One year at Pollen: an interview with VP Insights Alex Varia

We sat down with Alex Varia, our VP Insights, and discussed everything, including his career at Spotify, being empowered to lead through vulnerability at Pollen and how the Insights team's neuromusicology work is changing the way the industry looks at music.

Pollen: hey Alex, you just celebrated your 1 year anniversary with Pollen, congrats! 

Could you share a little about your journey before Pollen?

From 2019: Being fortunate enough to present at the Spotify company town hall, on the 62nd floor of WTC4.

Alex: Thanks! It’s been my favourite year in my career!

My journey before Pollen was that I spent the previous 4 years at Spotify, at first moving from London to Stockholm, before Stockholm to New York. I learnt about how to build a new life in the context of new cities, new countries and new cultures (both work culture and social). Comparing and contrasting the cultures, population, assumptions, biases and cultural icons of the UK, Sweden, New York and now Los Angeles has been an incredibly enriching part of my development.

At Spotify my journey was mostly building out a centralised Insights & Strategy organisation called Growth Research & Strategy. We set out to answer the biggest strategic questions with a team made up of a full range of strategists, researchers, data scientists, data engineers and machine learning specialists. 

One of my favorite things I learnt at Spotify was that interdisciplinary collaboration in the insights industry is clearly a positive-sum game, and that putting data science people in the same rooms as research people and strategy people can lead to incredibly compelling and meaningful work. My core belief is that the future leaders in the insights industry will be T-shaped, with specific areas of focus/expertise, but otherwise a broad awareness base across our space, and my role is ultimately to build holistic and strategic insights professionals. This has been a key part of building the culture and career frameworks in Insights at Pollen, and there’s a lot more to do.

I was at Spotify over the period when it grew from 1,500 to 9,000 staff, went public and became truly global, and after 4 years and 2 continents I was ready for a change, especially to build something myself and have a much larger impact on a scale-up business. 

…and what brought you to Pollen?

For the next part of my journey I wanted to still be B2C but to be closer to the hearts of those customers, enabling the richest and most impactful insights work. Pollen stood out and appealed as it sits at the intersection of music and travel, combining these industries in a novel way that can generate truly meaningful, and even transformational, real world experiences for our members. The new experience vertical that Pollen is building has community and emotional richness at the core, with experience design driven by customers’ hopes, dreams, passions and even identities - all fantastic topics for a strategic insights team made up of researchers and data scientists. 

This appealed obviously in the entrepreneurial sense of building something new and exciting, a new team from scratch, while exploring new unchartered territory for the company and helping to shape strategy, but also appealed as an opportunity to support communities of identity and affinity that are often overlooked. 

A great example along these lines from the year I’ve been here was when Pollen curated experiences for the LatinX community with J Balvin: NEON in Las Vegas, supporting Reggaeton music to a rare prominent place in Las Vegas and providing incredibly meaningful experiences for our members. Our researchers interviewing members in-destination at the experience reported the role of community as being key in driving meaning, especially with Reggaeton being one of the first truly pan-Latin genres, and J Balvin being one of the community’s cultural leaders:

“NEON Vegas was so important for me,  I grew up in a very white neighborhood, this is a way for me to be close to my community.”

Mexican American, Female, 24 (Seattle, WA)

“These events are a way to show my daughters my culture, maybe they will finally learn Spanish!”

Mexican & Cuban American, Mom, 42 (San Diego, CA)

The team, both research and data science,  in destination conducting research, building empathy and validating hypotheses.

The opportunity that appealed in Pollen Insights is to combine this emotional richness with the empiricism of data science, understanding how best to build an experience line up through data, how destinations map to communities, how groups make purchasing decisions, how advocacy permeates a social graph, how we can predict the product market fit of a given part of our hotel/vendor ecosystem, and much more!

Could you describe what you are most proud of from your first year?

On a personal note, I’ve been most proud of building a team from scratch and helping to build a unique team culture, centred on psychological safety and embracing vulnerability as strength. I was the first insights hire in the company a year ago, and I’m proud to say the function is now 16 brilliant researchers and data scientists, and we will be 60+ by the end of 2022. The growth has been rapid, which might typically suggest a risk on the culture of the team, but I’m so glad to say the culture of the team is a core part of what makes working in Pollen Insights so enjoyable. 

Leading through vulnerability has been my favourite area of personal growth since joining Pollen, especially as someone with an anxiety condition who previously felt the need to conceal this from the people I worked with, seeing it as a part of me not welcome in the workplace. Pollen’s culture, modelled by our founders, takes a radical view on belonging, enabling employees to bring their whole selves to work - and what a surprise the anxiety condition has improved when I didn’t need to hide it! This culture is like no other I’ve seen in my career, and I think will be a key factor in Pollen’s success.

On a team note naturally progress is exciting and fast-paced, as you might expect in a scale up, but actually my favorite achievements are from when we think slowly, doing the most foundational and strategic work:

  • In Q1 we focused on a foundational quant study of our potential customers, building a psychographic segmentation and market sizing, helping evolve Pollen’s understanding of our target audience, especially how they differ between the UK and US. 
  • In Q2 our landmark project focused on building a qualitative framework around our core product offering through ethnographic methods, answering the core questions of ‘how do we differentiate what is it that we are selling?’, and ‘what is the formula for the perfect experience?’ 

One important aspect that I’m incredibly proud of is the pace of personal growth in the team. It is incredibly motivating and validating to see the learning journey of more junior researchers conducting their first ethnography, moderating interviews, crafting strategic decks rich with storytelling, and improving week on week. It has also been great to see junior members of staff having exposure to the company founders and c-suite, demonstrating some of the core benefits of working at Pollen: growth, exposure and impact. Pollen’s culture of freedom and ownership creates plenty of space for motivated team members to grow rapidly, in skillset, scope and role.

What are you most excited about in the future?

One project that is exciting and sums up Pollen Insights very well is our current neuromusicology work, combining a qualitative research framework around why people travel (represented in the below rainbow wheel), with a data science analysis and clustering of song characteristics, all supported by academic neuroscience expertise in the team. 

From Q2 Pricing & Packaging ethnography project: “Why do people travel?”

When we can understand the emotional impact of different songs, albums, artists and genres, we can start to understand how best to curate our experiences through our artist partnerships. The team is making great progress on a music <> emotion mapping in this area that I think will be revolutionary, arguably having the potential to replace genre as the core way we look at the music industry.

One page summary of our ongoing neuromusicology project.

What is the shape of Pollen Insights and what type of hires are you looking for?

The general flow of the Insights function we are building is as follows:

  • strategic data and research teams providing foundational framing
  • used by our specialist cross-functional insights teams (Community, Entertainment & Travel Insights)
  • synthesised into real world experiences by our concept incubator
  • before application to Marketing/Product
  • and ultimately tracking/observability providing a feedback loop

While the team structure is rigid on paper, it’s also important to mention that it is permeable in practice. Projects are frequently jointly run between insights squads, and team members can move between teams flexibly to support their interest and career growth. 

A great example would be when we want to study the topics of self-care, luxury and relaxation based travel, through a community lens such as the nuance and implications of these topics for Black women, this project would be co-staffed by the Community Insights and Travel Insights teams.

We are looking for employees across all of these squads, of all seniorities, from squad management / leadership to mid and entry level researchers and data scientists. In total we are looking for over 50 new hires in 2022, so I would always welcome candidates reaching out to discuss potential roles. 

We are publishing a full list of performance profiles (Pollen’s version of a job description) throughout December, with our current priorities for December/January being:

  1. Head of Marketing Data Science (Hiring Manager: Alex Varia)
  2. Head of Marketing Research (HM: Alex Varia)
  3. Research Manager - Travel Insights (HM: Matthew Moran)
  4. Senior Researcher - Revenue Expansion (HM: Arafel Buzan)

To candidates, please reach out to myself, Matthew Moran, Yola Katsargyri or Arafel Buzan if you would like to hear more about these roles, or the team in general.

Thank Alex you and best of luck!

Alex Varia

VP Insights

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