September 14, 2018

DFJ Founder Stories: Tom O’Neill & Harry Glaser, Periscope Data

DFJ Founder Stories

Some mistakes are more serious than others. Like the time Harry Glaser convinced Tom O’Neill to quit his job at Microsoft and drive more than 800 miles from Seattle to San Francisco. The problem was that Harry fell sound asleep before his college buddy finally arrived at 2:00 am.

“Tom arrives and texts me, ‘Hey, I just arrived. Can I sleep on your couch?’ Harry recalled. “I was asleep, so he wound up sleeping in his car that night. I still hear about it.”

They joke that’s why drinks are often on Glaser seven years later. It’s a small price to pay for a friendship that also blossomed into a successful business collaboration. In 2012, the former roommates started working on what is today Periscope Data, a data analytics and visualization software, and by 2014 they were ready to launch with their first handful of customers.

Their company was recently ranked as a top place to work in the Bay Area in an annual ranking compiled by the San Francisco Business Times and Silicon Valley Business Journal. In addition, Comparably named Glaser as the top ranked CEO in San Francisco in 2017, beating out CEOs of much bigger companies that have been around a lot longer.

We caught up with both entrepreneurs to find out more about their backstory as well as their management philosophy.

Q: How did you two meet?

Harry: Tom was my college roommate. We met the very first day of our freshman year. I arrived on campus with my parents and was walking as far ahead of them as possible, so nobody would think that I came with my parents. I looked around and quickly identified the other computer nerd in the dorm. Tom had a whole video game setup and two flat screen monitors plugged into his desktop computer — this was back in 2003 and so he was clearly a computer geek like me. I think I moved myself into his room that same day.

Tom: That was probably my best day of college because I had just met my best friend.

Q: What is it that made you decide it was worth freezing your butts off in Rochester for four years?

Harry: I was looking for a school that had a strong computer science program as well as a strong theater program. I had worked in theater technology in high school where I did the lighting and all the other stuff. I really had a passion for it. So, I arrived in Rochester and spent all of one semester in theater because I fell in love with the computer science department. But I have no idea why Tom went to Rochester instead of someplace like Stanford or MIT.

Tom: At the time, my interest was in quantum computing and I met one of the top people working in that field when I toured Rochester; the work he was doing there just blew my mind. It was what made me fall in love with the computer science department.

Q: Harry, you worked at Google for about three and a half years. What did you get out of that experience and when did you know it was time to leave?

Harry: Google was a real eye-opening education in advanced technology at scale. At school, you learn about all this technology in computer science courses. And then at Google I would unlearn and relearn it from the people who were inventing it and applying it at massive scale. From a pure technology point of view, it was like drinking from a fire hose. And that was great. What was less great is that it is a really big place, so there’s bureaucracy and politics. At a certain point, you confront the question of whether you’re a lifer and I decided that no, I am not a lifer. I wanted to do something else and didn’t feel I would have made a personal impact grinding it out at a big company.

Q: Tom, you were at Microsoft working on the machine learning algorithms behind the search results at Bing. The same question for you.

Tom: I think working at Microsoft gave me a template of what it meant to be a successful business. Graduating from college, nobody really knows what it means to operate at a professional capacity. You haven’t learned how to work with other professionals, so going to Microsoft and seeing the caliber of people there and the process in the organization at scale was very informative. But there are similar drawbacks, particularly a lack of speed and inertia in some cases.

Q: After realizing that you had run out the clock, what led to the decision that it was time to do your own thing?

Harry: I quit Google with no plan. I persuaded my girlfriend to quit on the same day and we flew to Southeast Asia and spent about three months backpacking. Once I got to thinking, I came to a key realization: I had spent almost four years at Google working with all of these very senior engineers, but Tom was still the best engineer I knew. And I knew that he would invent something earth-shaking sooner or later and that if I was standing there when that happened, I could take half the credit. So, I began emailing him asking if he’d want to start a company with me. One day I woke up in Hanoi and got an email from Tom saying yes.

Tom: Around the time that Harry began to convince me to leave Microsoft, it was becoming obvious that Google was going to win (in search). I learned and invented a lot while on the team for Microsoft’s search engine Bing, but It was time for me to make a change to the next challenge. We had always talked about doing a startup after we graduated. And in college, I had my own startup and building that company was super-fun. That also gave us the inspiration to do something afterwards.

Q: What did that startup do?

Tom: It was a social management platform for fraternities and sororities. The software would let people collect dues, organize photos, and have a shared calendar that all rolled up to the college-university level, so administrators in charge of clubs and activities could see all the student-led events that were taking place on campus.

Q: When you set up shop together, did you have any idea what you wanted to create?

Harry: Absolutely not. But we’re engineers by trade, so we started to build things.

Q: What was the best move you guys made in those early days?

Tom: The smartest thing was that we committed to each other for a period of time. Many other people in our position may have committed to an idea or a space. But we agreed that we would spend two years to build something. Nobody was going to quit and there was at least a minimum timeline where we were going to work together to build all the things that we could.

Q: How long did it take to get things going in the right direction?

Harry: I think we went through 10 months of failed business ideas. It was pretty morale-sapping, to be honest.

Q: Periscope got built as a side project to keep track of the other data for your projects. When did you realize it had much bigger potential?

Harry: I was with a friend at a coffee shop who asked me how things were going. When I showed him what I was working on, he thought it was cool and asked if he could try it. Up until then, I was thinking of making this open-source. But he wrote back that he was willing to pay and asked how much it would cost. I thought, ‘What amount would move the needle here?’ and said $20,000. He said, ‘No problem.’ So, the next time somebody asked, I said, ‘This is our new product and it costs $20,000.’ When a second person paid us, that’s when we felt we were really onto something after what had been a total grind of meeting after meeting and unsuccessful sales pitch after unsuccessful sales pitch.

Q: You now employ about 150 employees. When you walk the halls, do you still know everyone by their first names?

Harry: Yes, but I’ll tell you a secret: I study each week when new employees join the company. I’ll look up their names and faces on my computer and make sure to go by their desks to introduce myself. I still want that personal relationship with employees and I want our employees to have that feeling with me.

Q: When you’re sourcing tech talent, you’re up against a lot of competition. How do you convince someone to join Periscope and not go with an Uber or a Facebook? And what attributes are you looking for?

Tom: What I look for are athletes, not specialists. Our market is changing so rapidly that we can’t afford to hire someone who is good at only one thing. Our entire engineering team is made up of full stack engineers where each engineer can do anything, and that makes for an especially agile team. You are right that hiring is very difficult, but we have something going for us that a lot of companies don’t — we’re working on very challenging and difficult problems at scale. Working on a product like Periscope is much more exciting and different than working on a product where you are pushing around glossy buttons on profile pages.

Q: A lot of companies say they are trying to become more data-driven to the point where it’s probably a cliché. But as you speak with customers, what are you finding they most often get wrong or don’t understand about what’s involved?

Harry: Two things come to mind. One is trying a DIY approach. You need to invest in a dedicated data team with a real experienced data leader who knows what they are doing. Those people are hard to find and hire. They’re expensive, but they are absolutely worth it. The companies that have teams of data scientists run circles around companies that don’t. The second is something that I see every day and that has to do with underestimating the depth and breadth of the transition that you’re going through. This is a whole company change; it is a cultural change and a process change for the way a company is doing business. The companies that do best at this have a real culture and a real discipline around looking at data in every decision they make for every aspect of their operation.

Tom: Executive sponsorship is hard to understate. You get the behavior you allow, not what you expect. So even if you have a data team, if you don’t require them to participate in marketing decisions, they will not be included in marketing decisions. It’s really important that the leaders of those departments choose to enforce the data discipline they want their teams to have.

Q: When it comes to keeping your team motivated, what’s at the top of your list?

Harry: I think the main thing is scaling the culture correctly and to not let the culture drift as you scale. At a certain point, it’s not just the culture that Tom and I created but the culture that the entire team creates.

Q: How did you do that?

Harry: When we were at 60 or 70 employees. we had still not written down our values or cultural statements. So every day at lunch for a week, different cross-sections of the team would come into the lunchroom and talk about what the culture was and what we wanted the culture to become. That became a set of statements where everybody on the team felt ownership and created a sense of responsibility to make sure to indoctrinate employees correctly. And you want to make sure that in every area of the company, you are hiring leaders who are as passionate about the culture as you are. It’s a hard thing and a lot of companies screw it up, but you really need to do this if you are going to scale successfully.

Q: You both grew up on the East Coast. What’s the biggest difference about living in California for you?

Harry: I had to completely unlearn my sarcastic sense of humor because the jokes don’t land well in California, but I really like the positivity and the difference. It’s just something that you have to learn.

Tom: No mosquitoes.

Q: Outside of friends and family, what do you miss most?

Harry: Real seasons, spring and fall for sure.

Tom: I’m a big fan of visiting weather. When weather shows up and visits me, it’s not always a great outcome. I appreciate the lack of seasons.

Q: You’ve known each other for a very long time. Is there anything that you don’t know about each other?

Tom: I am going to go with no and leave it there. (laughing)

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