Business Alumni Eric Howe ’14, ’17 and Matthew Pehl ’14, ’15 Launch Software Company PierAhead
By Ed Brennen
Picture it: Amid a throng of wide-eyed new River Hawks, Howe, from Lowell, and Pehl, from Methuen, Massachusetts, strike up a conversation and make an immediate connection. Both commuters, they start hanging out in the student lounge at Southwick Hall, dreaming up business ideas.
After a montage of classes, intramural sports and internships (Howe at Disney and Pehl at Dassault Systèmes), they walk across the Tsongas Center stage to receive their bachelor’s degrees in business administration, then again for their MBAs. They start their respective sales and marketing careers (Howe at iRobot and Pehl at medical technology company Smith+Nephew) and remain good friends; Howe is a groomsman in Pehl’s wedding.
Cut to March 2022, when they decide to take all the data analytics and business strategy skills they’ve been building and start their own company on the side.
“We’re big data people,” says Howe, now a business intelligence manager at iRobot. “What type of data can we harvest from the web and create insights? What’s important to businesses?”
“We’re analyzing tons of data, and UML did a great job in helping me learn how to get insights from data and build dashboards.” -PierAhead co-founder Eric Howe ’14, ’17
Advertising is the answer.
For 16 months, they spent their nights and weekends developing PierAhead, a software-as-a-service company that can help businesses selling on Amazon maximize their advertising spending — and see their competitors’ ad strategy — by providing detailed data on a marketing metric called “share of voice.”
Say you’re searching for dorm bedding on Amazon. The first few results are usually “sponsored” products — highly visible digital real estate for which companies bid against each other, based on search keywords. Companies use share of voice to measure how visible their brand is on the search results page compared with the competition.
While other advertising analytics software services can show a company’s share of voice once per hour or once per day, Howe and Pehl say their big data capabilities enable them to provide a snapshot of it every 15 minutes — making their data up to 96 times more accurate.
“Our system can process huge amounts of data and serve it up in a dashboard that can easily be accessed in near real-time,” Howe says. “We like to call it our secret sauce.”
The PierAhead co-founders say the data analytics and business development lessons they learned at UML provided an important base for that secret sauce.
“We’re analyzing tons of data, and UML did a great job in helping me learn how to get insights from data and build dashboards,” says Howe, who also credits a New Product Development course he took with Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Dept. Chair and Prof. Berk Talay.
“We had to come up with an idea for a product and bring it to market. And here we are, 13 years later, doing the same thing with PierAhead,” he says.
Howe, who started his own landscaping business while attending Lowell Catholic High School, says one reason he chose UML was so he could continue landscaping to help pay his way through college.
Coming from a family of River Hawks was another factor. His dad Peter ’84 (civil engineering), mom Roseanne ’85 (business) and brother Peter Jr. ’11 (civil engineering) are all alumni, and his sister Rachel is a rising senior mechanical engineering major.
Pehl also has strong UML ties. His dad John ’78, ’86 earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science, and his twin brother James ’14, ’15 earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.
Pehl concentrated in finance at UML but he “fell into” coding and system development at Smith+Nephew when he was asked to take on a commission tracking and management project. He is currently the commercial strategy and insights manager at medical equipment manufacturer Convatec.
While neither Howe nor Pehl plan to quit their day jobs any time soon (“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Howe says), they do look forward to building their client list and seeing how far they can take PierAhead. For starters, they see an opportunity to diversify the service to other online retailers such as Walmart, Target and Best Buy. And they are looking at broadening the metrics that they measure.
“We’re not stopping at share of voice. We have other products in the pipeline,” Howe says.
After beta testing PierAhead (they chose the name because they originally thought they’d analyze shipping logistics) with several “fairly large” companies for nearly three months, Howe and Pehl hit their goal of going live in late June — ahead of Amazon Prime Day on July 11-12.
“You see all these YouTube videos of people saying starting a business isn’t easy, and it’s not,” Howe says. “It’s a little scary, because you never know how people are going to react.”
“Eric and I were both in a good place with our skill sets to come together and build something,” Pehl adds. “We’ve invested a lot of time and energy, and I think we’re about to see it finally take off. I’m very excited about what it could lead to.”
Maybe they’ll even make a movie about it someday.