Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith: ‘the most important data is the data we don’t have’

30 Sep 2013

Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics

Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith tells John Kennedy about the growth of a company he started with his dad in the family basement in Utah in 2002 that today is regarded as one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the world with more than 6,000 corporate customers.

Last Friday, Dubliners pricked their ears to the news that Qualtrics is to establish its European headquarters in Dublin with 50 new jobs, rising to 150 jobs within 36 months.

Qualtrics has 6,000 enterprise customers worldwide, including Microsoft, Fedex, Jet Blue and HP using its data survey, data collection and analysis technology. In 2012, Qualtrics received a US$70m investment from Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital, the largest ever joint investment undertaken by the two firms.

The company experienced triple-digit growth in 2012 and more than doubled its workforce to 350 employees in the past year. In 2013, Qualtrics appeared on the Forbes list of ‘America’s Most Promising Companies’ and Smith was named one of ‘America’s Most Promising CEOs under 35’.

Smith, speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, said the company’s technology has enabled more than 1bn rapid-response surveys for academic and business customers and the primary motivator is simply needing to know more.

“The most important data is the data we don’t have. If the data was that important we’d already be using it. One of the things we enable businesses to do is collect data and integrate it with their own knowledge base.”

Smith says we live in a new reality. The web as we know it, along with pulsating social media networks, he believes, means there’s no excuse not to find answers to problems.

“We’re helping with fast data acquisition. If you don’t know what to call your new cruise ship just send out a survey to customers and have a response.

“There’s no point trying to guess any more, that would be cheating when you have this giant pool ripe for providing feedback. Our platform allows businesses to conduct simple surveys or more complex surveys live online.

“But getting people to respond in itself is not the destination – how do we make it productive and empower people?”

Smith was a junior in college when he enlisted the support of his scientist dad Scott to build Qualtrics. “I basically stayed in the basement of our house in Utah for five years. I believe you need to nail it before you scale it. So we nailed it and indeed it scaled up phenomenally quickly. We didn’t raise any money until last year when we raised US$70m from Sequoia and Accel, which was the largest series A they’ve ever done together.

“Any time you try building a company that would have 6,000 customers and there’s value there, it’s not going to be an overnight success. It’s about building a business that is scalable into the future.”

Opening a beachhead in Europe

Smith said that Qualtrics had done its reconnaissance well before deciding to open up in Europe. “A good portion of our revenues already came from outside the US. But we had our sales team make calls at 2am our time to the UK and EMEA and we signed up over 600 enterprises.

“Overall people are becoming more and more data driven.”

He says there are a lot of similarities between Ireland and Utah. “Dublin’s not that different from Salt Lake City. It has over 1m people, a lot of universities and a great software ecosystem. We were able to build our ecosystem from Utah with 350 people. We’re pretty bullish and believe we can do the same thing from Dublin. Let’s go!”

As far as Smith is concerned Dublin as a location for establishing Qualtrics’ first base outside the States was a no-brainer. “I came out to F.ounders last year to get acquainted with the scene. My brother had also worked with Google for several years and he had been working with the Irish office and had such a positive experience. There’s nothing that we can’t do from Dublin. When we were looking at different cities and adding up the pros and cons of each city we felt we could accomplish everything we needed to do from Dublin.

“We’re starting with sales and support functions right now. Our engineering head is over and he’s looking at data centres and checking out talent.”

Family values

Qualtrics doesn’t fit the bill of the typical technology start-up as it has been quite a family affair, but if anything Smith believes the mix of family values and integrity has given rise to a strong culture of accountability.

“My dad is retired now and my brother Jared was at Google and I was able to convince him to come back. I think we all, whether family or not, have this need to feel more accountable than anybody else.

“Jared and I run the company now and we both want the same thing and believe in it, and that comes across from all the employees. We have to lead by example.

“Growing up instilled in us that you get things done and you execute and that’s been super helpful from parents who let us fail, but could have bailed us out. We are thankful for those experiences.

“My father got out of the way and said ‘good luck, don’t run into a mountain.’ It takes a really secure person to watch a young college student fail– and we failed a few times.”

What impresses and amazes Smith a lot is how many Irish people around the world are doing their best to promote the country.

“Ireland needs to understand, you as a people have done a phenomenal job selling the country. You’ve got these proponents out there – and sometimes it’s not even in their own interests to do so, but they are doing everything they can to build this country. And when people are all involved and rallying around – every person we’ve met have all been so encouraging and wanted us to come and so, here we are.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years