Editor’s note: Pepperdata provides Hadoop cluster optimization that monitors and controls hardware usage in real time. Its founders’ backgrounds include being one of the first commercial users of Hadoop and first in the world to increase revenue using Hadoop. In this interview, Sean Suchter, CEO of Pepperdata, shares the company’s journey and his insights for other startup CEOs.
What was your vision in founding Pepperdata? What problems were not being addressed in the market solutions at that time?
Sean Suchter: As the first production user of Hadoop while at Yahoo, I (and my co-founder Chad) saw the immense value of this new technology for doing large-scale distributed computing. However, we also saw that there were very serious performance challenges and pitfalls of Hadoop which, when it failed, could cripple a business unit or even a company overall. So Chad and I founded Pepperdata to help any company benefit from our experience building and working with massive data systems at places like Inktomi, Yahoo and Bing.
As early adopters of the technology, we saw great promise in its scalable approach to data processing. For the first time, our teams were able to use huge datasets to directly solve business problems – without worrying about the plumbing needed to move and process all of the data. When it performed well, Hadoop could do amazing things. We wanted to make sure it performed well for every company, regardless of the size and level of skill they had for operating Hadoop. Pepperdata was born out of that vision.
What was your background prior to Pepperdata?
Sean Suchter: I started my professional career in Inktomi’s Web search division and felt I had lucked out by entering Web search because it was such an innovative service that was fully reliant on equally impressive technology. When Inktomi was acquired by Yahoo, I stayed on to run Yahoo’s Web search engine as VP of Web search technology. Following my tenure at Yahoo, I went to Microsoft to start the Silicon Valley branch of Bing.
Today I’ve come full circle in founding Pepperdata, pursuing my interest in the next transformational software trend – distributed computing.
Was there anything that happened in your product development and/or go-to-market strategy at Pepperdata that caused you to go in a different direction?
Sean Suchter: Absolutely. Before starting Pepperdata, Chad and I spent the first three months researching how companies use data, what business problems they currently solve and what problems the market still faces. Our entire company strategy is based on those 70+ interviews we conducted with potential future buyers and what they were and were not getting from their data.
How did Pepperdata get its first customer? Did it take longer than anticipated?
Sean Suchter: Our first alpha customers took well over a year to convert to a paying account. It was a hard lesson in how much a deal depends on multiple factors, beyond proving value. A lot of time passes when you’re trying to get a deal closed, and at the same time you’re also trying to be nice to your friendly alpha customers. In the early days, we had to juggle a lot, and we were a very lean team.
Please share an effective strategy you put in place at Pepperdata that resulted in improved collaboration or productivity.
Sean Suchter: At Pepperdata we have a very intentional bottom-up culture. This culture requires lots of discussion and open communication with your team. For instance, every time I talk to a key customer, I debrief the entire company immediately following the conversation. The bottom-up context sharing enables everyone to understand how the business works from a real-world perspective. This sort of transparency makes for a very open and honest environment and lends itself to ideas and solutions being sourced from all individuals.
In addition, we put high-quality engineering practices (unit testing, integration testing, universal reviews, coding styles, design discussions) in place from day one.
What is a crucial tip about growing a company that you wish someone had told you previously?
Sean Suchter: Every month (sometimes every day!) brings a new challenge — in both good and bad ways — and you never know which new problem you’ll be solving next. Of course, on any given day you’ll have to jump between selling, recruiting, building the product, managing people, working with the board, etc.; but things not even on the radar will also constantly come up.
Have you encountered any challenges in finding and hiring the “right” talent for your company?
Sean Suchter: Unlike working for Microsoft or Yahoo, most people don’t know who Pepperdata is (yet), so it’s harder to spread the word and get people interested in being a part of what we are doing. We’re incredibly picky about who we hire – but that expectation of quality means we have an awesome team of talented individuals and I think (I hope) everyone on the team feels like they are part of something special.
What are the top three characteristics you seek when hiring new talent?
Sean Suchter: Smart, gets things done and cultural fit. The “smart and gets things done” attribute is almost a cliche. But it’s very real. At a startup, there are a lot of ways to get things done. We’re still learning what all of the best ways are for us. However, these two attributes can yield people who are really productive in an environment like ours.
The cultural fit is really important and, interestingly, hard to correctly interview for. We’ve interviewed people we thought were really effective, and we generally “liked” during the interviews. However, we eventually figured out by talking about past situations that they approached some things in a way that wouldn’t be appropriate for our culture. So we had to pass. Those candidates were some of the hardest to pass on, but ultimately I think it was the right thing to do.
What was your first “aha moment” or first lesson learned as a CEO?
Sean Suchter: The first “aha moment” for us was that we could decide what we wanted our company culture to be and find a way to execute on that vision. That’s a very empowering lesson. Once a culture gets set and the organization grows around that, it can be self-perpetuating. The same people at a new, fresh context, can decide to act differently and create the culture that they want to have. You can only do this when your company is still small; it’s much harder to turn a battleship than a speedboat.
Are there any aspects of being a CEO that you didn’t anticipate?
Sean Suchter: I didn’t fully understand that the decisions I make directly affect the entire future of the company. That can be pretty stressful. This underscores the criticality of having a co-founder you really trust.
When you observed leaders on your prior jobs, what did you learn not to do in order to be a successful leader?
Sean Suchter: I learned that you shouldn’t overrule your employees unless absolutely necessary. And those necessary times should be extremely rare and also obvious to everyone involved that intervention is required.
What business books have given you especially useful advice for leading a company?
Sean Suchter: First is “Getting to Yes.” I consider this the seminal book on negotiation. A true classic. Everyone should read this. Also helpful to me was “Lean Startup.” This book really defines the thought process around learning rapidly. A new classic.
Please share advice for other entrepreneurs/startups about funding.
Sean Suchter: Use your existing connections to get introductions to as many sources for funding as possible. Most of them will be happy to take your meeting, but there’s a checklist of things you should do before you get in front of anyone:
- De-risk your plan. Think about it critically. What are your biggest risks? Usually, these are not about whether the next phase of your idea can be implemented; they’re generally about whether customers will buy what you are offering. You can lower the risk that the product won’t sell by talking to lots of potential customers ahead of time and doing extensive research. (This is one example of a common risk that startups face).
- Don’t meet with your most promising or top funding sources first. Remember that pitching takes practice. You’ll get better at it (and refine your pitch) every time you present.
- Read books that will provide a different perspective and practical advice. One of my particular favorites is Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.
What’s ahead in 2016 for Pepperdata and its customers?
Sean Suchter: More customers, a bigger push around multi-tenancy and even more business-critical applications running on customers’ Hadoop clusters. Our technology is the first of its kind; no one else does what Pepperdata does. And 2016 is the year that people will start to understand that.
Sean Suchter is CEO of Pepperdata. Prior to Pepperdata, he was the founding GM of Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Search Technology Center, where he led the integration of Facebook and Twitter content into Bing search. Prior to Microsoft, Sean managed the Yahoo Search Technology team, the first production user of Hadoop. Sean joined Yahoo through the acquisition of Inktomi. Reach out to Pepperdata at firstname.lastname@example.org with any interest or inquiries, and connect with them on Twitter.