“When You Build Products, IQ Matters, When You Build Teams, EQ Matters,” With Peter Godman, Co-founder of Qumulo
“Building a team that works well together is about choosing people that complement not only each other’s strengths, but also each other’s personality traits. You have to get people to engage enough to create a team, and then you can — and should — stay out of the way. Listening carefully to someone and trying to imagine how they feel is a habit, not a trait.”
I had the pleasure to interview Peter Godman, co-founder and CTO of Qumulo — a Seattle-based startup that helps enterprises manage billions of data at scale.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My path to entrepreneurship seems a little off the beaten track. Yeah, when I was seven I sold a few ice creams out of the back of a friend’s caravan, but when I was eight or nine I got my first computer, and my time in business was done.
When you read stories of tech entrepreneurs, it’s easy to not notice that early access to computers, and particularly to computers that you need to program (or build) to get anything out of, is a common pattern. Jobs, Wozniak, Allen, Gates — you know the stories. My mom and dad noticed I was pretty interested in computers and bought one of the earlier British home computers for me.
There’s an expression for the retreat from the world that someone who loves computers beats to metamorphose into a programming butterfly: “going larval.” Until I was 35, I fixated on learning about computers and software, and building things. For me, programming is a path to hyperfocus, and hyperfocus is a path to happiness. As Hal says in 2001: A Space Odyssey, “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” That’s kind of how it was.
At 33, I was running file system engineering for a data storage company called Isilon. It was a dark time for Isilon. I quit because I thought I could do it better: better culture, better technology, better decisions. As it happens, Isilon ended up being hugely successful thanks to the labors of many including Sujal Patel, who I’m delighted now serves on Qumulo’s board, and Bill Richter, who I recruited as Qumulo’s CEO last year. But for me, the story ended, and the story of my entrepreneurial career began.
My first couple of startups reflected my love of technology too much. I built cool stuff that no one could buy. Along the way I met Chris Bennett, who told me that for him, startups are about building cool stuff, that people buy, with friends. I don’t mind copying other people’s worldviews. I made that one my own!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
We did our Series C fundraise in January 2016. We felt pretty good about it, having been courted by various high profile Sand Hill Road VCs, and having built up a strong set of customers and references.
Here’s the thing, though. Right at the beginning of 2016, the bottom fell out of the market for data storage startups. Our world turned around when we walked into the office of a Sand Hill Road VC we’d been talking to for some time, and at the end of the presentation the would-be investor said, “This is awesome progress, and I love you guys, but there’s no way I can take a storage company to our partnership.” That set into motion a very challenging fundraise.
When you’re creating a startup, it’s easy to believe that the whole world is under your control. In reality, 50 percent of the world is under your control, and the other 50 percent is essentially unpredictable. Being prepared for disaster, and being ready to exploit opportunity when it shows up, is the best you can do. Bonus points if you can predict opportunity and disaster.
All opportunity comes from change. It’s easy to forget that. If the world never changed, or changed very slowly, there’d be little opportunity. In Qumulo’s world, opportunity comes about because underlying technology changes, or competitors enter or exit markets, or customer needs change, or sentiment changes.
So how exactly does your company help people?
Qumulo is racing to be to data storage what financial services are to safes. If you think about banking 150 years ago, it was local and dedicated to the preservation of assets. Today’s financial services are about efficient worldwide deployment of capital. Modern business are defined by data, and they’re international. Anyone can probably name at least a few of the top five banks today, but few could name any of the top five safe manufacturers.
Less abstractly, Qumulo builds gigantic file data storage systems that can project data around the world and between on-premises and public cloud.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m a specialized economy person. I’m happy to create a company people love working at, to build products that people love using, to nurture a wonderful family. I’m selfish with my time beyond that.
I love that Andrew Carnegie commented that the progressive inheritance tax is the wisest of all taxes. In that spirit, my wife and I committed to giving almost all of the money we earn building businesses to charitable or development causes. So we try to turn technology into money, and we give that money to experts to create goodness in the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my startup” and why?
#1 — Building products, IQ matters. Building teams, EQ matters.
Building a team that works well together is about choosing people that complement not only each other’s strengths, but also each other’s personality traits. You have to get people to engage enough to create a team, and then you can — and should — stay out of the way. Listening carefully to someone and trying to imagine how they feel is a habit, not a trait.
#2 — Don’t be afraid to ask the deep questions.
Many times in business you’ll find that there’s some received wisdom about things, but that received wisdom is meaningless when stripped of its long-forgotten context. For us at Qumulo, that received wisdom might take the form of “file storage can’t scale” or “there’s no margin in deep storage” or “all storage will be VM storage.” Once you understand the context, you understand the gap. The gap is advantage.
#3 — The world expects you to give everything of yourself to your startup, but the world expects that you won’t kill yourself doing it.
It’s pretty easy to let a startup suck up your whole life, at the expense of your family, your health, your friendships, and your own clarity of thought. A few years ago, I set a simple goal for myself: “be good to my family; be fit; be bored.” Boredom is where my creativity comes from, so I try to be bored. But, being bored in this world is hard… there are just so many fun diversions!
#4 — You can’t be too customer-centric.
Recently, I was talking with someone from a storage startup that failed, and I asked how they ended up checking their assumptions with customers. Their answer was that it was too expensive to spend a lot of time talking with customers. Of course the reverse is true: it’s incredibly expensive to not Vulcan mind meld with your customers. In the end, they’re paying the bills.
#5 — When you’re leading a startup, every relationship with every team member is something to treasure and nurture.
You need to have comfortable enough relationships with every team member, and every board member, that you can happily and freely disagree without costing you respect. If you get to the point where you have comfortable and honest relationships with everyone, they’ll be a mirror to you and what you’re doing — the best mirror you’re going to get. I’ve blown this many times.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Barack Obama. People have been retweeting his comments on football players taking the knee during the national anthem recently. His instinct for seeing both sides of an issue and trying to bring people together is amazing.