S01E12: Mike Wolfe

25 Feb 2011

We interview Mike Wolfe and talk to him about his new startup ccLoop and how he's been able to become such a successful entrepreneur Marcy: Hi I’m Marcy Campbell, vice president of sales and marketing communications here at Engine Yard and I’m with my really good friend Mike Wolfe who is CEO of a new start up called ccLoop who is also an Engine Yard customer. Mike and I have known each other for a long time, since--

Mike: I think 13 years?

Marcy: Is it really?

Mike: Yea. And we’re still young.

Marcy: And we’ve worked at two companies together--Yes we’re very young--and on a board of a company where I was an advisor and you were actually a board member, right?

Mike: Yea.

Marcy: So, we have a lot of history together but for all of our listeners, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background.

Mike: I have--I’ve done almost entirely start ups in my career. I started computer science in college. I did a lot of teaching and actually considered becoming a professor and then realized that I hated research and was never--I have trouble writing a one page white paper now so I was never going to be a researcher--

Marcy: That wasn’t going to be a good choice.

Mike: But, I did a lot of teaching, I had some internships and really loved that intersection of technology and application and business. How you take technology, build a product, get it to market, get good--that whole process I loved and it really fascinates me. I’ve done--this is my 4th start up. All 3 have been successful to different degrees. The first was a small Internet media company. I was employee number 2. It was back in 1994, one of the 1st Internet media companies that there was. Pretty successful. You know, built some great products. We were very, very early but--that was kind of right around the time of the Netscape IPO.

Marcy: Right.

Mike: Which you remember--you were there.

Marcy: I was there.

Mike: And really kind of got hooked. Did a company after that called KANA which was an email--basically an email CRM company.

Marcy: And that’s where we met.

Mike: Which is where Marcy and I know each other. Great story in terms of great team, great growth. Again, really feeling like not only is this--the web just a really great business opportunity but really feeling like--this is gonna sound corny--but really feeling like the world was changing. Really feeling like there’s pre-Internet and post-Internet and I think if you take the last 20 years, the--just the things we take for granted now, none of us were imagining, kind of, in 1993/94. So really got hooked and just kept doing it and decided after Vontu, which was my last company, which was a company I co-founded in 2002 and ended up selling the company in 2007 to Symantec and spent a couple years at Symantec on the executive team there. Decided that--I thought about doing a lot of different things--become an investor, there’s always different career paths, and I really just love the start up thing and decided to start another company. I went back to Benchmark Captial, I was an entrepreneur in residence. Benchmark funded my last 3 companies now so I have a good relationship with them, spent a year at the firm and ccLoop was the outcome of that and the companies about 4 months old and we’re doing great.

Marcy: And what are you doing?

Mike: So we’re still in stealth mode so we’re not getting into a lot of details about the solution availability just yet. But the problem that--one of the problems that always fascinated me is email so my 2nd company, KANA, was very much an email company. It was very much email marketing and email customer service. Vontu was very much around email security. It was very much around trying to keep data from escaping your company through email and through other web channels. And to me, email is the gift that keeps on giving. Email is--people--if you talk about email you get an emotional response from people.

Marcy: I think that’s right.

Mike: People love, people hate email--they say they hate email. They complain about too much email. They complain, especially when you’re working with sets of people, when you’re working with a team of people--they’re all replying to each other, attaching documents, you have this inbox full of stuff that you haven’t read. You get off the airplane and have 50 new emails--like we have all had that experience, so people hate email. But, people actually love email and they love email because they know how to use it, everybody that they work with knows how to use it, they have it on their phone now. It’s very personal--its their stuff in their inbox. So what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to let people work more effectively with other folks and get rid of the giant inbox, the multiple versions of the same attachment floating around, not having a shared archive of the work that you’re working on with other folks. But doing it in a way where we’re actually building on top of the email people already have. So we’re saying we’re going to make your email work better, especially better with other people. But we’re not going to do it by asking you to stop using email and go into some other collaboration system and move all your work there and then asking everyone that you work with to move their work there. That really--very few companies have really done that successfully and more and more companies are launched trying to tackle that problem. We would rather tackle the problem of making email better as opposed to telling people, throw your email away.

Marcy: Yea, I think that’s not realistic. Yea, so email is platform to do collaboration?

Mike: Right. Yea, online email is a platform.

Marcy: Yea and we believe that.

Mike: You can build great things on email but you don’t--like I look at Google Wave for example. Google Wave tried to do better email essentially but the 1st thing that Google Wave did was ask you to stop using email.

Marcy: I know.

Mike: And it was out of business 6 months later. We just don’t think that worked.

Marcy: We don’t want to do that.

Mike: So we’re not doing that--nothing like that.

Marcy: When you were at--when we were at KANA and at Vontu, you--the technologies you chose to use at the time were leading edge right? So you were using, you said I think Java and Windows or--

Mike: Yea. Back at Vontu or at KANA, we were really one of the first enterprise software companies to use Java, way back in 1997. At the time, you know 13 years ago, that was quite cutting edge. No longer quite true.

Marcy: So you went to Vontu and when you started Vontu you used Java as well, right?

Mike: Right, right, right.

Marcy: So what’s interesting to me is then you go back in as a entrepreneur in residence with Benchmark and you come out and you start using Ruby and Ruby on Rails. Why?

Mike: Yea. So, I think that the more you do this--I think when you start your career you think that just building products is--if you just build a good product, people will buy it people will use it and just pick a tool that gets the job done. And I think that as you get more experience, what you discover is that the ability to first of all, get the best people on the team. The ability to get the best developers who love using the latest and greatest, they love using tools that kind of where the tool gets out of the way and the language kind of fades to the background and lets them just solve problems. The ability to build a great team by giving them the right tools. Its a virtuous cycle. You can bring in better people and those people are more productive because you’re using--if they’re willing to learn something new, which our team did. Our team was a lot of Java developers who all wanted to learn Ruby on Rails and I swear within a week, they were more productive on Ruby on Rails than they ever were in Java even though they had been doing it their entire career, just because they’re great guys and the characteristics of the framework. The other thing is that start ups are all about iteration. Its all about try something, get it out there, gather feedback, gather data, go back, change it, fix it, get it out there again. The more the--the easier it is to do those cycles, the more successful you’re going to be. So people talk a lot about rapid development which in Ruby on Rails you get the rapid development but what’s even more important we think is really these iterations. Its the ability to quickly try stuff, get it out there, make it work, make it scale, put it on Engine Yard. If you want to try something you just put it out there, you don’t spend a lot of time configuring and tinkering with it. And it makes the company act in basically a faster metabolism. It lets you just try stuff, experiment, get things in front of customers, in a way that these more established, kind of structural languages don’t. Those just tend to take--they’re more designed, there’s more code, more testing, more things to go wrong. So Rails--and its been great for us. We haven’t had a really--very few disappointments even though we’re all relatively new to the Ruby on Rails community.

Marcy: Well we’re glad you’re a part of it. One of the things I wanted to ask you about was, through the differences you saw between building a company in 1997 and the differences in building a company now in 2010, well 2011.

Mike: I think the differences are--there are a lot more people around that have seen this movie before. Folks who have been at a lot of companies, have seen what works, seen what doesn’t work and the community is just a lot smarter. There’s so many resources out there where you can learn about technical things, you can learn about how to raise money, how to operate a company, how to do customer development. The resources available are greater than ever so I feel like the ability to put together a team that’s really smart and connected is probably better than its ever been. Unfortunately, there’s so much demand for those people that that also the hardest part still, is to build a team. I also think this acceptance that start ups are not about coming up with a plan, spending a year building the product, launching it, selling it, and everything works out, that very seldomly happens as we all know, optimizing around this real experimentation and really trying things in rapid iterations. Like for example, we do weekly, really weekly sprints in our development process and monthly releases in terms of what we get out to customers. Not only does that facilitate the learning, but it just keeps the momentum going. And I remember back in ‘97 we were talking in terms of spending a year building a product, spend another year learning how to sell it, then you build the 2nd product a year later. Now its every week there’s something else going out there and we just see how the customers react to it and then go accordingly. And I’m kind of a short attention span person so I actually really enjoy that.

Marcy: Yes, it works for you.

Mike: I enjoy that constant feedback and constant iterations.

Marcy: Yes and no more laser tag parties after the release of a product, huh?

Mike: We’ll do that. We’ll still do that. Not every week though.

Marcy: Not every week? Ok. So one of the things I’m sure our listeners want to know. You know, you’re an incredibly successful entrepreneur. The companies that--I know you’re very modest--but the companies that you’ve built from the ground up and I’ve been in the basement with you guys a couple of times building these things, have become enormous suceesess, where people all over the world know the products and know the companies and--why do this again? I mean, you have a lot of choices in your life right now. Why would you go and say, “Oh the next thing I’m going to do is start another one.”

Mike: I’ll give, probably, kind of a long answer.

Marcy: That’s fine.

Mike: I--so for me, start ups are--there’s a certain amount of drama to a start up. In fact, there’s a lot of drama to a start up. I can tell by the way you’re laughing, I know that you’ve seen some of it at every company. And I’m not talking about the drama of things going wrong, even though that does happen. I’m talking about the drama of you get a bunch of people together, you’re trying to do something new, and there’s kind of a beginning, middle, and end. At the beginning you have all these ideas, there’s no legacy, no baggage, no politics, anything is possible. You get to work, try stuff, you tinker, you experiment--if that works , you kind of get to the middle part which is where you’re really building the company, getting customers happy, building the team, really getting the culture right. And usually there’s some kind of end and the end is hopefully the kind where the company just gets so big and successful its no longer a start up and you’re off and running or the company gets acquired or it could shut down, hopefully that doesn’t happen but it happens--it happens all the time. And first of all, I think the drama of being in a situation where you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, the company could be a billing to our company in 5 years or it could be out of business in a year. I really enjoy the not knowing that. I think that--I think at a lot of big companies, if you do a great job, the world will be 1% better next year, if you do a bad job the world will be 1% worse. I love the idea that just--you just don’t know. There’s just all this uncertainty, all this risk, but it could be something great. And I think what that does is it brings out the best in people. You get people together who are so focused on making that happen that they spend all their time outwardly focused, trying to make customers happy, build great products, understand competitors, all kind of pulling together for a common cause. You see people, they do there best work, they take on new roles, they try new things. People at my companies have always said, “this is the best job I've ever had, I’m learning all this stuff, this is so great” and I feel like in bigger, more established situations, its a little more zero/sum game, kind of slicing up the pie so you end up with the--your enemy is in the next cubicle because you’re fighting over a budget and its very much of a--there’s a pie or even a shrinking pie in a lot of companies and who’s going to get the biggest piece. So I think that big companies can sort of turn--it can bring out the worst in people and small companies, I think, bring out the best in people. And when its really, really working there’s just nothing that--there’s nothing that’s more fun.

Marcy: Yea I agree with that. I mean, I’m completely addicted to the smaller companies as well.

Mike: I mean, once you’ve been in a really good one, you almost can’t do anything else. You almost just want to keep going back to it.

Marcy: And so you just keep starting up. Right. any advice that you would give folks who are just starting out, just building out their companies, first time CEOs, or first time founders?

Mike: I think--the first advice I always give people is--now, I’m a parent, you’re a parent and we know what that’s like and a lot--

Marcy: It’s wonderful.

Mike: It’s wonderful. A lot of folks will say that there is never a good time to have a baby. There’s never going to be a time in your life when you have all this money and all this time and all this free--like, its just kind of like now is always the worst time, now is always the best time. And start ups are a little bit like that where, if you want to get in the start up world, you’re never going to have an idea that’s perfect, you’re never going to join a company that’s perfect, there’s never going to be a company that’s a sure thing, there’s never going to be a time when you have so much money in the bank that you can take any risk you want. There’s sort of--the right answer is almost always just to jump in and do it and do it now. Don't wait until it feels--don’t wait until a bunch of variables line up because they never will, you just have to do it. And that might mean joining a company. I’m a big fan of people who want to get in the start up game--you don’t have to start a company. You can find a small company, join, learn, get to know the people, then you can go start one later or you can jump right straight into starting one. And the second thing is once you’ve done that, its really, its all about the people you’re working with and most companies don’t work. The odds are very low, especially if its your first company, its going to work. So usually what you take away form that company is a bunch of experience, a bunch of friends, a bunch of people you might want to work with again. You want to get to know the Board of Directors, the investors, the customers--every situation is an opportunity to build that network and make sure that even if the company doesn’t succeed, you walk away feeling--with your reputation in tact, your network is growing, you’re getting smarter. So I think of it as a journey where you want to get something great out of every interaction with somebody and out of every situation because even if the situation you’re in right now doesn’t work, the next one probably will is long as your attitude is keep learning, keep getting to know people, it just gets easier and easier and the odds get better and better each time.

Marcy: That’s fabulous. I think that is--exemplifies my experience as well and I’m someone who jumped into companies that already existed at a very small level and helped them grow.

Marcy: Yea. One thing I didn’t ask you is ok. What is the most fun you’ve ever had starting a company. Give me an example. I want a story.

Mike: I--its kind of like which of your kids do you love more. Its hard to pick and chose.

Marcy: Yea, I got teenagers but go ahead.

Mike: I would say that in terms of early stage, the stage my company is right now. Right now where we love the idea, it feels good, we’re making progress, everything feels good but there’s still all these unknowns ahead. At the early stage, right now is probably the most fun I’ve ever had at any company. I think the team is great. The idea feels big--its an idea that everybody relates to.

Marcy: Yea.

Mike: Its actually a challenge. Everybody I meet, i can pitch them the idea and they understand it and get it and want to become a customer. It’s almost everyone in the world--there’s 2 billion people using email right now. There are 100 trillion emails sent per year.

Marcy: So that’s a big market.

Mike: 300 billion emails per day. So, that is a problem that everybody relates to and everybody understands. So, this is probably the most fun I’m having early stage. I would say there’s something else that happens--when a company starts to work, you get 50 or 100 people, you get all the different cast of characters, you get the crazy outgoing sales people.

Marcy: Yea? No....

Mike: You get the intense engineers and the crazy marketing people and the folks who travel and--there’s kind of a stew of different ingredients and personalities that even though they’re all different, it somehow just works and when its really firing in all cylinders, it just feels great. Like I remember when Vontu was about 60 people, we all went on a ski trip together. And it was just kind of--the company had already gone far enough that we knew we were going to have some level of success but it was still small, still a lot of upside. And i have just great memories of that--still that idea that anything is possible but also being with just this incredible mix of people whoa re all very different but were all there for the same reason, pulling in the same directions. When that’s really working--and that doesn’t last. A lot of companies that only lasts a year or 2. You usually don’t get that your entire career.

Marcy: Right.

Mike: But when its working, its just the greatest thing in the world, and you always want to get back to that.

Marcy: You know, my husband and I were talking about that last night. For disclosure, Mike is a triathlete and a long distance runner, an ultra runner and my husband’s a triathlete and they’re friends and he was telling me its about being in the zone.

Mike: Yea, that’s what I should have said.

Marcy: Yea.

Mike: Companies get--you always kind of are going in and out of the zone.

Marcy: Yea.

Mike: You have good weeks, bad--like even, like I had a good week a couple weeks ago. Last week I felt really bad, this week I feel really good. But sometimes companies get in the zone for 6 months or a year or 2 years or 3 years and it just kind of feels like everything is in balance and when you get there, you know it.

Marcy: You know it, right.

Mike: And you want to stay there.

Marcy: Yea and you try to stay there. Well I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. This has been a great learning experience. We’ve known each other for a long time but, I’ve learned something new here so that was great.

Mike: I learn something new every time I talk to you Marcy.

Marcy: That’s kind of scary but, oh, ok. So great.