Last time I spoke with ThoughtSpot CEO Sudheesh Nair he declared that he wanted to ‘kill BI' and that he wanted ‘all dashboards to die'. That was almost a year ago and since then the search focused, live analytics vendor has gone on to receive $100 million in new funding, valuing the company at $4.2 billion.
ThoughtSpot positions itself as the ‘Google for numbers', a modern, cloud-based analytics tool that democratizes data across the enterprise and helps guide users to the information that they need, through the use of AI and machine learning. Traditional BI tools that result in sprawling dashboards are no longer useful, according to Nair, as they don't give the full picture and rely on stagnant, historical data.
And after speaking with Nair this week, his opinions haven't softened over the past 12 months or so. His critical view of dashboards and ‘old school BI' is being driven by customer demand, he says, where buyers are seeking guidance on how to move away from them, towards something more intelligent.
If I think of my customer advisory board meetings in 2020 and 2021, a year apart, the biggest change that we have seen is that in 2020 customers used to say ‘help us put ThoughtSpot in without disrupting Tableau'. They wanted it side by side, because if ThoughtSpot was to take Tableau's dollars, there would be a lot of people fighting.
In 2021 we have seen a very clear change, where customers are saying: I want to get rid of everything and make ThoughtSpot the primary tool. How do we do it? I know it's very difficult to replace BI products, because everyone has their own personal visualization, but this change has been very evident.
Nair says that his job in 2022 is to make that happen for customers, to ensure that the democratization of data across the enterprise is made easy. More on that later. The key message that Nair wants to drive home is that if companies are still relying on static data that they can't interact with - and that this is being enabled by data users that perceive complexity as a good thing - then their company is likely headed for failure. Nair explains:
BI has always been about answering the question of ‘what?'. That is insufficient in the new world where there is too much data and too little time. We need to move from answering ‘what?', to ‘so what?'. For example, your sales are down, so what?
And then go from, ‘so what?', to ‘what if?'. What if I change my inbound port from Port of Long Beach to Port of Louisiana? And then the last one is, ‘what next?'. This is what customers are looking for. When we say dashboards are dead, every single customer understands viscerally that if you are truly a data driven professional, you need to move from stale, static dashboards to decision making is truly interactive and data driven.
Those working with data that recognize the power they hold by gatekeeping it are a real problem, when trying to make this shift away from stale data use, Nair says. Companies need to stop rewarding this bad behaviour to allow for change to take place. He adds:
The ones who get stuck are often the people who are insecure about their jobs. They think that their job security is in this vagueness - ‘the dashboard will tell you ‘what', but it's my experience that will tell you ‘what next'.
People who are afraid to open up data democratization within organizations are the ones who are standing in the way of a tool like ThoughtSpot.
I kind of think of it as a good thing, because some company cultures reward those kinds of people and I believe that it is okay to not partner with those kinds of customers. Because those kinds of companies don't have a future.
Your complexity of data cannot be the reason you have job security. An organization that values and rewards people like that, it's foretelling that this company is going to go down the drain.
Talk is easy, but ThoughtSpot is also making solid moves to drive democratization through its product. And this has meant some self reflection internally, too.
ThoughtSpot has been undergoing a number of changes in recent years under Nair's leadership. Most of this has been reengineering the product for the cloud, but it has also been about making the product more accessible. The company made a name for itself because of its data search capabilities, but Nair recognizes that this won't be enough to drive true democratization in business.
Nair says that search is inherently an advanced function when it comes to structured data and that if the user doesn't understand measures, filters and attributes, then the questions they ask won't be correct. And if the question isn't correct, then the answer won't be in the right context.
As such, ThoughtSpot has made changes to take its search capabilities even further, taking into consideration different user profiles. Nair explains:
With the new reincarnation of ThoughtSpot, what we have done is we've made search the third thing that you do. The first thing is that the insight that you look for will come to you before you ask, based on the previous pattern, your co-host pattern and intent. It's sort of like saying ‘I'm hungry but I don't know where to eat' and a service like Yelp will guide you through the process of finding a restaurant. It's an AI driven insight that brings the insight to you on iMessage, or Slack, or Teams, based on where you are.
The second thing is we released a suite of products that allow you to interact without leaving you in the open world of search. It's sort of like a trigger, so it will tell you: did you know that Sam has been asking this question with this specific filter, we think you need to know this too?
And then the third one is obviously search, which is our claim to fame and allows you to have complete access to everything that the data has to offer. But that means that we are expecting that you are somewhat of a data savvy user.
Put it all together though and suddenly this is accessible for an entry level person, all the way to a data expert. This was one of the challenges of ThoughtSpot because it was only available for data experts or at least data savvy business users in the past. But now a distributed workforce that has different levels of knowledge will all have access to ThoughtSpot.
What does success look like?
Nair's pitch is compelling and for those of us that have witnessed the proliferation of BI dashboards in the enterprise first hand, the thought of more intelligent tooling for all is very appealing. However, product is product, and we also know that a lot of challenges with data use come down to the people using it. Which goes back to Nair's original point of those data gatekeepers.
As such, I sought to get Nair's views on what makes a company successful when it comes to data democratization. Are there any common themes amongst ThoughtSpot customers that have allowed the product to thrive?
Unsurprisingly, Nair's view is that companies need to go for more stick and less carrot when it comes to getting data in the hands of users that need it. He says:
I have found that the companies that are successful with ThoughtSpot have two things in common. The first one is that they're not waiting for data quality to be solved before they start delivering value to the business users. They know that this is a never ending journey to have high quality data, so the best thing would be to let the business users interact with the data as it is. And in that process, there is a better chance that they will identify issues and clean up the data so they get going without waiting.
The second thing that I have found is that a mandate is necessary. You don't want the data driven decision making and the tools behind that to be a democratic decision that they make. In the early days, ThoughtSpot used to be ad hoc for buyers but for canned reports they would continue to use PowerBI or Tableau.
What we've found is it's sort of like weaning a kid off of pacifiers. Sometimes you have to take it out and say, you know you can't put your thumb or a pacifier in your mouth, you just have to grow up.
That's what we are doing. You don't want the business users to continue to have the safety blanket of old stale dashboards hanging around. You just put them in the middle of interactive decision making with AI as the backend for it.
A conversation with Nair is never a dull one. I appreciate his candour and there's something to be said for ThoughtSpot's clear vision. Nair also spoke about how the company is enabling light touch sales for customers, so that they can experiment and even buy the product without needing to go into intense sales discussions with ThoughtSpot. The hope here being that this will drive uptake in the mid-market.
This is a company that is in the midst of a turnaround, driving its install base from on-prem to the cloud. But Nair has done the right thing and pointed all functions to be cloud enabled, with the focus now being on execution. International growth and some M&A is front of mind for the CEO, which will be enabled by the recent round of funding.