Show 126 – Unicorn Interviews – Felix Van de Maele – Collibra

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In the latest episode of our series of episodes that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto, and their own Without Borders podcast, Russell Goldsmith and Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie were joined online from New York by Felix Van De Maele, Co-Founder and CEO of Collibra, a big data management start-up that raised $112.5 million in April 2020 and achieved a $2.3 billion valuation.

Felix began by explaining that Collibra is a data intelligence software company that help typically large organisations better find, understand, and trust their data. He said they do that through data intelligence, which is about connecting data to the right people, the right insights into the right reports, and in that sense, help companies with data governance, making sure they can trust and have confidence in their data and reports. Felix added that they help them around data cataloguing, help analysts to find the right data faster and help them run data privacy as well on the GDPR and CCPA regulations. He said they believe as data becomes more important and foundational for any large organisation, treating data in the right way and really being compliant to these privacy regulations, which are only going to increase, is really important. He said they do this for large companies across every single industry, from financial services to healthcare, retail, technology and so on.

Felix explained that they started the company 12 years ago at the very beginning but over the last 10 years, the importance and volume of data has only increased. He said they saw the whole shift towards the Cloud and Big Data, so more volume, more complexity and the number of people that consume, produce data and use data to do their workday today has only increased. He said that combination of all these factors really has led to that data chaos and organisations have started to understand that they really need to build that foundation to be able to tame the chaos and really get to valuable outcomes. He added that during the pandemic they’ve actually been able to see that play out not just within organisations, but in society, he said we’ve all looked weekly if not daily at the dashboard to see how things are moving and seen a lot of discussions, questions, and comparisons around those numbers. So, Felix said this whole result about the data chaos and making decisions based on them means we’ve seen this play out in the mainstream media and in society at large. He said it’s been interesting to see reflected what has been going on in organisations for a long time, now publicly. He explained that the other thing that we’ve seen is that given that it’s all about helping people, work together and forced to work from home, this need for collaboration has only increased, the need for a tool, a platform, a system to actually make that easier. He said it used to be easy to just meet with people in the hallway, have a meeting and have these discussions, now that we’re all working from home, collaboration has only increased in importance.

Felix explained that at the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of uncertainty and everyone almost paused a little bit to see how it was going to play out. However, he said in the second half of the year it was not as bad as they thought it was going to be, business kicked up and there was that digital transformation which was accelerated. He explained that everything shifted to digital, and that data is at the foundation of this shift. Ultimately, he said if you think about these digital companies, they are inherently all data companies and need to have that foundation around data to be able to get to outcomes faster, trust data and make decisions around data.

Big Data

Felix said Big Data is a lot about the volumes and complexity of data, the more data the better and that has been the focus. He said we’ve seen a lot of innovations technically as well on storing, capturing, and processing that data at these new volumes at a scale that we haven’t seen before. He explained with the move to cloud we’ve seen a lot of advancements and people are now realising that just having more data is not necessarily the answer, having better technology to process more data than ever before is important but it’s not enough. He said building that foundation around data where it’s easy for people to find the right data, trust that data is correct, work together on it, and treat data correctly from a privacy and security perspective, is becoming more and more important. Felix said you’ve seen the trend where people are building these data lakes, which was all about the volume of data and they quickly became data swamp’s, you can’t find anything anymore and so that realisation is really important, it’s about looking at data as a resource. He said at Collibra, they actually believe that data is much more than that, it’s not necessarily a resource, it’s almost a human emotion that’s about sharing information, it’s not something new, it’s something that humanity has done forever. So, he said they really think about data as creating a shared language that can bring people closer together, help people understand each other better. He said over the last couple of years in the news, there’s been a lot of negative connotations around data and at Collibra they want to make it so everybody truly understands what data can do for them and help people become data literate. He explained the concept of a data citizen, where you have a right as a citizen to have easy access to trustworthy data, because in this transformation it’s going to be important for everybody to have that through their job. He said on the other hand, that balance as a citizen, you also have responsibilities, treating that data right from a privacy and security perspective is just as important. Felix said over the last 15 years, the shift from big data being about volume and technology, towards now being something much more human, it’s about collaboration, trust, and confidence.

Becoming a Unicorn

Felix explained that in 2019 they became a unicorn and raised $100million and then in 2020 raised another $112million and that pushed their valuation from $1billion to about $2.3billion. He said the journey from starting the company he likes to think of it almost like a climb, you have a big vision, you can’t just walk straight up, it comes in stages and phases. He said he never used a valuation as a target, it’s really how you build the business and the result of that is what valuation you get. Felix said if you would go back 10 years, a company at a similar stage would get a very different valuation than a company today, so he said they don’t think of their valuation as a milestone, just a moment in time and a result of something that they’ve built. He said the good thing as a high growth company, as a start-up is the faster the flight goes, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the recognition you get as the unicorn allows you to hire more people and better talent, which gets you more credibility in the market. He said they work with the largest companies in the world, and they need to know that they’re going to be here in business for the next five, 10 years and the long-time investments that they make, all become a little easier, it’s a great way to make a flywheel go a little faster.

Moving from Belgium to the US

Felix said they started the company in 2008 in Brussels, Belgium and from the very beginning they realised they couldn’t build a successful company in Belgium, given that the customers they focused on there just weren’t enough, so they were very internationally focused from the very beginning. He said they adjusted to travelling to the US but that wasn’t really sustainable because they ultimately believe that presence creates opportunity. He explained that one of their co-founders, Stijn (Stan) Christiaens, was the first one to move in 2013 or 2014 and then in 2015, he decided to make the move full time to New York and that became their headquarters for the company as well. Felix said they followed their customers not their investors and that’s why they ultimately ended up in New York, he said it does require quite a bit of adjusting to the scale in the US, but it was a really important decision that they made, and they wouldn’t be where they are today if they didn’t do it.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Felix explained that during the pandemic, that acceleration of that shift of digital transformation really excited him, we saw this shift which would happen in three years, happen three months. He said for them specifically, the acceptance that data is really at the foundation of this, and the importance of data has been clearly shown almost on a societal level. He explained that on the one hand, the whole presidential election in the US, was so much about the importance of data and also sometimes the mistrust and again, the power of data around Covid, it’s been interesting to see how quickly we got to these vaccines and data has been such an important foundational source there. Felix explained that from Collibra’s perspective, they published their covid-19 data catalogue, really taking into account and capturing all these different data sets wherever they come from and making sure people can easily find them, trust them and just make it easier for people to do the right analysis based on that data. He added they’ve made that publicly available and got great adoption on that. From their customers, he added they work with a lot of the largest pharma companies as well and in that research process, using data in the right way, having people access data faster with a bit more confidence is really impactful.

Raising Awareness and Differentiating the Company

Felix said communication is not something that came naturally to him, it’s something that he had to learn over time and he had to learn why it’s so important as well. He explained that they were able to create data governance software category from the very beginning, they created that category and really positioned in the market because they believed that it was a really important thing to do and as they grew, they had to expand that category. He said communication in the market is really important because you have to educate the market, explain your point of view, your perspective and so they’ve done it over the last couple of years, expanding from data governance into data intelligence as a broader category, which was a really important concept. Felix said also internally, as the company grows from 10 people to a thousand people, the focus on internal communication, especially during Covid only becomes more important. He said when they’ve done surveys, people always want more communication, so doing that in the right way has been really important and part of his growth as a leader was to understand how you best do that. He said surrounding yourself with the right people, the right team that you can lean on, is really important, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone as well. He added that the other thing that he’s learned is that authenticity is so important because people have to believe who you are personally and who the company is, so being really authentic in their story, beliefs, vision, and values as a company has stayed really consistent over the last 10, 12 years which has been a great foundation to build up on.

Internal Communications

Felix said he’s always been very approachable, and he’s enjoyed connecting directly with people. He said as the company grows, it’s harder to do that, so they need to find leverage, a way to connect with people in a more effective way. He’s always really enjoyed visiting different offices, they have different offices, in New York, Belgium, Poland, France and London. He explained that it was always great to actually connect with the people, you get a sense of the culture, a sense of how people are doing, and people really appreciate it as well. However, in the Covid world, that wasn’t possible anymore, so they had to think of alternatives especially because connecting and communicating has never been more important. Felix said they did a number of things:

  • Listening sessions with the management team
    Where they brought people together and just listened, to really understand what’s going on within their teams.
  • Regular all hands meetings
    Which they did pre-Covid, but only once a month, but now do it more consistently to have much more regular communications with the team.
  • Biweekly vlog
    Just internally, he shares what he’s thinking and what the executive team is thinking.
  • A coffee with Felix
    An opportunity for people to connect directly with him about a random topic, not an obligation but anyone can sign up.

Company Culture

Felix explained that due to Covid, there’s quite a big percentage of people that have joined recently that have never been in the office, never met anyone in person, even in his management team. He said that it just makes the culture so much more important, at the beginning, the culture came naturally but he said as you grow, you have to be much more thoughtful about it. He said they made their cultural values explicit, and they reinforce them all the time and a big part of it is in the interview process, making sure that there’s a great culture fit as well. He added that one of their values is to be very transparent, open, and respectful in their communications and that really flows through to what you do, day in, day out but it’s something that you always have to keep working on. Felix said you can always strive to do better, you’re never going to be perfect as a company, but also personally, it’s always like a goal you should working towards.

External Communications

Felix said it’s not something that came naturally to him from the very beginning, but over time he realised how important it is. He said it’s important externally to put a face to the company, explain why they are here, why what they do is important to customers, to the broader market and to investors. He said he underestimated external communications and a big part of that actually helps with internal communication as well. Felix added that it’s a much bigger part of his role versus a couple of years ago and he expects that only to increase. He said during Covid, there was so much going on internally, a lot of change, a lot of uncertainty and he felt the need to make sure they focused on employees and so spent a lot of time internally. However, he said now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, they see the business shifting to be much more externally focused because that’s, of course, very important. Felix said they see themselves as a category defining company, 10 years ago they defined data governance category and you can only do that by externally explaining that to the market. He said now over the last two years they’ve expanded that to data intelligence and again, it’s all about external communication.

Felix said he can’t stress how important it is to surround yourself with a great team, he said he’s a big believer in a growth mindset, understanding what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, and always wanting to learn more and push yourself out of your comfort zone. He said that’s how you get better, practice makes perfect and there’s still a lot of practice to be to be done but surrounding yourself with a great team that can help you in that is absolutely critical and that’s something that he recommends to all founders and CEOs, as a company grows that’s your most important job.

Biggest Communications Challenge

Felix said from the very beginning, the hardest part is explaining what they do in layman’s terms so that people get why it is important. He said that in the beginning, people didn’t realise how important data was and that was their biggest challenge, over the last ten years they’ve clearly seen how important data is and people understand that now but explaining exactly what they do is still a challenge because it’s quite abstract and said explaining something that’s absurd and complex, in easy to understand terms continues to be a challenge. He said they’ve got better at it over time, but it’s still something that’s top of mind and important to be able to really explain in a very simple and easy to understand way.

2021 Predictions

Felix said they’re excited about 2021 and this acceleration of digital transformation is fuelling the need for more data, but also a better data foundation. He said it’s a really exciting time for them because they really see it becoming mainstream, every organisation is hiring, for example, a Chief Data Officer, and that trend has been ongoing and it’s accelerating. So, he said that market awareness is increasing and that’s really exciting for them and will fuel a lot of their growth. Felix also said that they see a lot of aspects around data coming together, the challenge is that 10 years ago, they were one of the few but as data has become so mainstream, now it is hundreds, if not thousands of data companies and it’s harder to rise above the noise. Felix said they are quite unique in their beliefs and their obligation to humanise data where it’s not a bad thing, it’s a positive thing and they believe that we need to make everyone data literate, so we can democratise data. He added that ultimately data can bring people closer together as can that shared language and so in 2021, they’re really excited about the growth that they continue to see. He said it’s clearly an enormous market opportunity and they’re really strongly positioned given their history, and Collibra recently acquired a data quality company, which is a great extension of their platform. He said it’s really exciting and they’re very much looking forward to what the next years are going to be.

Final Thoughts

Felix said that if he were to go back in time and speak to his old self, the guidance he would give about communications is to realise that communications is important earlier on. He said starting earlier and surrounding yourself with people that can help you with that earlier is so important, especially if you’re creating and finding a new category. He said that in the US communication comes much more naturally, unlike where he comes from in Belgium, where they were a little too humble maybe. He said it is really important to communicate to the market what you’re doing, why it is important, what progress you’re making, so just realising that, and getting help with that a little sooner would be his recommendation from that perspective.

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