Neil Carson, Yellowbrick — Founder Story

Threshold Ventures
Jun 11 · 6 min read
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Straight after university, we started our business because it was the only way to really work on what we were passionate about. That we could get paid to do our hobby seemed like a wonderful thing.

It’s almost a cliché nowadays to tout the importance of data to an organization’s success.

There’s a veritable data explosion underway — due to the growth of the internet, social media, communications, services, and the Internet of Things — and it’s ​estimated that 463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally by 2025.

No doubt executives can ​make smarter operational decisions​. But that also assumes enterprises can rapidly extract value from the huge and varied volumes of data they collect. Unfortunately, that often is not the case.

When he was still chief technology officer at Fusion.io, Neil Carson spotted the problem. Many enterprises still used analytics infrastructures that relied on local data warehouse technology from the 1990s. Even newer technologies supplied by public cloud data warehouse vendors were using old code or commodity hardware on the backend.

So in 2014, he and a fellow Fusion.io colleague, Jim Dawson, started Yellowbrick Data to break that logjam and help enterprises use analytics in ways that were not previously possible. They developed an approach that featured a dramatically smaller data center footprint and less power consumption than traditional data warehousing systems. Yellowbrick uses flash storage as memory and directly feeds to the CPU to speed analytics performance. Even more remarkably, the company figured out how to offer performance improvement through both their on-premises and cloud versions of the data warehouse. This is why Yellowbrick now calls itself the only modern data warehouse for the hybrid cloud. Unveiled in 2018, Yellowbrick is now standard fare in every major vertical with enterprise customers, registering dramatic improvements in analytic performance while significantly reducing their costs.

It’s been quite the journey for Carson, who left his native England in the late 1990s and wound up living the classic American success story. Then again, it’s not every CEO who is able to speak Latin, French, Russian, Cantonese, and decent Mandarin, “with a bit of Spanish thrown in.”

Q: Is there anything that sticks out in your memories from childhood or old neighborhood? Anything that contributed to your thinking or drive?
I realized at an early age that I didn’t see the world the way that everyone else did. So even as a child, I relied on myself and I figured out at a young age how to express my points of view.

Q: You received your bachelor’s degree in computer software engineering from Cranfield University. What was it about software that drew you to the field?
I first used a computer when I was maybe seven years old. It was a second-hand Commodore VIC-20 at my grandparent’s house where I would visit once every couple of months. I started playing games — the usual stuff like Lunar Lander and whatnot — but next to the computer on the table was an instruction manual that talked about programming in BASIC. I started to read it, then experiment with some things — firstly printing out text, then learned about ‘IF’ and ‘GOTO’ to tell the machine to do interesting things, and I became hooked! We were a relatively poor family, but after another year or so we were able to get an Acorn Electron and I could use a BBC Micro at school. These were more advanced machines, with different programming languages, more sophisticated graphics, and floppy drives. I taught myself more and more, then saved up enough money to buy my first 32-bit computer based on the ARM2 processor. I wrote Shareware for this, selling different programs and utilities to make money. I did contract programming, too. That (and teaching Russian) helped pay my way through university where I studied software engineering. I didn’t learn much at all in my degree since I’d self-taught myself most aspects of the coursework beforehand and was already effectively working in the profession.

Q: How did you wind up moving to the US?
At university, I started contributing to an open-source project started by Mark Brinicombe to port the BSD operating system to the ARM processor. Upon graduation, Mark and I started a small startup company around this technology and building firmware IP, doing work for all sorts of storage, database, and simulation companies in the US and Hong Kong. Oracle took note, and we ended up moving to the US to work for Oracle.

Q: Why did you become an entrepreneur?
Straight after university, we started our business because it was the only way to really work on what we were passionate about. That we could get paid to do our hobby seemed like a wonderful thing.

Q: I’ve heard that it’s harder to become an entrepreneur in England — for a variety of reasons. Do you agree — or is it an out-of-date stereotype?
I don’t really know now — there are loads of brilliant companies coming out of the UK now, but back then there was nowhere near the technology startup industry. We really struggled, as did others — it’s a more risk-averse culture, there was little to no venture capital industry back then, and the monopoly telephone companies held back the adoption of the internet. Now things have clearly changed, London has a thriving startup scene with a lot of well-known businesses coming out of there, especially in AI, gaming, and fin-tech.

Q: Looking back on the path you took to reach this point, what were the biggest surprises for you along the way?
How what I just happened to love doing — my hobby — when I was 7 years old turned into a great career path. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be in an industry that can still thrive. Many others are less fortunate. If my interest was in any other area, life would have been much less generous to me.

Q: Entrepreneurial life gets hectic but in your quieter moments, have you learned anything about yourself as a manager and a leader?
Work is a lot easier when you love what you do, so I try to share my enthusiasm for what I do with those around me and create an environment where they can love what they do, too. I’m an extremely energetic person, and it’s rewarding when I energize others.

Q: Similar question, but if you could, share about what it’s like managing a company right now when COVID-19 has turned everything upside down. How has it impacted your thinking to manage your business and your employees?
The most frustrating thing is seeing a national strategy that’s disorganized and how that’s affecting and killing so many people. It brings huge uncertainty to financial planning and is a case where the decisions being made at the top of the country literally mean life or death to so many people. We have seen how some countries can manage this well to reduce uncertainty, but many aren’t. As a result, business leaders need to be incredibly self-reliant and make our own decisions about the health and safety of our employees.

Q: What do you most miss about England?
Warm beer and boiled vegetables.

Q: According to your LinkedIn page, you speak Chinese. That’s quite an accomplishment. How did that come about?
I love learning languages. I speak Latin, French, Russian, Cantonese, and decent Mandarin, with a bit of Spanish thrown in. I can’t remember most of them anymore though!

Q: Other than your language skills, tell us something about yourself that would surprise most people you work with?
I don’t think such things are repeatable in printed media!

Q: If you were left isolated on a desert island — sort of like sheltering in place — and could bring along only one book — what would it be?
How to Survive on a Desert Island by Tim O’Shei.

Q: Can you name an individual you most admire and why?
I think Bill Gates is really high on the list. He actually cares about the world and poverty, not just lining his own pockets with more money, unlike most technology entrepreneurs.


Originally published on June 11, 2020.

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