Qlik CEO is enjoying pioneering firm's private time

Lars Björk, CEO of data analytics firm Qlik, took the company off the public markets and is happy with the results

In a business where innovation can be surprisingly sparse, Qlik is a true pioneer. The Philadelphia, US-headquartered company with Swedish roots and R&D helped to kick off modern data analytics with a user experience that rescued the sector from remaining a statistical ivory tower where only specialists were permitted admission. Qlik made business intelligence funky, colourful and pluralist and along the way pretty well invented the democratisation of the segment.

Lars Björk has been there for almost the entire ride, first as CFO and COO, and for the last 10 years (a long run by industry standards) as CEO. A lot of companies have tried to hitch a ride on Qlik’s coattails since but few have kept up. Tableau is a little larger by revenue, Microsoft is making a renewed effort with Power BI, having “missed a lot of trains” under Steve Ballmer, but those in the chasing pack of newcomers are typically about five per cent the scale of Qlik, Björk says, setting aside the “generation-one” BI firms such as Cognos and Business Objects that ended up being eaten by IT giants.

“Our fame was that we focused on the user of the software,” he adds, while rivals focused on selling to IT. “If you’re a doctor, we’re going to speak your language.”

Björk says that those gen-one rivals ignored Qlik’s threat. “We were dismissed for too long and … we managed to grow up. But we built the entire success of the company on one product, QlikView, and that was a blessing that turned into a curse.”

The big step away was to create a reimagined platform with an open architecture and rich API as carrots to encourage third-party developers and build a self-service ecosystem, but Qlik executives recognised that approach risked alienating loyal users if not handled carefully.

“We had tons of debates internally and the CTO said ‘I was pretty sure we were going to shut down the project’,” he recalls. As it turned out, the fear of a tricky migration path didn’t materialise with most customers electing to run old and new approaches in parallel.

There were trade-offs too. “You can’t have lots of functionality and say you’re easy to use,” Björk says. By focusing on usability over checkbox feature lists, he maintains that Qlik made the right calls.


Private dealings

Another, related big-lever decision was to exit the public markets last year via a $3bn sale to private-equity giant Thoma Bravo. In this, Qlik joined a wave of companies that have become disenchanted with the red tape and constant marking up and down of companies based on short-term scorecards.

“It’s a trend you’re going to continue to see,” Björk says. “There are clear benefits to being public but there are certain tolls. It’s very repetitive.”

Some analysts were “totally dumb” and Björk balked at answering questions about operations from people too young to know anything about the very question they were asking. Going private gave Qlik the breathing space to make a transition towards its new platform and towards the cloud and subscription billing outside the searchlight of Wall Street “where nobody likes unpredictability”. By de-listing, Qlik bought the freedom to move away from quarterly cycles and to “do the right things over time”.

Being acquired by PE means you have to visibly show more profit but modern PE is focused on growth, not just milking cash cows, Björk contends, and he insists the company is performing with about $700m in annual revenue.

As for Björk himself, he expects that long stint as Qlik boss he expects to end in the coming years. When? He won’t say but before he quits he does want to see the company predominantly making money from annual recurring revenue rather than the old upfront software licence model.

“I’ve said I want to see this journey through but I’m not necessarily signing up for more,” he says. Advising a few other companies is his likely future and he expects to stay in close touch with the company and particular its philanthropic projects, including one that raises money for orphans in Africa. The transition from public to private is tough, he says, and he feels like he has been on a “hamster wheel … you run and run”.

But for now he’s enjoying the boom in data analytics and surging interest in the sector even if he has a spin on the old cliché that data is ‘the new oil’: “The one big difference is that data is not scarce… and it won’t be.”