Running a Successful Startup: the Wisdom of Mike Stonebraker

Top view of multiracial young creative people in modern office. Group of young business people are working together with laptop, tablet, smart phone, notebook. Successful hipster team in coworking. Freelancers.

I met Mike Stonebraker in 2004. Since then, we’ve built many successful startups together (and a few duds as well). Our relationship has had a profound effect on me as a founder, a software entrepreneur, and a person. I also had the privilege of contributing a chapter to the book Making Databases Work: The Pragmatic Wisdom of Michael Stonebraker. The book describes the unique nature, significance, and impact of Mike’s achievements in advancing modern database systems and building successful startups over more than forty years.

In the chapter, I did my best to answer the question: “What’s it like running a successful startup with Mike Stonebraker?” He has distilled the wisdom gained from founding nine (so far) database startups over the last 40 years. Founding nine startup companies is an extraordinary achievement for a computer scientist. As his 2014 ACM Turing Award citation noted:

“Stonebraker is the only Turing award winner to have engaged in serial entrepreneurship on anything like this scale, giving him a distinctive perspective on the academic world. The connection of theory to practice has often been controversial in database research, despite the foundational contribution of mathematical logic to modern database management systems.”

Mike’s track record in starting new companies is better than most venture capitalists. Of his startups to date, three have delivered greater than 5× returns to their investors (Ingres, Illustra/Postgres, and Vertica), three delivered less, and three are still “in flight.” Blue-chip and leading technology companies—such as Facebook, Uber, Google, Microsoft, and IBM as well as cutting-edge mainstream industrial companies—such as GE and Thomson Reuters—use products from Stonebraker companies and projects. Stonebraker-inspired products have been in use for every second of every day across the world for nearly three decades.

Mike’s guiding principles are evident in everything he does. There’s a fierce pragmatism to Mike, which I share and which permeates our projects. While we like to work on really sophisticated, complex, technical problems, we pair that with a very pragmatic approach to how we start and run these companies. For example, from the beginning of Vertica, we agreed that our system had to be at least 10× faster and 50-plus% cheaper than the alternatives. If at any point in the project we hadn’t been able to deliver on that, we would have shut it down. As it turned out, the Vertica system was 100× faster, a credit to the brilliant engineering team at Vertica.

Mike also sees things in a very clear way. For example: It’s relatively easy for companies to go out and build new technology, but that doesn’t mean they should. When Mike criticized MapReduce back in the late 2000s, it was controversial. But at that point, there was a whole generation of engineers rebuilding things that had already been worked out either academically or commercially: they just had to do a bit more research. It’s frustrating to watch people make the same mistakes over and over again. Today, because of Mike, there are a whole bunch of people doing things commercially who are not making the same mistakes twice.

Mike’s energy—physical and intellectual—is boundless, too. He’s always pushing me hard, and I’m still struggling to keep up even though I’m 20 years younger. This energy, clarity, and pragmatism infuses the principles of our businesses at every level.

Our #1 principle (read the full list in my chapter) is “focus on great engineering.” This doesn’t mean hiring a seasoned engineering VP from a big company who hasn’t written code in decades. It starts and ends with real engineers who understand why things work and how they should work in great systems. We like hiring engineering leaders who want to write code first and manage second, and we don’t get hung up on titles or resumes. (If they are reluctant managers, that’s a good sign; if they want to manage rather than write code, that’s usually a bad sign.)

Our newest venture is Tamr. We’re both Co-Founders alongside Ihab Ilyas. Ihab is a computer scientist who works in data science. He is currently a professor of computer science in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. Tamr’s mission is to help enterprises unify key data from many silos to maximize strategic and operational benefits. It’s very exciting to help companies benefit from today’s most valuable resource: data.

One final observation is that companies come and go, but good relationships can last a lifetime. As a Mike Stonebraker co-founder, I believe that I work for the people who work with me, giving them better career development opportunities and a healthier, more productive, and more fun work environment than they can find elsewhere. One of the reasons Mike stands out is that he invests tremendous time, energy, and effort in developing young people and giving them life-changing opportunities. This may be his biggest gift to the world.

Yes, I put Mike on a pedestal, but he deserves it. He isn’t always right and he’s not afraid of being wrong. His batting average is pretty good, though. A hallmark of Mike—and a key to his success—is that he’s never afraid to have strong opinions about things just to encourage debates. Sometimes very fruitful debates. I can’t pay enough homage to Mike, a person who has had such a profound effect on my life and those of many others.

To read the full chapter on ‘How to Create and Run a Stonebraker Startup–The Real Story’ from Making Databases Work, download the free excerpt provided by Tamr below: