Graph bandwagon: Bang With Friends adopts Neo4j, becomes the latest to find graph database religion

By Michael Carney , written on August 12, 2013

From The News Desk

A year ago, not many developers, let alone casual technology industry observers, had heard about graph databases. But thanks to the release of Facebook’s popular “Graph Search” product released earlier this year, this is no longer true. And yet people still think that graph databases are useful only for social networks.

This is outdated thinking according to Emil Eifrem. Admittedly he’s a little biased, being CEO and Founder of Neo Technology, one of the pioneers of graph database technology. As evidence, Eifrem notes that graph databases have bled into a variety of unexpected industries, including telecom, financial services, HR, and logistics.

“We think that by the end of this decade, graph databases will be everywhere there’s software,” Eifrem says. “Your toaster will run graph databases.” This is less far fetched than it may seem given the direction the connected home is headed.

As companies in all industries become more social in nature and recognize that there is more value in data that is connected, rather than isolated in distinct silos, they are turning to graph database architectures. The technology enables companies to better map relationships, mine connections, power user queries, and resolve connected data challenges. The primary pain point Neo is looking to solve is “companies trying to squeeze connected data into existing database structures,” Eifrem says. “In some situations where it’s not 10 times better to use a graph, it’s not easy enough to justify the switch. But in plenty of situations, it’s 100 times better, and that’s where we’re seeing adoption.”

Neo’s customer roster includes several large and well-established companies, like Accenture, Adobe, Autodesk, Cisco, Deutsche Telekom, HP, Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), and T-Mobile. The company’s commercial graph database product, Neo4j, was first introduced more than nine years ago and has more than 100 paying production customers. As an open source technology, however, it has been deployed in more than 10,000 instances worldwide.

Neo’s most recent paying customer to implement Neo4j is the frat-tastic, up-and-coming online dating platform, Bang With Friends (BWF). It’s only five months post-launch, and the company has already crossed the 1 million user mark with 200,000 successful matches made, and continues to see viral growth making it now-or-never time to make the move to a graph. (Though the company has also run into a few setbacks, including being pulled from the iOS App Store for objectionable content.) BWF co-founder Colin Hodge used graph technology to map relationships at his prior dating startup HeardAboutYou and describes the database architecture as the obvious way to structure his company’s data.

“It allows us to more effectively model the dating landscape and the connections between our users,” Hodge says. The company didn’t use a graph database initially, opting instead for a more “quick and dirty” approach, according to its founder. But once it reached scale in terms of adoption, there was little doubt that a graph was best way to structure its data.

Hodge notes that BWF is no stranger to difficult technological problems. “People assume that you can just hook into Facebook and then magically do what our app and similar apps do,” the CEO says. “But there’s far more behind it, especially when it comes to showing more effective results amid incomplete user data.”

Asked about any additional personnel or technical resources required to implement and support a graph database, Hodge noted that BWF is doing so with it’s existing seven person team, although it has required that he personally oversee the process more intently than would otherwise be the case.

“We’ve reached a point where most developers can consume and implement an API,” Neo Technology’s Eifrem says, echoing Hodge’s message. “Gone are the days when people can spend the first 30-60 days on a job learning all the frameworks their company uses and then spend five years implementing them. Today people need to learn new frameworks every day.”

BWF may be closer to a social network than many of Neo’s telecom and logistics clients, but that doesn’t mean it’s not breaking new ground. It’s the first dating platform to be built on graph technology, to both Eifrem and Hodge’s knowledge. But it’s unlikely to be the last.

“We seeing a trend of connected data spreading through many verticals,” Eifrem says. “Typically, as soon as one company in a vertical starts exploring connected data, it spreads like wildfire and you end up with the Google effect. We have been focused on JAVA developers currently, candidly, because there’s a big correlation between JAVA and companies with money. It might not be the most hipster language – rails, etc. – but I’m partial to having clients that can pay me.”

Neo Technologies has raised $24.1 million across three rounds of venture financing. Backers include Fidelity Growth Partners Europe, Sunstone Capital, and Conor Venture Partners. The San Mateo-based company has grown to 50 worldwide employees and has offices in Germany, UK, France, Belgium, Sweden, and Malaysia.

Bang With Friends has raised $1 million from Great Oaks Venture Capital and Timothy Draper.

Neo has no outside sales team and has never “proactively approached a potential client,” according its CEO. All sales to date have been inbound, a reality that is no doubt aided by its large and highly-engaged open source community.

Although not yet cashflow positive, Neo has every dollar of its November 2012, $11 million Series B round still in the bank, according to its founder. Profitability is within reach without having to raise additional capital, Eifrem says, although that’s not necessarily the primary objective at this stage.

“The dream is to build a big independent company,” Eifrem says. “This is like the mother of all sticky products. Putting in a new database is like rocket surgery, it’s difficult to put in. But once it’s in there it stays for a while.”

[Image via Robert Scoble]