Editor’s note: What innovations are happening in the container solutions space? We contacted Mark Davis, CEO of ClusterHQ, which provides container data management for the entire application life cycle. ClusterHQ’s Flocker architecture works with container stack components such as Docker and with storage components such as AWS, Google Cloud Platform, Nexenta, VMware and many others. Believing ClusterHQ may be a game-changer, Mark came out of retirement to run the company. A serial entrepreneur, Mark shares advice in this interview for other startup CEOs and entrepreneurs.
You built your career on the idea that virtual machines were the optimal solution for operating applications. And then Docker and containers entered the market. What were you looking forward to in retirement? What compelled you to come out of retirement to lead ClusterHQ?
Mark Davis: I wasn’t retired in the sense that I completely removed myself from the business world, but I was enjoying the change of pace from being an operating executive to personally working with other entrepreneurs as a coach, advisor, investor and board member.
I originally joined ClusterHQ as board chairman. My agreement to accept an operational role (my third as CEO, seventh as a startup executive) was from the realization – obvious to me but not to most – that the container revolution was creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a game-changing data management platform.
What is your advice for determining if a software product is a trend or could be a game-changer?
Mark Davis: Most innovation is about improving how things are done. This is the “better, faster, cheaper” notion that your new laptop does essentially the same thing as your old one but is higher performing and has incremental features. In contrast, game-changers enable you to do new things. These are the most interesting innovations. When looking at an idea, ask whether it extends a trend of something people already do, or is it a game-changer that changes what they do.
In your observations or experience, what are the pitfalls in the journey to create a game-changer?
Mark Davis: Changing what people do is harder and riskier than extending an existing trend. Not only do you have to come up with an idea that will improve people’s lives, but you have to show them why this is a good thing and teach them how to change. That is much more difficult than giving people a faster version of something they already use.
A mistake frequently made by innovators is believing that the market will, on its own, see how wonderful their “game-changer” is and change behavior on their own to take advantage of a new thing.
Other than motivating employees, what are the main activities and behaviors of a CEO that can make the difference between failure and success in developing a potential game-changing product?
Mark Davis: The tendency for everyone – including your own employees – is to think incrementally, to not see a game-changing vision. Especially when that vision is amorphous and evolving, as is the case for all true game-changers. A CEO has to help a team by continuously reminding everyone of that hard-to-see goal off in the distance, and at the same time drive for concrete points of clarity in the near term that move everyone closer to the vision.
What are your predictions about how containers will continue to change the IT landscape? And what changes do you anticipate happening in the near term, or next two years)?
Mark Davis: It’s funny: in the container world, people often speak about the long term being two years.
Today, microservices, cloud-native computing and containers are about what virtual machines were in 2001: a precocious toddler that seemed destined for greatness, but who had a lot of growing up to do. In the early 2000s, the IT organizations that became early adopters of VMware were the ones whose companies outpaced their competition. Naturally, the IT staff who led the charge were the ones whose careers outpaced their peers.
Within two years, containers will become mainstream for the smartest organizations, and the people in IT who embrace the change will find their careers skyrocketing.
So the software industry went from virtual machines to containers. What’s next? Please describe what you think a post-container world will look like. How will that change impact the software industry?
Mark Davis: Containers are exciting because they unleash innovation. They enable software developers in all kinds of organizations around the planet to build better software that is higher quality and much faster. Today, software impacts the economic productivity of every organization on the planet. The post-container world will be one in which innovation happens much faster, in every organization where software is used as a means for creating innovation.
As you mentioned, you’ve led seven software startups. What is your advice to other startup CEOs (serial entrepreneurs or first-timers) about the best mindset for an exit strategy?
Mark Davis: I am not a fan of startups that are predicated on an exit strategy. I don’t even like that phrase because thinking about getting out of a business from the start isn’t the right mindset. When you take on venture capitalists, you are taking on their need for equity to become valuable and liquid, but this doesn’t mean an exit strategy should drive business strategy.
Exit strategies are fueled by a diversity of opportunities. The company that has the freedom to operate without further fundraising, or could choose to take on more venture capital to accelerate the business, or could be a great acquisition, or could go public, is a company with all it needs to engineer a successful exit.
The journey is as important as the destination, and the destination is not the exit. There is a reason, after all, that I keep starting new journeys after successful exits.
Mark Davis is CEO of ClusterHQ. He is a serial technology entrepreneur who specializes in disruptive cloud infrastructure, virtualization, software and data storage companies. Before joining ClusterHQ, Mark was CEO and founder of Virsto, a software defined storage innovator acquired by VMware. Follow him on Twitter.