In August 2011, Lloyd Tabb started writing the first few lines of code for what would eventually become Looker. His co-founder Ben Porterfield joined a few months later to help build out the product. By experimenting with different delivery models and cultivating a small yet mighty fanbase of early customers, they were able to bootstrap until they raised their seed round in the summer of 2012, which was co-led by First Round’s Bill Trenchard. A few key early hires joined in the months that followed, and Looker emerged from stealth in March 2013. Several months later, Frank Bien came on as president and, after going shoulder-to-shoulder with Tabb on the fundraising frontlines in their Series A round, took over as CEO to firm up the sales motion and scale the business.
Fast forward ahead of these early markers to June 2019, when Google Cloud announced its intent to acquire the data analytics startup, inking a $2.6 billion deal that was one for the history books. In a little more than seven years, Looker went from a single customer to more than 1700, from a small, scrappy team in Santa Cruz to a 700-person company spanning eight offices around the globe.
But in between those bookends of starting out and attaining success sit many volumes that go unread. Dust off the covers, and you’ll find countless stories of all the thorny issues the founding team grappled with, the lessons they figured out the hard way and the calls they got right. Some of those tales make their way into startup lore — but most are lost to history.
That’s because it’s hard to tell the story of a startup as it’s being built. In the thick fog of the early days, you can’t tell which bets will pay off and which moves will turn out to be inflection points — and you definitely don’t have time to stop and write it all down.
But when it comes to weaving together this particular startup story, we’ve got more yarn to draw on than usual. Here at First Round, we’ve had front-row seats for Looker’s rocketship ride as their first investors — and fortunately, we took some notes along the way. (The Looker team also carved out some time for reflection right here on the Review, from sharing tactics for spotting engineering superheroes and nailing analytics to offering tips for pushing past vanity metrics and recruiting executives.)
Over the past month, we sat down with Tabb, Porterfield, Bien and Trenchard to tease out their takeaways and reflect on Looker’s trajectory. In this exclusive interview (and epic history), this group comes together to fill in the details and mine the treasure trove of insights buried within Looker’s founding story.
Drawing on their unique perspectives as founding CTO, engineering leader, CEO and first investor, respectively, they unpack Looker’s recipe for success from every angle, sharing an inside look at why it worked, how the business was built, and what other startups can learn from its early days.
This crew covers all the essential cogs in the startup machine: finding the idea, standing out in the market, experimenting with different models, scaling sales, nailing customer success, and of course, assembling a winning team. From perspectives on curating company culture and intentionally screening early-hires to strategies for messaging a product's value and beating every bookings plan, early-stage teams will find plenty of wisdom here in this detailed accounting of how Looker got built.
It makes for a long read — but we hope it's a tale that's worth settling in for. Let's begin.
IDEA: START WITH A CRISP THESIS AND DON’T RAISE TOO EARLY
When it comes to extracting the essence of Looker's success, Tabb, Porterfield, Bien and Trenchard were all quick to point to the same takeaway: strong ideas and exceptional execution were key.
According to Tabb, the strength of the initial thesis was a by-product of the fact that he had been simmering the idea for his startup for quite some time. “I waited a really long time to start Looker. Looking back, I think we had a lot of success because I waited until I had a crisp thesis on what the problem was — and then we went directly at it,” says Tabb.
“I see so many founders starting companies saying ‘There’s an opportunity in this space somewhere, I’ll find it.’ Or, I've known kids just out of school who announce that they’re ‘off to do a startup.’ That might work out eventually, but it’s a hard thing to do because there’s no clear path. With Looker, I may not have been sure how I was going to achieve it, but I was clear on what the mission was from the jump: to build a product that lets everyone in the organization see everything that’s happening, through data."
Future founders, start with a really strong thesis on the problem you’re going to tackle. If you’re missing that first crucial ingredient, it’s best to keep your company building dreams on a low simmer while you work to figure one out.
Draw from a deeply personal problem and assemble the founding players.
That thesis took root in Tabb’s previous experiences. “I’d seen the need for a product like Looker over several years and kept returning to the idea. After playing founding roles at multiple companies, I knew that businesses needed a real-time understanding of their data. I was always building these one-off, custom tools to help others look at very narrow, specific datasets and I realized that there had to be a much better way of doing this,” he says.
As First Round partner Bill Trenchard’s relationship with Tabb dates back to 2004, he’s able to corroborate this story. “I benefited from Lloyd’s approach to data myself back at LiveOps, when I was the CEO and he was the CTO, and again when we teamed up at ReadyForce. If you’re building the same thing over and over again, that’s a signal that there might be a startup idea in there,” says Trenchard. “But Lloyd was particularly well-equipped to tackle this idea. Now that I’m an investor, I’ve found that the best founders go deep on a problem, understand all its nuances, and really immerse themselves in the customer’s pain point. That’s Lloyd to a T. Understanding people and their problems really deeply is critically important — and it’s why Lloyd is often fond of saying that ‘Great software is an act of empathy.’”
Tabb’s co-founder, Ben Porterfield, had a similar firsthand experience with the early idea for Looker. “I met Lloyd through my friend Sol Lipman. Lloyd was trying to find folks to help out at ReadyForce and I was in. We spent the next two years driving up together to Menlo Park from Santa Cruz, so I got to know him really well,” says Porterfield. “People from all departments at ReadyForce were using a tool Lloyd had built to help understand the staffing data, so when we both left the company to play around with a few startup concepts, I knew this idea of his had legs. We were certain that we had fit from the start — we knew engineers would find this tool valuable because Lloyd had already proven it.”
After agreeing to team up, this pair bought Llooker.com for $15 — Jim Everingham’s funny idea for misspelling a domain name, Tabb says — and got to work on creating an MVP. Tabb focused on building the language engine and driving early sales, while Porterfield worked on the platform and the underlying tech stack.
“Ben was a great choice for me as a co-founder,” says Tabb. “He’s a fantastic engineer and he has a great temperament. The best VPs of Eng I’ve met are unflappable and Ben had that trait in spades. He also knew the current tech stack — I was in my forties and he was a 20-something at the time, so he was more familiar with all the modern tools we needed to be using. With that in place, we were able to build a very simple version of Looker and start to iterate.”
It was this nascent product that first sold current Looker CEO Frank Bien on the company. “Lloyd and I both lived in Santa Cruz. I remember meeting him in late 2011 at a small coffee shop called Verve. It’s a bigger chain now, but that was the first outpost,” says Bien. “I knew he was onto something that could make all of the data we were swimming in useful. I ended up joining another company which was eventually acquired by VMWare, but I kept in touch and met up with Lloyd every couple of months. I wanted to play a role in what they were building.”
Continuing conversations with players like Bien gave the Looker team crucial sounding boards in the early days. This fledgling team knew their success hinged on their ability to leverage advice in their weak spots.
“Marc Randolph was huge for us in these early days. He joined part-time to take on the more rote business tasks, but he also acted as my consigliere, helping me think through all the thorny issues,” says Tabb. “After a day of sales calls in San Francisco, I'd often call Marc on the way home and review how they went, going over in detail what worked and what didn't in each of the meetings. We had lots of conversations about pricing and go-to-market strategies. I can be really indecisive sometimes and Mark would help me get to a decision.”
For Porterfield, Jim Everingham filled that advisor role. “I’d been an engineering manager before, but this was the first time I was going to lead the org. Lloyd always said that Jim was the best engineering leader he’d ever worked with, so the ability to lean on him was incredible. I’d meet with Jim on a regular basis and he gave me critical guidance on how to think through technical problems and organize the team,” says Porterfield.
Don’t raise seed money too early.
With a strong idea in sight, many founders’ first impulse is to start raising funds. But Tabb found it helpful to self-sustain and delay hitting the investor circuit at first.
“My biggest piece of advice to early-stage founders on fundraising is don't try to raise money too early,” says Tabb. “I see so many founders out there trying to raise with just an idea on a slide. We waited almost a year to raise money, until we knew it was a venture business — not every startup is, and you don’t want to get locked in. We were cranking along with customers and revenue. And it wasn’t all nailed down, but we had figured out enough of how go-to-market might work to know that it was workable. That made our seed raise in the summer of 2012 so much easier. If you build value, it takes the fundraising process from how good you are at pitching yourself to a place where you can simply say ‘Ask the people who are using us for their opinion about it.’”
If you can’t demonstrate value, you’re asking investors to take it on faith. You’re asking them to take it on who you are, as opposed to the proof points sitting in front of them.
As the investor on the receiving end of that fundraising tactic, Trenchard agrees that it was effective. “When we were deciding whether or not to invest in their seed round, Lloyd sent me a list of 10 customer references — many of them were First Round-backed companies. I talked to each and every one during diligence, and I was blown away. The love they had for the products was off the charts, they would have been very disappointed without it,” says Trenchard.
MARKET: STAND OUT IN THE CROWD BY DOUBLING DOWN ON BIG BETS AND DEMOING HOW YOU’RE DIFFERENT
The other key element of Tabb’s early pitch was the single email he sent to Trenchard that outlined the broader industry trends that Looker was hoping to take advantage of.
“Looking back on this pitch email now, those 216 words encapsulated everything we were trying to do and all the things we got right,” says Tabb.
Here, Tabb and Porterfield team up to dissect a few of the specific bets and trends outlined in the email:
- Betting on SQL. “We opted for SQL at a time when NoSQL seemed like the winning horse,” says Tabb. Porterfield grounds this bet in the context of 2011: “We thought that SQL would be the lingua franca for analytics, which wasn't entirely obvious back then. Hadoop was at the peak of its hype, and there was a chance analytics would head in that direction. We could have put a lot of effort into supporting Hadoop to hedge our bet, but that would have been a mistake.”
- Learning a new language. “I created LookML to serve as the basis of our platform. It’s an abstraction layer, the sequel to SQL. My thought was that if we could simplify the problems with SQL and evolve the data language, it would be easier to use,” says Tabb. But banking on data analysts learning a new language was anything but a surefire move. “This was a scary one,” says Porterfield. “I remember those early existential questions: ‘Can analysts learn this language? Will they want to?’ Looking back now, it seems more obvious that developer-style tooling and workflows would be embraced. These days, there’s a lot of discussion that any time you can provide tools that increase someone’s leverage, they will adopt them. But that wasn’t clear at the time.”
- Scaling databases. “We were betting that databases would eventually scale almost infinitely and would go to the cloud. That seems obvious now, but back then, Redshift and BigQuery were just getting started,” says Porterfield. “This shift was huge for Looker, and frankly, it was a bit of a surprise when it first happened — you could suddenly work with lots of data in a fast database in the cloud, and it was relatively cheap.”
- Decreasing data latency: “The difference between reporting and operational analytics is latency, the freshness of data,” says Tabb. “Most data analytic tools are high-latency tools: They extract the data into something else, which means that that movement takes time, so what you're looking at happened yesterday. Say you're looking at a list of items that didn't ship yesterday. Old data doesn't help. You really need to know if they still haven't shipped so you can do something about it. Latency, in many cases makes data useless. It’s the same with companies. They need to access all the things that are going on right now, research why they’re happening and then make decisions.”
This last insight was particularly key for Tabb. “In the online world, you can't see what's going on physically. I've always thought building a tech-based startup is a bit like flying: There’s VFR, where the conditions are clear and you can see the runway, and there's IFR, where visibility is poor so you have to rely on your instruments,” says Tabb.
“All tech businesses are IFR. You can't see your customer. But the problem in 2011 was that most companies didn’t have instruments. So they were trying to fly, but they couldn’t see very well. And our bet was that if we could bring them tools to see, their businesses would take off. Several early Looker customers turned into unicorns. I’m obviously a bit biased here, but I think part of that is because they had a really good handle on their data. They could fly.”
When you’re flying a plane in a storm, you have to go by instruments, not your eyes. Same with startups — if you can build a tool that can help companies “see,” you’ll be in business.
Don’t shy away from a crowded market, even if it’s tough to deliver a differentiated message.
While the business intelligence space had several established players, the Looker team found that a seemingly crowded market can counterintuitively make a great hunting ground.
“The benefit of crowded markets is that you know that there’s demand for products and that customers are willing to pay. The downside, of course, is you need a crisp insight to cut through,” says Trenchard. “When I got their pitch email in 2012, the Looker product was still in its very early days, but it was clear that the bet was solid and different enough to go the distance.”
This was exactly the point Tabb was trying to get across. “It was — and still is — a crowded market of similar products taking different approaches. Yes, there are a bunch of products in the market that access data. They all sound the same. But there wasn't anything that did what we were trying to do,” he says.
Porterfield agrees. “We weren’t scared of how crowded the market was because we realized we weren’t actually going up against much. Many of the early stage venture-backed tech companies we were trying to sell to had no existing solution — they relied on developers writing SQL when they needed to ask questions about their data. And that gave us a serious edge,” says Porterfield. “It almost gave us permission to work on what would best enable our version of the world — Lloyd used to call it our religion — and that meant we spent more time enabling analysts and focusing on features we wanted to build.”
Still, communicating what made Looker different was particularly tough in the early days. “Part of the problem was that the output at the end seemed similar to other tools on the surface — dashboards and reports — so it was hard to describe, without getting too technical, why it was a better solution. You had to experience it,” says Porterfield.
Tabb concurs. “For probably too many years, we didn't have a positioning statement. I remember after we raised our Series B round, one investor said to me ‘Wow, this is the first company I've seen get this far without one,’” Tabb laughs.
But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. “We knew we were very different architecturally, but you couldn't see that by looking at the website. And while we used terms like ‘business intelligence’ in sales convos because it’s how we got invited to the party, that wasn’t how we’d describe what we were doing,” says Tabb. “It would be like describing the early version of Google to someone as ‘You type words into this box and then a list comes back and you click through it.’ Technically correct, but there’s so much more beneath the surface.”
This messaging challenge led Looker to maintain a rather spartan digital presence. “Up until our Series A, a full year and a half after we had been doing business and generating customers, Looker’s website was just seven lines a text — and it was a joke,” says Tabb. “It was a mock definition of the word ‘looker’ and there was a play button icon that played audio of someone pronouncing it. We did something similar for our first tweet as well. It makes me laugh now thinking about how we were cash flow positive and that’s what our messaging looked like.”
It was an intentional choice, though. “We didn’t think anybody was just going to show up on the web and find us, even though channels did turn out to be really important later. And we thought that all the websites looked the same,” says Tabb. “So instead of leading with marketing, we tried to build a fanbase — either you’d never heard of Looker or you’d be a huge fan and you’d be in on the joke.”
SALES AND GTM: LOCK DOWN A MODEL AND SCALE UP THE MACHINE
Because of the challenges in describing the product’s value, Tabb and Porterfield doubled down on figuring out how to deliver it.
“The most stressful part was that it wasn't clear what we were going to do with the product. Open source it? Build a services company?” says Porterfield. Tabb agrees. “We didn’t know what the right delivery mechanism was going to be,” he says. “We could have been a customization-heavy service, where it’s almost like consulting and you’re deeply embedded with your customers. Or we could have gone the product route, where we just sell the tool and it’s all in the customer’s hands. So we decided not to decide.”
For Tabb, this lack of a decision was critically important. “As founders, we often feel like we have to have the answer to everything, that the unknowable is unacceptable,” he says. “When you don’t know something, resist the impulse to plow ahead and wait to see what works. As I’ve shared before, the decisions we didn’t make were often the ones that totally changed our business.”
Conventional wisdom says you need to lock in a business model early on, but we found that wasn’t true. Not deciding can in fact turn out to be the best decision you’ll ever make.
With open space ahead of them, the early Looker team tested a different methodology with every new customer. Here are Tabb’s thoughts on how they explored these different models:
- Consulting: “Liftopia was an early customer that didn't have a data person on their team. We treated this initial engagement as a consulting contract. When they needed something, they called. We were operating as a for-hire-data-team,” says Tabb. “We also did other consulting gigs where we helped customers move their data from a MongoDB database into an analytical one, and while that worked, it wasn't nearly as good.”
- Stand-alone product: “With another early customer, the buyer was very familiar with the database marketplace and tools, so he was a great person to just hand the software over to and let him try on his own,” says Tabb. “It worked well — they’re still a customer today actually — but we saw that this self-serve approach led him to miss a lot of the value that we'd captured with other customers.”
- Combination. “Another one of our early customers was SimplyHired. We tried a consulting engagement with them at first because the product was so early that it wasn't baked enough to actually have anyone use it. So I had to go in there and hook it up to their data and teach their engineers how to program in LookML by sitting next to them,” says Tabb. “Eventually they were up and running, and as we added other features, they were able to use the product on their own.”
“No matter the delivery mechanism, my initial sales pitch always came back to this concept: ‘Ask one of my existing customers, and they'll all say it's life changing. And then let me show you something you didn’t know about your own data to demonstrate value,'” says Tabb.
We knew the only way to be successful was to show the goods. You know the saying, “All hat, no cattle”? We had to have the cattle.
This insight eventually led Looker to land on a slight tweak to a classic SaaS model: a free trial, but one that combines heavy pre-sales implementation efforts with the crucial tactic of using the customers’ actual data in the demos.
“We thought we were deciding between product and service, but not deciding unlocked a third way: Selling as a product and forward-deploying during the free trial so it felt like a customized service,” says Tabb. “When selling the product, we used the demo as a chance to build a proof of concept, so we didn’t have a dummy sales pitch version — we always asked the prospect for an actual dataset to play with. Then, if we could get our prospects to use the product as much as possible in the free trial, we could comfortably ask for money later.”
This also informed the early product strategy. “We built monitoring tools into the product incredibly early on to make sure that we could tell if they were using it. I’d only try to close the deal once we saw the product starting to catch on around the organization — I’d never go ask for money until there was clear momentum of usage,” says Tabb. “The downside of this approach was that some of the trials ran a really long time. If we didn’t see that momentum, I’d go back in and be more hands-on to make sure they understood how we could answer all of their data questions.”
You need to work double time to demonstrate value very quickly pre-sales. If you can prove value early on, then the money will always show up in your bank account later.
Replace yourself to scale faster — even if you’re the CEO.
At this point in Looker’s journey, in between their seed and Series A rounds, Tabb notes he relied heavily on the board. “Our board worked with us hand-in-hand on all of the ‘What’s next?’ thinking we needed to do. A major early focus was on sales,” he says. “We had product/market fit and we had about 20 customers, things were working — but we needed to be thinking about the next phase.”
As a member of Looker’s board from pre-seed all the way through acquisition, Trenchard recalls these conversations vividly. “I remember this one board meeting during their seed stage, where Marc Randolph, Tim Connors and I were talking sales with Lloyd,” says Trenchard. “I drew out the entire sales machine process on a whiteboard, going through building a funnel, qualifying a lead, building out the sales team. Lloyd went quiet for a little bit and then said, ‘I don’t know how to do any of that and I don’t really want to figure it out. I need to replace myself. We need an amazing CEO and I’m going to go find that person.’ And within weeks of that meeting, Lloyd had already introduced me to Frank Bien.”
Tabb’s willingness to give away his role left Trenchard impressed. “Very few founders are willing to let go of the CEO reins at their Series A. The ability to see your own weaknesses, recognize the import of something and make changes so quickly is really rare. Lloyd made a very rational decision and it changed the whole trajectory of the company,” Trenchard says.
“At the time, it was a great product heading in a really interesting direction, but they unlocked an entirely different vector of growth when Frank joined. It was also unique that Lloyd stayed very much engaged in the business,” says Trenchard. “I’ve seen some startups struggle with keeping the founder involved once they’re no longer CEO, but Lloyd flourished in the CTO role. He and Ben built a really great team that continued to push the product, which allowed them to keep their edge.”
Here’s Tabb’s side of the story:
“When the board told me it was time to hire a sales team, I knew I was in over my head. I immediately thought of Frank. We had kept talking about the business after that first meeting in a coffee shop and I knew he was interested in joining Looker, but I took my time to decide and spent hours talking with Marc Randolph about bringing him on. It wasn’t a shotgun marriage. Truthfully, it was hard to relinquish the CEO hat — and candidly, I brought Frank on as President at first because I was nervous about taking it off,” says Tabb.
But the process of raising their Series A convinced Tabb that Bien had earned the CEO title. “We’d raised $2 million in our 2012 seed and I was pretty cheap — by the time Frank had joined as President a year later in the summer of 2013, I’d only spent $400k of what we’d raised. I remember thinking we had four years of runway,” Tabb laughs. “Then Frank came in and started hiring all of these sales folks and amazing leaders. I remember sitting with him in the conference room just a few months later where told me that we’d have to raise money because we’d be out in December, which was an ‘Oh shit,’ moment for me.”
Their initial plan was to take the same approach that had worked so well during the seed round. “We went to go see another investor we knew personally. And they wanted to invest — but at the last round’s valuation. So we went to the First Round office to ask Bill for advice. He coached us in such a direct and spot-on way,” says Tabb.
Here’s the play Trenchard told Tabb and Bien to run: “Bill told us to go see six partners in one week — not more because we didn’t want to be overshopped. After we explained the deal to investors, if they were interested, they’d bring us into the partner meeting the following week,” says Tabb. “So Frank and I put our nice shirts on and we drove up and down Sand Hill Road. We saw seven firms — and the next week we had six partner meetings, and ended up going with Tomasz Tunguz at Redpoint.”
All these years later, Trenchard reflects on this advice he gave back in 2013: "We started Pitch Assist to gather fundraising wisdom for our companies because we observed that many founders were caught off guard by how they need to change their strategy for their Series A,” he says. “Fundraising advice changes based on several factors. You can’t always borrow someone else’s playbook or copy-and-paste what worked in the last round. At its Series A, Looker had strong proof points in a big market, and the play we helped them put together was the best option for them at the time. And Frank and Lloyd nailed the execution.”
After fighting in the fundraising trenches together, Tabb realized that Bien deserved the CEO title. “Looking back now, I firmly believe the reason that Looker has executed to the degree that it has is because we brought in professional management,” says Tabb. “It was obvious that Frank was a man of very high integrity and he knew enterprise software — he knew how to execute in this space. So while it felt like I was taking a risk by turning over the CEO role and committing us to the enterprise route, I reminded myself that startups are all about risks — and he was a much better bet than I was.”
As a repeat founder, I often like to say that I’m a one-man band. I’ve played all the instruments and can do just about every startup job. But that doesn’t mean I do them all well. Keep the instrument you’re best at, and give the rest away.
From Bien’s perspective, the early timing of his arrival smoothed over bumps that he’s seen other startups run into when transitioning to professional management. “I’ve seen professional CEOs brought in to replace the founder, but it was always four or five years in, which creates a very different dynamic. At Looker, I wasn’t a founder — I take the founder designation very seriously — but I did join around 10 or 12 employees with a small revenue stream, which is pretty unusual,” says Bien.
“Joining at such an early phase made it so much easier. It was very peaceful and natural. If you do that replacement later on in the startup’s life, then usually the whole management team is being blown out. And even if the founder stays on, it can be a weird dynamic. It can get ugly and negative. But because we made that transition so early on at Looker, we avoided all of that.”
Commit to a model — and learn it inside and out.
Now in place as CEO, Bien’s task was to figure out how to scale Tabb's early sales approach. He had to turn the scrappy, promising startup into a model-driven company.
“When I stepped into Looker in mid-2013, there was a lot of early traction,” says Bien. “Lloyd already had won a solid base of customers with another early employee, Keenan Rice, but there were still a lot of unknowns. Should we sell for $500 a month or $5,000? It was all up in the air — and there were no spreadsheets or slide decks to be found,” Bien laughs. “In my mind, it was similar to Marketo’s model, meaning it wasn’t going to be just a couple hundred bucks a month. We needed to be in the neighborhood of $25,000 a year per customer.”
To convince prospects to sign on to that size of a deal, Bien knew Looker needed to have a sales team in place. “Lloyd’s early sales intuition was right, you had to do a robust proof of concept. It reminded me of Palantir’s forward-deployed engineers. We wanted to do an inside sales motion of that. Those salespeople had to be supported by an embedded technical person,” says Bien.
“For most companies in the data space, pre-sales folks are like plumbers, they're just hooking stuff together. We tried to take a different approach at Looker by asking prospects for a dataset and then putting economics or math majors to work. In the early days, they wore all the hats: They were pre-sales, post-sales, customer support. Eventually, those became separate roles as we scaled,” says Bien.
In demos, don't just show the customer the answer they’re looking for. Also show them what they should be asking, what they don’t even know.
This approach certainly wasn’t low-lift. The Looker team had to push back on concerns from investors and advisors that this sales motion wasn’t scalable. “Every VC told us not to do it this way,” laughs Bien. “They were certain that it would never scale.”
Trenchard was in that camp. “I’ll admit I thought it was a slightly odd approach at the time, as I was focused on helping them scale the business, but I knew they’d figure it out,” he says.
But Bien was confident because he’d done the math. “After crunching the numbers, we saw that by the time we had 2,000 customers, we could be doing $100 million dollars in ARR, and on the path to going public. That was the model from 2013 on. And as a side note, we were pretty spot on — we’re at 1,700 customers now, so we actually did a little better than we predicted,” says Bien.
“But you have to know your model backwards and forwards to make a bet like that. We knew the margins on the costs we were sinking into pre-sales support made sense. But if we had been unsure whether it was going to take 2,000 customers or 100,000 customers to reach the $100 million run rate, that would have been an incredibly risky move — we very easily could have been lighting our VC dollars on fire.”
If you’re confident in your model, you don’t have to worry whether you can support all the resources you’re sinking into sales — you can do the math and find out.
With the numbers ironed out, Bien started assembling an early sales team to execute. “Based on the customers we were targeting, we knew we could take advantage of being in the First Round community and get connected with all of these potential customers that were disrupting their industry based on data, like thredUP and HotelTonight,” says Bien.
In addition to this customer base, he also thought an enterprise play also made sense long-term. “I immediately hired four sales reps, two outside sales and two inside sales as an experiment. We were going to build a transactional inside SDR generated pipeline. This flywheel that would allow us to do $20-30K deals, but also bring in some inbound leads that could feed these enterprise reps,” he says. “The sales teams wasn’t going to generate their own meetings, marketing was going to pull that in.”
Turn the model into a plan — and beat it.
With this playbook in place, the Looker team set their targets — and in seven years, they never missed a bookings plan, achieving a rare 28-quarter streak of pure execution. Here’s Bien on the thinking that went into Looker’s planning strategy:
“People often create models to drive valuation, they’re always trying to do 2x the plan. In my opinion, that’s the most dangerous, company-killing move you can make. We’ve never adjusted our plan based on any external investor influence or a valuation we were trying to achieve in an upcoming round. We did, of course, put our foot down on the pedal from time to time, but it was only when we saw opportunity in the business,” says Bien. “For example, when we first started trying to expand into enterprise, we were testing the waters. Once it started working, we invested in more in our enterprise go-to-market efforts and bumped up our targets.”
Bien notes that when it comes to setting your plan, you want to maximize growth, but you also want it to still feel like a win. “It’s tempting to throw the plan numbers up much higher, and think that if you put the rabbit a little bit farther in front of the dog, it’ll run much faster,” he says. “But that’s not how it works. It mostly just leaves you feeling like you’re treading water, which over the long run, actually slows you down. We set our numbers according to our model, and we were ambitious, but not crazy — and in the end we got there faster.”
When it comes to setting your targets for the quarter, don’t stray too far from your model. Go faster where you can go faster, but don’t take a blunt force approach that makes your team feel like they’re drowning.
This approach to sales and planning boosted investor confidence even further, something Trenchard saw firsthand at First Round. “Frank was spot on, they built a truly amazing sales machine and executed to an almost unheard-of degree,” says Trenchard.
CUSTOMER SUCCESS: INVEST EARLY AND PUT LOVE AT THE CENTER
Trenchard was also impressed by another aspect of Looker’s business: the relentless focus on the customer. “If had to pick one thing that Looker did uniquely well, this would be it. A lot of people get stuck into a sales and marketing machine, but Looker never lost sight of the customer,” he says. “Most startups don’t invest enough in this area. So many founders come to me asking, ‘How do I build a customer success team? I’m thinking of outsourcing it.’ I always try to steer them away from that. It’s too core to the business, you need to hang onto it.”
And Looker did more than hang on. “They over-invested in customer success and had real data science experts on the support team very early on. Tait Kirkham was a crucial early hire here, he built much of this service delivery experience out. But the whole company truly was involved — Lloyd helped run customer service chats himself for years, he’d be up in the middle of the night answering tickets,” says Trenchard. “And it really showed in the viral, word-of-mouth growth.”
Here’s Tabb and Porterfield sharing their perspective on how Looker was able to cultivate this viral customer love:
“We had this fanatical focus on investing early in our customers. I had no qualms about sinking a disproportionate amount of resources here — if you make customers successful, they’ll use your product forever. If that ever changes, they’ll stop paying for it,” says Tabb. “In SaaS, focusing on making your customer successful is everything. You can't skimp there at all. It’s a retention strategy, not a cost center.”
“We were trying to turn the logic of a typical support team on its head, to keep the relationship between support and customer from being too transactional and instead make it more of a partnership,” says Tabb. “From the very beginning, if a customer was building the data model and had a question, we’d jump in and help them finish the job. That’s why we knew we had to make the leap from providing pure support to building a true community.”
In companies that provide a service, you're only successful if your customers are successful. That's it. Full stop.
One leader played a particularly important role in bringing this vision for support to life. “We hired Margaret Rosas in late 2012. I met her while I was volunteering as a mentor at TechRaising, a Santa Cruz incubator event that she was leading. As with most early-stage hires, she took on several different roles. But when she found her calling managing support, she totally changed our world. She managed community, documentation, and improved the developer experience at Looker — and she’s still our VP of Customer Love to this day. We wouldn’t have been able to execute on the vision we had for customer love and community without her.”
From Porterfield’s product-building perspective, this early focus on the customer was also a helpful feedback loop. “Margaret kept us tethered to all of the feedback from customers. Every engineer was on support chat and we’d speak live to people using the product that needed real-time help. We also emailed all errors in real time directly to all of engineering. This consistent stream of information let us adjust, informed our roadmap, and helped us delight existing customers quickly,” he says.
Love Looker Love:
“In the early days, Margaret had a habit of saying ‘We'll be successful when we have 1,000 true fans.’ That was our driving force — figuring out how to build a fanbase in enterprise software,” says Tabb. “If you make a product that customers love, your customers will love you back. It may seem cheesy, but it was really about love — that’s the emotion we wanted to evoke in our customers. We call customer success our ‘Department of Customer Love.’ We made ‘Love Looker Love’ one of our values. I had early customers tell me that life at their company was now divided into two eras: ‘Before Looker’ and ‘After Looker.’ That’s the reaction we were always chasing,” he says.
One of Tabb’s favorite early customer success stories illustrating that very point comes from HotelTonight (another First Round-backed company):
- “Someone on the marketing team was looking at their referral program and trying to figure out if it was working. In Looker, they were able to build a two-dimensional grid, with the number of times users had referred people across the top, and the number of bookings those users had made down the side. So at the bottom, you’d see people who had booked and referred a lot, and then in the top corner, you’d see users who'd never booked and never referred,” says Tabb. “Interestingly, there was a sizeable number of users who never booked, but frequently referred, which didn’t make much sense. But in Looker, every number drills down further. So by clicking on the user count, you could easily pull up their names and email addresses. The marketing person started emailing that list, asking the question ‘Who are you and why do you refer people to HotelTonight so often?’ to make sure it wasn’t a scam. But the answers came back with ‘I’m a flight attendant, a taxi driver, a bartender.’ Essentially, these users were people who always get asked the question, 'Where should I stay tonight?’ So HotelTonight realized they could target this persona specifically to drive referrals at scale. The marketer was able to do all of that research without ever talking to a data analyst.”
Look and Tell events:
To surface stories exactly like these — and leverage them in the sales process — Looker turned to customer events. “This was Pam Smith’s brainchild, she was a critical marketing advisor for us in the early days,” says Tabb. “She told me to get our existing customers together for a ‘Look and Tell’ event with our prospects so they could do the heavy lifting on selling Looker.”
Porterfield remembers these events well. “We started doing customer events super early on compared to other startups. I remember sweating and dragging cases of beer down Market Street to get to an event we were hosting — I think we probably had about eight attendees, but we kept at it and they paid off eventually,” he says.
For Tabb, the interesting learning was that these early events played a community building function as well. “I didn’t expect that,” he says. “Our customers started swapping tips on how to build a data culture and help the rest of their company use Looker — how to teach everyone to fish, essentially. One of the best tactics I heard was that one of our buyers would pull up Looker on a screen in a conference room and host a lunch AMA with ops and marketing folks, inviting them to bring in any data question to get the answer.”
PEOPLE: ASSEMBLING THE TEAM AND CULTIVATING CULTURE
Last — and anything but least — is the team that pulled it all off.
“There’s often this cult around the founder in startups, and I think it's a huge problem, I just hate it,” says Tabb. “Yes, I got the flywheel going, but I had so much help. When I wrote about the importance of treating people as partners in the Review, I sincerely meant it. Looker wouldn’t have been possible without the talent we somehow assembled. I brought in Frank and Ben, and they pulled in amazing people they had worked with before. And we’ve fortunately had unusually low turnover, so much of the original team still works here seven years later.”
I don’t believe founders put it all on their backs. Companies succeed because of great teams.
To dig deeper into what Looker got right on the people and culture fronts, Tabb, Porterfield and Bien share their key takeaways for other founders below, covering early- and later-stage hiring, offsites, learning and work/life balance.
Start with generalists, but bring in specialists early on.
Tabb has a theory about building talent in an early-stage startup: “There's a blank wall and you’re firing at it with a paintball gun and everyone has a different splatter pattern. Early on, you need to cover as much of the wall as you possibly can. So you need people who are generalists, who can cover a broad surface area, whether it’s a product person who can also handle legal, or engineers that can sell. Ben, Nate Pickens, Keenan Rice, Margaret Rosas, Mike Xu and I were all generalists, spraying the wall,” says Tabb.
By the time Bien joined around their Series A, however, the approach needed to change. “When Frank came in, he started hiring experienced leaders in each area. He recognized that we were able to leverage our traction to snag the good people earlier than we expected,” says Tabb.
“It’s the number one move I made that I would absolutely do all over again,” says Bien. “I didn't want to be in a position where we were re-bringing in a VP of sales in two years — I wanted to lock in our leaders early. Many early-stage startups typically don’t do this for two reasons: One, they don’t have established networks. Lloyd and I were both further along in our careers and had folks we’d worked with in the early 2000s that we could try to convince to join. Two, bringing in senior folks early on goes against your instinct to maintain control and wear all the hats. But as Lloyd has noted, professional management upped our game across the board,” he says.
To convince his connections to join Looker, Bien first started by asking if they would come over as a consultant. “I’d say, ‘I get that we're way too small for you to come over officially, but why don’t you come help me think through this problem?’ I got our CFO Joe Moran and our CRO Lambert Billet this way,” says Bien. “Lambert had run really big teams at HP and Oracle, and we had overlapped a software company in the early 2000s, so I asked for his help with our first four sales hires. What’s interesting is that all of them are still around — the top sales people today at Looker are the first sales people, which is crazy.”
Stay involved in hiring as you scale.
Many founders stop interviewing early on and looking for hiring practices that scale. But Bien and Tabb took a different tack at Looker.
“We were incredibly careful about who we brought on the team. Frank and I interviewed everyone up until about 400 people,” says Tabb. “We hit a breaking point a couple of years ago when I realized I was interviewing all day long, but up until then, it really was everyone — if it was on the technical side of the house, I spoke to them, if it was on the business side, Frank spoke to them. We were screening for assholes.”
Everybody cares about their career and wants to be successful. But people who do that at the expense of others are poison.
Here are the go-to questions Tabb relied on during interviews:
- “I would ask candidates to tell me something that happened at work in the last year that made it a truly great day,” he says. “In their answers, I’m looking for a focus on others. Did it involve team win or someone praising them for an individual win?”
- “I’d also ask candidates about the best manager they've ever worked for. It helps you see what’s important to them, what they value,” says Tabb.
Plan offsites earlier than you think you need to.
Tabb recalls Looker’s very first offsite: “In April or May of 2012, I took the entire company — which consisted of me, Ben, our first engineer Nate Pickens, and my son Elijah who was interning — to Hawaii for a week. We called it ‘Hackwaii,” says Tabb. “The idea was that we all need to bond, and they needed to learn to code in LookML, the new language I’d built. They were short days. We would start at 10am and work until about 3pm and fill the rest of it with hiking and surfing, but we got a lot done — Nate and Ben built the HotelTonight demo models when we were trying to win them as a customer.”
According to Porterfield, these early offsites were key to helping the team gel. “In my experience, founders wait too long to do this. It’s easy to think, ‘We’re just four people, why do we need an offsite?’ But ours were hack-days combined with strategic planning and team bonding, and they were great for culture-building and for motivation. We continued to do them as we grew, taking everyone along,” he says.
CEOs, be wary of deep-sea diving.
“Back in my college days, I was really into the ideas of Robert Greenleaf, who kicked off the concept of servant leadership. Today, as a CEO, that philosophy carries forward — I view myself as a steward,” says Bien. “My role is to remove obstacles for other people and remove ownership for myself.”
As a leader, you have to know when to dive deeply to fix a problem and when to leave it alone. Over-diving kills companies.
“When it came to figuring out the model, I was down on the ocean floor. But for example, I could have gotten more involved in the product,” says Bien. “I could have insisted that they build certain enterprise-friendly features right away or that we should hire an engineering leader with 20 years of experience, but I had so much trust in Ben and Lloyd and their ability to get it right.”
Cultivate the culture of a middle school and open up sales pitches to encourage learning.
“Between working at Netscape and LiveOps, I taught middle school and ran a computer club,” says Tabb. “I've spoken about this before, but this experience reinforced the importance of creating a very safe learning environment, one where you could toss out any question. If Looker was to succeed, we had to educate the world on this new programming language. We had to be teachers, and in order to be teachers, you had to have a culture where everybody felt safe learning themselves. Our long kitchen table is a place for learning.”
Attention to this culture of learning is a cornerstone of Tabb's ethos as a founder. “Culture is how you treat people. It flows from the top. As the founder, they're going to emulate your every behavior, so be the person that you would want to be around — and call out the behavior you don’t want to see replicated in others,” says Tabb. “I remember once at an offsite, an engineer made fun of someone else for not knowing something. I pulled that person aside and said, ‘You can't do that.’ Since then, I've watched that person pull other people aside the very same way.”
If you as the founder shortcut behavior, everyone else will do the same, so don't ever do it.
As a CEO charged with scaling, Bien brings a different lens to why a learning environment is important. “I thought about in terms of how it’s useful when you’re growing quickly. If you're going to hire hundreds of people, and at any point a third of the team is brand-new, sharing knowledge quickly becomes critical. And all the education, documentation, and training in the world doesn't replace an open environment where people share information with each other naturally,” says Bien.
“My favorite example of this in action is our sales calls. In many cultures, sales teams are usually very closed off. No one wants to allow others onto their sales calls because they're afraid of what's going to happen, of a pitch going south in front of an audience. At Looker, we publish all of the sales calls that are going on for the week and anyone from across the company can sit in on them. And it's a great way to learn, because you can hear someone giving the pitch and learn more about our customers.”
Create the space for work/life balance — and bikes.
“I’ve always said that a good life is a series of good days. All you have are the days that you live, so if you’re working at Looker, I don’t want you to put off life — I want you to live life. If you’re not going to live it now, when will you? That necessitates balance, which is why ‘Make time to shred,’ has always been one of our values,” says Tabb.
“Personally, I’ve found that I have about eight good creative hours a day. I think you can do an amazing amount of work if you focus on what’s important, but people confuse hard work and value. The value comes from making white space. I do that by getting on my bike,” he says. “If you’re bogged down in the operations and you don’t have a chance to reflect, then you won’t be strategic. You’ll do better work if you take time away from it.”
FINAL REFLECTIONS AND FOOTHOLDS FOR FELLOW FOUNDERS:
Acquisitions often leave the founding team with a somewhat wistful mix of reflecting on the past and looking ahead to the next chapter. “I’m incredibly excited to work with Google. The alignment of Looker’s mission to help people make better use of their data, and Google’s to help organize the world’s data is a natural fit,” says Tabb. “Some of the smartest engineers in the world work at Google, so the fact that they believe in what we’ve built is probably the highest highest form of praise that I can think of.”
But as he looks back on Looker’s journey, Tabb is reminded of another story, albeit one outside of the startup world: the Free Solo documentary. “He free climbs El Capitan, one of the most challenging climbs in the world. And in just under four hours, he completes this impossible goal, almost making it look easy. But he spent so much time before that trying to figure out how to do it. He climbed it multiple times with ropes, studying and plotting out every careful move,” says Tabb.
Here’s the parallel to the journey of an early-stage startup: “Our trajectory at Looker may have looked up-and-to-the-right easy, but Frank, the rest of the team and I put a lot of prep work and careful thinking behind each move as we free climbed. People often ask me, ‘What was the hardest part of scaling Looker?’ I always say the decision points. Not because we made huge mistakes — we didn't have any disastrous moments, we didn't fall. And not because they were particularly hard. It’s because they were terrifying. We were making big bets and we easily could have fallen off the edge,” says Tabb.
“Finding those secure footholds was incredibly challenging — as you're making moves, you don’t know if your foot is going to be stable once you put it down. Founders need to put so much thought and consideration into every step. It’s easy to get locked in on a certain path, one you can’t climb your way out of, whether it’s fundraising too early, committing to a model prematurely, or rushing into a decision. You don’t get a lot of do-overs — so tread carefully.”
Photos courtesy of Looker.