By Deborah Gage
Powerful new database systems that can analyze vast amounts of information are expected to revolutionize business and government over the next few years. The only problem is that much of the data contained in those systems is inaccessible to all but the most highly trained computer scientists.
Longtime Silicon Valley technology executive Ben Werther thinks he has an answer–he believes his enterprise software company, Platfora, will make searching complicated database systems as easy as searching Google GOOG -1.04%.
While young entrepreneurs touting the latest consumer Internet service sometimes seem like the Holy Grail for Silicon Valley investors–think Mark Zuckerberg–Werther is more typical of the kind of entrepreneur raising money for new startups these days. Industry veterans with deep experience in the enterprise, they’re well-positioned to take advantage of profound technological shifts.
No shift is more important than the so-called big-data revolution, and Werther believes the growth possibilities are endless.
“Most companies in the U.S. and globally are nowhere near being creative with data. Big data is a buzzword only,” Werther said.
Last month, Platfora shipped its first product–software that enables business and government workers to search massive databases and quickly receive the answers in a graphical, easy-to-visualize way. It represents a shift away from conventional ways of storing data in data warehouses, and it has caught the attention of major investors.
Less than two years after coming up with the idea, Werther has raised more than $27 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Sutter Hill Ventures, Battery Ventures and In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the U.S. intelligence community.
Battery Ventures Principal Mike Dauber said he’d been looking for a company like Platfora for nearly two years.
“To me…having businesses understand what’s going on in real time is a huge deal,” he said.
Investors even overlooked a less-than-polished pitch by Werther. Last October, before Platfora had launched, he stood before a roomful of Silicon Valley VCs and asked for their participation in a Series B round. Werther, who tends to talk fast and wave his arms when he gets excited, startled the investors by accidentally shattering a glass of water against a microphone during his pitch.
He apologized, made a joke–”sometimes you have to break some glass to get things done”–and kept talking. Investors gave him $20 million.
Dauber of Battery Ventures wasn’t bothered by the inauspicious presentation. Werther “was very authentic. You saw this was exactly what you were getting,” Dauber said.
Child Prodigy from Australia
Platfora is the culmination of Werther’s dream to return to Silicon Valley, where the Australian-born Werther had spent a year with his family as a child before returning to Australia. Silicon Valley was where he used a computer for the first time–even winning an award in a Stanford programming contest at the age of eight–and where he found that he was encouraged to speak up.
“In Australia there was not that same sense of grabbing curiosity,” said Werther, now 38.
It’s also part of his lifelong desire to become an entrepreneur. The idea for Platfora came to him in a flash of inspiration in June 2011, while he was sitting with two former co-workers–John Eshleman and SriSatish Ambati–in a café in downtown San Mateo, Calif. All three had left their last jobs at prominent technology companies and were meeting regularly to look for something new to do.
They were talking about Hadoop, new open-source software developed at Yahoo in 2006 from a paper published by Google.
To get data analyzed, typically users have to take their questions to database administrators in their IT department, who would extract answers to pre-selected questions, often through a data warehouse. If the answers made the workers think of more questions, they would have to go back to IT. The whole process could take months.
Werther thought he could develop software that could do away with the data warehouse entirely and reach directly into Hadoop’s vast data repository. The software would take data from Hadoop and deliver the answers in a user-friendly, visual way that would enable the user to continue asking questions and getting answers in real time, rather than having a database administrator try to anticipate which data was needed to answer questions that might be asked.
Using Platfora, a government or corporate analyst can use a simple on-screen interface, filter results by checking off boxes, and drag and drop fields to create graphs. The process drastically reduces the amount of time it takes to get meaningful answers from large amounts of data, making Platfora potentially useful for a range of applications, the company says, though it’s not revealing the names of many current customers.
Clients such as utilities could look at how people were using energy and consider how their behavior might be changed, the company said. Government or insurance-industry customers could look at the cost and effectiveness of health-care treatments. Companies could figure out how people were using their websites and which parts were the most attractive to which types of users.
As he was pondering Hadoop and its possibilities, Werther was working temporarily at a company called DataStax, where he was helping create new database products. He kept returning to the idea of Hadoop and how powerful it could be to have a huge repository of raw data at your fingertips.
“It was about getting out [of DataStax] and getting clear, and once clear I started from scratch and could spend time thinking about the world of possibilities,” he said.
His wife Johanna, a product marketing manager at Google, told him that he should raise enough money–about $2 million–to “make it real.” The couple had a five-month-old baby at the time, and she said that although she was excited, she also wanted to know when they should re-evaluate if the idea wasn’t progressing according to plan.
Over the summer, Werther was able to raise more than $7 million in angel and Series A funding for Platfora, based on a slide deck and a “vision paper” he showed investors and a provisional patent on the architecture that the company had filed.
“Two Guys and an Idea”
At venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, which led the $7.2 million Series A round announced in September 2011, Werther and Eshleman were already known to some of the firm’s partners, who had competed against them in their previous jobs when the pair worked at Greenplum (now part of EMC), according to General Partner Scott Weiss.
The Andreessen Horowitz partners “lit up” when they heard about Platfora, Weiss said, because they thought it was the right idea run by the right guys, even though Werther and Eshleman were just that–”two guys and an idea. They had been working on some code, but we couldn’t verify how far they’d gotten.”
Still, the investors were impressed. Werther was methodical, thoughtful and got real customer feedback, Weiss said. Also, he had managed to hire “amazing engineers.”
Platfora has plenty of challenges ahead.
All those vendors of data warehouses that Werther proposes to replace aren’t going to sit back and let Platfora take their market–they’ll connect their software to Hadoop and talk about why their products should be used instead. Lots of companies see the promise of Hadoop and are rushing to offer Hadoop add-ons, says Forrester Analyst Boris Evelson.
Werther will have to face these challenges without his co-founder, Ambati, who has since left Platfora and raised money for his own startup, 0xdata, which is working on a way to use statistical formulas to query Hadoop. (Eshleman, who is not a co-founder because he was just advising Platfora when it started, later joined full-time and was named founding vice president of technology).
With its software out in the market, Platfora is at a “core moment,” Werther said. Being the only founder gets lonely sometimes, but it also eliminates “a lot of the personality frustration you get and the friction of different people who are not totally aligned with the vision,” he said.
When he makes a decision, he added, “The buck stops there. There’s no going to the other founder.”
Write to Deborah Gage at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @deborahgage