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ThoughtSpot BI platform to focus on the cloud

After developing a strong on-premises customer base, ThoughtSpot is undergoing a transformation with the cloud at the center of is product development strategy.

The ThoughtSpot BI platform is undergoing change.

When ThoughtSpot, founded in 2012 and based in Sunnyvale, Calif., emerged from stealth in late 2015, the augmented intelligence and machine learning capabilities of its search-based suite immediately differentiated it from the vast majority of BI platforms already on the market.

But ThoughtSpot's BI platform wasn't cloud-native.

It was a time when migration to the cloud was happening, but most organizations' data operations were still on premises. So on-premises BI was what ThoughtSpot focused on in its nascent years, building an enterprise platform it significantly updated once per year with other minor updates scheduled throughout the year on a regular basis.

In November 2019, for example, the vendor released ThoughtSpot 6, and most recently in September it put out ThoughtSpot 6.2. Also in September, ThoughtSpot unveiled ThoughtSpot Cloud, the first cloud-based version of its enterprise platform.

And now, while further enterprise platform updates are scheduled and ThoughtSpot says it has no intention of turning its back on customers with on-premises BI operations, the cloud is where ThoughtSpot sees its future.

With Beyond 2020, ThoughtSpot's virtual user conference, scheduled for Dec. 9 and 10, CEO Sudheesh Nair recently took time to discuss ThoughtSpot's strategic evolution and its ambitious roadmap for becoming a cloud analytics vendor.

In addition, he talked about how COVID-19 has affected the vendor's development strategy and product development capabilities and previewed what he plans to say in his keynote address at Beyond 2020.

How did COVID-19 change product development strategy for the ThoughtSpot BI platform?

Sudheesh NairSudheesh Nair

Sudheesh Nair: It changed it in big ways.

I was explaining [recently] to the board that [Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo] Bernini was 16 to 20 years old when he did some of his best work, and today if you look at his statues, they are lifelike. He would say that when common people look at a rock they just see a rock, but if you're really talented you see that it can be turned into a statue. My job is to chip and grind and chisel away everything that is holding us back. It's the same thing, but in a completely different [medium]. It's having the vision and the disciplined focus to execute that vision. That's what Bernini had.

At ThoughtSpot, we've always had the right vision. In the world of business, we want business users to have no curiosity tax when it comes to interacting with data, and by removing it we will make the world more fact-driven. However, we didn't have the Bernini-like disciplined focus only on that. COVID forced us to be disciplined.

How did COVID force that discipline?

Nair: I've been here for two-and-a-half years now, and if you look at the data space there are two secular trends that are happening. One is data moving to the cloud. It's somewhat late -- infrastructure, security all moved a long time ago -- but data moving to the cloud happened in the last two-plus years with Snowflake and Databricks. The second secular trend is customers figuring out that because of [the Internet of Things] and 5G that data is going to be the difference-maker for the business so they need to increase the data fluency of the company. Not just the boardroom, but all the way to the front line should be data literate. At ThoughtSpot, we were fighting against the primary one, the cloud. We did not start in the cloud. We went after Oracle and SAP and other on-premises platforms, and there's been a price to pay. At some point you have to pay that price, and COVID gave us the opportunity to really make the 180-degree turn on that.

I'm very happy that we did it, and I'm using the word happy in a year like this when everything has been catastrophic, in a very controlled fashion. Every crisis is an opportunity, and I think we've maximized it.

In terms of logistics, what's it been like for ThoughtSpot to develop new BI tools with people working from home rather than together in one location?

We did not get the secular trend of the cloud right, but what we did get right from the beginning is a good culture where we knew that we had to be selfless but also excellent.
Sudheesh NairCEO, ThoughtSpot

Nair: People sometimes take a word like culture for granted. There are two schools of thought. One is that if you make the company successful, the culture will follow, like the Patriots or the Raiders [pro football teams] with 'Just win, baby.' The other school is that culture means doing right by the people, no matter the cost. I don't believe in either. I think the truth is in between. A winning culture feeds a good culture, and there is no good culture without winning. We did not get the secular trend of the cloud right, but what we did get right from the beginning is a good culture where we knew that we had to be selfless but also excellent, that yin-yang of taking care of people but never withering away in the face of adversity -- be nice, but compete aggressively.

That helped with our innovation during COVID because we were all dispersed to our homes, we were all distracted by the mess in our lives as well as the election -- the election was a huge distraction -- but because of the culture, we amplified our communication and we did more delegation within the organization. We viewed this as a once-in-the-company's-lifetime opportunity to turn this secular trend into opportunity -- we explained the why -- and that allowed the teams to come together. We probably compressed our development cycle by at least two-thirds this year, and that is a testament the company's culture, which I credit to the people who started the company and were here way before me.

Beyond 2020, your virtual user conference, is coming up in a couple of days -- what can ThoughtSpot BI customers expect to hear from you when you give your keynote address?

Nair: My keynote is going to be very different from what I've done before, very different from what you typically see from a CEO. I will be talking about fear and courage. We had to lay people off in May when COVID hit. You can't transform a company without giving up certain things, and it's no one's fault. Businesses often romanticize the act of change, but being in the middle of that tornado, the primary emotion that a leader feels is fear. We don't talk about that, and a company's user conference keynote is definitely not the place to do it, but I'm going to do it because this year has been very different. I just don't feel this is the right time to do a typical 'rah-rah,' bravado speech when people are all sitting at home dealing with their lives. We have people in the company whose family members are still in the ICU with COVID.

The theme is about more authentic conversation, across the board. I'm going to set the tone by talking about what it takes to change, the price you pay.

What else can you divulge about your keynote?

Nair: The second thing is that we are accepting that the market changed on us, and it is on us to catch up. We are not going to shy away from the fact that while the company has been growing -- the company has been growing really well -- the revenue we are getting is not from the place that is growing. It's coming from on-prem. It's hard to change a company when things are going well, but if we don't change, two years from now we won't see the same growth. When things aren't going well, it's easier to change.

The third thing is we're going to embrace consumerization, and we're going to call out that, including ThoughtSpot, we haven't met the bar when it comes to usability and design. We are going to give credit to the fact that Instagram and TikTok have made it easy create, modify and share in one seamless motion. If they can do that, why can't an enterprise software vendor aspire to be that simple when it comes to data knowledge? Why can't sharing a data insight or dashboard be as simple as sharing a meme? I think it's important to challenge the industry to recognize that serious work can also learn from the fun companies out there.

As you go through this evolution, who is now the target audience for ThoughtSpot?

Nair: We have been unwaveringly committed to enabling the business user to have unrestricted access to data and insights. The problem is that we did not deliver on it fully.

We made search possible, but search is for creating something. More often than not, the problem you're trying to answer has already been answered by someone else within the organization. Before going and creating, let's go search and discover [work by others], and then allow modification, and then make sure it is shared and the personalities are also shared. If I search for something someone else already answered I also want to find the person who answered it because my interests might align with theirs and I want to follow what they're doing and modify it. But if I search for something and get 10 answers from 10 influencers, how will I know which one is right? Now we start thinking about whether there should be an official, verified answer. There could be wrong answers, unintentional answers, and we don't want those to go viral [within the organization]. Propagating data insights in an organization can have the same problem that a company like Twitter is dealing with when it comes to controlling relevant information, so how do we make sure there is a New York Times-like editor or curator that is distinguished from those who are playing what-if?

We are definitely moving in the right direction as we explore this area, but what has become clear is that [the business user] is the primary persona, but we can't make them successful without getting analysts to curate. We are definitely focused on analysts as a secondary persona.

Does that have the potential to expand your customer base?

Nair: Stepping back from the product, [during the conference] I want to reintroduce ThoughtSpot to two groups of people. First, people who looked at ThoughtSpot and felt it was a good idea but couldn't use it because they're not big organizations. We want to change that and work with anyone, no matter the size. We want people who looked at ThoughtSpot and walked away thinking it's not for them to look again. Second are investors who looked at ThoughtSpot and thought that we have an on-prem appliance, legacy-type approach. But ThoughtSpot is going from a typical BI company to a data analytics cloud. We want to reposition as the data analytics cloud company where if you have data in the cloud, ThoughtSpot is the place to analyze it.

Given the emphasis ThoughtSpot is now placing on BI in the cloud, will you continue to invest in your enterprise platform or will you encourage your on-premises customers to migrate to the cloud?

Nair: Fortunately, most of our customers are very large [organizations], and almost all of them have operations in the cloud. There are very few that are [exclusively on premises]. We will not let any of our customers down, but almost all of them are moving to the cloud.

One important thing about the cloud compared with on-prem is that what you have on-prem is usually something you own, and what you have the cloud is something you rent, so when comparing an ownership model to renting, the number one thing that happens is utilization. For example, if you rent a powerful sports car, you feel guilty if you don't drive it. Most of the time, though, when you rent, you are getting unlimited mileage. If you rent Snowflake or Redshift or ThoughtSpot, however, if you drive around you pay more; it's a consumption model and we are not unlimited mileage.

There are companies that believe data is the future and they have to make the use of the data. The problem is that consumption that is not connected to business value will fail, so consumption needs to be tied to business value. Companies that say they're not moving to the cloud usually become indifferent. The companies that say they're going to the cloud and say they have to use it will be spending a lot of money. But the companies that go to the cloud and tie it to business value will completely differentiate, and that's where we want to paint a picture.

A final question -- what's the roadmap for the ThoughtSpot BI platform beyond your user conference?

Nair: I don't think the idea of being a data analytics cloud is complete without data sources, a data marketplace and being a real platform for solutions that are built for others. If you are built for healthcare, we want ThoughtSpot's assets and architecture to be available in your applications, including data. It could be COVID data, census data, whatever. So imagine that the data is ready to be consumed for insight wherever you are. That's a data analytics cloud journey, and there are two or three big steps we need to crystallize. We'll do that as soon as we start delivering on the [new products] we are unveiling at Beyond 2020.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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