o9 Solutions founders Sanjiv Sidhu and Chakri Gottemukkala saw the future back in 2009. That future needed a Digital Brain.
Ahead of their time, they spent about six years building and perfecting their now multi-billion-dollar business brain—an AI-powered engine for enterprise planning and decision-making they knew would be a true market disruptor.
Fast forward to today. Valued at $3.7 billion, the nearly quadruple Dallas unicorn has eclipsed the odds in a tech landscape where other unicorns have faced losing their horns. o9’s valuation has galloped upwards—seemingly immune to valuation reset pressures.
Now, with customers like Google, Nestle, Samsung, and PepsiCo, o9 is targeting an astonishing 10x growth. “We’ve been scaling fast, growing fast,” CEO and Co-Founder Gottemukkala said. “Worldwide, it’s a very busy time.”
The decacorn-in-the-making “hit its growth stride in the last three to four years,” he said—first slowly, then suddenly. When COVID-19 hit, companies were desperate to navigate supply chain turmoil. Boardrooms started focusing on the same digital transformation questions the co-founders had asked for years, the CEO says.
The Digital Brain proved its prescience. Its silo-busting, real-time integration of data and “tribal” information across organizations enabled giant companies to respond to seismic shifts in demand.
o9 was ready with the right technology when the moment arrived. But don’t call it luck, the CEO says: O9’s trajectory was intentional: “It was by design that we built those capabilities,” he said.
2,500 employees across 17 offices worldwide
The global company now has 2,500 employees across 17 offices worldwide, up from 300 employees in 2019.
Its rapid rise has put o9 on the Inc 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies for six consecutive years. This year, in the first three quarters of 2023, its annual recurring revenue jumped 51% year-over-year. This month, o9 landed on The Dallas 100 (No. 8) and the Deloitte Technology Fast 500 (No. 7 in Texas, No. 405 nationally) “fastest growing” lists.
But if you ask Gottemukkala, his company has just “scratched the surface” of what’s possible. “We’ve gotten some great clients. We’ve got a proven platform,” he said. “Every industry that we’re going after, we have the top companies. But now we can go into hundreds of companies,” he told Dallas Innovates.
We spoke with Gottemukkala and President and COO Igor Rikalo to recount o9’s journey from bootstrap to billions. Here’s the inside story behind the company’s transformational Digital Brain—and o9’s prospects of becoming a decacorn.
Steering a 10x Takeoff
“Decacorn” status—representing a valuation surpassing $10 billion—is merely a dream for many startups. But for fast-growing o9 Solutions, the milestone could be on the horizon with its 10x growth goal. As Gottemukkala puts it, “If we don’t become a decacorn, we will be disappointed.”
o9 is also laying the groundwork for a potential IPO within a couple of years, according to Gottemukkala. “We’re putting in the disciplines,” he said. “We’ll be ready if the board decides pursuing an IPO is the right strategic move.”
The CEO emphasizes the company’s 10x goal is about growth, not valuation.
COO Igor Rikalo told us o9’s focus is on client value delivery—especially given the “size of opportunity” the company currently sees.
“We aren’t focusing on the valuation or the market cap,” Rikalo said. “We’re focusing on client value delivery. With happy clients we grow our business—and that will reflect into any valuation.”
That client value can add up to a lot. o9 says its customers have saved millions—and in some cases, billions—using the platform.
Launching with a ‘garage mentality’ to help companies make better decisions, faster
When Gottemukkala and o9 Chairman Sanjiv Sidhu founded the startup in 2009, they set out to build an AI software platform to transform enterprise planning and decision-making.
“We took on a complex problem,” Gottemukkala explained. “Bringing together multiple interactions within an organization on one platform is fundamentally transformational.” The co-founders understood the need to break down data and communication silos, even if the market didn’t grasp it yet.
Starting with a small team and a “garage mentality,” the founders spent nearly six years perfecting their technology that “lets computers do what computers do best” to help companies make better decisions, faster. In 2014, the company brought its Digital Brain platform to market commercially.
That deliberate approach to building its Digital Brain paid off.
Three years later, in 2017, the company was profitable—without a dime of outside investment. It wasn’t until 2020 that the company raised its first external funding—a $100 million round that propelled its unicorn status. Then, in 2022, a $296 million round from returning investors led to a $2.7 billion valuation following a record year with threefold increase year-over-year in annual recurring revenue from new customers. This summer, o9 further cemented its unicorn status by adding another billion to its valuation with a $116 million Series C round to expand its platform capabilities and accelerate growth.
Answering the three Ws: ‘We knew the value proposition was significant’
As Sidhu has said, the company’s integrated planning technology was inspired by what all organizations need to know—the three Ws: What’s happening, why it’s happening, and what’s going to happen. “Applying [those questions] to planning—and trying to figure out what that third ‘W’ can be, is really the magic,” he said in an early podcast interview.
Sidhu first collaborated with Gottemukkala at i2 Technologies, a company he founded in 1988 and sold for $604 million in 2008.
With o9, they started from scratch to create something new. Their Digital Brain would be an all-in-one platform that would transform planning across supply chain, commercial operations, finance, and sustainability for global companies.
“We knew the value proposition was significant,” Gottemukkala said.
The master dot connector
O9 had advantages from the start. The co-founders had deep technology and supply chain knowledge, and—thanks to Sidhu’s exit—deeper pockets than most startups, Gottemukkala acknowledges.
Sidhu was working on big questions that had intrigued him for years, going back to his early days working at the Texas Instruments AI Lab developing AI systems. For CEO Gottemukkala, o9 was his “baby” as his first startup. And emerging technology was ready to be leveraged.
Heads down, the co-founders agreed: “Let’s not code too fast.” They took about a dozen “important customer cases” and asked, “How would we do it differently?”
As COO Rikalo said, “We were lucky to have the resources to do that.”
o9’s initial focus was on large domestic corporations across industries—Fortune 500s. The startup chose to diversify the client base from the outset: “We built software that can solve planning types of problems in a variety of different industries,” Rikalo said.
A key tenet of the Digital Brain is the Enterprise Knowledge Graph—a connected repository of all the data relevant to a business.
Rikalo says EKG is the master “dot connector” at the heart of the platform, a foundation that exchanges plan information, scenarios, and assumptions. Data—internal and external, from CRMs, data warehouses, spreadsheets, real-time time streaming, and more—needs to be central, continuous, and processed, the founders knew.
And, like a human brain, Rikalo said, their Digital Brain keeps building.
Traction before COVID, then a ‘watershed’ moment
The company already had traction when the COVID-19 pandemic came along and changed everything, Gottemukkala said. Rikalo calls it a “watershed moment.”
Both Gottemukkala and co-founder Sidhu love sports analogies. They say their technology was a little like an athlete training in the off-season for the big game. The big game, for o9, arrived in 2020. Its integrated planning software—the Digital Brain—was literally built for the moment.
To use another sports analogy, o9’s Digital Brain was set to help companies in the same way a professional sports team is organized with “players rearranging themselves in anticipation of the play,” Sidhu has said. “That’s integrated business planning.”
As companies reeled from supply-and-demand volatility, o9’s capabilities were increasingly “mission critical,” Gottemukkala told us. Not only from the supply chain side, but also in making strides in sustainability goals as boards and executives were pressured to make meaningful changes. Meeting needs in a pivotal moment, the twin mega trends presented o9 with the opportunity to scale.
And scale they did, adding offices and employees around the world, despite the pandemic.
“It was quite a complex challenge doing all that in the pandemic,” Gottemukkala said. Today, the company has 16 offices around the world, with its global headquarters in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch. And O9’s cloud-native platform serves industries including automotive, consumer products, energy, semiconductor, industrial manufacturing, life sciences, retail, and telecommunications.
Its Digital Brain includes an “industry flavor” for the different EKG data models at the heart of its platform, the company says.
Digital transformation building blocks: Where ‘one plus one becomes 11’
“Big things can scare people in transformation,” CEO Gottemukkala said. That’s why o9 pioneered a modular “building block” approach to help companies get started with pre-built models and scale up later.
“There’s pressure to show short-term ROI along with long-term transformation for companies,” Gottemukkala explained. With the Digital Brain’s modular approach, “each building block gives value, but they’re all connected in a larger vision.”
In a Lego-like assembly, “one plus one becomes eleven,” he said.
COO Rikalo sees clients start with a supply chain focus, for example, and then build into the sales side or finance side as well. o9 also offers bespoke solutions for each client’s unique issues.
Rikalo calls it an “in-built ‘land and expand’ strategy.” The platform “collects more knowledge, more information” and becomes “more useful as you bring more knowledge into it from different parts of your organization.”
It’s a “virtuous circle,” Rikalo said, “As companies expand their system, more things accelerate, because they don’t have to relearn stuff that they’ve already learned.” That holistic flywheel effect gradually brings all the parts together, accelerating value creation for the client.
Like a Swiss Army Knife, Rikalo said, “We have the tools, the building blocks, that can be configured into different solution areas. Those are all extensible by the customers as well. So they’re not locked in.”
An ESG focus
Sustainability is a core focus woven throughout o9’s offerings. As COO Rikalo said, “We want to make a positive social impact in all the communities where we operate.”
He notes the direct correlation between supply chain management and a company’s carbon footprint. “In most industries, 80% of a company’s carbon footprint is in their supply chain, in their manufacturing, or in how their products are used and recycled,” he said. Helping companies better manage these areas could significantly reduce their carbon footprints.
While the data is “still at an early stage to assign the carbon footprint of different materials,” he says, o9 can help companies in their net-zero journeys.
Rikalo acknowledged the progress isn’t always linear. Transformation has to flex around individual customer needs and challenges.
Growing business through ‘customer advocacy’
Stephan de Barse, o9’s chief revenue officer, wants to see that transformation happen faster. The CRO has said that the “value proposition of planning and decision-making is greater than any technology investment that companies are making.” De Barse helps companies see innovation as something they can do in a “matter of weeks and months—not seven-year big waterfall-type transformations.”
When we spoke with de Barse, he’d just been to Korea and was heading back to Asia the following week. Based in Amsterdam, he talks with clients all over the world every day: “I can cover Asia in the morning, Europe all day, and the U.S. East Coast wakes up at my time,” he said.
A large o9 client base is in North Texas, where o9 was built, he notes. The company’s headquarters in Farmers Branch is seen as an innovation center, and “clients like to come here,” said de Barse, who travels to Dallas himself about once a month.
De Barse was in town for o9’s aim10x conference in September, a private event that drew more than 200 clients and partners from across the U.S. and the globe. The Dallas conference is now one of several stops on o9 Solutions’ “world tour of events.”
“Ultimately, our philosophy is that the most efficient way to grow the business is through customer advocacy,” he said. o9 customers and partners were in the spotlight at aim10x Dallas, where leaders from companies like Hewlett Packard Enterprises, AB InBev, Toyota, Summit Materials, and Weyerhaeuser shared the value they’re getting from the platform.
“Clients, or potential clients, want to talk to your base,” de Barse said about o9’s live-event series. “They talk to Gartner, they talk to Accenture, and they talk to all those different parties. There’s this message from the ecosystem that o9 is delivering value. They’re hearing the technology is not only sexy and cool and new, but it truly transformed their businesses.”
aim10x created to drive the ‘next improvement’
The aim10x brand, which stands for “AI Management Systems to drive 10x improvement,” was launched by o9 a few years ago as a “global community” for digital transformation leaders.
CRO de Barse describes aim10x as a “movement”—one that includes professors, consultants, and innovators—whether they’re o9 clients or not.
“There’s a lot of thought leadership and knowledge o9 can share. And we do that through this platform,” de Barse said. aim10x—which has its own executive council with collective experience from some of the world’s largest enterprises such as Coca Cola, Samsung Electrics, Microsoft, KONE, Husqvarna Group, and more—has grown to include an online hub, conferences, webinars, and podcasts.
The CRO says the overall goal for aim10x is to unlock knowledge across industries, geographies, and departmental “silos” to create better outcomes for companies, people, and the planet. “But really, another objective is, we want to learn from them,” he said. “We want to understand what the challenges are.”
So far this year, beyond the September event in Dallas, o9 has gathered people at in-person events in Seoul and Shanghai. Three other events are set for Q4 in Amsterdam, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo. This year, o9 expects the live event series to draw more than “1,000 attendees from hundreds of enterprises worldwide.”
Attendees can bond through breakout sessions, hosted dinners, and cultural experiences. In Dallas, for example, attendees boarded buses to try craft margaritas and guacamole together at Jalisco Norte, taste wine at the Tower Club, and both drink and paint fine wine at Ellie’s at the Hall Arts Hotel.
A kickoff event set the aim10x social pace at The Henry in Uptown, where o9’s guests gathered to connect and reconnect with the company and each other. It was a first stop for clients and partners arriving in Dallas from multiple industry sectors with roles across supply chain, procurement, revenue management, IT, and sustainability.
Client case studies, information sharing
As clients attested through presentations and case studies at o9’s aim10x event, the Digital Brain platform’s capabilities are broad in terms of enabling diverse planning processes and functions.
As one implementation partner from Genpact told us, o9’s configurable building block model “just makes it easier for everybody to get started.” Companies get the supply-demand balancing they need in a platform that can be configured or added to. The partner sees more successful deployments out of the gate, without over-reliance on a solution architect.
The ability to tackle a use case with just a few data elements also makes it flexible, the o9 partner said. He contrasted that approach with other systems that often require “a mountain of data” before any productive work can start.
Later, clients can move projects into a phase where more specific challenges are addressed, the partner added.
COO Rikalo said the company is innovating its products at a “breakneck speed.” This year, the company has announced new enhancements across its core building block offerings, from Integrated Business Planning to Next-Generation Procurement.
o9 has also added 50-plus new capabilities to its Digital Brain platform this year, fueled by client feedback. A few examples include features used to improve simulations, make it easier for suppliers to join, track container locations, show real-time supply chain order exceptions, automate stock transfer approvals, find hazard locations, model co-product and by-product, and let customers run “what-if” scenarios on the P&L level for rolling financial forecasts.
The platform enhances its capabilities regularly, fueled by client feedback from o9’s Voice-of-Customer program and demand, Rikalo said.
o9 Solutions is also pioneering new ways to augment its Digital Brain platform with generative AI, aiming to transform enterprise planning and decision-making. “We’ve seen over the last year that ChatGPT has captivated our imaginations in a great way,” the COO says.
Although early-stage, o9’s R&D shows generative AI could dramatically boost productivity, knowledge, and transformation when combined with its integrated supply chain modeling and planning capabilities.
Integrating generative AI is a natural progression for o9. The Digital Brain’s architecture was designed from the start to advance AI and algorithms in its foundation. o9 is now building on this foundation to innovate unique solutions applying generative AI, the company announced in August.
Key focus areas include generating “reliable and accurate answers” to planning questions and integrating siloed data sources. o9’s integrations will connect generative AI with its supply chain modeling and cross-functional planning expertise, the company said.
Gottemukkala aims to be a “responsible leader” at the forefront of using generative AI for planning and decision-making. With promising results so far, o9 is launching beta programs with key clients to evolve its platform.
“You have to be able to maneuver”
The ability to evolve is vital, Gottemukkala says. “You have to be flexible. If things are changing around the edges, you have to be able to maneuver.”
Gottemukkala compares building long-term success to the “intense preparation” athletes devote toward championships. “There’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes that also applies to organizations,” he said.
Gottemukkala knows first-hand the risks and uncertainty startups face. When O9 was a winner at the D CEO and Dallas Innovates Innovation Awards 2022, Chakri advised founders to “Be fearless: Take risks when you start a company and go after large, successful incumbents … You need to have that insurgent mentality to successfully go after the established players.”
There’s always a level of uncertainty when you’re doing something new, he said. “But the downside is smaller than you think, and the rewards are much greater. This is the mindset that has helped us at o9 achieve the kind of growth that we have achieved.”
When asked what guidance he would offer entrepreneurs today, Gottemukkala stressed persistence above all.
Vision and hard work are obvious prerequisites to success, he said, “But I think the most underrated thing is persistence. It takes time to build a great company.”
“You have to stick to it,” he says.
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