Community Chat: Nic Ryan of DataFriends

One of my favourite things to do on LinkedIn is watch Nic Ryan and the data science community's chats evolve into a wild, untamed mass of conversation about numbers, logic, tech, AI, and pretty much anything else data-ry you can think of.

It's not a language I speak, but I love getting involved and learning from the best in the business. And maybe I'm a little biased because I've worked with Nic before, but in my humble opinion, he really is one of the best (at least here in Australia!).

To give you a quick intro, Nic originally trained as an Actuary and after a few years he found himself naturally being pulled towards data science through his passion for data and statistics. He gave in and made the switch to data science many years ago and has never looked back!

Before going out on his own and starting DataFriends, Nic was Head of Data Science managing 3 teams across 2 countries. He now has 27,000+ followers on LinkedIn and was named among the LinkedIn Top Voices 2018: Data Science and Analytics.

Because of his unique beginnings, Nic has had the opportunity to work in diverse industries such as insurance, banking, agriculture, and online advertising and is comfortable turning his hand to any industry. He's worked with some of the largest banks and insurance companies in Australia.

When he's not doing data science, he's a keen basketball player and surfer, still playing 3 times per week and surfing whenever he can. (He's also still waiting for the call up to his favourite NBA team!)

Here's what Nic had to tell me about going out on his own and finding his groove...

1. We have to start with the obvious: What the Helsinki is "data science"? It sounds like there's a lot of this 🔬, this ⚗️, this 📊, and this 📈 going on. Would you say that's accurate? Or is it more complicated than my emoji depiction? 😄

Really at the end of the day data science is about leveraging an organisation’s internal data assets to help the organisation achieve its strategic goals.

So, there are a few ways of doing this, not limited to:

  • Strategic insights from a data-driven analysis, maybe identifying the top 10% of customers who drive 90% of revenue
  • It might be a predictive model that gives a probability of churn for a customer, actions can then be taken to prevent the customer from moving away
  • I mean we could even have a recommender system for presenting offers to a customer based on past purchases, this would encourage them to buy more products by suggesting items they may like.

Where I see people getting it wrong is where:

  • There is a disconnect to the organisation’s strategic goals. So then the business leaders are left saying “Ok, well you did this cool stuff, but so what?”
  • The outcome is not an action that can impact revenue or save dollars. In this case the business leaders are left saying “Ok, well you did this cool stuff, but where’s the money at, buddy? Where’s the dosh?”

2. So tell me about your path to becoming a Data Scientist and the step-by-step process that you went through to get to where you are today – running your own business: DataFriends.

There really wasn’t a linear path. I have kind of fallen into things at different points, but the hockey stick moment was where I decided to do stuff that I found fun with cool people. From there things have been great.

I was good at maths as a kid, so I got a scholarship to do Actuarial Studies at the University of NSW. Pretty much after the first year I knew the course wasn’t for me, it was kind of glorified accounting, with hardcore maths in spreadsheets. I was always drawn into code and data and tech and they were the subjects I did best in.

Anyway, I worked for years in Sydney and Melbourne in actuarial departments of insurance companies, I mainly enjoyed building pricing models for things like automobile insurance, rating zones for fire, theft, flood and that kind of thing. Datasets were getting pretty big back then and Excel couldn’t handle it. So I taught myself to code. This massively helped my career. I moved over to building risk models in lending and enjoyed that more than insurance.

I was living on the Central Coast of NSW and had to commute to Sydney. It took about 2.5 hours each way. So I had like 5 hours per day of dead time, so I just enrolled in any and every data science online course that was going. I just kept burning through them, learning a heap and I really became obsessed. After a few years of doing that just because I enjoyed it data science really exploded and I started leading projects and teams and mentoring junior staff.

I was head-hunted to work in a Head of Data Science position, and that’s where I worked with you, Branka (back in the day ;) )!

I have had my business on the side for a while, really about 5 years just doing simple stuff at first like analysing survey results for a local council. I had wanted to do my own thing for a while, but the timing wasn't right - or I was scared or something. The key thing was really writing a lot, blogging a lot and being active on social media. That way clients find me, rather than me having to go out and find them. The great thing is people already know me before I even speak to them. So a really great content strategy is core to my business.

So in the last 18 months or so it has been 100% my own business, and my wife (who works with me) and I have been successful because we keep our expenses to a minimum, we charge very much at the low end where others can’t compete. Like any other small business we watch every dollar we spend, I think this is really important.

We also have some really great people we work with - I mean these people are my friends. We made a decision to do cool stuff with fun people. So, we are having a heck of a lot of fun and I think our clients are too!

3. That's so interesting. Data Science is a world I know so little about – and the things that I do know, I've learnt from you. Can you tell me who your ideal clients are and what your unique selling point is?

Cheers Branka, in your world of marketing I think it is about having the best information available to help you identify opportunities. So it is more partnering with data scientists, that’s where the gold is – when data scientists work with domain experts to create awesomeness!

I stumbled upon my ideal client over time. Here’s what they look like, they aren’t a big bank or an insurance company. I mean these guys are going to be paying $5k per day for someone from Deloitte or KPMG, they will never hire ‘little Nic Ryan’. So they are not an opportunity for me.

My niche is those businesses around say 20-80 staff, who have been at it for a couple of years and are looking at using their data assets to drive value for their business or their customers. So, really, startups, consulting places, or smaller businesses who can’t afford KPMG or Deloitte, can pay me a fraction of what they would pay these guys, they get someone with 15+ years experience who is happy to work with them as much or as little as they need.

These businesses typically have CTOs or department heads, they might have some more junior staff, but they don’t have anything in between. That’s where I fit in – as a technical manager who can help identify opportunities, drive projects and, yeah, jump into the code when needed.

When I quote my daily/hourly rate people usually say “why are you so cheap?” but the simple reason is we care about the long term relationship and also we don’t want to be a tremendous drain when these organisations are trying to build.

4. I love that there's always a way to stand out in any industry and you know that I've been a big fan of yours from way back in the day. But something I want to talk about today is how, over the last 18 months, you've absolutely blown me away with your ability to make LinkedIn work for you. You were even named a LinkedIn Top Voice last year – that's a massive honour!
Can you talk me through how your LinkedIn journey started? What you did to build your community of 27,000+ followers? And what role LinkedIn plays in your marketing/lead gen efforts?

Thanks Branka, but I mean heck you are one of the 2018 LinkedIn Power Profiles in Australia – that’s huge! You are killing it with a stick!

So, I bought a house by the beach because I love surfing, which is cool, but the problem is there are no data science jobs for about 500km around me. So I NEED to be good at content marketing or else my kids don’t eat. There isn’t a plan B.

LinkedIn is the most important channel for my business, so I do notice when they change their algorithm and my content doesn’t get shown as much. We are, however, branching out to other areas, over-reliance on LinkedIn is a risk.

The big thing is a data driven analysis of my marketing data, you wouldn’t believe the analytics I have on my website. I use this information to work out who my audience is and try to tailor content to them that will be helpful. I have a lot of data science aspirants and learners, now unfortunately for me they are not going to use my services – but I mean their bosses might, or a 2nd degree connection might.

So, I have identified 4 different customer personas I have and I really just try to help them with content. That’s it really, I try to make their lives easier, or to show them things I wish someone had shown me.

5. If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps and use LinkedIn for marketing/lead gen, what 5 top tips would you give them to kick off with?

  1. Done is better than perfect. Some people have said to me “oh I have been writing this post all day”, I’m thinking, just do it and move on.
  2. Post regularly.
  3. Post something of value to your audience, don’t do the “look at me” or “”buy my stuff” posts.
  4. Sit down with a rum and coke and write down 100 different things you could post about, if you can’t do this you probably don’t know enough about the topic.
  5. Your local connections are hugely valuable and business is done over coffee, so meet up in person.

6. So it sounds like the whole 'going out on your own' thing has totally been the right move for you. 👏 And obviously part of having your own business is being able to sustain yourself with that business financially. How long would you say you were running DataFriends before you started paying yourself? How did you live through those first few months/years?

DataFriends was a side hustle while I was working full time, and that is really, really hard to do. But I recommend doing it this way.

What I did was kind of dumb and smart at the same time, I was lucky enough to pay cash for my house here (because it is so dang cheap) but it is in the middle of nowhere – hence there’s no work. So my expenses would be like $40k AUD per year tops, which is nothing. We have 7 chickens and we grow our own fruit and veg. It’s mainly just all the sport my kids do that is my major expense.

As far as paying myself, I mean I don’t – my wife manages every dollar. So if I am going to play basketball I might ask her for $20 for game fees, or if it’s my round at a bar with my brother I will call in $50. Hahaha! He laughs about this every time.

I had about 2 years runway when I started, so that’s kind of handy too. So on the whole, due to good timing with a whole bunch of stuff coming together and some good saving it hasn’t been too bad at all. Having said that December and January are always lean. But like I say, we watch every dollar we spend.

7. Looking back, what could you have done sooner to have got to get to comfort point quicker? Are there any things you used to say 'yes' to in the early days, that you say 'no' to now?

I did a LOT of work for free when I was starting out – or so cheap it was almost free, and I mean a lot. Then you just become the guy who is willing to work for everyone for free. That’s not awesome. So when someone talks about “this will give you exposure” or “a great opportunity for work in the future” or “an extended proof of concept” just say “no”, and run like hell.

My personal favourite was a guy who needed someone to fix his website, he paid $000’s for a website that he couldn’t use, he was desperate and he had no money. I fixed his website for him (I’m not a professional web developer - but I worked it out), at the same time he borrowed $50 off me, he said he would “give me a coffee” for my trouble.

To date (2 years) I haven’t seen the coffee or my $50 back. So I paid him $50 to fix his website. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do anything that stupid ever again. I estimate I probably did $2,000 of work for him.

8. And as I do with all our guests, I'd love to get your thoughts on how super fits into your overall business strategy? Was super a prominent part of your 'business success' strategy from the beginning or is it a bit more of an appendix to the rest of your business efforts that perhaps take priority?

This is going to sound really, really bad but I don’t give it much thought at all. The main thing is that everyone under my roof has everything they need right now. So that’s really bad, I need to think about it a bit more. I need to school up on it.

9. Now, since we are all about learning and development around here, do you have any good resources to suggest when it comes to growing a small business from the ground up? Any books, podcasts, courses, blogs you'd recommend?

I reckon all of the above. I probably spend 10-15 hours per week on my own learning and I always have. That’s probably a bit too much for some people but even 5 hours will make a huge difference. You never want to be the person who has 10 years experience of the same year just repeated 10 times. I see that everywhere and all the time!

I am a big fan of MOOCs, so Coursera, edx and Udacity. There are great resources on Lynda, I mean there is so much great free content out now there really is no excuse.

10. And finally, what 3 things would you suggest other entrepreneurs reading this interview should be focusing on to expand their business (e.g. outsource, get a team, monetisation, traffic generation, etc)?

  1. I think you need to have fun, don’t go chasing dollars if you are going to be hating it all
  2. Look after yourself, stay healthy. I do five gym sessions per week, play basketball 3 times per week and surf just about everyday, skateboard - heaps of stuff. I want to still be working when I am 80, but I want to be healthy too.
  3. Spend as much time with your kids as you can. Really that’s what it is all about. They join me for everything - basketball, surfing, weights. They are the greatest thing that ever happened to me. What I am doing is trying to build something special for them, but I can’t forget to have fun with them in the meantime.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Are you a morning or a night person? Morning

What is your favourite movie quote? Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Have you ever tried to do something you know you would be really bad at? What was it and how did you go? Skateboarding, I started about 3 years ago. I was really bad at it and I ended up in hospital but I love it now!

How many keys do you have on your keyring? Car and house, that’s it. Just 2.

If you could have one superpower what would it be? I’m a basketball player, so I’d want mad hops!


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