Best in Business: 9 Questions With Snowflake Co-Founder Benoit Dageville

"Never underestimate ambition."
Best in Business: 9 Questions With Snowflake Co-Founder Benoit Dageville

Before he helped create a cloud-based data storage and analytics provider, Snowflake CTO and co-founder Benoit Dageville worked at iconic data software company Oracle for over 15 years. With a handy pay-as-you-go model and a revolutionary approach to data access, the Snowflake data warehouse is used by over 1,000 powerhouse companies including Lionsgate, Adobe, Capital One, Rue La La and Overstock. In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that Snowflake had more than doubled its valuation in just nine months to $3.5 billion.

In this installment of GOBankingRates’ “Best in Business” series, which sets out to discover what makes the people behind top innovative companies tick, Dageville revealed what it’s like to sell an unconventional idea in a French accent, the tough but rewarding work it takes to start a company — and ways that you can find (or build) your own dream job.

When did you know you had to start this company?

In 2012, Thierry Cruanes and I were working at Oracle and there was not a single day without discussions on how Hadoop [a developer of open-source computer software] was about to make [our work] completely obsolete. I even remember one day interviewing a young engineer who [was] so excited about Hadoop that he didn’t listen to anything we said about Oracle. We realized then that we were missing something.

This made us think a lot about the future [of what we were doing]. Big data was taking over the world, and data warehouses as we knew them were having a really hard time competing. They were — and often still are — rigid, expensive and difficult to use. At the same time, we were convinced that Hadoop was not a good solution either. Hadoop systems were really too hard to use for most — very inefficient, slow and missing key features that I would consider must-haves.

This is the point we realized we could [build] a new type of data warehouse system … that would master the elasticity of the cloud. [What we built ran] 10 times faster than any other system for the same cost [and freed] users from any management tasks.

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What were your biggest fears about launching your own business?

Starting a company is very scary. We had to convince people — many of whom were senior-level engineers — that our vision was powerful enough to carry a company. And we had to establish trust.

What was the most surprising thing about the process?

No matter how strong your vision or steadfast your determination, you cannot truly succeed in building a product or service from the ground up without a team of equally passionate and driven individuals. When my partner Thierry and I first started out, we were so focused on turning our idea into a reality that we thought we could do everything ourselves. When we made our first few hires, not only were we fortunate enough to share some of the responsibility of starting a business, we were also able to focus our time and energy on the parts that we were really good at.

What was the hardest part?

When we first started out, we thought our idea for a cloud data warehouse was the idea of a lifetime. As it turns out, not everyone else felt the same way. We completely underestimated how much time we would need to spend convincing others that our idea was a home run, something made even more challenging by the fact that we have French accents!

There are two parts to convincing: One, encouraging others to get on board with your idea; and two, getting others to share the same level of excitement and the same values.

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Did any previous jobs inspire you to run Snowflake the way you do?

I learned so much at Oracle from others that I always wanted to recreate an environment whose culture was about making the best possible product with the best team – all collaborating with the same goal in mind: Developing on-premises software with multi-year development cycles. At Snowflake, we are software-as-a-service, with a weekly release cadence.

This makes everything much more exciting, with very fast iterations to improve the product.

Who are the people you lean on most?

My business partner and Snowflake co-founder, Thierry Cruanes, and Mike Speiser at Sutter Hill. Sutter Hill was Snowflake’s first investor, and Mike was the first CEO who worked with us.

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What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?

First, surround yourself with people you trust. Allow your colleagues to act as an extension of yourself so you don’t have to stick your nose in every aspect of the business. … When we brought on Bob Muglia, former Microsoft president, everything changed. He has incredible experience and ingenuity, and he fully embraced Snowflake from the very start. His pride and passion for Snowflake is infectious and it’s taken the company to new heights.

Second, get to know yourself. When I first started out, I truly believed I could do it all. It wasn’t until I stepped back and took an honest account of my strengths and weaknesses that I was truly able to succeed. Make two lists: one that covers your passions and areas of expertise, and another that outlines where there is room for improvement. Use these lists to build your business and team accordingly. Play to both your strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, never underestimate ambition. It is always better to try and fail than to not try at all. Hard work and persistence will get you places, but unwavering ambition will take you across the finish line. There were various points in the early stages of Snowflake where I felt like giving up, but these feelings were always overridden by my ambition to see our vision succeed.

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When did you realize Snowflake was going to make it?

I really felt successful when I saw how much our customers loved our product, and how transformative Snowflake was for them. Financial success came much later, and, for both Thierry and I, this was far less important.

How do you define success?

Being able to deliver on our initial vision of a data warehouse system built for the cloud, which made a real difference in the lives of most of our customers and employees.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.