Narrativ‘ s mission is to build a better internet for shoppers. Narrativ’s technology repairs out-of-stock links and 404s so no consumer has to shop through broken experience – while also helping brands turn expert recommendations into brand-safe, multi-billion acquisition channels. That’s how Narrativ helped fashion brand Diane Von Furtstenburg own 97% of its product mentions in content, and skincare brand Dermstore drive $5m in revenue from unlocking content to its channel.
Li founded Narrativ in 2015 during her time at fashion brand Moda Operandi, when she realised there was a huge technology gap between editorial content online and every other marketing channel. Narrativ now works with a vast range of brands and publishers, including Allure, Refinery29, Cosmopolitan and Esquire. Talis first invested in Narrativ in 2015.
We caught up with Li to discuss what she looks for in prospective employees, how Narrativ stays true to the vision, and her ‘eureka moment’ that led to her becoming an unexpected tech founder.
Milak TELL US ABOUT YOUR VISION FOR NARRATIV.
Narrativ is building technology for an emerging consumer who demands more from their shopping experience online. They’re tired of ads, information they can’t trust, and broken links inside the reviews and recommendations where they finally find what they’re searching for. We’re rewiring the Internet for a better shopper experience — one that values honest recommendations above ads, repairs broken links, and earns consumer trust.
My hope is that by surfacing more trustworthy recommendations for better quality products, more great brands will be discovered, more experts will get paid fairly, and more shoppers will find what they’re looking for.
YOU’VE HAD A REALLY VARIED CAREER BEFORE FOUNDING NARRATIV IN 2015! WHAT INSPIRED THE INITIAL IDEA?
I’ve had a diverse and unconventional range of jobs, none of which I thought would lead me to be an entrepreneur. I’ve been a biochemical engineer, Vogue intern, McKinsey consultant, e-commerce marketer, and now unlikely tech founder.
Narrativ came out of living real pain as a marketer. I’d left McKinsey in 2013 and joined the online fashion retailer Moda Operandi, where my job was to take us from ~$4 million to $45 million as the Director of Marketing.
I experimented with pretty much every marketing channel during this quest for scale, and noticed our customers trusted honest recommendations they found via search (on sites like Vogue or ELLE) more than any other channel. As paid search and social became more expensive, this type of recommendation content became our biggest growth channel.
But growing this channel came with serious pain points:
Moda was only getting traffic from a fraction of the content about our products — we had no control over whether an editor linked to us or a competitor
Scaling was incredibly manual — I literally had to email editors and try to convince them to swap or add links to our site when they wrote about our products
Content was littered with bad links — 404s, out-of-stock items, and out-of-date prices that made the experience for the reader, publisher, and advertiser fundamentally broken
My eureka moment came in a conference room at Vogue, where I was again manually negotiating a deal to capture more traffic from editorial recommendations. I realized there was a huge technology gap between editorial content online and every other marketing channel. What if machine learning technology could find and repair broken links, update prices, and power a competitive marketplace? It would transform content at the scale of the Internet.
When I started to run the numbers in my head, I realized that building a functioning market in recommendation content was a multibillion-dollar opportunity. Shortly after, Narrativ was born.
HOW DID YOUR PREVIOUS CAREER EQUIP YOU TO BECOME A TECH FOUNDER?
I’m not the kind of person that walks around with a ten-year plan. But, I think my past lives in science, media, and retail have all shaped my approach to building this company.
My STEM training underlies my approach to thinking and solving problems with my team every day. At McKinsey, I worked with top media brands and learned firsthand the challenges many faced as they tried to adapt to a digital world. At Moda, I discovered our most valuable and cost-effective marketing channel — real recommendations — was also the hardest to grow. Intimate knowledge of my pain points as a marketer not only led to the idea for Narrativ, but also gave me a crash course in the challenges of building and scaling a business.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU’VE FACED IN SCALING NARRATIV, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
Growing up Asian and female I received a lot of messages to stay quiet, work hard, and dutifully produce 10X better work to be treated as an equal.
One of the biggest challenges in VC today is that less than 3% of VC funding goes toward female founders. Within this already unbalanced startup system, Narrativ is a B2B technology company competing in an industry where nearly 100% of CEOs are white and male.
2020 has been a powerful year for all of us to shed fear and be a voice of change – I’ve become a lot more vocal in asking funds how they are supporting black founders, female founders, and diversity in venture. I’m proud to work with Matus, Kirill, and the Talis team – from the beginning they’ve prioritised working with founders of all backgrounds. In one of our first conversations I remember being inspired by Talis’ investment journey with Darktrace CEO Poppy Gustafsson. It’s one thing to talk and quite another to put both time and money where it counts!
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR TEAM. HIRING IS OFTEN ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR STARTUPS AND FINDING TALENT CAN BE TOUGH. WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU LOOK FOR IN PEOPLE WHO COME TO WORK FOR NARRATIV?
Keith Rabois’s perspective on this most closely aligns with my approach as a founder. He’s spoken about how founders focus on product because “you’re building a technology company.” But ultimately, you’re really building a team to build the product and then the company. It is the team you build that will dictate the outcome. This belief should lead you to focus more on the quality of the people than anything else.
When I think about hiring leaders at Narrativ, I’m looking for people who can take an idea from conception to finished product to near-perfect execution of a team. These are people who can multiply the impact of others. In candidates earlier in their career I look for coachability – both the confidence to try and the humility to know when to listen (and learn).
Lastly, across the board, appreciation goes a long way. Especially in the punishing pace of a startup, building a team of humans who really see each other and recognise the talent, hard work, and contribution of their teammates is so important.
AS A FOUNDER AND CEO, MANAGING A FAST-GROWING COMPANY CAN BE CHALLENGING. HOW DO YOU ENSURE THAT THE COMPANY STAYS ALIGNED TO ITS GOALS AND OBJECTIVES WHILE MAINTAINING GROWTH?
Nothing revolutionary to share here — it’s about connecting OKRs to your org chart and operating model. This ties the things we’re building to outcomes (if we build X, we achieve Y), and creates greater accountability and ownership throughout the company.
FINALLY – WHAT’S ONE PIECE OF LIFE ADVICE THAT YOU THINK EVERYONE SHOULD LIVE BY?
Maybe it’s cheesy — but leave things better than when you found it. You will never regret that.