Founders Interview: Neil Seeman, RIWI

December 3, 2019

By: Richard Lau

Founders Interview: Neil Seeman, RIWI

Logo and Naming Discussion with Neil Seeman, Founder and CEO of RIWI Corp.

What is RIWI and what does RIWI mean?

RIWI is a global trend-tracking and predictive analytics firm. On a monthly or annual subscription basis, RIWI offers its clients tracking surveys, continuous risk monitoring, predictive analytics and ad effectiveness tests in all countries – without collecting any personally identifiable data. Our clients are global enterprise customers that need our data for rapid-response, actionable insights. Clients include BofA Securities, the World Bank, the United Nations World Programme, the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development.

RIWI stands for real-time interactive world-wide intelligence.

When did the logo for your company come together?

In the Summer of 2012. Even though the Company was legally incorporated in August 2009, our company had been at the side of my desk as a vision and concept when I ran a research unit at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. I had a lot of smart graduate students giving me ideas about what the Company should do and even about shapes for the potential logo. My brother Bob, a co-founder, had owned the domain name among thousands of other domains. I liked it because it was short, brandable and pronounceable – at least to me. Bob and I also liked it because RIWI could be used as an acronym – ‘real-time interactive world-wide intelligence’ – and because it reminded us of an organization we really admired and still do, called The Rand Corporation, so I started calling it The RIWI Corporation. Now people just call us RIWI, pronounced “ree-wee” – and I love that.

But the logo was a different story. I was focused on my academic research in the Internet and tracking pandemic threats and misinformation online, so I didn’t have time to focus on logo design but I knew it would be important if I commercialized the company, which I really only did full-throttle in 2016-2017 (after I stopped teaching, had my intellectual property patented, obtained hedge fund financing, hired a full-time CTO and CFO and a sales team and we stopped doing small projects and validation experiments for academic journals). So I hired my friend Paul from the finance sector to look into logos, among other things. Paul specialized in raising capital, not really marketing or design. But I always felt Paul just knew about design. And more important, Paul and I had spent hours discussing my vision for the Company. We knew that small-letter logos, like facebook, were cool in the Valley then. But even though we have small letters in the logo of our Company now, we capitalize it now: RIWI.

Also, a sweet added touch: the two “i” characters in our logo represent stick people talking and listening to each other, which is at the core of RIWI’s values.

Did you perform market testing research on your logo before launch?

Not really, which is funny considering that we conduct a lot of scientific ad testing today, where we compare what true random cohorts of people think of one ad, or video, as compared to another. Yet a big part of the whole reason I started our business is I felt that most market research testing companies offered snake oil and had no real science behind their claims. And so much of what you are trying to convey in a logo is in the founder’s mind and vision, and marketing firms tend to want to pretend they know more about what it is in your mind and your product at an early stage than they ever can or do. There are some real outlier exceptions and it depends at what stage of the business you’re at, say, if you need help refining a tag line or messaging to investors or customers.

I say “not really”, though, when it comes to market research of our logo prior to commercialization, since we did do ad hoc market testing of the logo and name over time with real customers and potential customers.

What did your ad hoc market testing of the logo tell you?

Customers loved it. They loved the color hue, everything. In fact, to this day, I’ll be at a conference or a meeting giving out business cards and maybe one of out of 6-7 people will say, “hey Neil, this is a *really* cool logo”. But the so-called “experts” at the beginning *hated* it. When we were fully commercialized, we hired a professional marketing firm that was arrogant in all hysterical ways, saying we needed to rip up our logo. Meanwhile that international marketing firm’s website had typos and basic grammar errors on its home page, and their site violated even the simplest rules about website user experience, like trying to find out quickly what the company does.

Why do you think outside experts can be wrong when it comes to logo design?

They’re wannabe entrepreneurs. To be fair, you see that in a lot of people, like lawyers or (some) venture capitalists – and that’s just human nature. They are trying to import their vision, and their imagined company, onto yours and they are afraid to listen, and they love to speak a lot at you, which is always a red flag. It’s really exceptionally hard to listen – everyone in business and in life needs to work on that, including me. A founder’s vision is essential to a logo. He or she may have a flawed business model, or have unrealistic visions about ever making a profit, but if the marketing consultant doesn’t have a real mind-meld with the founder’s vision, you might as well give up on the marketing consultant. Founders are also insecure sometimes about some aspects of business, especially if it’s their first foray into business. They get seduced or intimidated by the self-proclaimed expertise of service providers, especially marketers. Finally, it’s not 2003 – or 2017 – anymore. What worked in logo design 2-3 years ago doesn’t work today. Changes in the stickiness of a logo change almost in real-time and an outside marketer needs to know fast-changing digital and website best practices, which rarely ever happens.

Did you ever question yourself about the logo?

Only a couple of times, but it was not about the logo, it was about the name, RIWI. One inebriated gentleman I met at a conference in Hong Kong told me – mistakenly, I later figured out – that the name was the same as a major criminal offender of a serious crime which then got me nervous about the name. He was kidding with me, which was weird. The second time was when I met a potential client who loved the logo and the name but joked about the fact that she couldn’t pronounce the “R” very well, and neither could lots of people, so she said that could be a problem. But there are global firms that start with “Xi” or have no vowels altogether, and eventually your work and your logo just feed off one another. You just know when you’ve got it right, and we have it right.

And one other thing happened, which is important: I told my friend Paul who had come up with the color hue scheme in 2012 that I had this feedback from two people and later from the so-called experts and he stared at me in the eye, banged his fist on the table over lunch and said: “Neil, you can change anything about your business, but don’t ever think about changing that RIWI logo. I worked really hard on that, consulted everyone in design I ever knew, and there was a lot of meticulous detail I put into proposing that logo design for you. That was in 2016. Paul’s a pretty intense guy and I respect him and I didn’t know until then how much work he had put into it. And he knew exactly what my vision was, and is. No outside marketer could have known what Paul knew. Anyway, I’ve never thought about it again until now, when you asked me to do this interview.

Did you trademark the logo?

No, since our company is not about the logo, our company is about the name, RIWI. Our name is trademarked in Canada, US and Europe.

Do you care if people steal your logo or name?

Definitely – if it treads on our trademark, which is related to global data capture. But if it’s, say, for a great restaurant in Paris – which is the name of a cool restaurant there – then it’s totally cool and a kind of beautiful validation.

What one key advice would you give to founders wrestling with logo design or with logos generally?

Focus on your vision, with precise detail. Be able to share it in a second with anyone. From your vision will come your name and the logo. Listen to the experts respectfully, but trust in your vision more.

What is your vision and how does it relate to the logo of your company?

My vision is to discover the truth, no matter how ugly that truth may be, and to listen to quiet voices in all parts of the world, since uncovering the truth is what matters to prediction, which is at the core of what we do, every day. Those things mean that our logo means to be accessible, bold, but also simple. When making a logo, simplicity is awesome.

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