Starting with an API, Keen IO wants to build a company that will outlive us all

When Keen IO won Gigaom’s Structure Launchpad competition in 2012, the fresh-out-of-TechStars company was little more than its three founders, a handful of cloud servers and an API for analytics. Just over two years later, life for Keen is a little different. The company now operates from the Heavybit facility in downtown San Francisco. It now has more than 20 full-time employees, and features a much more robust set of APIs for collecting, analyzing and visualizing data.

And last week, Keen closed an $11.3 million series A round of venture capital led by Sequoia Capital. This adds to the nearly $3.2 million in seed funding Keen has raised since its launch. The company captures billions of events monthly for thousands of users, and has fast-growing revenue from hundreds of paying customers — some household names among them.

Keen is on the same type of trajectory that has led to riches for so many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs whose companies have caught the attention of  — and been acquired by — larger ones like Google, Dropbox or Facebook. But Keen Co-founder and CEO Kyle Wild says his company isn’t looking to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. No, it’s looking to live long, die hard and, hopefully, be a driving force of innovation for many decades to come.

Kyle Wild Keen IO Structure 2014

Kyle Wild at Structure 2014. (c) Jakub Mosur

Of course, every startup talks about that goal — eventually going public and becoming the next Oracle, Microsoft or Google. It’s a lot more difficult in practice when the siren song of easy money comes calling. The multi-million-dollar offers thrown at young companies — some before they even exit stealth mode — only proliferate as user counts, revenues and industry excitement continue to grow at the rates Keen is experiencing.

Wild, though, seems remarkably adamant about remaining independent and making sure Keen delivers on whatever promises it makes to its users and employees. “I want to build a company that will be around after I’m dead and my co-founders are dead,” he told me during a recent walk around San Francisco. He also said the company has already declined some acquisition offers.

Wild credits much of this attitude to his midwestern upbringing. Part of that is the region’s association with a certain set of traits — you know, stuff like honesty, fair dealing and earning everything you get. But having grown up in Cairo, Illinois — a 19th century boomtown that a few years ago was dubbed “America’s Most Depressing City” — he also knows what happens when something gets the rug pulled out from beneath it. He doesn’t want Keen’s customers or employees to invest in the company only to see it sold and eventually powered down by its acquirer.

kyle wild guitar

Wild likes to play guitar to free his mind. (c) Gigaom / Derrick Harris

That actually happened to him with a previous startup, called Mobileplay, where Wild was director of engineering. The company’s mobile application connected people around the world in areas largely without broadband (mobile or wired) and let them socialize around shared interests. Wild said the internet helped save his life by showing him a world outside of Cairo, so he took it very hard when Good Technology bought Mobileplay in 2008 and killed it.

The lesson learned, Wild said: “Never sell a company unless you think they’re smarter than you all the way up to the top.” He thinks the most-innovative companies are the ones that acquire useful pieces in all sorts of areas and let them thrive on their own, companies like General Electric and Berkshire Hathaway. So far, Wild doesn’t see that company hanging around in the tech space, where many acquisitions result in dead products, stifled innovation or, at the least, a forcible stuffing of products and people into the existing corporate mold.

Aaref Hilaly, a partner at Sequoia Capital and now a Keen board member, bought into Wild’s vision of building a company that can stand the test of time because the company is putting a different spin on the now-proven bottom-up, developer-centric business model. “Here you’ve got that modern-day business applied to that massive market of analytics in a way no one else has tried,” he said.

“For a small company to get big,” he added, “you have to envision a future that’s not like the past.”

Keen IO’s major point of distinction is that it’s not beholden to any underlying systems or any specific application type, so it can be remarkably flexible in adding new capabilities. Sometimes, Wild said, those capabilities never existed (at least via API) until Keen developed them. Right now, it’s working on time-series functions to help analyze device data, as well as graph functions to help users analyze the relationships among various data points in their applications. This type of analysis often requires deploying complex systems, building data pipelines and possibly hiring some data scientists.

The Keen IO pitch.

The Keen IO pitch.

Because Keen IO is designed from its corporate messaging up to its API commands to serve its users, as Wild explained during a session at our Structure conference last month (embedded below), they have the ultimate say in the how the service works for them. Paying for Keen’s service isn’t like paying for a gaming analytics service or a web analytics service that shows users the measurements and analyses its developers think are important. Users can track and analyze whatever metrics they want, however they want, and their usage can evolve as they and Keen IO evolve.

And as a firm believer in the “blue ocean” corporate strategy, Wild says he’s ready to keep expanding on the definition of what Keen is and what users can do with its product. He acknowledges there are bigger, richer companies that might be interested in moving into Keen’s space at some point and bloodying the water (Google, Amazon and New Relic are three names that come to mind), but he’s fine giving them a part of that legacy revenue and setting Keen’s ship toward clear water. They’re probably too focused on their existing revenue streams to do too much damage, he explained, and they almost certainly won’t quickly follow into new, unchartered territory.

“If the ocean turns red because of Amazon or Google, then we’ve won,” Wild said. “… I’m worried about a couple of guys in a garage, coming out of Y Combinator or TechStars, who have our number.”

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Update: This post was updated at 8:31 a.m. to accurately state Keen IO’s employee count, which has now surpassed 20 people.