Inside the Mind of a Non-technical CEO: The Story Behind Humio’s Success21 min read
It’s hard not to feel fired up when engaging in conversation with Geeta Schmidt, CEO of Humio. Her energy and evident enthusiasm for their product, a real-time log analysis platform for on-premises and cloud infrastructures, is infectious.
Of course, this dynamism shouldn’t be entirely unexpected from the founder of a company which experienced a 13x increase in its annual revenue last year, recently raising $9M in a Series A round, led by Accel. Geeta bucks other trends too; female CEOs within the B2B space are vanishingly rare, and – whisper it – she can’t code.
It’s this non-technical background that arguably is one of the most significant contributors to the success of Humio. In this exclusive interview for the SaaStock blog, we dig into Geeta’s mind and mode of thinking and get a front-row seat to how she views product-market fit, saying no to bloated products, and having a very strategic approach when it comes to customers. The origins of that, date back 20 years before Humio, in the early days of her career…
Eating Your Own Dog Food
“While I have more of a business background, I’ve been in software since 1996, starting out with a company called US Robotics,” explains Geeta. “I had to quickly learn how modems worked since that’s what we sold; the little cards that you put into your laptop, that would make that noise when you were going online.” Not something a technical founder would say, is it?
Her next move laid significant foundations in how she would eventually view product development; lessons that would later be applied to considerable effect with Humio. “I moved on to a position at Sun Microsystems, working on many of the early releases of Java that came out.” It was a very new language back then for everyone. Geeta was working on a project called The Java Station, a “dumb network terminal,” that consists mostly of just a display monitor and a keyboard that Sun had adopted internally. It had come up from leadership – right from the top, the CEO, Scott McNealy – that if Sun were going to make this change in the industry, they needed to adopt it themselves.
“This whole eating your own dog food approach was definitely ingrained in me then.”
With all non-technical users at Sun required to use these systems, and relatively few Java applications available at the time, there was initially a lot of internal stress about how work was going to get done. “But this helped us improve,” explains Geeta, “We would find things that were wrong with the language, and start to push a new paradigm, constantly improving, and really believing in what we were doing.”
Growing Customer Empathy
As time went on, the Java Station project died, but the whole concept of Sun’s team believing in Java and the development of the platform grabbed the attention of other companies. They saw that Sun was truly behind this, building a community. “I see a lot of parallels there in the things we see in the industry around Cloud Native, etc., today. There’s this synergy that suddenly becomes a paradigm shift that we see manifested in the market,” muses Geeta.
She went on to work on different product releases at Sun and started focusing on product marketing, specifically for financial services. “That’s where I learned a lot about taking a strategic approach to understanding customers and developing empathy for the segment they were in,” explains Geeta. In the Financial Services segment — whether it was capital marketing or banking or insurance — solution selling became hugely influential. Working with ISVs and software partners, the solution wasn’t so much the hardware or software that was sold, but the actual solving of the customer problem, be that compliance, fast execution of trades, or saving costs on the insurance side. It resonated with Geeta for quite some time and became an integral part of the Humio DNA.
A Front Row Seat for the Disruption Show
In mid-2007, Geeta made a move away from Sun and the US and landed in Denmark, working at Trifork, alongside colleagues who would one day become her co-founders at Humio. Geeta was a crucial part of building out the conference element of the company, which grew to a global business that brought together some of the leading lights in technology. “That was the space where I learned about the adoption cycle” remembers Geeta, “the difference in time between someone coming up with a good idea, and how long it takes to start making waves.”
The conferences were a hotbed for new, disruptive ideas and technologies.
“We heard so many of these ‘first’ stories” Geeta explains, “like how Netflix built their stack on open source technology and Amazon Web Services. We had some of the first presentations that Werner Vogels did on Amazon Web Services, and presentations on languages like Go which is now very predominant in the market.”
Through this content and community, Geeta and her future co-founder, Kresten Thorup, learned how these new technologies started to take effect via the adoption cycle. They also began to build out an impressive network; a combination of forerunners in the industry thought leaders and cutting-edge practitioners who were experimenting with these new paradigms.
Geeta credits her time in Trifork with forming the testbed for a lot of the first theories around Humio and the solution they were building. At the time, her second co-founder, Christian Hvitved, was running a Danish medical records data service developed at Trifork. It put within one centralized solution vital information such as what drugs people were allergic to and which medications they used. This solution was essential for all citizens who went to see a doctor, needed surgery, or collected a prescription. The service had to be up at all times, or else performing operations, consulting medical histories, or prescribing drugs was impossible. Everything ground to a halt.
Humio: Inspiration Strikes
That sense of urgency gave the three colleagues a deep understanding of how important good health is to a system, and how crucial it was to be able to understand and monitor that health, which came to be the inspiration for Humio. “We used a lot of tools that were available at the time, and really found that being able to have what we call “feeling the hum” or the “hum of your system” — really understanding the health of what’s going in a complicated microservices system — was essential,” explains Geeta. “When a smoke alarm goes off, it’s almost too late. You want to know ahead of time when it’s going to go off, and ideally stop it from going off altogether. That’s where we came up with the idea of looking at the problem a little bit differently — that’s a lot of inspiration around Humio.”
With the other Humio founders having very technical backgrounds, but less commercial experience, Geeta — armed with the lessons learned at Sun and Trifork (use your own product, respect the adoption cycle, understand your customer) — saw the opportunity and stepped up to see how she could help. “That was in 2016, and I’ve been CEO since then.”
The Benefits of Being Non-Technical
When Humio started out, Geeta’s distance from the technical side of the business injected some much-needed context and sense-checking to proceedings. Able to see past the excitement of the hypothetical powers of their product, she was in a position to keep ambition and technical talent on track, asking all the right questions: “What kind of value do we bring to an organization when we deploy this? What is it that someone can do now with Humio that they couldn’t do before?”
“They’re all concrete questions,” concedes Geeta, “and I think one of the potential problems with being very technical is that you can have a tendency to wait to build the perfect product before you put it out there, and you become vulnerable to users. Because we have a technical user base, oftentimes we can make a lot of assumptions about what they will use Humio for.” They started off in DevOps because that’s where their backgrounds lie — but as they started to build the scalable logging solution, which could handle multi-terabyte volumes per day, the three co-founders discovered it offered a much-needed solution for security teams too — a market they didn’t know needed them. It was a reminder from the Sun Microsystems days, how crucial it was to think about the customer market segments that you’re going after.
In this way, Geeta played a crucial role in getting Humio “out the door” and in front of the right people quickly.
“We started talking to users right away. We were in development for a month or so and pushed the product out there probably earlier than the other founders would have liked,” she smiles. “It certainly upped the ante, but there’s nothing better — if you’re technical, or if you make anything — than having someone be able to use your product, and iterate on that.”
When it comes to Geeta’s steadying hand, I’m reminded of the immortal words of Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcom, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
“There are so many things you can build, it’s easy to end up with a super-long feature list,” agrees Geeta, “But if it’s not properly focused on who will actually use your product, then you end up going down the wrong route and not bringing the value back to the user.”
I ask if this continues to inform the strategy driving the company today. “Yes,” agrees Geeta, “If anything, what drives us as a company today is knowing who uses our product; knowing how they use it, why they use it and what they’re looking for. It’s become an essential part of product feedback. We have a very tight feedback loop.”
As a product with a varied user base, it’s obviously been highly beneficial to get this broad understanding. Customers with larger-scale volume issues use the same interface as smaller customers using Humio’s cloud-based product. Personas are created, and development is based around these perspectives. “A lot of technical products are started with an exclusively technical founding team,” says Geeta, “If they go too far down that road before jumping into this kind of customer-centric approach, it becomes hard to turn back.”
Beyond being led, with great success, by a customer-focused non-technical CEO, what else are Humio doing differently to give them the edge within the log analysis space?
“One thing we did that makes us a little different is figuring out our product-market fit with very constrained resources,” divulges Geeta. “We really stuck to a small team in the beginning. I think this first core of the team is the start of the culture that you will develop as time goes on. We viewed our customers personally, and we tried to do as much as we could with the constrained hardware resources we had. This really creates some level of magic, because another approach is just to add more resources to a problem to solve it. I think the most interesting solutions come when you only have a limited amount of hardware to do something.”
This is something Humio are undeniably good at; able to run large volumes of data on much less hardware than their competitors. “We have a software product that we’re trying to optimize as much as we can, and ultimately that optimization is something that our users can take real advantage of,” explains Geeta. “They can reduce their footprint by a quarter or even more in some cases.”
This stripped-back approach is also beneficial to customers experiencing the product in a range of delivery formats. Humio offer a cloud-based version, as well as a subscription-based model, which provides licensing on-premise. With many of their customers running the product in their own environment and on their own hardware, data can come from many sources — devices, servers, applications. This often means that ops folks and developers don’t know what’s in their data, it’s unstructured and fairly unstable. Because of this, Humio was built to be able to run simply on-premise — scaling nicely and able to quickly deploy in any environment.
“That will seem a backward approach to many companies that start in the Cloud thinking “Okay, well I can just add more resources on Amazon to solve the problem” smiles Geeta. “Yes, you can do that — but another way to approach is to think about how can you have something suitable for multiple environments — that’s what we’ve done, and it’s actually created some powerful efficiencies in our platform, which are some of our key competitive advantages in the marketplace today.”
Another reason for this stripped-back approach to initial product development is a purely practical one: hiring in sparsely populated Denmark can be challenging!
“When we started we had 15 people, a lot of generalists,” Geeta recalls, “People were doing engineering, but also customer support and sales and other things besides. It gave our engineering team a good generalist attitude, but also honed their proactivity thinking, “Okay, there is something wrong with the product – I should go fix it.”
The Right Time to Grow
Once Humio realized they had something people wanted, and saw demand in the market coupled with a competitive advantage to what they built, they took the route of funding and partnered with Accel. “All of those things are great,” councils Geeta, “but it’s tough to do if you haven’t figured out your product-market fit.” According to Geeta, Accel have been instrumental in helping them think about how they grow different capabilities and repeatability in terms of business, marketing, sales, and support.
The best advice she has for anyone wanting similar results? “Take a really small and highly-focused team, work out who you’re selling to, and figure out your fit as much as you can before adding lots of people, which has the potential to add a lot of confusion in a team.”
Just Say No
As a non-technical CEO focused on customer demand and market fit ahead of product, did Geeta need to get comfortable saying ‘no’ to a lot of colleagues keen to plough on with features?
“In short, yes” she laughs, “Early on we had a lot of interest from fairly large-scale enterprises, and so we had to make a choice whether we were going to build feature functionality on the cloud service or enterprise-heavy features. In these instances, someone needs to be okay with saying no, because, honestly, we can almost build anything we want — that’s the lovely thing about technical development teams! But at the same time, there are only so many hours in a day, and people on a team.”
Geeta continued to search for the sweet spot product-market fit, articulating that there was a user at the end of the game. Timing and prioritization were of immense importance too. “When you’re working with a very technical team that’s context switching a lot, it can be tough to build a feature then step away and look at the whole road map and impact. That was where I have focused the most — the road map, where we’re headed and when.”
Open All Hours
Humio operate a continuous delivery model, continuously deploying new code and testing in production. As a non-technical founder, this is music to Geeta’s ears, “because you can get amazing results very quickly if you can figure out how to test in a shorter iteration. You can get much closer to the business requirements of the product.”
There’s a downside to continuous delivery, however. Although it allows the teams to be very efficient and deploy perhaps even several times a day, with quick fixes, this is only beneficial if customers know about and benefit from the changes. “Sometimes we hear that one of our customers didn’t know we fixed a feature, admits Geeta, “so it’s important to let our customers know that we do iterate this quickly. We need to do better at that as a company — ensuring that improvements are adopted. That means proper documentation, proper use cases, and proper communication to the user base.” If anything, that’s probably the hardest part — which isn’t typically written up in many continuous delivery books.
Mind the Gap
The value that Geeta has brought to Humio as a non-technical CEO is clear. I ask if she gets a sense that technical ability is still more revered within the industry.
“Because we have a technical customer base and produce a very technical product, we do need to win the hearts and minds of those day-to-day users — some of those folks are using Humio 6-8 hours a day,” muses Geeta. “So that’s just got to work. But building the business and go-to-market side is equally as hard. If not harder.” That’s often underestimated in the business of software. There’s an attitude within founders and their companies that if they build something smart, it’s going to be massively adopted — just because it is. That, as any SaaS founder reading this would agree, is rarely the case.
Is the lack of appreciation for the non-technical side of tech startups putting off the talent that could be having a similarly positive effect to the one Geeta has brought to Humio? “I think there can be a problem with imposter syndrome,” she agrees. “But I think it’s fairly easy to switch it off if you’ve got strong go-to-market and business background: to understand what the tech is or does, and then to figure out the parts of the puzzle that aren’t specific to a software product — who are we building this for? Why are they going to use it? Why will they use ours over everyone else’s? Will they go tell their friends about their great experience?”
To Geeta, these are all just basic things about business as they would be to most good marketers and product managers. Finance is another side of the business that requires specialised talent that technical founders most likely won’t possess. After all, they get funded by a VC community, which has a love for inflating valuations to a place where bubbles are manufactured. When the product actually gets out to market, someone has to ask the question of whether finances make sense? “If anything, recent IPOs have made the startup and VC community think harder about “What is a good business? What makes good business commercially in terms of a startup?” Humio is a prime example of what happens when you think long and hard about this.
For the Love of SaaS
For someone with such a customer-led ethos, it comes as no great surprise to learn that Geeta’s fondness for the SaaS model is how it allows giving a user an “aha!” experience. She explains:
“I love hearing a user saying, “Wow, this was really easy, I just got on board, and I’m already looking at my data.” That’s something that excites me and makes me see that users are already getting value out of something that we’ve created.”
She also continues to practice the lessons learned in the early days with Sun Microsystems; use your own product. “Here at Humio we use our own product to see how our SaaS service is running,” Geeta explains. “It offers us a unique opportunity to be our own users — and we’re looking to extend this into our marketing and UI side of things too. It’s exciting to walk into work every morning, look at the screens, and see how we’re doing.”
Support is also something that brings great satisfaction. Geeta explains, “We’ve attracted an audience with growing log volumes — and being able to support that along the way has been pretty cool. The nice thing is to see how the SaaS businesses can grow with very simple support mechanisms in a way — we support through Slack, etc. but because we have a technical audience — they’d rather not spend a lot of time talking to salespeople. This is a very different model to the old school software that folks used to sell — handing someone a box with the CD in it.”
“Today, the model gives you a lot of chances to expand and get closer to your users. And I just see that growing. People want something that just works — and that someone also manages and takes care of. Even with our on-premise product, it’s still a subscription model: we provide a superior level of support along with the basic licensing. Before with perpetual licensing, you bought one big license and then you’d buy support ongoing (or try to manage it yourself!). Ours can be a more attractive model because you know you’ve got someone to help if needed.”
At some point during our conversation, Geeta casually references Humio’s 100% retention rate. They’ve never lost a customer. For an industry in which churn is a key metric, this is remarkable. People are clearly getting a great deal of value out of the product, and especially the freemium model. “You just need to understand what people are going to pay you for,” nods Geeta. “It’s a changing model and something you need to be really aware of. A lot of our competitors have a free offering, so we made sure to make ours the most compelling, offering more data, etc. People soon see the value, then want support, want to store their data, etc. — and that’s an easier add on. Understanding what the triggers are for our customer journey is absolutely key in reducing churn. And then, again, the “aha!” moment: how do you give value to someone whose day is hectic? They don’t have time to play with new tools, so as soon as they do explore the product, we give them the wow factor, the hook. They need to see, almost instantly, that they get more value with our product than the one that they’re already using.”
Onwards and Upwards
With the enterprise going from strength to strength, bolstered by this winning combo of technical and non-technical yin-yang, what are Humio’s ambitions for the future? “We want Humio to become the de facto standard for logging,” Geeta states. “We’ve built the product to be scalable — index-free — which means your data are coming in instantly, so you can interact with it. Making it more “out of the box,” and easy to use will be a real focus for us in the next couple of quarters. We want to bring this capability to anyone who’s working in a modern environment, with growing log volumes.”
Humio is growing, but the ambitions and challenges are increasing at a rate where they can sustain that value and improve upon the product at the same time.
What does the future look like for Geeta herself? “This is the most exciting job I’ve ever had, and I love the people I work with, so I’m thrilled with where I am right now,” she smiles. “We’re on a mission to make this the standard, and getting closer to that goal… it’s addictive. One of the reasons I love this job is that I’m learning and challenged every day. It’s exhilarating — but don’t do it if you’re not insane enough to really enjoy those things. You do become one and the same thing as your company. You have to when you’re part of a company that’s changing the way things are done.”
Building Your Board
As a rare female CEO in the B2B space, Geeta is also keen to champion minorities within the space. She actively promotes the idea of building your own “personal board” — a group of trusted contacts that are extremely helpful to know, across a range of companies, to bounce ideas off or turn to for advice.
“It’s rare to find people you can talk to internally about the kind of things that are happening at a founder or CEO level, and it’s common to walk into a discussion or roundtable and be the only female there.”
Geeta strongly advises people to use the network that already exists today to improve upon inclusion and diversity. “We stress this issue quite a lot in the development, coding, and tech environment, but other than occasionally pointing out that there’s only one or no women on an executive team, the sphere of management remains largely free of criticism.”
That said, Geeta acknowledges there are a lot of helpful folks who really do want to promote women and minorities — it’s so important to find that fit — the support is there. One of the reasons Humio went with Accel is that they have two powerful women on their board; seeing that felt so comfortable and inviting. “I’m impressed and looking to them as mentors.” Companies need to double down on removing barriers to entry, and women should be looking for those places where the fit feels right. Because when it is, the result can be quite remarkable.
Seeing Geeta and everything she has achieved with Humio, we could not agree more. To see for yourself, join us at SaaStock19 where she will be speaking alongside 200 other speakers all offering their playbooks, lessons and invaluable experience. Grab a ticket now.
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