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August 24, 2008

My time at ScaleDB is now finished and I am back at home in San Diego. Just a few more days in the sun and surf here and I will be headed back to the Hill for my senior year – should be good fun. And I now have the experiences from my five week internship to add to my resume, as well as my time spent at the Holy Cross summer business program. These opportunities allowed me to get a better picture of what the business world is truly like, and to gain some practical experience. The best part was all of the cool HC alums that I got to meet, especially those in California. All in all, the internship and my time in the summer business program were both worthwhile experiences. Thank you to all the people who made these opportunities possible for me, especially Mike Hogan, Art Ciocca, and David Chu.

That’s all for now, sports fans.

Peace out. 

Day 22 – August 12

Things are starting to wind down quite a bit for me. That is, I haven’t had much to do these past few days at my internship. My most recent project has involved organizing a series of documents, then scanning them into portable document format (PDF) so they can be saved electronically. While this was a nice time consuming project which did gave me something to do, it was one that ultimately demanded very little of my attention. You see, once the documents had been organized, and coversheets created for them, transitioning the documents to PDF did not require hardly any effort on my part. I simply put the documents into the automatic feeder, started the scanner, and waited.

Our scanner takes approximately 25 seconds per page when converting to PDF - if you have ever scanned documents, you’ll know this is extremely slow. So when I realized I would be waiting a while with nothing to do, I decided to spend some of my time chillin' with Ron. Now I don’t believe I’ve mentioned it previously, but Ron is Chinese. So we have been having discussions about everything from the Olympics, to Chinese politics, to the Chinese language (all quite interesting conversations, from my perspective). During spring break of my sophomore year, I went on a trip to the cities of Beijing and Chengdu with the Holy Cross Chinese department. As a result, Ron and I were also able to talk about our travels through China and swap photos from our trips.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t talk too long because Ron actually does have a lot of work to do. But the conversation was a good break from the monotony of the scanning project.

The lesson? No internship is perfect, and as an intern you won’t always have meaningful work to do. But in those times when you are searching for tasks, and the boredom is starting to set in, you just have to try and make the best out of the situation. Talk to people. Make connections. Do something. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get some cool travel stories out of it.

As a side note to all my loyal readers out there, Ivan accepted our offer and will be joining ScaleDB this Monday. Therefore, as promised I will be revealing his real name. The man whom you know as Ivan is actually… (drum roll, please) Igor. In addition to Igor, we will also be bringing on another candidate, Aixiang, as a development engineer. Until next time: you stay classy, planet Earth.

Peace.

Day 18 – August 6

Today I met with John Dean, a Holy Cross alumni who runs a venture capital firm in Palo Alto. John has been the CEO of five different financial services companies, including Silicon Valley Bank, and in 2001 was named one of the “50 most powerful deal makers” by Forbes Magazine. In addition to his impressive professional credentials, he is also a genuinely nice guy.  He greeted Mike and I as “fellow Crusaders” and was very comfortable cracking jokes and talking about his time on the Hill.

However, our meeting with John was not purely for social purposes. We were at his firm so that I could pitch the company to him. The three of us, and two interns who were working with John, went into his conference room and sat down at a typical large wooden conference table. After a few more minutes of friendly banter, it was go time for the pitch. With the exception of one or two highly technical questions at the end – which were fielded by Mike – I flew completely solo.  I gave the presentation, answered his questions, and presented John with an industry report completely on my own ... and it went over really well.

John said he was impressed with my presentation skills and the way I composed myself - a huge complement from a VC who sees these kind of pitches all the time. He was also interested in the company, and said he wanted us to come back next week to present it to his partners in the firm. This is excellent for us, as it is always nice to have others supporting your cause. While ScaleDB is not looking for VC funding at the moment, John had mentioned the possibility of getting his firm in on closing the angel-funding round. Even though participating in angel funding would be quite unusual for a VC, if the terms are right ScaleDB would not be opposed to making such a deal. And regardless of whether John’s firm funds the company at this point, it is always advantageous having a VC on our side who can introduce us to other players in the industry, and possibly invest in the company down the road.

So with that, we all shook hands and said our goodbyes, then Mike and I departed. I can’t say whether any deal will eventually come of the meeting, but I do know that it went well. And from my perspective, the experience of presenting a pitch before a venture capital firm was highly valuable. We peaked John’s interest and got a second meting with him and his partners – and that, to me, is a success.

Peace.

Day 16 – August 4

ScaleDB finally has a new office! More than anything else, this means that Mike and I no longer have to work out of his home. The new space is twice the size of the old office, so there is plenty of room to accommodate all of us under one roof. It also means I finally get my own desk – score. Additionally, the increased space will now allow us to take on more people to help develop and test the software.

This is especially good news being that the company is preparing to make an offer to one of the QA candidates who was interviewed late last week. Ivan, as we shall refer to him, was by far the most impressive of the candidates we interviewed for the position – even more so than Morty, who had accepted another offer by the time we got through his references. Ivan went through Ron’s test like a bullet through Jello, and scored higher than everyone else who took it. He finished in less than 20 minutes what had taken the other candidates the better part of an hour. And not only is Ivan technologically skilled, he is also quite personable, and seems like he will get along well with the others in the company. To top it all off, the man used to work for Google. Really, how could we say no? So the plan is to meet with Ivan on Thursday and… make him an offer he can’t refuse. [SPOILER ALERT: should Ivan accept the position, his real identity will be revealed in an upcoming post. Stay tuned for the dramatic ending.]

Anyways, today was spent moving from the old space to the new one. Fortunately, the new building is right next to the original office.  So we boxed up programming books, servers and any number of other office essentials and rolled them down the street on a cart. Then, when all the stuff was at the new office, we set up the furniture and unloaded all the gear. Sounds boring, huh? Well, to be honest with you, it really wasn’t. It was nice taking a day away from the world of business and technology and just getting some physical activity. A small blessing, you might say. But now that we are all settled, the show must go on. And so we shall return to the business of business.

Peace.

Day 13 – July 30

The relationship between venture capital firms and entrepreneurs is something of the love/hate variety - at least from the entrepreneur’s perspective.  Entrepreneurs love it when a VC swoops in and gives them several million dollars to rocket their business to the next tier. But by making these saves, the VCs expect to own a sizable portion of the company in return, including one or more positions on the board of directors. This can cause problems for a company when the interests of the founders begin clashing with those of the VC. For many entrepreneurs, VC funding is seen as a necessary inconvenience – I’m sure some would say evil – which enables them to stay afloat at a cost of giving up their complete control of the company. Should an entrepreneur be lucky enough to snag a deal with a top tier VC firm their company will reap additional benefits, such as prestige, press coverage, and an ear from the rest of the investing community.

So why bring all of this up? Well, today Mike and I met with one of those top tier venture capital firms – Sequoia Capital. These guys are part of the elite echelon in the VC community, and getting funding from them would be a major home run for ScaleDB. The company would instantly get respect in the industry, and the other VC firms in the Valley would be more than ready to throw money at us. However, at the moment we aren’t in need of VC money as we are just about to close our second round of angel funding. But by meeting with Sequoia, ScaleDB can begin a relationship with them which may pay off big later down the road.

The VC we met with – lets call him Phil - was perhaps in his mid-thirties and though he was dressed casually, his look which said he was no stranger to wealth. We met at his office, which is surrounded by a parking lot full BMWs, and Mercedes (and I’m told they keep their nice cars at home!). Mike gave the same investor pitch I had seen him give a dozen times as we sat at a long wooden conference table. While he talked, I kept my eye on Phil looking for any signs of interest, or lack thereof. Let's just say the man has a stonewall poker face. He took some notes and asked a few questions, but that was about it. Then he shook our hands and left us to go on our way.

Both Mike and I felt it went well, and neither of us was expecting anything more than what happened. What is important is that ScaleDB now has its foot in the door with a big VC. Plus Phil said he would talk to a few people about the company and recommend some more angel investors to us. So now we will have to wait and see if Sequoia develops an interest in us. Like I said, we aren’t in a hurry for the money now, but who knows what ScaleDB’s needs will be like a year down the road? This could be the beginning of something big.

Peace.

Day 12 – July 29

Like many others, this morning began with a change of plans. I had arrived at Mike’s house at the normal time, ready for a new day of work. However, it became clear quite quickly that no one was home. A call to Mike revealed that there had been a miscommunication and I was supposed to meet him at the office this morning in preparation for a board meeting. Not a problem. I got back in the car and headed out to the office. But on the way, I got another call from Mike – the shared conference room at the office had been taken by someone else. As such, there was no room for us to have our board meeting. So we had to improvise. I turned around and headed back to Mike’s house where the meeting was to be relocated.  Now, I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: flexibility is key in the business of small business. Sometimes you get to have a normal board meeting in a professional looking conference room…which is nice when it does happen. But other times you have to opt last minute for a plastic table hastily moved to the center of a home office. Constantly being on your toes is a necessity in the world of start-ups.

ScaleDB’s board has three members: Mike and Moshe, who were both present, and Moshe’s brother who is in Israel. Being that Moshe’s brother was participating in the meeting via telephone and internet, I’m not even sure if he realized that we were all at Mike’s house (in fact he asked at one point if Ron was there, assuming we were at the office). And with the exception of a brief hello, I was present merely as a fly on the wall – an excellent vantage point for the occasion. So, spanning ten time zones, four people, and a plastic picnic table in Mike’s home, my first board meeting was an interesting across between the ordinary and the atypical. I think the creepy robotic children of Disney may have had it right: “It’s a small world after all.”

The meeting was pretty standard – discussions mostly about the big picture of a small company. Where is our money going? How long until the product is ready? What are the new risks we are facing? But what became clear as the meeting went on was the unambiguous tension between each of the board members. Everyone wanted their own plan implemented, and everyone had issues with the other members’ plans. Eventually, all of the proposed motions were passed, but this was not without a fair share of politicking and some toes being stepped on. In the end, what needed to be done got done, though there were definitely some tempers close to the surface. I’d love to tell you a bit more about the substance of the meeting, but it was all pretty confidential…I now know who shot JFK. As I came away from the meeting, I wondered if this competitive and untrusting dynamic is typical for board meetings in small companies.

Motion to adjourn passed.

Peace.

Day 10 – July 25

For the past two days we have been searching for people. More so, we are searching for the fresh talented people who will propel ScaleDB to the next level. ScaleDB is a small company, but it doesn’t intend to stay that way for long. To grow we need to hire talented engineers and quality assurance testers. So Mike and I have spent the last few days interviewing candidates for the QA position, and a bit of time scoping out new office space to accommodate our expanding team. While it is wonderful to finally be working somewhere other than Mike’s house (at least for a few days), there is a certain boredom that really begins to set in when all day is spent listening to timid software nerds talk about their qualifications, and looking at empty buildings.

All of the interviews were conducted at the company’s office, which is in a shared office space in Menlo Park. ScaleDB’s space is limited to a bedroom sized office which houses our three software engineers: Moshe, Vern, and Ron. Moshe is the one who originally came up with the idea for ScaleDB. He has been working on the code for about three years now and is the brains behind the whole company. Vern is a retired database architect who worked for IBM for something in the ballpark of 40 years. He is widely respected in Silicon Valley, and gets ScaleDB a lot of street credit. To put things in perspective, when a group from Sun met with ScaleDB a few months ago, some of them asked to have their picture taken with Vern. He is a rock star in the database world… if such a thing actually exists. And Ron has a Ph.D. and is the VP of engineering. When we eventually do higher QA people and more software engineers, they will be reporting to Ron. So he has been given a lot of input in the hiring process.

As the office space is tight enough with these three fellas, it’s a real blessing that the building has a conference room for all the tenants to share. This is where we held our interviews. The first candidate to interview for the QA position, we’ll call him Morty, ended up being the best we saw. Morty seemed the most comfortable with the interview process, and the most excited about the company. Excitement is critical for a start-up company – if the employees don’t want to succeed as much as you do, there may be problems. He answered the questions well and conveyed a thorough knowledge of the industry. Then came Ron and his pop-quiz. As his part of the process, Ron gave each candidate an unannounced test (literally a pencil and paper test!) to determine their skill level. Over an hour and a half later, - a time we all thought was a little long - Morty and Ron emerged. Our first candidate had survived and ended up doing alright over all.

Next came Wilbur. Wilbur was one of the many unfortunate victims of the ailing economy, having lost his last QA job due to downsizing. He gave short answers, lacked enthusiasm, and made very little attempt to impress us. As a result, none of us were very impressed. Finally, we interviewed Shanti, a timid woman, who despite her quiet demeanor and pronounced nervousness, seemed to have a good grasp of database testing. While both Shanti and Wilbur, scored better than Morty on Ron’s marathon test, ultimately Morty was the only one we asked to return for a follow up interview.

The rest of our time was spent driving to various locations in the Valley to check out possible spaces to move the business to - enough said.

Peace.

Day 6 – July 21

Today was field trip day. I arrived at Mike’s home (alas, still no office space!) at the normal time and we set off in his car for San Francisco, which is about 45 minutes away. Our mission was to rendezvous with another Holy Cross alumni, Arthur Ciocca, and give him the investment pitch at his home. The catch is that for the first time I, rather than Mike, would be the one doing the pitching. I should also mention Mr. Ciocca is not simply another Holy Cross alumni, but is the man responsible for the creation of the Ciocca Office of Entrepreneurial Studies, as well as one of central figures who made my internship possible. So this was really an excellent opportunity for me to try out my skills at making a pitch.

To begin with, Mr. Ciocca has an amazingly beautiful home. From the street all you can see is a high fortress like wall with a few trees sprouting over the edge. We sidestepped this barrier by buzzing in through a set of massive wooden doors, which opened into a courtyard oasis. Then, as we walked past the pool and the foliage of the surrounding garden, we were greeted by a sharply dressed man who led us into the dining room. It was at this point that I had to stop to pick my jaw up off the ground – the view was absolutely gorgeous. From atop a cliff, the house overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and just to the right… the Golden Gate Bridge. It was truly a magnificent vista.

Shortly after we entered the dining room, Mr. Ciocca joined us and we got down to business. I gave him the same pitch I had seen Mike give half a dozen times, stopping to answer questions and further describe the technology where need be. In fact, the presentation ended up being more of a conversation than a pitch, which I greatly preferred. At the end – which was about two hours after the start – Mr. Ciocca gave me some feedback on what I did right, and where I could make improvements for my next presentation. Generally, he seemed to like the idea behind ScaleDB and said he would consider investing in the company. Though he also mentioned he was a bit hesitant to do so because of his unfamiliarity with database technology. So we will just have to wait and see.

Before leaving, Mr. Ciocca and I briefly exchanged travel stories and he gave me a copy of his book, 171 Days, which chronicles his backpacking adventures through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Mike and I then said our goodbyes and thanked Mr. Ciocca for having us over before departing out the giant wooden doors.

One last thing: on our way home we stopped to grab some burritos for lunch. While they were sizable, there is still no comparison: Southern Californian Mexican food will always be better than the stuff they serve in NorCal. It’s just a fact of life.

Peace.

Day 3 - July 16

Fear and greed. They may seem like unlikely topics to arise on a blog about interning at a start-up company. Surely such topics would seem more at home in a philosophy or religion blog (maybe the would, but don’t call me Shirley). But fear and greed were exactly what Mike and I discussed today at considerable length.

Our morning topic of discussion was creating a presentation to pitch a start-up for funding. The two core emotions behind every human decision, according to Mike, are fear and greed. So a properly constructed presentation must dispel fears from the investors’ minds while at the same time appeal to their greed. It seemed to be a simple enough concept, and it was really only one point Mike was intending to make on the topic, but from that concept we were brought into a philosophical debate that lasted more than an hour.

While I agreed dispelling investors’ fears and appealing to their greed was a good strategy for getting funding, I disagreed with Mike’s view that all human decisions are rooted in a combination of fear and greed. What about love, compassion, and self-sacrifice? If the only things we build our decisions on are fear and greed than love must be a result of these. Yet how can acts of love, which are arise from selflessness, be the product of fear and greed? Mike’s answer was that even in seemingly selfless acts of love, we receive our reward in the love that is returned to us as well as the good feelings produced by the act. We love because we are greedy for the love of others. We give because we are greedy for the good feelings we get as a result of our gifts.

So Mike and I debated. I maintained that there are acts that come purely out of love, such as willingly dying for someone else – after all, you can’t receive any reward from someone if you are dead. Meanwhile Mike would attempt to break down the motives behind each scenario into fear and greed. In the end, neither of us convinced the other to change sides, and really I don’t think either of us expected that outcome. Typical Holy Cross behavior: having and hour long debate about an abstract concept simply for the intellectual stimulation. Plus, its fun to openly argue with you boss every now an then.

Other than our Philosophy 101 class, I also observed as Mike presented the investment pitch to another potential investor. He presented it in a slightly different manner than the previous times I had seen him do it, saying that you have to mix these things up every time otherwise you get bored with your own presentation. And who is going to get excited about investing money in you if you aren’t even excited?

I closed out the remaining hours of the day filling in the content for the new web site’s site map. Essentially this requires writing all of the long paragraphs that are displayed as a web site’s main content. These are then sent to the webmaster who posts them to the site. Fortunately, a lot of this work can be copied from various ScaleDB documents (such as the business plan) and the exiting site. As Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Perhaps a topic for a later discussion…

Peace.

Days 1-2 - July 15-16, 2008

To be a successful entrepreneur one must have the ability to adapt quickly to change, particularly if the change is unexpected. When I arrived in Palo Alto I was expecting to go to work for Mike at the ScaleDB offices a few miles away in Menlo Park. Then change happened. I got a phone call from Mike saying that the Menlo Park office was too small to accommodate the both of us and the rest of the staff – a situation I found slightly amusing being that there are only five employees at ScaleDB. So for the first week we will work out of Mike’s home office in Belmont, after which time the company will have moved into their new offices. You know it’s a true start-up company when people are still working out of their homes!

So the first day I arrived at the house and met (for the first time) Mike Hogan. We went into his office, and he gave me the low down on where ScaleDB was on its path to success and his role in the company’s formation. The first order of business for the day was HR stuff – the company needs more employees. So Mike and I produced job descriptions to be posted for senior software engineer and quality assurance engineer positions. From there, we switched gears and I reviewed and edited the site map for ScaleDB’s web site. Basically this entailed going through a written description of the proposed new web site and editing it to be more user friendly. Bouncing around like this between a multitude of different business fields (such as HR and web design) is an essential skill for a CEO to possess in a newly started company. You have to have your hand in everything, and be able to do every task like its your specialty.

At about midday, I listened in and took notes as Mike made a call to a potential angel investor and gave him an online presentation of the company’s technology and goals for the future. Essentially, angel investors are individuals (usually family or friends) who supply funding for a company in its infancy in exchange for a share in the company’s profits down the road.  They are the lifeblood for start-up companies. As such, the start-up CEO must also play the role of a persuasive salesman to gain these investors’ funds.

Day 2 unfolded in a slightly different manner. For one thing, it was shorter due to some dentist appointments that Mike’s family had… and due to the fact that I was accidentally locked out of the house for a time (oh, the many perils of the home based start-up!).

Mike had a new idea that every morning from here out we would have a lesson on some aspect of entrepreneurship. Today’s topic was motivation. What motives do entrepreneurs, have for wanting to start their own companies? We talked about how some entrepreneurs are driven by their ego or a need for fame, while others are in it for the money. All of these outlooks can be the downfall of an enterprise as they prevent owners from accepting criticism and advice, and thinking in the long run. It is those entrepreneurs who are motivated by the desire to create, the challenge of starting a new venture, and those with a passion for their ideas, that end up being the most successful.

As part of this lesson, I spent a majority of the remaining day reading various articles about entrepreneurial motivation, and a few chapters from Starting Something, a book about a tech start-up that was recommended to me by Professor Chu as well as Mike. “Entrepreneurial Class,” as Mike is calling these lessons, seems like it will be an excellent one-on-one education in entrepreneurial studies. For now, that’s all folks.

Peace.

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