Martin Veitch (Global) - Interview: Birst CEO Brad Peters on Making BI's Promise A Reality

Brad Peters, CEO of business intelligence company Birst, describes his company's mission to deliver on business intelligence promise

It’s probably not practical but if the Holy Grail, Lord Lucan and Shergar could somehow be aggregated they might look a lot like the non-IT equivalent of business intelligence. People have been trying to ‘do’ BI for decades, it’s always near the top of CIO ‘wants’ lists (and what CEOs want from CIOs) but promise always seems to outsprint reality. Is Birst going to be the company that changes that situation?

The San Francisco firm is getting plenty of attention because ever since Man sat in front of a computer and asked ‘how do I get this supposedly intelligent machine help me to make smarter decisions?’ the disappointment has been (almost) palpable. Computers let us crunch numbers, massage documents and colour in presentations but they still rarely give us fast answers to the ‘what if?’ questions we would most dearly love to address.

According to Birst CEO Brad Peters, that’s because of an old divide has led to mutual incomprehension. “Business folks view analytics as charts and business intelligence folks are only happy to talk about speeds and feeds,” he says, speaking on a flying visit to London.

Birst, he says, is “an engine for converting data to insight”, automating the heavy lifting of the Extract-Transform-Load tripartite process that is at the heart of making sense of any data. Birst delves deep into core applications and then provides a simple user interface for interrogating information to identify trends, opportunities and threats.

As the company’s punning name suggests, this enables BI to become a faster process than that enabled by the complex, pricey “broken stacks” of complicated product suites offered by giants such as IBM, Oracle and SAP that have bought their BI offerings respectively through the acquisitions of Cognos, Hyperion and Business Objects. “Like Google, we take complex algorithms and reduce to one pane,” Peters claims.

The company that so far has the best reputation for simplifying BI is probably QlikTech with its QlikView product and this is clearly a company that has the respect of Birst.

“QlikView is our model but it doesn’t have deep business insight,” Peters says. “Connecting to an enterprise application and turning that into useful business measurements is a really hard problem. If you’re digging for gold you have to shovel dirt.”

Although (like every other company today, seemingly) Birst is often described as a cloud company it also sells its product as software and Peters doesn’t get hung up on this.

“Cloud is the intersection,” he says. “The world is being re-platformed but we’re doing BI through the lens of apps. The centre of gravity is moving towards cloud but applications are primarily on premise and it’s going to be a hybrid for a long time.”

His ambition is to do in BI “what did to Siebel” where Peters previously worked, in CRM with a pre-configured service that gets quick results. As with Salesforce, Birst charges on a subscription basis so the value has to come from these results.

“We make no money in the first year with customers. We go in and look for a business champion and we look for quick wins and red flags.”

It’s a formula that is working with customers like Royal Bank of Canada and Citrix Systems and it has helped Birst pick up about $50m in funding as well as getting plenty of box-ticks from BI watchers. The next step will surely be an IPO unless Birst is acquired - either way, this is a company worth watching.