MILWAUKEE – No matter where Erik Thomas worked — the flower-bulb dealer in Milwaukee, the school furnishings supplier, the online shoe retailer in Boston — the marketing problem was the same.
"Whether it was the directors or CEOs or executive teams, they would ask, 'What are we missing, what aren't we doing, what are the competitors doing that we aren't?,' " Thomas said.
So this year, Thomas stopped commuting to Boston for his job as e-commerce director at Planetshoes.com and started a company in Milwaukee to answer those questions.
His new business, Getter LLC, has a patent-pending technology that helps retailers monitor and hone the effectiveness of their digital marketing efforts in real time. Getter's technology also provides insight into what competitors are doing by gathering intelligence from online profiles it has created. The profiles, which it calls personas, function like an army of virtual secret shoppers.
Thomas, 35, has long had an entrepreneurial itch. At 15, he started his first company and made his first sale: $3,750 for building a system that helped a client upload computer-aided design files. Because he didn't yet have a driver's license, his dad drove him to meetings.
After graduating with a degree in computer science from a technical college in 2002, Thomas had a number of software developer and e-commerce management jobs that led to his position with Planetshoes in Boston. There, he impressed co-workers with his business skills.
"Erik is a dual threat," said Katie Doyle, who has since left Planetshoes to co-found brassclothing.com, which sells women's clothing basics and is a Getter customer. "He understands marketing communications, but he's also a coder and understands Web development."
Thomas Boudreau, Planetshoes.com's finance director, was so impressed with Thomas' ability to innovate and deploy technology that he said he became Getter's first investor in late 2014. Many companies still rely on a book with printouts of screenshots from their websites and copies of promotional e-mails they've sent to customers to get a handle on their marketing progress, Boudreau said. But in the age of big data, a company like Getter offers better options, he said.
"When you have all this data available to you, to be sitting and looking at a book is kind of prehistoric," Boudreau said.
For a monthly fee, Getter offers retailers a way to understand what's going on online in real time, a task that might otherwise take weeks and result in dated information when finally collected, Thomas said.
Getter's personas scour digital marketing and online activity to monitor and track behavior, allowing companies to make revenue-generating decisions based on what they have learned, Thomas said. The personas can collect information about how competitors are communicating, what they are offering and whom they are targeting. They use machine learning, which means they can teach themselves to change and grow when exposed to new data, he said.
Getter's core technology involving the personas has the potential to be useful in a range of industries beyond retail, including advertising, customer relationship management, politics and national security, Thomas said.
"The personas can be deployed in almost any industry or situation, and add a layer of transparency and insight that doesn't exist today," said Adam Berger, vice president of sales at Doering Fleet Management in suburban Milwaukee and an adviser to Getter.
The fact that Getter has a patent pending for creation of online personas that behave according to the attributes they have will be helpful to the company going forward, said Melissa Turczyn, a Madison, Wis., lawyer who works with Getter.
"An investor is always going to be interested in different barriers to entry, and from Getter's perspective, having patented aspects of its technology will make it more difficult for competitors to get into its market and compete effectively," Turcyzn said.
There is another quality in Thomas, Turcyzn said, that could prove equally valuable.
"He is definitely an entrepreneur who has one of those 'never say die' attitudes where he's going to run through any roadblocks put in front of him," she said.