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Inside Story of Looker – From Data Analytics Start-up to Business Intelligence Titan


The primary purpose of data analysis is to make better decisions. This is the core of their mission at Looker, the data analytics start-up that’s raised more than $280 million through a series of funding. The California-based start-up joined the bandwagon of Google Cloud in 2020, a historic day that begins an exciting journey both for Looker and for Google which marked its first major acquisition under the leadership of former Oracle executive Thomas Kurian. In less than ten years, Looker graduated from a data analytics start-up to software company and finally to a Business Intelligence company.

What Does Looker Do?

Looker is a Business Intelligence company that provides innovative data exploration functionalities to transform organizations’ data into information about the underlying business process in order to deliver actionable insights and impact business decisions. It provides a platform to extract more value from your data, learn from data, and do something tangible with your data. Looker is all about making the right decisions about your business.

Everything begins with an Idea!

The company was founded by the two brilliant engineers and visionaries, Lloyd Tabb and Ben Porterfield, who, driven by their vision, persistence and sheer determination, figured out a way to extract value from data at web-scale. But like every successful story, Looker started as nothing more than a thought – an idea. And ideas don’t just materialize out of thin air.

Lloyd Tabb, the founder, chairman and CTO of Looker, spent the last 25 years driving important trends and revolutionizing how the world uses the Internet. He believed “great software is an act of empathy” and this approach allowed him to focus on the greater picture, the ultimate goal. He knew what he wanted to do: change the way enterprises think about their data, all of it.

The Beginning of the Browser War

Between the origins of the Looker and attaining the heights sit many stories that go unheard. Tabb’s wife, Lisa wanted to study Chinese medicine, so they came to Santa Cruz. Early in his career, he started working as a database and languages architect at Borland International, then headquartered in Scotts Valley. Lloyd designed database products for Borland.

Because of the changing market conditions and a fierce competition from Microsoft, Borland fell from his prominence. Finally Lloyd left Borland and along with some of his colleagues founded Commerce Tools, which was acquired by Netscape in 1995. Lloyd was the principal architect on Netscape Navigator Gold back then. Netscape Navigator dominated the Internet since the arrival of the consumer Internet revolution in the mid 1990s.

In 1995, Microsoft entered the web browser market following the Netscape’s footsteps and launched its very own web browser, Internet Explorer, which came pre-installed with every Windows PC. The fierce competition between Netscape and Microsoft sparked the beginning of a browser war. Netscape soon lost its web dominance over the Windows. Other companies joined the web browser race and Netscape Navigator was rebranded as Netscape Communicator. In 1998, AOL acquired Netscape, finally ending the browser business. After Netscape, he and a handful of Netscape employees helped found and the project was named Mozilla – a portmanteau of “Mosaic” and “Godzilla”. The idea was to give the software away and take it to a whole new level. The Mozilla team decided to make the software and the source code free. The team multiplied in a very less span of time and together, this distributed community built the first massive open-source project that resulted in Firefox, which remains one of the top web browsers in the world till date.

The Journey Begins…

Lloyd Tabb reconnected with one of his old colleagues, James Everingham and together they started the first commercial crowd-sourced company, LiveOps, which leveraged the power of VoIP to automatically route calls. It allowed its agents to work from home, instead of in large centralized call centers, who used their own phones and work at their own convenience. As of 2016, LiveOps employs more than 20,000 work-at-home contractors.

The success of LiveOps did not stop him there. He assisted his friend James Everingham with an education project called Luminate, and helped another friend co-found Readyforce – the first professional network specially built for college students seeking staffing assistance. Lloyd understood that the key to success for every business is data and most companies are not very good at it. The goal was clear: to deliver flexible access to data when and where you need it most. The idea was to build a unified platform for BI.

Two is Better than One

Lloyd’s years of experience building software at companies made him realize that instead of waiting, it was time to build a platform that would help businesses extract value from their data so that they would make better, informed decisions. He and his friend, Ben Porterfield, who he had worked with at another company, sat down brainstorming and looking for ways to shape a business to do exactly that.

Questions would keep coming in the minds like whether venture funding would be a right approach or what would be the final product look like or if customers would be comfortable having their precious data in the cloud. Business Intelligence was a big deal back then which would require millions of dollars of capital, a big team of people and long-term commitment. They were convinced that Looker is going to be the best thing they have ever done.

Taking the Next Step – The Funding

Lloyd and Ben started experimenting with different delivery models and cultivating a potential fanbase of early customers and meanwhile, raised $2M in Seed round from First Round Capital and PivotNorth Capital in the summer of 2012. The initial funding helped the company build its business model based on a new programming language called LookML, which it described as a sequel to SQL. At this stage, the company was in a great position to be in because everything worked well.

When they drafted their first email pitch in 2012, Looker was still in its early days, but they made their point. Going forward, Looker raised another $16M in Series A funding led by Redpoint Ventures, with contributions from First Round Capital, and PivotNorth Capital. The business started picking up pace and in its quest to make data analytics accessible to everyone in business, Looker closed $30M Series B funding led by Meritech Capital Partners, with contribution from Sapphire Ventures and existing partners.

By then, the company estimated it has 140 employees on-board and the number kept on increasing. In 2016, Looker secured Series C funding round led by Kleiner Perkins, raising $48M to continue the mission. He and Ben put a great team together and continued to push the product. At this stage, they diverted their focus on pushing the company forward through investment in sales and marketing as well as to fuel further expansion.

Final Reflections

By 2018, Looker has raised five rounds of funding totaling almost $280M through a series of capital funding, including a $81.5M Series D funding from Capitol G. and $103M Series E funding led by Premji Invest. At that time, the company was valued at $1.6 billion. The company has been aggressively showing progress since then. In 2019, the company earned two spots on G2 Crowd in both the Top 50 Products for Mid-Market and the Top 50 Fastest Growing Products.

Looker started off in a somewhat crowded market of Business Intelligence for one simple reason: the whole notion of data is a complete mess and there is nothing concrete to make it all work. So, the idea behind Looker was to rebuild the whole thing. That’s exactly what the founders Lloyd Tabb and Ben Porterfield did. They built a platform where organizations can transform their data into actionable knowledge and add significant value to their BI infrastructure and development investments.