James Phillips – Couchbase 1 of 2

"No sane person attempts to do the kinds of things that entrepreneurs set out to do." Couchbase provides data management solutions for web and mobile apps.

Matthew: Hi this Matthew Wise of FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. It’s with great pleasure today that I’m here with James Phillips. James is the founder of Couchbase. Couchbase is a NoSQL database company offering a family of products for building and managing scalable web and mobile applications. With that said, James, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.

James: Sure. So I always wanted to live in Silicon Valley and build software companies so I’m very fortunate that I get to do that. I grew up in Louisiana which is not the hot bed of technology. Good football down there though. But I grew up as a nerd. Classical high school geek. Got my first computer when I was fifteen years old. Saved up my money bagging groceries at the local grocery store, taught myself how to code and was very lucky to hook up with a couple of guys who were starting a software company believe it or not in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When I was just graduating from high school. And ended up dropping out of undergraduate school after a semester to go really pursue this thing and we got lucky. The company became something that it was never intended to be as they usually do and we ended up building some backup software that eventually was a part of? And became the foundation of their PC back up business and that kind of got me hooked on the whole startup thing. And for the last I’m embarrassed to say twenty-four years, I’ve been kind of lather rinse and repeating on that. And I’m living the dream.

Matthew: What make Couchbase unique? Who it for and why are you so passionate about it?

James: Sure. So Couchbase is. Well, let me back up. I founded another company. My last company I founded was called Akimbi. And it was acquired by? 2006. And the technology we built at Akimbi is now has been re-purposed into a product called vCloud Director, which is VMware’s cloud management platform. And it’s been couple years of VMware subsequent to the acquisition and dealt with all of their management automation and technology.

One of the things that was consistently being raised by customers was that everyone loves virtualization cloud computing and this whole notion of instead of running big hunken web sphere servers on giant sun boxes. Let’s have the stateless ruby app servers that get smeared out across a bunch of commodity hardware or virtual machines [inaudible 02:49] behind a low balancer. Love the application model. Great cost economics, easy to scale, etc.

The data layer though is stuck really back in the mid 70′s and relational database technology, which is to date over the last thirty years, the database technology that one turns to when building software is at its core from a data model perspective a scale up technology. The way that it works is you take a record and you dis-aggregate that into a bunch of interrelated tables with foreign key relationships, its called data normalization, and it works well for what it works well for but what it doesn’t do well is allow you to spread your data across a lot of servers like you should end up having to lock things down all over the place in order to make updates if you want consistency.

And it’s a big problem and a hard problem to solve because it requires at the limit one to go back and think fundamentally about the data model. Instead of breaking things up into the tables and having these cross references and foreign keys, on must think differently about storing the data in a de-normalized form. And that facilitates the ability to spread it around.

So long story short or kind of medium at this point. This opportunity kept coming up and coming up and coming up and coming up and that’s what led to the formation of Couchbase so left VMware and I ended up forming this company basically to go solve this problem. How to you make the data layer architecturally, look like what people are doing at the application layer where you’re spreading your load and your data across multiple commodity servers or virtual machines or cloud instances. So that was the genesis of Couchbase.

Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist and where do you see things developing in the future for your space?

James: So very interesting we just kind of VMware. So just a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be at this event where Paul Maritz who is the CEO of VMware was speaking and one of the thing was asked of Paul was and he’s been in the industry a long time as well. What are the things that are happening right now in IT that will have the most impact on the business of IT “over the next decade”? And not surprisingly the first thing he named was cloud computing certainly given their strategy.

Surprising to me, was that he then said in the changing of the data model. Even more surprising is that’s where he ended up spending all of his time and basically from his perspective. He’s lived through two transitions. The transition to IMS the transition to relational technology. And he believes and I believe that this movement to a distributed data model. In our case a documented oriented data model, using [map produced] like technologies is the future of data management. And it’s interesting in it of itself.

But the implications for application development the implications for the infrastructure that is required to execute that sort of data model effectively is up and down the stack so we believe that just the data model transition is a gigantic industry trend change opportunity and we’re obviously square in the middle of that. It’s going to take a lot of years for people to get comfortable migrating to this model of data management. The technologies are incredibly immature.

And so over time these technologies will mature a lot of the capabilities that they don’t provide for today will emerge in a new form. The gap will get closed between what the relational industry has been able to do over the last thirty years and what we’ve been doing over last couple years. And as that happens we believe that this is probably one of the biggest most impactful things that happening right now in I2 and it’s fun to be right in the middle of it.

Matthew: Who are your co-founders? How did you meet? What qualities were you looking for and how did you know they’d be a good fit.

James: So co-founders. Back up slightly. The company that is today Couchbase is the combination of two companies. We did a merger earlier this year. So let me go back in time to the initial company which was called [Norscale 07:18] was founded in late 2009. Initially funded with series A in January of 2009. The company was founded. And the company was really put together by Excel, a venture firm. They brought together myself, a guy named Steven Yen, and a guy named Dustin Sallings.

Steve Yen was previous co-founder of Kiva Software which was a big deal that was done acquisition by Netscape back in the day. And then Dustin Sallings is the leading committer to Memcached, which is a very widely used open source project. He’s contributed more lines of code on that project than anyone on the planet. The company was initially created to be a commercial backer for Memcached Open Source Project. So Dustin made a ton of sense since he was a core committer. Steven Yen super smart technologist. While I have a lot of technology in my background, I’ve kind of become more of a business guy. So it was a good combination of skills to get the company off the ground.

Now we ended up merging earlier this year with a company called CouchOne that was founded by Damien Katz who’s the inventor of CouchDB. And a couple of other guys that were very close to the CouchDB project. So we got a lot of co-founders now because those guys are still co-founders as far as we’re concerned. And if you look at the aggregate of all the founders, I think we’ve got a really good broad spectrum of experienced business talents. Super sharp technologist and importantly we kind of cover the range of core committers for all the ingredient open source projects that we use in our products

Matthew: From idea to product launch how long did it take? When did you launch your first company and product?

James: So I’ll give you the sanitized version cause the un-sanitized version would probably take us a week to get through. The truth is startup companies always in my experience, if you’re doing the job right, because you’re learning a lot as you’re going out there and heading toward launch. You tend to do this. But the easy story is the company was funded in January of 2009. And the initial product was launched in Feb. 2010, which is about a year and 2 months from the funding to the initial product launch. That’s a long time in my experience for me.

I tend to like to be out in the market as fast as is humanly possible with the minimally acceptable product so that one can begin to get real feedback. I often say that you can go talk to a million different potential customers and ask them about your idea, “hey if had this would you buy it?” And everyone is happy to say absolutely sure. But when you go ask someone to write a check, they get really seriously honest with you. So getting out there as soon as you possibly can, asking people for money is kind of job one for me. So it took us a little bit longer than we probably would have like for it to but you know it is what it is.


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