Joshua Jones dropped out of high school when he was a teenager. Today, two decades later, he’s created, run, and sold several businesses in different countries, even supplying some of them on horseback.
In his mid-30s, Jones is Managing Partner of StrategyWise, a 20-employee consulting firm in Birmingham that helps corporations and foundations implement data science and big-data projects.
“Our clients are companies, governmental entities, and foundations that are seeking to boost productivity and profitability by leveraging their internal and external data to create new operational insights,” Jones said in a recent interview.
While Jones may have dropped out of high school in his mid-teens – with his parents’ blessing – this isn’t your average Horatio Alger story: he enrolled in the University of Alabama.
“When I was a teenager, I started a software company in Guatemala,” Jones said. “I was introduced to Central America by going on a missions trip with my church. I returned to Antigua the following year for language school, and quickly began negotiating a deal with my parents to let me drop out of high school to focus on my software business full time.”
“It took me a few months,” Jones recalled, “but I found a path that allowed me to get into the University of Alabama without finishing high school. At the same time, I immediately began focusing on my software company. Within a year, I had clients in eight countries and was traveling constantly.”
Along the way, he started, ran and sold several businesses, including a digital marketing business while attending Alabama. After earning a degree in business, Jones took the Graduate Management Admission Test, scored in the 94th percentile, and earned a master’s in business administration from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
Joshua Jones is Managing Partner of StrategyWise
Business Council of Alabama member, StrategyWise, was founded in 2013. Clients have included global electronics manufacturers, restaurant chains, museums, zoos, non-profit foundations, and hospitals, to name a few. StategyWise projects have run the gamut, but all surround the goal of building capacity to understand current customer behaviors and operational patterns, or being able to predict those likely to occur. This ranges from predicting emergency room wait times to ranking a sales team’s lead list by a more accurate probability of closing deals.
A nationwide fast food chain, for example, recently asked Jones’s team of data scientists to build algorithms that would determine free food offers for their mobile app. “Instead of just guessing which products our customers would like to receive offers on, we wanted to analyze their past purchase patterns and anticipate their tastes ahead of time – some might prefer ‘indulgent’ offerings while others might favor a healthier alternative,” Jones said one of the project members related.
A nationwide health insurance company recently sought StrategyWise’s help in building an algorithm to determine which type of health care insurance a consumer might purchase. The result – call center agents went from making random guesses on a series of insurance purchases that were correct 0.1 percent of the time, to being right in more than 42 percent of cases.
In the late 1990s, Jones’ first software company supported early Internet cafes in Central America.
“The Internet was progressing along back home, but in the remote areas where I traveled, phone lines were scarce, and Internet access was almost non-existent,” he said. “I saw Internet cafes pop up, and they were using notepads to keep track of computer time, so I wrote software to manage and streamline the user experience.”
Off and on Jones had what he called “more typical” jobs, such as working as a researcher at the International Trade Center or director of a medical mission agency that took teams overseas. “I’ve worn multiple hats, but I would say technology and process improvement have been the common thread, whether that’s for non-profit foundations or corporations,” he said.
Ironically, it was getting lost in the jungle of Nicaragua that brought home one of his most foundational data science concepts. He had traveled all day by horseback to a supply outpost and was returning after dark. A heavy thunderstorm started, and it became nearly impossible to see. “I just gave up trying to find my way and let the horse keep walking,” Jones recalls.
Hours later they were back at camp. The horse had traveled that path so many times it had become routine. “People and companies are mostly like that – if we can understand their routines, we know where they’re likely to go,” he said.
After a decade of travelling back and forth to Latin America, he spent three years in Japan as Asia Director of a non-profit while doing business consulting on the side. He returned to earn his MBA, where he took advanced statistical courses. Combined with business strategy and IT experience, they form the core of data science.
“There are raw data both inside a company and externally,” Jones said. “It might be financial records, customer relationship databases, inventory management, or even logs of when lights were turned on or off. A lot of companies don’t know they have these data. Helping identify them and then learn what external data are available can create significant improvements in profitability and efficiency.”
StrategyWise is also a business, a unique one, but a business nonetheless. That means dealing with issues including hiring the right people, managing cash flow, and building a scalable infrastructure. A major challenge, Jones said, is continuing to find and attract top talent while typical recruits are also weighing offers from companies like Facebook and Uber.
“One of the interesting things from the Business Council of Alabama’s perspective is that we‘re attracting high-tech talent from other states,” Jones said. “Many of our folks have moved from other places, like Austin and San Francisco.”
StrategyWise was named the fastest-growing company by the Birmingham Business Journal last year, and it’s been quoted by national publications like Entrepreneur, CIO, and InformationWeek.
“We really don’t have upper bounds on how large we’re willing to expand,” he said, “but we have built a scalable infrastructure from HR to IT – we’re ready to see how fast this thing can really grow.”
Jones has kept up his volunteering and philanthropy. An active member of the Birmingham Rotary Club, he is also in this year’s class of Leadership Birmingham. He serves on the board for Globe International and served for years on the joint information management initiative for the World Evangelical Alliance. He has fluency, working, or business knowledge in Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.
Jones said since data analytics changes rapidly, StrategyWise is investing heavily in research and development to create marketable products.
“People are creating more data each year than the rest of the history of the world combined,” Jones said. “This combined with the growing capacity of computers and the cloud, is creating capacity to mine data for new insights that is really just starting to scratch the surface.”