Ryan Spraetz helps run a Silicon startup that aims to remake the future of online business, but he describes it with a metaphor that dates to the 16th century.
More than 400 years ago, Spraetz says one afternoon outside a San Francisco coffee shop, a Danish nobleman named Tycho Brahe spent most of his adult life collecting data that described the night sky. Each night for more than 30 years, Brahe would climb into his observatory and record the brightness and the position of the stars overhead. Then he died. But his young assistant, Johannes Kepler, would go on to use Brahe’s massive trove of data to formulate the three laws of planetary motion, the laws that proved the Earth revolves around the sun.
“Because Brahe dedicated his whole life to gathering all that data, Kepler is now cemented into history,” Spraetz says, and this becomes an on-ramp to his startup, a 15-person company called KeenIO. As Spraetz explains it, Keen aims to provide the world’s online businesses with ready access to the sort of detailed data so diligently gathered by Brahe, giving them the information they need to make the big leap forward — to, as Spraetz puts it, “turn them into Keplers.”
It’s a highfalutin pitch — honed over several months during Keen’s residence in the startup incubator Tech Stars — but it’s also a captivating tale, and it taps into a sweeping trend in the tech world. Web giants like Google and Facebook and Twitter have achieved huge success in large part because of their ability to analyze the enormous amounts of data their online services generate — to see exactly how their businesses are operating at the lowest of levels — and now, many startups and open source projects aim to bring this “Big Data” know-how to the rest of the world.
At the same time, Keen is different. Some big data outfits offer massively complicated data analysis tools that run across hundreds of servers and require hard-core engineering talent. Others provide polished iPad apps that let you analyze data in simpler, and less powerful, ways. Keen aims to find a sweet spot, offering tools that are both simple and malleable, tools that let you readily use massive amounts of data in precisely the way you want to use it.
“We’re an alternative to building your own software,” says Kyle Wild, Keen’s CEO, who founded the company alongside Spraetz and another engineer named Daniel Kador, two close friends from his days at IMSA, a live-in Illinois high school known for breeding tech talent.
The trio launched the company out of Wild’s San Francisco home, but as the operation has grown — recently attracting $2.35 million in venture funding — Keen has moved into a communal startup space in the city’s South of Market district. Run by an operation called Heavybit Industries, this space is solely for startups that sell tools to the world’s software developers. It aims to help these startups create a new kind of software infrastructure that makes it all the easier for developers and businesses to build exactly what they want to build. Keen is the poster child of this new movement.
The Origin Story
Keen can trace its roots to Wild’s time as an engineer at the online games company FableLabs. One day, the data analysis guy left for another venture, and the data duties fell to Wild. He spent a few months building a central engine that let the company readily crunch all sorts of data, as opposed analyzing data in ad hoc ways each time a question came up.
As Wild tells it, this immediately boosted the efficiency of its gaming service. In order to use the site, gamers were required to take an online tutorial, and with his new data analysis engine, Wild says, the company soon determined that the length of the tutorial could directly effect the its bottom line. If the tutorial was expanded, fewer people would actually make it onto the site, he explains, but they would end up spending more money. “That’s something you can only learn with really deep analytics,” Wild says. “It’s stuff like that let us go toe-to-toe with Zynga using only a few people.”
The tool was so effective, Wild eventually quit his job to found Keen. Basically, Keen offers a set of application programming interfaces, or APIs, that let you build your own data analysis tools. You shuttle all your data onto Keen’s online service and then, through simple API calls to the service, your software can query that data, slicing and dicing it as needed.
That may sound complicated, but this is a tool for coders, not ordinary business folk. The aim is to keep things simple while still giving coders the flexibility to harness data as they see fit. “You can ask us questions with easy-to-understand, easy-to-construct, logical queries, and we’ll take care of all the hard stuff, like storing data on our servers, scaling the system up, making queries fast,” Kador explains. And, yes, coders can build slick “dashboards” that deliver results to the ordinary folk.
Building Blocks for the Future
You’ll hear a similar pitch from Google, which offers a data analysis service called Big Query, and Amazon, which offers something called Red Shift, but Keen wants to give you more control of your data. Edward Dowling, who runs a small startup called App.io that plugs into Keen for data analysis, says he was drawn to the tool because it could deal with millions upon millions of events at any given moment, but also because it could conform with his own way of doing things. “Other services follow their own forms and paradigms,” he says. “Keen does not.”
The larger point here is that App.io can analyze data in its own way without building a new engine from scratch. This is another trend across the web, one Heavybit is trying to harness with its communal startup space, one in which companies offer you internet services for piecing together your own online business. In technical speak, these services are APIs, but you can think of them as building blocks. Rather than erecting an entire online business from scratch, you can assemble the basic infrastructure from existing services. Amazon’s cloud provides the processing power. Keen analyzes the data. Imgix processes the images. Twilio offers the voice and text communications. And so on.
“You should only be building the part of a website that’s your core competency,” says Kador. “You should be outsourcing as much as you can.”
Five or six years ago, if you pieced together a new service with various APIs, you called it a mashup. Today, this is simply what you do when creating an online startup. And the practice will only become more prevalent in the years to come. Though it keeps one foot firmly planted in the 16th century, Keen is the future in more ways than one.