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Why Tableau is Worth Billions: A Case Study on Becoming a Digital “Port City”

It’s appropriate that Tableau is located in Seattle, as they both became popular for similar reasons.

Seattle, started as a logging town shipping lumber down to San Francisco, then hit a big boom during the Klondike gold rush followed by a big shipping boom. It then moved into a big boom in aerospace followed by the growing influence of technology – starting with Microsoft. Access to resources, and a connector between multiple places. Seattle was big on logging, because there was an ocean that made it easier to transport lumber south, with the means to make it accessible and useful. Seattle was big during the Klondike gold rush, because you could take a ship from Seattle over to Alaska, and provided the resources and shipping to get there. Seattle was big into aerospace, because William Boeing got things kicked off here so there was the resources and buyers to set up a shop and build an aerospace business. Seattle then became big into technology, because Bill Gates changed the world with Microsoft Windows and people could come and leverage the resources that created.

Now lets look at Tableau – From wikipedia: “In 2003, Tableau was spun out of Stanford [9] with an eponymous software application. The product queries relational databases, cubes, cloud databases, and spreadsheets and then generates a number of graph types that can be combined into dashboards and shared over a computer network or the internet. The founders moved the company to Seattle, Washington in October, 2003, where it remains headquartered today” 

Tableau then, wasn’t famous because it invented data or created a better way to store data. Rather, the platform made that “digital lumber” we know as data more accessible. It became a way for an average user to reach out into the data space and extract useful information, which they can then use. In effect, Tableau is the digital “port” city for many business owners, that provides access to that raw material and the capability to make it useful.

Becoming a digital port city then, isn’t all about what the platform provides in and of itself but the material it helps you gather / process / leverage. Social media is billions of messages, but Adobe’s Marketing Cloud promises to make quantifiable sense of it all. Server log files are completely useless in and of themselves, but Splunk helps turn all that into a meaningful dashboard.

Lots of tools exist out there, promising to mine assets and turn them into something useful. But as data became a boom, and the trend grew, you could also see the rise of companies like Tableau growing along with that tide. If cities in the 1800’s decided to use clay instead of lumber, perhaps Seattle may never have taken off.

What’s important to note then, is that becoming a digital port city can produce a tremendous amount of value as long as the resource you’re accessing is growing in popularity. However, everything (even data) only stays a popular trend for so long. The hope is, then, that you’ve grown enough to sustain yourself until the next wave takes off and you can successfully adapt along with it. Tableau is in it’s first major boom cycle, as Seattle grew with lumber. As history has shown though, Seattle had many boom and bust cycles as time goes on. How many companies also rise and fall within a single hype cycle (ex: Detroit) ?

Becoming a digital “port city” and staying that way really comes down to 3 things

1. Don’t oversell the hype (to yourselves or your clients)

No matter how on fire your company might be today, every marketing pitch or slogan only has so much gas in the tank. Focusing on the broader industry issue (ex: revenue growth vs access to data) means you’ll continue to stay relevant long after the initial hype has passed. Take advantage of a trend’s popularity, but don’t so closely associate yourself to that one thing that you can’t exist without it – what if Kodak had focused on better living through chemistry vs film? As film declined, chemistry surely didn’t go out of style. And as it turned out, Kodak had some of the most talented chemists in the world working for them because film is a hard thing to make. What would have changed, if Kodak’s brand became focused around something that wouldn’t ever go out of style, vs a single product focus? 

2. You’ll have to think of the post-hype at some point 

Yes, it’s important to stay hyper-focused on your core competency and capability during a big sales cycle, but long term planning focusing on “what do we do when people don’t care about X trend any more” is important. Google will have to figure out ways to make money, after online advertising. Facebook may not be the hot social network 100 years from now it is today, and Microsoft is already starting to evolve in a world that cares less about personal computers. Tableau, too, has the talent and revenue to think about what’s next in the data space long after people stop caring about 2D data visualization in the form of accessible dashboards. Though we have examples, every company has to overcome it’s own culture and leadership challenges to continue to evolve and adapt. 

3. Build a foundation around the longer term trend, while capitalizing on the current hype 

Say you’re Boeing, and you’re contemplating life after airplanes, or perhaps investments that build a platform of services focused on a single brand element of your company. Do you diversify, by extending your reach into other areas of aerospace, or do you step back and say “well, our real purpose is to connect people, so lets invest in other ways to connect people outside of just flying them together”. It’s a tricky question, with no easy answer, which could mean botched acquisitions and a confusing marketing plan if you’re too broadly focused. However, tying in telepresence as part of the “connecting people together” strategy may mean infrastructure investments in aerospace communications networks, that you wouldn’t otherwise make, to allow video chats in airplanes while investing in smaller start-ups that focus on video codecs and compression algorithms that might net you a decent return down the line.

Focusing on just building airplanes though, Boeing would never invest in a Skype, but down the line will it be too entrenched to see a decline in aerospace with the will to shift their focus? Skype would have been a bad idea for Boeing, but what about investments in technologies that make it easier to transmit video which is entirely something they could leverage today? It’s not easy to do, and a lot of companies get it wrong here, but focusing your core message and internal alignment on something bigger than the immediate trend or fad is important, if you want to build a company that’ll be around 30+ years down the road.

If you do those three things successfully, whether you’re a city near the Ocean or a data analysis tool helping unlock value, you’ll no doubt continue to justify the value you bring long after that initial wave has past. It’s why Seattle continues to thrive, whereas cities like Detroit have struggled, and why Tableau is worth billions as a tool that accessed data without developing/ hosting/ managing most of the backend infrastructure that makes up those data systems. Stay beholden to only one path, or one product and you could go from the top of the pile to getting buried by your competitors. Toyota would say it’s not a car company, but a transportation company – because cars are only relevant for a period of time, but people will always need a way to get transported.

Become a digital “port city” by making a useful resource accessible and useful, then focus on continually evolving as the thing people need access to changes.

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Does Your Company Have a Chief Data Evangelist?

A lot of companies are talking about Chief Data Officers, but what about having a chief data evangelist instead?

Recently I was talking to a good friend of mine that works in the Business Intelligence space about the concept of a Chief Data Officer being brought up in the halls of different companies around the US (mainly of course, IT departments dealing with the onset of new data solutions to handle all their data.)

What he shared was that companies should focus less on centralizing data to get to a single version of the truth. Instead, they should focus on recruiting a chief data evangelist to get groups within a company on board with a set of standards that they can build data models around for use within their team, then grow grassroots communities within their company. This could be akin to a data “co-op” of sorts which could, in turn, enable teams to take their own data models and share data at a bottom up approach vs simply being drug along by a chief data officer from a top down approach, marching to the beat of centralized data control.

This extreme decentralization has worked in other facets, including executive leadership as characterized in the book “The Outsiders” by William Thorndike so why couldn’t it work with data?

As I began to think about it, it does make sense to have people in your organization advocating for best practices, and getting different groups on board with a set of standards but leaving the usefulness of the data to the teams using it, as no two groups of course ever have the same need for a specific data set in a specific format.

Though larger efforts like data warehousing will remain centralized activities, imagine what companies could achieve through extreme decentralization focused on evangelism of standards and organization level adoption & modeling efforts that in turn drive community activities within a company vs dragging along the enterprise one team at a time to conform to centralized data models that may or may not work for them.

Seems like a much better solution to me. In thinking about what a Chief Data Evangelist might do at your company, consider the following job description

Task #1) Strong understanding of best practices around data governance, data management, and data modeling for the purpose of leveraging corporate data for use by a specific team

Task #2) Desire to get teams within a company on board with leveraging standards for data governance and modeling, for the purpose of collaborating with other teams and sharing data within organizations / company

Task #3) Make a killer salsa

If that sounds like a great job description, perhaps the job is for you. Regardless of who has the role, be it official or unofficial, having strong advocates for standards along with proponents for data / BI communities in your company can go a long way in helping drive greater adoption of data solutions within your company and help grow data-driven solutions in the process.

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