We caught up with the VP of Product Strategy at Birst, Southard Jones. Birst provides an enterprise-calibre Business Intelligence platform based on a cloud platform. Its approach is designed to be less costly and more agile than Legacy BI and more powerful than Data Discovery. Birst gives business teams the ability to solve problems using data in new ways, while maintaining a uniform approach to how that business information is managed.
Can you tell me about yourself and your role within Birst?
So, I’ve been at Birst for around 15 months. I actually knew the co-founders of Birst, Paul Staelin and Brad Peters, when I worked at Siebel Analytics 10 years ago. What I do here at Birst is go-to market strategy, planning long-term goals for our product, understanding what markets to go after. It’s a great time for Birst because BI is a massive market and there is a lot of space for us to play.
What does Birst do?
What Birst does is automate the process of getting data to the business owner in a quick and accessible way. The key to Birst is the ability of our product to automate the hardest part of BI – which is all of the raw, ugly, un cleansed data that is all over your organisation and is multiplying at insane rates. Through our automated data warehouse, we make this data ready to be used. We then add a semantic layer so that everyone in the business has the same single source of the truth in terms of what their business metrics are, and then exposes this to the average business user so that he/she doesn’t have to be a data scientist to get answers to the questions that are important. In essence, we create a business library that appeals to the way a business person thinks about their business.
Where did the idea for Birst come from?
When I was at Siebel Analytics with Brad and Paul, the product we were working on was an incredibly powerful tool that helped a number of companies become successful in analysing business. But there were two challenges with it that gave rise to Birst.
The first was that products — like the ones we worked on — served a lot of data scientists but didn’t really serve the business community. That is to say, the marketing and product managers of the world needed to know a lot about BI and data before they could get answers to their questions.
The second issue was that these products were really slow and painful to make changes on. It could solve your problem, of course, but it would take too long and cost too much money before you got an answer.
So what gave rise to Birst? It was a simple idea: let’s enable the average business user to get answers to questions a lot faster. The vision was, and still is, to get business users who do not know what a data model looks like, the ability to leverage all of that corporate data and in a way that’s in business terms.
Are there any case studies you can tell us about?
There are quite a few. To give you one example, build.com – one of the top three home improvements websites in the world – started using our new product recently. One of their executive team members said to us “finally I can give the rest of my organisation insight into business data.” I mean, “finally” was the key word. For the first time, Build didn’t have to spend hours on user reports; all they had to do was use our business metrics to understand their needs in an easy, digestible way.
But in general, the response to our product has been great. From marketing managers to sales analysts, people are now powered to get insights into corporate data that they didn’t have access to before. Data scientists have always been able to do this because they had the tools. But now everyone can do it.
How do you plan to remain unique?
In order to provide insight into business data – which is that semantic or logical layer – you have to build your architecture from the ground up. I mean if you wanted to build a car, you have to build an engine. Yes, you can give the car leather seats, a nice paintjob and great headlights. But at its core, those superficialities will never take away from the fact that the car needs a powerful engine. An engine is to a car what a semantic layer is to a BI application. The only organisation that will be able to give folks discovery into business terms, are those who have a semantic layer built into their application.
The only people that are doing this are the big four – Business Objects, Cognos, Oracle, and Microstrategy. But with those applications, the business user has lost patience with waiting for six months to be given an answer to their question. See, the problem is that if you’re a data scientist you can get an answer quickly, but the data scientist in the office 3 floors above you will come to a different conclusion because he’s going to structure his business metrics differently. There is no uniform semantic layer.
This is exactly how we will continue to be different. We are constantly enhancing that semantic layer and continue to make the front-end think the way a consumer Internet application thinks. We created Visualizer by bringing together a team that are experts in user experience along with people who have 15 years of experience in BI. That’s why this product is so functional and accessible.
Are you looking for any special talent?
Yes, but really good software developers are extremely difficult to find. Folks who have strong user experience background are people we are looking at specifically. On the go-to-market side, we have a tendency to hire people who understand data.
The hard part of BI is not the visualization side; it’s getting the data from all the myriad of different places, formats and sizes and getting it to a point where business users can answer their questions. So all of our team members – from sales to services – have all been living in that world for 15-20 years. Last year we had 150 in the team, now we have approximately 200. So yeah, we’re always looking for experienced folks.
Do you have plans to expand into Germany?
Yes! It’s not a matter of if but when. We have gone into markets in couple of different ways. Sometimes we go in direct, like we did in the UK. Other times we go in with partners like in the Middle East. At the moment, we’re looking at our options before we go into Germany, but we will definitely be expanding into the country.
Birst provides an enterprise-calibre Business Intelligence platform based on a cloud platform. Its approach is designed to be less costly and more agile than Legacy BI and more powerful than Data Discovery. Birst gives business teams the ability to solve problems using data in new ways, while maintaining a uniform approach to how that business information is managed.