Podcasts

Starting a movement

September 16, 2015 – Ben Golub, CEO of Docker, is our guest this week. Navin Chaddha talks to Ben about how a movement like Docker happens and the many subtle things that going into fostering it. Ben also talks about picking apricots in Silicon Valley, learnings from the challenging Plaxo journey, his excitement around leading Docker, the current climate for entrepreneurs, and the value of mentorship.

From working closely with founder Solomon Hykes to leverage the Docker movement, building a culture that scales, and executing against the company mission to build tools of mass innovation, Golub walks listeners through his entrepreneurial journey.

 

Ben on establishing culture:

And actually, in all three of the companies that I served as CEO, it was one of the first things that we did was take the time, before things got too crazy, to define our values, define our culture, and define a vision for 10, 15 years in the future. Even if we had no right to be thinking that far in the future. I think having a point on the horizon that you’re heading for is incredibly important. And more startups lose their way because they don’t have a culture or because they don’t have a direction than because they have the wrong direction.

Ben on hiring:

And so what I think what I’ve learned is that as you hire and as you choose people to work with, you have to find people who are resilient and are willing to challenge their assumptions and are willing to work through difficulties. And oftentimes, that’s more important than finding people who are necessarily always right all the time. And I think having the humility and the willingness to look for new opportunities and the willingness to challenge existing assumptions is far more critical for most startups than necessarily having people who got things right the first time.

Ben on starting a movement:

And you can’t have a movement without a visionary leader like Solomon. You also can’t have a movement without empowering people who are part of the movement. And in our case, we really tried to embrace openness and open source to the greatest extent possible to help build the movement. And then you have to help guide the movement. There were a lot of little things that we did along the way, whether it was emphasizing education or providing a way for there to be meetups or providing a hub for people to publish things that all went in to helping accelerate what became a movement.

Ben’s advice for entrepreneurs:

[B]e bold and to persevere and to recognize, at times, it’s lonely, and your job is you have to deal with that loneliness but also to build a great team around you so that the team can succeed.You can achieve almost anything if you’re willing not to take credit for it.

 


Transcript

Navin: Today I have the pleasure of hosting Ben Golub, CEO of Docker.  Ben is an accomplished entrepreneur and executive who was CEO of Gluster and Plaxo. Ben, welcome to the podcast.

Ben: Thank you Navin. It’s great to be here.

Gavin: Let me start by asking, how does it feel to be CEO of a rocket ship like Docker?

Ben: It’s an absolute thrill. I think this is the sort of thing that entrepreneurs like myself can spend an entire career hoping to achieve, which is being at a great company with a great team, building amazing products that have the opportunity to change an industry. And that’s all coming together right now at Docker.

Navin: Yeah, I think it is. It’s a great company. And we love the work you guys are doing. So let me switch gears and try to put a question forward where I’m sure our audience would love to hear the story of your journey, you being a CEO of multiple startups, your work at bigger Silicon Valley companies. So what are the key milestones you think you went through, through these experiences that could serve as key learnings for other entrepreneurs that are listening to this podcast?

Ben: My first Silicon Valley experience was actually cutting apricots in Cupertino when I was 13 years old. And I think that’s important because I learned that you have to work really hard. And some level, showing up and being there and dealing with all the good and the bad is the essential characteristic of any entrepreneur. But along the way, in my career, I’ve worked in rural Africa, I worked trying to start a business school in Uzbekistan, worked in operations in the factory at Sun Microsystems, was part of the early team at Verisign, and, as you mentioned, became CEO of a number of startups. And I think at each stage along the journey, I was able to learn valuable things, which ultimately end up coming down to building resilience, building the ability to work with, and assemble great teams of people and I think learning the hard way that numbers are easy and people are hard. And ultimately, getting a great team of people and being able to persevere is really the hallmark of any successful businessperson or entrepreneur. And the hard work and dealing with multiple setbacks is far more the real story of Silicon Valley than the overnight successes that are often portrayed in the media.

Navin: Yeah, completely agree, right, my belief is running startups is like running a marathon, it’s not a sprint.  And being a VC, right, my belief is people make products. Products don’t make people. So I hundred percent agree with the importance of teams and people. So what would you say, you’ve been around, right, working with great Silicon Valley companies, this is your third role as a CEO, at least that I know about, how important is it to build a culture early on in a company’s evolution?

Ben: I think it’s absolutely critical. And I think it’s one of the areas where companies tend to make a mistake of assuming they have a great culture because everybody knows each other, and everything is fun, and they have lunch together. And oftentimes, they mistake being small for having a great culture. And unfortunately, once you get to a certain size, it’s not possible to have everybody know everybody or get together on a frequent basis. And so if you don’t take the time early on to establish your core values and establish what’s really essential to your culture, whether it’s innovation or dedication to customers or a certain style of working, things tend to fall apart. And actually, in all three of the companies that I served as CEO, it was one of the first things that we did was take the time, before things got too crazy, to define our values, define our culture, and define a vision for 10, 15 years in the future. Even if we had no right to be thinking that far in the future. I think having a point on the horizon that you’re heading for is incredibly important. And more startups lose their way because they don’t have a culture or because they don’t have a direction than because they have the wrong direction.

Navin: That’s great insight. I’m pretty sure, right, our listeners will really agree with you. And I hope they’ll learn the lessons from entrepreneurs and executives like you and start working on culture early on in their company’s journey.  Have there been any learnings along the way on how you hire and build teams that you think can be useful for others?

Ben: Sure, my first experience as a CEO was with Plaxo. And I came into Plaxo after they had gone all the way through their C round. They didn’t have a revenue model. What I thought I was walking into was a company that had great growth, great product, and simply needed to understand how to monetize. And unfortunately, I think we all came to the realization that those weren’t necessarily true. We had great download numbers. But our uninstall numbers were even sharper and up to the right. And we had achieved virality. But if I can say it this way, I think we were being viral in the same way that Ebola is. By killing off our hosts, rather than…If you’re going to have a viral product, it should be viral like mono, and people should have fun spreading it around.

And so I think what we saw was that we had a company and a product that really needed to be radically changed. And we actually had to kill the old product and rebuild from scratch with a lot of headwinds against us. And what I learned was that that was an okay situation to be in if you had a great team of people, which we did, and you have great theses behind you.

And so what I think what I’ve learned is that as you hire and as you choose people to work with, you have to find people who are resilient and are willing to challenge their assumptions and are willing to work through difficulties. And oftentimes, that’s more important than finding people who are necessarily always right all the time. And I think having the humility and the willingness to look for new opportunities and the willingness to challenge existing assumptions is far more critical for most startups than necessarily having people who got things right the first time.

Navin: Agree, agree, right, I have a belief that nimbleness is extremely important for startups and employees because dinosaurs never survive. You need to continuously keep improving and upping your game.And learn from the past but don’t be stuck with it. You need to just keep iterating and improving.

So it seems like you’ve had a lot of success, a lot of good learnings. So what would you say was your biggest struggle moment where you had a real difficult experience in one of these companies that shaped your journey and which you’re glad you went through?

Ben: Sure, well, often, it’s glad in retrospect. I started to tell you the Plaxo story. So I think that was one of the more challenging experiences I went through. As I mentioned, a couple weeks into being part of Plaxo, recognized that we had to restructure the company. As I mentioned, we already had three rounds of funding, so there was no additional round of funding waiting in the wings. We had to change with what we had. We ended up at the same period of time getting hit with one of these patent troll lawsuits. The economy started getting a little funky. And it was a time when I think it would have been really easy for me or anybody else to give up.

What we did was – First of all, we committed to each other that we were going to work through this. But second of all, got really rigorous about saying what is it that we are strong at, what are our real assets? What is it that the world wants? And how can we match our assets to what the world wants?

And quite frankly, Plaxo had a few different pivots. That’s the word that we’d use right now. But ultimately, we found a model that was both engaging for users and actually engaging for service providers. And that enabled us to get to the point where we became a rapidly growing service and company again. And ultimately, we were able to get a successful exit that happened in 2008.

And I think, again, what I learned from that is that it’s a team that is willing to be resilient. It’s willing to question its assumptions but also that doesn’t give up. And I think that far too often, startups are seduced by the myth of the instant success and don’t realize that 7 out of 10 startups fail, of course. And most of those that succeed go through dark periods. And in some ways, the dark periods force you stronger because they force you to get stronger and they force you to lose some of the hubris or arrogance that I think is often endemic to our industry.

Navin: Got it. No, this is very, very helpful. So I think coming back to today and to Docker, right, we talked about the value of culture. We talked about the value of teams. I also believe it’s extremely important for startups to have a vision and a mission. So at Docker, right, how do you guys look at what’s your vision and mission, because it’s equally important to have these things beyond culture and team, because everybody needs to know where north is?

So what would you say is your vision and mission at Docker and how you rally your employees, your partners, your customers around it?

Ben: Right, so we actually went through the process of defining values which I could talk about. Then we chose a long-term mission that we hope will be good for the length of the company that’s consistent with those values. And then we chose a mission that we’re marching to. Our long-term mission is to build tools of mass innovation. And what we believe is that we’re at a really interesting period in time where the biggest source of innovation is the Internet and the inherent creativity of all of those who work in the software industry. But we’re still at a point where the Internet itself can’t really be programmed. The Internet is the universal publishing platform, but it’s not a universal computing platform. And we want to get to the point where developers can write programs that can run on any server anywhere in the Internet, and they can write programs that will run on cars and on phones and on devices and on refrigerators.

And to a large extent, what we’re trying to build with Docker today is a set of tools that will enable any developer to, in a collaborative and rapid way, build applications that can run anywhere and be built, shipped, and run in a way that’s radically faster and radically better than anything that is currently out there. That’s the mission that we’re going on.

Now, we have some really specific metrics that we’re trying to hit over the next 5 years in terms of revenue and users and capabilities. And the good news is what we’re finding is that, about once a quarter, we go out back and we visit these things, we’re inevitably having been too modest in our goals. And so we end up making our five-year vision even more forward-looking.

Navin: That’s great. So I think Docker is a platform today, right? How do you guys as a CEO look at what do you do yourself versus where do you partner, because things are moving even faster than Internet speed, right? We used to joke in the ’90s, things are moving at Internet speed. But today, in this new world of mobile first and cloud first, things are moving at least 10X faster. So how do you guys decide where to partner and where to do things yourself? And how do you help set the priorities in that area as a CEO?

Ben: That’s a really good question. I think it certainly had to start with understanding that if you’re a platform, people will build on top of you. And some of them will build things that you like, and some of them will build things that are competitive with you. And that’s okay. And I think getting into the mindset that says if we are successful as a platform, in all likelihood, the ecosystem will make 10 times as much as we make individually, but that would be okay because we’re baking a really big pie. I guess, more specifically, though, we have looked at what it is that we think we’re really good at and what we think is really important. And we think that we’re very good at delivering things for individual developers and for developer work groups and that what is important for us is to really deliver within Docker the experience that lets people build applications and define multi-container applications that are portable.

Underneath that though, there are lots of things that could be plugged in. So we’ve adopted this philosophy of batteries included, but removable, which means that we build APIs first. And then we deliver what we think of as 80/20 solutions for certain areas like networking and storage. But we make it very possible for others who want to make their entire business, things like networking or storage or security to, in essence, swap out our 80/20 batteries with things that are more full featured. And that’s of a generic area. But what we’ve also tried to do is make it really easy in the same way that iOS as a platform has made things easy for people to build applications, if you will, and build content even more so.

But I think just as the folks said, iOS choose certain things, whether it’s your contact list or your phone or the music player that they don’t encourage competition around. We’ve done the same thing. But there are other areas where, to use the analogy, in iOS, you let the best map win, and you let the best scheduler win. And that’s kind of the same thing with us as well.

Navin: Got it, yeah, I think a lot of startups are looking forward to partnering with you guys. And I think having that open philosophy and an extensible platform can really help people. So coming back to the developers or your customers, Docker clearly is a movement that is happening. And you’ve been at other open source companies before, so can you really build a movement, or you think this is an organic phenomenon? And the reason is this question keeps coming up for every startup that why can you build a movement around your product. So how do you think it happens? Is there any secret sauce? Any advice? Or it just happens by accident?

Ben: You know that line at the beginning of Anna Karenina that says all happy marriages are the same and all unhappy marriages are unique in their misery? I think that to some extent with movements, there are all sorts of things that have to be right for the movement to exist. That doesn’t guarantee that it will happen. But if you’re missing any one of them, the movement will fail.

So first of all, there has to be a reason for people to want to join your movement. The conditions have to be there. In our case, we were really fortunate to come about at an age when all the trends you were talking about –  microservices, the cloud, big data, DevOps, had all been there. So we were able to come in and help catalyze that.

But then there are certain things that I think we got right. First of all, I really shouldn’t have gotten this far into the interview without talking about Solomon Hykes, who’s the founder, CTO, visionary, chief product person. And you can’t have a movement without a visionary leader like Solomon. You also can’t have a movement without empowering people who are part of the movement. And in our case, we really tried to embrace openness and open source to the greatest extent possible to help build the movement. And then you have to help guide the movement. There were a lot of little things that we did along the way, whether it was emphasizing education or providing a way for there to be meetups or providing a hub for people to publish things that all went in to helping accelerate what became a movement. I think if we hadn’t done any of those things, we would have been one of many unhappy marriages or many unhappy movements.

Navin: Got it, got it. I think lots of good stuff there. But probably, you’re being very modest because you guys have done a lot of things right, which many companies failed to. So coming back to you, right, from the Docker stuff, what do you think has been the role of mentors in your journey, as an entrepreneur and executive? Have they influenced you? And what has been their impact?

Ben: I think mentorship is incredibly important. And as I look back on my career, I don’t know that necessarily the most important things have been formal mentorships or necessarily even the typical picture of the wise, older mentor who is taking you under their wing and encouraging you. And in some ways, I think the most important mentors I had were often some early bosses who actually challenged me. I remember when I was 19 and I had a job working in the factory at Sun Microsystems, and I had two bosses at the time, Chuck Feledy and Ron Ouellet. They said, “Hey, listen, there’s a supplier who hasn’t been treating us right. You need to go into this room and yell at him about prices and yell at him about delivery.” And I was 19 years old, and I was terrified to do it, but I went in and did that. I figured out later that they probably knew this guy and had set him up to provide me with a bit of a challenge doing it.

But I think that that notion of being a mentor sometimes means challenging people who work for you and giving them situations where they can fail. It is incredibly important because I think if mentorship is purely a coddling exercise, I don’t know that it necessarily gets people where they need to be.

Navin: Got it. So switching to the macro environment, right, especially of startups, there is all the talk of unicorns, What are your thoughts on this current climate for startups, right? And how do you retain talent in this kind of an environment where every day or every week, a couple of unicorns keep popping up?

Ben: Sure, sure. If you are lucky enough to be a unicorn, you have to have the modesty to say, “Look, that may be an indication of potential.” It doesn’t mean that you are worth a billion dollars yet or whatever the case may be.

I guess I would also say that I actually think some of the best startups are formed in tougher fundraising environments. And so while it’s really exciting to be in a great fundraising environment, to some extent, I think startups are also facing the challenge right now. And as you say, there are lots of other competing startups that are funded, that are competing for talent. And often, the challenging economic environments are those where you’re able to assemble talent as a startup. You’re forced to be lean because the funding isn’t there. But also, your customers are forced to be more risk-taking because they’re forced to look at solutions that may be radically cheaper and radically different and aren’t as inclined to choose solutions that are safe.

So I guess my sense is macroeconomic environment is good now. But if there were an economic downturn, I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad thing for entrepreneurs.

Navin: Got it.

Ben: And if some of the unicorns with sharp horns pop some bubbles, that’s not a bad thing either.

Navin: Yeah, yeah. But I think one needs to be careful and not get carried away with these private company valuations, because building businesses is a marathon. And it doesn’t matter what your intermediate value is. So I completely agree with you, right?

Ben: You’ve heard the same saying, right? That more startups die of indigestion than of starvation. So we try really hard, even though we’ve got great funders and we’ve got great valuations and a lot of money in the bank, we still try and run really lean.

Navin: No, that’s awesome. That’s an awesome value to have. So coming back to you, is there one accomplishment that you want to be known for, whether you’ve already accomplished it or plan to accomplish it in the future? So what would you want to be known for?

Ben: Well, I would really love to be known for having built teams and companies that have not only been wildly successful, but have changed the world in a meaningful way. And I think with Docker, we have that opportunity. For me, I think the pleasure I have is in seeing what Docker becomes. And it’s not necessarily bound up in me having to be the guy running it or necessarily being the person ringing the bell when we go public.

I’m also a father of three. And I think if you’re a parent, at some point, you recognize that your greatest pleasure comes from seeing your kids become marvelous in ways that you had no inkling at the time that they would become marvelous. And I think what companies do as an entrepreneur, you have to be excited to see the company grow and fulfill its potential in ways that you aren’t directly forcing.

Navin: That’s incredible, what your vision is and what you want to accomplish. So in parting, what would be your key advice to entrepreneurs today?

Ben: I think my key advice to entrepreneurs is to be bold and to persevere and to recognize, at times, it’s lonely, and your job is you have to deal with that loneliness but also to build a great team around you so that the team can succeed. You can achieve almost anything if you’re willing not to take credit for it. And maybe that’s what most entrepreneurs need to learn.

Navin: Ben, this has been very, very inspirational. I really appreciate the time you have taken with us today. And I’m sure our listeners are going to really enjoy this conversation. Thank you very much.

Ben: Thank you, Navin.