This interview with LigaData CEO, Bassel Ojjeh, was first published in Authority Magazine on 30 January 2020.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bassel Ojjeh CEO of the Silicon Valley software firm, LigaData. Bassel is a self-confessed data evangelist. He has spent his career in digital businesses, founding various firms in the fields of data and analytics, and working for Microsoft and Yahoo!. He co-founded LigaData in 2014, with the aim of helping enterprises to extract the value intrinsic to their data — at both a technical and a business level. The firm is currently developing an analytics app called Sancho, named after Don Quixote’s sidekick, using AI to provide executives with an Alexa-like access to their enterprise data. Bassel also co-founded the first English-taught university in Syria 14 years ago. The university has survived against all odds during the conflict, and continues to teach and graduate students.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Icame to the USA alone from Syria when I was 16 years old. My parents sent me to the USA as a last-ditch attempt to make something out of me, since I was a terrible student. In my first year at Bowling Green State University, I caught the programming bug and switched majors to Computer Science. I recall telling my parents about my career change. A week later my mom called me to confirm if I truly needed a four-year degree to learn how to type. This was in the early ’80s and my mom’s friends who made this observation did not know any better.
In my third year in college I got a job at a startup software company called Fox Software. There I enjoyed the camaraderie of a small team, the can-do attitude and the winning spirit against companies that were 1000 times our size. We were working from a shopping mall in middle America, and they were in Silicon Valley. Although we successfully sold to Microsoft, that fighting spirit pretty much shaped my career, whether working in big corporations or in my three startups.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
During the mid-2000s, I sold a startup I had built with a friend to Yahoo! and I kicked off their new Data Division. The goal of the division was to create quantifiable value out of data. During my tenure, I saw how the largest advertisers struggled to reach their customers and prospects online. I also realized that unless you are a Silicon Valley technology giant, that problem seems almost impossible to solve — for the simple reasons that corporate IT isn’t equipped to handle complex data problems, and unfortunately their technology vendors are only interested in selling licenses of software and hardware rather than building holistic solutions. I also saw that the worlds of Digital and Data would intersect sooner than later. Digital would require Data — a lot of it, and a lot of understanding and interpreting of what it means.
So I embarked on starting a company that took my learnings from Yahoo! and built products and services for large enterprises to benefit from what is now called Big Data.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My first attempt to execute on the above “Aha moment” failed due to a decision and implementation error on my side. I partnered with a giant that seemed to be the perfect scale and distribution channel for us, but that did not, it turned out, work well for us at all (I’m laughing about it now…). If your partner’s revenue is in the multi-billion dollars, and your revenue is $0 then you pretty much have a match from hell… but a nice story to have on your home page.
During a very difficult time I came across an angel investor who believed in our vision and the drive we have. As a result, we restructured the company and went solo with his investment — and the rest is history.
There were definitely moments of doubt, but my co-founder and I believed in our vision and felt that a solution could be built if we gave it another try. It is hard to tell where the drive came from, other than to say that I viewed every challenge as a problem that needed a solution. Looking back, I also think there was little self-doubt which I think helps a lot in these situations. We had this innate focus on making “it” work.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
First, I would caution against the use of the word ‘success’. I think we still have a lot to accomplish and we are as excited and nervous about the next 5 years as the last 5. With that said, LigaData is doing well. Quite well. We have been successful in building a great team with exceptional talent which has allowed us to create great products used by our clients in every minute of the day. We also have built a learning organization so everyone feels they are developing while contributing. To our customers, we work hard to be their trusted data partner and as long as we keep doing this then good things will happen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
While going through the funding process of LigaData, I was in discussion with an investor (our current investor). After we agreed on the terms of the investment I had one minor but significant issue. I had a small team and no money to pay payroll. So I decided to take the risk of coming across weak and desperate and to ask for a month’s worth of funding until the paperwork was complete. Our investor obliged and when his CFO called asking where to wire the money I realized I had not yet set up a bank account. So off I went on a scramble to find a bank that would allow me to open an account and receive several hundred thousand dollars while still thinking I’m running a legitimate business. The scramble finally paid off. I found a bank (First Republic Bank) who allowed me to do this — and of course they are still our bank today.
Looking back at it, the words ‘funny and crazy’ describe the times when one has to boot something up. The biggest takeaway probably is that as a founder your can-do attitude goes hand-in-hand with having someone there who believes in you.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We punch above our weight. This is a comment borrowed from one of our customers and it pretty much sums us up. LigaData is comparatively tiny, but the people and technical strength we have in our product and know-how enable us to go up against companies 1000 times our size, and fare well. Very well!
When we first started we used a tiny home in Palo Alto as our office. While we were there, we bid for a large deal with a massive client, who it turned out had looked us up on Google Maps, seen the tiny home and raised a concern about dealing with such a small company operating out of a house. Meanwhile we held a two-day customer council meeting with a number of large organizations. Against all advice to keep our office out of sight, I insisted we do a gathering and show our clients (including the one we were bidding for) where we operated from. During that event, an executive came up to me and said, “I like you guys. You punch above your weight”.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As a CEO or a leader, find a cohort that you can share those painful and strategic topics with, that you cannot share with your Board, Advisors or Executive team because they are too scary. There are many such organizations. I would highly recommend finding one early on when the waters are calm and life is good. Build a rapport with those cohorts so when things get rough, they can give you ideas and suggestions or call out mistakes you are ignoring. It took me three startups to learn this and I wish someone had suggested it to me much earlier.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There were many such people. In fact, as a founder your strength is based on the support system you can cultivate. The one that comes to mind now is our current investor and board member Gurpreet Singh who believed in my co-founder and me, and wrote us a check based on a handshake.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
Our software is used by, or touches, over 500,000 people.
- Start with building a core feature or product that solves a problem well and is defensible. At the beginning it is quite easy to get distracted and spread yourself very thin — and if this happens then you don’t have a core strength to fall back on
- Physically spend all the time you can with your early customers. You will learn about the 80% you have not thought of, and you will discover those critical features that will make your product unique and sticky.
- To support a step function in your growth you will need proper internal processes and tools. DevOps is a great approach to equalize and ensure operational readiness.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We have several products and have taken a different approach to monetization.
Our flagship product is called DaaS (Data as a Service). There our growth is supported by both products and services. We wanted to put our money where our mouth is and support our clients in transforming how they use data on top of DaaS. Therefore we charge a flat yearly subscription fee based on the features deployed — rather than the volume of data or number of users. This allows an organization to fully leverage their data without additional costs for them. Our subscription increases as we roll out more features. We have considered charging based on volume or usage but we feel this is counter to our mission and it will complicate our partnership with our clients.
Having said that, we’re just about to launch a new analytics app called Sancho (at sanchoanalytics.com), and its subscription model is based on the number of user groups accessing a data set. For example, if Marketing, Customer Care and Sales have three user groups with different access to data then they will be charged for those three groups regardless of how many users there are.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Create persona(s) that describe who will use the product, what problems exist for them, how the product will be used to solve these problems. After you have this all documented, make sure it is shared around — and understood by — everyone involved in developing the product and its user experience.
- Write a document that describes what you don’t want to solve. While building a product you will always find other problems along the way that are tempting to address. This is a huge distraction and risk. Writing an exclusion document is a good practice, as it will keep you focused.
- Create a regimen of seeing features weekly. No matter how complex something is, it should be broken down into tiny weekly feature sets. In our case, we have a build every week with new features and we all get together to review and assess how the week went and what to set our eyes on for the following week.
- Your SaaS product is only as good as its uptime, so make sure you carefully assess this and build the necessary support to make sure your app is up and running and properly monitored.
- It’s always tempting to get your app into the stores and hope for the best. Instead be purposeful in how you add beta users and when. With Sancho we started with a few beta users and we did not expand the beta program till certain KPIs were met.
- Evolve your marketing message early while you are developing the product. This is a healthy process to validate the value proposition and what you are solving for.
- Analyzing at a granular level the details of what your early customers do with your product is always an eye opener. Although we are an analytics company and we started doing this analysis pre-beta, we still at times wonder if we should have started even earlier. Never underestimate the capacity of your users to surprise you.
(Sorry, that’s more than five!)
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Education and on-the-job training are a passion of mine. Silicon Valley companies tend to live in a bubble. They hire interns from the same schools they went to, and that just breeds more and more exclusion and elitism. We have clients in the Middle East and Africa and I would love to see an internship program established in every so-called unicorn company that hires people from the uncommon universities and countries.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me directly on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/basselojjeh/, and keep in touch with LigaData’s (and Sancho’s) developments through our corporate LI page (https://www.linkedin.com/company/ligadata/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/ligadatainc).
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!