Making data make sense: Canberra startup Aristotle Metadata stealthily bags major global contracts

Making data make sense: Canberra startup Aristotle Metadata stealthily bags major global contracts

Aristotle Metadata co-founders Sam Spencer (left) and Lauren Eickhorst (right).

After more than six years in 'stealth mode' as its founders eschewed the conventional early push to raise funds, Canberra-based startup Aristotle Metadata is on a roll with large government and enterprise customers drawn to its software that makes data collection more useful and manageable with a searchable metadata registry. 

The company's 10 clients include Ireland's Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH), some of Australia's largest federal departments and the NSW Department of Customer Services, which collaborated with the startup in developing its data repository Metadata.NSW.

"We see Aristotle as a communications platform for data," says co-founder Sam Spencer, who chose the name Aristotle because the Greek philosopher "teaches us how to think". Around half the startup's 15 staff come from "unusual" backgrounds, including philosophy majors.

"People often think about data as numbers, but they don’t often think about why that data was collected, how it was collected, even what it means.

"We help organisations build better practices to document their data so that they can build confidence in what their data means, and that provides them with the discovery platforms so that people know where their data is, how it should be used, who owns it, and who collects it."

The origins of Aristotle Metadata go back to 2015 when Spencer used his development and data management experience within government departments to build the first version "in a dingy basement in Belconnen".

"It was a three-year journey from the first line of code to meeting my co-founder business partner Lauren Eickhorst who helped build a company around it," he says.

Six months into the formation of the company, the group also brought in Linton Norris as a founding director, bringing an accounting background and experience in government.

"Securing large federal departments in our portfolio comes back to my history and my founding team’s history as public servants who for a long time saw a really specific challenge – we saw a niche in the market, and went all in," says Spencer.

"I was working at a government department and I didn't know anything about building companies. I still don’t know if I do, but I know what works for us."

He says Aristotle Metadata's first breakthrough came from its acceptance into the Data61 incubator as a project for data discovery. It was from there that he was able to recruit Eickhorst as a fellow co-founder, and then land its first ongoing contract with the Department of Social Services - now Services Australia.

"That gave us the confidence to really build the company – all of a sudden we had financial support, we had a clear product-market fit, and that gave us the confidence to turn in our lanyards and walk into a co-working space in the centre of Canberra and build from there," the entrepreneur explains.

"We were put in a position where we had really good credentials, and we learned a lot about how to service really big clients, and that gave us the ongoing revenue and ongoing commercial support to build.

"I think our biggest differentiator is because we focus on that human element; we’re not looking at technical solutions. Data doesn’t only have technical problems, it has cultural problems, and a lot of that comes down to helping people understand our obligations and helping people document their information."

Spencer says one of the company's core principles is around standardisation, giving the startup efficiencies of scale and instilling confidence.

"One of the things that we're doing is we're developing a methodology for data governance, to help people standardise that process internally.

"And part of the reason for that is that this is such a big problem – it’s such an unaddressed challenge in the market, and we want to make it as easy as possible for people to understand that problem and introduce a lot of these processes themselves.

"Another differentiator between us and other data products is a lot of traditional data systems will have 10 users; we have some clients with 10,000 users, and that's important because we want to make it as easy as possible," he says, adding this allows clients to find people and retrain staff, move staff between different areas, and even find staff outside their own industries.

Spencer says Aristotle Metadata's contract size and client numbers grow 25 per cent year-on-year, but until recently most sales have been founder-led through travel around the world to conferences and sharing Aristotle's story and offering in professional, industry settings.

"One of our most recent key acquisitions is we brought on an external sales consultancy. Our pipeline is probably 10 times bigger than it's been in the past because we're now bringing in the professionals to actually foster that growth

"It's no longer founder-led sales. That’s been a big game changer for us as well – the time is right for us where we’re at a transition point.

"We've seen a real shift in conversation and a real shift in growth because of that over the last three months."

Whilst the external consultancy is bringing in new leads, he emphasises the importance of growth in contract size as a mechanism for growth.

"We are really good citizens in the sense that we try and prevent or protect our clients from vendor lock in, even from ourselves," Spencer says.

"But even despite our openness around how we do things, we've seen all our of our clients grow on the platform through a traditional ‘land and expand’ kind of approach. So that’s why we’ve seen growth on both axes."

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