Friday, May 29, 2009

Using BI to Manage Your Startup

We heard several different perspectives on how Start Ups use Business Intelligence at the May meeting of the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG. The meeting was a panel, moderated by Dan Scholnick of Trinity Ventures. Dan opened the meeting by introducing himself and then asking the panelists to introduce themselves.

The first panelist was Naghi Prasad, VP, Engineering & Operations at Offerpal Media, a start up that allows developers to monetize social applications and online games. Offerpal Media is a marketing company that does real time advertisement targeting and uses a variety of analytics techniques such as AB testing. Naghi told us that Business Intelligence is essential to the companies business and baked into their framework.

Next up was Lenin Gali, Director of Business Intelligence at ShareThis, a start up that allows people to share content with friends, family and their network via Email, SMS and social networking sites such as FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn. ShareThis also uses AB testing, and as a content network has to deal with large amounts of data.

Third was Bill Lapcevic, VP of Business Development at New Relic, which provides Software as a Service (SaaS) performance management for the Ruby on Rails web development platform. New Relic has acquired 1700 customers over its first year as a start up with a single sales person. Their customers are technical and they use their platform to track the addiction or pain of each customer, and to estimate their potential budget.

The final panelist was Bill Grosso, CTO & VP of Engineering at Twofish, a start up that offers SaaS based virtual economies for Virtual Worlds and Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). For the operator, a virtual economy is Sam Walton's analytics dream, as you see into every players wallet and capture their every purchase and exchange. TwoFish uses their experience with running multiple virtual economies to tell their customers what they are doing right and wrong in developing a virtual economy.

Dan's first question was "What are some of the pitfalls of Business intelligence?" Bill Lapcevic told us that they have a real time reporting system that can track can track revenue by the minute. The problem is that you can become addicted to data and spend too much time with it. Sometime you need to get away from your screen and talk to the customer. Lenin agreed with this and added that they have problems with data quality. Naghi told us that while a benefit is the surprises that they find from the data, a problem is that they are never finished with their analytics. Bill Grosso was concerned with premature generalization. You need to wait until you have enough data to support conclusions and revisit the conclusions as more data arrives.

There was a wide variety of answers to the question of which tools each panel member used. According to Naghi Prasad, "MySQL is a killer app, it will kill your app!" Offerpal Media uses Oracle for their their database. While they like some of the features of Microsoft SQL Server, they are constrained to have only one Database Administrator (DBA) and DBAs are best when they specialize in one database system. They use open source Kettle for ETL and Microsoft Excel for data presentation. Naghi extolled the virtues of giving users data in a spreadsheet they were comfortable with and Excel pivot tables allows the user to manipulate their data at will. After surveying what was available, they implemented their own AB testing package.

ShareThis is on the leading edge of technology use. Lenin told us that they are 100% in the cloud, using the LAMP stack with MySQL and PHP. They have a 10 Terabyte in an Aster Data Systems database, and use both Microstrategy and Hadoop with Cascading for data analysis and reporting. Running this system takes about 1.5 system admins.

As might be expected, the New Relic system is built on Ruby on Rails and uses sharded MySQL to achieve the required database performance. In their experience it is sometimes worth paying a little more for hardware than optimizing the last ounce of performance from a system. They have developed many of their own analytics tools that they expect to sell as product to their customers.

As TwoFish does accounting for virtual worlds, their servers are not in the cloud, rather they are locked in their cage in a secure data center. While Bill Grosso lusts after some features in Microsoft SQL Server, they use MySQL with Kettle for ETL. They have developed their own visualization code that sits in front of the Mondrian OLAP engine. They expect to do more with the R language for statistical analysis and data mining.

Dan asked the panel how they get the organization to use their Business Intelligence product Bill Grosso lead by saying that adoption has to come from the top. If the CEO is not interested in Business intelligence, then nobody else will be either. He also called for simple metrics that make a point. Bill Lapcevic agreed that leadership should come from the top. The idea is to make the data addictive to users and to avoid to many metrics. Sharing data widely can help everyone understand how they can contribute to improving the numbers. Lenin thought that it was important to make decisions and avoid analysis paralysis. Naghi offered that Business Intelligence can scare non Business Intelligence users. You have to provide simple stuff, and make sure that you score some sure hits early on to encourage people. Finally remember that different people need different reports so make sure each report is specialized to the requirements of the person receiving it.

There were more questions asked, too many to describe in detail here. All in all, we had an informative discussion throughout the evening with a lot of good information shared.

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