November 2, 2015

Ellen Rubin, The Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

When I speak with founders and other successful people, I always like to find out about their upbringing and learn about their parents’ professions when they were a child. For me, it is a glimpse into the foundation that might have laid down the groundwork for someone to ultimately take the leap of faith into entrepreneurship.

In the case of Ellen Rubin and hearing about her background, her childhood years could have been that very foundation. Rubin grew up in Brookline. She saw her father join an early stage biotech company as their CEO. He took the company public and ran it for several years. Although he wasn’t a founder, she was exposed to all of the ups and downs of leading a company. Her mom excelled in math and in the 1960’s, she was a programmer, back when punch cards was the primary form of language.   

After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Social Studies (not engineering), she joined Booz Allen Hamilton as a strategy consultant. At the time, she was dealing with clients in the publishing industry, as their traditional print based businesses were being disrupted by the internet. Although the work in strategy consulting was intellectually interesting, she didn’t find it satisfying. The end deliverable was typically a PowerPoint slide deck. However, what her time at Booz Allen Hamilton did teach her, was the fact that she really enjoyed working with the tech consultants at the firm and the IT teams at her clients.

After leaving the world of strategy consulting, it wasn’t obvious what Rubin wanted to do next, so she decided to pursue her MBA at Harvard Business School. Since business school, she has followed what was natural for her in terms of focusing her career within the technology industry.

Rubin moved to Israel after completing her MBA where she worked for a tech company for a stretch, before taking her first leap of faith into entrepreneurship. It was the dot-com era and she decided to start a company with some of her fellow co-workers. The company was called Manna and they were headquartered in the Boston area while the R&D team was based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Their product was called FrontMind, a real-time personalization engine for eCommerce sites. At that point in time, every retailer was trying to get on the web and Manna’s technology was based on algorithms that helped to engage consumers as they were visiting a website for the first time or going through the check-out process. They were competing against a couple of other Boston based companies like ATG and NetGenesis.

Unfortunately, Manna didn’t survive the collapse after the dot-com bubble burst. Rubin had already moved back to the Boston area and she was interested in joining another company as part of the leadership team. However, this time around, she wanted to work for a CEO who has been successful in the past. Ted Dintersmith at Charles River Ventures introduced her to Jit Saxena and the two of them instantly connected. She joined Saxena’s latest startup called Netezza.

It was 2001 and a really tough time in the market. Netezza didn’t yet have a product and the company was just getting going. The technology was amazing but they had to convince the market that their disruptive technology was for real.

As you will notice, Rubin has a process which has been consistent throughout the years. She doesn’t have a background as an engineer, but her specialty is figuring out the market and the right product by spending a lot of time meeting with potential customers. She considers her experience at Netezza as the “real” version of business school, as she worked with an amazing team and had a front row seat in helping a company go from stealth mode to over $125M in revenue and an IPO in 2007.

Netezza IPO 

Netezza ringing the opening bell on July 19, 2007

It was time for Rubin to build upon her experience at Netezza and start her own company again.  She met John Considine, who had an idea for software that would allow companies to leverage the benefits of cloud computing in a hybrid cloud model. It was 2008 and at that point in time,  the cloud was a new concept. CIOs knew it would be big, but no one knew what to do with it yet. So, Rubin utilized her process of spending a lot of time meeting with potential customers to help them understand the benefits of cloud computing and getting to the right product market fit.

CloudSwitch went on to raise over $15M in funding over two rounds from Matrix Partners, Atlas Venture, and Commonwealth Capital Ventures. They partnered with Terremark, an enterprise cloud provider, who was a dominant player in the market. Verizon acquired Terremark for $1.4B and Verizon was then interested in acquiring CloudSwitch to help round out their capabilities. The acquisition was finalized and announced in August of 2011.

Now that Rubin had a successful IPO and acquisition under her belt, she took some time off. It was time to decompress and shut things done for a bit. She spent some time working as an advisor and mentor for founders and investors, as well as some social entrepreneurship efforts… but, the itch was still there to build something again.

Rubin heard from Paula Long (Co-Founder at both DataGravity and EqualLogic), who said “I have a co-founder for you.” It was Laz Vekiarides, who worked for Long and was a senior member of the team at EqualLogic. The two of them hit it off, yet they didn’t have an idea to work on just yet.

The two of them sat is a room together for months thinking through different ideas. She worked her process of speaking to hundreds of contacts trying to figure out the right product market fit. At one point, they could have been a networking company, but after a while, they killed the original idea. A common issue around latency and getting to the data was a concern brought up by enterprises, but without the right solution, they couldn’t move forward.

After a while, Vekiarides came back with an idea that was focused on a use case around primary storage and building out a storage network which would help solve the latency issue. The idea was on target and the market was large enough where they could build a big company together. Vekiarides had met with Steve Herrod from General Catalyst, whom he knew from Herrod’s days as CTO at VMware. He liked the idea and set Vekiarides and Rubin up with David Orfao of General Catalyst, who quickly offered to fund the company. They raised $12M in funding from General Catalyst and Highland Capital Partners in January of 2014.

They built out a core engineering team and went to work on building out the core product. This past August, ClearSky Data emerged out of stealth mode and took the wraps off of the world’s first global storage network for primary storage on demand. The simplest analogy to explain what they do is to think about what Akamai does in terms of delivering web content via a content delivery network. ClearSky is building a similar type of network, but for primary storage. Their service allows enterprises to combine the performance and availability of local enterprise storage with the scalability, agility, and economics of the cloud.

Speaking of Akamai, ClearSky Data hit another major milestone by announcing a new round of funding ($27M Series B) on Monday led by Polaris Partners with a strategic investment by Akamai Technologies. Akamai got involved in the deal through their corporate development group. There is a lot of value that Akamai can add in terms of their knowledge of building out regional centers and partnering up with Akamai’s sales and marketing teams.

Here’s another interesting data point. Polaris was an early investor in Akamai and once ClearSky Data came out of stealth mode, Dave Barrett (Managing Partner at Polaris) read about their solution and the comparison with Akamai’s business model. Since he had such a strong understanding of their business, he wanted to make an investment and moved quickly to lead the round with Akamai.

So, what is Rubin’s end goal with ClearSky Data? Ultimately, she is looking to replicate her experience from Netezza and build a company that scales and becomes another anchor tech company in the area. Based on her track record, the team at ClearSky, and investors, it certainly seems like a very realistic goal.

ClearSky Data Team 

The ClearSky Data Team 

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter (@kcline6) by clicking here.  

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