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From Laid-off Engineer To Successful Startup CEO: Michelle Munson of Aspera (Part 3)

Posted on Saturday, Jan 3rd 2009

SM: Concepts coming before their time happens a lot here in Silicon Valley.

MM: It sure does. However, it was my first real experience in a startup with a peer group I was excited about. Partly because of my inquisitive nature, they used to send me out to customers as well. I gained a lot of exposure to customers.

SM: Where does your interest in startups come from? That is not what a lot of people expect from a Kansas farm girl.

MM: At the surface perhaps not, but that is exactly where it comes from. My dad built our family farm business from something small into something substantial. He operates that way. My mother is a university professor, which is not an entrepreneurial life, but it is an independent life. Both of my parents are highly independent people who raised my brother and me to be independent. My brother has his own business now, and he runs the farm. He sells premium Angus beef through a new business he and his wife created. It is in our family nature. We are also involved in banking in Kansas, which these days is a technologically driven business as well.

Most of it comes from my dad, while my mother reinforced independence and experimentation. The interesting point is that when I decided to start Aspera, they were the people who were the most important. It didn’t seem crazy to them at all. They kind of expected it.

SM: After your FastForward experience, what was your next step?

MM: I went to a very similar startup in the same application layer networking technology area. It was started by colleagues out of the Berkeley community who were coding theory experts. It was application of information coding theory for transport. It covered the area we are in now, except it was encoding-based. The main application area was reliable multicast, but in this case scalability was in a different dimension. It was for large numbers of receivers who needed to receive forward streams or data transfers without having much of a back channel.

These days you could think of it as a video distribution over an unreliable connection for a large number of diverse receivers. I was an engineer there as well, and the same thing happened to me. I ended up doing a lot of solutions and consulting engineering for them, which I loved. They also had issues matching what they were doing to the marketplace. They grew a lot and collapsed in our generation.

SM: What year was this?

MM: That brought us up to 2003, which is the year the Aspera concept got going.

SM: What was the Aspera concept born out of?

MM: Two things. First, at the end of my time with the second company, I had a consulting engagement with one of their customers. They were trying to deploy this company’s forward error correction technology for point-to-point transport. It was ill-designed for this task and technologically did not work very well. Productization was terrible but the customer, who was a media company, really needed it. The customer would talk to me, and it was obvious from my time working with them that there was a need and yet what the company was offering was not the right solution. One of them pulled me aside at a dinner, and while they did not go to the heart of what Aspera is doing with higher level file transfer workflows, this person did emphasize how a solution to their challenge was needed and asked why we could not do something about it.

The second thing was that at the end of my time with the second company, I was burned out on startups. It was an ironic situation because startups were what I loved. I poured myself into these companies. I worked almost as hard for them as I do now. I was very disillusioned because I felt both had mismanaged their direction and their placement. I felt very under-fulfilled. They both went through the dark side of failure, which is firing everyone and going through hell.

I was not interested in going to a big company, and I really wanted to be a part of an entrepreneurial endeavor. That is why I joined two startups to begin with. I could not imagine going and working for someone else again the way I had been. I was sitting there knowing this is what I wanted to do, but I knew you do not sit there and manufacture ideas. That is not the way things happen. One evening I was sitting in my room, and it dawned on me that I needed to build a software layer transport which was focused on the problem that folks in digital media had.

This segment is part 3 in the series : From Laid-off Engineer To Successful Startup CEO: Michelle Munson of Aspera
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