Grit and Perseverance — The will to survive and thrive is essential because you will be told ”no” many times from employees, investors, etc. The bottom line is to just keep on trying.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Taylor Brown, COO and co-founder of Fivetran.
Taylor is passionate about helping good humans build awesome products. He draws inspiration from his time as a liberal arts student at Amherst College, experience as a designer at North Social, and lifelong athletic endeavors. Most recently he has built Fivetran, a fully managed automated data integration provider, from an idea to a rapidly growing global business valued at more than $1.2 billion. He believes that magic happens when you can build a simple yet powerful product that is truly innovative and helps users solve a hard problem. He understands this is only possible with an amazing team and is privileged to work with the best in the business.
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?
I co-founded Fivetran in 2012 with my longtime friend George Fraser, who is our CEO. I was raised in Boulder, Colorado and George grew up in New York, but we would see each other every summer. Our families share a cabin on a beautiful lake in Wisconsin. It’s an amazing story dating back four generations — all the way back to 1922. Every summer our families go on vacation there together.
Before Fivetran, George was a neuroscientist and I was a practicing artist, after earning my college degree in fine arts. It was actually an advantage that we didn’t know anything about data integration as it allowed us to think differently and come up with an entirely new approach to solving a very complicated business and technology problem. Legacy data management providers had built really complicated tools, and we wanted to do something the exact opposite. Our mission is to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity — and we are well on our way. It all goes back to how we built our technology platform in the early days.
Shortly after we decided to go into business together, we applied to and were accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator incubator program. We worked hard to determine our product market fit and started building our network, which proved to be invaluable — especially when it came to finding our initial investors.
We started with the idea to build a vertically integrated data analysis tool. We built many iterations of this product over the first two years and realized the huge unsolved problem that no one had figured out was the data integration component — and how to automate it and make it ridiculously simple for customers. So, we stripped everything else out and built our automated data integration tool, growing from a single customer in late 2015 to more than 1,600 today.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The real “Aha Moment” was when we found our go-to-market fit. We had a number of customers telling us about the problems they were having with no real solution. When speaking with George, we found that we were able to find the solution for these companies and rolled with it. Within 48 hours we changed our website and it’s been history since then.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
After completing the prestigious Y-Combinator accelerator program, my longtime friend, George Fraser, and I co-founded Fivetran in 2012. Along the journey of building our business, we were able to learn from our past experiences, as well as from one another. One of our key mottos was and continues to be, “let’s not overcomplicate it,” and that helped us simplify and streamline things. George has been a great leader for not only myself, but also for the wider team at Fivetran.
In addition to George, early partners, such as Looker and Snowflake, helped Fivetran get to where we are today and learn key lessons.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Reasoning from first principles helped us to build an innovative product that solves customers’ problems in an automated way. We also drove a sales-focused culture from early on.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Through the Fivetran technology we’ve been able to help companies access data more rapidly and consistently than ever before — think of a horse vs. a car — and this has allowed organizations to make an impact in the world in a variety of ways — whether through rapidly growing their businesses and providing more jobs or using data for purpose-driven outcomes. For example, many of our customers use their “data for good.’’ Take our customer Kiva as an example. Kiva is an international nonprofit, founded in 2005 in San Francisco, with a mission to expand financial access to help underserved communities thrive. Through the implementation of Fivetran, they’re now able to better measure their social impact and as a result better serve the Kiva mission.
Additionally, we’ve been able to bring jobs to more people. Fivetran continues to grow rapidly and expand around the world while maintaining an impressive reputation for company culture. The company currently has more than 500 employees, spread across our global headquarters in Oakland, CA, and additional offices in Denver, Dublin (Ireland EMEA HQ), London, Munich, Bangalore, Sydney and Kaluga, Russia.
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?
- Burn the boat and succeed at all costs. This mentality goes back to when George and I first started the company and it still resonates. For context, there’s a story about a king who was in war who sailed all of his men across the channel and when they got across they burned the boats, with the mentality that they would either win or die, and they ended up winning.
- Put in 100%. We have a drive to succeed and put in 100%, 100% of the time.
- First Principles. Reasoning from first principles plays a large role in our success. Having implemented this approach from the beginning, we stayed true to the process and have never wavered.
- Teamwork and trust. In the beginning we had many tough times, and still do, but continue to strive to do our best and to not let the day before get us down. Oftentimes, founders break up in the beginning due to all of the stress, but our longstanding relationship and trust in one another gives us the strength to keep moving forward.
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?
Looking back, I’ve received a lot of advice, and often for new challenges that I’m facing, I seek lots of advice from many different subject matter experts. Usually, I collate this advice into an action plan. Have I had bad results from action plans, absolutely, so indirectly we have received bad advice, or more likely, I have collated it poorly.
One example of this is when we attempted to build our own ABM technology and attribution marketing model. The advice was great, but we didn’t take into account how much effort it really took to get right, especially given the size of our company at that time. Years later, we are now doing this, but we have the right resources in place to make it happen.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One of the hardest times was when we ran out of venture capital and weren’t sure about our next move. However, we were able to obtain our first customer, who paid us enough to survive the next couple of months. From that experience, we found that we didn’t want to raise money yet and forced ourselves to solely run on sales. If we didn’t hit our sales, we didn’t get paid and that was a driver for us to keep going. We spent about 14 months running on revenue and then went for our next round of venture capital raise.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
This goes back to the burn the boats mentality I had from the start. I spent a lot of time investing in myself. My whole life I’ve built that trust around myself to perform. George has the same outlook which is another reason why we have been able to gel so well as co founders.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
It can be easy to get caught in the everyday highs and lows, but I don’t allow myself to be on a roller coaster of emotions. This can also be a fault to a degree, as I have a hard time celebrating the wins. I’ve always found it best to focus on the future and to not let things get me up or down.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Great question. Bootstrapping is a great way to build a solid business foundation. In our case we raised money and then bootstrapped and that allowed us to find the right product-market fit.
For founders starting out, there are a number of factors when it comes to choosing the route of venture capital or bootstrapping. For example, how fast growing is the market you’re competing in? If it’s not competitive and fast growing, then you have more time to grow and can bootstrap. If it’s the opposite, venture capital may likely be the route to choose.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Talking to users — That is the first step. Successful startups find a true problem by focusing on users and solving their problem, and one they’re willing to pay for. Many times companies continue to work on perfecting an idea, and their downfall is that they didn’t spend enough time talking with their users to understand the true need and/or problem.
- Grit and Perseverance — The will to survive and thrive is essential because you will be told ”no” many times from employees, investors, etc. The bottom line is to just keep on trying.
- Hiring Great People — I can’t stress how important it is to have a great team. If you lack in one area, hire someone who is great in that role. Listen to your employees and ask yourself if you have the right processes in place for them.
- Scaling the Business — Understanding the right phases as you continue to grow and scale is hard and to not overcomplicate operations. At Fivetran, we’re continually optimizing the operational and human pieces of the businesses.
- World Class Global — Once you get to a certain size it’s about leadership. It’s important to understand how to lead a large group of diverse people and motivate them, and have them trust you and work with you. That can be very challenging.
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?
The first one is focusing on the wrong things, such as not talking to users.
The second one is getting in your own way. Unfortunately, ego and the need to hold power over others is the biggest reason that companies fail after they find product-market fit. It’s a shame because there are so many dollars put towards good ideas that fail due to founders driving their own business into the ground.
Make sure you have sound fundamentals in place. Many founders or CEOs just don’t follow sound business fundamentals. This is an absolute must. CEOs and founders who are very innovative try to innovate in every aspect of their business. The thing is that you can only afford to innovate in select areas in your business — and that should be your product.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
This all depends on what phase of growth you’re in. Unfortunately, during the early stages of starting a company this is just something you have to do. When George and I first started Fivetran, we had a lifestyle that allowed us to work long hours every day of the week.
In the second phase, this can be dangerous. It’s really easy to burn out. This is where a good team comes into play. Making sure you’re hiring the right people to equally do the work, but at the same time making sure they don’t burn out either.
In the third phase, it’s about setting boundaries. Make sure you and your team are able to take vacations. It’s all about work-life balance.
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. 🙂
In general building an inclusive culture is valuable to building a high-performing team that trusts and really likes each other. That’s the foundation. That inclusiveness isn’t something that a lot of people focus on but it is really important.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Richard Branson. He’s done extremely well and he also knows how to have a good time.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on Twitter, @taylorwcbrown, or on LinkedIn. Another great place is the Fivetran website, Fivetran.com, or our blog at Fivetran.com/blog.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!