by John Gallant

QlikTech CEO’s Secret Weapon: Your Frustration With Big BI

Apr 01, 2011
Business IntelligenceData ManagementIT Leadership

Business users often watch as IT deploys costly, complex BI programs that take months to arrive -- then fail to deliver the needed insights. QlikTech CEO Lars Bjork says you don't have to take it anymore. In this Q&A, he explains how his company's data discovery tools give the power to users -- and even help police crack murder cases.

Lars Bjork

According to Gartner Group, the business intelligence market is in the midst of a massive bifurcation, splitting into two camps of traditional BI solutions — sold by the IBMs, Oracles and SAPs of the technology world — and the so-called data discovery platform providers led by QlikTech International AB, which was founded in Sweden and is headquartered in Radnor, PA. QlikTech CEO Lars Bjork sees his traditional BI rivals as slow to change and inflexible, and he’s trying to empower tech-savvy business users to mine their own insights and ideas from corporate data.

In this installment of the IDG Enterprise CEO Interview Series, Bjork talked with IDGE Chief Content Officer John Gallant about making BI more relevant for more employees and why QlikTech isn’t trying to bypass IT — the buyer of traditional BI solutions. He also talked about how QlikTech’s tools enabled police to quickly snag a sniper and could help you win your fantasy football league.

GALLANT: QlikTech is in the business intelligence market, up against some pretty big competitors. What makes the company different, unique?

BJORK: We’re in the space of helping people making better decisions and that space is called BI, or analytics, if you want to put a label on it. But what we really do is help people turn all that data that they know is in there somewhere in some kind of system, and turn that into valuable information. We’ve taken a very different approach to this, enabled by our technology, by making it end-user driven. We put the end user in focus.

This is not the old-school, everything-controlled-from-IT analytical view of the world, because that’s not the world we’re working in right now. The world that we’re working in now is the empowered consumer comes to work and he wants to be empowered at work too. He doesn’t want to be told, “Use this tool this way, and you will get your information.” That’s not going to fly anymore.

I think our way of going to market and our offering resonates stronger and stronger with a need in the market, and is just being confirmed by how empowered we as individuals have been over the last couple of years as consumers by software like Facebook, or software like Google, or software like Skype, or using the Apple Store and all the applications there. They’re all super-intuitive. You are master of the tool yourself. You don’t have to be led by the hand. That’s the big differentiator.

GALLANT: Your company has been kind of under the radar, even though you’ve got some big customers. Why do you think the company’s name isn’t bandied about along with the other BI leaders?

BJORK: They started earlier in this business and, therefore, they also started with different technology which is coming to be less and less relevant to users. But they are also bigger companies and, of course, they have also been acquired by even bigger companies. I think that could be one reason for it.

The number two reason is that we put a focus on capturing the midmarket, because it was very underserved and under-fulfilled. That has changed over the last couple years, where we have a very large set of our customers in the enterprise space as well.

I would also say that in the last year, and certainly after the public offering, we are seen more. I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry that is not aware of us. I think the recognition of analysts, on an ongoing basis, proves that as well.

We’ve been able to fly under the radar and build a successful company, and now I think we’re at the point where the traditional players are certainly taking us very seriously in this industry. But I think they have a challenge to beat what we deliver.

GALLANT: Give readers some metrics of success. How many customers, how is the business growing?

BJORK: If you look at this business over the last five or six years, we’ve had an annual growth — this is up until December of 2010 — of close to 60 percent. We have grown six or eight times faster than the average for the industry. In 2009, for instance, we grew at 33 percent, and the industry grew at 2.5 percent.

It’s all organic growth. We have a customer base that is over 17,000 customers across 105 countries. And our go-to-market model is very different from the others. We’re not trying to sell you everything you need upfront for the eternity of your life that you use the product, because we don’t think that’s how people want to buy software. They don’t want to buy anything that way. Why not buy it at the pace that you need it, you know? We built a volume and velocity model where there’s lots of transactions, and opportunity to come back into existing accounts, which we call ‘land and expand.’ It has proven to be very successful, because that’s how people really want to interact. Rather than deploying all your employees or a large chunk of them, why not start in one department or in one division and make that successful?

GALLANT: Let me ask you about that buying process. In a Gartner report I was looking at on your site, you get the sense that this product is coming in through the business side, versus the IT side. Is that the case?

BJORK: Yeah, very much so. Because, again, it’s end user driven and the end user tends to be a person on the business side. In some cases, the business could actually be IT as well, where they have a need. But thats more the exception. But it is the CFO’s office, or it’s the VP of marketing, or it’s the VP of sales who is faced with these challenges: “How can I get this information out into the hands of my sales reps when they’re on the road? How can I build applications that are relevant for them this month, and then make a modification that is relevant for the next month?” Again, it’s got to be a very agile tool.

But to answer your question, yes. We sell to business users because thats where we’re going to deliver the value. This is very much a value sell.

GALLANT: Do those business users buy the product as a way to augment the BI capabilities that IT has delivered, or to replace them — because they think the BI capabilities IT has delivered have failed?

BJORK: I would say that it’s far more augment. I would also add that while we sell to business users, IT is involved in that process because they are going to host it, they are going to own the deployment. But rather than having IT being the one still doing all the modeling of the application, you have them own the security and access and all of that, typically. But you put the business requirements in the hands of the people that understand the business. Have them build the application, and influence the changes to the applications.

What we are out there selling is “Let’s solve a need, or a problem, or a pain you have, and show the value that we could provide.” If we can’t prove that value, I don’t think we should sell, and I don’t think we should come back. That’s where I think the big disconnect is. Are people really interested in buying technology? I don’t think so. You buy the benefits you want to get out of technology. If you can’t describe that, and if you can’t get to that quickly enough, then the business executive or user of today is not going to have the patience. You can’t wait a year to deploy a BI solution. You want it deployed now. That’s the big driver. Time is value.

GALLANT: Nail down for our readers the key differences in how you approach BI versus how big BI does it.

BJORK: Big BI knows they can’t deploy it in a few weeks or in a few months. It’s impossible, technically impossible. They have to sell it on the benefits of making a big investment and rolling it out to everyone. Because they know they won’t be able to come back for the next 24 months. I think that is qualified B.S., if I may be so strong, because the point is that’s not how people want to buy. You go to any other type of purchase that you do in your life, you wouldn’t agree to do that, and you don’t have to do that anymore. It’s proven by other types of software.

You look at a company like and compare that to us. It’s exactly the same go-to-market strategy. It is very easy to use, you can try it before you buy it. But the big differentiator is we offer our developer platform to the client. You can use it for as much as you want, for eternity for free on our Website. You can download it. I hope you have it. If not, I encourage you to build your own application. You can build any kind of application you want. It’s a full-fledged product. As soon as you want to share your application with someone else, he or she needs to license it. So that’s the lowering the threshold of engaging with us.

The other clear differentiator between big BI and us is that with their tools somebody has to pre-define what kind of questions that you’re going to ask against the data set. But if you think about it for a second, how can I, if I were to build something for you, John, know what kind of questions you were going to ask nine to 12 months from now? Again, it’s your business. Even if I was damn good at nailing it down, I can be sure that over that time some new request would have come up.

We’re taking a very different approach of empowerment, which is enabled through our technology. We don’t pre-aggregate anything. You do that as a user when you make selections in the applications. And because of that, we don’t have any constraints on seven or eight or nine dimensions [on queries]. You can have thousands of dimensions. This is what we call the associative way of looking at things.

And here’s the important differentiator, from a technology perspective, one that you appreciate as an end user. People love using the tool because it works the same way that your brain works. It’s associative. We don’t think in hierarchy.

If you were to sit down and analyze something, what you see from the first selection will form your next question. How could a developer ever anticipate that you would think that thought? They can’t and that’s why [BI] has failed and why they are only good for static reporting.

GALLANT: You mentioned earlier. Any thought of moving this into the cloud, making this a cloud-based offering?

BJORK: Absolutely. If you want to deploy your solution in the cloud, we support that. We show you easily how to upload it. We run our demo environment in the cloud. But I think there’s a clear differentiator between a point solution like CRM and in the cloud, versus having all your business critical data up in the cloud. The first one is if you want to refresh data, we don’t have it at speed yet. You can’t upload that many gigabytes and terabytes quickly. You probably can in some parts of Europe, where speed is a lot better than in other parts of the world, but not really.

But the second more important one is the perception from customers, as of today, that they are comfortable doing it. We are following this trend, and whether we will deliver software as a service, or we will just do more and more cloud deployment, [remains to be seen].

The simple answer is we don’t see any strong demand. People more want to know that we are following the trend. We can enable it in a cloud, but we don’t do software as a service now ourselves. But I can say this, a number of our OEM partners, where we are a component of their offerings, if their business model is offering a service, we tag along on that and derive our revenue stream the same way.

GALLANT: In the report I mentioned earlier Gartner talks about a bifurcation of the market into data discovery alternatives to traditional BI, with the business side favoring the former and IT the latter. Do you agree with that assessment of the market?

BJORK: Oh, absolutely. We came out in the same timeframe — unrelated to them — with our own phrase. We call it business discovery. Some of the things that I touched on here are things that we have picked up in the market: Is traditional BI really serving the business? Big question. And I think that’s what a lot of business users are asking. Think of the empowered consumer, the demand for agility and short time to value, and more of an app-like environment. Those are factors that we have been pushing. And when we speak to our customers, that’s very, very much what resonates with them.

GALLANT: Give me a great customer example, somebody who’s doing something really innovative with the tool.

BJORK: Well, take a very different one. It’s not a business one. I’ll take the police force of southern Sweden, which used this tool to capture a criminal. Late last year there was a sniper in southern Sweden who decided randomly to start shooting. They shot at 20 people, killed one person. So the police finally got their hands on the data that was in a mainframe up in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, and they pulled all these records together, and managed to see a pattern, and get down to a short list of suspects. They went out to the press because they couldn’t get a handle on the data as quickly as they wanted, prohibited by central decisions in Sweden. Their quote was, “We could save three man-months of work by using QlikTech for 30 minutes.” They’re saying is that if you used a tool like ours, you can probably solve 15 to 25 percent more crimes. Very different use case. But here’s the important thing that I want to add to it. This is not business intelligence in the mind of most people. And that’s why we’ve come up with this phrase business discovery, because it’s so much more.

GALLANT: What’s your development roadmap here and what should customers know about what’s ahead from the company?

BJORK: One of the big things that we have launched already, and we’re continuing to enhance, is mobility. People want to make decisions wherever they are, on whatever devices, at whatever time. You have seen us and others enable the phones, the PDAs, and so on. I don’t think that that’s going to be the strongest platform, because the screen is so small. The iPad, yes, absolutely. I think you’ll see a lot more use, as users are shifting from buying a laptop to buying a tablet with the soon-to-be-released Android platforms and Android 3.0. We will be on them. And the good thing is if you buy a user license, you are enabled to use it on a device like the tablet for no extra cost.

GALLANT: How is the competitive landscape changing for you?

BJORK: We haven’t seen much new stuff from the traditional players. I think the reason is the quick time-to-value and the agility that our software offers also means that this it does not require services [to deploy]. Most of these big players, are they software players, or are they service players? They’re building big, big service arms. I haven’t met any executive yet who wants to spend an extensive amount for services just to get up and running. I think that’s also here to stay. But they are still betting on their model, and they’re not moving quickly.

GALLANT: One last question, which is personally relevant to me. Tell me about your fantasy football application.

BJORK: What we try to do on our demo site, at any given time, is to put out applications that are relevant to people. We put out a sports application, a wine application, a food application that a vast majority of people will be interested in. That’s what we did with fantasy football. We have done it with the Vancouver Olympics, we did one for the World Cup in soccer. There’s a golf application too. Because what happens if you use one of those, your data is relevant to you and you can relate to it and you get instant benefit out of it. That makes it a fun way of showing [our capabilities].

GALLANT: To sum up, what are the key things our readers need to know about the company?

BJORK: What I want to leave them with is that this is a new breed of software. We’re taking a very different focus. We are not anti-IT in any way. I think we are very, very dependent on IT to be a part of this. But let’s make sure that they do the part that they are comfortable with, and the business users do their part of the work. We also enable people to try the software before they buy it and very few companies do that. None of us on this call would go and buy a new suit or a new car if we didn’t test the car before or try the suit on. But IT is still guessing on the traditional vendors in BI to deliver against performance that they’ve showed in a Power Point. I find that very peculiar.

[For more CEO interviews check out our Tech Titans Talk page]