Dave Wright is one happy camper. In a time when snagging startup funding is next-to-impossible, 32-year-old Wright (pictured) has managed to land a whopping $37 million for his startup, SolidFire—banking all of it since July 2010. The company specializes in storage systems for cloud service providers (think Amazon, Verizon and Rackspace), is based in Boulder, Colorado and now has 40 employees (it started 2011 with just seven people).
I caught up with Wright and his vice president of marketing, Jay Prassl, to learn what it feels like to be riding a success rocket ship.
To understand SolidFire’s success is to understand Wright’s background. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Wright went to Stanford University for undergrad, but left after just two years, in 1998, to help start GameSpy, a gaming website and software company.
“Back when the internet was just taking off, we were one of the first companies—it was a really exciting time,” he says.
Wright stayed with GameSpy through its 2004 acquisition by IGN Entertainment and left in 2006 to start something new.
“Right around 2006, there was a lot of talk about selling computer storage over the internet and I thought the idea was really interesting,” Wright says. “Amazon had just launched Amazon Web Services, which does exactly that, and right after they came out, I thought there would be tons of companies sprouting up.”
Wright waited two months to see if the market would respond and when nothing happened, he decided to dive into the new industry himself and launched Jungle Disk, a storage company, in his native Georgia.
The company flourished and in 2008 was acquired by Rackspace. Wright stayed on for about a year, all the while observing challenges of building a large-scale cloud.
“We were just putting band aids on top of band aids; I knew there had to be a better way,” he says. “I wanted to build a technology that could help cloud service providers and I knew the demand would be tremendous.”
Creating an industry-changing business
In late 2009, Wright left Rackspace and launched SolidFire. For the first four months, he bootstrapped the business by himself and worked day and night on a technology prototype. In spring 2010, he wanted to bring on a few Atlanta-based engineers, but first needed funding.
“It was harder than I thought to get funding,” he says. “Every entrepreneur thinks they have a world-changing idea, but at the time there was still uncertainly about if the cloud would take off or if the market would be big enough.”
Eventually Wright found the right venture capitalists and raised his first round—$1 million—in July 2010. He hired a few engineers and one non-techie, Prassl.
“I was SolidFire’s sixth employee,” says Prassl. “I came from a sales and marketing perspective and was deeply impressed that Dave wanted me to be part of the team. A lot of companies rooted in technology get stuck and stay on the tech side. But Dave knows that even though SolidFire is a tech solution, it is based in a business problem that would require other expertise.”
In late 2010, Wright and his team were introduced to venture capitalists at New Enterprise Associates (or NEA). The VCs were taken by the idea and offered SolidFire $11 million—a pleasant surprise for the budding company.
“We weren’t raising money at the time, but they were persistent and generous, so we took it,” Wright says.
The big move
When the funding round with NEA went through in January 2011, Wright knew the company had to make a move. He was in need of storage engineers. To find them to he’d have to move the company to Boulder—a hub for such professionals.
The move was welcome by SolidFire’s seven employees and before long they’d settled into a loft space in Boulder’s downtown Pearl Street district. In June 2011, Wright and his team brought SolidFire out of stealth mode.
“That is when everything kind of exploded,” Wright says. “We received a ton of buzz about how different and unique our product was. We were getting tremendous demand from customers wanting early access.”
The buzz attracted the attention of SolidFire’s existing investors, who called up Wright to offer more funding.
“Soon after we launched the company, we received another $25 million in funding; we weren’t looking for it, but we would have been foolish to ignore it,” he says.
Prassl is the first to admit the past several months have been a wild ride.
“It’s been nothing short of awesome,” he says.
And while he rejects the word ‘challenge’ in describing how the company has navigated meteoric growth, he does say that one of the biggest focuses has been on hiring the right people.
“Attracting talent is the easy part; but how do you make them as effective as possible and contribute in a quick way?” he asks.
Corporate culture is also an issue. Prassl says the management team is careful with the on-boarding process of each new employee in trying to “pass on SolidFire DNA.”
What does the future hold for the company?
“We really want to enable more businesses to process in the cloud,” Wright says. “Right now, most businesses are generating their own electricity. Tapping into the cloud is like tapping into the power grid. It is going to be better than your own generator.”
Advice for entrepreneurs
Wright recommends budding entrepreneurs try their hands at a startup before launching their own.
He says, “The smaller the startup the better; see what works and what doesn’t. If I had just dropped out of college and started SolidFire, I wouldn’t have known where to start. Being able to learn through the process of working at GameSpy taught me how to build and run a company and enabled me to go out on my own.”
Image credit: Gigaom.com