Don’t settle for second best. That’s a cliché, right? Well, it depends.
I spoke last month with two executives from the open-source database firm Aerospike: cofounder and CTO Brian Bulkowski and recently-hired CEO John Dillon. For anyone interested in leadership and entrepreneurship, there are a lot of golden nuggets in this interview. Perhaps the biggest one is what Bulkowski called his main piece of advice: If your startup is moving into growth mode, and you and your advisors are looking for a CEO to take the reigns, then hire the best possible individual you can — that is, don’t settle.
Bulkowski feels very clearly that he and cofounder Srini Srinivasan accomplished that by hiring Dillon. And for his part, Dillon articulated his excitement (despite believing that he was entering retirement last year when he left the top spot at Engine Yard) and respect for Aerospike.
The other big take-home nugget is the interesting approach to problem solving, team building, and marketing plans that Dillon has taken during his executive career. Dillon has also been CEO at Salesforce and Hyperion.
Dear reader, there are many things I could share with you from our phone interview, but what follows are the highlights from Bulkowski’s and Dillon’s comments.
Brian Bulkowski’s main advice, with the requisite emphasis
If I had one piece of advice to give — in Silicon Valley, in this situation when you’re dealing with key hires — you often get the advice not to settle. And it is so easy to settle! It’s easy to say, well, I think this person will give a little bit to this team. You have to find people who can do everything much better than you can do yourself, because there are a lot of people out there as good as you and couldn’t cut it running or starting their own company. And you don’t want any of those guys. You want someone who is just flat out better than you at what new role you are making. My advice to founders in this situation is do not settle.
Brian Bulkowski on Aerospike’s shift from closed to open source
We discussed at the start of the firm and every year since, when was it going to be the right time to go after the broad market and become open source? Our investors said that staying focused in the first few years on a very particular market is a great way to make sure that you don’t try to be everything to everyone. So to maintain focus, we stayed closed source through those years, and knocked down a couple of great customers.
In our most recent round of funding we saw that the traditional enterprises and large companies were very much on the open-source bandwagon. So in order to give them the best possible product, we decided that was the right time to switch to an open-source strategy. We closed that round in late summer 2014, launched the open-source version of the product, and started looking for a new CEO.
John Dillon on leading with marketing and growth plans
By background, I’m an engineer. What I have found is that there are plenty of good engineers and committed teams that can build a great product, but there’s a whole process of taking that product to the marketplace that has to do with how you communicate what your product can do, what the appropriate use cases are, and engage with a prospective client on the opportunity, such that the client can be successful. And every company has a different equation, you know. Companies that have to go to market have lots of variables that they can consider. My career has mostly been about how to figure out to engage with the market opportunity, with the marketplace.
I spent five years in the early days of Oracle with five different jobs, where in each case I had a different field team, a different customer base, a different vertical market that we served. And at the time, the company was doubling every year, so my job was doubling every year in terms of size and scope. And essentially with that pace of growth, there were an awful lot of challenges that we faced. So in short, I’ve been thrown a lot of pitches where I had to say, in this situation, this is what we need to do to satisfy our customer base. And in every equation, if you will, it’s a little bit different. And I think that’s probably the experience that I’ve had over the years of my career that probably served me the best and where I can add the most value.
John Dillon on how to be heard in a noisy marketplace
I think that the tech market is a very busy place these days. There are a lot of young companies, and there are certainly a lot of large, rapidly growing companies. The noise level is high, and all of them are trying to get their message out with a megaphone. That makes it more difficult for a company like Aerospike to be heard. We think we know how to solve that problem, but that’s one of our biggest challenges. We need to make sure that a potential client has a challenge that Aerospike is a good fit for. We want her to find us; we want her to be able to learn about our technology and not for us and the client to be drowned out by the marketing messages from any number of other companies.
Brian Bulkowski on why Aerospike chose to look for a new CEO
As you are expanding your company, you really look for people who are absolutely at the world’s top of their particular role, and roles can get essentially narrower and narrower. When I look at myself and [cofounder] Srini Srinivasan, we have to be jacks-of-all-trades. As the company was growing I was looking forward to getting closer to the product again. There is some very exciting new technology coming out of certain storage vendors. Srini and I have proved that we could take down one market, create the product for it, and create the message, the advertising, the personalization within marketing, and the marketing automation databases. But when you start looking at bringing in more people, you need to create more complexity in the organization, and that is something where we wanted somebody much better than any of us, and has a track record of doing so.
John Dillon on why he accepted the CEO offer
The first thing is that data volumes in our world are exploding. The legacy technology that has been used to tackle data management problems has become outdated and insufficient to handle the scale, the transaction volume, the size of the data, and the speed with which things now have to happen. So I saw a very, very substantial shift in the market, and a growing market opportunity for data management technology. Aerospike, in particular, is tackling that problem with technology that works. I talked to some customers, and also to some engineering teams that I had worked with before — these are people familiar with open source and data management technologies — and I asked them about Aerospike. I got nothing back but great reviews. When I drilled into Aerospike, I liked all the executives that I met. And, in particular, I was impressed with the founders, and the quality of the engineering team that they built. Aerospike is really sufficiently differentiated technology. It can really tackle these problems at scale that none of the other technologies can do.
So when I got comfortable that the engineering was solid, and the team was solid, and then talked to clients and looked at the market size, that really pretty much put me over the top.
John Dillon on his immediate tasks upon arrival
Coming on board, the first thing I told myself was listen, listen, listen. I might have an opinion about how I might want to do something, but a lot of times organizations find their own path and just because it doesn’t look like a path you have taken before doesn’t mean it’s a bad path. There are a couple of key hires that we need to make, and there are a few processes to be put in place that we knew needed to be done. So far, most of the work and the focus that I applied in the company has been work that everyone wanted done, and they just needed somebody to sort of be the catalyst for them.
The second thing that I’ve done is that I’ve talked to customers. I’ve done it on the phone and in person. And I’m studying their stories, their use cases, and asking them, what is it about Aerospike that you like, and are there things that we can do better? How did you find us, how did you engage with us, and is there anything that we can do to improve? My belief is that customers will tell you most of what you need to know. I am trying to spend as much time as I can with them, and then trying to engineer a customer engagement process that dovetails nicely with the way that they like to interact with Aerospike.
Brian Bulkowski on how Aerospike focuses on developers
It has been a long time since Steve Ballmer jumped around on stage talking about developers. But really, now more than ever, it is important to provide the right things to developers, because they have a lot of buying power over key technical decisions made in the early days of a company. I really appreciate that a lot of our customers from early on in 2011 are being purchased, and are growing like crazy. Being able now to help a whole new set of developers attack their scaling problems, working with these developers in cloud environments, or on-premise, with flash, etc. — it is extraordinarily rewarding and also financially very rewarding.
John Dillon says Aerospike’s leadership team has to maintain focus
Focus is probably the most important thing that a young company needs to have. It is possible for a company like Aerospike to tackle every problem under the sun relative to the data, and that is a 30- to 40-year challenge. You cannot do it all simultaneously, so the key for the company is to stay focused. And there are always one million trade-offs: we could do this, we could do that, we could do something else. If we had the capability, then there would be a market opportunity that would open up. I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges that the company has from an internal standpoint. And it is really incumbent upon the executive management team to keep that perspective and to stay focused.
- The three traits of a successful startup CEO
- Startup hiring: How to build your ‘A-Team’
- Startup founders: You’re not thinking hard enough about hiring
- Launching a startup: A primer for new entrepreneurs (Tech Pro Research, a TechRepublic sister site)