Part 1 of 4:
The following is Part 1 of a 4 part interview that I did with Lew Cirne, founder and CEO of software powerhouse New Relic, Inc. Lew is a successful serial entrepreneur and New Relic is his second big hit.
Rob Kornblum: Tell me a little bit about your journey to being an entrepreneur, how you came to start companies. I know obviously the two most successful, I’m not sure if there were others, and you know would love to hear a little bit about how you got going on your entrepreneurial path.
Lew Cirne: Sure, well I mean it’s hard for me to talk about my past in entrepreneurship without talking about my discovery of the joy of just building software and computers. I think they go hand and hand.
So, my parents bought me a Commodore Vic 20 which I think was a $250 personal computer in 1982. I was 12 years old. And it just mesmerized me and I fell in love with everything about it, in particular just discovered that you could create stuff on it. I find this common amongst kids who get excited about computers, even to this day what they all want to do is write games on them. Kids want to play computer games. So I wrote my own version of Space Invaders, I don’t know how much these games resonate with you [like] Space Invaders.
And by the way, I take it as a total myth that startups are for the very young and if you’re over 30 starting a company you’re over the hill kind of thing. – Lew Cirne
Rob Kornblum: Absolutely, we are a couple years apart so these all resonate.
Lew Cirne: So you remember Missile Commander, I wrote one like that, and Defender, I think with a ship on the left side shooting things. So, anyway that was fun but it was still very early and there wasn’t a lot of massive, startups weren’t a huge thing then, but Microsoft was becoming a pretty important company and I had heard of them in my teenage years.
Anyway, I started a little company with a friend from my hometown. I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario, outside of Toronto, and a friend and I started a company to productize a game. He had invented this game and intended for it to be a board game actually, and I made a computer simulation of the game. it was a very sophisticated game and it made sense as a company game. So we started a company. It didn’t really go anywhere. It did get an offer to take to market but we never actually managed to get the thing shipped with the gaming company. But there is a learning experience there. So that was kind of my junior year of high school, my first attempt at starting something.
Then I went to college and at Dartmouth there was this steady pipeline of Dartmouth alums that were getting recruited to Apple. In fact, the manager who recruited out of Dartmouth, the people he has recruited have gone on to be some pretty incredible people.
There are a ton of CTO’s, there’s the guy who runs Amazon EC2 who created most of Amazon web services. There is the guy who runs virtualization at Microsoft was recruited by Bruce Jones.
And so I anyway, I joined an interesting young team at Apple but I got the entrepreneurship bug just by being in Silicon Valley, the excitement and romance of being in a startup, even though it was early 90s it was something people talked about with a lot of enthusiasm.
Rob Kornblum: Yes
Lew Cirne: So three years into my Apple job I thought you know it would be fun to be part of an early stage company. I wasn’t certain that I would be a founder, but I knew I was in too big a company to really [gain] the breadth of skills and experiences to be an effective early stage entrepreneur. Or member of an early stage team.
So I left Apple, I went to a smaller company called Hummingbird and that was maybe 300 person team, and by being in a smaller company I got exposed to other parts of the business- what sales did, what marketing did, that kind of thing, even though I was still an engineer.
And then after a couple years at Hummingbird, the idea for Wily hit me as I was trying to solve one of my own problems as a software engineer at Hummingbird and that I knew that my gut said that that idea would be an interesting idea to start a company around. And that’s when I started Wily. So I think I better pause there to make sure that I’m going in the direction that is helpful for your research.
Rob Kornblum: Yeah, absolutely. How old were you when you started Wily?
Lew Cirne: I was 28.
Rob Kornblum: Okay.
Lew Cirne: And by the way, I take it as a total niff that startups are for the very young and if you’re over 30 starting a company you’re over the hill kind of thing.
Rob Kornblum: Brad Feld said the same thing.
Lew Cirne: Yeah, it’s totally wrong. The press loves the Mark Zuckerberg story, but that’s because there’s like three of those people in the last 10 years that have done it.
Rob Kornblum: Right.
Lew Cirne: So I was very glad that I had five or six years of professional experience before starting Wily. But even then, as founding CEO of Wily, I was sole founder of both my companies, so that meant that I was doing everything. Title of CEO but also could have been janitor.
And at Wily I was learning a lot on the job. I think I managed a team of two people underneath me when I left my previous job. So I was learning a ton and there’s actually a Harvard case study where you can learn a lot about my Wily experience and you may want to fill in some of the details from that. If you just Google “Lew Cirne Wily HBS” you’ll find the case study and it’s six bucks.
Rob Kornblum: I appreciate that, thank you. I’m curious.
Lew Cirne: And I can talk about that professor.
Rob Kornblum: That would be great. I’m curious having been a solo founder for Wily, why you chose that path again for New Relic?
Lew Cirne: Well, it goes back to my passion is creating things. And some creative efforts, just like music, some music can only be created by a collaboration of a small number of people, while other people are just solo singer/songwriters. And I use this analogy all the time.
You know, and I think of myself as a singer/songwriter in software because I conceive of the product but then I perform it. I actually do the work to build it, too. And so and I think of my business and my product as heavily intertwined early on in the tech company as almost always is the case.
The second time around I started research on this idea largely for the fun of research in a new technology. It was called Ruby on Rails, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a real company yet. So with me on my sabbatical trying to get back into technology and discovering interesting stuff. And I thought maybe this would become a little lifestyle business where I hire three or four people and maybe we aspire to have $5 million in subscriptions, live a very comfortable life on that, and that was the ultimate of where I thought I would end up.
And then my dear friend Peter Fenton who funded my last company and is the chairman of New Relic he convinced me that I wouldn’t have nearly as much fun on that path as I would trying to build a great company and if I had only take his money at a very reasonable valuation we could do something great together.
Rob Kornblum: Of course.
Lew Cirne: He’s good at that, but he was also right. That’s how I kind of got started the second time around.
Rob Kornblum: You mentioned core values. Did you when you started New Relic did you articulate those? Did you write them down in terms of making sure everyone understood them?
And was that a different process at Wily?
Lew Cirne: I’ve never been good at actually writing them down. You may call it an excuse, but part of my reason for that is I really believe that core values are an act of discovery, not declaration. You really don’t know who the hell you are when you’re 25 years old. I think the most important lessons I’ve learned in my professional and my career about myself and in particular about my weaknesses- when I can do more harm than good in a particular situation, and when you can kind of manage yourself a little better.
But anyway, kind of related to discovering what is truly unique about our company that isn’t something that you can see in any other company’s core value statement? But I’ll tell you the things I try to repeat to people. I do it when new hires join, or when I get up in front of the company, I have a few things I share.
One that I share is that I want New Relic employees to love their Mondays. I use that term all the time, I ask people “Do you love your Mondays?” And I happen to love my Mondays. I think it’s an important way to think about it.
And the reason why I love my Mondays and the reason I want New Relic employees to love their Mondays is that there is two fundamental reasons: one is you love the work you do, you feel like it matters and it has impact and it gives you joy, and you love the people you work with. They bring out the best in you and they encourage you and they help you grow. If you’ve got those two things, then Monday mornings out to be a fun experience, right?
Rob Kornblum: Yes.
Lew Cirne: And so that’s one core value I talk about, I don’t know if it’s a core value but it’s something that I talk about that is important, and I always want to be true at New Relic.
And the other is, the other way to express it is, a measure of success for me is 40 years from now, New Relic employees look back and say ‘The very best days of my life were the days I worked at New Relic.’
And it comes back to what I was talking about That’s because I love my job, but I also love my whole life and New Relic helped me live the fullest, complete life when I was there cause I had an amazing work experience, I was part of an incredible ride, but I also had you know a wonderful life that I could enjoy. I think too many people in Silicon Valley always think, ‘You know that one thing that I wanted to do, just one more year at this shitty job then we can do it and have that life.’ Right? And it could be that trip you wanted to take, or whatever it is, right?
But you shouldn’t have to, life is short, and we’re going to spend most of it in our jobs, so let’s make sure our jobs compliment what we want to achieve in our lives, rather than it being an either/or.
Rob Kornblum: And Lew, is that a meaningfully different approach than you had at Wily, based on where you are in your life?
Lew Cirne: You know, I don’t know if it’s meaningfully different. I would articulate it slightly differently. At Wily it was we did write it down, we had the Wily Way document. I did it in joint effort with the CEO that I brought in. And it took us two years to get it onto one piece of paper.
And we had three core values. It was customer success, integrity, and the endless pursuit of excellence.
Rob Kornblum: But nowhere in there is loving your Monday, right?
Lew Cirne: Yeah! Well, they said, ‘How do we get there? By hiring amazing people who bring out the best in others.’
There was a lot of that too. Wily was known for being a place where there were good people, likable people. I don’t think we were explicit about it, but there was a similar kind of vibe. But I think it was a little more urgent, a little bit younger, in good and bad ways, right? We panicked more than we needed to sometimes.
Rob Kornblum: I think the other thing that I’ve heard from some folks is, and even you describing it as panic, I think some people talk about it in terms of initiatives and other activities that when you’re younger you don’t realize you don’t need to do. They call it the ‘not do’ list. And having that type of experience lets you be more focused and more efficient.
Lew Cirne: Yeah, and that’s kind of related to the other major thing for a founder starting their company later. The difference between me running Wily and me running New Relic comes back to that self-awareness and self-discovery.
I’m far more comfortable with me as I am- with weakness and warts and all instead of trying to be, I felt like at Wily in order to be CEO I had to sort of try to become someone I wasn’t. I don’t get excited about crawling through pipeline reviews and looking at deals and making sure we have a disciplined process for scaling the organization.
And I don’t like to sit in meetings. All of these things are super important for growing and leading a company, but when I discovered what I love to do is create stuff. I love to kind of convince other people to join the cause. I love getting people excited about the cause. I’ve got a list of things I love to do.
But then I need to hire for the other things that most people think of as CEO responsibilities. I need to higher very senior people that might otherwise be CEOs and give big responsibilities for them.
So the result is, for me personally, that I’m sitting around a table that has six chairs, and this is the only place where I have meetings. If the meeting has more than six people, unless it’s a board meeting, I don’t need to be in it.
And so anyway, it’s a long way of saying it’s very rare that someone in their 20s has that much self-awareness to really know what they’re going to really sign up to be very deep on and where they know to hire to complement their weaknesses and hire exceptional people to do that.
And be comfortable letting go, be comfortable letting go.
Because as a founder, you have to be passionate about the company and you’ve got to care about the details but yet you’ve got to be comfortable letting go of those details. So that other people can really grow and blossom.