Startups

‘All culture is local’: CEO Tristan Handy on dbt Labs’ $222M raise, IPO plans and Philly ties in a remote world

"One of the things we had to do was recognize we need to become a distributed company — not a Philadelphia company that hires remotely, but a distributed company who happens to have an office in Philly," Handy said amid the company's rapid growth.

dbt Labs CEO Tristan Handy.

(Courtesy photo)

As recently as 2019, a then-three-year-old startup called Fishtown Analytics counted just a handful of employees who shared an office within a window-filled, Washington Square coworking hub across the hall from Technical.ly’s HQ.

On Thursday, what’s now known as dbt Labs announced it had raised a $222 million Series D, bringing its valuation to $4.2 billion.

The company’s growth has been meteoric. This new funding came less than a year after its Series C, which earned it unicorn status in July 2021. The coworking space is gone, and neither dbt Labs nor Technical.ly occupies space in that building anymore. What just a few years ago was a couple of staffers is now a 225-person analytics engineering company with thousands of users, annual conferences and plans to grow to 500 distributed employees by the end of the year, CEO Tristan Handy said Friday.

It’s a sign of how quickly the pandemic can change how a company operates.

Will dbt Labs IPO?

“The numbers don’t fully convey the experience of where we were to where we are today,” Handy told Technical.ly. “The only way to understand is to see that behind the scenes, we were primarily this open-source user community that was growing. dbt maybe at the time was more of an underground phenomenon, but we saw this growth in the community, and went from a ‘best kept secret’ of sorts to industry standard.”

Handy likened the company’s growth to Meta’s 2018 acquisition of WhatsApp, a company that grew quickly with a lean engineering team: “Because support was provided by community, we were able to build it up without huge engineering team,” he said.

When asked Thursday about potential plans for going public, Handy offered this: “What I can say is that we intend to remain independent. We believe that independence will be critical as we look towards the future of dbt, the dbt Community and the practice of analytics engineering.”

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The CEO expanded on his thinking Friday, saying he doesn’t believe going public is required to remain independence, but most large tech companies who are long-term stewards of a community at some point will find themselves going public. He anticipates dbt will go public at some point — but it’s “not at that point, realistically.” There’s a long way to go before the timing will feel right, he said.

Place still matters, despite that name change

For a company that’s building an online community, IRL connection still matters. Handy said the company has been intentional with hosting dbt meetups and with the planning for its in-person user conference, Coalesce, which is slated for October. While the company maintains an office at 9th and Spring Garden streets, it’s fully distributed.

The company’s original name — Fishtown Analytics — also calls on Handy’s desire to be rooted in a community. He wanted to lean into the idea that he was building a tech company outside of Silicon Valley, but the name change came from a series of decisions that the CEO said was “part of what the community needs from us” — a community that exists all over the world.

It hired its first non-Philadelphia employee in 2018, and when COVID-19 hit, the staff was about a third remote, Handy said. Now, around 85% of dbt Labs employees live outside of Philadelphia.

“In making this switch into this mode of business, one of the things we had to do was recognize we need to become a distributed company — not a Philadelphia company that hires remotely, but a distributed company who happens to have an office in Philly,” Handy said. “Right now, none of our product managers actually live here, which feels like a big thing. Philadelphia will forever be a part of our story, but our values come from being able to create our foundation in a place that was not a dominant tech hub.”

But it’s good to call on those roots, he added. Just because a company or a community is remote doesn’t mean there aren’t local communities within it.

“As a tech community overall, all culture is ultimately local. To lose any affiliation with geographic location at all seems like a poor world to exist in,” Handy said. “I don’t think the purest version of distributed is enough. We need to allow our little pockets of humans to gather and connect.”

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