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Interview: Dan Blaisdell of Manifest Insights Talks Big Data and Business Intelligence: Past, Present, Future

There are no shortage of business intelligence (BI) companies in today’s market. This certainly doesn’t mean, however, that all BI companies take the same approach to data management and the quest for meaningful insight. We sat down with Dan Blaisdell, CEO/Founder of Manifest Insights, to learn what makes his company unique and how it fits into this burgeoning, multi-billion dollar industry.

insideBIGDATADan, how did your business intelligence (BI) startup dealing with data analytics and dashboards come about?

Dan Blaisdell

Dan Blaisdell

Dan Blaisdell: We started as an all-purpose, do-everything web development and design agency. You name it, we did it: graphic design, shopping carts, database applications, WordPress, SEO, etc. It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about being nimble and responsive. Most people will tell you not to do that – to pick a niche and excel at it.

Over time it became clear that we were making more money, having more fun and building more lasting relationships with database application development, so marketing websites and graphic design sort of went out the window and we haven’t looked back.

In 2010, we were hired by a major mobile game company to build an analytics dashboard, and it needed to do EVERYTHING. They had data in many places: Oracle, PostgreSQL, SQL Server, etc.  It was our job to help round up the data and display it in a flexible, widget-based dashboard.  They didn’t just want canned reports. They wanted to be able to pick metrics and dimensions on the fly, they needed complex queries, and they needed an attractive, drag and drop user interface.

We had so much fun doing that project, and we saw the same need in other companies. Since that initial project we have completely rewritten our dashboard and query API twice and we’ve expanded into a number of other industries.

We now have a powerful and mature analytics platform, but we are still a professional services company at heart and we’re only just beginning to run with the idea of hosting and selling software to a larger audience. We believe that quality service and expertise are essential for success in the data analytics space. No tool can truly solve all the unique needs that companies have when it comes to data management and visualization.

insideBIGDATA:What does it do exactly?

Dan Blaisdell: Our analytics platform connects directly to SQL database and 3rd party APIs and exposes their data in an easy-to-use interface. It’s very powerful in that you can blend data from different sources in a single chart, yet you can build a chart with just a single click without browsing database schemas or writing code. Our unique separation of configuration and reporting building makes this user experience possible.

insideBIGDATAWhich industries benefit from your product?

Dan Blaisdell: Pretty much any industry where gathering and reporting data solves problems and results in action and growth. So far the most common ones are manufacturing, marketing, and mobile gaming.

insideBIGDATAPlease tell us a little about the underlying technology. What’s under the hood so-­to-­speak?

Dan Blaisdell: Our user interface is something we are very proud of. It’s pure JavaScript/HTML5 and built using the super-versatile AngularJS framework. Our reporting API is a proprietary, very lightweight REST and data framework. Its job is to build the right queries and pass data between data sources and the user interface. One thing that we are very excited about is how pluggable and extensible the data framework is. In a very short period of time we can write a new plugin that connects to a new data source. I put together our Google Analytics integration in just an hour or two!

insideBIGDATA:Presumably, there is quite a bit of competition out there. What sets Manifest Insights apart?

Dan Blaisdell: We have a great user interface. So many user interfaces are unattractive, difficult to use, or so restricted that you can’t build meaningful reports. I think we strike the perfect balance of robust and easy-to-use. I also think our approach to data connections is unique in that we don’t expose raw database schemas to the users building that charts. Engineers are empowered through the configuration area of the application, but day-to-day users should not have to browse database schemas or be exposed to data that isn’t relevant to them.

Aside from competing on features, we believe very strongly in being there to help our users be successful. Our consulting background gives us the ability to get involved in learning about our customers’ businesses and find unique solutions for their unique problems. I’m not aware of another company with the same combination of software and professional services. So many companies focus entirely on one side and leave the rest to the customer. When you speak with most organizations, the salesman is the only person you will ever work with. We get experts involved right away. Most businesses do not have the expertise or the bandwidth to solve their unique data management problems on their own. We don’t just sell the software and turn you loose. In a number of cases I have personally flown out and sat with businesses to go through their data and develop a strategy with them. I don’t believe you’ll get that sort of service from the Tableaus and DOMOs of the world.

insideBIGDATADo you currently have a cloud offering or is this strictly on-­premise?

Dan Blaisdell: We certainly do. Customers who want a hosted solution get their own sub domain of manifestinsights.com or they can use a custom domain name. Our cloud solution can connect to data sources like Amazon Redshift, Amazon RDS, Google Analytics and many more.

That being said, many companies that we work with want to self-host on their servers, so we do that as well.  And this approach could be on-premise or within their own AWS account.

Another area where we focus is in integrations. We’ve integrated into a number of SaaS products that had customer data, but no analytics offering. We offer white-labeled integration for cloud software companies so that they can bring analytics features to market quickly without being distracted from their core competencies.

insideBIGDATABig Data is obviously a huge topic these days. How does BI fit into this realm and how can your company take advantage of this trend?

Dan Blaisdell: We don’t think as much about what is officially Big Data and what is not. Some of our customers and partners work with incredibly large data sets and enjoy diving in to help solve problems as needed. I’m excited by the increasing amounts of data being collected as well as the growing number of attractive offerings for storing and querying large data sets. Amazon Redshift is becoming more and more common among our users.

insideBIGDATAWhile BI has been around for quite awhile, the latest technology has really taken off.  Where is all of this going? What’s in the future for Big Data and BI?

Dan Blaisdell: I see a number of companies running to build as many tools as possible and many of them are great products. There is a lot of demand, so I think most of us in the space will do well and really enjoy solving data-centric problems with this flood of data. The challenge is how to use the tools to turn that data into something meaningful for a business. Otherwise the charts and subsequently dashboards get old and the conversations and discoveries could very well end. There is also the growing issue of having too many metrics and dimensions.  The tools will need to get better at surfacing the important data rather than requiring the user to sift through it all manually.

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