What draws individuals to database-related careers? Is it the desire to organize? The love of information? The yearning to write code? For Bob Lokken, president and CEO of ProClarity Corporation, the lure of the career was practical, not whimsical or passionate. Lokken explains, "I had just started high school when I went to visit my uncle, who was an electrical engineer for a small power company in Montana. He was grumbling about this new computer the company had purchased to perform billing and track work orders. The computer was one of the original IBM midrange machines probably a System/36. The company had moved all of their systems over to this machine and hired a 'guy who knew how to run the damn box,' whom my uncle was fairly confident would soon be running the entire company. At the time, nobody could get anything accomplished without the assistance of this newly hired individual. My uncle was complaining about this situation as if it were a bad thing. At that instant, something clicked in my head. I realized I would have a pretty good chance of making a decent living if I understood computers and databases. My interest was piqued."
Following a position at Extended Systems where he gained management and start-up experience, Lokken and four others founded ProClarity in 1995. ProClarity began with Lokken, four co-founders and a hand- selected team of people who worked hard and worked well together. Lokken elaborates, "We wanted a team that shared enough common vision, yet was diverse enough in background and experience. At our first meeting, we produced an intersection of our strengths. Three of us had P&L experience, and collectively we also had database, patent and database software engineering experience. We went to work with a vision of solving a problem for knowledge-workers and decision-makers specifically, the challenge of assisting these individuals in making profitable, efficient and effective decisions."
Bob Lokken, president and CEO, and Phil Bradley, CFO.
This award-winning provider of analytic front-end technology had modest beginnings. ProClarity's first office was located in a small house behind a 7-Eleven in Boise, Idaho the city that remains the home of the company's U.S. headquarters. "We called the 7-Eleven the corporate café," recalls Lokken. "We'd walk across the alley to the corporate café multiple times a day. Our environment was not elaborate," he continues. "The first house had five rooms dedicated to desks and two rooms dedicated to beds. If you were working late, you could grab a nap, get up in five hours and return to work. We worked hard, in part because we were self- funded. The founders of this company went three years without pulling a paycheck, and that's the way it was done. While this routine was eventually supplanted by a more traditional work day and environment, one of the original characteristics of the company still remains we still fund our growth primarily through revenue. Employees own the majority of the stock, and that's a very rare occurrence these days."
Not surprisingly, some find the origin of the company a bit unusual and a few have voiced their opinions. Lokken listens affably when outsiders comment on any aspect of the company. Lokken provides an example, "A year and a half ago, several people pressured us to obtain additional venture-capital funding, add dot-com to our name or recast our company as a B2B player." Lokken countered, "The Internet is part of the vision a very important part of the vision but it's not the vision. Tying a B2B or dot-com label to your tag line does not miraculously make your decision support system a better solution. It doesn't help the users or knowledge- workers that are your customers do their jobs better. Somehow, over the last few years, people started to think that the formula was to have a dream, put dot-com at the end, scale it and the business will come. As many dot-coms proved, scaling something that doesn't work is a very fast way to burn through a billion dollars. Adding value by helping organizations be more successful and more effective through the use of their information assets or information capital is what drives us."
Instead of burning through VC money, ProClarity has stayed on course because of the values of the founders. "We did not become as successful as we are without paying attention to the fundamentals. It's not black magic. It's taking care of customers to make things work right. It's not chasing dot-com visions or the latest shiny object," explains Lokken. "Primarily we provide our customers with a platform that allows them to build analytic applications and business intelligence solutions to meet the needs of the diverse users they serve."
The team Lokken has cultivated is critical to the company's success. "I coordinate and ensure everyone is executing against their objectives and that they're doing so in a way that's hitting the corporate objectives so we're not working at cross purposes or stepping on toes. My job is not to tell employees how to do their jobs, but to make sure they're all working together to ensure that ProClarity is successful. I hire really good people and stay out of the way. My benchmark is to never hire anybody who won't argue with me because if you're not going to argue with me, then the net sum of our IQs is basically mine. I pay people to increase the organizational IQ," says Lokken. "We are successful because of ProClarity's employees very, very intelligent people who have a lot of experience in different areas. Our success is in no way tied to the aggrandizement of my ego. It's tied to our ability to execute."
Clockwise from top left: Jeanne White, Susan Hyde and Bob Lokken
One of Lokken's areas of expertise is a factor of his experiences. Lokken notes, "Prior to founding ProClarity, I was a R&D manager, I managed an IT department for a number of years and I was the general manager of a business unit. I don't really perceive that as a unique slice of life, but I often find that there are very few people in software R&D who have been on the other side of the table. Very few of them have had to sit down with a stack of paper or an endless spreadsheet to decide which ten sales reps won't have jobs tomorrow and which are going to be driving new cars. How do you wade through and try to make business decisions out of what are, in effect, just data dumps from databases?"
"My experiences on both the data provider side and decision- maker side have really assisted in ProClarity product development," emphasizes Lokken. "When I was an IT manager, I thought I was doing an exceptional job of delivering information. However, it only took a few trips to the other side of the fence to determine that the users had a completely different perception of my work. Many industry analysts agree that most users are dissatisfied. Because they're not technology experts, they're not able to articulate their wants and needs. In fact, the vast majority of the companies we meet aren't capitalizing on analytic applications and still consider highlighters and ten-key calculators as their primary analytic tools. For this reason, I've spent a lot of time traveling and visiting with users to understand their decision support problems. There are a lot of world-class IT companies out there, but the best have one foot squarely planted in the business domain, one foot squarely planted in the technology domain and they can understand and marry the concepts in their heads. One of the keys to the success of the ProClarity Analytic Platform 4.0, our Web-enabled, interactive component-based platform for developing and deploying enterprise-wide, custom analytic applications, is this very understanding."
Through regular customer visits, Lokken discerns the functionality to be incorporated into ProClarity solutions. "Most decision- makers do not have the skill sets to analyze their own data," says Lokken. "Often, even if they do have the background and skills, they don't have the patience to learn to use a complex piece of software to do so. I've heard of failure rates as high as 70 percent for canned analytical tools. Seventy percent of canned analytical software becomes shelfware because it's too complex and intimidating or takes too long to learn. Whatever the reason, if the decision-makers don't use their analytic applications, they're not getting the most out of their decision support systems. Our solutions can be deployed in a manner that suits the needs, skill sets and capabilities of the users as opposed to the generic tools that sit atop databases and require the users to conform. Our solutions can be customized by users. Therefore, if they don't have the skill sets or know what they should be analyzing, we can quickly build a best-practices scenario to walk the users through a guided analysis," explains Lokken.
"It's amazing how many companies are far from having decision support systems that fully encompass the entire life cycle of the data. As the decision support industry matures, there's a need to broaden the definition of the problem if we're going to gain any efficiencies. The problem in companies is not a lack of data most users will attest to the fact that they have access to large amounts of data. The decision-making process is upstream of the data assisted by technologies like ours that enable users to look at complex reports and data and immediately determine how they apply to their operating units. We have discovered that most often the best solution is not the most technological solution. To quote Einstein, 'It's the simplest solution that works.' This quote is never more appropriate than it is in the business intelligence industry where businesses are already complex by nature. If the proposed analytic solution adds more complexity, the users don't have a prayer. You've just buried them. It's fine if you can help analysts, but it's better if you can help decision-makers and knowledge-workers too," states Lokken.
"The platform we have today is a compelling offering, and we're working to build more sophisticated technology on top of it. Sophisticated technology does not require a Ph.D. in statistics to understand. Rather, sophisticated technology makes complex problems, complex data and complex software simple enough so that a user can be trained in less than five minutes, understand the software and use it to make a difference in his or her job. Our future is in building sophistication on top of our platform so that more people can run their businesses more efficiently and effectively," states Lokken.
Lokken candidly admits, "If I could do it over, I'd choose this path again. I enjoy what I do." His clarity of vision in action bodes well for ProClarity's future. While most related industries are flatlining or decreasing in revenue, ProClarity's growth rate is accelerating. Lokken concludes, "We've been growing at over 150 percent per year. Our revenue and pipeline have been building momentum for the last four to six quarters. We're growing because of the solution, not the other way around. Our people are not focused on growth, they're focused on the solution. Because we focus on the solution, the growth takes care of itself."
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