Happy 3rd Birthday to Phrasee

By February 22, 2018 Blog No Comments

Parry here, CEO of Phrasee. You may remember me from such films as “Catch Me If You Spam”, and “Close Encounters of the AI Kind”.  But today, I’m here to talk to you about something much more important.

The 23rd February, marks Phrasee’s 3rd birthday. When Dr Neil Yager, Victoria Peppiatt and I founded Phrasee, we had no idea about the wild ride we were embarking upon. But – no one wants a soppy blog of me going on about how dope we are (although, for the record, we are super dope).

Here are some of the weird questions we get asked over the past three years, and their answers:

1. How did you, Neil and Vic meet?

Neil and I met in 1997. We were both in our first year studying computer science at the University of Victoria, in Canada. Neil’s high school buddy Ryan was my roommate in the dorm, and we became fast friends. We initially bonded over our shared admiration of Slayer, Danzig and Type O Negative, and then wound up in a bunch of programming classes together. Neil moved to Australia to do his PhD, and I moved to London.

Fast-forward 10 years. I was living in Amsterdam, running the marketing department for a huge media company. The incumbent agency was one of those household name agencies – and their work was sub-par, and over-priced. I can’t remember how, but I came across a company called The Pink Group, which was run by Victoria. I fired the big agency, brought in Vic and her team, and every job I had after that, I’d kick out the incumbents and bring in Vic and her team.

2. Who were your first employees?

We founded Phrasee with two employees on the books – Jasper and Verity. They both still work here, 3 years later, and continue to be awesome. They’re also the ones who, just naturally, help us maintain our company culture. In practice, this means they are the first ones at the pub on Fridays, but also the first ones in the office on Monday morning. They’re also the first ones to make fun of me.

For example – for our first Christmas party, we went to a bar in East London, and I was wearing my Slayer Christmas jumper. It was super hot, so I took it off. I was wearing a super sweet t-shirt that had a weird, S&M-style black vinyl strip across it. Basically, one of the worst fashion decisions of my life.

Jasper saw it, and immediately laughed. And I mean a deep belly laugh. Verity? She literally spat out her drink in shock. And still, to this day, the very thought of that shirt makes Verity break into the giggles. Also: there’s a 100% chance she’s giggling while reading this.

3. How did you come up with the name “Phrasee”?

I really wish this was a better story. But it’s a true story.

I was watching Dirty Dancing one night, as you do. And, whilst taking in the mellifluous dialogue, I thought to myself: “Nobody puts subject lines in the corner!” And then it came to me. Patrick Swayze. Swayze rhymes with… Frayze!

So I came into the office, and proclaimed my utter genius – our new company shall be called “Frayze”!

Jasper looks at me and said, “Um… are you drunk? Why not just spell it like ‘phrase’ with an extra ‘e’?”

So, we’re called Phrasee. And still, to this day, we refuse to put subject lines in the corner.

4. How did you celebrate your first customer?

When we first started Phrasee, we thought we could have a one-size-fits-all platform. Like, a database of generic subject lines that would magically work for everyone. And the entire world would sign up instantly, swipe their credit cards, and we’d be instant billionaires. Billionaires!

Well, we quickly learned that this didn’t work. Our customers’ brands weren’t generic – so why would they want a one-size-fits-all tool? But, you don’t know what you don’t know, so we went to market with a generic product.

One person signed up. One person. But when that one person signed up, we wanted to celebrate! So, we went out for margaritas and tacos. We wound up spending about 1000% more on celebrating than the income we had received. Smart.

The lesson? Our first customer was deeply, deeply unprofitable. And also: as a result, we began to tailor Phrasee on a customer-to-customer basis. And that was a pivotal moment for us.

5. What’s the deal with all The Simpsons references?

You may have noticed that we like The Simpsons. For example, many of our newsletter gifs feature our favourite Simpsons scenes. But what you probably didn’t know is how deeply The Simpsons permeates our culture.

For example – our technology is compartmentalized into distinct projects, and each of these projects are given internal code names. The naming convention? Well, here it is:

  • Frink: our Natural Language Generation tech. Basically, we’ve developed a programming language for language. It’s really complex. So we named it after Professor Frink.
  • Bumblebee Man: our end-to-end Deep Learning engine, which looks at thousands of parameters to self-teach itself to say “¡Ay yi yi! ¡Que bueno subject line!”
  • Willie: our user-facing application, which our awesome customers log into and use. I can’t remember why it’s named after Groundskeeper Willie. It just is.
  • Kamp Krusty: a set of tools we’ve built for our computational linguists to use when constructing generative algorithms.
  • Radioactive Man: a UI tool we’ve developed for internal use. It helps us to get “Up and at them!”
  • Flanders: middleware we’ve developed to allow Phrasee to “speak” to other systems, like ESPs and whatnot. Because, even when our neighbours are less than ideal, we’ll always be polite and say, “Hideliho, neighbourino!”

6. What is the worst hotel you’ve ever stayed in?

Oh, this one is easy. Dr Neil and I were in San Jose, California, a couple years ago, and we didn’t want to over-spend on our travels. So we used a trusty reviews site to find an appropriate place to stay.

It had been a long trip. We were tired. But, we knew from experience that going right to bed wouldn’t allow us to adjust time zones. So we said – it’s nice outside, how about a dip in the pool?

We changed into our trunks, and headed down, ready to enjoy some of that beautiful California sun.

But, fate had a different plan for us. The gate of the pool had a sign on it, which read: “If you have had symptoms of diarrhoea in the last 10 days, do not use the pool.”


Which begs the question: what terrible situation prompted the hotel management to put that sign up?

Needless to say, we didn’t go for that swim.

7. What’s the deal with Phrasee’s theme song?

Before we came up with the name Phrasee, we had bandied about a few others, including “WordUp”. Sadly, the URL “wordup.com” was taken, so that was out. But, the idea stuck in our heads. And, for reasons I can’t remember, Word Up became our theme song.

But, not Word Up by Cameo, the 80s synth-funk band. Nope, that would be far too normal, and Phrasee is anything but normal.

Nope. Our theme song, officially, is the Korn cover of Word Up. This is probably a result of Neil and I having spent much of our youths head-banging to loud metal. (Note: Victoria prefers Barbara Streisand. We had so many arguments about playlists that we had to get individual Spotify accounts. True story.)

Well, there you go. You now know 7 more things about Phrasee than you did when you woke up this morning.

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