Pivoting and Growing a Customer-Facing Analytics for Modern SaaS - Startup Stories with Matt Williamson
Continue reading for the transcript of our conversation with Matt.
Anton Oparienko (COO, Upsilon): Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of "Startup Stories". Today, I am pleased to have Matt Williamson, the co-founder and CEO of Vizzly, as our guest. Welcome, Matt.
Matt Williamson (Co-founder and CEO, Vizzly): Thank you for having me on the show.
Anton: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Matt: Sure, my name's Matt. I'm the co-founder and CEO of Vizzly. We provide customer-facing analytics for modern SaaS platforms.
My background is primarily in commercial and product. Before Vizzly, I was responsible for business development at Duffel, a flights and payments API. Prior to that, I worked on data products at Skyscanner, building data APIs and SaaS analytics tools. This is where I encountered the problem space and the premise on which Vizzly is founded.
Anton: I've read that you have a versatile background. You've worked in business development, marketing, and consulting. Does this experience of wearing many hats help with running your own startup, or is it better to focus on what you're best at?
Matt: Yes, there are different perspectives on this, but personally, I spent most of my career before founding Vizzly in a commercial capacity, specifically in business development and sales. I also have some experience in product management and analysis. I am self-taught in limited programmability, such as Python and SQL.
While it's arguable that deep expertise in a specific domain can be beneficial, I find that having a broad range of skills as a founder, especially in the early startup stages, has been extremely advantageous.
Having a baseline technical understanding has helped me effectively communicate with my team from a product and engineering perspective. Even if it's just at a high level, I don't know how I would operate in a product capacity without that understanding.
I am also grateful for my experience in managing commercial and business development teams before Vizzly because distribution and go-to-market strategies are challenging in themselves. Of course, product engineering is also challenging, but having that prior experience in distribution and go-to-market has been really beneficial.
Anton: What led to your decision to become a founder of your own startup?
Matt: Honestly, it's something I always saw myself doing. The experiences I had before Vizzly were preparing me for this. However, at the age of 20, for example, I didn't feel confident enough in myself and my abilities to start a software company that could scale at a venture level. But the experiences I gained from Coachseek, Skyscanner, Duffel, and others, not only equipped me with the necessary skills but also the confidence to take that leap of faith and start a company.
While there are individuals who drop out of university or college and achieve great success, each person's journey is unique. This was the path I chose for myself.
Anton: And as I understand, your co-founder James Bowers, who is like the CTO of the company, has really strong technical experience. That is a pretty usual thing to do, like having co-founders for the commercial side and the technical side. Did you know James before? How did that happen? How did that affect the tech startup idea?
Matt: I met James at Duffel. James is an absolute rockstar of a CTO, a super technical full-stack developer. A big part of Vizzly's success relies on developer experience. As a non-developer, I rely on James and the engineers at Vizzly to help inform what a good developer experience looks like.
It's fantastic to have a talented engineer as a co-founder, both from a business and product perspective. Also, having the opportunity to work with James in a previous company was beneficial. You can get a feel for the other person's personality before committing to a project like this for potentially five or ten years. So, I'm super grateful and lucky, but it's definitely a decision that one has to take with care.
Anton: Do you think taking on such an endeavor alone, without a co-founder and with limited technical experience, is a good path? What advantages and disadvantages do you see?
Matt: Yeah, I'm sure it's more feasible these days, even as a non-technical co-founder, with the availability of no-code and low-code development solutions. Having a co-founder is more than just filling a skills gap. It's about keeping each other accountable and motivated. There's value at a human level beyond just filling skills gaps. Co-foundership, in my opinion, is the optimal pathway for maximizing success probability.
Anton: Okay. Let's talk about Vizzly itself. The idea behind the product is that it's a customer-facing analytics tool. How does it work? Where did the idea come from?
Matt: I used to look after data products at Skyscanner. We used to provide people with raw, flat files of data. But we realized that we needed to make it more accessible to broaden the market. So, we put a UI around our data APIs to help non-technical stakeholders engage with it.
However, we couldn't find an off-the-shelf solution that satisfied our needs. We tried POCs with various tools like Good Data, Sisense, Power BI, Looker, and more, but they all felt the same. They were clunky iframes embedded with heavy ETL systems, not extensible with code or in-app logic.
So, we had to make a choice: use something off-the-shelf that would get us to market quickly but have limitations, or build our own solution using an open-source framework like D3. In the end, we chose to build our own solution with Vizzly, striking a perfect balance between quick time-to-market and extensibility with code.
Vizzly aims to provide a seamless and native user experience, not just in terms of UI but also in terms of the overall application's UX. While we sell product functions, we prioritize developer experience and the developer stakeholder in that relationship.
Anton: So, as you mentioned, there is a ton of competition in the space. It may not be as good, has some issues, and so on, but you are entering a very competitive space of data analytics. So how do you do it? How do you find your customers? Or how do you enter the market with your product?
Matt: It's a good question that I get asked a lot, especially during fundraising. With the rise of LLMs and startup data analytics, the competition has become even more intense. However, we are primarily focused on customer-facing analytics.
Most of the existing solutions are internal BI solutions. Customer-facing analytics is a different case. For internal BI, things like UX, UI, extensibility with code, speed, and performance are not a concern. You don't have to worry about multi-tenant and single-tenant environments, user permissions, and authentication. These two use cases have been wrongly lumped together under the same category in the context of data analytics. Our company thesis is that these two use cases require separate but overlapping feature sets.
Anton: And so considering this, who is your ideal user? Who are you focusing on?
Matt: We work with B2B SaaS apps, mainly targeting companies between Seed and Series B startup funding stages. These are companies that either haven't built their analytics experience yet or want to upgrade from tools like Metabase to something more native, extensible, and flexible.
We haven't entered the enterprise market yet. Our focus is on startups and growth-stage companies, particularly in HR tech, sales tech, martech, FinTech, and generative AI platforms. These platforms share common needs. We draw the line when it comes to enterprise companies already integrated with Power BI and Luka under long-term contracts. Our efforts are better spent on those with urgent problems, focusing on their big journey.
We are still in the process of optimizing how we define our ideal customer profile (ICP). Currently, we have over 30 paying customers, so we are still early in our journey.
Anton: When building products, analytics and dashboards often take a lot of time. Using third-party solutions can save time and effort. Many founders would prefer to avoid building everything from scratch, just like they do with payment systems and other product components.
Matt: Exactly, coding in higher-level languages and using existing solutions follow the same principles.
Anton: What are your current plans? Where is the product going?
Matt: Currently, we offer a self-hosted semantic layer, SDKs for multi-tenancy, single-tenancy, user permissions, authentication, and a powerful data visualization layer. We provide standard and custom data reporting, allowing users to edit and build their own views and dashboards. Our next focus is reducing friction in the setup process by moving our self-hosted semantic layer to the cloud.
Anton: You mentioned working with AI generative startups. Do you see AI being applicable to your product?
Matt: Yeah, right. So look, when it comes to focusing on time to value, how do you help someone quickly build a dashboard? If AI can assist with that and it aligns with our current focus, then yes, we'll do it. We won't implement AI just for the sake of it. It needs to provide business or customer value.
We have an alpha version of AI. It allows our customers and end users to build views, charts, tables, and maps using natural language prompts. The challenge, of course, is training the model to an acceptable level where it doesn't make mistakes 40% or 30% of the time. It's not our main focus right now, but we'll continue exploring it as long as it aligns with our goal of providing business and customer value.
Anton: That makes sense. Some products use AI just to have an AI label on their homepage, which doesn't really help. I have a few questions about the history of Vizzly. You were part of Y Combinator (YC) in 2022. What's your opinion on Y Combinator and accelerators in general? Was it a good decision to join?
Matt: My opinion on startup accelerators is that there are good and bad ones, or let's say good and less good ones.
YC is expensive. The first SAFE, 7% for 1, 2, 5K, that's not cheap. And the other SAFE you get from YC is 375k uncapped valuation. But it was absolutely worth it. Partners, mentors, you get to acquire and converse with. I feel incredibly blessed to have had that opportunity. And just being in the same room with these people. But the most value we got from YC really came from the startup community and network of other founders. Being a founder can be isolating, so being surrounded by others going through the same experience is priceless.
And these are high-quality, high-caliber founders as well. You can learn from them every day. So for me, that's the main value. Capital is fantastic, but there's more to gain from YC beyond just money. Other accelerators and incubators can also provide similar value. I've heard great things about Techstars, for example.
But there are some accelerators where the value is not the same. Some venture builders and term sheets exposed to founders can be aggressive and unfriendly in the long term. So be cautious at that level. The real value comes from the people you surround yourself with.
Anton: I always wonder if having the YC label helps your business going forward. I see many people putting YC on their LinkedIn even if they have little connection to it, just to improve the image of their company or themselves. Does it really make a difference?
Matt: I would be lying if I said no. It definitely helps. It creates instant trust when there's no existing relationship. YC was originally built for entrepreneurs with little to no network. It serves its function. The brand itself, with companies like Stripe, Coinbase, Airbnb, and Instacart in its portfolio, adds to the impression and trust it creates. But there are other accelerators where the stamp can also be helpful. Techstars is a good example, although I have no affiliation with them.
Anton: Yes, they are well-known in the industry. So, what are your thoughts on bootstrapping versus pitching to investors and seeking investor money and going through accelerators? Would you recommend the same path? Or do you think bootstrapping is better in specific cases?
Matt: I'm really passionate about this topic. I could talk about it for hours. Before starting your startup journey, know what you want from life. Raising VC money comes with expectations and sacrifices. If you're not comfortable with those, then don't do it. It's a long-term commitment, a five to ten-year journey.
Some founders I know have raised a lot of cash in the US with preferential shares. Now they have to build large businesses to have a successful exit. Raising venture capital and getting press coverage may feel great, but there are consequences worth considering before going down that path.
Bootstrapping isn't always possible, especially if you have dependents to provide for. It depends on your financial circumstances. We raised a small amount of angel investment, around $125,000, before YC to test our idea's viability. YC provided additional capital, but it wasn't a substantial amount. We even pivoted our solution six weeks before demo day.
Taking millions from a VC shortly after a startup pivot is a big risk. Accepting investment for something you don't fully understand or haven't validated yet is not healthy.
So, my advice is to know the type of business you want to build and the life you want before taking that leap. We did well in knowing ourselves and what we wanted before starting, and constantly checking if we're on the right path. Have open conversations with your co-founder or yourself if you're a solo founder.
Anton: That's some good advice for early founders. Do you have any more advice that you'd like to share?
Matt: I guess, based on our startup mistakes, even just getting to this point, I think companies start running code too soon. When you have an idea and you're excited, you just want to start building right away.
But taking a step back and talking to people about it, finding a way to validate your product hypotheses verbally, can save a lot of time. We had the same problem space but changed the solution direction. If we had spoken to more people and been honest from the beginning, we could have saved several months.
Anton: That's good, but it's hard to get to your ICP without showing them what you're building and getting their feedback. It's difficult to get people interested in just an idea.
Matt: Yes, there's nuance there. It depends on what you're building and how well you communicate the value proposition. But you won't know if someone truly wants something until they're willing to pay for it. Many times, people said they would use our product but didn't pay for it or churned instantly. Building something, launching it, and asking for payment is the ultimate validation. However, having early conversations with customers and defining the problem space are also valuable.
Anton: What was your biggest challenge building Vizzly? Was there a point where you thought it wouldn't happen? What did you do?
Matt: There have been many ups and downs. One challenging moment was before the pivot, when we built and launched the MVP. We had 80 sign-ups but 100% churn within the first week. Most companies that go through YC pivot at some point.
Pivoting isn't viewed as startup failure; it's a learning experience. Viewing it from that perspective keeps you in a healthy state, but it was still a sad moment.
Anton: And what did you learn from the 100% churn? Did you figure out the reason?
Matt: We didn't have enough deep customer conversations. I was in sales mode instead of discovery mode when building the first product. We should have picked up the phone and had discovery conversations with 40-50 people. Selling has its time and place, but it wasn't at the beginning. The importance of product discovery over selling is what I personally learned.
Anton: I see. And we have some blitz questions. What book impacted your professional career?
Matt: I haven't read much lately, but I listen to podcasts regularly. One show I like is "20 Minute VC" with Harry Stebbins. The guests are interesting, and the topics are broad. It's worth a listen.
Anton: Do you have startup groups or communities you recommend?
Matt: The YC community is incredibly valuable. I also recommend attending events like SaaStock if you're a B2B SaaS founder. They have a community of B2B SaaS founders that I found incredibly valuable.
Anton: The last question is do you have a product or service that makes you more productive?
Matt: Notion is a bit controversial, but I love it. We use it for various purposes, like sales pods. It's versatile and helps us keep everything in one place. People can comment and have discussions in the document, which accelerates the education process in a sales cycle. Despite some difficulties in finding documents, Notion has been valuable for us.
Anton: That was my last question. If you want to add anything or point people to Vizzly, feel free.
Matt: You can email me at email@example.com. I'm always open to conversations and new contacts. You can also sign up on our website for our free tool, Vizzly Lite, where you can upload a CSV and build a dashboard. We're on social media too, LinkedIn and Twitter/X. Don't hesitate to reach out.
Anton: Great! Thanks for sharing your story and advice, Matt. It was a pleasure.