Titus Capilean has 10+ years of experience delivering up to 20X hyper-growth in 12 mos. / scaling to 2+M FB fans by building high-profile, global digital presences + hyper-active developer eco-systems & communities, generating national buzz w/efficient digital ad spend. At Appen he’s heading up Brand, PR, Social Media, Research, Content, Thought Leadership, Customer Evidence.
Ciprian Borodescu: I’m here with Titus Capilnean, Marketing and Communications Leader and Advisor, currently Director, Corporate Marketing at Appen – a publicly traded company in labeling and collecting data for machine learning and artificial intelligence applications. I’m super excited, and it’s an honor to have you on this podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Titus Capilnean: Yeah, thanks for having me. And I can certainly say that I’ve always been a fan of business problems that can be solved with intelligent use of data, so hopefully, my experience with marketing, entrepreneurship, and tech will be interesting for the people listening.
Ciprian Borodescu: Excellent. You have years of experience leading successful marketing and communications campaigns for over 40 brands from blockchain, artificial intelligence, financial services, travel and tourism, retail, telecom technology, and industrial. I would like to invite you to take our listeners on a journey. First, how and where you started your career?
Titus Capilnean: So it all started when I was eight years old, in my hometown. No, I’m kidding. I started my career in Romania. That’s where I’m from. And early on, I worked on more nonprofit, youth organizations, worked with TEDx on marketing campaigns, and then PR campaigns and early social media campaigns back in Romania, where we had about 150,000 Facebook users in total in the country. And then, in the year and a half I worked on campaigns, we ended up with over a million, and then it shot up from there. So companies were taking their first steps in that space and I was fortunate enough to be there. And yeah, I mean, that kind of gave me my foundation as a marketer. And I think also because social media was so rich with data and online being so rich with data, that’s also something that attracted me to that space. But I do have a little bit of background in tech as well and that dates back to when I was eight, and I learned to code in basic and all that fun stuff.
Ciprian Borodescu: I need to share something with our audience. So, when I was doing the research for this podcast, I was surprised and excited to see that you were the digital communication manager at Rosia Montana Gold Corporation for almost five years. Tell us more about your experience. What were some of the challenges – because I’m sure there were plenty of them – and opportunities working in that industry?
Titus Capilnean: So, you know that movie, Thank You For Smoking?
Ciprian Borodescu: I don’t think so. But thank you for suggesting. Now I have something to watch.
Titus Capilnean: Yeah, so I watched that when I was a teenager and I think what stuck with me is like, no matter how difficult the conversation, every company or individual organization deserves to have a fair voice and be heard. And I think for me, that was interesting, from that point of view with the project and with the mining company that it had a low reputation going in, but also low awareness so many people were involved in activism and then also with the mining project itself actually knew what was going on. And we rode a very interesting wave of raising awareness, but also, unfortunately polarizing the country, eventually, in a 50-50 split of people for the project and against the project. And at some point, this is a funny stat that we found through research, people were more aware of the mining project than they were of divorce in Romania, at that time, which was fascinating to find through research. So that was definitely an interesting project in building the online presence from the ground up, working from Facebook pages to online apps to 3D video projections and all the way to technical documentation was very interesting to me and I was running up probably, I think, one of the largest online operations in Romania at that time.
Ciprian Borodescu: And after that, you moved to London for about three, four years and during that time, you also started kind of like your entrepreneurial journey at The Extra Dish? Tell us more about that.
Titus Capilnean: Well, I actually started my entrepreneurial journey while I was working at Rosia Montana. I was doing a lot of things on the side, like side projects, campaigns with friends, and with various people that I’ve met along the journey. And I started my executive MBA degree in 2012, which was about a year and a half before I moved to London for good. And, yeah, I’ve tried a few agency projects and even a product in Romania, which was like a check-in button for websites way ahead of its time, even before Chrome extensions were a thing. But I still remember that it was a really cool project and that’s something that’s worth revisiting when we talk about the blockchain experience I had later on. With London, it was an interesting opportunity. Basically, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation laid off almost everyone at some point because the project didn’t go forward and I ended up in a place where I could consult for the investors in London, and also work on other independent projects – and that’s why I joined The Extra Dish team, where an MBA colleague of mine basically told me like he had this dream of connecting home cooks with foodies because he was a really, really passionate foodie. I was also inspired by the story, and I was ready to roll my sleeves and jump in. So, I ended up running the company. And that was my first real startup experience where we worked on raising money, we funded the initial operations ourselves, recruited people, recruited foodies, did some test deliveries; we ended up disproving the business model, unfortunately, because this was pre-Uber API days, so you couldn’t necessarily connect a fleet of delivery people right away, so it was more of a delivery company. So, that was a really good experience from that point of view, just like building a business model, and then proving in real life and then also learning when to walk away from it.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s interesting. Now imagine that in today’s world.
Titus Capilnean: I mean, that would have been pretty good timing for now, although the regulations are still in the way, and the unit economics are still difficult to nail.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. By the way, I know we’re going a little bit off-script here. But you know that Uber Eats is no longer in Romania, right?
Titus Capilnean: I saw an article about that. I think it makes sense to the unit economics comment I made earlier. Like, if your market is not big enough for these kinds of businesses, if your margin is not significant, it doesn’t make sense for you to invest in building up the operations and the user base and the marketing spend that you have upfront, because you’ll never recoup it. In a billion-dollar market, it’s not gonna work. The turnover is too low for the volumes that you need for this kind of business. And even in Bucharest, which is a pretty big city.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. Let’s change gears for a bit and talk about your experience working at TransferGo. You worked there for about a year. What was it like? What were some of the challenges there?
Titus Capilnean: Before I dive into that, it’s funny because the “about a year” is kind of like my mantra and it’s been my mantra almost intentionally throughout my career. I give things about a year and if I like them, I continue – and by like, I mean, if they produce some sort of ROI – if not, then I choose to move on, or there’s some sort of world opportunity that arises and I just find myself moving into it. But anyway, with TransferGo, it was interesting because after basically almost like…well, actually failing with Extra Dish – and learning a lot but failing still, nevertheless – I wanted to see how a funded startup operated. So, they were like post Series A, they were funded beyond my expectations, so they had a lot of money to work with, they were investing in growth and they needed someone to run not just their PR or marketing, they needed someone to run a business unit, build it from the ground up. They had tested the Romanian market, they saw traction, you know, like, “We need someone to get this from zero to wherever we need to get so that we can build another vertical.” They had built Latvian and Lithuanian and other verticals as well in the past, and they were trying to replicate that on other ethnic markets. So, I think in terms of my experience, there were like 12 months where I basically recruited a big team of people, helped them raise a round with the results that we got through brand marketing and PR, which was a less smooth journey than you’d expect because for some reason in Europe is really popular to do PPC early on as a startup and do performance marketing for everything – which I think is a huge mistake, that you only realize after spending ridiculous amounts of time and money optimizing for that, and not investing in your brand early on, versus investing in a brand, leveraging organic, leveraging referrals, leveraging SEO content, and then adding a paid engine on top of that. And only a few years after that, I realized how the US market did it completely the other way around. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons why the US market is significantly more successful in bringing global startups up faster than anyone else.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about your US experience because I’m super interested to hear just what you said, you know, SEO and content marketing before PPC, because this is also my experience at Morphl.
Titus Capilnean: Yeah, so, how I got to the US is also an interesting story. So I got machine learning certified in my tenure at TransferGo. I had secured a green card through the lottery program, which was a very interesting coincidence and a happy event.
Ciprian Borodescu: So you are one of the few that actually can say, “Man, I won the lottery!” It doesn’t matter what kind of lottery, but I did.
Titus Capilnean: It takes a bit of luck.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, of course, of course, you need that.
Titus Capilnean: Yeah. So, basically when we realized that is happening – and by we, I mean my then girlfriend now wife, because we left together for the UK and then we now live in the US together – but I basically decided I had to network my way into San Francisco before even buying the plane ticket. So, needless to say, after dozens of emails and Skype calls and Google Hangouts and whatever other connections I had in SF through friends of friends of friends, I actually ended up connecting with the co-founder of DigitalGenius through a friend of mine from London that I met at the same floor where both of our startups were in Canary Wharf in London. So that’s how I got to DigitalGenius and basically, I got the job in less than two weeks of being in the States. And I was the first employee in San Francisco because they were building up an office there right that summer when I landed in SF. I did sales, marketing, operations, recruitment, brand marketing full time until we reached about a million ARR and a couple of millions in the pipeline. So we also raised a round during my tenure there, but I think the hype of the blockchain then attracted me to my next thing, but I want to pause there for DigitalGenius a little bit because that was an interesting experience from a practical AI perspective, where we were doing, like, basically agent assistance for customer service. And that was like, we were probably the first deep-learning startup to do that, ever.
Ciprian Borodescu: And that was back in?
Titus Capilnean: 2016.
Ciprian Borodescu: 2016, okay.
Titus Capilnean: 2016-2017.
Ciprian Borodescu: So that was kind of like the beginning of, let’s say, the new age of AI.
Titus Capilnean: The defrosting of the AI ice age.
Ciprian Borodescu: Nicely put.
Titus Capilnean: I mean, there were interesting times because GPUs were becoming more powerful and cheaper, so you could basically build bigger and better deep learning neural nets with less money on relatively good data.
Ciprian Borodescu: Alright. And then you moved from that to Civic Technologies – another industry, this time blockchain – that came with new challenges. How did that happen? What were your responsibilities there?
Titus Capilnean: So, one of the most annoying things that happened while moving countries and continents every couple of years was that I basically had to rebuild my identity from scratch, every single time. So, in Bucharest, it was okay because it was the same country, but it didn’t matter because I was young. But when moving to London, you basically have to pay a rent deposit and guarantees and all that with cash because there’s a Catch22 – you can’t get a bank account without an address, you can’t get an address without a bank account; you can’t get a job without either. So, that was kind of weird so I had to basically figure out that. And then, in the US, when you come in, you basically start from zero again because nobody cares about your identities in other places or your history in other places. You’re considered a new person while coming here. So, when Civic approached me with their decentralized identity based on blockchain technology and everything is stored on a mobile app, I was like, “This is interesting. I think the world needs this. Let’s see if it’s ready.” The blockchain industry was pretty much booming at that time – it was I think, late 2017 when they approached me – Bitcoin was probably at its peak. And then, I joined basically in January 2018 and then rode the wave down, which was also very interesting because it’s funny how people tend to disappear when the price drops from tens of thousands to low thousands for the flagship coin, and then all the other coins crash as well and the whole market cap is no longer attractive for people. And if your entire market is basically that industry, and that industry suddenly disappeared, you would no longer have product market fit, you have to find it again. And that journey of finding product market fit again and looking for that niche took me from, identity in KYC and identity verification for blockchain projects to identity access management for physical locations, to vending machines, and then, to additional wallet at the end of my tenure there. And I also started a team from scratch there, grew it to a pretty good working unit. Actually, one of the people that I recruited is now the current director of marketing, so I was excited to see that they kept the team and everything. So yeah, those were very, very interesting times in a very new world – which was the blockchain – and still is a fairly new world.
Ciprian Borodescu: Before moving on, I want to just pause a little bit and talk… sure, product market fit is a topic in and of itself. But I have to ask this: how did you recognize that you reached product market fit and what were the most important things that led to that?
Titus Capilnean: So it’s when at least one side of your business – either the supply or the demand side – is banging on your door and demand that they want to be part of whatever you’re doing. So, for Civic, it was like people downloading the app and using it, it was companies coming to us and saying “We want to integrate your product right now.” And we had to tell them to wait because we didn’t have the capacity to onboard everyone at the same time. That’s a clear indication of product market fit. If you don’t have PPC advertising, and people come to your website and they come to your Facebook or Twitter or whatever social media channel you’re using, and they demand to either get your product, download your app, or integrate whatever you’re building or buy whatever you’re selling, then that is effectively product market fit. It’s not rocket science.
Ciprian Borodescu: No, it’s not. But you have to experience it, to feel it, or to recognize it. And based on that definition, which I very much agree with, there are companies – big companies – that don’t even have product market fit.
Titus Capilnean: It’s funny you bring up big companies because they do have some product market fit for some part of their business, but they may have other parts of their business that are not and I think now large companies are shedding parts of their business that are not achieving product market fit. And I think we’re gonna see more and more of that in this new environment.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, good. So let’s move on to the next point. So you’re now Director, Corporate Marketing at Appen, a company with about 800 people full time and over 1 million people contracting worldwide. What is Appen and what does it do?
Titus Capilnean: Yeah, so, I have to deliver the boilerplate first. Everything I say here is my own opinion because I’m not an official company spokesperson. I’m here as myself, not as an official company representative. But Appen is a very interesting organization that’s set up almost like a marketplace, which I tend to enjoy and love working on. And we basically provide reliable training data to teams that deploy world-class AI. And we work on image, text, audio, video, all kinds of data types, and use cases – and chances are you might be using a model that we’ve provided data for right now. The challenge, I think, when it comes to a company of this size and in this industry is that we’re in a new market. So, training data is something that only comes with people wanting to take AI at scale. So that’s when you need a lot of training data. And the market is kind of built as coming together of multiple markets. In the past, there were specialized niche players, people that would do images really well, text really well, video really well, audio really well, translation, so on and so forth. I think now more and more businesses like Appen and others are coming together in a single market training data, one-stop-shop because eventually every company will be an AI company, as today any company is an internet company. And it’s going to take a few steps and stages, and it’ll depend on how ready they are to adopt AI. Because this is happening right now, this industry is right now coming together really well. And I think finding the balance between technical and business narratives is something that’s very interesting in this space because we’ve seen, initially, adoption from a lot of tech early adopters, data scientists, machine learning engineers, people that are curious about the technology. And now we see more and more business decision-makers coming in and trying to set the strategy and trying to work and find common ground with the technical experts, so that they ask the right questions, they make the right decisions together.
Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. Okay. So you’ve actually seen that happening? That’s great.
Titus Capilnean: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because not every industry is as ready as the other one. That’s actually something that we’re currently working on validating with our sixth edition of the state of AI and machine learning study. But essentially, we’re looking at how people see themselves as being ready to adopt AI at scale today versus they’re still on a journey to that. And that was my marketing hat coming off.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, okay. Let’s keep the marketing hat on. I would be curious to understand what is the anatomy of an AI project through the eyes of a marketing technologist. Just walk us through some of the stages of implementation and the roles involved in these types of projects, from what you’ve seen out there. Of course, this depends from project to project, but in general.
Titus Capilnean: So essentially, in my opinion, an AI project starts with a business problem; once you identify the business problem, you figure out if it’s important enough, if it fits the application, which is a whole topic in and of itself – you want to look at the data, if you have enough data, if you can get enough data to be able to train and support your models, which you then work on because now if you have the business problem and the data, you can work out the models. Then you want to measure what you’ve done, right? You want to try things out, see how the model predicts, if it works well for your business, for the problem that you set up, if it works well with the data that you have available, or if you need more or less. And then, after you deploy it, you want to make sure you’re also tuning it. So, you want to make sure you adapt it to ever-changing market conditions, you add more data, you add more user groups, you expand the products and services, and so on and so forth. So, it’s a continuous process. It’s not something that stops after you click ‘ship’. I think this and the fact that you mentioned it now with the marketing lens, it fits very well into a campaign development lifecycle because you want to start with the business problem in marketing, you want to understand what are your assets, you want to understand what are your strategies and tactics, you want to understand what you need to measure in a marketing campaign, and then you want to make sure you’re tuning the campaign after you launch it because your environment is changing. You might have competitors come in, you have feedback from customers and partners, and so on and so forth. So I think it fits that exact model. And for me, doing that almost unconsciously at the beginning, made it very easy for me to relate to the AI lifecycle product development. It starts in r&d departments, it starts with the innovation teams, it starts with the engineers and data scientists working together, then it moves into product engineering, then it moves into core business as it becomes more part of day-to-day life for that business.
Ciprian Borodescu: So that’s a great analogy. What do you think – or maybe you’ve experienced it yourself – is the most surprising thing for a marketer when coming in contact with an AI project or product for the very first time?
Titus Capilnean: It’s not that complicated. I think that’s the most surprising find. Because if you sit down and talk to someone who really understands AI really, really well, they will be able to explain it to you in a way that makes sense for a non-technical person. They will tell you in simple analogies what AI does, and how it works, and how that is very similar to a certain extent, how you as a human being make decisions or how your brain works, and how you process information and you look at new information with the lens of your previous experience and try to categorize in most cases, or build new things, in other cases, depending on what kind of AI you’re talking about. But it’s not too dissimilar from other parts of life that we’re very familiar with, which we do every single day – like when we show up to work or we talk to people, we choose to go to a party or not. This is actually an example that one of our senior AI people talks about every time. It’s like, the decisions that come into play when you’re deciding whether to go to a friend’s party or not, are actually a combination of sub-decisions in your previous experiences with the group of people that will be there, if you’re feeling well that day, if that last interaction with your friend was a good one, if you’re looking to do something there specifically, or if the train ride or car ride is not too far away, or if you have other plans that are likely to yield better rewards that are competing with that. So, that was a very interesting example and I think that’s the kind of example that helps non-AI people understand what AI does. It’s not the black box, it’s not magic. It is a collection of technologies.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. And it’s definitely not that scary. So I know that you’re also advising startups. And I have to ask, especially since we’re living this COVID situation crisis – what are some of the most important traits or skills of the founders and CEOs that you worked with as an advisor that you would recommend for startup founders or first time CEOs out there?
Titus Capilnean: I think first of all, like, before even believing in the mission – which is, I think, baseline – you have to be a builder. Like, you want to build things. If you don’t want to build things, you’re just like connecting or you have a different vision of what you contribute to a group or to the world, then you might not be a good CEO. But if you’re a builder, and you want to lead teams of people that build I think that will definitely yield results, especially in early-stage startups where you do have to build a lot yourself. And then, yeah, belief in the mission, for sure. And then, be ready to be challenged, both by people around you, your team, the market. And you have to be open to feedback, adapt, but not so much as to stray away from the mission – that’s really a very delicate balance because the market will try to pull you in some direction; advisors will too; investors will as well. Everyone has an agenda; you need to make sure you keep yours if that mission is really important to you. And being a person that empowers versus imposes I think is more valuable in the long term – especially coming from an Eastern European background, so Romanian culture being a bit more aggressive, in some instances, does promote people who are more imposing than empowering. I think that’s starting to change and that’s a great thing. But I think it’s a long way to go. When looking, for example, in large, successful companies, it’s more likely that a leader that empowers his team and the group that works with him will be more successful because trust and a delegation environment are the way to build bigger teams, because you can’t be in every single conversation.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s such an important point. And I would do an entire podcast about that, because this is a topic that I’m super passionate about. But, again, we’re going off-script here, but this is just because the conversation with you is super interesting. Do you also think that a CEO, or a founder, leader of a team, regardless of the background of the team, or that person has to have vulnerability as well? Because you mentioned Romania and Eastern Europe as being aggressive and I think vulnerability here is misunderstood.
Titus Capilnean: I’ve written about this, and I will continue writing about it. It’s something that I’ve had to learn the hard way myself. I think early on in my career, I wasn’t on the vulnerability bandwagon. I think I was more on the imposing bandwagon. And I realized as you grow as an individual, as a professional, and you get more comfortable, and you get more confident in your own abilities, then it’s not so much as imposing or showing up as powerful all the time; it’s more about being real, and relating to people around you, and making sure that you enable people to be their best versions, as opposed to forcing them to be their best versions, if that makes sense.
Ciprian Borodescu: It makes perfect sense and the only thing I would add here is I read some somewhere this or heard it on a podcast, I can’t really remember, but it stuck with me – “there’s no success without succession”. And I think when you’re going from a mindset of empowering others, it’s also about ensuring succession, on some levels. Alright, cool. So we’re nearing towards the end of this episode. Tell us about your plans for this second half of this year. Personal, professional.
Titus Capilnean: Well, I was hoping to travel, but that doesn’t seem to be very favorable right now. Our lease is coming up at the end of August in San Francisco, and remote is the new normal, so that might still happen. Who knows? I do want to ride more motorcycles, something that I’ve recently taken up with my wife and we’re riding every weekend now, when we can. And yeah, just continue learning, writing on the personal side. And then, on the professional side, I want to double-down on what’s working on Appen. We’re launching a new cool brand PR and content projects that we’ve been working on these past few months that I’ve been with the company, and then I also want to continue working with the teams that I advise in my spare time. And again, I want to write some more.
Ciprian Borodescu: Nice. Now, for the final special session on the podcast, lightning questions and answers – a series of fun, short questions that you have to answer really fast. Ready?
Titus Capilnean: Ready.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings?
Titus Capilnean: Lord of the Rings.
Ciprian Borodescu: Star Wars or Star Trek?
Titus Capilnean: Star Wars.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Joe Exotic or Saul Goodman?
Titus Capilnean: Neither.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos?
Titus Capilnean: Jeff.
Ciprian Borodescu: Favorite movie?
Titus Capilnean: Thank You For Smoking has to be it.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Well, cats or dogs? I already know you have a cat.
Titus Capilnean: Definitely cats.
Ciprian Borodescu: Absolutely. Favorite startup?
Titus Capilnean: It’s actually Neuralink that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m passionate about the whole brain-machine interface. Again, it’s very, very early, but I think that’s something that’s gonna change the world fundamentally. And connected to that, I’d recommend the series Upload on Amazon Prime, which is about transferring your consciousness to a server.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. The last book you read?
Titus Capilnean: So, I’m currently reading Tribe of Mentors, by Tim Ferriss – it’s a collection of experiences. I was skeptical about it but it is an amazing book.
Ciprian Borodescu: Alright. Bonus question. I know you’re passionate about politics. Who was your favorite politician during this lockdown crisis?
Titus Capilnean: I was watching a lot of them unfold throughout the world. I think very few of them managed to recognize the power that they have and use that wisely. I think most defaulted to imposing rather than empowering. And I think while California is not perfect, Gavin Newsom I think enabled us to decide for ourselves, and the Shelter in Place Order was more of a recommendation than forcing us to stay in our houses. Sure, the business part, they closed down businesses, and that’s unfortunate. But I think giving us the choice to be able to walk outside and manage our own time and do things the right way and not completely lose control of the situation, especially in the Bay Area where I live, I think showed that it’s possible to do things without issuing military orders or canceling democracy or other things that other people and leaders resorted to during this crisis, unfortunately.
Ciprian Borodescu: Cool. Titus, it was a pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me, and with us. How can people reach out to you for ideas and comments?
Titus Capilnean: My blog, definitely. There’s contact information there: tituscapilnean.com. I’m on Twitter, Titus_K, and I’m also on LinkedIn. And I respond to messages if you’re not trying to sell me some video or PPC optimization stuff.
Ciprian Borodescu: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you so much, Titus.