Three months into her new job as data scientist in residence at the venture capital firm Accel Partners, Hilary Mason is already thinking about what's next. "This [move to Accel] is not my last career move," she told Fast Company. Over the next year, she plans on starting her own company. "Anything that takes a lot of data and makes it useful to people," she added.
Mason can't elaborate on the specifics of what that data set will entail or what exactly she plans to build—not because she wants to keep her genius plan a secret, but because she doesn't know. That's why she joined Accel: To learn what problems need solving. "This is a perspective for me to get to see what the really interesting problems are that people are facing," she said.
For now, that means advising companies on how to integrate data into their businesses. That could mean helping startups that just got seed funding—"literally two guys sitting on their floor with their laptops because they haven't managed to buy their furniture yet"—hire the right people to build and manage systems. Or, Mason might work with multibillion dollar enterprises to update outdated infrastructures, from technologies that can't compute large data sets, to ones that can.
"Sometimes we’re dealing with situations where they might have hundreds of single tenant relational databases and no way to query across those databases," explained Mason. So a company, for example, has all this fancy technology, but it can't do a simple search for what the average customer is doing at a given moment. These businesses are essentially sitting on piles of data about their customers or practices that they can't compute. Mason helps them fix that.
Accel Ventures has investments in startup giants like Facebook, Dropbox, Kayak, Etsy, and Spotify. Mason is currently working with Hailo, a taxi hailing app, and OPower, which uses behavioral economics to help people manage their energy use more efficiently, among others. These companies come to her for advice so they don't have to worry about asking a competitor for help.
After just a few months working with companies, Mason has some idea of where business opportunities lie. "I will definitely build a product," she said. "It might be a website, it might be something you can plug into your email to help you optimize your communications."
Or, having worked with companies struggling to use data to understand their businesses better, she sees an opportunity to build a real-time analytics system. "You know, having active dashboards up in their office where everyone can see the key metrics that are important and how they're doing at any given moment," she explains. "There’s no single platform for dong that. That seems like something someone should fix."
She might even do something media related. Working at Bit.ly as a chief scientist, she studied human behavior via billions of communications on the Internet. Decoding the way people consume news still fascinates her. "Right now, no person can actually sit and read 80,000 articles on the same thing," she explained. "We need better tools to help us integrate that into a single representation that allows us to understand a full landscape of an event or bit of knowledge." Though, she clarified, that in and of itself does not a company make.
"It’s really a matter of seeing where the technology collides with the right business opportunity," she said. "I don't know what that will look like."
[Image: Flickr user Ronald Sarayudej]