Anaplan: The need for speed – Michael Gould

Consistency, accuracy and cross-functional collaboration are essential for today's business modellers and planners. Getting real-time insights via an in-memory calculation engine, however, was the initial motivation for establishing Anaplan according to founder and chief technology officer Michael Gould.

There's no doubt that the EPM (enterprise performance management) software space is a crowded one, full of large, well-established players with committed customers. Breaking that stranglehold, then, is no easy task. But that didn't deter Michael Gould, the architect behind a cloud-based alternative that has won over 30,000 users since its formation in 2006, including blue chips Kimberly-Clark, Intel Security and Aviva.

According to Gould, the Anaplan platform "takes full advantage of the latest computing transformations: in-memory computing, 64bit multicore processing, database innovation and SaaS delivery". What that means in practice is going toe to toe with SAP, Oracle and the rest to provide planning software that relies on Anaplan's in-memory calculation engine, Hyperblock.

"The system that we have now has a standard configuration of servers with 1TB of memory, which was unheard of 10-15 years ago," Gould explains. "The key construct of that is the way the data is split up into smaller blocks so that we can track how the calculations are dependent on each other in a very efficient way."

Providing the best user experience

In terms of how that relates to the user's experience, Anaplan allows users to get exceptionally fast calculation time for interactive systems. "With Hyperblock, you can have hundreds of people online at the same time on a single model entering values, seeing the results in real time," says Gould.

It's proved a hit so far. For Gould, a critical factor is speed - specifically, matching and beating the competition in this crucial metric. "A lot of the areas that I wanted to address with Anaplan were around the speed of existing systems," he adds.

"So a lot of the systems involved have quite a lot of batch processing: you'd make some changes, you'd set some calculation process to run and you'd come back an hour later to see the results, but the issue is that people want to be able to see the results immediately - instant gratification. So in terms of the actual planning process, if you can iterate that quickly and see an answer immediately, you can really speed up your cycle time."

The right volume

In addition to speeding things up, Gould points to increased data volumes as critical to the growing popularity of Anaplan. "The volume of information that people are wanting to process and the level of granularity they're wanting to model at is significant, and we are able to process those volumes with ease."

But what of the two ideas that often dominate discussion of planning and modelling software, and that appear to be contradictory: complexity and agility? They, Gould believes, hold the key to Anaplan's real competitive advantage.

"People want to model their activities with more accuracy. And they need to do that within a model that's more complex because it reflects more accurately the actual structure of their business," Gould says. "But they also need to be agile in order to respond to changes and to test out possibilities. And so I think those four factors - speed, the data volumes, complexity and agility - are all part of the same thing: trying to address a combination of those is the challenge and that's really what I set out to achieve."

The performance platform

Doing that has required Anaplan to go from simply a finance system to a truly integrated, cross-functional platform that can handle inputs from across the business. It's a move that Gould credits with the booming popularity of the platform.

"We don't just operate in finance; we're operating in sales, in marketing, in HR and operations, and those parts of the business are so connected. If you decide you're going to expand and hire some more sales people, then you're going to need to expand your marketing team because you're going to need to have the leads for the sales people to follow up on," he says.

It's clearly working. Indeed, earlier in 2015, Anaplan announced that bookings increased at a growth rate of 230% over fiscal 2015 ending 31 January 2015, which represents 2.1 times more bookings than the previous two years combined. These results were fuelled by a 91% growth in customers.

The killing blow

Anaplan isn't the first application to be dubbed a 'spreadsheet killer'. The widespread reliance on Microsoft Excel continues to frustrate and confound many in the financial software space, but Gould for one understands the reluctance to ditch a tried and tested system.

Indeed, the more software vendors try to force users to ditch Excel, the more attached some users become. Significantly, that is not a tactic Anaplan has pursued. Instead, Gould says, corporate users should be encouraged to ditch spreadsheets in a more positive way.

"I think the reality is that people will continue to use spreadsheets as long as it's better for them," he says. "What we are seeing is that people voluntarily switch, and that's the key turning point. So it's more enticing people than forcing people to make that change."

In fact, Gould believes the people who buy into the switch from spreadsheets are the ones who are responsible for actually running the system and delivering the results at a corporate level. "It's not surprising, when having a system where thousands of spreadsheets are emailed into one central location, that trying to consolidate them is a complete nightmare," he says.

A long way from the company's beginnings

From a converted barn in York, Anaplan now has 12 offices worldwide and has increased staff to more than 400 over the past year, rising to a predicted 650 by the end of 2015. Gould says the next step is to open up a new R&D facility in Paris. That was facilitated in part by a further injection of $100-million of funding from a number of VC backers in 2014, allowing greater investment in innovating the next generation of features.

"The core platform, where the actual calculation engine and the user interface that goes with that, is primarily built in York," Gould explains.

Gould says team based out of the Paris office is focused on extensions to the current system, working on integration with Google docs and DocuSign, and so on. Adding those elements will, it is hoped, deepen and broaden the user experience and further cement Anaplan as a serious competitor to the established vendors.

"The new R&D will feed into system improvements. So, for instance, the DocuSign integration will help users to send sales compensation letters out by actually automating the process between Anaplan's quota planning application and Docusign to produce the sales letter."

Next on the agenda is developing more offerings for a whole range of sectors. Take insurance, an industry with more planning needs than most. Can Anaplan really design and deliver best-in-class system for such a demanding and complex set of clients?

"It fits in very well, actually. Some of the key issues in the industry are the quite onerous reporting requirements and the level of granularity of the data that needs to be fed into those reporting requirements," Gould continues.

"I think what we're providing is an opportunity for businesses to move beyond simply satisfying the regulatory requirements, because they're getting more visibility. So they are feeding data in and modelling it in the way that satisfies the reporting requirements, but they can also use it to drive and transform the business.

"And so rather than being just a dead weight of legislation it becomes something that's actually enabling them to make changes and move forward as a company."

So what next?

"When it comes to our customers, what I would see happening over the next year is a big move towards running Anaplan across multiple business functions," Gould says.

"We've seen a real momentum there but it feels like it's still the beginning. But it's definitely happening, largely because the benefit they get comes out of connecting multiple applications.

"We're seeing companies making the shift to moving away from point solutions where all these different pieces are done in isolation to connecting them and becoming fully integrated across all the different functions. So a lot of what we're doing is enabling that and providing better supporting infrastructure in terms of the management of multiple applications. That's probably the biggest shift we're looking forward to over the next year or so."

Anaplan founder and chief technology officer Michael Gould.