Justin Borgman was born in Chicago and was raised in Akron. He went through public school with a big dream to change the world one day. He learned a lot from his mom. In high school, he was the studious type and went onto college and an MBA where he found the “eureka” moment to change data analytics for good. Justin’s venture, Starburst has raised funding from top-tier investors like Index Ventures, Coatue, Salesforce Ventures, and Andreessen Horowitz.
In this episode you will learn:
- Nurturing your dreams early on and working to become better
- Spotting good ideas and implementing them to create a business
- How to handle large numbers of cofounders successfully
- How to handle business in a pandemic
- How to build better by bootstrapping a startup
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About Justin Borgman:
Justin has spent the better part of a decade in senior executive roles building new businesses in the data warehousing and analytics space.
Prior to co-founding Starburst, Justin was Vice President and General Manager at Teradata (NYSE: TDC), where he was responsible for the company’s portfolio of Hadoop products.
Prior to joining Teradata, Justin was the co-founder and CEO of Hadapt, the pioneering “SQL-on-Hadoop” company that transformed Hadoop from a file system to an analytic database accessible to anyone with a BI tool.
Hadapt was acquired by Teradata in 2014. Justin earned a BS in Computer Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an MBA from the Yale School of Management.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a very exciting guest. He’s a founder that has done it multiple times. We’re going to be talking about scaling, financing, exiting, and you name it, all of the above, and especially in a segment that is very, very hot nowadays. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Justin Borgman, welcome to the show.
Justin Borgman: Thank you, Alejandro. It’s great to be here.
Alejandro: So originally born in Chicago, but you grew up in Boston. Tell us about your upbringing.
Justin Borgman: Yeah. I grew up in a town called Akron, northwest of the city—a good public school system. I was very lucky to grow up there, I think, and I got a great foundation in my education. I had an amazing mom who was a huge influence in my life. She taught me a lot of things about how to be a good person and work hard. I was very blessed.
Alejandro: So why computers, out of all things, Justin? I understand that you started quite early with computers.
Justin Borgman: I did. I was a big nerd in junior high and high school. They fascinated me. It was the power of what you could do with them that was really interesting, the creative power; I guess I would say. I was trying to teach myself how to program, probably at 12 or 13 years old. I installed Linux for the first time when RedHat was a new company back then. I was really encouraged by the power of what computers could do. I was also very much impressed by the companies that were being created at that time and the huge impact they were having on the world to transform the way that we do things. In that day and age, it was Cisco, Microsoft, and then later Google ultimately transforming the way that humans interact. That left a positive impression with me on the power of entrepreneurship, ultimately. If you want to change the world, entrepreneurship is a great way to do it.
Alejandro: At what point did you realize that you wanted to become an entrepreneur because it took you a little bit. You did work for places like Raytheon and Lincoln Lab, but you didn’t go right away at it, and in fact, you graduated, you got your computer science degree, you graduated, and then here you are in this 9/11 environment, which was not the best one. Why would you say it took you so long? At what point did you realize that you really wanted to do something?
Justin Borgman: I think the seeds, for me, were planted probably back when I was 12 years old, and I had a desire to change the world around me. I also remember, back then, one of the things my dad and I would do together was watch the news every night. I always had questions like, “Why is that happening? Why is the world the way it is?” I was always driven to figure out ways to change that. To me, there were two paths that you could do it. You could enter politics and go that route, but it felt like you’d probably have to sell your soul along the way if that was the path you chose. But entrepreneurship was actually, to me, another way to do that. I had this hunger and desire to have an impact and change the world in some way. That didn’t come to fruition until much later, and I think that was simply because I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to, but I just didn’t know how. I didn’t necessarily know what it took to get a company off the ground. You’re absolutely right. I graduated from college in the same year of 9/11, and ultimately defense contractors were hiring, and that’s how I ended up at Raytheon and later MIT Lincoln Lab.
Alejandro: But obviously, you ended up doing your MBA, and on the MBA program, that’s where they give you that push to do something. In fact, this is where you met the co-founders of your first business, Hadapt. Tell us about the process of meeting them and then deciding that it was time for you to take that leap of faith and bring something to market.
Justin Borgman: Yeah. Graduate school, for me, was an amazing experience. It really opened my eyes to what was possible. I learned a tremendous amount; I met some incredible people, and that includes a few folks in the computer science department who had this idea and wrote a paper called HadoopDB. This was back in the 2009/2010 timeframe. When Hadoop was just starting to gain momentum, Hadoop was the open-source platform for restoring and managing mass amounts of data. It was born out of Yahoo and the internet giants. The idea of the paper, HadoopDB, was to basically give Hadoop Database functionality and allow you to do data warehouse analytics within this Hadoop base datalink. That was a totally novel idea at the time. I read that paper, and I was like, “Wow! This is huge because prior database technologies or analytical database technologies were super expensive: Teradata, Oracle. Companies could not scale on these platforms, both because of the technology but also because of the cost. So this represented a way to do analytics on anything, on mass amounts of data, but do it within this open-source data lake environment. I encouraged them to commercialize that research with me, and ultimately, we started my first business, which was called Hadapt.
Alejandro: What was the business model there? How were you guys making money?
Justin Borgman: We were selling a proprietary product that would sit on top of a Hadoop-based datalink. You would already be running Hadoop, and then you would install Hadapt on it, and we would sell based on the size of that environment. Back then, it was measured in terms of the number of machines. So how many machines are in that Hadoop cluster? That’s, ultimately, how we charge for giving you this vast Sequel access on top of that.
Alejandro: In terms of capitalizing the business, how did you guys go about that?
Justin Borgman: In that business, we raised money pretty early in the game. We have a research prototype that my co-founder had built. Ultimately, we leveraged that to get a couple of early customers playing with it and then raised, initially, some seed financing from angels, and then a Series A from Bessemer Venture Partners and Norwest Ventures. At that point in time, this is the 2011 timeframe that we raised capital. Ultimately, we raised about $17 million, which seemed like a lot to me back then. It seems a lot smaller now, but back then, $17 million seemed like a lot.
Alejandro: Yeah. 100%. And your first business, your first outcome, that’s not the typical norm. I believe that Teradata was the one that acquired the company, and it was reported by the press at about the $50 million mark. What was that process like? Obviously, the first time around, I’m sure that seeing the full cycle and getting to understand that now gives you full visibility as you’re executing with your latest company, which we’re going to be talking about in just a little bit. I’m sure that it was nerve-wracking going through that for the first time, so tell us about this acquisition process. How did it come about?
Justin Borgman: I will say the entire experience was a tremendous education for me. When I started it, I was 29 years old, first-time founder, first-time CEO. I had to learn everything the hard way through that process. It was a four-year game for me and then ultimately, selling it to Teradata. I think we were fortunate that Teradata and some other large legacy database vendors were looking to increase their portfolio and add the ability to work within this open-source ecosystem that Hadoop was creating. They were looking to bolster their portfolio and add the ability to clearly adopt Hadoop, and that was ultimately the rationale behind the acquisition. It worked out well enough for all of us. The education, in particular, was ultimately what ended up driving a lot of the reasons we created Starburst down the road. It was a tremendous experience. Then even my time at Teradata was actually educational for me to see a large company trying to adjust to changing environments in the market.
Alejandro: Now, with Teradata, is what they call the vesting and resting. I’m not sure how much resting you had going on in there, but definitely the vesting. You worked for about three years, and that was a pivotal time in your career. During this time is where you actually met the co-founders of your business of Starburst. How was the journey of you meeting your now-co-founders and then you realizing, “I think there’s something here, and perhaps we should bring this to market.”?
Justin Borgman: During that period, one of the challenges my boss had given me, a guy named Scott Newell, who was the president of Teradata at the time. He later went on to be the CTO of [10:41]. He was a great guy, and he gave me a lot of latitude. He asked me to figure out the future of data warehousing. The way I took that directive was in looking at Teradata as being a classic innovator’s dilemma case study where a super successful company early in its journey and for much of its life. As a result of almost their own success, they had a really hard time changing direction and cannibalizing their existing business. That’s ultimately what I think prevented rapid change. So I got to be that change agent, or at least got to try to be that change agent, I would say. I didn’t necessarily change Teradata’s direction the way I had hoped but ultimately was given the opportunity to explore. It was in that context that I met the creators of an open-source project at Facebook. That project was initially called Presto. That’s now known as Trino today because of some trademark changes along the way. The bottom line is that technology allowed you to do Sequel Analytics on data anywhere. My first business was Sequel data, Sequel Analytics on Hadoop. This was Sequel Analytics on anything. That was, to me, eye-opening that you could actually query the data where it lives. Data warehousing is traditionally all about moving data into one central depository before you can query it. There’s a lot of work and time involved in that. You’ve got to create these ETL pipelines and extract data, transform it, load it, and migrate it into one single bucket, if you will, before you can analyze it, and that was the Teradata model. Today, it’s actually the Snowflake model. It’s the same model, just in the cloud rather than on-prem. This was a totally different way of doing it. This was a true paradigm shift that basically said: you’re going to push the analytics to where the data lives and query the data right where it is. No need to move the data. I got really excited about that. Since it was an open-source project, our team at Teradata started contributing to the project and making it better, and adding features and functionality. In the process, I got to know the creators at Facebook really well, who I thought were absolutely brilliant and had created something that I think could transform the industry. That was how I first got introduced.
Alejandro: What was that journey? Because you were all in different companies, so how were you all able to come to the point that you guys needed to do something, that you needed to build a company around this, and then also to time so perfectly to give the notices?
Justin Borgman: For me, my handcuffs, if you will, were coming off in 2017. I knew I wanted to do another startup. I think just the way my psychology is wired when I feel like something wasn’t perfect, I want to do it again to get it right. It’s like a perfectionism thing. For me, there were so many painful lessons, so many scars from the first experience that I was like, I can do this better if I get the chance. I knew I was going to do something. Ultimately, I was able to convince my former team from Teradata to leave, as well, and that’s one of the reasons why we have so many co-founders at Starburst. We started this business as the company behind Presto, now called Trino, but we were the company behind this open-source project driving a lot of that roadmap. We were able to recruit the creators from Facebook to join us as well. Today, we not only have the creators but all the biggest contributors to the project here at Starburst, and we initially bootstrapped it. We were selling support initially to existing users of the open-source technology. That allowed us to get it off the ground without even raising venture initially.
Alejandro: What ended up being the business model of Starburst? How do you guys make money today?
Justin Borgman: We’ve had three chapters in our history with respect to the business model. The first chapter was just support because we hadn’t built any proprietary IP yet since we were starting on day one with this mission of let’s see if we can bootstrap this. That was just support. It was like Horton works at a similar model on the Hadoop side. We were basically implementing that. There are pros and cons to that approach. The pro was that we could get off the ground instantly and start to win contracts. The downside to that approach was that we weren’t actually creating much stickiness because they can use the open source. Also, the value proposition wasn’t that strong because a lot of the people who had been using Presto or Trino already knew how to use it. So they didn’t necessarily need our expertise at that point. We realized early on that we would have to create features and values that were above and beyond what was available in the open-source project. For us, some of those early features that we developed were around security features, access controls, being able to control who can see what that didn’t exist in the open source. That was the first transition going from a pure support model to what some will call an open core model where the core is open, but you’ve got this extra proprietary value around it, and that became the beginning of our first real flagship product, which was called Starburst Enterprise. Starburst is still a huge part of what we do, and that is the majority of our business today, but more recently, we now introduced a second product, which is called Starburst Galaxy, and that’s a cloud product. So that’s a SaaS product where we manage everything for you, and we’re adding a new value proposition in doing so where we’re removing complexity and managing your experience. That’s the third chapter on our business model.
Alejandro: Talking about managing, twelve co-founders, Justin. That’s a lot of co-founders. I think that out of all the episodes that I’ve done, and it is now hundreds and hundreds, you guys have built the company with the most amount of co-founders that I’ve ever come across, so how do you manage to balance and keep that alignment between all of you and also to make sure that the egos were checked and left at the door?
Justin Borgman: That’s a great question. I think, first of all, the project has so many great people involved with it that it was impossible to choose who would be involved and who would not. We wanted to try to include as many people as we could so long as we continued to fund that. When we were bootstrapped, we had to bring in enough to pay the salaries for folks. That also allowed us to develop software very quickly because these folks all knew the ins and outs of the codebase so quickly. There’s no ramp time required. They just immediately were able to be productive. Those were some of the benefits. In terms of managing all of that, yeah, we all have to manage our egos sometimes. I think that’s one of the reasons that one of our values is humility, and we try to remind ourselves that humility is really important here at Starburst. Nobody has the only idea or the only way to do something, and that we go into situations looking for the best idea, not our idea. That’s a corporate value. Sometimes, we have to remind each other of that along the way.
Alejandro: I love it. In your case, you were alluding to it. You did wait a little bit until you got that first round of financing. You guys were bootstrapping, and you were at about 3.3 million in revenue, which is remarkable before raising any kind of money. Then you decided to raise money. What was that point where you realized, “Guys, we’ve got to go out there and get some sophisticated investors behind us.”?
Justin Borgman: I would say there were two reasons we changed our view on going from bootstrapping to profitable to hyper-scale venture-backed. Number one was the market opportunity. We were seeing that customers were pulling us in and thinking about us as an alternative to Snowflake, which was amazing because Snowflake has been around a lot longer and had already raised probably a billion dollars at that point, and we had raised nothing. We were seeing that very leading progressive companies were saying, “No. We want to do this all with your stuff instead. We like the fact that it’s open, we can query open-source data formats, it’s flexible, we can access the data where it lives, and I think the notion that our platform does not lock you in. There’s a feeling that Snowflake is going to be the next Oracle and become this vendor lock-in black hole, if you will, and Starburst is the complete opposite of that. That early traction started to increase our own confidence because we might have been perfectly fine just running a lifestyle business that would grow organically over time, but I think the magnitude of the opportunity made us feel like, “We should go for this.” That was one reason. Then the other was Mike Volpi, in particular. Mike is an investor at Index. He’s had a ton of success around open-source companies. Most recently, Confluent was one of his companies, but also Elastic, Hortonworks. He’s got Cockroach. He’s done this probably more than anyone, and he’s a fundamentally awesome guy. He’s the best venture investor I’ve had the privilege to work with. He actually found us, which was amazing. He found us and actually encouraged us to think bigger and make this thing as big of a success as possible. I think those two factors, the market traction that we were seeing as a backdrop, plus a little bit of encouragement from Mike, was what it took.
Alejandro: How much capital have you guys raised to date, Justin?
Justin Borgman: We’ve raised about $164 million so far. Because we were profitable early on, we didn’t start burning any of that capital until more recently. We try to be as capital efficient as possible.
Alejandro: You were alluding to his being one of the best investors that you’ve had, if not the best, so what are the key traits? This is now your second rodeo. You’ve raised a bunch of money from many investors, so you’ve learned how to separate the investors that are good from the investors that are not going to be so good. What were you looking for in the investors that you’ve onboarded, and what do you keep looking for in terms of trades when you decide to build those? What are essentially long-term partnerships with these people that you’re welcoming to share the journey with you guys?
Justin Borgman: That last point you made is an excellent one. I like to say this is a marriage that you can’t get a divorce from. There’s no way out other than you potentially leaving the business, which you don’t want to do as a founder, certainly. So it’s really important. The other advice that I give aspiring entrepreneurs to focus on the partner, not the firm. I think that people very often get caught up in the brand names and the prestige, and I personally don’t actually care that much about that. Now, Index is a great and well-known firm. We also have Andreessen Horowitz on our cap table, obviously, a very well-known firm. But I care less about the brand name and far more about the individual human because, to your point, that’s who you’re going to spend a lot of time with. That’s who you can’t necessarily change down the line. That’s a little bit of context. In terms of what I looked for; I think 1) integrity. You can figure that out quickly by doing reference-checking. The key there, by the way, is a really important lesson. Do the reference-checking from entrepreneurs that VCs did not give you the name of. You can ask them for references, and they’re going to give you the ones that are probably active investments, so the entrepreneurs are afraid to give you the truth. But also, they’re the ones that are handpicked by them. Go on Crunchbase or wherever, find other investments, and ideally, some that didn’t work out to get a real sense of the person. In Mike’s case, for example, his reputation is just stellar. I spoke to a lot of entrepreneurs about him, and he’s a pro entrepreneur type of investor. He’s very patient. He’s there when you need him and not when you don’t, so he’s not breathing down your neck. He has so much experience that the pattern matching that he has from that experience is incredibly valuable. He’s like everything I would say you look for in an investor, to be perfectly frank.
Alejandro: As we’re thinking about people here, I was mentioning that one of my good buddies, Brad Wyman, is actually an employee with you guys and part of your team. I’ve gotten to be exposed to that sense of ownership, that excitement that he has for the company, and I’m sure that that’s shared all across the board with other employees. How do you guys think about culture? How do you build that so that people are so pumped to go to work every day?
Justin Borgman: First of all, I appreciate that. Brad is amazing, so we’re very lucky to have him. I think it’s an infectious feeling. I think when you’re around other people that feel that way, it starts to spread, and I think, at least in our early days, pre-COVID, there were 20 to 30 of us who were absolutely fanatical about this business because you had to be fanatical to join a company that hadn’t raised venture, that was flying under the radar, that was bootstrapped, and therefore pretty frugal. We doubled up on hotel rooms when we traveled. There are a lot of stories our guys could tell you about where we tried to pinch a penny. Our office was literally in a basement. You could hear the toilets flushing the things moving through the pipes. It was about as gritty as you could get. I think what’s special about that is almost because of that shared experience of not having luxury. People appreciated the whole thing that much more. I think that is infectious. We’ve had some incredible early employees who are still with us today and have become ambassadors of culture out there. It’s challenging in COVID. I do want to be clear because now you’re not physically with people as much, so trying to maintain that culture is harder. That would be my answer.
Alejandro: You guys have been hyper scaling like crazy. In COVID, you added at least 250 people that don’t really know each other in person. How do you deal with that in a way in which you’re able to scale up, as well, that culture mindset so that things don’t break?
Justin Borgman: It is super hard, and I don’t want to pretend that I’ve got it all figured out because I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about this, worrying about this, focused on this. And, in fact, we were going to get the entire company, which is well over 350 people now together physically in Boston last week, and unfortunately, we decided the last minute that we were going to make it a virtual conference just because our international people couldn’t join because of travel restrictions, and even domestically, some people weren’t comfortable anymore with the Delta variant. That was very sad. I was looking forward to getting everybody together in one place. So we have to make the best of it, and I think, unfortunately, a lot of Zoom. But also, I would say that individual teams, individual regions, individual groups are getting together where they’re comfortable and seeing each other and starting to create those human relationships. In addition to that, we’re trying to do more on company events to try to have fun together and enjoy time together outside of just working all the time. It’s a battle. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it’s something we do spend a lot of time thinking about.
Alejandro: Just for the people that are listening and tuning in right now, what’s the size of the scope of Starburst today. Is there anything you can share around the number of employees or anything else?
Justin Borgman: We’re about 320 employees today. I can’t disclose revenue results, unfortunately, but we’re growing exceptionally quickly. We’ll triple again this year and continue to be on a very high growth path.
Alejandro: In terms of the future of data warehousing analytics, where do you think things are heading?
Justin Borgman: Great question. What’s interesting to me is, I think there are a few different opposing views on how this market evolves. There’s Snowflake, which is a cloud implementation of a very old data warehousing model. It hasn’t changed in 40 years. They are Teradata for the cloud, which necessitates a lot of data movement, in just and consolidation, and ultimately as byproduct, you end up with vendor lock-in. Another approach, which is more of what Databricks is promoting, is a data lake, which data lakes have advantages because you can use open data formats, so you’re not that locked in. You can do a lot of different things within that data lake. So Databricks’ strength is around training machines, learning models. Starburst’s strength is around running Sequel queries and using BI tools. You can actually have both of these tools working together, side by side, and accessing the same data. If I had to choose between the two, I would say we like the data lake model and what Databricks is trying to do, but we actually see a third model that we’re most excited about, which is increasingly becoming known as a data mesh. This is the idea that data is decentralized just as a practical matter. You end up with different data silos, different departments have different data sets, and this idea, this quest of trying to pull all of the data together in one place, is kind of a fool’s errand. It’s never really successful worked in history. You’re always going to have other data sets. So instead of trying to fight against the grain, the data mesh says: access the data where it lives, and there are benefits to this decentralized approach where you can have people who know the data, own the data, and be the domain-specific owners of that, and they can create data products that they then share with the rest of the organization. For example, maybe there’s a web team that owns the web lock data, and you want to share out the data set that has all the click stream data and make it available to others in the organization. Now the marketing team can work with that, and maybe the finance team wants to run some analytics that relate to that or the product team, or what have you. You’re thinking about it in this more decentralized fashion that really democratizes both management and access. That works well for us because essentially, we’re this single point of access, this distributive query engine that can query the data where it lives. We love the data mesh concept. We think it’s practical, pragmatic, and ultimately allows for much faster velocity for our customers who can now go directly to the source rather than having to talk to IT to create IT pipelines that load all the data into a data warehouse. Obviously, I get passionate about this, but I’ll pause there.
Alejandro: Let’s expand on this. Imagine you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world five years later, and you wake up in a world where the vision of Starburst is completely realized. What does that world look like?
Justin Borgman: I would say in that world, in that future world, I would think of us as a little bit like the Amazon.com for data within your enterprise, meaning that you go to a singular place, and you can find all the different data sets that you need to understand your business better, and put this in the hands of the end-user and unlock the Data Analyst within us all. I think all of us ask questions and want to understand our business better, and therefore, I would say that makes you an analyst. If we can empower that without you having to have exceptional technical skills and having an engineering background, rather, you can say, I want this data set, that data set, and that data set, and maybe also this data set from another company that we want to buy and pull in to enrich our analysis. You should be able to do that at your fingertips. That’s the world that we believe five years from now can look like, and that’s what we’re building toward.
Alejandro: Imagine I put you into a time machine, Justin, and I bring you back in time with all this wealth of knowledge that you’ve been able to accumulate with these two companies that you have been running, building, and scaling. I bring you back to that moment where you were in Yale, and you were brainstorming with your co-founders about what to do in the world and what could be the company, and you’re able to have them all, including yourself, sit down and let’s say that they’re listening because typically our younger selves don’t listen. Imagine that all of you are listening, and you’re able to give them, including yourself, one piece of business advice before launching a company. What would that be and why, given what you know now?
Justin Borgman: Just one, you said. Right?
Alejandro: Just one. If you want to give me a bonus, I’ll accept that too.
Justin Borgman: Okay. I will say simplicity. Try to simplify at every stage of your company’s development everything that you do because when you are founders, generally, founders come from a lot of domain expertise, a lot of knowledge about the space that they’re operating. But for you to scale, you have to hire people that don’t have that knowledge. This is particularly true in the Data Analytics space, which actually is a very complicated space. While I may know every possible way that a customer may want to use something and how our product could fit and all the different things they could do, that’s going to be a lot harder for employee #300 who joins us. I would say start early on trying to find patterns that are repeatable, that you can simplify and almost package up for anyone, not to say truly anyone, but your employee #300 can understand and digest and become productive right away. I would say keep it simple and repeat those messages often. By the way, I think people forget, and I think the more you scale, the more you have to be a repetitive broken record sometimes about these things. Those would be some of my pieces of advice. My bonus is there’s time for it, I would say culture is also really important. You know, everybody talks about culture, but I think going through this journey, I gained more sophistication around what that really means and in particular, I would say be absolutely maniacal about hiring people, specifically managers who are going to report to you who feel the same way about culture, and who are going to be ambassadors because what happens otherwise is, you may have a particular set of values and culture that you’ve created, and maybe even the people around you share that, but if your leaders don’t share that, if they don’t become amplifiers od that message, then you end up with different cultures within your organization.
Alejandro: Got it. For the people that are listening, Justin, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Justin Borgman: [email protected]. You’re welcome to send me an email or LinkedIn. You’ll find me there as well: Justin Borgman. And thank you so much for having me, Alejandro. This has been great.
Alejandro: Amazing. Well, thank you for being on the DealMakers show, Justin. It has been an honor to have you on.
Justin Borgman: Likewise. Take care.
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