Looker launches out of stealth with $2M to make manual SQL queries a thing of the past

By Michael Carney , written on March 6, 2013

From The News Desk

Businesses today are creating data at an ever increasing rate, whether they know how to make sense of it or not. For most attempting to use this data to inform business decisions, the departments that need this information can’t access it directly. Instead, financial, marketing, and operations executives typically rely on their engineering department to manually query databases to obtain desired insights. The cost of this strategy is both time and money.

Launching out of stealth today, Looker is a Santa Cruz startup that has created a new query-based Business Intelligence (BI) software platform to make data accessible to all parts of an organization. Today, the one-year-old company announced $2 million in Seed funding led by First Round Capital and PivotNorth Capital. Looker was founded by former LiveOps CTO, Netscape engineer, and noted programming language innovator Lloyd Tabb, along with Ben Porterfield and Keenan Rice.

“Insight into data is really going to change how we make business decisions every day,” says First Round’s Bill Trenchard. “What people don’t realize is that the people making day-to-day decisions need to have the right data at their fingertips, rather than rely on reports from analysts that are batch processed and distributed by email.”

Looker calls its query-based BI product the “sequel to SQL,” in that it relies on a new object-oriented modeling language called LookML to enhance the SQL programming language and allows users to perform deep analytics without knowing how to write code. Tabb compares Looker to a zoom lense which is still able to focus when viewing an image up close. Traditional BI tools, on the other hand, are more similar to wide angle fixed focus lense, in the CEO’s analogy, growing blurry when looking at information too closely.

“We’re huge believers in the power of SQL for analytics, but current Business Intelligence tools don’t empower it to be great,” the CEO says. “They are either too focused on static or parameterized dashboards, or are complex and laborious, requiring an army of engineers to implement."

Looker allows companies to track specific elements of their business in real time. For example, ecommerce users may track how often their users order, their average order size, the frequency with which they open an app, referral rates, and other performance indicators. While all this data was accessible previously, it was typically only available to management by request and via engineers. And when new insights were needed, it could take days for them to be available.

With Looker, the idea is that a non-technical marketing exec can extract their own data-driven insights and take corresponding action in real time based on the results. If average order size or referral rates are dropping, they can turn to sales data to determine why and take rapid action to correct the issue.

The next-gen BI platform is meant to make data exploration so easy that it promotes curiosity, which Looker believes will result in serendipitous insights that are otherwise unlikely to be found. Looker can be implemented in days or weeks, rather than the months or years typically required of traditional BI systems. Further, the new tool’s SaaS pricing of $750 per query entity per transaction per month is a fraction of the cost of legacy systems.

“We generally pay for ourselves in the first five minutes,” Tabb says. “If a company runs Looker and successfully re-targets, we’ve earned our keep.”

Finally, Looker aims to promote collaboration by giving all users and admins access to the same Web-based application through which it’s possible to save, share, and integrate analytics information for use across the organization.

While the company declined to reveal the name of its clients, other than job search engine Simply Hired, Tabb did reveal that it has more than 20 paying enterprise customers, all acquired through word of mouth. These customers span “nearly every type of online business model – search engine, marketplace, eCommerce, subscription, daily deal, mobile application, and content publisher.”

Trenchard added that many of these customers are members of the VC firm’s portfolio and that receiving rave reviews from these Looker users prior to FRC making its investment played a large role in advancing the deal. Trenchard’s decade long relationship with Tabb dating back to their days together on the founding team of LiveOps didn’t hurt matters either. Although announced today as part of the company’s public launch, the funding round actually closed in August.

Tabb believes that there’s a reason tools like Looker haven’t been available previously. In recent years, datasets grew faster than SQL-based analysis could keep up with, he says. As a result, many big data companies moved to Hadoop and Mapreduce based systems. The CEO believes this was a distraction and that the alternative tools have proven inadequate, which would explain why he has seen many top big data firms moving back to SQL now that computing power has increased. Looker is positioned to capitalize on this trend, while making the power of big data accessible to the least technical members of an organization.

Neither Trenchard nor Tabb are concerned about near term competition from legacy BI providers such as SAP, Oracle, or GoodData. But both men concede that the market could shift in the future. More important than Looker’s technology, they argue, is the founders’ insights into data analytics.

“We know the right things to measure, and when you get a model back from us, you get our years of expertise and wisdom about what you should measure and focus on,” says Looker’s CEO. “We keep a pretty high-touch service ongoing and are always available to answer questions like, ‘What’s the best way to think about referrals?’”

Looker challenges companies to ask themselves whether they have anyone writing queries by hand. To those that answer yes to this question, Tabb warns, “You should know that there’s a competitor somewhere who’s going to beat you.”