Lessons Learned From My First Startups

I was born an engineer and an introvert. The rest is pretty predictable.

When I was three I obsessed over jigsaw puzzles. At five, LEGO. I showed whatever I built to my mom, and she gave me a stream of positive, non-objective feedback. She didn’t need completed puzzles or LEGO models; she would have loved anything I built.

By 11, I was writing video games on my Amstrad CPC-464. At 15, my best friend Eddie (an English kid living in Kansas and a Japanophile) and I were spending much of our time building and playing games. (Yes, we were the biggest nerds in our school.)

We only had two customers — ourselves — and we iterated according to our collective wishes. It made the games better, and it made the experience of building them more fun.

Fifteen years later I joined a data-storage company called Isilon. I ran the performance team, and got the job of turning one of the world’s slowest storage systems into something that our potential customers didn’t laugh at.

Work with small teams and keep your customer close.

One time I was on the phone with a customer and said, “Can you tell me about the problem you’re having?” To which the customer responded, “Let’s get this straight, this is a problem you’re having.”

Isilon had 12-month release cycles, a huge pool of diffuse potential customers with varying needs and a team of 50 engineers working on tiny slices of functionality. This should have been the least-satisfying job ever.

But my customers were fantastic. We measured the performance of the system with five or so metrics, and at some point we decided those were our five customers. They gave us feedback on every code change in 60 seconds!

The feedback was merciless, objective, impersonal and — lucky for us — directly correlated with the success of our company. These metrics were perfect customers for introverts. We put on our headphones, got in our groove and jammed.

So maybe it’s no surprise, given this life experience, that when I started my first startup, Big Crunch, in 2008, I didn’t know how to figure out what to build.

There wasn’t yet a Lean Startup, nor a Startup Owner’s Manual. Four Steps to the Epiphany had been written in 2005, but had I known about it, I would have been too stubborn to read it.

At this point, my idea of how great products were built was based on the Hollywoodish mystique of the visionary founder, a vicious narcissistic fantasy that goes something like this:

  • Everyone outside yourself is a potential distraction and likely an idiot.
  • Technology is the mother of invention. Understand technology.
  • If Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.
  • You know what the market needs, so customer interactions are superfluous.

For me, an introvert by nature, this mystique was convenient, because it gave me a reason to avoid talking to people I didn’t know.

I think I summoned the courage to talk to about 10 people over the period of three or four months, looking for confirmation that what I wanted to build, a scale-out hypervisor, was needed.

Having amassed very little evidence, I started talking to investors, only to get a fairly tepid response (maybe even for 2008). Having drifted for a while, I decided to move on to something different.

That something different — Corensic — was already funded, but lacked definition of what it was. That job fell to me. We had two constraints: build the best thing we could for $1.5 million and use the technology the company was founded around. Customers didn’t make an appearance in this set of constraints, and ended up being constrained out of the picture altogether!

People in unhappy marriages make great actors. Startups are like marriages. Corensic’s outwardly happy and internally dysfunctional startup experience lasted until Tom Button, our helpful and wise advisor, sat us down and told us to read Four Steps to the Epiphany.

I had the predictable “Oh Shit” moment as I read all of the predictable and excruciating consequences of never leaving our building: disinterested customers, lack of repeat buying and a murky path from where we were to “big.” By the time we figured out how fucked we were, we were beyond redemption. End of startup.

I often tell people about what we’ve done differently at Qumulo: conducting thousands of interviews across six hundred users of data storage in our first two years; holding user groups 18 months before we had a product; taking our engineers into our customers’ environments, and bringing customers into ours; relentlessly trying to surface stories and spread them through our company.

It took me three years and a ton of money to learn that it’s better to be a listening founder than a visionary founder … and that:

  • Everyone other than your customers is a potential distraction and likely ignorant.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention.
  • If Henry Ford hadn’t understood how people live, he would have built crappy cars.
  • Until a customer has commented on what you’ve done, you didn’t do it.

The way to build stuff people care about is the way I did it with Eddie when I was 15 years old — work with small teams and keep your customer close. Listen, test and have fun!