There is a type of man whose demeanor announces his import as soon as he walks into a room, who has perfected a manner of walking, dressing, throwing their shoulders back and shaking hands in a firm two-pumps while keeping just enough nonchalance to imply that any given moment is not the most important of their day. It is a practiced art, one that is often considered crucial in the business world—especially by people hoping to project an importance more aspirational than real. Michael Sprague is not this type of man.
"I'll get started! I really enjoy talking about this, I find it really exciting."
Sprague is sitting down with me to discuss GeistM's proprietary marketing technology, Blackfire, which he has spearheaded as CTO over the past three years. Blackfire is GeistM's proprietary marketing platform that allows us to gather insights on every level of the marketing funnel: from front-end, to content, to landing page and every click in between. By integrating with network APIs, the GeistM team uses Blackfire to launch, analyze, and optimize digital marketing campaigns from a single place. It's integral to the company's daily operations and long-term success, and is so sophisticated that it took me a full 24 hours to finally decide how to best describe the tech for an outside audience. Thank God Sprague doesn't need prompting.
"I think what makes Blackfire so unique is that it was built out of need. Most new tech is built in the opposite way—they say, 'I want to build this, and it's going to do this,' then if it doesn't meet those goals exactly, it's a failure. When building Blackfire, I've taken more of a tinker approach. It's a piece of tech that's designed to help the people on the floor, as their needs change, it changes. It evolves constantly."
The floor he's referring to is the open-floor-plan startup where GeistM's partnership group finesses network spend, tests thousands of front end creative assets, and analyzes data to strategize and optimize marketing campaigns, flanked on either end by a ping-pong table and Baldwin piano.
"I think of tinkering like this: say back in the day, a long, long time ago, we were all living in tribes. And our little tribal community is nomadic and facing problems, wild animal attacks, and so forth. A tinker doesn't just say 'OK, I'll go invent a flying car, you guys wait here in the meantime.' No. They say, 'OK, I noticed you got hit yesterday because your spear is too short. So I'll make you a longer spear you can start using tomorrow."
Tinker is a good word to describe Sprague. It's practical, yet something out-of-time, like a clockmaker from a storybook about children who learn to jump seamlessly from future to past. Sprague himself is practical, his quiet demeanor and casual uniform—long sleeved t-shirt and cuffed beanie—allows him to weave in and out of rooms unnoticed. But his ice-blue eyes light up when he talks about his process; he observes the world with intense, purposeful focus. And he's thoughtfully whimsical. In email correspondence, he says humanity is full of "errant linguists."
"I really like fixing problems. Inspiration never hits in a big, dramatic way. I just sit in meetings and listen to the team talk about what they're trying to do, what kind of data they're trying to track. I'll listen to them talk about a pain point, something that's taking them a really long time to accomplish, and think, 'yeah, we can do something about that.' Or I'll hear them talk about what kinds of things they're digging into, what kinds of questions they have, and think, 'yeah, our data should the ability to answer that.'"
For Sprague, this philosophy extends beyond technology to business, and even life. Though, he doesn't draw a line between the three; when I ask about his non-Geist life, he looks a bit stymied.
"I think it really reflects Geist's learning and teaching culture. We don't say 'achieve this or you fail,' we say 'help me with this, step up.' So many startups, as they start to get some success and begin to grow, they start to think they need to set benchmarks in stone, to announce loudly, 'this is who we are and what we're going to do by the end of the year!' They set themselves up to fail that way. They should be taking it step at a time, saying 'what's next?,' and building on that. I've made sure Blackfire can never be a failure. We're working on it constantly, but I've taken great care to make sure we never announce the next feature ahead of time, and especially that we never attach a deadline to it."
This learning culture has resulted in some amazing Blackfire features, like the stories report, which tracks the full-funnel journey of people who interact with GeistM's ads or content. The report is a beautiful example of quantitative data presented to inform qualitative insights. It can show if a reader engages with content for seven minutes, adds to cart but doesn't buy, Googles the product a week later, and then pulls the trigger. That's invaluable information for strategizing successful campaigns."
The stories report came about just like anything else with Sprague: "As I learned more and more that the Geist team didn't just care about the first click and the landing page, they were interested in the entire funnel in between and how exactly someone gets from first view to the landing page, and where they go in between, and I just started putting it together."
Tinkering is nothing new to Sprague, whose introduction to engineering at an early age resulted in a kind of bilingual thought pattern, English and the language of machines.
"I've been coding since I was really young. Probably when my Dad first brought home the Apple II, serial number 7, one of the first ever made. When you're an engineer, it's just what you do. You're working on machinery, whether it's at work or outside. I wish we could train children to markup at the same time we teach them what colors and shapes are. The vast majority of time spent coding platforms is dedicated to making it easy to use for people who aren't willing to learn just a little bit of another language. They say 'we need this to drag and drop and for it to look like what it will look like on the screen,' and no, you don't. If you could just think of things in a different way, you would see that."
Big things are in the works for Blackfire, but Sprague can't talk about them all now. But he is forthcoming when I ask if there are any recent passion projects in the works.
"At the moment I'm working on fixing time." Storybook clockmaker, indeed.
"You see people want to eat breakfast at 8am everyday, they can't help it, their bodies work based on the sun. But when it's 8am here, of course, it's lunchtime in England. But machines don't care about that. So I've created a clock that looks like a normal clock but it uses letters instead of numbers. You have no sentiment attached to G o' clock. It just helps humans think about time more of the same way machines do."
Sprague kindly shows me the clock hanging on his office wall, fashioned with paper plate and Sharpie, but functional nonetheless. He points out another problem with time, that it moves in the opposite direction of the sun. The sun, the earth, the long march of time: just another problem for him to tinker with.