Ajay Khanna wanted to make querying analytical databases as simple as a Google search. That is what inspired him to found his company, Tellius, in 2016. Sands Capital’s Global Venture fund led Tellius’ Series A round in 2021 because we believe Ajay and his team are changing the industry standard of how to consume business insights and analytics via their decision intelligence platform.
Leveraging Big Data
The arrival of big data created a significant, but also overwhelming, opportunity for companies. As Ajay explains, while companies now have access to massive amounts of data, it has been challenging to find an effective, efficient, and easy-to-use way to make sense of all that information. To achieve that goal, he strove to deliver a product that could blend automation with the Google-like ease of a modern interface.
“First, we knew we needed to deliver an automated solution to spare people from having to work late into the night, missing time from their families, as they manually mine the data and try to draw insights and develop reports from it,” he says. Delivering insights faster would also enable businesses to act more quickly on what the data reveals.
Ajay also wanted to build an easy-to-use interface. “Many companies make the mistake of developing a sophisticated technology that only the data experts understand how to use,” he notes. Instead, he sought to develop a capability that could be used by everyone else, particularly those who might not know SQL, the language used to query databases. “We wanted to develop a product that would enable everyone outside the IT [information technology] department, like those in marketing or sales, to easily access the data for insights,” he says.
The work of Ajay and his team caught the attention of Sands Capital. “We knew that the world is becoming much more data driven,” says Chris Eng, a principal at the firm. “Still, there is a huge gap between the large number of people who might be comfortable in working with data in Excel spreadsheets to make business decisions versus the much smaller population of data scientists who can model and deliver insights from the vast amounts of information in a database.”
In recent years, there has been considerable innovation in the ways that data is stored, moved, and analyzed, with the rise of companies like Snowflake and Databricks, Chris notes. The Sands Capital team knew that innovation was starting to occur in the value chain that extends from the central data warehouses all the way up to the business teams that “consume” the data in departments outside of an organization’s technology or analytics groups. We believed that Tellius could play an important role in that value chain.
Legacy business intelligence products were typically applications downloaded onto a user’s desktop. “That was okay in the days when you might have thousands of lines of data in an Excel spreadsheet,” Chris says. With the advent of big data, the picture changed entirely. “Today, there might be millions or even billions of rows of data that need to be analyzed,” he says. Data storage had also moved to the cloud, and the constantly evolving capabilities of the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model were needed to handle the massive amounts of cloud-based data.
Ajay uses a traditional infrastructure example to explain his vision for the role Tellius plays in the data value chain. “Companies like Snowflake that made massive amounts of data easily accessible on the cloud have effectively built a large ‘water tank’ for the community,” he says. “We knew the next challenge would be to ‘lay the last mile.’ We wanted to build a product that could make the data available, in an easily usable way, to all the homes, which in this case means all the business departments outside of IT that need access to it.”
He admits, “It was a bold, and perhaps audacious, mission because we knew our firm might be taking on the likes of Microsoft, AWS [Amazon Web Services], and Salesforce.” Still, he was confident that he and the team at Tellius could address a need he didn’t think was fully served yet.
Google-like Search Capabilities
The key to delivering an easy-to-use interface, Ajay says, was to provide Google-like search capabilities, enabling people to pose questions using conversational language. Ajay wanted to also make it possible for business users who didn’t know SQL to use conversational language to query a database. As he explains, with Tellius, a customer’s brand managers don’t need to know how to write code to access revenue numbers in their company’s database. Instead, they can simply ask, “What happened with the sales of electronic products in California last week?” Tellius doesn’t just deliver the answer. It also pulls the relevant data into an easy-to-read chart that the brand manager can take to their next meeting.
Using machine learning and predictive analytics, Tellius can also identify the patterns in users’ searches and then scour the database to draw information the user might not yet know they need or want. “In the same way Google recognizes our frequent search topics and serves up related information, we wanted to deliver insights from all the data that users might not know is there for them,” says Ajay. “We’re moving beyond enabling users to pull information from a database. We can now push relevant insights to them, as well.”
Chris believes the search capabilities of Tellius are one of its true differentiators. “The legacy business intelligence applications were very good at answering ‘what’ questions, like ‘What was our firm’s sales in the Southeast region last year?’ but they weren’t really capable of answering the deeper ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions like, ‘How did our revenue by various product types change over the past year?’ or ‘Why did our revenue decline by 10% in the Southeast over the past two quarters?’”
He says Tellius is capable of examining a company’s analytical data and deriving root cause analysis, key drivers, and underlying trends that might be driving a certain outcome. In the example of a region that experienced a revenue decline, for instance, Tellius might surface insights that point toward a drop in the generation of prospective customer leads or fewer promotional emails as key contributing factors or drivers. In the past, that type of analysis had to be done manually and could take a team of data analysts weeks to conduct, depending on their bandwidth and the priority of the request.
Need Spans Multiple Industries
The path from identifying this customer need to building a solution for it was not a direct line, Ajay admits. He graduated from college in India with an engineering degree in the early nineties. It was before the internet had gained widespread use. His first job was with an Indian telecom company, and he earned $100 a month, a livable wage in India at that time. He says he couldn’t have even imagined the possibility of becoming a technology entrepreneur because the groundwork for what the industry would become was just being laid. Earlier in his career, his work had focused on helping telecom companies analyze the data they had on customers, like when service was interrupted and the locations of calls. As he notes, an important step in the evolution of data analysis came with the release of the first iPhone. Smartphones massively increased the amount of data that could be analyzed. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms also greatly enhanced the possibilities for scanning and pulling relevant insights from all that data.
Ajay co-founded a startup, Celcite, that catered to the telecom industry. It started small, as a services-based business, because he and his partner didn’t yet have the funding to build a product. But success came quickly. They were eventually able to build a platform to automate analysis process of telecom data, and their business was growing rapidly when the company was acquired by Amdocs.
Ajay knew that telecommunications wasn’t the only sector that needed help making sense of Big Data. He founded Tellius because he wanted to serve a broad array of industries. In line with that goal, he derived the name of the company from the Latin word for Earth, which is tellus. As someone who understands the importance of good search protocols, he added the “i” in the name to make it unique.
Finding the Right Product Market Fit
Ajay understood that finding the right technology to serve a pressing customer need is not an easy process. “Many companies struggle with getting the right product/market fit,” says Ajay. Some companies get excited by what seems to be a uniquely smart technology but later discover it isn’t feasible for everyday users. Other companies struggle from the other side. “They have a really good understanding of a customer pain point, but they can’t find an affordable way to build a technology that will address it,” he says. “Money and resources are finite, and you can exhaust both before finding the right product/market fit. At a startup, it’s often a race against time.”
Even determining when a promising technology is truly solving a pressing customer need can be a challenge. “We had points along the way when things did get very foggy for us. We had good feedback from users, but there’s always the question of what volume of users having positive experiences is enough and how much time and resources you can commit to iterations that address the suggestions you get for adding features.”
Sands Capital entered the picture with Tellius in late 2020. When the Sands Capital team spoke with Tellius’ customers as part of our due diligence, it became clear that Tellius was offering a breakthrough innovation.
“Many customers told us that their time to develop insights and analytics had been cut down from weeks to hours, and sometimes even minutes,” says Chris. “Frankly, when you hear from people at large, sophisticated enterprises that have big budgets for data initiatives and sizable teams of data analysts make comments like ‘This capability is super valuable to us and is saving us tons of time,’ our ears perk up. That’s what they were telling us about Tellius.”
A Powerful Partnership
The relationship Sands Capital has with its portfolio companies goes far beyond delivering a check. “Sands has been an incredible partner for us,” says Ajay. “They’ve done everything from offering guidance on drafting legal contracts to providing hiring tips for filling key roles. They’ve also shared their considerable network of connections with us.”
Both Chris and Ajay agree that mutual trust is the key to a successful partnership. “From the outset, we were impressed with Chris and the Sands Capital team’s understanding of our market,” says Ajay. “They know where the market is heading and what it needs. It has been a complete alignment with our vision.”
Ajay and the Tellius team made a similarly positive impression on the group at Sands Capital. “Ajay is one of the most passionate CEOs we’ve come across,” says Chris. “He is dedicated to democratizing the field of decision intelligence and brings a huge amount of experience and domain expertise to the table. He came to us with a thesis on where data analytics was heading, combined with a thorough understanding of common customer pain points, and he has built a fantastic company that can address them in a powerful way.”
Every tech entrepreneur aspires to develop a technology that can change the world. Tellius is making it possible to harness big data, and it’s enabling users across multiple business units to draw insights from massive databases in ways that can lead to better and much faster decision-making. In short, Ajay and the Sands Capital team believe Tellius is well on its way toward meeting that lofty aspiration.
As of November 18, 2022, Amazon was held in Select Growth, Global Growth, Technology Innovators, and Global Shariah. Google was held in Global Growth, Technology Innovators, and Global Shariah. Microsoft was held in Global Leaders, Select leaders, and Global Shariah. Snowflake was held in Select Growth, Global Growth, and Technology Innovators. Tellius was held in the Global Ventures fund.
Salesforce, Celcite, and Databricks are not held in any Sands Capital portfolio and were referenced for illustrative purposes only.
The series, Partners for Growth, features profiles of founders of portfolio companies that represent a subset of Sands Capital holdings that illustrate the types of businesses in which we typically invest before they go public. The website uses rotation whereby companies are selected to highlight different sectors and growth industries. The founders featured in this series agreed to participate and have approved their stories prior to publishing. Compensation was not provided to participants; however, Ajay Khanna can reuse the content with Sands Capital’s permission. Usage rights to the content featured is as of 12/5/2022 and is subject to change. As of December 1, 2022, Global Ventures II owned 17 percent of Tellius, having invested in both the Series A and B funding rounds. Mr. Khanna has no other relationships or affiliations with Sands Capital and does not invest in its public or private strategies.
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