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Look for an Obvious Market Wave Happening”: Startup Advice from Todd Vernon, CEO and Co-Founder of VictorOps

“Solve a real problem and people will pay to have that problem solved with a new and innovative product.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Vernon, CEO and co-founder of DevOps and incident management company VictorOps. Using his prior experience of launching and building various successful businesses, Todd leads the overall company vision and strategy to address a huge current market need.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory?”

I initially started my career as an engineer at NASA before I realized I actually liked software more than hardware. Since then, I held the role of co-founder and CTO of Raindance Communications, helping take the company public and leading its eventual acquisition by West Corporation in 2006. After that, I was co-founder and CEO of Lijit Networks (now sovrn), which has grown into one of the largest real-time ad exchange platforms on the internet.

The idea for VictorOps initially came to me after starting various companies that would build a solution, deploy and operate it, but had very little to help operations teams after those platforms are built. I knew it took whole teams of people keeping those operational and they spent a crazy amount of time remediating problems which occurred during all times of day and night. This experience led me to realize that there had to be a better way to address this glaring issue among companies of all sizes.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company

VictorOps occupies the third floor of our office building and has great balconies all around that look out over the flatirons peaks in Boulder, Colorado. Across the street is a local bar that serves excellent buffalo wings. One day as we were standing on the balcony I suggested that we put together a $100 challenge for any employee that could “fly” a basket of 4 wings across the street, in a form that is editable. Several people tried and three different teams so far have succeeded. We ended up creating a plaque in our office to commemorate the winners.

One team flew them with a drone, and another team came in early in the morning and put up a guide wire and used a drill to move the wings along the wire. The latest team hollowed out a Nerf football, put the wings in the football, and shot them across with a giant slingshot. All delicious :-)

So what does your company do?

VictorOps is the real-time incident management platform focusing on incident lifecycle management and collaboration for IT and DevOps teams. The solution combines the power of people and data to solve IT problems in real-time and seamlessly orchestrates team situational awareness, incident creation, escalation, notification, and remediation with team members regardless of physical location or time of day.

In the modern age, companies increasingly depend on a massive array of IT systems to operate and engage with customers. When these go down, and they often do, the business needs to respond rapidly or risk revenue loss and customer churn. I co-founded VictorOps in 2012 with two other passionate technologists — Bryce Ambraziunas and Dan Jones — that know what it’s like to be on-call and responsible for 24/7 uptime. Essentially, we built the product we needed in previous jobs — one that provides a better way to troubleshoot problems, get the team engaged faster and save companies money.

VictorOps initially came to market with a product that was significantly more advanced than available alternatives, with an extensive feature set to help on-call teams resolve incidents more quickly and more efficiently. However, VictorOps is not just about getting the systems back online. By helping developers focus on relevant and actionable alerts, VictorOps enables them to focus time on innovating and not fighting fires. Most importantly, VictorOps improves their personal lives by making the burden of being on-call significantly less painful.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Over the last 20 years I have built companies that have provided over 600 interesting, creative and meaningful jobs in the Boulder area. Startups are great because you hire a lot of young go-getter people that have not been beat down by life’s realities in crappy offices, doing crappy jobs for middle managers. In my companies, we reward hard work but realize that everyone has choices of where to work and don’t take their hard work for granted.

We provide a lot of young employee life skills training about how to think critically, and how to present your ideas for maximum effect. I teach a lunch-and-learn series called “Starting your Start-Up” that teaches aspirational employees how to ideate a startup idea, how to validate it, how to pitch it, and how to raise money for it. All of this stems comes from lessons I learned over an entire career of starting startups.

Additionally, I have been aggressive about hiring employees with a great track record into senior VP jobs. Attitude counts for a lot and I reward that by increasing responsibility.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why.

  1. Solve a real problem and people will pay to have that problem solved with a new and innovative product. Coming from a background in engineering, it’s always tempting to build “cool” things. However, building a new cool product without targeting the pain will always be a harder company to make successful.
  2. Look for an obvious market wave happening in the sector your company is addressing. A good product that solves pain will always sell, but a good product that solves pain in a situation where a market shift or wave is happening will have a lot more momentum. A good example is the proliferation of mobile devices: a ton of companies simply could not exist without mobile, and Uber is a great example.
  3. Make sure you have great, well known to you, partners. No one person is good at everything, and surrounding yourself with good partners to cover your blind spots is essential. In addition, every company has its ups and downs through the years. You need people to share the load and know how they will behave under difficult times. Everyone is friends when things are going well; not so much when they don’t.
  4. Make sure you know how to attract solid investors. An aggressive velocity start-up, by definition, will need a solid investor base. I have been fortunate in my career to have good, professional investors. I have seen many situations from afar where this was not that case and investors were problematic or even destructive to the mission.
  5. Being a serial entrepreneur has its own unique demands. It can be difficult to be a serial entrepreneur starting each new company all over again from scratch. The workload in the first three years is immense and completely different than year 7 of your previous company. In year 7 — assuming you have been successful — you have hundreds of employees and ‘someone’ is generally responsible for everything that needs an owner. In year one of a company, everyone does 6 different jobs and works all the time. IT can be difficult to shift gears when starting another company!

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?

David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, Lester Holt, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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