Leftronic Turns Any Startup Office into a Command Center

Walk into a network operations center for an electrical utility or an ISP, or the command center for a space or military agency, and what do you see? Displays. Lots and lots of displays, showing all sorts of data visualizations.

The people who design command centers obviously think this data is mission-critical, or they wouldn’t go to the trouble of showing it. And the displays make great theater; there’s no question that cutting to the command center (usually, as incoming ICBMs arc over the North Pole) is an easy way to advance the plot in a Hollywood thriller. But does this kind of data saturation really help with awareness and decision-making?

Lionel Jingles, the co-founder of a Y Combinator-backed startup called Leftronic, believes that it does. And he’s working to make sleek, data-rich “dashboards” affordable for organizations of all sizes, not just big utilities or government agencies. “Every company has some metric that is the lifeblood of the company, that really drives the business, like sales or user engagement,” he says. “If you have a dedicated display for that, it really drives home the point that this is what [employees] need to be watching.”

In today’s plug-and-play world, Jingles points out, companies rely on a mix of Web-based software services to run their businesses. They might use Amazon Web services to host applications, Google Adwords to manage search advertising, Salesforce to manage customer outreach, Chartbeat to analyze the behavior of website visitors, and Zendesk to manage customer support tickets. All of these services generate data—lots of it.

Leftronic dashboard showing Twitter data

“The problem is that since it’s so distributed, it’s extremely difficult to have a central view,” Jingles says. “You might have to check six different sources to get any conclusion about what’s going on. We give you that single view.”

Jingles, formerly an engineer with San Francisco product design firm MindTribe, started San Francisco- and Pasadena, CA-based Leftronic with Rajiv Ghanta and Cesar Del Solar, former classmates from Caltech. Since graduating from the Y Combinator venture incubator program in mid-2010, the startup has raised $500,000 in seed funding from an illustrious group of Bay Area angel investors, including Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit, and Ron Conway’s SV Angel.

The company’s dashboards are used by organizations like Heroku, Splunk, Sonos, Compete.com, CarWoo, Rackspace, MongoHQ, and SRI International. At the Y Combinator offices, for example, there’s a Leftronic dashboard showing traffic and other statistics from Hacker News, an affiliated social news site. Leftronic’s service costs $42 to $250 per month, depending on how many separate dashboards a company wants to set up; there’s also a free version, but it only shows internal metrics, not those from third-party data sources. Weekly signups for the dashboards number in the thousands, Jingles says.

Using Leftronic’s cloud-based system to build your own customized dashboard is surprisingly easy. You just sign up for an account, specify which data sources you want to visualize, choose from a library of widgets for displaying each type of data, and drag and drop the widgets onto the screen. Leftronic’s backend connects to almost any cloud-based service with an open application programming interface (API), including Google Analytics, Google Adwords, Amazon Web Services, Twitter, Facebook, Basecamp, Zendesk, Mixpanel, Salesforce.com, and Flurry.

The finished dashboard appears inside a conventional Web browser. Set the browser window for full-screen display, and you’re good to go. (Many Leftronic users leave their dashboards running full-time on iMacs mounted to walls or posts, Jingle says. Others use large-screen LCD televisions connected to Mac minis or small PCs.)

While some companies choose to use their Leftronic dashboards to monitor critical data such as the performance of their servers or applications, others see them as a motivational tool. “There are things that are immediately actionable, like servers going down,” says Jingles. “There are other metrics that you could call vanity metrics, like the number of signups today—things that aren’t immediately actionable, but where you really want to get the sense that you are moving in the right direction.” Putting such data on a dedicated displays helps it rise above the “day to day noise,” he says.

The inspiration for Leftronic came from Jingles’ time at Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity fund based in New York. Jingles was helping out at Zerobase, which makes portable solar-electricity generators. “We had a huge operational problem in that we had units in the field producing power but we didn’t have a good tool for tracking how much, at different latitudes and locations,” Jingles says. “We were missing a visualization tool to understand our own organization.”

Jingles ended up building a tool from scratch, based on Microsoft’s Excel database program. “After months of working on that, I realized that there is a lot of value in aggregating and visualizing information and presenting it in a way that is digestible—all of our marketing and fundraising efforts, for example, depended on having that information available.” Jingles, Ghanta, and Del Solar got into Y Combinator on the strength of their idea for a tool that other companies could use to rapidly assemble their own visualizations.

Leftronic uses its own dashboards “obsessively” to track internal metrics, Jingles says. “We can see every time a new user signs up, how much revenue we have, how many customers we have. We see what people are saying about us on Twitter. I can tell you exactly where the traffic to our website is coming from and what percentage comes from Google searches.”

It’s all information that Leftronic can use in day-to-day decisions about how to prioritize development work, where to find new users, or when to jump into social-media convesrations. “Beyond the tactical advantage, it gives you a kind of morale boost, of being able to see that we signed up X number of new users or our revenue just went up. All of that stuff helps the team understand what they are doing and what they are working for.”

Plus—let’s be honest—an always-on data dashboard lends any office an air of geeky sophistication. Leftronic’s challenge right now, Jingles says, is explaining how simple it is to get such a display up and running. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are these kinds of services out there,” he says. “The tech community is a little more aware, and a lot of developers and startups are signing up. But we want to reach out to a larger crowd—people who don’t know what an API is, but they know they want to see this data. Once we can effectively reach those people, that is going to be our big takeoff point.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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