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A Fateful Trip to Brazil and My “Eureka!” Moment

I recently published an open letter to the address verification industry, a group to which I’ve belonged professionally for over 20 years. In it, I critiqued our lack of innovation over the years and suggested another way: making global address verification better by using local intelligence.

As hoped, the letter spurred a lot of interesting dialogue. In hopes to keep the conversation going, I’m posting a series of blog entries that dig deeper into the themes of technology, address data and how we can meet the needs of our most demanding customers.

Part I: History Lessons

Part II: A Fateful Trip to Brazil and My “Eureka!” Moment

In 2010 my address verification company was having trouble with Brazil’s postal operator, Correios. For ten years they had refused to provide updates of their address data to foreign businesses.

For the past 50 years building a global address database meant a company (like mine at the time) had to gather information from the world’s various postal agencies. Since addresses are in a state of constant flux (new apartments going up, old buildings torn down, office spaces partitioned into suites, etc.), we took updates once or twice a year in an attempt to keep up with the changes. Think of it like a subscription to the old encyclopedia Britannica: you would pay them to send a replacement volume periodically so your research information didn’t get too dated. Bi-annual updates were the norm. Waiting ten years, however, meant our Brazilian data was desperately outdated.

For years I had tried to break this logjam with Correios to no avail. Finally, I decided it was time to take action. I flew to Brazil one week that summer, hoping that being in country would convince them to finally meet with me.

Alas, no. They weren’t budging, and they had no interest in talking with me. But all was not lost. Rather than sitting in my Sao Paulo hotel room, I made a sales call on a direct mail marketing company. The owner and I hit it off and spent most of a day together. I explained to him my frustration with Correios. He laughed, telling me he had no problems getting updates. Then he hesitated, got a quizzical look on his face and asked me, “But why would you want their address data. It’s garbage. You should use mine instead.”

He explained further: Like most postal agencies, Correios was not very good at keeping track of its addresses. This entrepreneur had discovered that fact years ago as he started building his company. He saw an opportunity to make a reputation for himself as having the best address data in the country. Having the most accurate addresses meant more of his mailers would be delivered by the postal carriers accurately and more quickly (no need to rely on the local delivery person to fix your mistakes). This would be a competitive advantage against other direct marketing businesses.

So he built his own database, taking Correios addresses (which, because he was a Brazilian, they would update at normal intervals) and enriching it with his own efforts. He created an information network throughout Brazil, ensuring he would get notice of new and changed addresses. If a new apartment complex was coming online in Brasilia, he collected that information and made the updates. In places where data was particularly hard to get, he literally hired people to walk the street and gather address information themselves. He even created an immediate feedback loop to correct bad addresses: When an envelope was returned as undeliverable, his people would quickly update the database.

Most impressive of all, he created enhanced postal rules to account for local nuances and expectation. If a Rio de Janeiro neighborhood called itself by a name not recognized by Correios, say for vanity reasons, his system caught that and during verification would suggest a change more likely to get the mail delivered quickly and in a format the recipient expected to see.

As a result of his innovations, he had created a competitive advantage for his business. It was thriving. Other businesses needing accurate Brazilian addresses were seeking his help. Courier services, utility companies, even retail stores (who needed better address verification in order to extend credit to people living in the working-class favelas). Correios addresses weren’t good enough, and my new friend had established himself as the superior alternative.

While he had focused exclusively on serving domestic Brazilian companies with his address solution, he was open to finding a way to help me solve my Correios problem.

This was my “Eureka!” moment. This business had found a way to incorporate local intelligence into the address verification process, and he had feedback loops in place that guaranteed rapid data refreshes. If going through Correios was like subscribing to the encyclopedia Britannica, going through him was like having a team of experts building a maintaining our own personal Wikipedia for addresses.

If this worked in Brazil, there must be similar services in other major countries. And if I could find a way to bring it all together on a single technology platform, we could solve that eCommerce cross-border problem. We could bring local intelligence into the address verification process.

Next: We create the blueprint for the Global Data Consortium and begin building Worldview.