Archive for the 'Entrepreneurship' Category

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Friday, May 27th, 2011

I was a co-founder and CTO of NetGravity back in 1995, and I spent a lot of years building ad servers. So I can say this from experience: ad servers are hard to build. There’s a lot of expertise that goes into delivering the right ad to the right person where response times are measured in milliseconds and uptimes are measured with five nines. Now it’s been almost four years since I co-founded Yieldex, and I can say another thing from experience: predictive analytic systems are also hard to build. Moving, managing and processing terabytes of data every day to enable accurate forecasting, rapid querying, and sophisticated reporting takes a lot of expertise. And, as it turns out, it’s very different from ad server expertise.

When I ran an ad server team, all we wanted to work on was the server. We delighted in finding ways to make the servers faster, more efficient, more scalable, and more reliable. We focused on selection algorithms, and real-time order updates, handling malformed URLs and all kinds of crazy stuff. Our customers were IT folks and ad traffickers who needed to make sure the ads got delivered. The reporting part was always an afterthought, a necessary evil, something given to the new guy to work on until someone else came along.

Contrast that with the team I have now, where we obsess over integrating multiple data sources, forecasting accurately, and clearly presenting incredibly complex overlapping inventory spaces in ways that mere humans can understand and make decisions about. Reporting is not an afterthought for us, it’s our reason for being. Our success critera are around accuracy, response time, and ease of getting questions answered through ad-hoc queries. Our customers are much more analytical: inventory managers, sales planners, finance people, and anyone else in the organization working to maximize overall ad revenue.

These teams have completely different DNA, so it’s not surprising that a team good at one of them might not be so great at the other. This is why so many publishers are unhappy with the quality of the forecasts they get from their ad server vendor, and one of the reasons so many are signing up with Yieldex. Good predictive analytics are hard to build, and nobody has built the right team, and spent the time and effort to get them right for the digital ad business. Until now.

Greater than the Sum

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Any great partnership should be greater than the sum of its parts. Whether a marriage, artistic collaboration, or business partnership, great partners build on each other’s strengths to achieve much more than either could alone.

In that spirit, I’m delighted to announce Andrew Nibley as the new CEO of Yieldex. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Andy over the last few months, and I feel that our skills complement each other perfectly to take Yieldex to the next level. More importantly, I like working with him, and we have good chemistry, which is an essential ingredient for any great partnership.

Andy has a terrific background in digital media, having been CEO of five different media companies. Most recently he ran WPP’s Marsteller, a digital agency, and among many other successes was a co-founder of Reuters New Media. He also is an excellent leader of people, and has experience managing rapid growth, and many other skills we will take full advantage of as Yieldex drives tremendous growth in 2011.

I look forward to focusing on my strengths in product vision, strategy, and business development. My favorite part of the day is when I get to solve hard (and valuable) customer problems with cutting-edge technology. Yieldex is well positioned to continue to drive dramatic uplift in revenues for our customer base as we broaden our platform, and I look forward to helping drive that.

I am proud of the success Yieldex has enjoyed so far, and humbly grateful to the team that has worked so hard to make it happen. I am excited that Andy and I are partnering together to continue to drive value for our customers and for Yieldex, through 2011 and beyond!

For more info, see our press release and PaidContent article. Thanks to Ryan Graves and his blog 1+1=3 for the idea for this post.

Good problems

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

I’m getting to the age where if I go play a sport I haven’t played in a while, I ache for days afterwards. I recently played 5-5 full-court basketball for the first time in decades, and could barely walk the next day. Some of those hurts are “good hurts” – sore muscles that are getting stronger from the workout. Some are “bad hurts” – like a partially torn rotator cuff. They all hurt, but it can be important to distinguish between them, because the remedies are different. And no matter what you call them, they still hurt like hell.

Similarly, in startups, we talk about “good problems” and “bad problems”. Bad problems are the ones nobody wants: unhappy customers, products that don’t work, or markets that don’t materialize. Good problems are ones that sure seem like they’d be nice to have: too many customers sign up at once, investors want to put in too much money, etc. Just like bad hurts and good hurts, bad problems generally require outside intervention to fix, while good problems work themselves out through positive progress. Everybody says they want the good problems, but they are still problems – and they still require a hell of a lot of work to get through.

Cloud Computing Lessons

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Cloud computing means lots of different things, and much of it is hype. At Yieldex, we’ve been using cloud computing, specifically Amazon Web Services, as a key part of our infrastructure for the better part of a year, and we thought we’d pass on a few of our lessons learned. As you might expect, the services we use have trade-offs. If your challenge fits within the parameters, cloud computing can be a huge win, but it’s not the answer for everything.

All of these lessons are the result of the hard work of our entire engineering team, most notably Craig and Calvin. These guys are among the best in the world at scaling to solve enormous data and computation problems with a cloud infrastructure. We could not have built this company and these solutions without them.

For a startup, there are a number of compelling reasons to use a cloud infrastructure for virtually every new project. You don’t get locked into a long-term investment in hardware and data centers, it’s easy to experiment, and easy to change your mind and try a different approach. You don’t have to spend precious capital on servers and storage, wait days or weeks for them to arrive, and then spend a day or two setting them up. If your application scales horizontally, then you can scale additional customers, storage, and processing with minimal cost and time delay. All these things are touted by cloud providers, and basically boil down to: focus on your business, not your infrastructure.

Sometimes, however, you do need to focus on the infrastructure. We provide our customers with analytics and optimization based on our unique and proprietary DynamicIQ engine. Our first customer was a decent sized web property, and we were able to complete our DynamicIQ daily processing on several gigabytes of data using just one instance in less than an hour. Our next customer, however, was 10x the size. And the one after that, 10x more – hundreds of gigabytes per day. Fortunately, we had designed our DynamicIQ engine to easily parallelize across multiple instances. We spent some time learning how to start up instances, distribute jobs to them, and shut them back down again, but because we had designed the engine for this eventuality, we were able to use the cloud to cost-effectively scale to even the largest sites on the web.

We also have BusinessIQ, which is basically an application server that provides query processing and a user interface into our analytics. Initially we started with this server in the cloud too, but as we bumped up against other scalability issues, we found that the cloud doesn’t solve every problem. For example, we provide a sophisticated scenario analysis capability. To calculate a “what-if” scenario requires processing a huge amount of data in a very short time. For our larger customers, a single cloud instance did not have enough memory to perform this operation. Trying to stay true to the cloud paradigm, we implemented a distributed cache across multiple instances, but this didn’t work well because of limitations on I/O. We ended up having to go to a hybrid model, where we bought and hosted our own servers with large memory footprints, so we could provide this functionality.

We have been very happy users of the Amazon Web Services cloud, and not just because we won the award. We would not have been able to get our business of the ground with out the cost effective scalability of the Amazon infrastructure. While it’s not for every application, for the right application, it truly changes the game.

Hello, GREAT times!

Monday, January 12th, 2009

The Richter Scales got a great response from the audience at the Crunchies, after making fun of just about every aspect of running a Web 2.0 company in these trying times. My contribution consisted mostly of showing up and not flubbing the couple lines they gave me – it’s great to be in a group with such talented people!

Work with great people

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

I was recently asked what advice I would give to aspiring company founders. While there are many mistakes I’ve made that I would try to warn others about, the best advice I can give is to work with great people.

Great people are easy to communicate with, and will give (and take) honest feedback. Great people make it enjoyable to come to work, and help turn a job into a passion. Great people argue passionately, then come to agreement, then work closely together to get the job done. Great people can be trusted.

Startups are hard places to work. The hours can be long, and the disagreements are often heated. Everybody has their ups and downs, nobody is perfect. There are big wins and crushing losses. But great people with great relationships get through these patches much more smoothly.

At Yieldex, I’m privileged to work with great people. Every member of the team works well with the others, and we can feel the momentum building. The result is we are executing very efficiently, and getting more done in less time than any other team I’ve worked with. Best of all, I love the feeling that I like everyone I work with, that I would be happy hanging out with them and their families. At our company holiday dinner, I was delighted that everyone, including the spouses, seemed to have a very enjoyable time. These are the times we will look back on years from now and remember fondly.

I used to row crew competitively in high school and college. Crew is a sport that epitomizes team “flow”. A boat full of great individual contributors will get beaten by a boat that is rowing smoothly together every time. We are rowing smoothly together here at Yieldex. One of my biggest jobs is to not screw it up as we grow.

Life is too short to work with jerks. Work with great people.

Yieldex wins Amazon AWS Start-up Challenge!

Friday, November 21st, 2008

We won! Out of nearly 1000 startups who applied, we won!

This is a great validation of our fantastic technical team. We have been chosen as one of the most innovative users of Amazon’s cloud computing technology. We could not have done this without your hard work. Thank you!

This was a great experience for us. The Amazon team was very professional throughout, the event was well-managed, and they even made a cool video featuring our development team. The press release went out tonight, and there was even a blog post that beat mine.

Here’s the blow-by-blow, for those who want all the details:

We pitched the panel of judges, all senior execs of Amazon, at 1pm. They had 50min presentations from each of the seven finalists, and had been going since 7am. We did our standard pitch, and did a great job talking about how important AWS is to us. They seemed to appreciate the presentation, but were somewhat poker faced, so while we felt we did a good job, it was hard to tell their reaction.

Later in the afternoon, we had a “VC speed-dating” event, where we had 10 minutes with each of 5 VCs. The firms were all first-rate (BlueRun, Hummer Winblad, Madrona, Greylock, and CMEA). Our product is pretty complex, so it’s hard to get across in 10 minutes, but we did our best, and each of the VCs seemed to get it quickly enough. All were interested in following up, but again, hard to tell how we ranked.

Then there was a reception while the judges and the VCs deliberated. They had invited 200 other startup people to come hear how the seven finalists were using AWS. My guess is closer to a hundred people were in the room, and we had to do another 10 minute presentation on AWS, with slides, to this group. We managed to do it in only 5-6 minutes and get our message across. Finally, around 9pm, it was time to announce the winner. We were jubilant when they picked us – I let out a shout of joy and a fist pump, to the delight of the audience.

Andy Jassy, the SVP of AWS said some nice words and gave us the traditional golden hammer. We were then invited to take a whack at an old rackmount server they had, to symbolize the destruction of our own servers. John and I both hammered it pretty hard, but we barely dented it – those steel frames are tough.

Then everyone came up to congratulate us, and we shook hands with big grins on our faces. We took a couple of pictures, approved the quote in the press release, and talked with the Amazon folks some more. All great stuff.

Finally, we headed out for a celebratory dinner. Once again, thanks to everyone in the company for your hard work – we did the talking, but we could not have done this without all of you.

Hooray!

Yieldex is a Finalist in AWS Startup Challenge

Friday, November 7th, 2008

We were delighted to learn yesterday that Yieldex was selected as a finalist in the Amazon AWS Startup Challenge. Seven companies were selected out of probably 100’s that applied (apparently 900 applied last year, don’t know how many applied this year). We even got a TechCrunch mention – can’t wait to see what that does to our web site traffic. For the record, our web site is intentionally vague – we didn’t want to really launch the company until we had a few customers up and running – and we’re getting close.

We view this as a great validation of our sophisticated technology for solving the complex and difficult problem of maximizing the value of premium inventory for large web sites. By using cutting-edge software that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the cloud, coupled with our patented engine, we are able to tackle these challenges that have resisted commercial solutions for a decade or more. Congratulations to our development team – they deserve this!

Rolling with the punches

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Sometimes as an entrepreneur you just gotta roll with the punches. Last week I had a week-long trip to NYC, Philly, and DC to visit customers and prospects. The morning I was to get on the plane, I woke up with the whole left side of my face throbbing. I managed to get in to my dentist first thing, who discovered an abscessed (infected) wisdom tooth. I spent the whole week on amoxycillin and vicodin, napping between meetings in Bryant Park. Frequent caffeine injections ensured I had energy for presentations, and I managed to power through with reasonable success.

Friday night, on my cross-country flight home in the very back row (the one that doesn’t recline), my legs started itching. I thought it was just travel pains, but it turns out I’m newly allergic to penicillin. Fortunately, the infection was mostly gone at this point, so I survived the weekend on vicodin. Monday morning at 7:30am I had the tooth pulled, and switched to a regime of cipro and ibuprofen. Fortunately the swelling went down quickly, and I started to attack the mountain of work that piled up over the last 10 days.

Then my Macbook froze. Hmm – that never happens. Oh well, reboot. Hmm. Nothing happening. Then a folder appears with a blinking question mark. Uh oh. Looks like another day’s productivity shot. Good thing I bought a $350 desktop machine for web surfing – I can still get a lot of things done. And I use FolderShare to make sure all my key documents are synchronized across my laptop and home machine. But I still had to make an appointment with the Genius Bar to get the hard disk replaced (it was shot). Then I had to go back and pick it up. Now I have to re-install all my apps. There was a time when I would have really looked forward to this task, but right now? Ugh.

And don’t even get me started on all the people forwarding the Sequoia presentation and asking me if I have 2 years of cash in the bank.

It’s been a tough couple weeks, but I’m rolling. Keeping a positive attitude. The important things, family and overall business, are doing well. Things are looking up.

The agony and the ecstasy of the first customer

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Ah, the first customer. No other single event is as important and nerve-wracking to an enterprise software company as getting your first customer up and running. Fail, and the ensuing reputation damage could kill your business. Succeed, and the reference will set you up for a much easier sales effort to the next one. Not to mention the effect on employee morale, investors both current and potential, and (heaven forbid) your revenue line.

You know there are a few things not quite done about your product yet, but you think most of it is there, and you can manage around the rest. You know that you’ll learn some things from how the customer will use it, but exactly what is still unclear. You think you know how to deploy it, but some of the integration challenges are still opaque. As somebody said, you’re 90% of the way there, and the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.

Choosing the right first customer is essential. Someone with a champion willing to work with you through the inevitable obstacles that will crop up. Someone with a problem hard enough that your solution delivers significant value, but easy enough that your alpha-quality solution doesn’t choke. Someone name-brand enough to provide a strong reference.

In my experience, setting expectations is the hardest part. You don’t actually have any idea how long it’s going to take to deploy, but the customer wants an estimate. You don’t know exactly what the main value propositions are, because you don’t know exactly how they’ll use it, but you had to say something to sell it to them. And you want to leave yourself enough wiggle room that when you finally do deliver something of value, you can declare success and say that was your plan all along. This is a balance beam that’s hard to walk.

Final piece of advice: listen to your customer. Don’t just listen politely, but really dig in and listen hard. Spend a lot of time with them, both in the office and out. Learn why they think you can help them, and understand their own motivations. Watch them in their daily work, both with your product and without, to understand what they do and how they see the world. These things will help you work through the challenges, deliver a product that they love, and give you the foundation of a successful business.