Selling a startup can come with an emotional cost

Every founder dreams of building a substantial company. For those who make it through the myriad challenges, it typically results in an exit. If it’s through an acquisition, that can mean cashing in your equity, paying back investors and rewarding long-time employees, but it also usually results in a loss of power and a substantially reduced role.

Some founders hang around for a while before leaving after an agreed-upon time period, while others depart right away because there is simply no role left for them. However it plays out, being acquired can be an emotional shock: The company you spent years building is no longer under your control,

We spoke to a couple of startup founders who went through this experience to learn what the acquisition process was like, and how it feels to give up something after pouring your heart and soul into building it.

Knowing when it’s time to sell

There has to be some impetus to think about selling: Perhaps you’ve reached a point where growth stalls, or where you need to raise a substantial amount of cash to take you to the next level.

For Tracy Young, co-founder and former CEO at PlanGrid, the forcing event was reaching a point where she needed to raise funds to continue.

After growing a company that helped digitize building plans into a $100 million business, Young ended up selling it to Autodesk for $875 million in 2018. It was a substantial exit, but Young said it was more of a practical matter because the path to further growth was going to be an arduous one.

“When we got the offer from Autodesk, literally we would have had to execute flawlessly and the world had to stay good for the next three years for us to have the same outcome,” she said at a panel on exiting at TechCrunch Disrupt last week.

“As CEO, [my] job is to choose the best path forward for all stakeholders of the company — for our investors, for our team members, for our customers — and that was the path we chose.”

For Rami Essaid, who founded bot mitigation platform Distil Networks in 2011, slowing growth encouraged him to consider an exit. The company had reached around $25 million run rate, but a lack of momentum meant that shifting to a broader product portfolio would have been too heavy a lift.


By Ron Miller

Datastax acquires The Last Pickle

Data management company Datastax, one of the largest contributors to the Apache Cassandra project, today announced that it has acquired The Last Pickle (and no, I don’t know what’s up with that name either), a New Zealand-based Cassandra consulting and services firm that’s behind a number of popular open-source tools for the distributed NoSQL database.

As Datastax Chief Strategy Officer Sam Ramji, who you may remember from his recent tenure at Apigee, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, Google and Autodesk, told me, The Last Pickle is one of the premier Apache Cassandra consulting and services companies. The team there has been building Cassandra-based open source solutions for the likes of Spotify, T Mobile and AT&T since it was founded back in 2012. And while The Last Pickle is based in New Zealand, the company has engineers all over the world that do the heavy lifting and help these companies successfully implement the Cassandra database technology.

It’s worth mentioning that Last Pickle CEO Aaron Morton first discovered Cassandra when he worked for WETA Digital on the special effects for Avatar, where the team used Cassandra to allow the VFX artists to store their data.

“There’s two parts to what they do,” Ramji explained. “One is the very visible consulting, which has led them to become world experts in the operation of Cassandra. So as we automate Cassandra and as we improve the operability of the project with enterprises, their embodied wisdom about how to operate and scale Apache Cassandra is as good as it gets — the best in the world.” And The Last Pickle’s experience in building systems with tens of thousands of nodes — and the challenges that its customers face — is something Datastax can then offer to its customers as well.

And Datastax, of course, also plans to productize The Last Pickle’s open-source tools like the automated repair tool Reaper and the Medusa backup and restore system.

As both Ramji and Datastax VP of Engineering Josh McKenzie stressed, Cassandra has seen a lot of commercial development in recent years, with the likes of AWS now offering a managed Cassandra service, for example, but there wasn’t all that much hype around the project anymore. But they argue that’s a good thing. Now that it is over ten years old, Cassandra has been battle-hardened. For the last ten years, Ramji argues, the industry tried to figure out what the de factor standard for scale-out computing should be. By 2019, it became clear that Kubernetes was the answer to that.

“This next decade is about what is the de facto standard for scale-out data? We think that’s got certain affordances, certain structural needs and we think that the decades that Cassandra has spent getting harden puts it in a position to be data for that wave.”

McKenzie also noted that Cassandra provides users with a number of built-in features like support for mutiple data centers and geo-replication, rolling updates and live scaling, as well as wide support across programming languages, give it a number of advantages over competing databases.

“It’s easy to forget how much Cassandra gives you for free just based on its architecture,” he said. “Losing the power in an entire datacenter, upgrading the version of the database, hardware failing every day? No problem. The cluster is 100 percent always still up and available. The tooling and expertise of The Last Pickle really help bring all this distributed and resilient power into the hands of the masses.”

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.


By Frederic Lardinois

Qubole launches Quantum, its serverless database engine

Qubole, the data platform founded by Apache Hive creator and former head of Facebook’s Data Infrastructure team Ashish Thusoo, today announced the launch of Quantum, its first serverless offering.

Qubole may not necessarily be a household name, but its customers include the likes of Autodesk, Comcast, Lyft, Nextdoor and Zillow . For these users, Qubole has long offered a self-service platform that allowed their data scientists and engineers to build their AI, machine learning and analytics workflows on the public cloud of their choice. The platform sits on top of open-source technologies like Apache Spark, Presto and Kafka, for example.

Typically, enterprises have to provision a considerable amount of resources to give these platforms the resources they need. These resources often go unused and the infrastructure can quickly become complex.

Qubole already abstracts most of this away and offering what is essentially a serverless platform. With Quantum, however, it is going a step further by launching a high-performance serverless SQP engine that allows users to query petabytes of data with nothing else by ANSI-SQL, given them the choice between using a Presto cluster or a serverless SQL engine to run their queries, for example.

The data can be stored on AWS, Azure, Google cloud or Oracle Cloud and users won’t have to set up a second data lake or move their data to another platform to use the SQL engine. Quantum automatically scales up or down as needed, of course, and users can still work with the same metastore for their data, no matter whether they choose the clustered or serverless option. Indeed, Quantum is essentially just another SQL engine without Qubole’s overall suite of engines.

Typically, Qubole charges enterprises by compute minutes. When using Quantum, the company uses the same metric, but enterprises pay for the execution time of the query. “So instead of the Qubole compute units being associated with the number of minutes the cluster was up and running, it is associated with the Qubole compute units consumed by that particular query or that particular workload, which is even more fine-grained ” Thusoo explained. “This works really well when you have to do interactive workloads.”

Thusoo notes that Quantum is targeted at analysts who often need to perform interactive queries on data stored in object stores. Qubole integrates with services like Tableau and Looker (which Google is now in the process of acquiring). “They suddenly get access to very elastic compute capacity, but they are able to come through a very familiar user interface,” Thusoo noted.

 


By Frederic Lardinois

Autodesk agrees to buy PlanGrid for $875 million

Autodesk announced plans to acquire PlanGrid, a San Francisco startup that helped move blueprints from paper to the iPad when it launched in 2011.

This digitization of construction fits with Autodesk’s vision of digitizing design in general, and CEO Andrew Anagnost certainly recognized the transformational potential of the company he was buying. “There is a huge opportunity to streamline all aspects of construction through digitization and automation. The acquisition of PlanGrid will accelerate our efforts to improve construction workflows for every stakeholder in the construction process,” he said in a statement.

The company, which is a 2012 graduate of Y Combinator, raised just $69 million, so this appears to be a healthy exit for the them. PlanGrid took what was a paper-intensive task and shifted it to digital, taking a world of hand-written mark-ups and sticky notes onto the fledgling iPad.

In an interview with CEO and co-founder Tracy Young in 2015 at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, she said the industry was ripe for change. “The heart of construction is just a lot of construction blueprints information. It’s all tracked on paper right now and they’re constantly, constantly changing,” Young said at the time.

Those manual changes often resulted in errors she said, and that was costly for the contractors. As an engineer working for a construction company, who was at one time responsible for making the paper copies, she recognized that the process could be improved by moving it into the digital realm.

PlanGrid CEO Tracy Young onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in 2015

Her idea, which was kind of radical in 2011 when she started the company, was to move all that paper to the cloud and display it on an iPad. It’s important to remember that the enterprise was not rushing to the cloud in 2011, and most people considered the iPad at the time to be a consumer device, so what she and her co-founders were attempting was a true kind of industry transformation.

Young sees joining Autodesk as a way to continue building on that early vision. “PlanGrid has excelled at building beautiful, simple field collaboration software, while Autodesk has focused on connecting design to construction. Together, we can drive greater productivity and predictability on the jobsite,” she said in a statement.

PlanGrid currently has 400 employees, 12,000 customers and 120,000 paid users, and has been used on over a million construction projects worldwide, according to data provided by the companies. They believe that under Autodesk’s umbrella and combined with their existing product set, they can provide a complete construction solution and grow the business faster than PlanGrid could have on its own — pretty much the standard argument in an acquisition like this.

PlanGrid was efficient with the money it took. In fact the last raise was $40 million almost exactly three years ago. The deal is expected to close at the end of January pending the normal regulatory approval process.

 


By Ron Miller