Key factor that led to Buildkite’s success was that I never treated Buildkite as a startup, but rather as a business. I never liked the term “startup” because it comes with a heap of baggage, one of them having the mindset of “we’re only a startup, we can make mistakes.” I found that by treating Buildkite like a business, I was hyper-focused on sales and sustainability. For example, when it came to hiring, we took a strategic approach and only hired if it was necessary and we could afford it. This mindset also helped us focus on the product more. We didn’t have time to re-write our entire application every six months with the new “hot” technology that all the big companies were using, we needed to be strategic.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Pitt.
Keith Pitt is the co-founder and CTO of Buildkite, the fastest way to reliably test and build software at any scale.
Keith was previously a lead engineer at several Australian developer-first companies including Envato, Qantas and Pin Payments. He also built, launched, and sold Desktoppr to a private purchaser before teaming up with his Buildkite co-founders.
As a big believer in the power of putting the right tools in the hands of developers, Keith is always looking to find ways to make software faster and more enjoyable.
Outside of work, Keith is a proud new father, Perth resident, retired magician (don’t make him pull out his South Australian Young Magician of the Year award), and grower of avocado trees.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but rather just as someone who has always enjoyed building things. If that thing didn’t exist, I felt compelled to go make it.
Along the way, I’ve enjoyed building businesses, starting as early as 16 when I started my own IT company, selling computer hardware to friends. While creating new things and building businesses are the characteristics of an entrepreneur, I never labeled myself one, choosing to just focus on continuing to build things I loved that would help others
With Buildkite, I set out to solve my own problems first. It started when my employer at the time told me to stop using a cloud-based CI/CD platform due to security concerns and instead find a replacement. All of the self-hosted options were incredibly outdated, given I was accustomed to using modern development workflows. It was at that moment that I started looking for a hybrid approach for CI/CD — a tool where I could run my tests locally, but not have to worry about managing the orchestration software. I was actually quite surprised to discover that something like that didn’t exist at all, so I felt compelled to make it and modernize CI/CD at the same time. Along this journey, I discovered that other developers were looking for the same thing, and they were willing to pay for it!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One of the major challenges I encountered when first leading the company were the external pressures from the business and startup community around what a “CEO” or a “Founder” should be doing with their time. I remember wasting days googling “what does a CEO do?” The realization was that I was not a CEO. You can’t be the CEO of a company with only two people, it just didn’t make sense.
In the beginning, your focus should be on building, inventing, and listening to your customers. The only way to build a successful product is by looking towards your customers for insight. What do they want? What problems do they have? Becoming incredibly engaged with your customers from the start of your business, always seeking their input, will allow you to build a great product, and eventually, the rest will follow.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
One of the things we did, which I know was absolutely key, was iterating on the product quickly while customers were trialing Buildkite. Folks would email in and say “Buildkite is great, can it do XYZ?” We would then hunker down and build that product or feature within a few days, and quickly came back to that customer with “Yup, it can now! This is how it works…”
Another key factor that led to Buildkite’s success was that I never treated Buildkite as a startup, but rather as a business. I never liked the term “startup” because it comes with a heap of baggage, one of them having the mindset of “we’re only a startup, we can make mistakes.” I found that by treating Buildkite like a business, I was hyper-focused on sales and sustainability. For example, when it came to hiring, we took a strategic approach and only hired if it was necessary and we could afford it. This mindset also helped us focus on the product more. We didn’t have time to re-write our entire application every six months with the new “hot” technology that all the big companies were using, we needed to be strategic.
A really great technical foundation meant that we could iterate on the product quickly and implement new features that customers asked for when they were trialing the product. Folks would email in and say “Buildkite is great, can it do XYZ?”. We’d go away, build it within a few days, and respond with “Yup, it can now! This is how it works…”
Another factor is that I never treated Buildkite as a “startup” but instead as a “business”. I never liked the term “startup” because it comes with a heap of baggage, one of them having the mindset of “We’re only a startup, we can make mistakes”. For me, when I treated Buildkite like a business, it meant I was way more focused on things like sales and sustainability. We only hired when we could afford it and when we needed it. It also helped us focus on the product more. We didn’t have time to re-write our entire application every 6 months with the new “hot” technology that all the big companies were using, We needed to be smart.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Look after yourself. Everything starts with the founders — so if they’re happy and productive, the team will be happy and productive. You’ll know in your gut if things aren’t right.
2. You may not have a boss, but you’ve still got responsibilities. When you start hiring, you have a responsibility to pay people, as their livelihood depends on you.
3. Being open and honest is always the best default. Early on at Buildkite, we made some poor purchasing decisions, and our cash flow wasn’t looking good. Instead of trying to hide this from the team, we told everyone way in advance what was going to happen. Everyone helped us come up with ways to solve the problem, and together we got through it, and never missed a single payment!
4. Spreadsheets are your friend! They can help you plan and gain insight into your business.
5. Everything should always be an MVP. It’s really easy to over-engineer processes and products. Try and figure out the cheapest and easiest way to try something, before you do it “for real.” You’ll save yourself time, energy, and money by starting out small. Bonus points if you can figure out how to build something by not building it at all.
6. (Bonus Round) Start charging from day one. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you need to retro-fit a business model into a product. The business model and the product should go hand in hand.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Have hobbies or other things you care about outside of work. In the past when I’ve burnt out, I can usually attribute it to my life and work merging together in an unhealthy way, which leads to all sorts of negative side effects. For me, it meant that when people critiqued an idea I had, it would translate to “you’re a bad person.”
Also, not having work communication apps/email installed on your cell phone to prevent you from “accidentally checking in with work” when you’re not at a computer. So many times I’ve opened a work app on the couch at 10:00 p.m. at night and got sucked into something when I should have been relaxing and recharging.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are lots of people who were involved in the success of Buildkite. The person that stands out is my friend Matt Allen. I knew him from around the Australian Ruby on Rails scene, and I remember one day emailing him to ask him some questions on how to take Buildkite to the next level. At the time we had 12 paying customers, and the payments were going directly into my personal bank account. I wanted to learn how to set up a business bank account and legitimize things.
The conversation went something like this:
He asked: “What kind of monthly revenue are you at with those 12 paying customers?”
And I responded with: “Monthly income is now at $538/month (Buildkite had been around for just over a month then) so I think that’s pretty good growth. I have 333 expired accounts, and 26 currently on trial. My costs are like $200/month so I think that technically makes me profitable? :P”
And he replied with: “!! dude, you’ve nailed the product/market fit! I can’t tell you how proud of you I am (does that sound weird?)”
Hearing that really helped me. At the time I didn’t know what product/market fit was. I was just trying to build something cool that people wanted to buy — turns out there’s a name for that.
Matt helped me chart a path to turn Buildkite from a side project into a proper business. He also played a big role in helping me find one of my co-founders Tim Lucas.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, learning to be a better communicator is a skill that I’m still working on, and honestly, something that I think I’ll be working on for years to come. I’d love to be a better writer and learn to tell better stories with words.
Personally I’ve been playing with 3D printers, and I have a goal to try and make something physical and try to sell it. I’m not sure what that is yet, but I’m excited for the challenge.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I want to inspire people to go out and build things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Invent more. If you have an idea for something, go build it! If you don’t know how to build it, go learn! I taught myself programming by reading tutorials and copy/pasting from the internet until it worked. You can do the same. There’s always a better way to do something. Buildkite wasn’t the first CI/CD platform in the world, I just did it differently than the ones before me. You can do the same! Just because something already exists, doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. What comes after Facebook? What comes after Google? Something will be the new thing. You could be the one that builds it.
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