November 17, 2022

CEO Rapidfire: Learnings from Ali Ghodsi, co-founder & CEO Of Databricks, on the journey to $1B+ ARR

Jyoti Bansal
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CEO Rapidfire: Learnings from Ali Ghodsi, co-founder & CEO Of Databricks, on the journey to $1B+ ARRCEO Rapidfire: Learnings from Ali Ghodsi, co-founder & CEO Of Databricks, on the journey to $1B+ ARR
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Editor's note: 

Ali Ghodsi and a half-dozen co-founders started Databricks in 2013 as a web-based platform for Apache Spark, which they’d developed as part of the AMPLab project at the University of California at Berkeley. When I first met Ali in 2015, the company was just starting to gain rapid traction. Today, thousands of organizations rely on Databricks, which just crossed a $1B annual run rate, for massive-scale data engineering, collaborative data science, machine learning, and business analytics.

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Ali worked hard to get where he is: Born in Iran during the revolution, his family fled to Sweden in 1984 to escape persecution. As a child, he taught himself programming on an old Commodore 64 with a broken tape recorder. The machine wouldn’t play any games, so Ali picked through the manuals and learned to code. By high school, he was missing school and staying up all night programming. His Ph.D. research focused on completely decentralized systems — precursors to bitcoin.

As two Bay Area founders in the software infrastructure community, we’ve always had a lot to talk about. But besides being a brilliant engineer and academic, I’ve always found Ali to be a thoughtful and visionary leader. Here are his rapid-fire insights on the entrepreneurial journey:

The one secret to succeeding as an entrepreneur, in five words or less. Grit. Most successful entrepreneurs failed for a long time until they finally succeeded. I've seen many people throw in the towel too early.

What was the most exciting “minute” of your entrepreneurial journey? The moment in the spring of 2017 when my CFO told me we were on track to earn $30 million in revenue that year. That was up from $10 million in revenue the year before, and we’d thought we were failing up until we heard that. So it was an "it's working" moment.

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One truth you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting? The importance of marketing, which I dismissed as nonsense. Once you get that brand recognition, everything in life becomes easier.

If you had to do battle with a giant, what weapon would you use? Slingshot? Joking aside, I’d analyze my competitors' weaknesses, figure out my strength, then apply my strength to that weakness. I live by this every day.

Your worst mistake as an entrepreneur (and what you learned from it): Not building a complete SaaS offering from day one and dabbling around with more "secure" semi-hybrid SaaS architectures. Most shortcuts don't pay off.

Top 3 websites, blogs, or podcasts you can’t imagine your day without: The Economist, Stratechery, Lex Friedman Podcast.  

What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

"I don't regret any mistakes because they made me who I am."

"Trust your gut."

"Hire your marketing leader before your sales leader."

Anything anyone ever says about "TAM." It’s all fiction. Always.

One life hack you can’t live without: Uber Connect to deliver items from point A to point B. It’s a killer feature almost no one uses.

One soft skill that you’ve realized is supremely important: Selling.

The one thing that makes a good leader great is: Lots of people follow them. Period.

Your secret to building a great team is: Checking backdoor references. If what people advertised (and believed) about themselves were true, we'd all have the best dream team.

The key to navigating hypergrowth is: For enterprise software, your number of new account executives divided by the number of your total account executives will determine your two-year growth.

Every entrepreneur must read … The Advantage by Pat Lencioni. Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard P. Rumelt.

What are you most excited about at work right now? Cleverly navigating the downturn to get ahead.

Your one “non-negotiable” in business (or life) is … Outright lying. If you lie to me, we're going our separate ways.

Thank you for reading! For more insights from my experience as a serial entrepreneur and how we can harness the power of software to change the world, subscribe to Entrepreneurship and Leadership.

This edition of CEO Rapidfire was originally published November 2, 2022, in my LinkedIn newsletter, Entrepreneurship and Leadership.

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