Bob van Luijt has gone from building websites in middle school to raising tens of millions of dollars for his tech startup. The venture, Weaviate, has acquired funding from top-tier investors like Index Ventures, Cortical Ventures, Zetta Venture Partners, and Battery Ventures.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Startup fundraising
- AI in business
- Bob’s top advice when starting a business
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About Bob van Luijt:
CEO and co-founder of Weaviate, the business created around the open-source vector database Weaviate.
Besides Weaviate, Bob frequently speaks on open-source, digital technology, software business, and business philosophy. He has spoken at 100s of events on the topics mentioned above all over the world, including a TEDx talk.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: All righty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have a very exciting founder. You know a founder that you know had been combining music software for a long time and now he’s writing you know a rocket chip with his company. We’re going to be talking about. Money you know building things I think that you’re gonna really enjoy this one so without furthertherdo. Let’s welcome our guests today. Bob um lu welcome up to the show. Oh originally born in the Netherlands. So how was life growing up there. Give us a walkthrough memory lane.
Bob van Luijt: Thanks for having me man great to be here.
Bob van Luijt: So growing up in the Netherlands. So I grew up in the in the south of the Netherlands and then we we moved to the to the to the to the to the middle of the Netherlands to to Fivemont and I think so um. Ah, growing up there. It was like it was very easy going right? So it’s like it was like not a lot was happening so I was early on very much attracted to what was happening in the ah in the city and so in my case that is of course that’s Amsterdam um, what’s what’s. Interesting though was that there was a lot of rundos a lot of things that were happening like you know in you know when I was growing up like in the 90 s like from the perspective of like culture technology and those kind of things and so I learned very early on and I was like in a situation where I you know could explore those things I was. Very interested in making stuff. You know the creative stuff of everything that had to do with making and the tools that turned out that I was like you know you’re good at at using was software technology and and music I was very into music. So. Ah, that’s like that was how it was to grow up so that you know that was nice that was fun. So I got into sofa I still remember and this is ah this is almost like a cliche story but it’s really true I remember my dad this is just before the internet era but I was so I was really young.
Alejandro Cremades: And how did you get into software.
Bob van Luijt: My dad brought home from his work in Ibm Computer and the Ibm computer had um, a piece software called qbaic and um, ah in the library because back then we still went to the library I never was able to find the title of the book. But it’s like little orange book and it was called it was in Dutch but it was like. The title was something like you know a programming inqueue basic for you know for kids or for children and I remember that the first thing that you needed to write was something like an input form where you could say okay, what’s your name and then in this case and then you had like what’s your name and then this cursor blinking and then you say Bob. And then and then you enter and then I say it like hi Bob and I think that was such a I was immediately knew oh shit this is cool I can do a lot with these machines and then just a couple of years later I were talking 2 3 years later we got the first pentium machines internet connection. Started to build websites so I was still um I was not not in high school yet when I when I was working on on building websites and those kind of things so that’s how it how it started so music was so when I was in um, in in high school very early on in high school.
Alejandro Cremades: And what about music.
Bob van Luijt: Um, you know I just picked up an instrument I I was playing Bas Guitar and ah, you know it turned out that I was like you know that I had some some talent for ah you know for playing ba guitar but I think what was most more important was that I was listening to a lot of music where like whatever like solos like. I don’t know better chili peppers guitar solos and I had a teacher and a teacher said like hey if that’s what you’re interested in I’m going to give you a record by miles davis and I was a miles davis record with the guitar solo liked from his later work. But you don’t didn’t have like 30 seconds of guitar solo but like 6 minutes of guitar solo. And I was like that’s amazing. So from that time on I was just you know I was interested mostly in ah in ah, well actually I was interested in 3 things only when I was growing up. There was internet software music and girls. So those 3 things that were my main interest. And that’s so that’s that’s how they got started. Yeah.
Alejandro Cremades: So then how do you land in the Us because I’m sure that coming here to the Us really shaped a up a lot of things for you.
Bob van Luijt: Yes, so at some point I ah so I’ve studied music and I at some point I started to figure out like hey everything every cool thing that’s happening gravitates to the East Coast or the west coast in the us. Was just a I noticed that very early on. So ah, we have this thing I think it’s a european fund or I don’t know but it’s called like a Fulbright Grant so I just signed up and I said like you and this is what I want to do I wanted to go to Boston and I wanted to go to um ah ah berkeley college of music. I went to Berkeley I was like early 20 s and that changed a lot for me because what I learned at Berkeley besides just you know, studying there and meeting people was the and it’s hard for me to just explain it. But the the only way for me to explain it was like that was like it was a big aha moment. It was like this moment of of epiphany that was like oh so. This is how you can do stuff as well, right? So you you can do it like really well you not can do like nice like in ah in a nice way or like but like you can do stuff really well and that is what I learned and from then on I’ve been gravitating towards yeah and that mostly the East Coast and the west coast in the um in the us especially just from making stuff. For doing business. Also important to bear in mind that but by that time when I was living in the us I I was making money writing software so there was like ah you know a remote work of all latra right? So but the the thing is that I I was not interested in business yet. So.
Bob van Luijt: I I was making all these things in software for people and I was making my art and that kind of stuff and I was not the thing hadn’t clicked in my mind like oh actually with the software people making a lot of money of that I was just not that sounds very naive but I was like I was just young. You know so I could do all these things but I was I hadn’t. I hadn’t seen it yet. So when I was g started falling but I was like not that was not how it started was just the fun of making cool software and making music and those kind of things.
Alejandro Cremades: So I guess for for 1 thing that comes to mind is I remember Steve Jobs said that he would always prioritize um engineers or perhaps employees that were combining both skillsets now the um the engineering side and and then also the music. Um, side of things you know playing an instrument or whatever that was what do you think makes so powerful. You know an individual when they’re able to combine. You know both skillsets. So.
Bob van Luijt: Yeah, so I don’t think that has to do with so to answer your question I don’t think that has to do with especially like you know For example, like something more on the artistic side like music or something. It can also be I don’t know. Ah you know cooking or something right? So It has to do with. Ah. Steppiing into like the the creative force right? So you’re making stuff and sometimes when we go into into into into business and this does not only go for for engineering software engineering. This can also go for I don’t know a musician playing in an orchestra right? So it can at some point. You know that you can um the the art of creation can go Away. You’re just a robot repeating you know, whatever you need to do and then whatever the thing is that you excel At. So I Think what he meant with that is like ah by staying in touch with making stuff outside of the realm of how you make money. Ah. You know, kept you tapping into that creative process and that’s something you can bring to work right? So the the joy of making stuff the the the joy of of the creative process. There’s something you bring you know back to work and in the end we create value by and yeah, making stuff right? It doesn’t. We need to make. We’re not.. We’re not making it by being consultants. We don’t We don’t make it by you know, those kind of things right? We make it by creating products and services that people Love. So I Think that’s what he meant with it.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in your case you finished music and rather than staying here. You ended up going back but the software you know were still there and you ended up taking it to a whole new level to a level where you were like you were saying you know, creating products creating services you know without skillset that you had and eventually that brought you. You know to bring your company to life. We be it. So ah, tell us about how the idea for the business came to life and how did you go about taking action to to bringing it to to where it is today.
Bob van Luijt: Yeah, so I was working as a as a freelance software engineer and that was the time that there was like this revival of machine learning and ah this was around 2016 I think maybe a little bit later 17 but some sixteen seventeen and um ah one of the things that was happening was something called a glove and fasttex that was open sourced and it was why these machine learning models working with words so today if you you know, read the news about like you know. Jetdpt and those kind of things they talk about large language models now these things were kind of the opposite. They were the the tiny language models if you will and the thing um was this the? Um, if you were using those types of technologies and if you were prototyping with them. You could basically it’s felt very magical. So. Was this famous ah example that they still have that you took the word for ah for for king and then you move to space because these things are organized in ah in ah in a matter of like how you know in this case, words and data is placed into space so you could say king mine is man and then. Ah, plus women and then say okay, what what word sits there in space and then the model set queen and I remember that I saw that and I was like oh my god this is amazing. This is this is magical. This I could immediately see like okay this if this thing keeps growing this is gonna be big and the idea that I had.
Bob van Luijt: Um, and I was actually with my co-founder we were debating the other week like you know what the timelines were etc because as you know sometimes you remember things a little bit differently but the the the idea was that we said the um or this like if I take a a paragraph of text and all these individual words. I can also use that machine learning model to store that information and and you know there’s a new way of searching through in this case, we call that vector space and and that grow into an open source project first. Um, and when people started to use it or started to talk about it and a little bit of yeah, he saw the first signs of community starting to emerge and then we thought okay this is the um the time for a company and in the meantime like the the research on machine learning was just. Ongoing right? and it also got better and better and better. So then I was like hey wait a second. There are 2 things to to combine here. That’s the infrastructure side of the and so the database that we’re on called weviate and the um and the better machine learning models but 1 more thing to add there as well is that? Also. Ah, my interest for business started to grow like hey wait a second we can make stuff and we can create value and we can capture a little bit of that value if we bring that to our happy customers and that was something completely new that I started to be interested in so now I could combine the thing that I was.
Bob van Luijt: The creativity I like working with these machine learning models hey this thing that’s growing that might become a company I could combine that with the interest that grew into building business and then in 19 we founded the business so that is kind of how all these things came together and what’s happening today. We often. Don’t use the term ml machine learning anymore. We now nowadays talk about ai I’m still I’m still surprised about what’s happening is this. It’s everywhere and but I guarantee you when we started. It wasn’t it was not the cool thing when we started.
Alejandro Cremades: Really is. So So so I guess for the people that are listening to us now you know to really get it. What ended up being the business model of the of the company. How do you guys make money.
Bob van Luijt: Um.
Bob van Luijt: So The the technology the core technology is still open source. So That means that it comes with a license that says as much as like you know you can you do whatever you want with this technology. However, if you have a problem or an issue with the technology then that’s your problem. It comes without Warranty. So What we sell is basically 2 things and we sell ah the operation of the technology so you can use weviate as a so software as a service or at something we call Hybrid Saas That means that we deploy it inside your virtual private Cloud Data privacy. Ah those kind of things. And then we have to service license agreements around that. So. That’s how we make money.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in this case I mean you also have raised some money How much capital have you guys raised and and also what has been the experience. Yeah.
Bob van Luijt: So we have raised a little less than 70,000,000 so it’s ah, let’s for the sake of argument say let’s say 70 it’s a little bit less but almost 70000000 um, it’s great. So I’ve been in a in a very luxurious ah situation that um. I only really went out to raise money once in my life like really that we did like a road show with like a deck etc I raised the exact amount of $0 just after we were founded. But then when the whole Ai thing started to happen it all was very organic. So I’m in a very luxurious position that I I never have been like really like the hard you know, hardcore raising and but what I have been doing for those listening that might be interesting and that I might offer suggestion is build partnerships. Figure out who the people are that you want to work with I am blessed with an amazing set of investors and and and with that you know sometimes also comes like you know people on my board. It’s just great to work with these people. It just so it’s like make sure that you sh surround yourself with amazing people and I think that’s the biggest lesson that I that i.
Alejandro Cremades: What do you mean? organic. So tell us about what organic means what does that look like.
Bob van Luijt: And that I got from that.
Bob van Luijt: Yeah, so I remember that we raised money for the first time. So the first time we raised money. Ah that was was we didn’t do preet. We just went for seats’s that’s all language by the way you can call your round whatever you want to call it. But so we started with seed and that was ah the amount of. 1 point, $2000000 well I can tell you when that money arrived in the bank I couldn’t believe what was happening I was like oh by god somebody just wired us like one point two million dollars and back then I was thinking like how are we if we’re going to spend all that money right? because we just were small team and we’re just doing cool stuff. And but then what started to happen was ah that the needs of the business started to grow so we needed different expertise on engineering we needed to start to have some help with solution engineering for first customers that were coming in so all of a sudden the team crew. And we you know we finally started to see like oh wait a second this actually now you know we get to this point of you know quote unquote ah running out of the investment money. However, the reason we were running out was because you shoulds went up so with that came other interesting investors who said like hey. You know we would love to um, ah we we’d love to work with you so before we ran out. We just had this very this what I meant with organic moment of doing our series a and that’s also what happened with our with our series b it was a very and um so our um.
Bob van Luijt: Um, one of our our series b lead investors. She wrote a blog post about this on on the on the website of the of the Vc firm we we knew each other already for a year or something and we were just chatting and just getting to know each other and then we just had this conversation is this the right moment to to investigate if we can help each other. So that was what I mean with with organic and um ah and you know that that approach is something that I really like because you know the people are that you work with and your business grows and at some point you need some help and help can come in many you know shapes and forms and sometimes that that. Shape and form is is is in the form of of money right? So just cash and then you know you have these relationships that you can tap into. That’s what I mean with organic.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in this case I mean you’re you’ve been executing this out of the Netherlands. So what is it like like how is the venture you know ecosystem there and and especially when it comes to bc and raising money. Yeah.
Bob van Luijt: Yeah, so what’s important to know. So so the um, so so we’ve hit is and isn’t ah technically it’s an american company. Um, ah but the um I’m Dutch right? So as a founder. You just know that’s like the That’s how people how people see the ah the company but we knew from the get-go because we started of course we started just before covid so covid had nothing to do with it. But it was a the way that we decided to structure the company was like by coincidence was helpful. We decided from the get-go that we wanted to be 100 % remote so um there was no because it’s technology right? It’s software. It really doesn’t matter if you just you know push software from the from the moon or you know from some country on on earth with the only differentiator is like if you talk about like with people doing relationships right? so. Developer relations seals those kind of things then you want to have people in specific areas. But for the rest we just want to work with great talent right? So currently we have people in the us and in Europe but wherever people just you know bring bring bring that talent from so I’ve never seen this as like a.
Alejandro Cremades: Yeah.
Bob van Luijt: Dutch or european endeavor right? more like a if I have to if I have to give it some boundaries I would say like western as in just because between the us and Europe you know we all talk you speak english and it’s like so it’s easy to connect with everybody. Um. Ah, um, ah, but the I never I just I didn’t think in the form of like um, ah, um, you know some kind of like you know borders or those kind of things so it’s more that I’m Dutch. That’s just where I’m born. But for the rest doesn’t really matter anything.
Alejandro Cremades: So 1 question that I take comes to mind is you know is he e vision. You know when when youre engaging. You know those investors too and you know so those employees you know it was all about having them. You know take a real look at the future compelling future that you guys are living into. Um, so I guess if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of the company is fully realized that we eight is fully realized what does that world look like.
Bob van Luijt: So specifically for this company that means that um, ah every organization like a hundred percent of the fortune five hundred one ah hundred percent from all new startups. Ah you know, see that that see the light of day that ai in the broad sense of the words. Plays a crucial role in their business right? So that the that the the prediction mechanisms that are at the heart of these models that they help build better and newer businesses. Not just for subsets not for a few. But for all of them.
Alejandro Cremades: And how are you seeing trends unfolding because because things right now moving really fast in this segment I mean we’re talking about a segment that is growing at a rate of like 48% a year over year I mean it’s absolutely crazy.
Bob van Luijt: Yeah, so I have I have an answer for that to that. So so chat gbt plays a role in that right? So um, um, and and that’s this. So um I always say there’s a Pre Chat Gpt Era and a post. Ch gpt era and what I mean with that is like in the pre-che gpt era people were like hey this is really cool stuff right? We can do cool things with this. Let’s double around let’s play around with it regardless of small companies large companies. Everybody was playing around. You know, super exciting what happened after. Ah, the release of chet gp was that urgency was added to the mix that um, ah, um, ah organizations were like oh boy if this is this is starting to eat my business like they just release something you know and and the next day I can see how this can start to. Ah, disrupt my business right? So so what is added to the mix now is urgency. So the big difference that we start to see now was like before ttbt we were looking like okay, everybody’s excited. Everybody’s work on it like literally everybody but what are the killer. What’s the killer thing that people will jump into it. And it turned out that it was the urgency of the disruption that kind of chitchipt showed us because in all honesty I mean it’s amazing work. What the people are doing at open Ai but we already knew that this was possible. The models were already. There. It was just this layer of that interface that somehow.
Bob van Luijt: Made it click in people’s minds like oh oh now we see and and bear in mind. So This is all text-based the next other modalities mixing modalities right? So ah, audio images heat Maps depth. All these things. They’re coming as well and it’s going very fast.
Alejandro Cremades: Wow now imagine if I was to put you into a time machine and I bring you back in time to maybe that moment that you were now arriving back to the Netherlands and you were like now wondering like what would you do? and. And what kind of maybe business you would bring to life. Let’s say you had the opportunity of have a chat of having a chat with that younger Bob and being able to give that younger Bob 1 piece of advice for launching a business. What would that be and why given all you know now.
Bob van Luijt: So um I think I would say tell younger Bov something like you know you can you can believe a little bit more in yourself. It’s a um I’m still till today sometimes surprised that the people I meet. Unlike almost a weekly basis is amazing and it’s like why do if people want to meet with me I still need to like get used to the fact that that’s happening. So I think I would go back I mean maybe not even to the Bob like Bunny was young, but maybe even the Bob yesterday right? that I would tell myself you know it’s ah um, and you know. Just ah, it’s okay, right? So just keep going and and because it’s ah it’s it’s it’s the good type of roller coaster and but I’m still mentally I so like oh wow, it’s like I mean like a kid in the candy store I like oh what’s happening and so that’s what I would tell myself I think.
Alejandro Cremades: And and what about trusting in yourself I Guess like throughout this journey. You know what? what have you learned from that. Yeah.
Bob van Luijt: So I’m in a in a in a um that oh that’s a wonderful question. So Let me let me think how to answer that so in my own personal journey just not me as the founder but just me as the person. Um. Um, I’ve learned to learn you know to be more in the now right? So just to be more in things that were happening and it can be anything right? So They can be ah you reaching out to me right? So about the podcast hey this great like in the now I thought this is great and then you just go with that flow. Just move with the flow so that that goes back to that organic flow that I said so I very interested I’m very interested in in in strategic thinking and making these kind of models I like that It’s like the abstraction is a place where I like to be but in ah in an organic way right? so. That’s also how we organize the company so we just last week I published a blog post how we Ch growing the company how we try to stay away from hierarchy and more have likely a sell structure but people contribute to the success of the company. It’s all very organic so being in the now being very very um, organic and. The reason that I’m saying that is because that’s something you can trust in right? You can just trust in the now you can trust in the market you can trust in the people and the teams that you have you know that that formed around you to become a success so that’s how I how I would. That’s how I would answer that.
Bob van Luijt: That question So I me as the person goes a little bit out of the equation equation right? It’s like us and we’re together. But as with the team we’re in in the now we’re moving we we contribute to the to the the bigger whole and um, yeah, so so that.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it. So for the people that are listening Bob that would love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so okay.
Bob van Luijt: I Hope that that’s helpful but answer.
Bob van Luijt: So they can do they can find me on Twitter they can find me on Linkedin and a first name at weva that I owe does wanders.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing! Well hey, easy novel Bob. Thank you so much for being on this show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Bob van Luijt: Thank you so much for having me.
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