8‎ > ‎v‎ > ‎


Big Data for the Rest of Us, in One Start-Up

By Quentin Hardy
March 19, 2012 9:00 am March 19, 2012 9:00 am Sharmila Shahani-Mulligan, chief executive of ClearStory.Sharmila Shahani-Mulligan, chief executive of ClearStory.

The best insight into the current state of the Big Data business may be a five-person start-up in Palo Alto, Calif. While the industry mostly gathers lots of data, or stores it in new cloud-based databases, the start-up, ClearStory Data, is building the biggest possible base of data consumers.

ClearStory, which was formed last summer, is making software for ordinary business professionals. These customers will be able to blend their own corporate data with the large amounts of publicly available data, in search of new statistical insights. There just aren’t enough statisticians, the company figures, to address the demand corporations will have for Big Data.

“We’re about making data consumable,” says Sharmila Shahani-Mulligan, ClearStory’s founder and chief executive. “The world is talking about the size of Big Data sources, but at the end of the day it will be about the ease of consumption.” Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute has projected that the United States needs up to 190,000 people with “analytical expertise” than it has.

The idea of combining proprietary corporate data with public data is hardly new. Fast-food companies have long looked at census data to figure out where to put outlets, and what to feed people there. The public data sources for ClearStory will largely be the new category of “Data Marts,” like Datasift, Factual, the Windows Azure Data Marketplace from Microsoft, and Infochimps. These data marts collectively have perhaps millions of data types, from Twitter feeds to mean temperatures to store locations.

“There aren’t enough experts at companies to handle all these data sources,” Ms. Shahani-Mulligan says. “Brick-and-mortar stores in the Midwest can’t get the kind of data scientists LinkedIn has. We can give them that.” The company offers a range of algorithms to wrangle the data. Longer term, ClearStory hopes to get companies to start sharing more of their own internal data too, what Ms. Shahani-Mulligan calls “the gold locked up in 30 years of relational databases.”

Drawing off all of the data sources could be powerful, if ClearStory can manage to maintain an even level of quality and reliability among its data sources. That already bedevils many data marts. If ClearStory offers sloppy data to customers, it will hurt the company.

Another challenge will be designing an intuitive Web-based user experience, so the average marketer or communications professional isn’t flummoxed by statistics. Good “U.E.” people are among the toughest people to find in tech.

ClearStory is a good trend barometer in other ways. The product, which is expected to be ready for public consumption late this summer, will be offered free to casual users. The idea is that enough customers far away from the corporate information technology department will come to depend on ClearStory, and eventually I.T. will want to incorporate a more sophisticated paid version. It is a plan that worked for Yammer, a corporate messaging tool, and Dropbox, with offers storage in the cloud, as well as the Linux operating system.

Ms. Shahani-Mulligan, a marketing veteran of Netscape, Opsware and Cloudera, is backed by Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Khosla Ventures, among others. That makes it one of the more “hot backer-compliant” ventures: Google Ventures specializes in companies with a statistical bent, Andreessen Horowitz is assembling an ecology of companies in cloud computing, and Vinod Khosla is a renowned tech visionary.

Even with backers like that, ClearStory is making itself visible a lot earlier than most start-ups, posing a risk that it will hit the radar of potential competitors even before it has a product. In another sign of the boom (or, possibly, the bubble) in the Big Data industry, ClearStory needs the publicity in order to hire in an increasingly competitive talent market, however.

“There is a war for talent,” says Ben Horowitz, ClearStory’s backer at Andreessen Horowitz. “Getting the first five people is easy, but the next 20 is hard, when you are selling on your vision and momentum.” Besides, he says, “big companies don’t react to potential threats. They only react to real threats. There are just too many threats out there.”


Subpages (1): 1