When we first met Al Bsharah and Bryan Hall, co-founders of embarke, it was in Seattle, and they were just getting ready to wrap up their time at the Microsoft Accelerator for Windows Azure, powered by TechStars. For being bright and sunny San Diego denizens, they did look like three months had taken its toll. You could tell they had been hard at work on building a pretty sweet company built around software that turns email marketers into data surgeons without needing training probably required to get an advanced degree.
You can read that interview to get a fuller picture of how they manage being a team while building a startup. They embraced the risk, even during a difficult separation from family, to spend their time in Seattle learning from mentors, and building a product that helps email marketers really understand what is happening to their messaging, content and calls to action. In fact, you could say that it makes email easier to the point that it begins to make email effective.
Al Bsharah, left and Bryan Hall, right, goofing it up on the plane on the way to Seattle.
What questions do you think a startup non-technical founder needs to answer when considering a cloud architecture for his or her startup, and I am thinking specifically here during the business model generation period?
It’s very simple: What’s going to get your product on-line the fastest, what’s going to allow you to iterate and change quickly, and how inexpensive is it going to be? Understand that as a non-technical founder – you don’t want your technical team buried in work that is not directly related to your intellectual property. In this day, that’s waste. Find a platform your team can work with that will eliminate the commodity work of setting up infrastructure and allow you to iterate and validate product releases quickly.
Where do you include technical members of your team during the building of your business plan?
I think it’s a huge mistake to not include your technical co-founder in the majority of early business decisions. This isn’t a one-man show, nor should it ever be. You will need help identifying the right sweet-spot for your business, and you’ll need team mates with different world-views to help find the pot of gold. If you don’t trust or don’t think your technical co-founder is the right guy to help with this, you might need to consider that you might not have the right guy.
How much of what you are building is based on leaving a legacy and how much of it is based on technical challenges, or the ability to make something just for fun? In other words, where do you fall on the seriousness scale? For fun, for profit, for life?
Bryan and I have every intention of making communications better for the world. That’s always been our goal, even as our product has (dramatically) changed over the past year-and-a-half. Our core is still the same, what we believe in is still the same, and that is what drives us to make a dent in the universe.
Al Bsharah, CEO - Embarke
Bryan Hall, CTO - Embarke
When did you decide that you were “startup material”?
My Dad was in the restaurant business all my life, I pretty much knew as a young kid that I’d be an entrepreneur. Both my co-founder and I have started our own companies and worked in startups for most of our careers, as have most of the team we’ve hired. You have to be “startup material” to even work with us!
What are some of the challenges you face as a founder or developer at a startup, when it comes to dealing with family life, or socially? Does working on a startup change the way you associate and interact in these areas?
Thankfully for me I’ve got a wife who’s been an entrepreneur her entire career as well, so she gets it! My dog doesn’t mind so much either. <grin>
Bryan has 3 kids under the age of 10 and a wife with a great career. His response:
Being a founder with a family is very difficult, because it requires the entire family to make a lot of sacrifices. From the community perspective being a startup founder is an honorable choice, but from the family perspective it is a selfish choice. It’s quite difficult to achieve a balance between these two. In the long run, we believe (as a family) the sacrifices will be worth it.
Can you describe the relationship that you have had with Microsoft in building your startup?
In more words: We joined BizSpark over two years ago and were soon asked to be a BizSpark Plus partner. The evangelists we worked with were amazingly helpful and available. Never a bad time to reach out, always quick to respond, and really helped us to push forward with our business at low cost. Later, we applied to the Microsoft Accelerator and were accepted…which was 3.5 months of awesome insanity that I wrote about here. Microsoft is doing a LOT for startups that most people just don’t realize yet.
Why would an entrepreneur turn to Microsoft for help in building scale, a team, or using software?
Let’s talk scale… We launched a product and within 4-5 weeks we were processing 25 million user actions every single month (like opens and clicks on emails), we’ve created and manage 750,000 user profiles, and are performing computational-heavy analytics on all of them. We’re barely making a dent on our infrastructure (we can currently handle about 40x this load), because we’re built to scale. Part of that is good code, but a huge part of that goes to what’s available out-of-the-box from Azure. No brainer for us, we don’t stress nearly as much about scale as we would anywhere else.
Tell us about your Azure-based solution.
Embarke is next-generation analytics for messaging. We increase engagement and revenue for marketers with 15 minutes of integration and a simple click of a button. We automatically deliver messages when each individual user is most likely to engage, and with content they actually care about.
How is Azure implemented in your solution?
We are using WebRoles to implement our UI and REST APIs, but most of our software is actually inside of worker roles that do heavy data processing. These worker roles rely heavily on Azure tables and queues to separate tasks and store the large amounts of data that we process.
How did you get excited about Azure?
I started doing some experiments with Azure in the early days and got a taste for the power of the PaaS model. This was really liberating for me because it avoided the pain of managing VMs and let me focus on what I cared about, my own software. Once I got a feel for it, I was hooked.
What were the Azure features that prompted you to decide to build on Azure?
PaaS was the first feature that was extremely liberating for us. By designing our app in this way we avoid virtually all IT costs. There are no OS’s to configure, no software to patch, no need for us to specifically monitor and restart images that go awry. Instead we are able to focus most of our energy on developing our own IP.
What advice do you have for companies that are thinking about building in the cloud?
Don’t confuse building new construction in the cloud with porting old code to the cloud. Both can be useful and cost effective, but new construction in the cloud is extremely efficient and powerful. To really appreciate what the cloud can do for you, build a new project that will really benefit from the clouds strengths.