Don’t worry about someone stealing your idea. I see this often, especially with first time entrepreneurs — they are worried about sharing their idea with others because they don’t know if someone else might copy it. I have always found that it is more important to focus on building a strong ecosystem than worrying about this. For example, at Komprise, we built an alliance with IBM early on — IBM resells our software. This meant we had to share a lot of information about our product and our roadmap with IBM, who has a lot more resources than us. But by doing this, their entire sales force sells our software, and it has greatly expanded our market opportunity. It takes a lot of execution to bring an idea to life, so building an ecosystem is worth a lot more than the guarded secrecy.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kumar Goswami.
Kumar K. Goswami is co-founder and CEO of Komprise, the industry’s only multi-cloud data management-as-a-service that allows enterprise IT organizations to easily analyze, mobilize, and access the right file and object data across on-premises and cloud storage. Based in Silicon Valley, Komprise has won numerous industry awards and recognition including Gartner Cool Vendor in Storage Technologies, GigaOm Outperformer and CRN Tech Innovator finalist in 2020. Prior to Komprise, Kumar held executive roles at both large companies and startups for over 25 years including co-founder and CEO of Kaviza (Acquired by Citrix), VP Products at Citrix, Sr Director HP Labs, and COO of Kovair. Kumar holds a Ph.D. degree in computer science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
If we go back to my early days, I did a PHD in fault tolerant and distributed computing. When I was finishing up in the early 90s I knew I always wanted to do a start-up so I didn’t just focus on the job, but also the location. This led me to choose a job in Silicon Valley. Once I got here, this gnawing desire to do a startup kept coming at me. Eventually I joined a startup really just to learn how it worked. I still remember reading an interview with the founder of Hotmail. His answer to the question of, “Why did you do it?” really struck me. He said, “I never wanted to look back and say dang it I never tried.” That one hit me really hard. I never wanted to look back and say I never tried. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but if I tried at least I would know that I get it a shot. That’s really how this whole startup thing began for me.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As to why Komprise…by this time we had done 2 prior startups together, my co-founders Mike Peercy, Krishna Subramanian, and me. We wanted to make sure we were going into a really large market. We saw that data was growing like crazy and there isn’t a lot of innovation, especially in the world of unstructured data. We met at a coffee shop and discussed the opportunity. We talked to customers whom we had previously sold to and other CIOs and they were saying something similar — we’re drowning in unstructured data, we don’t know how much data we have, we wish there was something that would help us understand and do something about it. The key “Aha” for us was this feedback: “Don’t just tell me about the data, make sure you can do something about it. That struck a chord. We realized that we needed to do something vendor agnostic. Everybody had silos of data. I remember thinking there needs to be a blanket on top so it wouldn’t matter was below. Customers corrected this thinking by advising us that you don’t want to be a blanket on top, but on the side. Don’t get in front of our data. And this was key to how Komprise started to stake shape. We need to have analytics, but not just analytics. We had to allow you to take action. We needed to be agnostic. We need to ensure we didn’t get in front of the data. All of these principles that came from early customer validation are still part of our DNA. We realized that with our background in distributed fault-tolerant computing, we could build a data management software that did exactly this.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The early days are always hard, especially if trying to do something new. What we’re doing today isn’t a cheaper, faster, better approach. It’s not that simple. We are a totally different approach, which requires you to have a conversation about how they’re currently storing and trying to manage data using a number of vendors and explaining to them why it’s not good enough. You have to get them to understand and see that. That’s hard. It’s hard enough with enterprise IT organizations dealing with this every day. Now imagine trying to do that with VCs, who don’t necessarily see or face the problem. That’s where the journey begins and it’s always difficult. As one of my co-founders says, “you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince!”
But it does get easier as a serial entrepreneur. I can tell you this time was easier than last time. Especially since we started our second company in 2008–2009, which was a tough time economically. This time we are also more proven, having had a company acquired. But it’s never easy, especially when you’re doing something new.
What keeps me going is customer feedback and knowing the impact we’re having. When we get an email from partner who gets it and is ready to make introductions to their accounts. When I hear customer say, “Where the heck have you been all my life? Where were you three years ago?” It’s these moments that keep you going. When you know you’re on to something and you just need to crack it open. It’s a passion. We want to create something beautiful and elegant that really solves a necessary problem. Ultimately that’s what motivates us and I know this is the same passion that motivates our employees.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Well, the journey never ends. When we first started there were 3 of us with some ideas and slides. Now we have 150 employees, great customers, we’re managing petabytes of data and we’re having a huge impact. From that perspective, Komprise is already a huge success, but it’s not over yet. I remember in the early days of the pandemic we wanted to ensure we came out of it stronger, and I feel we are doing that. We have the right team. We have a huge market. Now we just need to continue to execute and ensure our customers are wildly successful.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m really happy that so many people in our industry know about us now and are asking about us — from partners to prospects to industry analysts. I think what makes us stand out is that we’re solving a critical problem in a way that nobody else had thought to solve it. But we didn’t just focus on the technical aspects of the solution, we also thought a lot about the business perspective. We wanted to be to be able to show a prospect one view of their data and their costs so they could immediately see the potential ROI. We have a donut chart that our customers love that used to be green, like the color of money. This approach was fundamentally different. Another thing that makes us stand out is that we built the product on open standards. This was risky, because it meant that a customer could kick us out at any time. We do not move data in a proprietary format, so a customer is not locked in to us. This is contradictory to the storage industry where the popular mindset is, “Own the data, own the customer”. We believe in no lock-in, but this can also be risky. It forces us to deliver white glove treatment and to ensure we’re really solving a customer’s problem so we’re truly an aspirin, not a vitamin. In the process, this has made Komprise stickier with our customers. The way I see it is, if you have data you need Komprise.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I remember when we started our first company, we had to put together a P&L and it didn’t look like anything an accountant would do. We’ve come a long way since those days. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and try to learn from each of them. I guess I’d say we I learned to ensure you have a good accountant early on. Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about having the right SaaS metrics. I think this is important for every leader to understand and establish early on.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Well, VCs certainly have a lot of advice, but you have to be careful not to just blindly follow it as a founder and early-stage CEO. I remember at our first company in the .com era, the VCs were telling us to hire ahead of need. There was pressure, but we didn’t follow it full bore. We’ve always tried to grow as our business grows.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I guess I would say:
- Perseverance — I don’t let go easily. In the early days, I told our engineers it’s about doing the best you can, and the money will come. As a leader, there are times when you have to push for things, but you also have to listen to your team and know when to bring more people into the decision-making process.
- Customer-centric — You have to understand your customer and their needs. The example I shared about how Komprise was shaped by early potential customer feedback. This has carried through to our engineering team today. They are extremely customer focused. We said we’ll make them happy — let’s make them happy.
- Humble — I’m much more of an introverted, quiet person. One of our early hires at Komprise joined and said we needed to celebrate everyone’s birthdays. We had some people just go and do it. In the process, we created a culture. Hire good people. Let them lead and let them get excited about something so it becomes theirs. Ultimately, it’s about creating the best mousetrap possible, as opposed to my mousetrap.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Meditate. Look, it’s a struggle. If you’re intense, everything matters. Yet, if everything matters, you’re just hyper and it doesn’t work. So how can you be intense and still be aloof? This is my struggle. This is my journey. I’m still learning this. If you look at our life, we’re all actors on a stage. This is the script I’ve been given. Do this with gusto but remember when the script ends you can get another script. You can move on to another play. This approach helps me to not put so much imperative on this one thing being successful. You give it everything you’ve got because that’s who you are, that’s your nature, but I try to use the weekends to do something with my family.
In my first start up I had no balance. There was no such thing as a weekend or vacation. I burnt out. Nowadays I do turn off. You have to. You can’t let it become your life. You have to maintain certain boundaries. It’s absolutely critical. It requires that you have good leaders that you can trust. But that’s a process. You can’t just hire someone and let go. The new leader also has to understand that they’re coming in and taking on something you’ve always done. They also have to have the maturity to know that if they’ve been hired to be the VP of X, you’ve been doing X for the last two years and there needs to be a transition.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Many entrepreneurs focus on catering to their investors over their customers — and it is easy to do this because you think the investors are writing the big checks and you need them on your side. At the end of the day, if you build a sustainable business and your customers love you, the investors will support you. So, it is very important to focus on the customers above anyone else.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Sales is never underestimated. Neither is marketing. I think it’s culture. One thing I think matters, which may matter less post pandemic, is having a nice office open, modern-looking office where people like to come in and do their best work. Our office location in Campbell, California has beautiful hikes nearby, lovely shops and restaurants within walking distance. It just makes the time in the office more pleasant. Even though it was more expensive to be there, these things make a difference. It’s worth spending a little extra money. We also don’t clock people in and out. If it becomes fun and becomes a part of you, people just do it. We focus on what needs to get done and people own it. These are the kind of things that build the right culture early on.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Here are some things I learnt from building our first two companies:
- It’s ok to fail. Entrepreneurship is hard and the stakes are high because your early employees, customers and investors are basically betting on you. As a result, a lot of times, entrepreneurs worry a lot about getting it right, about making the right call, which is very hard to do because you are doing something new, and unchartered. I learnt early on that it is ok to make mistakes, it is ok to fail, as long as you learn from them. In our first company, we decided to change course after the first few years, and it was a tough decision, but it ended up being the right call.
- Be true to who you are. It is tempting to get swept up in the latest trends, to emulate others. But building a company takes a lot of perseverance and unless you truly believe in something, it is hard to do. I have found it is critical to stay true to our core values. For example, in enterprise software, there is a saying, “Sell ice to Eskimos” — basically, the idea is that you should charge a lot for your software and make it appear to be a must-have even if it isn’t. But this never rang true to us, we believe in selling value, we believe in delighting customers by giving them a bit more than they think they are getting, and this is how we have always priced our products.
- Don’t worry about someone stealing your idea. I see this often, especially with first time entrepreneurs — they are worried about sharing their idea with others because they don’t know if someone else might copy it. I have always found that it is more important to focus on building a strong ecosystem than worrying about this. For example, at Komprise, we built an alliance with IBM early on — IBM resells our software. This meant we had to share a lot of information about our product and our roadmap with IBM, who has a lot more resources than us. But by doing this, their entire sales force sells our software, and it has greatly expanded our market opportunity. It takes a lot of execution to bring an idea to life, so building an ecosystem is worth a lot more than the guarded secrecy.
- Culture is more important than a star individual. This one is really hard, because we want to always hire the best, but we found early on that the best employee is a team player — someone who is really smart but does not get along with others can be toxic to a startup. We have found it is important to share our core values and our culture with every new employee when they join — a star team outweighs star athletes.
- It is always about the customer. We have found it is extremely important to work with customers from early on — even before we build a product, we take early designs and talk with prospective customers to get their feedback. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, Komprise was shaped by the feedback we received early on from customers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think a lot about kids. No matter where I look, whether it’s a poor country or areas of the US, there are poor, less fortunate kids everywhere. I think that all of our crime, racism and all of the horrible things that are there in this world could be mitigated if we can bring up our kids right. If kids are brought up in a better environment and have better access, things change. That’s where you have to start. This is where we need to invest and there are many ways in which you can do it.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!