Looker announces a $16M Series A and a savvy new CEO to rise above stodgy old BI solutions

By Michael Carney , written on August 13, 2013

From The News Desk

Throw a dart in Silicon Valley today and you’re bound to hit a big data startup. But not all companies in the space are created equal. Many throw out the buzzy phrase in hopes of gaining the favor of prospective investors, employees, partners, or the press. Others offer solutions that are less of an  evolutionary leap from the legacy business intelligence (BI) solutions of a decade ago, than simply a pretty new UI layer on the same old tools.

But according to Redpoint Ventures, however, which cast a resounding vote today with its checkbook to the tune of leading one company’s $16 million Series A round, Looker Data Sciences is a company delivering real innovation. As part of the financing, Redpoint principal Tomasz Tunguz joined the company’s board of directors.

Looker exited stealth launching its browser-based business intelligence platform in March of this year and announced its $2 million Seed round at the same time. The company’s goal since the beginning has been to make insights locked away in big data stores available to non-technical workers like those in financial, marketing, and operations departments. It’s approach for doing so is to replace manual SQL queries – which typically require an engineer to implement effectively – with more a interactive and visual data modeling toolset called LookML. Once a query or script is written, whether by an engineer or a corporate laymen, it can be recycled or easily modified by anyone with access to the platform.

At the time of launch, First Round Capital partner and Looker Seed investor Bill Trenchard said, “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.”

Today, Redpoint’s Tunguz speaks to Lookers success to date in fulfilling this promise, noting that during his firm’s due diligence ahead of making its investment, the partners spoke dozens of Looker customers. The typical response from these conversations was that “60-80 percent of people in the organizations use this product daily,” Tunguz says. Looker has doubled its number of paying enterprise customers to 40 in the five months since its public launch and the average user now spends 250 hours per month using the software, according to the company.

Redpoint first encountered Looker when several of its portfolio companies adopted the platform and began displaying its output in board meetings. Impressed by what they had seen, Tunguz and several of his partners at Redpoint began using the platform personally to interpret their own big data sets, before approaching Looker about an investment this spring.

Despite the rapid success, Looker hasn’t always followed the traditional startup path in reaching this Series A milestone. Most notably and the move with the potentially to disrupt the good thing it had going was the decision to replace technical founder Lloyd Tabb in the CEO role in May. The company hired former Greenplum (acquired by EMC) VP of Business Development and former Virsto Software (acquired by VMware) SVP, Frank Bien to guide the company through the next phase of its growth. Tabb retained the roles of CTO and Chairman.

The transition was already in process when Redpoint came into the picture. Looker appears to be no worse for the wear at present, and Redpoint’s Tunguz paints the move as a positive, although atypical step.

“Lloyd is a technical founder who had done a great job taking the product to market and helping to sell it, but realized that he needed someone like Frank to help him scale,” Tunguz says. “Frank has tons of experience bringing these types of products to market.”

Bien’s experience notwithstanding, building a dominant enterprise brand from the ground up is no easy task. There’s significant inertia in the status quo and thus getting enterprises to trust and then adopt new mission-critical software platforms can be a tall order. Foolish or not, there’s a reason that we have the expression, “No one ever got fired for choosing IBM.”

The challenge now is for Looker to build out its sales and marketing teams and to “rise above the noise and gain share of mind,” according to Tunguz. Although Looker still has some of its Seed capital in the bank, the additional war chest should prove useful as it looks to scale its sales and engineering staff and build out infrastructure to keep up with customer demand. The company began this sales team buildout by hiring former Endeca (owned by Oracle) VP of Sales Lambert Billet to lead the buildout of its sales team.

Looker’s competition includes modern BI solutions from IBM-owned Cognos, Tableau, QlikTech, and others, as well as legacy BI platforms from the likes of SAP, Oracle, or GoodData. It’s the former camp that keeps Looker’s executives and investors up at night, although they don’t believe that any today have a competitive offering. The primary challenge facing data-centric companies today, many of which have spent millions of dollars on infrastructure from the above companies to capture data, is to extract meaning from these vast information stores. Looker aims to build the next generation of solutions to do just that.

“No one has attacked the core of BI in the last ten years,” says new Looker CEO Frank Bien. “We tore it down and rebuilt it from the ground up, wrote our own language, architected a web-based infrastructure, and delivered a product that’s incredibly powerful.”

The only thing left is to get thousands of companies to pay for it.