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An Interview with Guy Mounier

Guy Mounier of BA-Insight

I have maintained a sharp focus on search for many years. With my Beyond Search study for The Gilbane Group, I have expanded my horizons to include companies that are pushing the boundaries of indexing.

One of the firms that caught my attention is a company anchored in unified information access with a solid suite of content and data processing capabilities. The privately held and profitable BA-Insight occupies a large chunk of the new territory where structured and unstructured data, content analysis, and business intelligence are interacting in many organizations.

The firm has paid considerable attention to making some of the pain associated with Microsoft SharePoint and other Microsoft server products "go away." BA-Insight meshes with Microsoft systems, but the BA-Insight solutions push functionality and ease of use to a higher level.

The firm has paid considerable attention to making some of the pain associated with Microsoft SharePoint and other Microsoft server products "go away." BA-Insight meshes with Microsoft systems, but the BA-Insight solutions push functionality and ease of use to a higher level.

That Microsoft focus delivers clients two benefits which I have heard about in my interviews with Microsoft centric IT managers who have licensed BA-Insight's products. First, the mushrooming of SharePoint installations has created a market with an appetite for snap in solutions that add needed functions to Microsoft's vanilla software has given the firm a solid client base and financial stability. My former employer—Booz, Allen & Hamilton—was an early adopter.

The second is considerable expertise in working with Microsoft to ensure that clients with Microsoft systems and software are aligned with the Microsoft roadmap. Founded in 2004, the privately held company has grown rapidly with revenues tripling in 2008.

I did some investigation and learned that BA-Insight is one a few content processing companies that provides next-generation information access company. The firm's technology unifies structured and unstructured data across all enterprise systems. The company's technical team has developed proprietary technology that meshes with Microsoft software and solutions. Longitude, the firm's core platform, helps people connect, find, and analyze information in ways never before possible.

I spoke with Guy Mounier on January 28, 2009. The full text of my interview with him appears below.

What's a BA-Insight? The company name doesn't tell me what your firm does. Is that intentional or a consequence of the history of the firm? Also, can you characterize your revenue for me? Broad strokes are fine.

BA-Insight stands for “Business Analyst Insight”. When we founded the company back in 2004, we knew from personal experience working at a Global 100 Company the pain that Business Analysts and Knowledge Workers at large would go through to access the most basic information across enterprise systems. It was also clear to us that overflowing the Business Analyst with information was not the answer. Information had to be digested into Actionable Insights that would help the Knowledge Worker get the work done.

The company has tripled its revenue every year since the last 3 years, and has more than 750,000 users of its information access software, targeting 2 million users by the end of 2009. The customer list includes global deployments at many of Fortune 500 companies and Government Agencies around the world.

Microsoft seems to have a number of challenges. What's your firm's relationship to Microsoft?

BA-Insight is the top Enterprise Search ISV Partner of Microsoft. We are a Managed Partner, a status reserved to 200 MS Partners worldwide, and a Global Alliance Member of Microsoft Technology Centers. We are also part of the Google Compete Team.

Our software extends the Microsoft Enterprise Search platform, it does not replace it. In fact, our software is not a Search engine. It is a critical differentiator with other ISV’s in the information access sector. We focus exclusively on plug-and-play connectors to enterprise systems, and advanced search experience on top of MS Enterprise Search and MS SharePoint. We will support FAST in the Office 14 time frame.

Will you give me the elevator pitch about the problem your company's products and services resolve? You don't need to give me the name of a specific company, but I do want something to bite into.

Most mid to large organizations today have implemented one or more enterprise search solutions to help end-users find what they are looking for. Yet, there is a large consensus among customers and analysts that end-users are largely dissatisfied with their current enterprise search deployment. They simply cannot find what they are looking for, which results in huge productivity losses. Why is that? In our view, it’s a two-prong issue, one of relevance deficiency and one of usability deficiency.

  • Relevance is largely a data integration issue. End-users need access to both structured and unstructured data to do their job. Structured data from ERP or CRM applications is typically not part of the scope of an enterprise search deployment.
  • Usability is mainly a data presentation issue. The traditional display of a search query result is a long list of thousands of hits. It’s simply inadequate to end-users who overwhelming will not go beyond the first page of the search result to dig through the answers.

BA-Insight focuses on addressing these issues.

Let's take that real life example, okay? Based on my understanding of Microsoft technology, Microsoft offers servers and applications that duplicate most, if not all, of the solution functions you just described, right? What's the value proposition for your customers? Why not just stick with Microsoft only systems?

No, we do not duplicate Microsoft functions at all. In fact, we are not a search engine system. We extend the Microsoft Enterprise Search and SharePoint platform to add unique, innovative, and high-value search productivity improvements. In many ways, that strategy benefits us greatly. We focus 100% of our energies on building new and unique functions on top of a platform rather than compete head-to-head with a super-platform vendors on highly commoditized functions such as crawling and indexing. It also shortens the sales cycle, as we pick-up the customer buying cycle when the platform commitment has been made already.

No customers deploy the Microsoft SharePoint and Enterprise Search platform out-of-the-box. That’s true of the FAST Search platform and other search vendors as well. There is always either customization built or an extension added on top of the platform to deliver full value to the customer. Simply put, “one size doesn’t fit all”.

Most Fortune 500 companies and Government Agencies prefer to extend with a product add-on rather than customize (or replace) SharePoint Search. Customizing the UI and coding backend system integration is long, costly, and risky, and should only be considered with specialized requirements. Our product by contrast can be configured in days to securely connect to backend systems, and offer a unified and actionable view of information.

Microsoft may be in my experience not mindful of certain relationships. Let me give you an example and perhaps you can explain how your solutions maps to this scenario. Microsoft runs a consulting business. In Cincinnati, when a big deal comes along, Microsoft has been known to jump in and take it. How do you mesh with this type of Microsoft behavior? What happens if Microsoft decides to make SQL Server, PerformancePoint, or one of Microsoft's other 45 server products deliver your functionality?

Microsoft is actually a great company to partner with. Their Solution Sales Professionals, responsible for technical solution sales, always reach out to the partner ecosystem, SI’s or ISV’s, to put forth a solution to the customer on top of the Microsoft platform. Microsoft is a significant contributor to our sales pipeline. We conduct regular webinars and other events with their field sales force to stay top of mind, as many partners are competing for their attention. This has been rather easy as of late, as search becomes increasingly strategic to them.

The other benefit of being a top partner of Microsoft is that we get visibility into their product pipeline, typically 18 months or more, that our competitors do not have. We know of their future product investments, and can make sure we stay aligned with their roadmap, adding new features that don’t collide with theirs. As an example, our entire product line is fully aligned with the upcoming Office 14 release in 2010 which will also run on top of the upcoming Fast ESP for SharePoint. We release two major upgrades of our product every year, while Microsoft releases a new version of its platform every three years.

Microsoft users have one view of the world; information technology managers have another. Users want solutions; IT managers want jobs sort of like Oracle database administrators. Your product seems to be user centric. What do you do to ensure that users get the BA-Insight experience?

Our solution is definitely user-centric rather than IT-centric. What is interesting to observe in most organizations is that technical users and business analysts are highly engaged in SharePoint deployments. To a large extent, a SharePoint solution deployment is geared towards employee productivity, and is designed to be relatively easy to configure the appropriate collaborative processes. It certainly helps with the internal buy-in process to have such a direct access to end-users.

There are three types of vectors creating instability today. Let me identify each and you help me understand what BA-Insight does to deal with these forces. First, what's the financial climate for BA-Insight? For example, how long have you been in business, how many employees do you have, how do you handle customer support?

We believe that the strong productivity improvements and efficiencies we bring to customers are recession-proof. In many ways, when companies are pressed to do more with less, they tend to look at solutions like ours, where the ROI is clearly understood and demonstrable. The company continues to grow significantly quarter-over-quarter. Lead indicators such as number of online meetings or software trial downloads show that the 1st quarter of 2009 will be our strongest quarter ever, and we forecast tripling revenue and number of users again in 2009.

We have been in business for 4 years and currently have 7 offices worldwide. Customer support is handled out of Europe and the US. Customer care is a competitive advantage of ours as we handle most customer interaction primarily over the phone with a live engineer, which is greatly appreciated by customers. Many of our customers in fact have told us that they had not experienced such high-touch and high-value customer care with other software vendors.

Second, there is the volatility among the competition. I know of companies whose sales people say almost anything to get a deal. Then the engineers scramble to create something that meshes with that customer requirement. What happens when a customer licenses your solution? How do you deal with the competitor who says he does what BA Insight does yet does not? Can we dig into your value added content processing? I need some color on that function. Is there a Web demo or PDF to which you can refer me?

Most of the “competition” BA-Insight faces, comes from companies and organizations that think they can simply deploy Microsoft Enterprise Search “out of the box”. As discussed in answer #3, it is very rare when any type of technology infrastructure doesn’t require some form of customization or extension, whether this is delivered by a system integrator, or an add-on such as BA-Insight’s Longitude. Our primary challenge is convincing companies and organizations that Information Access is not different than any type of technology infrastructure in this regard.

The tension you describe between Sales pushing for a deal and Engineering having to deliver on customer expectations definitely exist at BA-Insight. We believe it’s a healthy tension, as long as it doesn’t stretch resources too much, or takes us away from our core product strategy. We have been good historically in channeling customer expectations towards core product innovation.

It is harder these days for competitors to make claims they cannot back up. We have found customers to be much smarter about validating software vendor claims. Most customers will not buy any software until they have a fully-functional Proof-Of-Concept in place. Many times, they will do side-by-side comparisons of competitive search platforms.

Our content processing is based primarily on mining end-user behavior when interacting with snippets of relevant text insights. We present the most relevant sections of a document in the search result, so that end-users can perform a comprehensive relevance assessment. Should the end-user decide to take a definitive action on the document, such as print, e-mail, or download the source document, we capture that feedback as a clear indication of interest. In turn, the user feedback is aggregated to derive document popularity scores, as well as concept extraction.

We have a number of videos and documents that can help you understand the key features and benefits of our product, as well as, as technical architecture. We are happy to schedule a live online demo.

Third, there is the volatility of the customer. Companies are churning through executives at record speed. How do you deliver a service in an organization where no one knows "who's on first" from day to day? Do you have resellers and partners who help you tame this beast? If so, what do the partners do? Are some of the partners OEM type deals?

The volatility of customers is definitely there, even in non-challenging economic times. Our biggest weapon to such volatility is our near-transactional sales cycle of 3 months from the time we have our first customer meeting to the time we invoice the customer. Compared to a traditional 12 to 18 month sales cycle that most traditional enterprise search vendors go through, that’s very fast.

Our sales channel is mainly direct. Microsoft is by far our largest source of referrals from the partner channel. Other ecosystem partners will also refer business.

We do not have any OEM or resellers agreements in place today. The main reason is that our solution is designed to be plug-and-play and directly usable by end-users, rather than a technical component to a broader business solution.

When you step back from BA Insight's product suite, what do you see as the three key payoffs to your customers. I don't mean that a particular feature. I am more interested in the value touch points for your company's system.

The top 3 benefits our customers get are all around increased employee productivity:

  • Instant access to the most relevant section of a document enables 10x increase in finding relevant content and decrease in bandwidth resource consumption
  • Plug-and-play connectors to enterprise systems enable easy access to mission-critical data to end-users.
  • Actionable search results enable end-users to instantly act on new insights.

I know you can't reveal any proprietary information, but I am interested in the general direction for your firm's products and services. Will you foreshadow some of the innovations that you will be bringing to market in the next nine to 12 months?

Our next major release is scheduled for end of 2009 and will target the next version of SharePoint (Office 14). We will add significant improvements in the form of automatic metadata extraction, dynamic data visualization, and on-the-fly document assembly.

Microsoft is not going away. What's your view of leveraging your technology into Microsoft's various "cloud" initiatives. Are you on the Azure side or are you looking at the side? What's available from your firm today for a client who wants to use Microsoft centric systems but get out of the on premises functions?

The use of Windows Azure is a big part of our major release at the end of 2009 to support extranet scenarios. We believe that Cloud economics related to content and data processing and storage are a game changer. BA-Insight will fully extend Cloud-based analytical power, and offer it as an alternative to on-premise deployment of the technology.

I have been impressed with the technology from companies like Aster Data (Sequoia funding). Will you be looking at ways to strike deals with vendors who may be moving into what I call the next generation data management and data space sectors?

We recognize that a number of startups and entrepreneurs are trying to capitalize on next generation information management trends. Some of the companies we track include Attivio and Clarabridge just to name a few.

The type of deals that we are interested in are either an OEM partnership or an outright acquisition to broaden our product portfolio. Finding the right fit of complimentary technology and chemistry is difficult, but the synergy drivers are self-evident. The alternative is continued organic growth of the product portfolio.

When a customer contacts your firm for assistance, what's the best way to reach your team?

The best way to reach our Customer Care team is primarily by phone and also by e-mail. Each customer has a dedicated engineer assigned to their account.

As you look at the somewhat dismal financial market, what do you see as the three or four trends to watch across the search and content processing sector?

In our view the top 3 trends are:

  • The convergence of the ease-of-use of the search interface with the analytical power of business intelligence.
  • The need for end-to-end content processing solutions that create instant business value. To do it right, you need to focus on the entire information management value chain, from connecting to disparate data sources and formats, extracting metadata automatically, to visualizing the data in a unified view. Most software vendors in the space focus on specific technical components, text mining for example, which makes them a feature rather than a business solution.
  • The move of content processing to cloud-based analytical power. The scale of what is possible in terms of content processing is taking a completely new dimension in the cloud. Fueled initially by key extranet scenarios, such as e-discovery, M&A due diligence, partner relationship management, we believe that ultimately, the cost savings in processing and storage offered by cloud-based solutions will be too dramatic to ignore for intranet scenarios.

With Autonomy's paying an astounding $700 million for Interwoven, certain surgical acquisitions are likely to continue despite the credit crisis. Is your firm for sale? Do you have plans for an IPO? Are you where you want to be in terms of revenue and profitability.

Our firm is not for sale. However, we do believe that a roll-up in the SharePoint ISV space makes a lot of sense. In fact, our company had worked for 9 months on an IPO scheduled for September 2008 to finance the SharePoint ISV roll-up. The IPO has been postponed due to the financial market meltdown.

BA-Insight is debt-free and highly profitable.

ArnoldIT Comment

Organizations struggling to add advanced search functions to SharePoint will want to take a close look at BA-Insight's software. BA-Insight delivers systems that work out of the box. The company's technology can resolve integration issues across SharePoint and enterprise systems such as Lotus Notes and SAP environments as well. You can get more information about the company at

Stephen E. Arnold, February 2, 2009

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