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Three months in and Birst's new CEO is bullish on creating the the next software giant

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 15, 2014
Jay Larson is on a massive PR push and is putting together a strategy that targets unlocking the value of enterprise data across the business.

Back in April I got the chance to have a chat on the phone with Birst's new CEO Jay Larson about his appointment to the cloud BI firm. Larson spoke about

a businessman stepping on clouds © Rob hyrons –
his aggressive plans to shift the company's core client base from SMBs and line of business buyers, to taking on the biggest vendors in the market and winning deals with their enterprise clients. You can read the story here, but it is also worth taking a look at Kenny's piece on cloud BI, which describes how Birst's strong growth reflects how buyers are beginning to see the cloud BI market as an attractive one for their data needs.

With Larson in London this week, I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with him in person and see whether or not his enthusiasm for scaling up Birst was still as strong as it was when he took up the job. And needless to say, it has maintained. Comments such as “the competition is crappy” are not unusual from SaaS CEOs, but Larson's plan isn't to just get his hands dirty with some insult slinging – he wants to get the message out that Birst is the best at what it does. Whether it is or not, is still up for debate, but our meeting this week gave me the opportunity to get a better idea of how he plans to take the company to market and convince those big buyers why they should be looking to Birst to extract value from their business data.

So how's he settling in? Larson said:

So I've just been trying to learn the business, get acquainted with customers, get acquainted with partners and then trying to figure out what the plan is going forward. What are we going to do with the business? How are we going to scale up and become a big and important enterprise software company?

What's next? We're next, we are the next big thing. We talk internally about being the next global software company. I know it sounds like an audacious claim, but I think we can do that.

Bold claims indeed, given that Birst is less than a decade old, is still growing and is far off from having the profile of some of the market's most popular SaaS and BI players. So what is the plan? How are they going to make this happen? First and foremost, Larson wants to PR the hell out of Birst and its solutions. He described how most software companies have a narrow focus, but have been able to tie it into a big story. Whereas, where he thinks Birst has failed, is that they have a big focus and solve a big problem for companies, but have not been able to tie it into a strong story. He said:

Number one, we have got to make a lot more noise in the marketplace - build up a brand, have some name recognition, but even in the US (where 80% of the company's clients are based) we haven't done that well with this. A lot of what we are doing is trying to figure out how do we tell a bigger and more impactful story, not just to technology leaders but to business leaders.

Jay Larson
That's all well and good, but to do that you need a good story to tell. So I asked Larson what is Birst's differentiator? What is the company's story and how is it going to articulate that to the enterprises that may have already bought into a story that has been sold for years from the likes of SAP or Oracle? He said that he wants to explain to buyers that Birst has a different approach to data. Instead of focusing on single queries that aim to find 'golden nuggets' of information to add value, Birst taps into a company's broad selection of data sources, organises them, automates the analytics, and provides regular insight to end users across an organisation. He said:

The challenge for us is that the product and the goodness for us tends to be a well kept secret. We are uniquely positioned to rationalise business intelligence. What we hear is that about 15% of a company's data is in the data warehouse, but what about the other 85%? Birst can combine those data sources across business processes and serve up a common view of what's going on across the business to end users.

The BI space means a whole bunch of different things to different people. I think that right now what is in vogue is discovery and there are a number of vendors and discovery products out there that are oriented at doing a very small slice of BI. They are generally used for analytics, used for answering one off questions, and basically take a look at a very small slice of a company's data. 

We can do that, but honestly we don't think that that's the hard part of BI, we don't think that's the interesting part of BI. The interesting part is making it operational and our vision is around metrics driven, business execution. That's our claim to fame. Taking BI, serving it up to business leaders and providing a set of metrics that people can use and measure to run their companies better and more profitably. It's not a one off exercise, it's an ongoing exercise where you are optimising processes in your business.

Okay, that makes sense to me, making business intelligence operational is a huge challenge for firms and if Birst's claims are correct – there is an opportunity there for it to tap into the enterprise market. But what about big data? There are huge debates about what big data means, or whether it even exists, but companies are interested in the idea of using huge amounts structured and unstructured data to create an asset that delivers insight and a competitive edge. The success of this to date is questionable, but the market is asking questions, so what is Birst's answer?

Larson, it seems, isn't that interested in taking on the Hadoop-led sect and doesn't want to position itself as a big data insights vendor. Instead he wants to help companies recognise that they are creating silos of data that they aren't using effectively. He said that the IT function is struggling to understand what to do with the onslaught of data and new data sources, and as a result, he believes, most are just creating 'data lakes' where they are storing it all and trying to figure out what to do with it later. At the same time they are also using data discovery tools to find those 'golden nuggets', which are just creating silos across the organisation. All of which is leaving business users exacerbated, who are as a result going rogue and going to the cloud looking for their own answers. Larson hopes that Birst can go to market with a solution that ties all this together.

You've got islands of information, islands of automation. That's the exact problem that data warehouses were created to solve in the first place. It's almost a bizarre de-evolution in the data management business, which creates a great opportunity for us because data warehouses are running out of gas, the traditional legacy products are running out of gas, you've got data lakes, then you've got end users going rogue. 

I think in that environment we are in a unique position to solve the problems, that's why we are so bullish on our chances. We can not only leverage and extend the capabilities of the existing data warehouse, we can extract, organise and make sense of the data in the data lake and we can provide a unified environment for people that makes the problem of islands of automation go away. Whilst also delivering much higher value, much more actionable data information to users.

Birst's pitch is a cogent one, one that does seem to solve a problem for a lot of companies out there. I certainly have spoken to customers that have this

Birst - BI in the cloud
problem – they're trying to figure out how to make the most of their data, but they are still experimenting and are struggling to make BI business as usual. But there's a challenge for Birst in getting companies to move away from products they've invested in already, where they may have been buying into the more traditional players for years. And Larson recognises that this is a challenge, but one he thinks Birst can manoeuvre by targeting companies that are making moves to the cloud and by starting small in enterprise clients. He believes that once Birst has its foot in the door, the customers will buy into the product and expand rapidly from there. He said:

Our best prospects are the companies that have already made some kind of move to the cloud, which most big companies have started to do. I was with one of the biggest companies in London yesterday and they said they had rolled out an SFA solution in the cloud, and they thought that the reporting and analytics capabilities were deficient, and they thought we were in a position to unlock the value of their investment in this cloud-based sales application. I think generally that's the starting point for us, how do we basically identify a specific need? A specific application? Or a specific client? 

Once we have served that need, and once we have landed, then we can expand. If we can get installed, even in a small way, even in a pilot, we can expand from there. And we generally do. We don't go in and say you've invested millions in Business Objects, why don't you turn that off and go with Birst? No, we have got a co-existence strategy.

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