The Two-Second Advantage: Talking with TIBCO’s Vivek Ranadivé

10/28/10Follow @wroush

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you are visualizing something can be quite satisfying. Say you’re looking for a running back for your fantasy football team. [Ranadivé's example is not entirely accidental: TIBCO Director of Business Development Roger Craig is a former NFL running back who won three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers.] Say you have one guy who averages a hundred yards a game, and another who averages 90 yards a game. You might say, I’ll take the guy who averages 100 yards a game. But if you visualize the data you might find that the guy who averaged 100 yards a game piled up a huge amount of yardage in one game, and then didn’t have as much yardage in the others. Whereas the guy who has 90 yards a game gains yards consistently game after game. Now, take that an apply it to your sales force. Which one do you want—the guy who outperforms on 1 out of 15 sales calls or the other guy who is more reliable? Visual analytics are very powerful and now we are expanding it to real time.

X: You’ve been building businesses in Silicon Valley for a couple of decades now. What’s your sense of how the innovation culture in Silicon Valley has changed over those years? Is it getting easier to start a technology company? What are the weaknesses in the Valley’s ecosystem?

VR: I think in some ways it’s easier, because there is a lot of money that wasn’t here before. I think we’re in a whole new cycle of innovation right now. We through these cycles, and some of the best companies were started in times of distress. If you go through the history, you find that great companies like FedEx, Apple, Cisco, were all launched during economic crises. I’m very optimistic about Silicon Valley. Just look at what has come out of the Valley in the last five years. Think how many people can’t live without their iPod, without Facebook, and the list goes on and on. This is really a good time.

X: But if you look at a lot of startups today, their innovations seem very incremental—the latest twist on social games or daily deals or behavioral targeting for Web ads. This stuff doesn’t feel comparable to what Intel was doing in the 1970s, or Netscape in the 1990s. Do you feel that there is as much fundamental innovation going on today?

VR: I think there is. We have made dramatic progress with semiconductor technology, with communications technology, with software technology. I think that being able to leverage all that is a good thing. You need the killer apps—people who can connect the dots and convert it all into value for the human being. So I think there is a lot of innovation out there. On a different level, there is a more philosophical question about whether we are investing adequately in the university system. The thinking at universities is not about what happens in the next 10 years, but what happens in the next 50 years. I don’t want to delve into political territory, but we really need to make sure that universities are well funded, because that return is proven.

X: TIBCO went public in 1999, only two years after its founding, in the midst of the dot-com bubble. Do you feel that this kind of growth would have been possible if you’d started out in, say, 2008?

VR: Oh, sure. Look at how big Facebook is. Groupon is only a year and a half old, and in their first year they did $200 million in revenue. You thought Facebook was doing well, and then a Groupon comes along. If you are on the right side of history, you are going to be successful. One of the great things about Silicon Valley is that not only do we have the 21st-century technology and 21st-century thinkers—the modern Leonardo da Vincis in the form of people like Steve Jobs—but we also have 21st-century consumers. That is a great advantage. They are adventurous enough to go out and buy all these technologies.

Every now and then I get concerned. We went through a phase during the bubble when there were a lot of so-called entrepreneurs who were really just trying to make a fast buck, and not to create great companies or change the world. We went through a phase when I was concerned that the VCs had corrupted the Valley by throwing around huge amounts of money, and the public markets were also playing that game, when the companies [they were investing in] didn’t have customers and didn’t really have sustainable value propositions. But it corrected itself, which is good. The problems we have right now are with education. Are our schools good enough? Are we creating the next generation of entrepreneurs? Those are the things I worry about.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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