Lars Björk Grows Qlik Into Self-Service BI Powerhouse

Data is overflowing at most companies. Yet insights from data is in short supply as the world can’t produce enough PhD’s in statistics and analytics who have the skill to make sense of the data fast enough to meet the demand.  A host of self-service, software solutions that help automate the data reporting and analytics process (part of a broadly-defined category known as Business Intelligence) have come to market over the past several years to satisfy the need.

One of these is Qlik. It just might be one of the largest, most successful self-service, Business Intelligence software companies you may not have heard about yet. Approaching $700 million in sales, the Swedish-born, Radnor, PA headquartered company’s SaaS solutions make it easy to turn disparate data sources into manageable dashboards that help improve and speed up decision-making across the company for businesses of all sizes. It’s enterprising CEO, Lars Björk, has applied his team building, Swedish cultural sensibilities to grow Qlik into both a fast-growing BI service as well as a force for social good.

“I think we can take pride in the fact that we were the ones that introduced the whole notion of (BI) self-service and making this something very easy to use. So simple my mother can use it,” says Björk.

As Björk tells it, that wasn’t the case just a few years back. Fifteen years ago and you bought enterprise software from companies like IBM or Oracle, it was intended to be led through an instructor. Users had to read a manual, and take many weeks, months, sometimes years to deploy. “Coming into the market, we took the approach that every user could be a little bit of a data scientist,” says Björk.

“I call it the Apple revolution, meaning that consumerization has come into enterprise software quite some time ago. However, back then it was a new thing. Of course, like any disrupter, at first we were dismissed by the big players who said we would never get traction if we didn’t build our software in a specific way. And I think we have proven them wrong several times over.”

That disruptive vision has allowed Qlik to attract some 40,000 customers in over 120 countries, along with a large partner network that carries the product to corners of the world where they don’t have representation themselves. The company itself has offices in 26 countries.

“We know that data is something that we have in abundance; but companies don’t know what to do with it at times. We also know that within the next four years, we will have ten times more data generated around us. With the explosion of data, we will suddenly begin to see new possibilities with our technology. This is what is so compelling about Qlik, we don’t aim to create technology for the sake of technology. The value is in the actual outcome that the user or the organization can achieve. That is what I would label as data driven possibilities.”

“Now you can see a doctor in a hospital using an iPad, instead of having a binder under his arm, he has an iPad, and suddenly he can look through 20 years of past experience on that specific surgery that he is about to do on this unfortunate child that is ill, for example.  And so, while most data is in this world starts in somewhere in monetary terms, I like the stories where we can be of help of saving something that’s bigger than a few million dollars, but actually saving a life,” continues Björk.

The business started in 1993 in the university town of Lund, Sweden. “I would label it the Boston of Sweden, meaning it’s the same type of environment–lots of students, big university campus, both a business school, technical school, as well as a law school in Lund. There’s also a big science park out of which Qlik was founded. And from its first few years of, I should say not knowing where it was going, the last 16 years has been a ride from a few dozen employees to over 2,500, from a handful of customers to 40,000 customers today. And, from being very focused on the Swedish market at the outset, you quickly sort of look at the outside world and the opportunity.”

Today its biggest and fastest-growing market is the U.S., which is why the company moved from Sweden to its current headquarters in Radnor, Pennsylvania just outside Philadelphia. “I would label it a truly global company, headquartered in United States, with a Swedish soul,” says Björk.

According to Björk  , the company has its roots from its Swedish culture, which he characterizes as consensus driven decision making. “We believe in involvement. We believe in empowerment,” says Björk. “We recruit people that are independent, driven, but still team players, and people that want to be on a journey, personal and professionally.”

The company is currently private (it was actually a public company from 2010 to 2016) which may enhance its mission to be a force for social good without the need to report on quarterly earnings. Private equality firm Thoma Bravo brought the company private in late August of 2016.

The social good aspect is very closely tied to its culture. “We came to the conclusion that financial performance for a company is vital for its success, but it’s not enough for us to feel good deep down about the work that we’re doing. So we give away software to any kind of nonprofit type of organization. We help them build the application. So it’s not just writing a check, it’s actively participating. We have people on the ground who have gone to crisis areas,” says Bjork.

He cites the company’s pro-bono work for the United Nations, who they are helping in their digital transformation efforts.  “And if we could be the world leader in our market from a market criteria perspective, but also perceived as an organization that truly left this place a better place to be, then that would be the absolute best goal for me.”

Björk grew up in a town close to Lund, overlooking the straits to Denmark. As a child he traveled the world with his airline pilot father (who was the country’s youngest fighter pilot at the age of 16). He went to school in Sweden; completing his undergrad in engineering at Technical College in Helsingborg. Out of school he completed his military service (which was mandatory back then) and then an MBA from Lund University in business administration. At 22, he went to New York City to work in construction where his uncle’s company, Skanska, was working on the Throgs Neck Bridge between Bronx and Queens.

“It’s a fascinating experience, because you are very high up walking on beams. If you fell in, it would probably be the last thing you did. It was rough and tough, but there was a lot of love in it. But I can tell you a year and a half there I was very, very motivated to go back to business school, let’s put it that way. So I moved back to Sweden, went to business school, and over a period of about ten years I worked in different lines of business, but they always had an entrepreneurial edge to it.”

“And then the opportunity came about in 2000 to lead Qlik. I had no idea that it would take me this far at all, of course.” Björk  is not the technical founder of the company. “What I would take credit for is being the business founder, the one that took this phenomenal technology from nothing out into the world,” says Bjork.

“So it’s also interesting to be part of this journey and seeing the team grow, and some team members have been with me for a long time, in that nobody at the very outset ever set the target to be a billion-dollar company or more. It wasn’t even in our imagination.”

It is now.

Read the article on Forbes here: