Appian CEO Matt Calkins: "I don't check the stocks"

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Appian CEO Matt Calkins

Appian CEO Matt Calkins talks with Computerworld UK about the company's surge of growth in Europe, how he manages the firm post-IPO, the GDPR cash cow, and fighting resistance to 'low-code' app development

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You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘board game enthusiast’ rather than ‘billionaire’ if you spotted Matt Calkins in the street, but he’s in fact both. The Appian CEO recently made the rich list on the back of the company he founded when he was just 26 years old – and with which he’s got an ambitious vision to make 'low code' software accessible and easy for business customers.

Computerworld UK met Calkins this week at his 15th-floor suite at the Fontainebleu hotel in Miami, Florida, where Appian is hosting its annual conference.

On Tuesday’s opening keynote he made the company’s messaging clear: to become a sort of Moore’s law for software instead of transistors, making it easier and faster to develop apps every two years.

“I have no perfect way of saying how much time it takes to build an application this year versus how much it took two years ago, or two years from now, so even if I said we were tracking on it, it would be a grain of salt,” he says.

“I can tell you that we are generally [moving] in that direction. I’ve asked our customers. I specifically asked someone and they gave me this honest answer: if it took you 100 days four years ago, when you started working with Appian, what does it take now? And they said 25."

Life after the IPO

Calkins, despite his background in economics, says there have been few noticeable differences to the way he steers his business since Appian's $75 million IPO in May 2017. In fact, he takes a pretty unconventional approach to leadership.

“I don’t check the stock price, I’m keeping it to an absolute minimum,” he says. “Any time anything interesting happens to the stock, someone bursts into my office and says: ‘do you see what’s happening with the stock?’ And I say, ‘I have no idea’. I don’t even check, I don’t look, it’s been literally weeks since I’ve looked.

“It’s not to say that I don’t care – I just don’t want to be distracted. Warren Buffet famously doesn’t have a ticker in his office. I agree with Warren Buffet. Don’t have a ticker, don’t watch. The business is not built by what I do in the next five minutes, but the stock will fluctuate in the next five minutes, and so it’s a good idea to disentangle these two concepts and realise there is not a causal relationship between my next five minutes and the stock going up.

He also says he “cordons off” time spent with investors, keeping it to two to three days each financial quarter.

“Investor relations will tell me where to go and who to talk to but most of the time I am just going to be steady on running the company like I used to,” he says.

Was the IPO a signal to potential buyers? Calkins says he’s not hoping for a buyout (but does not rule it out).

“We have wonderful potential and I would like to realise that potential. I realise some companies go public in order to announce ‘we’re for sale’ - they are hoping they’ll be bought right before or right after.

“Our reason was different, our reason was to say to the world: 'there’s an industry you need to know about. Next time you build your own application, you don’t need to code it, you could draw it.'

“And it will be a lot easier. It might be 95 percent faster if you draw it than if you coded it, and it would be better too. That application would be better because it will be more secure and more portable and you can host anywhere and you can put your data wherever you want and it will be better integrated and it will be easier to change and it will be more intuitive and it will link with other applications written on the same platform.”

Low code resistance

If the business truly is about simplifying the delivery of applications then it’s not too much of a leap to imagine it has pockets of resistance, especially from people whose careers are built on that complexity.

“No one wants to be a luddite, it’s just that change is hard,” he says. “It’s been so intuitive for so long that software has to be complicated, people just assume that’s OK. We have forgotten to complain about it, most of us. So I don't blame people for accepting the status quo, but I would like them to know they don’t have to.”

Appian itself is expanding rapidly, particularly outside of its home market in the US. In fact, Europe is outperforming all the other regions – up 90 percent last year and with offices all across the continent, including in London, Madrid, Paris, Zurich and Frankfurt.

European customers include big pharma companies and many of the London banks, including Barclays, which has a relationship with Appian in America too.

Calkins says that however you go about your day you’ve probably touched Appian products at least once. He says the Fortune 50 companies that build their software on it can be guarded about their use of Appian – they want clients to think that their applications are all theirs, from start to finish.

The GDPR cash cow

Calkins adds that there’s “terrific enthusiasm” for the product across the continent. One such reason might be the tranche of compliance hurdles associated with GDPR, which can be automated out through Appian’s business process management. 

So, is GDPR a cash cow for the company?

“Not yet, but it will be,” Calkins says. “Every business has their own unique thing to do in order to comply with GDPR, and when you need a unique process built quickly that’s changeable over time...we’re your man. Call Appian. I think a lot of firms will call us.”