James Phillips – Couchbase 2 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: Are there any unique metrics or social proofs about Couchbase that you’d like to share with the audience?

James: Sure. So, we’ve got several hundred customers paying us big money to use our software. We just raised a very large round of Series C funding that was preemptive. So, a lot of data points economically that shows that we’re after a big market opportunity. We’re able to monetize it. We’re solving a real problem that clearly a lot of people have. And so, I think that the success that we’re having with customers is really the only metric ultimately that I care about.

We got lucky in that in early 2010 we were able to do a business deal with Zynga, the makers of Farmville and a bunch of other social games. Zynga was struggling with exactly the problem that we were attempting to solve or had aimed at solving in the product development process. And we were able fortunately to meet some of the key players at Zynga through a relationship. And it turns out they were off to go build what we were building as well. They were going to have to do it themselves because there really wasn’t a good alternative in their minds in the marketplace.

So, the initial product is really driven by a customer, ultimately. And this customer centricity, building what customers really want, getting out there quickly, determining if you’ve got something that’s of value, is the set of metrics that I care about ultimately. And I think we’re firing on all cylinders in that regard.

Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they decide to build a company. What was the hardest part about building Couchbase, and how did you overcome this obstacle?

James: Business is problems. There are 6,000 problems every 24 hour period, and they don’t go away ever. I would say that I honestly cannot point to a single specific problem or obstacle that we’d have to overcome that rises out of the noise, the background noise of the daily problems that one fights. But I would say that the deal that we did with Zynga and being able to pull that relationship off, when really all we had was slideware, right? Those guys bet on us in a big way. And being able to take advantage of that opportunity and convert it to a win and then to deliver on it, was the best thing that ever happened to this company, probably.

I would say the second best thing and arguable, maybe, the first best thing was the ability to join forces with the guys at CouchOne and to get that merger done. Two very big events that I think are going to shape the future of this company. I think being ready to react and respond to opportunities that present themselves to you is what sets apart those who are successful and those who aren’t. And I think we’ve done a reasonably good job of turning opportunity into something that’s of value.

Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make building companies, like easy. We know it can be very challenging. My question for you is: what talent or skills come intuitively or easily for you? What has been difficult? How have you managed that?

James: So, I would say that the things that come naturally to me, I hate to talk about myself. But yeah, I think taking very, very large complex sets of data, lots and lots and lots and lots of observations and being able to boil that down into some sort of actionable conclusion is something that one needs to be able to do in a really complex environment, like starting a company. You’ve got lots of competitors, lots of customers, lots of resources that you need to bring to bear to create. That’s a lot of moving parts, right?

And to be able to wrap your head around that and then say, okay with all of that, the optimization decision is, here’s the path we’re going down, and here are the steps we’re going to take to get there. And so, that to me is a critical success factor in an organization and something that I’ve been fortunate to be observe other people do very well and learn from.

I would say that, not surprisingly, like many entrepreneurs, an area I’ve certainly had to personally grow in is entrepreneurs can be pretty headstrong. Some would say arrogant. Some would say that they’re bull-headed, strong willed. And at some level you kind of have to have those characteristics to be successful because if you didn’t have those, the problems that one faces would appear to be insurmountable to most sane people. No sane person goes off and attempts to do the kind of crap that entrepreneurs do. And it takes some tenacity.

You’re going to be told non-stop it’ll never work. You’re going to fail; it’s never going to happen. And so having that conviction is a critical piece of the puzzle, in my opinion, but sometimes it’s viewed as the negative side of that. Which is, ah, strong willed, bull headed, plows through. And so, that is something that I’ve had to learn how to balance. Take that strength of conviction but channel it and make it manifest in a way that appears open, inclusive and not those negative things.

Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned at Couchbase?

James: It’s a lesson that I keep learning time and time and time again, which is building great companies is all about having the very best people. The company is its people, full stop. And you’ve got to find the very, very, very best people you can find and surround yourself with them and empower them and let them go do their thing. Give them good guidance. Help them understand what success looks like at the other end, and then empower them to go do it.

And that’s a bunch of intellectualizing blah, blah, blah, but when you’re in the trenches and you’re facing that every day, and you make bad hires or you make good hires, that particular lesson just keeps getting reinforced. And to me, that is probably the most important take-away over the course of my career. And I’ve certainly had opportunities to learn that again and again at Couchbase.

Matthew: What mentor has played an impact in your development?

James: Bob Wiederhold. That’s easy. He’s our current CEO actually at this company. He is an amazing individual. He’s a guy that has taught me a lot. I’m an old guy. So, hopefully I can be taught some new tricks, and I think Bob’s helping me out in that regard. He’s a bit older than I am and has been around the block a few times. He’s run some much larger organizations, been CEO many times. And he has really shown me some different ways to be an effective leader, and it’s been a real pleasure to work with him. Maybe there’s some recent bias showing its head here as we humans are not immune to, but I think Bob is probably the guy that I’d call out.

Matthew: What advice would you like to share with the audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?

James: Launching a startup. So, I would say the most important thing is to focus. You’ve got to focus on doing a thing really, really, really well. And it has to be something that people care about. You’ve got to identify a real need in the marketplace, something that when people hear you’ve got the solution to whatever it is you’re addressing, they go wow, that’s awesome. And you can’t get distracted. Probably, the biggest problem that startups make is trying to do too much. There’s an old saying in the valley. No startup has ever died of hunger, but thousands have died of indigestion. You can’t do it all. And focus, focus, focus, focus is probably the most important thing that one can do.

Matthew: Before we close, I would love for you to give our audience your vision for Couchbase and how you hope it will change the world.

James: So, one of the things that we haven’t touched on actually with Couchbase is the mobile computing side. So, Couchbase has two things going on. We’ve talked about the transformation at the data lair and the dramatic impact that that’s going to have, particularly as cloud computing becomes the norm. Where you’re no longer racking up a bunch of boxes and pulling software but rather spinning up some cloud lists somewhere in DC2, wherever you happen to do that. Huge change is occurring there, and that’s what our primary Couchbase server technology’s all about.

We also have a Couchbase mobile product. We have for iOS and for the Android platform, it’s a Couch DB derived mobile database that is optimized for sort of low power memory battery bandwidth resource consumption optimized for those platforms and fits in for iOS and Android data application development. So, we have those two offerings. The most interesting thing though is that we’ve got this data synchronization technology that ties those mobile devices to our cloud solution. So we’ve got organization, so just an example, really cool application.

One of the largest farm equipment manufacturers on the planet is outfitting farm equipment with Android devices that collect information about oil pressure and fuel consumption, soil analysis, how many rows have been plowed and etc. That information with Couch DB as the back end data storer, when the farm equipment comes back to the barn, that information is synchronized to the farmer’s laptop. That information eventually synchronizes back to this farm equipments manufacturer’s cloud services.

And so, they’re aggregating all this information that just automatically flows up about all the activity on these farms. They enhance that with weather information, pricing information, and then are able to send information back down the other direction so that you can better direct the equipment when it’s out in the field. So that you can sell farmers or provide them with information about when are the best times to plan and based on all this information. So, this tying together of mobile computing with cloud data processing bi-directionally to me is the most exciting thing. I’ve got this device with me everywhere, and it’s a great data collection device.

It’s not the best place to aggregate all the data from the planet and process it, that’s best done in the cloud. But then getting the information back down where I can be presented with relevant, both temporarily relevant and spatially relevant information, it’s also ideal for that. And to me, that’s the most exciting thing that we’re doing because it’s going to power and enable new kinds of services and applications and software that previously was just impossible. And it’s going to be fun to be part of that.

Matthew: James, it’s been a pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at Couchbase. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more, you can visit their website at www.couchbase.com. This is Matthew Wise of FounderLY. Thanks so much, James.

James: Thank you.


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