Leading a Mutiny
ByEmma Starer Gross
PublishedMay 12, 2022
Jaleh Rezaei’s AI-powered startup is building a community of rebels.
In May of 2018, Jaleh Rezaei took a seat at Original Joe’s, a storied, old-school San Francisco establishment with leather booths, tuxedo-clad waiters, prime rib and creamed spinach. The traditional decor and menu, which have remained largely unchanged since 1937, sharply contrasted with Rezaei’s reason for being there.
At Original Joe’s, Rezaei was joined by Nikhil Mathew, a former colleague and a fellow engineer. The two had spent weeks mulling over an idea for a product, but at dinner, the conversation shifted to discussing company values.
Four hours later, Mathew and Rezaei left the restaurant certain of three things: They would build a company together. It would be an act of rebellion. And because of who they were and where they came from, they knew they wanted it to be an act of community collaboration.
Mutiny, which launched officially in the fall of 2018, is a no-code, AI-based system that can identify a visitor to a website and, in real time, personalize the messaging on the page to cater specifically to that visitor. In the milliseconds it takes for a user to open a website, Mutiny can change a headline, alter a call-to-action button, or swap out images. Mutiny can also write copy based on comparable companies’ failures and successes.
Previously, if a marketing team aspired to this degree of analytics and personalization, it would have required hundreds of engineers and data scientists, and hours of copy writing for each website iteration. With Mutiny, no engineers, data scientists, or time spent analyzing numbers or perfecting coding is necessary. “Mutiny, as its name suggests, is a rebellion against traditional growth engineering and marketing techniques,” Rezaei says. “It is unleashing something entirely new on the marketing industry.”
Rebellion runs in Rezaei’s blood. She was born in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Her mother, Mitra, was among the first class of women to be admitted to the University of Ahvaz for Chemical Engineering. “Everybody told her, ‘You can’t go off to engineering school. You have to stay home and get married,'” Rezaei says. “My grandfather stepped in and said, ‘If she wants to do this, then she’s going to go and get an engineering degree.’ In my family there was always this story of fighting for what you believe in, and not doing the easy thing, no matter what it takes.”
In Tehran, she has memories of a close, progressive community—of running next door to borrow parsley, of dinner parties, and of poker games where her mother sat amongst the men, and routinely beat them. “Community was the air we breathed,” Rezaei recalls. Community was something to lean on, particularly during difficult times. Rezaei’s childhood was punctuated by sirens that would send the family and neighbors into basement bomb shelters.
Rezaei’s parents taught their two daughters that circumstances, as difficult as they might be, didn’t have to define you. They encouraged Rezaei to think unconventionally and push the limits of what she believed possible. Instead of dolls, her mother brought her clay, so Rezaei could build her own figurines, houses, and cities. Rezaei’s father, Bijan, used to challenge her to Russian math puzzles and riddles. “He would say to me, ‘This one is for 9 year olds, and you’re only 4, but I think you may be able to do it,” Rezaei says. “I would solve it and think “Wow, I’m as good as a 9 year old!” These experiences—creating with clay and solving riddles—instilled in Rezaei traits that she would carry for the rest of her life. “I always felt like I could build something, that if I was scrappy enough and determined enough, I could create momentum, bring a bunch of different pieces together, and problem-solve,” Rezaei says. “From a young age, I thought of myself as entrepreneurial. I always felt like I could start something big.”
“In my family there was always this story of fighting for what you believe in, and not doing the easy thing, no matter what it takes.”Jaleh Rezaei
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In 2007, Bogomil Balkansky, a Partner at Sequoia, received a knock on his office door. At the time, Balkansky was working at software behemoth VMware in Palo Alto, leading its product marketing team. The person at the door was a recruiter. “She came to me—and I remember this vividly—she told me, ‘I just spoke to this young lady who is graduating from her master’s program at Stanford,” Balkansky says. “Here’s what’s going to happen, you are going to talk to her, you’re going to love her, and you’re going to hire her. And that’s exactly what happened. That’s the story of how I met Jaleh.”
Ten years earlier, Rezaei and her family had left Iran for America. “It was a very difficult decision,” Rezaei says. “There was always a hope that things would get better.” The family settled in the East Bay, and though they initially lived with relatives, the loss of their community in Iran was profound. “There weren’t other Iranian families in the neighborhood,” Rezaei says. “And I think that was one of the biggest culture shocks.”
Rezaei had a turning point at 14, when she needed a new dress for a school dance. Money was tight for her family, and so Rezaei went to the mall and approached every store to see if they were hiring. After countless rejections, Subway offered her a job. “Iran is a very classist society,” Rezaei says. “In our community in Tehran, the idea of me making sandwiches for a job would just be insane.” Rezaei’s parents had always encouraged her to be an independent thinker, but suddenly she had to consider rebelling against them. “This was one of the first moments where I realized, I am in the States now. This was the land of opportunity, and I had to think about, what are my values as a person?” Rezaei says. “And I was like, ‘Well, I want the fucking dress, so I’m going to make the sandwiches.’”
Rezaei would carry this tenacity and independence with her through high school and then college. She’d always been interested in math and science, and at UC Berkeley, where she would graduate at the top of her class, Rezaei studied engineering. But there was an evening during her senior year when Rezaei and a friend in business school were studying together. Her friend was prepping case studies with questions like: How should Trader Joe’s compete with Whole Foods for market share? Why is Pantene Pro-V not selling in South American markets? How do you build organizations and rally people to solve these problems? Rezaei found herself engrossed by these challenges, “I was like, whoa, what is this world?”
At the time, Rezaei knew little about business. “In Iran, there are four jobs: doctor, engineer, lawyer, and business owner,” Rezaei says. “I literally thought being a business person was public speaking at conferences. And I didn’t think that I would be good at that.” But the problems her friend was working on reminded Rezaei of the riddles and puzzles she had done with her father as a child. Eager to learn more about this world, Rezaei found a Masters program at Stanford called Management Science and Engineering. “Literally the first line was, ‘Business for engineers,” Rezaei recalls. “And I was like, “Well, that’s me. Let’s do this.”
Two years later, Rezaei joined the team at VMware, working with Balkansky. “She was the youngest and the most junior, and again, she had zero previous product marketing experience,” Balkansky recalls. “But Jaleh had this ability to look at a problem, gather all the necessary data, and then break it down into small enough pieces to attack it. She is very analytical, numerical, and data-driven, but at the same time, she’s a storyteller. Most people are either left or right brain thinkers. It’s not too often you meet people who are outstanding in both.”
Rezaei was tired. It was 2014 and she sat in the Gusto offices reviewing the company’s revenue from its previous quarter. It wasn’t looking good. Rezaei was leading the marketing team at Gusto, the cloud-based payroll company she had joined following VMware. Again and again, potential customers were visiting the Gusto site and then leaving.
Rezaei and her team examined the problem and realized that in the last decade, marketers learned how to spend money online to get their products in front of the right people, but they relied on expensive sales teams to turn them into customers. “But now, everything is online, and consumers don’t expect to interact with sales people,” she says. “They go through most of their buying experience online.”
For a customer to have a successful online experience, Rezaei and her team determined that a platform needs to understand who the website visitor is, what they’re looking for, and then adapt the site accordingly so that the visitor understands why a product is right for him or her. Rezaei had identified the problem at Gusto: the company had designed its webpages to cater specifically to founders of tech companies, the first persona Gusto sold to. “As Gusto expanded to restaurants and accountants and lawyers and all of these other business owners, Gusto’s website didn’t translate for them,” Rezaei says.
To adjust an online experience for each customer, a marketing department required two elements. First, a team of engineers—dozens, maybe even hundreds. Second, a team of data scientists, to process what was and wasn’t working and what customer audiences to prioritize. Of these two things, Rezaei had neither. “Companies like Airbnb or Uber can hire all those engineers,” Rezaei says, “But if you’re outside the one percent and don’t have these resources, but are still expected to grow revenue, how do you succeed?”
Gusto built a dedicated engineering team of almost 20 people to solve this problem, but it still wasn’t enough. Rezaei was tired of begging engineers to help her department. She was tired of the decades-old individual Marketing Tech tools she had cobbled together, but which required more work to operate than they were worth. Rezaei began thinking about a platform that could replace the need for engineers and data scientists. A single platform that a marketer with little coding experience and a limited budget could use to compete with larger, wealthier companies. She approached a colleague, Nikhil Mathew, who had felt her same frustrations. “At the time, I was supporting a team of 120 engineers,” Mathew says. “I saw that the work we were putting into growth marketing was incredibly important to the success of Gusto. But I always thought, ‘If we had a product that would allow us to do this off the shelf, one, it’s going to better serve the marketing team because they’re not going to be dependent on the engineering team to implement everything. Two, it would allow the engineers to focus on improving Gusto’s core product.”
Mathew’s perspective affirmed Rezeai’s determination. “What we needed was a mutiny against the status quo,” Rezaei says. “A mutiny against the 8,000 tools that exist in a MarTech stack. A mutiny against the lack of access to engineers and data scientists, which is something that historically has only been available to the elite of Silicon Valley companies. We felt it was time for a new regime because what we had wasn’t working.”
“I literally thought being a business person was public speaking at conferences. And I didn’t think that I would be good at that.”Jaleh Rezaei
Mathew and Rezaei began brainstorming and sketching out Mutiny. At Original Joe’s in 2018, when the conversation turned to their company’s ethos, rebellion was certainly on the table—but other priorities surfaced as well. “We opened up to each other about our families and our upbringings,” Rezaei says. Mathew’s parents had immigrated to America from India, and some of his most treasured memories were of visiting and bonding with grandparents and cousins in Chennai and Kerala each summer. In turn, Rezaei shared with him about her family in Iran. “More than anything, we saw a lot of similarities around the value placed on community,” Rezaei says. “We knew we wanted our company to create change, but also to create a community.”
Mathew and Rezaei were accepted later that year to startup accelerator Y Combinator. “We incorporated, and, day one, wrote our first line of code,” Rezaei recalls. The first thing they built was a no-code tool for marketers to personalize their websites for various customer groups. That part was easy. The challenge was in building a “recommendation system.” This was an AI-based program that marketers could use in place of a team of data scientists and writers. It would analyze data on successful and failed customer experiences across the user base and make recommendations about what a marketing team should focus on and how to improve the experience. “But you can’t build an AI system without data,” Rezaei says. “So the first version of this system was me. I was like, I’ll do the analysis and write the copy because I’ve done this before. So for free, I’ll be your AI.” Gradually, as their customer base grew, they were able to supply the system with enough data to analyze and make recommendations—what customers to focus on, and how to tailor the site to those customers. “Once that fell into place, I was like ‘Ok, I feel like we have cracked this thing open,” Rezaei says.
Developing the recommendation system took time. Rezaei and Mathew had hired a small team of engineers and, true to their values, worked to make the long hours feel communal and to make the team feel like a family. “We drank wine, we cooked together, and we even sang and personalized the lyrics of “I Will Survive,” Rezaei says. In 2019, the Mutiny team took a trip to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. “We stayed overnight and camped,” Rezaei says. “At one point, we were sitting at a table and every time someone would turn around with their headlamps there would be this group of adorable raccoons watching us and trying to approach us and take our wine and food.” While working with a graphic designer on Mutiny’s logo, Rezaei suggested the raccoon. “No normal B2B company is going to use an animal that scavenges through trash as their mascot. But we were a scrappy, smart, determined team. And so we did what no other company was doing. We picked the raccoon.”
In September 2021, the team at Mutiny announced its Series A funding, which included an investment from Sequoia. “They had a code name for it, Lightning Strike,” Balkansky recalls. “Most other companies who raise their Series A get an article in TechCrunch and that’s basically the launch. What Mutiny managed to do was so head and shoulders better and more compelling. Their campaign was more effective than any other startup launch announcement that I’ve seen.”
Rezaei remembers thinking carefully about Mutiny’s Series A launch. They had their PR lined up (including an article in Forbes), but she wanted to capitalize on it even more. Traditionally, like any team in a competitive arena, a marketing department keeps strategies or its “playbooks” confidential. “Marketers are used to paying millions of dollars for other people’s playbooks,” Rezaei says. “But a big part of Mutiny is that it gets smarter the more people use it. Wins lift others up. And so for Lightning Strike, we asked our customers if they would talk about Mutiny and about their playbooks publicly. We didn’t know what the reaction would be, if anyone would agree to do it. Everyone said yes.”
The day of the launch, Mutiny customers published videos and posts describing Mutiny and describing their playbooks. The campaign went viral with millions of impressions and even marketing teams not using Mutiny shared their own playbooks. “In a field where people have had to learn everything on their own without access to other teams and their insights, the campaign expanded into this community-wide viral boom,” Rezaei says. “I think it was empowering and it was what people had been wanting for a long time.”
Today, 50 million people have seen a website personalized by Mutiny. The platform is used by some of the fastest growing SaaS companies in the world, including Snowflake, Amplitude, Carta and Notion.
After each work-week spent with her Mutiny family, Rezaei drives the 45 minutes back to the East Bay to see her parents, sister, and niece. Last year, Rezaei asked her mother to help her with a different kind of life challenge: she wanted to learn to cook five traditional Persian dishes. From January through December, Rezaei practiced making khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi (herb stew and barberry rice) with the woman who had taught her as a child what it meant to be a rebel. “If I don’t go over one weekend, they’re like, ‘What’s happening? You never come anymore,’” Rezaei says. “Since leaving Iran, I have found ways of rebuilding the community that we left behind. But I don’t think my parents ever did. My parents just have me and my sister. I think that’s been a big motivator for me, to make sure that the sacrifice they made in losing their community was not for nothing.”
Today, Rezaei is building out a whole new community, not just for herself, but for everyone in marketing. A community built on sharing insights, encouraging experimentation, and providing feedback so everyone using Mutiny benefits. Rezaei may have started as a rebel. But a rebel is a single person. A mutiny requires a community.
“If you’re outside the one percent and don’t have these resources, but are still expected to grow revenue, how do you succeed? We needed a mutiny against the status quo.”Jaleh Rezaei