Interview: Birst’s newly appointed CEO aims for an IPO

SUMMARY:

Jay Larson has left Jive Software to take up the post, while outgoing CEO Brad Peters will become Chief Product Officer

Birst - BI in the cloudSince being founded in 2005, Birst has been trying its best to push cloud BI tools into the enterprise. Although not as an easy sell as some other cloud products, BI has seen a strong uptake in recent years – take a look at Kenny’s recent report on how Birst’s triple digit growth in revenues reflects a wider trend in decision makers looking to the cloud for their analytics solutions, with Gartner’s figures also showing an uptick in demand. However, as Kenny noted, Birst hasn’t tried to sell itself purely on the basis that it is a public cloud solution (it also offers a private cloud appliance that accounts for a significant chunk of its revenues), but rather that it offers a holistic approach to BI that it claims more traditional players aren’t providing.

The company has raised approximately $64 million from investors since 2012 and it is now looking to up its game and raise its profile in the market. Part of this strategy includes getting a new CEO on board that has experience in driving growth and selling into the enterprise – cue this week’s appointment of Jay Larson, who has left Jive Software as a sales executive to take up the role, and also has a background working at Mercury Interactive (since acquired by HP) and SuccessFactors (since acquired by SAP). Larson will be replacing co-founder Brad Peters, who is going to step down and take up a new role as Chief Product Officer.

I got to catch up with both Peters and Larson this week about what the appointment means and how the pair are now planning to take Birst forward – with the view of an IPO in the not too distant future. Peters told me how he has developed Birst to this point and why he is moving out of the CEO post to focus on the product. He said:

“What’s important here is building that robust data pipeline that goes with the rest of the BI stack so that people can Birst CEO - Brad Petersbuild and stand up analytic solutions very quickly. Our approach has been pretty unique in that we are not trying to make BI simpler, or dumb it down, or just do a piece of it, but do the whole thing, do it right, and bring automation to it to make it a lot more productive, using the cloud to hide a lot of the messiness with integration. This approach has been getting significant traction in the last few years.

“As you can tell I like to talk about products, it’s something that I have been passionate about, and as we have grown as a business it’s been more and more challenging to push that technological envelope because there are so many things you need to do when running a business. 

“It became clear at some point that I was going to have to decide which hat was more important and where we had the best chance of disrupting those legacy players. I’m a BI guy through and through and I know where this needs to go, but I want to make sure this happens. Let’s go bring in a world class CEO to manage the go to market and handle all of the key points of execution for the business, while we double down on the innovation, which has made us unique in the marketplace.”

Bringing Jay on board

Peters said that finding Larson wasn’t an easy task, as he wanted somebody that both fitted with the culture of the company, but could also drive growth for Birst. However, he believes that Larson is a good match and is now “unbelievably excited” about him coming on board. Larson explained to me that his first task is going to be raising the profile of Birst in the marketplace. He said:

“I think that we have got a huge market opportunity, but we are still a relatively small company. I think that for us, half of winning is just showing up, I really mean that. We have got the best product in the space, but I think it’s a combination of making sure that more people know about the goodness of Birst in the BI space, the business value that we bring to an organisation, and really scaling the business up around what is a tremendous product that Brad and his team have built up.

“We need to make sure that we increase our awareness in the marketplace and scale the go to market part of the business in order to capitalise on what we feel like is a once in a lifetime market opportunity.”

Jay LarsonAccording to Peters and Larson, most of the company’s customer base is US based (approximately 80%) and they have a strong presence in mid-size organisations, or ‘white space’ companies that would find an offering from one of the big players too heavy. They also claim that they have a lot of success with the ‘departmental enterprise’ – where buyers outside of the IT department, e.g. in marketing, want to take back control of their data and are looking for solutions in the cloud. However, Birst now wants to go after the large enterprise buyers that are dominated by the likes of Oracle, SAP and IBM. Larson believes he is up to the challenge of scaling up Birst and delivering on rapid growth. He said:

“The good news, and part of the reason I’m here, is that I’ve done that for several other rapidly growing software companies. I was at Oracle at a period of time when we were doubling in size every year, we grew the business very rapidly at Mercury Interactive, and also at SuccessFactors.

“On the direct side of the business we are not only adding sales reps, but also leadership across the business. That’s my sweet spot, that’s what I do. We are looking to expand our partner relationships to increase market coverage through other organisations, but also sell products through more cost effective ways – either using the internet or over the telephone.”

Aiming for an IPO

Although Larson wouldn’t explicitly tell me what his growth targets for Birst are, he did say that the company has doubled the number of employees it has in the last year and has doubled the number of its customers – and he believes that continuing along a similar trajectory for the next 12 to 24 months is realistic. But what about the all important IPO? I asked both Peters and Larson about the plans for whether or not Birst is aiming to go public, or get acquired. One response was more diplomatic than the other. Peters said: © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com

“You don’t try to do anything but build a great business. If you try to build for an acquisition, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You build for a long-term sustainable company, if you get that, then you have options that are open to you. If you can run as fast as you can and as far as you can, maintain independence and impress your vision on the world, that’s a great thing. Our goal is to go and do that.”

However, Larson said:

“The first objective is to build a great company that delivers huge value to our customers, but when you do that and do that really well, there’s a great opportunity for Birst to be a public company at some point in the not so distant future. Do we see that happening? Absolutely.”