Andres Rodriguez is a rare Latin American entrepreneur in hard core tech. In this era of ‘lean startups’, Andres has built a couple of ‘fat ones’ and in this interview, we discuss what he has learnt, and what he advises other entrepreneurs wrestling with the need to raise money to fund ‘fat startup concepts’.
Sramana Mitra: Andres, where are you from? Where were you born and raised? What circumstances did you grow up in?
Andres Rodriguez: I was born in Venezuela, South America. I graduated from high school there and I came to the States to attend an engineering school.
Sramana Mitra: Where did you do your engineering?
Andres Rodriguez: At Boston University. I also completed my graduate degree in Physics from there.
Sramana Mitra: What time frame are we talking about? When were you in graduate school at Boston?
Andres Rodriguez: I arrived in 1984 at the university and then I graduated from graduate school in 1991. In the early ‘90s, I was in graduate school at the Condensed Matter Physics Department at Boston University. That was a very exciting place to be because, at that time, they needed computer skills. I wasn’t a terrific physicist, but I was a pretty good programmer back then. One of my responsibilities was building computer systems for very large simulations. That was my passion originally and still is to this day, specifically, building distributed systems. That was a great place to be on the beginning of the Internet era in public service. Being involved in Physics and in very large computer problems was a great vantage point to look at the potential of the Internet.
Sramana Mitra: I was in graduate school at MIT ‘93 to ‘95. I was actually in Massachusetts since 1989 as well.
Andres Rodriguez: Oh, wonderful. I used to go down to the Magnet Lab for some of our experiments back then before you moved the Magnet Lab to Florida.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do in ’91 when you finished school with that background? What was the next step that you took?
Andres Rodriguez: I did the classic thing that graduate students believe they can do. I took my algorithm and I left believing that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, you would need to have a better algorithm than anyone else on network optimization. I discovered very quickly that it took a lot more than that to build a company. I stumbled for about a year and then an investor from a small investment firm took a look at me and said, “You know you have very good technical skills, but you really need to surround yourself with people who know more about investment, business plans, and marketing.” We don’t have a lot of funds like that anymore, but a $50 million fund investor would not look at someone with no prior entrepreneurial record. He connected me with a group from MIT. That’s where I met my co-founder for my first company, Andy Sack.
Together, we started a company called Abuzz. The essential premise for Abuzz was that it had to be a large problem. At that time, the Internet was taking off and we had Yahoo, the first search engine, coming into the scene. There was no Google at that time. The original premise for the company was based on two things that happening on the Internet, e-commerce and search engines. What if we could connect people to people? What if we could create networks of people? This is way before the social networks were defined. That, seemed to me, a very promising thing to do. It definitely seemed like a very large problem to tackle and so we started Abbuz. It was one of the first social media companies out there.
A few years later, The New York Times bought us as they were gearing up. The Internet just got hotter and hotter, and traditional media companies were desperately looking for good ideas, good technical talent, and people who knew what was going on in the world of the Internet. They saw Abuzz as a very technical crew that had figured out a model for connecting people with people.
Sramana Mitra: What years were Abuzz in business and when did you get acquired by New York Times?
Andres Rodriguez: I think we started in 1994. I learned a lot about fund raising and building small teams of sales, marketing, and engineering people when we were doing Abuzz. We sold it to the Times in 1999 and I worked with them until about 2001. When I was at The Times, they immediately put me in the position of running the technology group as they were trying to figure out what to do with the Internet. That’s when I really learned what software could mean in the context of the enterprise and what it can do when you’re trying to solve large organizations’ problems.
My boss in the The New York Times used to tell me, “This will give you a point of view on the industry that will carry you through your career.” At that time, I was young and arrogant enough not to believe him, but he was absolutely right. It changed my perspective on what I thought was possible. I thought of software as a lab tool or a researcher’s weapon but I never thought that it could be something that could really run whole industries until I was part of a large organization.