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BlackBox-BI: A French Start-Up that Provides Easy to Use Affordable Business Intelligence for Companies of all Sizes

http://www.blackBox-bi.com/

BlackBox-BI makes creating business dashboards easy. From data load to dashboard creation, BlackBox-BI focus is to make each step as easy as possible without compromising on functionality.

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We conducted a very interesting interview with Mr. ‘Olav Snoek‘; Founder and CEO of the France (Paris)-based start-up “BlackBox-BI”.

BlackBox-BI” aims to make business intelligence dashboards easy to build and fun to use.

Below is the full interview with Mr. ‘Snoek’ regarding his start-up technology company “BlackBox-BI”;

1. What is it exactly that you do and what “BlackBox-BI” is all about?

We make creating business dashboards easy. From data load to dashboard creation, our focus is to make each step as easy as possible without compromising on functionality. Users can easily create dashboards using an intuitive web based application. There is no need for programming skills thanks to our easy to use metadata model that creates a business view of your data.

Our objective is to go from data to dashboard in minutes not months.

2. When has “BlackBox-BI” been founded? And what stage is “BlackBox-BI” currently at?

The company was established early 2011 after the idea for a cloud based business intelligence solution came to me on holiday in Mongolia.

In my day job as a business intelligence manager I noticed that we often repeat ourselves when starting a project. We needed to provision servers, buy software licenses, install and configure software etc. All this before we even got to developing the required reports and dashboards. This is a huge waste and so I set out to solve this by at first proposing a hosted BI solution based on Pentaho. This did not scale very well beyond a few customers and the user interface is not the best looking design ever. So I decided to develop a multi tenant cloud hosted dashboard solution which allows users to build advanced dashboards with ease.

We are currently pre-launch and just opened applications for our beta program.

3. What is “BlackBox-BI”‘s business model and how does it work?

The business model is very simple and transparent. Users subscribe to the service and pay a monthly fee per user. We believe strongly in transparency so there are no hidden costs, you simply pay for the number of users and that’s it.

There will be a three tiered pricing model where the first tier is priced extremely low to make advanced dashboarding accessible to small businesses with only one user. The standard and enterprise tiers will include more advanced functionalities as well as improved support contracts.

4. How did your team meet? And who in your team does what?

I met my partners, Boris Guerin (General Manager at eulidia.com) and Fabien Jongenelen (General Manager at eulidia.com) thanks to an introduction by my former boss. He thought it would be a good idea I had lunch with Boris to discuss my plans and get some feedback. We kind of hit it off after I showed him a demo of our dashboarding tool. Ever since we are working together and Boris provides me with valuable help navigating the administrative side of starting a business in France. In the meantime I am responsible for software development and overall strategy.

5. What, exactly, makes you different from existing options, what will make your product and/or service stand out in the marketplace? In other words what’s unique about you and what’s new about what you make?

Usability and affordability make us stand out from the competition. There are many solutions already out there but none are as easy to use as BlackBox-BI. From our easy data management tool that lets you load data directly from cloud sources like Dropbox, to our innovative BI-Desktop that lets users create personalized dashboards with ease, the main focus is to make every step as easy as possible.

Our pricing model also distinguishes us from other offers out there. I have often been frustrated with the complex software licenses sold by other products and believe this should be super simple. We do not distinguish between different users, each user has access to all functionality that is included in their tier. We believe this will make adoption easier and gives power to the user so they can get the information they need.


6. What is your growth like? And what milestones has “BlackBox-BI” achieved so far?

Currently we are looking for people that would like to become beta testers of our dashboard tool (if you do please go to our website and sign up at http://www.blackbox-bi.com). A few of the milestones we achieved are :

1. December 2011 First version of the BI-Desktop.
2. September 2012 Alpha release of our multi tenant platform.
3. November (expected) 2012 beta launch.

7. Who are your competitors? And what is your start-up’s competitive advantage over them?

Our competition ranges from traditional BI software vendors to new cloud solutions like gooddata.

But our main competitor is Microsoft Excel. Many people create reports and dashboards using excel and then send these around via email. This will work for a while but it’s not really a tenable solution.

A cloud solution like ours offers added value because it is always available on any computer (and later even on tablets). We also allow users to comment on charts and dashboards in order to stimulate conversation about what is going on in an organization.

Another big advantage is speed of deployment. As soon as a user subscribes the platform is ready to use. There is no complex configuration needed all you need to do is connect a datasource and define a metadata model and your ready to go. Most of these tasks are made extremely simple thanks to our intelligent wizards.

8. What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?

One of the main obstacles I’ve faced is having enough time to dedicate to the development of the product. This has now been sorted out and I can focus 100% of my time on BlackBox-BI.

Other obstacles involve finding my way around the French administrative system. It’s not always as complex as it’s made out to be but it could be a lot easier for sure.
Technical obstacles we’ve faced is how to design a multi tenant system without compromising on data security. We’ve eventually ended up with a shared host / separated database system in which each client has their own separate database so data can never get mixed between clients.

9. What are the key things about your field that outsiders don’t understand?

A lot of report consumers have no idea how to properly design an effective dashboard. They insist on using pie charts even though that is the worst graphical representation of data available. Save the pies for desert! A well designed dashboard should be easy on the eye and show you all critical information in one view.

10. Why are you going to succeed?

We will succeed because we have a clear understanding of the problem users are facing day to day. Having used competing products for years we know what works and what does not.

The second critical success factor is the team we have in place which offers a good mix of business experience, marketing creativity and technical know how that should be able to find a solution to all future problems we face.

11. If “BlackBox-BI” succeeds, what additional areas might you be able to expand into?

After capturing the self service BI market we would like to develop vertical application packages.

We could for instance create a Salesforce package that enables customers to simply provide their Salesforce credentials and get instant access to pre-built dashboards. This would provide a huge benefit to customers as they save an enormous amount of development time and can start analyzing their sales instantly.

The possibilities are nearly endless when you think of the domains we could develop apps for; Sales (Salesforce, SugarCrm), Marketing (Mailchimp), Support (Zendesk) etc.

12. Why did you choose this idea and concept to build “BlackBox-BI” based on?

I believe the future of computing lies in the cloud. More and more services are moved form in-house to the cloud and I think business intelligence solutions are a perfect fit.

Another reason I decided to develop this product is that I think the old licensing system for software has run its course. Simple monthly payments in exchange for a managed and up to date solution are more transparent and will provide better return on investment.

13. What have you learned so far from launching your idea?

I have learned that sometime you just have to trust your gut and take a leap of faith. Many people asked me why I would give up a well paid job and try and launch a start-up without any experience in running a business. It’s not been easy but I’m learning fast and enjoy every minute of it. If you truly believe in your product and persevere you will succeed.

14. Six months from now, what’s going to be your biggest problem?

Six months from now our application will be live and, hopefully, a lot of users will be using it every day.

I think at that stage we will still be a very small team with everyone performing many tasks. It will be hard to keep innovating the product and at the same time dealing with customer support and systems operations.

15. What’s the benefit for the customer/user?

There are several clear benefits for customers. First of all they get an easy to use dashboarding solution that will allow them to create exciting dashboards.

Second, customers will be happy they can spend their time analyzing their business metrics instead of wasting time managing a piece of software that has nothing to do with their core business. Clients do not have to worry about system performance, updates, security etc. this is all taken care of by us.

A final benefit is a fast return on investment. Thanks to the monthly subscription model there are hardly any upfront costs so you can focus on adding value to the business through better informed decisions right from the start instead of having to make a huge investment before you have created your first dashboard.

16. How did customers / users find out about you?

We are not fully live yet but the people we are talking to at the moment come from our personal networks.

Every company has a need to analyze business data, especially in these times of austerity. A solution like BlackBox-BI therefore appeals to a lot of people.

We try to drive traffic to our website through search and social media and fantastic blogs like yours of course.

17. Who are your current customers / users? Who are your target customers / users?

Currently there is one consulting company that uses the solution to monitor their sales pipeline. And we are negotiating with others.

We have identified three key customer types:

1. Startup companies

Most startups have a serious need to effectively monitor their key metrics but miss the expertise, will and time to do this in-house. BlackBox-BI can provide them with an easy to use and powerful solution.

2. Small to medium size companies

Traditional small and medium size businesses are often too small for enterprise software and lack the expertise to implement open-source products and thus stick with Excel which limits them in their analytical power and makes it hard to share key data.

3. Departments in large enterprises

The demand for information in large enterprises is unrelenting and often the IT department is unable to provide them with the information needed in time. Here a solution like BlackBox-BI can help. Department managers can set up their own dashboards independent of the IT department.

18. Where do new customers / users come from and what makes new customers/users try you?

New customers will mostly come through the website and word of mouth. Our very low barrier to entry makes it a easy to get started without taking any risk. Customers can start with a simple, one user plan just to discover the product and add users when needed. No other dashboarding product allows you to do this.

19. What do your customers / users say about your product and/or service?

When customers first see the product they are amazed at the ease of use and the flexibility. In a few clicks they can add a great looking graph or table to a dashboard.
Apart from the dashboard customers like the interactiveness. They can leave comments, tag content to suit their personal tastes.

A final feature that is well appreciated is the BI-Desktop that allows end-users to create their own personalized dashboard.

20. How are you going to scale?

Technologically we are ready to scale. The software is designed to run on a large cluster of servers in order to handle the increased demand.

A lot of our focus right now is on streamlining our processes, from payment to customer services. That is where the difficulty will lie when scaling.

With increased scale also comes an increased demand for customer support in multiple languages and time-zones. We will need to be able to meet these needs.

21. What’s the biggest missing feature? The one thing customers/users keep asking for?

One feature that often pops up is the need to be able to send dashboards via email. Technically this is not possible at the moment due to the interactive nature of the dashboards but I’m sure we will find a solution in a future version. Another major feature is a mobile app, especially an ipad app. A prototype is currently in development and should be released spring 2013.

22. Are you going to internationalize? And if yes how are you planning to expand your start-up’s operations accordingly?

We are absolutely planning to internationalize our business. Currently we support three languages, English, French and Dutch so they will be the first markets we will be targeting.

A key part of our strategy is to find partners in different countries that would like to become resellers of our solution and provide consulting services around our offering. We will keep operations and development of our product based in France, for now.

23. How big do you think you can get? Why? And how you are planning to achieve your goals?

The market potential for analytical applications like ours is huge. According to Gartner, Forrester etc. the market for cloud based business intelligence applications will grow exponentially over the next four years and we expect to capture a part of it. For now we’d be happy breaking even but the goal is to become a $ 100M company by having a razor sharp user focus. All we do needs to be geared towards making it as easy as possible for our users to make great decisions based on information found on BlackBox-BI.

24. Are you looking to hire a new workforce? And if yes, what job vacancies do you currently offer and where can potential applicants contact you at?

Currently we are not hiring as we are bootstrapping our way through the launch phase. When we get some traction though we would be looking to hire some excellent java and javascript programmers who would like to develop exciting new data visualizations.

If you are interested in working for equity at an exciting startup please contact info@blackbox-bi.com

25. Are you looking for partnership opportunities or funding from Venture Capitals (VC) or other funding sources? Or your business is self-sustainable? And if the first option applies where can potential partners / investors contact you at?

We are actively looking for potential partners. I can imagine partnerships with business intelligence consulting companies that would like to sell our solution.

We could also partner with application developers to provide dashboarding functionalities for their products.

In order to scale the business we are open to working with VCs or angel investors. We are trying to keep our costs low whilst we go through customer development but when we’ve achieved product market fit and we need to scale the business we will definitely need outside investment.

If you are interested in partnering up with us or would like to become an investor please contact me directly at olav.snoek@blackbox-bi.com

26. What advice do you have for fresh entrepreneurs?

Try, try and try again. It’s hard to get started. There are so many reasons not to start and you can always find reasons why now is not the time but that way you will never launch.

Be prepared to work longer hours than you have ever worked before but rest assured it will be worth it.

27. Finally, do you have any other comments that you would like to add?

I would just like to thank you for providing a forum for budding entrepreneurs like myself.

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