Tableau’s 10th Year: CEO Christian Chabot Remembers the Lean Years

Earlier this week, Seattle’s Tableau Software announced a big jump in annual sales and major hiring plans—something that’s becoming almost routine for those watching the Stanford-bred data-analysis software company’s growth.

Now entering its tenth year, Tableau recently opened a London office and has started to expand into the Asia-Pacific region. By the end of the year, Tableau’s data-visualization software should be available in nearly a half-dozen more languages, from Portuguese to Korean.

And, after years of offering its products as downloadable software, Tableau is now working on a transition to the software-as-a-service model that has become so prevalent in the industry—its first stab at such a product was Tableau Public, a free-to-use version aimed at journalists, students, and other new categories of users outside of the enterprise customers who traditionally use what’s called business intelligence software.

With revenue bookings of about $72 million in 2011, up some 94 percent from a year earlier, Tableau could be on its way to becoming one of the next generation of publicly traded tech companies from Seattle. “Tableau’s intention as part of its business plan is to be a big, independent, global, publicly traded company. I mean, there’s no doubt about that. This company is not for sale,” CEO and co-founder Christian Chabot says.

Tableau CEO Christian Chabot

But it wasn’t always going gangbusters. In the early years, before big shifts in the ways businesses purchased and used data software, there were some pretty lonely sales calls for the young company. Here’s a story from Chabot that explains how he was banging his head against the wall with an innovative product that was getting started just a little bit ahead of its time—and why sticking with it is so important for entrepreneurs.

“When we started, I would walk into rooms at companies and universities and government agencies—and nonprofits, too, by the way … the same thing would happen in all of them.

“We would finally work ourselves up to a big pitch meeting—one where you did more than open the door, you got all the decision-makers in a room. And the IT guys are there, and the business guys are there, and the CIO’s in the back of the room with his arms crossed with a sour look on his face—I’ve done these meetings so many times!

“And in ’03, ’04, ’05 when I did that meeting, I would stand up in the front of the room and, being the entrepreneurial company, the disruptor company that we are, we would make the following bold claim to try and get people’s attention and try to get them to think different.

“I would say, ‘The technologies you guys are using today to access and understand your data—those technologies are heavy, complicated, inflexible, slow-moving, and expensive. And Tableau can change that for you.’ And in those years, when I made that statement, it didn’t go very well. I would be escorted from the building, so to speak. It just didn’t stick.

“You would not believe what happens when you do that today. When I do that exact same meeting today—exact same line, exact same crowd, exact same room size—and I make the exact same statement, the room is nodding. You know what I mean? I can literally see the sea change that’s occurred.

“And it’s not a Groupon, where it happened overnight. Over the course of those five years, sensibilities changed right underneath us.

“As a startup story, it’s hopefully inspirational for people out there laboring. Because when we founded the company, people did not want to hear our message. We believed it. We just knew it felt good and we were excited about what we’d invented.

“But, boy, when the market sensibilities change under you as you’re working and laboring and they change to your advantage—wow, does that feel good.”

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4 responses to “Tableau’s 10th Year: CEO Christian Chabot Remembers the Lean Years”

  1. Sally James says:

    The company has seen amazing growth, and still remains less-well-known in Seattle than less-successful companies. Maybe your good story will help with that.