Forever Duke Q&A with Brooks Bell

Sterly Wilder '83 in conversation with Brooks Bell '02
December 8, 2014

Brooks Bell’s analytics firm, Brooks Bell Inc., which she founded in Raleigh in 2003, focuses on testing and optimization for companies such as Adobe, American Eagle Outfitters, American Express, AOL, and Brooks Brothers and is the first agency to focus exclusively on digital experimentation. Bell, who majored in psychology at Duke, also cofounded ThinkHouse and HQ Raleigh, two residential entrepreneurial communities in Raleigh that support the growing startup ecosystem.

What do you love the most about the testing/optimization world?

It’s a multidimensional solution to a pretty important problem. What’s so cool about it is that it leverages many psychology principles. You have to understand your consumer and the business of your clients to have any idea about where to start and what to test first. It also requires a deep understanding of analytics and how to make a change to a large enterprise company, but not break it.

Was there a class at Duke that has informed your work today?

The main course I still use every day is statistics, which helped give insight into how studies and experiments are constructed. Many studies are flawed. You have to understand the limitations in study design. I still use that insight when evaluating our own experiments. Being a psychology major gave me a broad view into consumer behavior. I really wish Dan Ariely had been there when I was because he’s one of my heroes. The insights that come out of the behavioral economics he teaches are the type we use all the time.

Why did you choose Duke?

My dad went to Duke, and so I grew up in Alaska watching a lot of Duke basketball. I remember looking over my shoulder at the TV and seeing “The Shot.” I thought that was so cool. I really thought I was going to be in graphic design. I got accepted to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. But I realized graphic design was just too narrow of a field. I thought, “I’m going to start over. I’m going to explore the world. I’m going to explore what I can become.” And that’s why I choose Duke.

At Brooks Bell, you have an interesting approach to the hiring process. Tell us about that process and why it’s important to the success of your company.

When I was twenty-three, I began my company thinking that if you’re a CEO, you need to act like a boss and tell people what to do. I’m embarrassed to verbalize that now because it’s so wrong. No one was empowered. One of my colleagues insisted we go on a retreat and look deep at what we were doing. At the time, I kind of scoffed at that idea: “We’re in the business of helping AOL! What else is there?” But the retreat opened up a whole new world to me. I realized I had hired many of my employees for their résumés and not for who they are as people. My core value is to pursue knowledge and to be curious. I decided going forward I needed to hire people who also had those fundamental interests. I started looking for people based on their potential and our shared core values. Today, out of my thirty-two employees, only one went to an Ivy League school. Many of them weren’t even in technology before I hired them. It’s resulted in a superstar team.

What’s your advice to Duke students who are considering an entrepreneurial path?

Don’t try to change the world on your first try. Often what is successful is a niche idea. Focus on getting your first paying customer.

Do you come back to campus often?

Whenever I’m invited to speak, I make it a priority. I really love staying in touch with the students. The Cube [a selective living dormitory for students passionate about entrepreneurship] is my favorite group of students to hang out with. I’m really grateful that I live here locally and can stay connected to the Duke community. As I get older, being part of a community is more important than it’s ever been.