Listen welcomes Ellen Wilcox as Head of Listening

Listen welcomes Ellen Wilcox as Head of Listening

Listen doubles down on… well Listening

We have always said – money talks, ours Listens. The act of listening is our foundation for investing. Our thesis is that brands of tomorrow will be built WITH their consumers and the most consumer-obsessed founders will come out on top. That’s the idea behind naming the firm listen – listening is about understanding, it’s about empathy, it is about consumer-obsession.

Consumer obsession has a way of taking over at Listen. When looking at companies, we like to ask questions like -> Is the consumer at the center of this idea? Are people actually asking for this? Does the team use the voice of the consumer when making decisions? And we are constantly encouraging our companies to ask themselves the same questions as they build their businesses. It’s an important part of building a modern day brand that lives and dies by what their loyal fans (and haters) say about them. It’s never been more crucial to listen, distill, assess and act.

That is why I am incredibly excited to announce our latest addition to the team, Ellen Wilcox as our new Head of Listening. Ellen’s role is to build out a listening practice to double down on understanding consumer behavior. She brings a rigorous consumer research approach and a mastery of market dynamics to facilitate more human-centered investment decisions. Fascinated by all things consumer, Ellen has dedicated her career to understanding human behavior and designing elegant interventions that aim to reconcile the rational economic model and the irrationality of the human mind.

Ellen received her MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and an MS in Design Innovation from the McCormick School of Engineering. A liberal arts kid at heart, she also holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and English from Georgetown University. There are many endeavors on the forefront of the firm’s Listening practice, all in service of unlocking even greater value for our portfolio companies and their consumers. We can’t wait to share what’s next. In the meantime, I sat down with Ellen to talk about consumer obsession and why human behavior is so very interesting…

Head of Listening… What does this position mean to you, and what brought you down this career path?

In two words: Dream job. This role is a reflection of what we value as a firm. It’s a humble position. The title alone suggests that we don’t presume to have all the answers, but rather that we are willing to put in the work to ask the right questions. It acknowledges the work required to make sense of those points of view to drive smarter decision-making. And certainly, it reinforces our commitment to being consumer-obsessed — giving organizational credibility to a practice that’s so deeply held in the hearts of our entire Listen team.

My career as a human-centered innovator began in an unlikely place: the US government. I was an eager management consultant helping big, complex agencies develop innovation strategies. But one question nagged at me over and over: How can we, sitting here in DC, possibly build solutions that serve the diverse needs of those living in the US? A spark went off, sending me into a career-long exploration of human behavior and human-centered design. This spark drove me to Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and ultimately to IDEO as a business designer. I often say I’ve dedicated my career to finding elegant ways to balance the rational economic model and the irrationality of the human mind. The Head of Listening role is the ultimate manifestation of that thrilling tension — a celebration of the beautiful complexity of human brains and behavior.

You often talk about the difference between hearing and listening, can you explain for us?

Hearing is a basic human sense. It’s a necessary but not sufficient tool when it comes to meaningfully engaging with the world around us. Listening — on the other hand — is not a sense, but a skill.

Like all skills, from riding a bike to public speaking, listening requires practice and discipline. Where hearing is involuntary, listening is active, requiring effort. Hearing is about data collection, whereas listening is about meaning absorption. Listening relies on one’s ability to hear, but it also asks us to see (e.g., observe body language and contextual cues), to speak (e.g., ask follow-up questions), and to engage (e.g., lean in, nod).

When done well, organizational listening is similarly multi-disciplinary — calling upon multiple functions, resources, and methods to not only collect data points, but more importantly to make sense of them.

Listen welcomes Ellen Wilcox as Head of Listening

Curiosity is incredibly important to our work; what is your earliest memory of listening or applying curiosity to the world?

My earliest memories of applied curiosity are the many worlds I created with it. One of the first things you’ll learn about me is that much of my creative quirk is attributable to my beloved years in Montessori school. My childhood was fueled by imagination and hands-on play — and my curiosity most often resulted in world-building.

At home, I kept a file cabinet full of homework and short stories submitted by my fake “class” of 20 “students” that I “taught” each day after school. At school, I wrote memoirs for baby chicks, as the unhatched eggs incubated under a grow light in our open concept play space. I hosted poetry jams and short-story readings for my family, who called my trippy 90-minute monologues “corpur.” I have always been a tinkerer, fueled by imagination and optimism. At Listen, my love for a blank page takes on new meaning — as I bring this fascination for the world and for the humans that live in it to the world of venture capital.

Listen was founded on the belief that potent brands are built where there are shifts in human behavior. How do you help identify these shifts?

At Listen, we do a lot of information sharing. We are all students of culture who love to nerd out on all things consumer brand and behavior. Our Slack is full of links to cool finds and hot takes. Our hallways are home to big debates and even bigger ideas for the future. I see part of my job as the Head of Listening to be our librarian, an archivist of sorts — to stitch together and to draw more nuanced meaning from the little wonders and furies that are all too fleeting in our busy minds.

One way this manifests is in formalizing the cultural movements — paradigm shifts that are driving changes (or, we believe, will drive changes) in consumer behavior — that we feel particularly inspired to invest against. Each quarter, I will be taking on a new cultural movement to explore. This body of research involves going deep without an agenda, asking thoughtful questions, getting smart on what drives behavior across categories, and ultimately developing a point of view that can serve as a baseline for diligence.

“Ask more questions” is a mantra at Listen. How are you bringing human-centered methods to the firm— helping to understand product-problem fit during due diligence?

We recently finished a sprint to reimagine how we go about diligencing deals in an effort to dial up and double down on consumer obsession — a process I like to call consumer-obsessed due diligence. This new approach explores the intersections, gaps, and overlaps between four key areas of deal evaluation: viability (e.g., economics, business model); feasibility (e.g., product quality, IP defensibility, team fit); compatibility (e.g., portfolio construction, round dynamics); and — where listening primarily lives — desirability (e.g., consumer need, target audience).

Weaving a desirability dimension into our due diligence process nudges us to ask questions like: Do we feel conviction in the “why” for consumers? Do we have a clear view of the audience and their needs? Do we know what we don’t know?

To answer these questions, we’ve incorporated human-centered design thinking methods and mindsets into our practice, borrowing from the world of anthropology and ethnography to build direct inroads to consumers. For example, we now conduct in-context interviews with a brand’s consumers as part of our diligence process.

Listen welcomes Ellen Wilcox as Head of Listening

This work not only places consumers in context, but founders too — helping us to evaluate the consumer obsession of our potential founder partners.
Through ethnography, social listening, literature reviews, and founder and expert interviews, our investment squad moonlights as professional listeners to help ask better questions and build greater conviction in our diligence process.

You also help our portfolio companies further develop how their brands listen to consumers. What are three tips for founders that can help them become better listeners?

Emphasize “why” over “what” to mind the say/do gap: What someone says they do or will do and what they actually do are often two different things. We lovingly call this the “say/do gap.” The gap is particularly wide on matters of personal aspiration or product innovation — where the delta between intention and behavior tends to be the largest. Henry Ford famously reflected, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Because consumer behavior is the result of many forces, both internal and external (including context, mood, attitude, culture), it’s difficult for us to predict with any accuracy how we’ll behave in the future. Instead of asking your customers what they want, consider asking them why. Unpacking what motivates them and drives their decisions is much stronger fodder for your brand’s growth than knowing what they think they’ll like right now. Which brings me to number two…

Go beyond a survey and immerse yourself: I don’t dismiss the power of a well-designed survey to unlock scaled consumer sentiment; but I do acknowledge its limitations. Some more strategic questions are better suited for depth over scale. The most effective and efficient way to achieve that depth is to create direct lines of communication and contact with your consumers. Go where they are. Do what they do. Get uncomfortable and talk to strangers. I believe deep consumer research is about rummaging through human hearts, minds, and sock drawers to unlock insight, inspiration, and strategic direction.

Don’t underestimate the work to be done in synthesis: It’s easy to collect data, it’s much harder to make sense of it. Making adequate time and space for sense-making in qualitative research is the secret to successful listening. But it’s also the hardest and can be the most time-consuming part of the process, making it susceptible to deprioritization. One example of where synthesis tends to fall through the cracks is in customer service. A customer service function can be one strong channel for more deeply understanding your consumers — however, without intentional and prioritized feedback loops back to your brand, that insight is lost.

Many get stuck listening to the same sources. What are some new ways to listen or inspiration for unexpected connections?

Many of the sources we know, love, and trust are designed to lock us in — so it takes intentionality and effort to break out and explore. Here are some tips:

Seek out analogous inspiration: Look to adjacent or unexpected sources for inspiration. What other industries or brands might have faced a similar challenge in a different context? What can you learn from that?

Go out into the world, observe, immerse: Close the computer and meet your people where they gather. Observe what they do, listen to what they say and how they say it. Schedule unstructured time to listen and learn.

Decenter yourself: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Ask others what they’re reading. Where do they get their information? Who do they trust? What are they thinking, seeing, hearing, saying, doing?

Decompartmentalize your thinking: Practice drawing connections in unexpected ways in your own life. Connect dots between personal lessons and professional challenges. For example, what might navigating a long-distance relationship teach you about managing a fragmented supply chain?

What’s your favorite question to ask?

What do you not yet know or understand about your consumers? Founders tend to speak with rightful conviction when it comes to their target audience. I love to know what we don’t yet know or where we might lack conviction — it not only relays the unfinishiblity of listening, and also gives the founder a chance to share their consumer curiosity with us. Not to mention, putting words to the unknown can be a powerful exercise — once you name it, you can design against it.

What’s your bold prediction for brands in the future?

Brands of the future will look more like makerspaces than storefronts. Greater decentralization (e.g., via Web3 and DAOs) will shift the power of brand direction to its followership — meaning consumers will become strategic collaborators, effectively replacing the R&D function of a brand. To succeed will require greater emphasis on high-quality inputs, and an elegantly designed creation experience for the consumer. This shift positions organizational listening as a non-negotiable tool for convening and engaging these micro-communities of consumers.

…And finally: what are you currently listening to?

Walks of Life by In the Know and SomeFriends — a podcast that Jeff turned me onto that follows a GenZ through a walk in their neighborhood. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s fascinating!

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