By Gwen Dawkins
Startup co-founder Eliza Suzuki, 46, calls herself a ‘data geek’ who is keeping her entrepreneurial dreams alive as she stays afloat below the ‘unicorns’ and ‘rainbows.’ She wants to change how you shop online –– by making product reviews more accurate, smarter and faster.
In the world of startups, we typically only hear about the “unicorns” like SpaceX, Airbnb, DoorDash and Robinhood. But the reality is that most startups struggle to find funding and stable footing. Unlike the stereotypical hoodie-clad, couch-surfing, startup punks heralded in TV shows like Silicon Valley –– and well, inside the buildings of Silicon Valley –– Eliza Suzuki represents the more typical startup co-founder. With adult responsibilities like kids, a job and a mortgage, she might even be considered what phenom VC Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital calls an “underestimated” founder. With five US patents, nearly a decade of data science experience and a business-minded partner, will she get her chance?
Tell me about your startup?
My co-founder and I created Maike (rhymes with cake) to change the way people research and shop online. By using artificial intelligence, machine learning and sentiment analysis, Maike scrubs product reviews from all over the Internet and distills them down to people’s true, unbiased opinions. The Web is littered with wordy, inconsistent and useless reviews. It can be very confusing and time-consuming. We created proprietary, repeatable and scalable tech that gets down to the sentiment or emotion of what people actually think of a given product. We’ve also eliminated the typical 5-star review process in favor of a 1 – 10 “Maike Rate,” so it’s easier to visualize and understand the nuances in opinions.
How did you come up with the idea?
My George Foremen Grill broke. I used it all of the time for quick and easy cooking, and I wanted another one fast. Like most people, I went to Amazon; but discovered several models and about 800 reviews. I’m a researcher, so I started reading the reviews but didn’t necessarily trust them. For example, a reviewer might give the product one star for “cooks great, but cord too short.” Or “Pros: removable plates. Cons: removable plates.” Since a generalized, accurate review site didn’t exist, I ran a sentiment analysis code on the reviews to make my choice. It dawned on me that by doing this on a grand scale, online shopping could be much more satisfying for everyone. That’s how Maike was born.
Sheryl Sandberg says the right partner is key. How did you find your co-founder?
It’s vital to find someone with different skillsets and experiences from your own. I looked through my contacts for the most established, credible people with technical, marketing and sales experience. I narrowed it down to John Ford because he’s all of those things plus blunt! He jumped right in –– quickly becoming my partner and helping me polish what Maike could be. Sometimes we have heated debates, but we always work through them. We trust each other and I appreciate being on this journey with him as a business partner.
Is your startup a disrupter?
We see Maike as a disrupter based on providing consumers with truly honest reviews, which, believe it or not, has not been a significant focus for online retailers. At its core, Maike is about cutting through the chaos of the existing review process and taking customers to the products that genuinely meet their needs. Currently, Maike is focused on athletic shoes with authenticated high reviews. People coming to our site specify the shoe attributes they desire (for example, running shoes suited for 20 miles per week), and we direct them to the best shoes to fit their needs. Then they click a button to go directly to trusted brands’ e-commerce sites.
By contrast, Amazon aggregates all reviews for a shoe model in one spot, regardless of the shoe’s version. For example, when you look at Mizuno “Wave Prophesy” reviews on Amazon, you’re seeing reviews for versions 1 – 8 combined, not just the current version 8. By checking the “Maike Rate,” people will only see opinions of currently available versions. The Maike technology and approach is something different –– we’re improving and evolving the review process. And once we secure additional funding, we’ll continue to add new product categories and other revenue streams.
How hard is it to find funding?
We have just begun engaging to raise our seed round. We’ve had strong interest but haven’t found our lead investor yet. Because our lives have quickly shifted to a digital world, and Maike’s service is about doing more from home –– while making online shopping easier and much more effective –– we’re hopeful we’ll find our right lead investor soon.
Did you always know you wanted to do this?
No. I actually struggled to find my career path. I come from a very traditional Chinese family, and my parents wanted a prestigious career for me. I started on a pre-med trajectory, taking tough classes and achieving top grades. But I was pushing to achieve something that didn’t speak to my heart. I got to the point where I just couldn’t breathe.
Most kids would just truck through the same ebb and flow of their path and not necessarily question whether they really want to be doing what they’re doing. Life is never easy, but it became clear that I had to find my own path.
So, I moved out of my parents’ house and changed my major to Business Marketing because it sounded interesting and I knew I could graduate sooner. Over the next few years, I moved across different industries, not really finding my stride. At one point, I had three massively different job offers ranging from director of sales and marketing to an entry-level market research analyst. Although overqualified, I chose the latter because I saw an opportunity to learn a new skill. People told me I was crazy.
Within two months, my boss left on vacation, and a VP asked me to create a multi-year forecasting model on IP royalties. I was freaking out because it was a big ask when I’d never done that type of work before. But I buckled down and figured it out. My boss came back on the day I presented my results. He said I did exactly what he would have done. It was a pivotal moment because I understood right then and there that data science was what I wanted to do. Soon, I joined Northwestern University’s Master’s Degree Program with a minor in analytics. I still think about that moment a lot because it gave me confidence in myself and my choices. Every aspect of my career path has offered benefits and learning opportunities. Co-founding and building Maike is a culmination of all of it –– making mistakes, learning from them, bouncing back and moving forward.
There isn’t anything preventing them from scaling the “Maike” sentiment analysis model beyond their current markets