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A Late Bloomer on Building a Legitimate Unicorn: Veeva Systems CEO Peter Gassner (Part 1)

Posted on Monday, Jun 27th 2016

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Peter Gassner is a self-described late bloomer. In a wonderfully authentic interview, Peter describes here how he turned his middle-age crisis into a multi-billion dollar market cap company. Veeva, in 2016, will do well over $500 million in revenue and trades at a market cap of over $4 billion. There’s nothing foo foo about this company. It’s raw execution. I love the story.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?

Peter Gassner: That’s a good question. I’ll answer it in probably a more complicated way than most. This is the first question that I ask when I interview people. I tell them that people become who they are in their first 18 years and then they evolve and they learn. Largely, they are who they are in their first 18 years. Understanding who somebody is relevant context for understanding the answers to their questions.

This 18 years is, of course, a combination of random things that you’re born with that are just innate to your body. For me, I’m the son of Swiss immigrants. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which at that time was not a tech capital. It was transitioning out of a deep despair of the end of the lumber industry into something new. It was certainly not in full swing. I’m the third of six children. I’m from a Roman Catholic family.

My father owned a machine shop. He was an entrepreneur in the true sense of the world of taking out a loan and hoping it works because there’s risk. It’s not the risk we associate with entrepreneurship but there’s the risk of losing the family home, of not having enough money to feed the kids. That’s the environment that I grew up in.

Sramana Mitra: That early familiarity and early exposure to risk is a very fundamental development element. I’m an entrepreneur’s daughter as well. It has hugely to do with what I do with my life.

Peter Gassner: I always believe that as in you’re in your first 18 formative years, it’s more impactful what you observe rather than what somebody tells you to think because it’s what you observe that actually sinks in a little more for good or for bad. I observed this. I learned how to work early. I always had independence. Maybe that’s because I was the third of six kids. You’ve got to deal with it.

I got fired from my first job actually in Oregon. To be on a payroll, you had to be 14. I don’t know if that’s the law now but back then you had to be 14. I was determined that somehow I could do it earlier. I walked around all the restaurants in the neighbourhood and finally got somebody to offer me a dishwashing job. I was still 13. I showed up and he said, “I just can’t do this. It’s too risky.” I got fired from my first job. As soon as I turned 14, I did get a restaurant job somewhere.

In high school, you become aware of some things you’re born with. Earlier than 10 years old, you’re not really aware of what you’re born with. Maybe you’re aware that you like art but you’re not aware that not everybody likes art. In high school, I became aware that I was better at Math than most. I can conceptualize things easier in my brain. I can’t visualize but I can conceptualize. I realized that I like work more than most people.

I kept working. I did wrestling. I liked that individual type of knowing whether I was winning or losing in a concrete way. At the end of the match, they raise your hand or the other guy’s hand. Nobody’s confused about what happened. There are no ties. I noticed I like that. That’s who I am. I’m a Swiss-American from Oregon  basically.

Sramana Mitra: You went to school in Oregon as well?

Peter Gassner: I was actually determined that I was not going to go to college. I took the SAT only once. I didn’t study a lot and I was hung over. It was not my plan to go to college. Both my older brothers went to college and I was a little bit rebellious thinking that I won’t like it and I’m not going to waste my youth doing something I don’t like. I had a mind to do something else. That was my plan.

Then my life changed in the last half of my senior year. My math teacher noticed I was good at math and somehow tricked me into taking a one-semester Computer Science class. I looked back on it and I’m always thankful to the guy. He wasn’t getting anything out of that. He just saw that here’s an 18 year-old kid who doesn’t really know. I realized that I liked it. It’s like playing with puzzles. I did a little research and found that you can make more money at this than doing roofing and it’s not so hard on your body. I made the deal with myself to do that.

If you’re going to study that in Oregon and you don’t have a lot of money, there’s one place you would go – Oregon State University. Going to MIT or Harvard seemed like a theoretical thing and not something that anybody you knew would actually go to. I made that deal with myself to say, “I will go there to college but I won’t stay if I don’t like it.” That was the deal I made. That’s how I got to Computer Science at Oregon State. It’s challenging. It’s just you against you.

This segment is part 1 in the series : A Late Bloomer on Building a Legitimate Unicorn: Veeva Systems CEO Peter Gassner
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