Episode 16

How to Change the World

With Ion Stoica, Executive Chairman and Former CEO of Databricks; & Co-Founder of Conviva

By Ashu Garg


Two-time founder/CEO, and Berkeley computer science professor, Ion Stoica chats with Ashu about what it means to have an impact and how to go from academic to entrepreneur.

I. Episode Recap

Whoever said “those who can’t do, teach” never met Ion Stoica. Ion is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of its RISELab, which is researching and developing technologies that provide real-time intelligence with secure explainable decisions. He’s also the co-founder of two successful startups: Conviva, which optimizes and analyzes online-video delivery systems; and Databricks, an infrastructure platform that helps enterprise companies use AI. Somehow, he also found time to talk to me about what it’s like to go from the Ivory Tower to Silicon Valley.

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Double the founding fun:

  • Ion co-founded Conviva in 2006 — after noticing that video was becoming an increasingly large part of internet activity, and a company dedicated to improving video quality and distribution would do well.

  • Databricks which was founded in 2013, began in Berkeley’s AMPLab as a project to process Big Data.

Double the board of directors:

  • For both companies, Ion was able to pick and choose his investors.

  • He looked for board members who knew the market and wouldn’t overreact to bad news but be patient and wait for bumps in the road to smooth out.

  • Ion’s boards were supportive and their combined experience and wisdom was helpful for advice, but the CEO is the one who has the make the actual decisions and be accountable for them.

  • If a board member is making decisions for the CEO, then something has gone very wrong.

Double the advice for first-time founders transitioning to CEO:

  • Learn as much as possible about the job. Read books, go to investors, friends, and other CEOs for advice. Minimize the number of mistakes you are sure to make.

  • Surround yourself with experienced people when you’re hiring executives. Don’t bring in someone else who has to learn on the job. 

  • Put processes in place as early as possible. If you don’t, it will be that much harder to scale.

  • Move fast. If your business isn’t showing some success soon enough, your employees will move on to another company that does.

Double the doubts:

  • When Ion stepped away from academia to focus on his companies, he was worried that he wouldn’t be as successful in the startup sphere as he was in the academic world.

  • (and then he would look “like an idiot”)

  • It was hard to make decisions about hiring people at first because he didn’t have the experience to know who would be a good fit and who wouldn’t.

  • But Ion also says doubt can be a good thing; you perform better under pressure and you don’t get too comfortable. A little bit of self-doubt is healthy.

Double the chance to make a difference in the world:

  • Ion is motivated by his desire to have an impact on the world in some way.

  • As an academic, his work is studied by and inspires others.

  • As a startup founder, his companies can also do work that makes a difference; for instance, Databricks’ healthcare and life sciences vertical may help develop technology that saves lives.

Published on 11.21.2019
Written by Ashu Garg

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