Rosemary shares some powerful lessons she has learned in founding, building, and – ultimately – selling her company, Ellexus, over more than 10 years.
She discusses her approach to bootstrapping and how essential it can be to retain control of your business. This was critical when in 2018 she reduced the size of company by almost 70%, increasing both revenue and profitability. That was the year that started with the arrival of her second child and she shares what it means to start a family while keeping the lights on in the business.
She also talks about why she sold Ellexus to Altair, a NASDAQ listed tech giant, whose founder of 30 years is still CEO. She is now their Chief Scientist for HPC and manages the future roadmap for their High-Performance Computing workload managers.
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Hello, thank you very much for having me. I am going to talk about success. And and how we define it. Some of the experiences I’m going to talk about today a very personal experiences, I’m going to share them with you today not because I think what I went to what what I went through or what what I did was really remarkably different from any other software company but actually, because it’s the same. I think there are an awful lot of building a software company that we don’t talk about, we should talk about, and really starting with that is really the topic of raising money and whether that really is success; we have a we have a culture in the software industry that in order to start a business, you have to raise a tonne of money. And I’m here today to tell you that you don’t
I do not have a clicker.
So first of all, who am I? I have a PhD in FPGA architecture from from Cambridge, the computer science department is just up the road from here. And not long after I did that PhD. I founded my company, Ellexus, back in 2010. I then sold that company 10 years later to Altair. So that was just over 18 months ago. And I’m also a mum to two little girls who will feature in my talk later – yes, you do have to look at my children in in order to appreciate the talk.
I also like extreme sports, that’s me there. For those of you who windsurf you will know that is not a good stance. I am very frightened of the wave that is in front of me. And the next one ate me it was just it was a disaster like backwards, underwater, etcetera, etcetera. So that’s what I consider fun.
So it’s not necessarily very relevant to this talk, but I want to share a little bit about what my company did. We make high performance computing tools we still do as Altair now. And these are to monitor application performance, understand the way applications are using data on supercomputers. Supercomputers look like this great big corridor of racks in the photo. They they really do look like the things you see in the movies. They do not flash red and there is no siren when somebody hacks it. That’s just silence. They still just look the same. But they are a hugely important part of our lives. I think most people don’t realise how important supercomputers are. They give us the weather forecast. They use for cancer research. We have COVID vaccines because supercomputers have been used to understand the virus and to do drug discovery. We have oil and gas because supercomputers are used to simulate drilling and to find out where to drill and how to extract the resources. Our cars are safe and our aeroplanes are safe because supercomputers are used to model crashes to simulate wear and tear on the product and a million other things that all of us take for granted. There is a supercomputer doing all the work behind the scenes.
So how did I get started? Initially, I came up with the idea for the business and it was it was kind of born out of frustration. Supercomputers are used in semiconductor design. The software you use for semiconductor design is incredibly expensive. It can be hundreds of 1000s of pounds per licence per engineer. In some cases, an engineer needs multiple licences. So really making sure that these tools are up and running 24/7 At that point, the cost of the computer and the cost of the person does not matter at all. It’s all about the software licence. And so I formed a company to try and reduce the amount of time spent debugging problems, whether it’s performance issues or kind of why does it work for me and not for you kind of issues. And I new there was a need for the software. I was kind of a customer. And I was 26, fairly fresh out of university, didn’t really know what I was doing. But I got started initially, by talking a lot in the pub in Cambridge were fantastically lucky in that every time you walk into a pub, there’s someone running a software business probably relevant to what you’re doing. Certainly the case for me, windsurfers all run software companies. So I just went to the pub with my windsurfing friends, also went to the pub with my running friends, also went to the pub with my computer lab friends, and pitch this idea over and over again until I had something assembling a business plan, at least in my mind.
And this was good at kind of doing what a lot of people now get out of incubators and online courses. In 2010 there wasn’t so much of a culture around that. There is now but I would say it’s still no substitute for going to the pub and chatting about these things. And through my chats in the pub, I also found some PhD students who’d run out of money. And being gainfully employed, I was able to pay them to put together some prototypes of the software that I wanted. And really more proved to me that that what we were building was going to be possible. At that point, I kind of jumped in with both feet, quit my job, and started bootstrapping this business. And of course, like everyone, I thought about raising money. But at the time, I was in a fortunate position having been employed, I had a bit of money to put in, I formed the company with two other co founders, they put a little bit of money in, I had two jobs on the side as well as starting this software company. And that meant that we could bootstrap the business without raising any money. And that is a decision. That was absolutely the right decision.
Even though we grew much slower than than we might have done. The fact that we never hired anyone unless we had the money in the bank to pay them. The fact that we were continuously customer focused, we couldn’t do anything unless it was going to generate revenue meant that we stayed very, very focused on delivering value early on delivering something useful early on. And it forced us to learn all the lessons you need to learn. But it forced us to learn them very, very quickly.
So you’re probably sitting there thinking, why is there a van on her slide, that’s my van. His name was Harvey sadly no longer with us. Harvey stands for Harvey is Rosie’s van, because engineers like recursive acronyms. And Harvey took me to a lot of windsurfing beaches, but also to a lot of conferences in order to get the business off the ground I hired a graduate software engineer to write the code. At the time hardware engineers, which is what I was got me got paid more than software engineers. So I was able to pay his salary by working on the side as a as an FPGA consultant. And this is how we put together a minimum viable product. And if you have almost no money, your minimum viable product is pretty guaranteed to be minimal. The worst thing you can do when building a minimum viable product is have too much expertise and too much time and too much money. Because it’ll just turn into this enormous elephant of uselessness. So yeah, definitely being poor, and on a very short timeframe, is immensely helpful for putting together that MVP.
Having two jobs on the side was tough, but I mean, I’m sure looking around this room of slightly tired people. Most of us are used to working very long hours, and it’s something that you can do, at least for a short amount of time – I’ll come back to that later. And the other part, which I put at the bottom of the slide, we didn’t manage to do this at the beginning, but we certainly did later on is, if you are bootstrapping your company, will the customer fund it? Will the customer pay you up front for some aspect of the business when we launched our second product, we actually got the customer to fund it. They worked with us, they came to us with the need, they wanted something a bit different from what we than what we had, they wanted something that wasn’t available on the market. And we agreed to build it, they funded the building of that product, and then agreed to licence it at the end with some customer references. Brilliant, right? That’s so much better than raising money, getting just literally paid to build your company.
So that was not going to work for for all business cases. But it is certainly something worth going out there for. And it’s usually the thing when people are looking at VC funding, angel funding, debt funding, etc, etc. Customer funding is usually not on that list. And it really should be because deals where either a customer or a partner funds, your growth happen all the time. And are really important and unusually much better for the business. Again, when you’re bootstrapping, leveraging all the people who can possibly help you this, this is a free word cloud. And it only lets you have 100 people. So I made this massive list of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve helped me and then only took the top 100. So huge disappointment. Disappointing. So if you’re in the audience, and you think you helped me, I didn’t forget you. You’re just not in the top 100.
So I really do owe a massive debt to these people. When when I started the company and had the sorry, someone’s just pointing out and I’m looking who you’ve Who Have you spotted when I started the company, and I did not know what to do next we had this sort of prototype product. It was very prototype. The first thing I did was leverage my network in order to make the first sale. We were selling software for supercomputing and specifically for semiconductor companies. And so I emailed Professor Andy Hopper, who is head of the lab and say, hi, X student remember me probably don’t, I used to have pink hair. And I have started a company, I would like to sell the software to arm can you help. And he’s a really generous person. And he did, he emailed the CEO. And and then I got a message saying you have made two of the most powerful men in Cambridge haven’t haven’t have a conversation, you get to have a meeting with us. So that’s great. And then after a lot of hassling and badgering that person finally set up an actual meeting, managed to demo the product. And through a sheer almost stroke of luck. They that engineer had tried something similar already – because it was a good idea – but they hadn’t managed to get it to work. And so they immediately had a respect for what we done. And were willing to work with us on kind of polishing this product and, and really helping shape the offering. And at the time, we were absolutely pitching it wrong. We had a useful product, but we were absolutely pitching it wrong. And he really helped me kind of work through the use cases work through finding the value in the company.
So again, although at this point, the customer wasn’t paying to develop the product, they were still really influential in shaping it and making it useful. That gentleman and and, and some of that team I definitely on the list of people who helped me along the way. And others were mentors and people who gave up their time in many shapes and forms people who made introductions, customers who knew how influential they were, who recognised me at conferences and would stick out the hand. So ‘hi, Rosemary!’ that was absolutely brilliant, because as you’ll see in the next slide, selling in my industry looks like this. We have a very small number on the grand scheme of things of potential customers worldwide. There are 1000s of supercomputers that are of a large size and then a sort of a long tail of smaller single single rack systems. Initially my target customers were the very large customers. And so trying to find those mostly involves going to conferences that look like this. And I don’t know if you can squint you can just about see me in the middle. That was the last time I wore black such a mistake.
I didn’t go to this conference in my van. But I did probably went on EasyJet. And, and it’s really about kind of bootstrapping the company and getting out there, and not worrying too much about the success for the sake of success. So I wasn’t kind of out there having champagne receptions to celebrate raising a tonne of money. Obviously, we raised the glass whenever we made a sale, but but there was no sort of flashy office launch. There were the kind of no sort of glamorous startup competitions all over Europe and things like that. Because I really don’t think those things are success. I know, a number of people in this room or having spoken to them at the break, didn’t raise money for their company. And I think it’s a myth that a lot of people believe when they first start is that raising money is how you start a company, sometimes you do need to do that, but plenty of people don’t. And, and if you don’t raise money, you really have to get on with selling very, very quickly. So this is what I did. Lots and lots of grafting lots and lots of talking to people. When you can’t go mass, you’ve got to be very targeted. And over time attending these conferences, the first time you go, nobody knows you, but by the end of this session, everybody did I made sure of that. And then the next year, you come back everyone says, Hi, the next year after that you’re a speaker and you kind of build it up from there build trust in the industry and you initially start off hassling people for their business card and and then after a while, as people get to know you, they start hassling you for for yours.
And so like anything, there’s a seller’s checklist, I’m sure a lot of you will go through a pretty similar process. When, when you when you’re selling. There’s the obvious kind of do you solve a problem, like, day one selling school? That’s what you learn. The next part, actually, a friend of mine told me again, in the pub, this is how he thinks of it “does your customer think about that problem in the shower?”.
And this is something again, that a lot of people miss. Loads of things, solve a problem, but, and loads of things, loads of products solve a problem that I have, but I don’t buy them, because they’re not the most important problem to me now. If I’m not thinking about it in the shower, you can’t sell it to me, I do need a new dishwasher. But if my dishwashers not actually broken and so I’m not thinking about it in the shower. So if you turn up to me in a moment, and try and sell me a dishwasher, I will just tell you to go away and leave me alone because I’m thinking about a bunch of other things. Such as, what am What am I going to wear to my sister’s hen do at the weekend? Where am I going to stay? Who is going to look after the children? What are we going to eat the following day when I’m back and I’m hungover and I’m having to cook for for a different family gathering. That is what I’m thinking about in the shower. So you stand up there with a Versace dress, and like a hamper for Sunday lunch, brilliant, I’ll buy it.
So think about what your customers are thinking about. And again, that comes into who your competitors, your competitors are obviously your competitors. But your competitors are also anyone who’s competing for time with your customers. And, and if we’re speaking to a single buyer, a single manager of that supercomputer, they are dealing with a bunch of things, a bunch of problems. Some of them are technical, some of them non technical, and you really have to understand that whole picture. If you’re going to understand how your solution fits into that. The other things are kind of general checklists, it kind of who owns the budget? Are there any other stakeholders? Who are the people you have to you have to convince? And and if you’re going to if you sell software where customers have an evaluation, and your evaluation is a very high touch evaluation like us, what is that evaluation success criteria?
We talk a lot in the software industry about about funnels and about shortening that funnel and minimising clicks doing kind of one click purchasing, how many how many customers? Are you losing in your funnel kind of are you going to add an extra step and the checkout procedure how many people do you lose in that process? Now controversially, when we’re selling into enterprises, we actually lengthen that a little bit. And that’s because selling into an into a large organisation is a hugely long funnel. Because they’ve got to go to they’ve got just How many forms how many people do they need to speak to, in order to buy our products, they have to, they have to pitch a budget, they have to get it signed off, they have to write a proposal about return on investment. If they’re going to do an evaluation, they have to find some engineers who are busy doing something else and reallocate them to doing the evaluation, they have to do a write up now to meet with you a bunch of times very, very high touch very high effort. And so we actually make sure that they fill out a form. It’s called different things we call it the eval request form or the POC form. Our engineers help them fill it out, that defines exactly what they want to do, what they’re going to get out of it, why they want to buy our software, how they’re going to use it long term, have they got budget? And and what is their success criteria? Importantly, what is the thing that is going to make them buy it, what is the pain that they are trying to trying to clear because apart from apart from making it very clear to you what you need to achieve in the evaluation, it also means that at the end, when you get to that point, you can actually go back to them and say, right, we’ve achieved that, are you going to buy? Like we’re done now, like we’ve reached this agreement, you now need to go back to your manager. And they can take the form and say, This is what we did. And this is what we achieved. So you’ve already pre written that report for them, if you like that, that they need to present. And so that extra layer of friction, that extra step in the in this pipeline, actually helps enormously because it then takes away a lot of other steps that they need to complete. And quite frankly, if they’re not going to fill out this form, they’re probably not going to go to the effort doing all these other things, probably they are not thinking about your product in the shower.
These are all things that are applicable to, to kind of most businesses, particularly businesses where you’re selling into enterprise. But if you have not raised money, then you really care about this a lot more. So the next thing I want to talk about is about working hard, but not too hard.
Going back to my journey, I started sort of business and managed to get it off the ground, I got some customers and got some case studies and you start to get more customers and I did a lot of those EasyJet flights and went to a lot of conferences, knocked on a lot of doors and, and built up the business and and also decided to have children. Like why not decide to have children just as the business gets really busy. Like I thought I was busy before but oh my gosh, I had no idea. These are my children. That is Ariane is the eldest. And that’s Persephone, who we call Percy, is the baby. And building a business while having children, I’m sure looking out on the audience, a lot of you will be parents already. It’s just horrendous. It’s just awful. It’s just one of the most awful things you can possibly do. There is very little to enjoy about it. All of those kind of Facebook moments like ‘ah look at me enjoying a cup of tea. You know, with my baby’, there’s like 48 hours of screaming and crying and just wanting to just disappear that leads up to that moment.
It’s really, really hard. And from a practical point of view, if you’re running a business, you don’t have maternity leave or shared parental leave. There’s there’s no one who’s going to take over running the business for you. I did have co founders, one of them worked in the business with me, she got pregnant at exactly the same time. So her first son was born two weeks after Ariane and her second daughter was born three days before Percy. So just absolute disaster. And so partly, it was very good for the business because it meant that as a I think the first speaker spoke about kind of growing pains of the business and how you let go as you grow. This forced us to really take a step back and trust people and delegate a bit more. It forced us to bring in product managers. I got an assistant and it forced me to trust the engineers a bit more with the design of the product. It forced me to get in sales people to handle the customer relationships while I wasn’t there, which was which was brilliant.
The first time round. I worked too hard and made myself very ill and went back to work too quickly. And I thought I thought I could do it all the second time round. I just slowed right down partly because my health forced me to with Percy I had some back problems, so I couldn’t walk while I was pregnant and I couldn’t carry anything. So my husband had to put my shoes on, and then drive me to the office. And I’d have to phone someone in the office and someone would come down and carry my laptop up to the, to the top floor. Where my office was, it was just miserable. And then I would just sit there in so much pain, every time someone asked me a question, I was like, Don’t! Go away. So I was not doing a very good job of running the business at all. And quite frankly, it showed the business grew up until the point I had my first child, and then it plateaued. And all I could do was just to keep keep the revenue stable. And so after I had Percy and had a number of a number of other health scares, so I was able to walk after I had her, which was wonderful. However, I’d slipped a disc and not noticed, because I was in so much pain, and that partially paralysed my left leg. So although I could walk, I sometimes fell sideways. So I that took a little while to get to get better. And then just as I was coming back to work, I had a chest infection, which they thought was a pulmonary embolism. So they treated me for that, because obviously you die from that. Meanwhile, they weren’t treating me for the chest infection, so I nearly died from that.
And all of these things they really take time to get better from I think we have a culture, which either doesn’t address the fact that when you have children, it really does take a lot out of your life, there’s a lot less you can do, you actually have to dedicate time to the children. And then there’s there’s a few cases where we’ve, I mean, it’s nice to celebrate women who are able to kind of do all who are who have great health during their pregnancy, and afterwards managed to come back from work quickly or take the baby to work. But actually, that’s not true. For the vast majority of people, the vast majority of women who have babies who also run companies are also in their 30s. And that comes with a lot of health issues. So I think just recognising that, recognising that if you do make the choice to have children while running a business, then that’s what you have it ahead of you and you need to plan for it, I think is really helpful. And quite frankly, the business survived. Even with me not not paying attention, not on the ball, doing a – quite frankly – terrible job of lots of aspects of it. We did survive, and we got through it. And and after I came back to work after having Percy it was clear, however, that the salespeople I’d brought in, they were not. They were not doing what I’d hoped the business hadn’t grown, I was expecting the company to grow. And we just plateaued. And we had really too many people not all of whom were were adding value. So I decided to make half the company redundant and to scale back to a much smaller team. That meant that we had a much longer runway, and and I could come back to work a lot more gradually and really think about where I wanted to take the business next.
Obviously, this is not a nice thing to do. But it is something we did in a responsible way. We did it early. We did it long before we ran out of money. And that meant that we could offer people a reasonable redundancy package. I was very public about what we were doing. I messaged all of my friends who run software companies and told them what I was doing. So that all of my technical staff could have interviews, we made the redundancies on the Friday, and by the Monday morning, I lined up at least one interview for every single person. We also sponsored visas. And for those people who had sponsored visas, we were able to say to them that we were going to pay them up until the day they got another job so they wouldn’t have a break in their employment that would harm any visa applications in the future. And we made sure that we put together letters of recommendation for everyone explaining that this was not a reflection of their performance. And this was purely a restructuring of the business and that that we would recommend their work going forward. And so that means we’ve we’ve remained friends with the people we made redundant. They they still keep in touch with existing staff, they still send us messages letting us know how they’re getting on. If they’re in if they’re in the building, they come back and visit and that’s that’s an amazing feeling. And when we talk about culture, that’s really important. It meant it was not pleasant for the staff who remained having to go through that and see their colleagues leave. But it did mean that they knew they were working for a company that really looked after them. And that’s that’s hugely important.
And then of course, because we’d scaled back the the pressure is off from from my point of view to kind of have a bit of a breather we had a long runway, and it meant that we could focus on what was going to grow the company and make it more successful, which we did, I took the company back to growth, I worked much less hard, I looked after my health much better, I looked after my family much better. And meanwhile, the culture of the company meant that, yeah, we kind of brought the brought the company back from that plateau, on to growth. And that’s, that’s a really nice thing to be in when you’re working.
Now I come to the next bit, which is selling the company, and this this another thing that happens all the time in the software industry but is is often not talked about. And really selling your company is just like any other sale, particularly in our industry, where we are selling to large organisations. For the most part, a lot of the companies that were interested in buying Ellexus, were companies that we already knew we’re already working with them, we partnered with them, they would send customers our way, if there was a gap in their portfolio. This is a, this is a photo of me at the first trade show as Altair. And the line at the bottom, refers to the software that my company developed. And I don’t know if you can see it in my eyes, but I’m so proud, so proud that I got the company to this point.
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I decided to sell because I’d grown the company, I could carry on running the company as it was and we would carry on growing, but it was never going to be a sort of a seismic scaling effort, given the industry that we’re in. And given the business model we had, we really needed to have worldwide sales. And we’re never going to be big enough to justify that with the product range that we had. So we needed to partner with or be acquired by a company that did have worldwide sales. And I picked Altair for a number of reasons.
So we did have offers for the company throughout the years, that’s that’s what happens if you actually own the company and you’re making money. People want to buy you all the time, because it’s a relatively easy sale. Easy purchase for for larger companies. It’s a way of getting new IP good people and a solid revenue stream. So selling the company actually wasn’t wasn’t that hard selling the company to the right people that took a bit more time and a bit more effort. But again, it’s about talking to people and and like like with any sale, just finding out what the other person wants, finding out what you can offer them and seeing if there’s going to be a fit. Obviously, I now work for Altair and so making sure that the acquiring company was a company that I wanted to work for was hugely important. And again, owning the company still having the majority shareholding meant that no one was going to make me work for someone that didn’t want to which is just a wonderfully privileged thing to be able to do.
I looked very much at culture. Altair has a history of acquiring founder owned businesses is what they specialise in. Although it’s a US NASDAQ listed company. They are still founder owned or founder controlled. Jim who founded the company is still the CEO. And it means that the the M&A team are hugely respectful of founders. They are brilliant at retaining fat founders. My boss now was a company founder who was acquired 20 years ago on my first day had a million people phoned me up say my company has acquired 10 years ago, my company was acquired five years ago, my company was acquired 15 years ago, I’m still here, I love it here. Having that respectful technology culture means that that company means that founders are very well looked after. We have a lot of freedom within the company to decide where we want to go. Do you want to do a bit of sales? A bit of engineering? Do you want to just write code now for the rest of your life? We’ve got founders who decided to do that I’m in, in product management. So I kind of sit between engineering and the field team and the sales and the marketing and the support team. Making sure that our products are well designed, well delivered, well received, well supported and so forth. So I’ve continued doing a little bit of everything which is what I enjoy. And I’ve also taken over management of, I’m still managing my products, but I’m also managing other people’s as well. So I look after our workload management and monitoring pipeline for all of our supercomputing products, which is pretty cool.
Selling your company is really just like any other sale, you can just go to people and say, I own my company, we are making money, would you like to buy it? huge number of people say yes. And, and it’s also quite a good way of getting up the chain of management. So if you go to someone and say, we’ve got some software, we would like to sell you, can I speak to your boss, they’re not gonna bother their boss, not unless they really want your software. Whereas if you say, have a profitable company, I would like to sell you. They’re like, Oh, yes, let me bring bringing the M&A team let me bring in the VPs and so forth. So so it is a it is a very quick way to have some very senior conversations, which is great fun.
Just sideling onto a completely different topic. I am a supporter and a member of the Raspberry Pi foundation. And so why not? Why have I put this in here? Well, partly just a shameless plug for Raspberry Pi is one of the most amazing organisations I think I’ve ever seen or come across. Most of you will be familiar with the devices but a lot of you won’t know that actually the devices fund a charity called the Raspberry Pi foundation, which is focused on digital making and democratising education for children and young people. The Code clubs reach hundreds of 1000s of children every week, they also do research into access to technology, about diversity in technology. They do training and training material, which is available for free in many, many languages. They do training for for hundreds of 1000s of educators. And they also donated 1000s of Raspberry Pi kits to children and families who didn’t have computers at home during the pandemic where we suddenly learned that access to education was really divided into the haves and the have nots. When it comes to whether you’ve got a computer at home, it became a critical issue.
I support Raspberry Pi because I wouldn’t be here without the generosity of hundreds and hundreds of people. I mean, not just the people on the on that slide that I named who helped me with my business. But although also all the people who throughout my childhood and and journey to becoming who I am today helped me and encouraged me into science and technology, which at the time was unusual. I’m here because of the stars aligning, I just happened to be I happen to have access to a bunch of courses and a bunch of encouragement from my teachers from my parents from from my school. I happened to get into Cambridge, I happened to be at a college where they encourage entrepreneurialism. If you study computer science in the computer lab, and you don’t start a company, then really that’s quite unusual. And so I was kind of on this, this train towards running a tech company and I made a few choices along the way: I switched from maths to computer science because I wanted to run a tech company and I thought that will be the best way to do it. I also stayed on to do a PhD because I saw a lot of people giving talks in the university, who had PhDs and then gone on to become CTOs and CEOs. But really, I was invited to those talks people gave those talks people did, I went to math club when I was at school at the local university, I did all these things. And at the time, that was unusual. And that’s why I am unusual, but I shouldn’t be I shouldn’t be there should be hundreds of Rosemarys running tech companies all over the world. And increasingly there are and it’s because of organisations like Raspberry pi actually giving people access to that kind of encouragement, that kind of education. So So I cannot say enough good things about Raspberry Pi and how they are building the people who will be running the software companies of tomorrow.
So finally, before we break for questions, remember everything you do is cool because you are cool!
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Thank you really fascinating, really honest and open. And I also know that sometimes people say things on stage and they’re like, Oh, yeah, but I know people that used to work with you who’ve gone through that process, and they are absolutely kind of fans of the company and business. And so I think, really super interesting. And I think a lot of the things that you talked about there, you probably understated rather than overstated as well.
Hi Rosemary this is Sharon, from the University Press and Assessment. It was a great talk. I always get asked for inspired wealthy women speakers, and I do believe as a as a women, you literally have to work 10 times harder to be successful to be as same as men. And so I was looking at that photos you shared in that high profile – I mean, you were the first person I spotted. Beautiful. You were you were really great. My question is, as a woman, in this world, tech world, and especially in your case, supercomputer sort of industry? How does this factor actually you are a women impact you? Or whether it’s negatively or positively? Or actually, you never even felt the difference? How in this whole journey? How do you feel? I mean, like, this is a similar scenario, right? How many women in this room? There’s only one of you in that room? How did this impact you?
So, I certainly felt different. I’m not sure. Looking back, I’m not sure how much of it was because I was a woman. How much is because I’m short. And and how much is because when I started the company, I was really young, as well.
So I was constantly mistaken for a waitress, which, aside from kind of denting my oomph you like, is also just really bad for sales. If you go inside look to the person you really want to impress, and they hand you a dirty cup. And it’s quite, it’s completely crushing. And if you try and explain to that person, no, I’m not I’m actually a delegate. And I’ve got something to say they are mortified, and then do their best to avoid you. And so, so that’s, that was more of a problem. So again, I never wore black again, after after doing this event. So I do have a series. This is like my quietest outfit, I do have a series of very brightly coloured suits, which it says which they I am a delegate.
So I don’t know. I mean, to be honest, if I had to choose what I changed about myself, I think I’d still be a woman, but I think I’d be taller. I think that’ll be better. Because also you get kind of if it’s really crowded, you get elbowed in the face if you’re five foot, which is rubbish as well. So I don’t I don’t really know. And what I do know, though, is that almost all the times when people treated me differently, it was an accident, they really didn’t know, and they were mortified if they ever realise what they’ve done. And while it’s, it doesn’t help you particularly to be different most of the time, sometimes it does, there are a bunch of people who who went out of their way to help me because they could see that actually it is it is really hard being different and any kind of different is hard. In a in an industry which is is very uniform in demographic. And it is changing as well. I mentored adults at a load of early stage or mid stage incubators. And there are lots of women coming through there and, and lots of people from from different races, different backgrounds and and so there is a lot more diversity. It’s, it’s it’s gonna take a while to kind of filter through but life is getting better. And just looking at the programmes might children watch, what they watch and the world they live in is very different from the world that I grew up in. They are constantly surrounded by positive female role models, doing a wide variety of jobs and tasks and roles and having centralised places in a story. And I think that’s hugely empowering and, and means that the world will be very different next time. And actually, just to add something before we have another question, I think I forgot to say, when I’m going back to when I when I made my team redundant, and I told everyone, in order to find them roles, I was inundated with positive messages from other founders saying we had to do that a couple of years ago, it was really tough. And just best of luck, you’ll, you’ll, you’ll come out of this, and be able to look back on it. And in feature and it won’t feel as bad. And these were people who’d gone through it, they’d been my friend, and they’d not told me at the time. So they would have felt so much better, I think had they told everyone what they were going through. So it kind of the message from that is just tell lean on your other founder community and tell people what you’re going through. Because starting a business, it’s really hard. And most people have gone through all the rubbish things that you’ve been through, and it really helps to share it.
Hi, I’m glad we met at breakfast. And I had questions and I’ve got tonnes of questions now. You talked about representation? I think, you know, I had questions around representation and how difficult it is being a black founder myself. Now just looking around this room, why representation matters. But it really want to talk about you, you talked about sort of running a business on the side, and then sort of struggle the way through and then hire a team and then making a team redundant. And you talked about not having to use funding. So I’m early in my journey, I have exhausted my savings, and then raise some funding. And there are all sorts of ways to slice and dice a business, everything. Now, if you could go back in time, would you have raised so you didn’t have to go through the lows of the lows, or you would still not have raised any funding?
No I still wouldn’t have raised any funding. I’m so grateful that we were able to do it without.
Obviously it meant a very slow growth at the beginning. I initially hired a graduate developer for a year. And then I ran out of money and had no developers. So I use contractors. And as one contractors like why do you keep Why do you hire me for a week at a time it’s really disruptive. I was like that’s because how much money I have. I at times I wrote some of the code myself, again, very lucky that I’m able to do that. Also even lucky that it was better for me to hire software contractors and work as a as a as a hardware consultant. To pay them. It did but it was it was very slow to get the business up and running. But owning all of it. All of it with my co founders was just so enormously valuable. I think if we had raised money, we probably would have spent it going very quickly in the wrong direction. So it meant that we we had because we were going slowly, slowly. Because we were going slowly, we were able to really listen to customers because it really mattered whether they were going to buy it next year. And really mattered whether we positioned it right for the for the next sale. And it meant that we were able to target it, I think if if we have more money, we’d have just put it we just just burnt it going in the wrong direction. And then our investors would have got frustrated with the lack of growth. Obviously, there are some cases where you do need to raise money and you do need to just just just just just dive in headfirst, but but I think most organisations would would benefit from just taking a bit more time at the beginning just making sure you’ve absolutely got it right and you’ve demonstrated your business model on a micro scale before you kind of dive in and and go for it. I certainly would have found it hard, much harder to have a successful exit. had had we raised money because obviously if we raised money, then we’d have needed to sell for a lot more money in order To be worth worth it for me and worth worth it for the investors, and given the size of the supercomputing market, that that would, that would have been a much bigger challenge finding someone willing to pay that much for, for the for the business. So we probably would have had to have gone to gone into a different market and ended up with quite different business. So. So yeah, certainly, certainly worth thinking about. Obviously, when you raise money, you’ve got to kind of pitch the sky’s the limit. But making sure that you are going to have there are people who will buy you for what you need to sell for at the end is going to be very important.
Great question. Thank you. We’re going to play a little game with Roan in a minute, which is, would you do it again, because you’ve basically done every kind of format. Finance, I think, one of the interesting things about investing is that it’s neither necessary nor evil. I think a lot of people don’t understand why you should take investment, or different sources of finance. And what you should do for for different things, and that is part of the kind of the root of the problem for a lot of companies, they take the wrong kind of money at the wrong time. And that sets you on a path and by doing what you’ve done, you’ve really kind of kept optionality open, which is great.
So Roan, let’s play would you do it again? Yes or no bootstrapped? Yes. Angel funding? Venture funding?
anOur venture funding was a little bit different about wasn’t like a standard massive VC round that we did. But if I could go back, I would raise more money through venture
wherever I could get my hands on.
No, hell no.
So there you are. That’s the gamma. That’s the guy you want to talk to for some horror stories. And of course, I mean, we’ve got the capchase, which is a really interesting evolution of the funding finance model, which is spin going in the States for for a while this subscription, revenue based financing model, but starting to comment over here, which is that is a nother set of options. So but I think you did the right thing for you. And that’s really, really super important. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to get you to talk because there’s this kind of, Oh, how’s it going? Brilliant. We’ve just raised X number of millions from whichever VC or whatever, and we’re doing our x y Zed round, and actually, what’s your revenue? All? Right, we’re pretty rapidly there’s the model for how you build a company that is talked about out there in the entrepreneurial universe is just wrong. And people that come to BoS know that you get to decide what’s right for you. And once you’ve worked that out, everything else will come. A little bit of a rant. Sorry, I feel like a vicar doing a sermon on the question for rosemary.
Congratulations on everything you told us about. It’s a fantastic story. Just kind of made maybe go into a bit more detail. So in terms of that, not raising venture capital, but having a successful business. Did you have and if you did, how did you deal with it anxiety around somebody seeing what you were doing? Raising a tonne of money? Running the photocopier, you know, hiring looted salespeople having a lot of developers and just growing faster than you accessing the market that you finally access through your through your sale? Did you have that kind of anxiety that somebody might just copy and raise money to overtake you?
I mean, I suppose so. Just try remember, there’s anxiety about so many things. I mean, really? Yeah, yeah, it was when whenever someone launched a product that kind of sounded like it might be similar. Yeah, there was always a bit of kind of what they do. And there were people who tried to copy and they couldn’t get it to work. So sucks to be them. I think one thing that you can do in Cambridge is make something incredibly difficult. It’s much harder to do things that are really easy, but I managed to hire some incredibly smart people and make our tech Knology work. At the heart of it, there’s, there’s a piece that is just amazingly difficult to get right. So I wasn’t too worried about anybody replicating that what I was more worried about is, is some large organisation who didn’t have anything particularly clever, or some product that didn’t really work. Just just throwing a tonne of marketing dollars at the problem and saying, now we’ve solved it, come Come and buy this stuff. And we did lose a tonne of sales to that kind of approach. And then a few of them trickled back with their tail between their legs saying I tried that one, it didn’t work. So from that point of view, we did I mean, I always say to people having a technology advantage is an advantage. It’s not a very good one. But it is an advantage. So So yeah, I mean, there was, at the end of the day, there was just, that’s something you can you can kind of solve with hard graft. And, and because we’re a small team, and because we’re privately owned, although I was still capturing a smaller slice of the market, it was enough to, to make a tonne of money. So, so again, had we raised money, we would have needed a bigger slice of that market. But then we’d have spent all that money just on marketing. It’s not clear whether we’d have actually made more money at the end of the day, maybe we would. But it’s yeah, it’s hard to it’s hard to say I mean, now as Altair, we sell a full stack of high performance computing software for for managing the supercomputer for managing the cloud. And, and so selling our piece alongside that, obviously makes a lot more money. But that’s a that’s, that’s a worldwide sales team that we’d have never built. No matter how much money we raise, we’d have had to have gone into selling, putting together the whole software stack and had a much bigger software offering. So which we could have done. If that’s what I’m wanting to do. I could have gone out and got VC funding and done it that way. But there was no real need.
Rosemary, thank you. That’s amazing. Thanks.
CEO & Founder, Ellexus, Chief Scientist, Altair
After completing a PhD in compute architecture, Rosemary founded Ellexus to solve the IT infrastructure problems she had encountered in the semiconductor industry. She is an expert on computer architecture, High-Performance Computing, and analytics, with a keen interest in promoting diversity in engineering, as well as education initiatives to get more children learning about all spheres of computer science. She is a supporter and member of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
She spoke at BoS USA a decade ago with a Lightning Talk that asked the question, Why are bald men under-represented in senior management?