take note and then take action? And we’re constantly iterating our marketing strategies to be as effective as we can on those fields.

J: Right. And to be relevant, and in the right channel at the right time, at the right place, and make sure that you’re actually resonating with that target market.

Titania: Exactly.

J: So, it’s interesting that you mentioned you’ve got a couple different levers you’ve pulling, and a couple are kind of … I don’t know if B to S, business to school, is that a thing?

Titania: Absolutely.

J: Okay. So, one’s kind of B to B, one’s B to S, and one’s B to C; how are you measuring the impact? And how do you know if … B to B for example, you mentioned if the employees are adopting it; are you following certain metrics, or is it anecdotal feedback, or are there any processes or tools that you’re using around that to try to make sure that something is being effected?

Titania: Yeah. Well, it depends on the size of the corporation, but larger corporations have entire internal websites that are dedicated just to HR benefits, some of them even have AI bots and their own form of Intercom. So, if we get a lot of data that people are asking about a specific keyword or item, then we know that we need to focus resources on providing communications and learnings on how to best use that or how to best-

J: Right.

Titania: So, yes, it is more so anecdotal right now, but as more and more data comes out, we’ll be able to get better data from it.

J: Yeah. So, it sounds just a lot of active listening to your target market, and paying attention to what’s going on, and really paying attention to what the users are saying, and what they want.

Titania: Exactly. I mean, if you’re not giving a user what they want, you are so out of luck.

J: Yeah, exactly. Because there’s so many options, right? They’re going to go somewhere else. If you’re not paying attention to their needs, then they’re going to look elsewhere.

Titania: Yeah. And it’s interesting, one of my dear friends and colleagues, Dale McIntyre, he went to Harvard, and he said that one thing that one of his professors kept telling him over and over again was, “You are not your user.” And I think about that often, because I am not my user. I am a mom, I am in tech, I have a son who is using this technology, and we’re using it as a family, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to listen to your user.

J: Yeah. That’s a fantastic point. I can’t think of a better way to wrap things up. I mean, that is the crux of customer discovery and human centered design, is listening to people and delivering what they want. So, how can people get in touch with you if they want to just chat about what’s happening at Bark, or if they just want to learn more about what’s going on?

Titania: So, thank you, by the way. This is awesome. My name is Titania Jordan, that is also my Twitter handle, if you want to Facebook stalk and connect with me, LinkedIn, hit me up on email; it’s titaniajordan@gmail.com. And, more importantly, is Bark. It’s all about this service and platform right now, so www.Bark.us. Twitter, you can find us @JoinBark. We are just so excited about what the future holds in terms of machine learning algorithms and how the general public is embracing what we’re doing. And we’re just so thankful for people like you who are taking the time to hear our story, and are offering what you can do to help us scale and grow.

J: Yeah. Well, we’ll do the best we can. I’m going to go ahead and get it set up in our family, and we’ll see how that conversation goes later tonight.

Titania: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for having me.

J: Yeah. Thanks for being on the show. Let’s get you back on at some point in the future, and let’s hear how things are going in the B to B, and the B to S world.

Titania: Okay. Sounds great. Have an awesome day, thank you.

J: You, too.

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