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From Laid-off Engineer To Successful Startup CEO: Michelle Munson of Aspera (Part 7)

Posted on Tuesday, Jan 6th 2009

SM: Since you have set up the company as an equity-based structure, you are going to have to exit it. If you were going to keep it you would have needed a different structure.

MM: Definitely. We would like to sell the company as a strategic acquisition to a company that can make use of the technology. The kind of companies we are interested in are ones we naturally do partnerships with. They are naturally the biggest IT companies. They fit in really different spaces. We are trying to be as attractive as possible in a fundamental way.

SM: You are not in a rush to sell, are you?

MM: Certainly not. At this stage growth is rapid and fun. There is a point in the adoption curve where things change. I think it is important for a company like ours to stay differentiated in terms of technology innovation. What we do now is gradually moving into the mainstream and will eventually need to be taken on by a larger enterprise which will be able to do it at volume.

SM: In the process of building the company, how has your life changed?

MM: Honestly, I do not know that it has changed radically. I have always been like this. I always wanted to have a channel of work which was lined up with my personality. This is the first thing I have done that fits it perfectly. I have always been excessively busy and ambitious; I have always been stretching.

I definitely had to make a choice that this is what I personally wanted to do. It was easy for me because I love it, and it is what I wanted to do. I don’t feel like I sacrificed anything. It is so hard and exhausting, especially the way we did it with no money or backing, that it has stretched me to my personal limit in every possible way.

The best part is the exhilaration. I was always bored at other jobs because there was not enough. This is the first thing I have ever done in my life where I get up and am not depressed because I do not have enough to engage in. Resistance in life is what makes it exciting.

SM: What is your message to the tens of thousands of engineers who are jobless in the midst of this crisis?

MM: Look at Aspera. The company I was at canned us all, and that is how I got here. That is the cavalier answer. The substantive answer is that part of it underscores exactly what is wrong with technology companies. I personally feel that the overcapitalized, fast growth/fast turnaround model is self-defeating for technology enterprises, and engineers are the victims. They care about what they are doing and want to make great products.

The good thing is that many new methods have opened up for people to start companies. There is a way to distance from VCs that works. I get calls from VCs constantly. I don’t have a problem with venture capital, but that model can make businesses grow artificially. My message is that there are other ways.

The other refreshing thing for engineers is to feel the satisfaction of truly making an impact. There is no better profession for affecting the direction in which society is going, and I do not think engineers feel the esteem of what they are truly doing.

SM: Unless they take control of their destiny and really do something that they can completely align themselves with.

MM: That is absolutely right. The irony of it is that in the end, the engineers are the essence of these companies. That is where those companies start and end.

SM: There are a lot of things wrong with the way compensation structures and organization structures are set up, where engineers do not get much credit even though they are the ones who build everything. They do not get compensated in the right way.

MM: More and more people are starting to realize that they can take their destiny and control it. They can do these types of ventures and succeed. There are folks who are technical by nature who start companies and understand what engineers do intimately. Our company is set up in a way that engineers are fairly compensated for what they do, but Serban and I came into this with unique perspective because of our background.

I don’t know Google that well, but I have always had the impression that culturally, Google is like that, too.

SM: There is definitely extraordinary respect for engineers at Google. They have gone to the other extreme, which is not necessarily recommended either. Google has existed on a complete curve of success and has not experienced failure yet. That is not life. You cannot learn from someone who has never experienced failure. Google is a complete outlier.

MM: Serban and I always talk about that with their products. There is no discipline in their ancillary products which are not successful.

SM: That is because they are so absurdly profitable they can continue to do whatever they want. I am much more interested in your story and the process you described to bring innovation to the market because I think it is much more plausible for people who are sitting there trying to figure out what they are going to do now that they are laid off.

MM: I would say it is exactly like that.

SM: Super. I love this story, thanks for sharing it.

This segment is part 7 in the series : From Laid-off Engineer To Successful Startup CEO: Michelle Munson of Aspera
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Nice interview

Endgame1 Friday, January 23, 2009 at 9:57 AM PT

This is an excellent piece. I have not read an interview that so clearly has articulated how a well “engineered” product can guarantee success. I particularly liked the part of being able to “measure” what you build at every stage.

Chitra Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 12:12 AM PT

Great story, Sramana! I’m originally from India, but now in the US. I also enjoyed your India 2020 articles. You are indeed a great inspiration. All the very best!

Amir Friday, January 15, 2010 at 9:19 PM PT

Damn good story..it will really inspire entrprenual mind of yonger generation to think differently.
hats off to Michelle for her inovation.

Arvind Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 2:45 AM PT

Great questions, superb answers. Thank you for this interview.

csetey Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 5:56 PM PT