Only the paranoid survive: An interview with Roman Stanek

By May 5, 2014No Comments

Can you tell us what a typical day in the life of Roman Stanek looks like?

I’m in the office around 7 am in San Francisco. Many people I work with are in time zones ahead of me so I spend the first couple of phone calls with Europe and the East Coast. Usually I have a bunch of internal meetings, I have visitors and because I spend about half my time on the road and on airplanes, there isn’t anything such as a typical day. I spent a lot of time with clients in New York and Boston, but nowadays also in Brazil – and later this year we will start operations in Europe.

You are one of Europe’s most successful tech entrepreneurs. Growing up in the Czech Republic, did you ever think you would become an entrepreneur?

When I grew up the word ‘Entrepreneur’ was not even in my vocabulary. The society I grew up in, that option didn’t actually exist. It was definitely not anything I would even dream of. I’ve been an entrepreneur for the past twenty years now and I love it. I love the excitement, the challenges and the fact that it keeps changing: the whole space has now become global, what used to be just Silicon Valley.

What do you consider the greatest challenge in your job?

My biggest challenge – and that is the biggest challenge of every entrepreneur – is that you have a vision and that vision doesn’t necessarily need to be shared by anybody in the world: not by your customers, not by your employees, not by your investors. Your vision doesn’t need to be shared by anybody… You need to go out there and make it happen! You need to go out there and make it happen! Step-by-step you convince more and more people and at some point that vision becomes reality and that’s when you win. It’s not given and I think that’s what makes entrepreneurs special, because you have to have that conviction and confidence to make it happen.

In your fireside chat at Pioneers Festival you said “I studied computer science, but it was more of a science and had less to do with computers.”

The focus of science rather than purely on computers simply taught me that a deeper understanding of the principles of computers may be more important than knowing the latest version of Java – or back then it was Pascal.

What do you consider your greatest skill compared to other CEOs?

I have a very balanced set of skills around technology, finance, business and sales, which definitely gives me a unique advantage. I can deep dive into our code, despite not being a coder, but I understand why things work the way they do. The next minute I can discuss all the nuances of our balance sheet and cash flow with my CFO. And the next minute I can write an article about the future of enterprise computing and what matters and what doesn’t matter from the business perspective. I can see and manage the company in an entirety.

When you hire, what do you look for in an individual? Is there a particular culture you try to develop within the team?

On an individual level there are multiple traits that a good employee at a startup has to have: openness, commitment, being dedicated and curious are essential ones. We focus on our company values. A lot of it is about a notion of excellence, innovation and transparency as a data company. So being able to talk about values and being able to define them is a big part of the company culture we try to create. At this stage of the company I’m spending probably 25% of my time working on company culture and people development.

You started your second company, Systinet, right after 9/11 and started raising capital for GoodData on 15 September 2008, the same day Lehman Brothers crashed.

This is a complete coincidence and I feel it’s not completely bad: ‘Tough times breed tough companies’. I would hate to start a company in the middle of the bubble when it is so difficult to get ahead of everybody else.[aside]As an entrepreneur there is no time to complain or pity yourself. You have to deal with reality.[/aside] As an entrepreneur, you need to take it as it comes – there is no time to complain or pity yourself. If you are an entrepreneur you have to deal with reality.

Every startup is an emotional rollercoaster. With the three companies you founded, you went through some particularly tough periods.

At the end of the day it all goes back to your vision. The stronger the vision is, the clearer the picture where you want to go. In my case I know where I want to go and in tough times it’s all about figuring out how to sell that vision back to the employees, back to the investors, back to the customers. That’s why successful companies are all about having a big vision. It’s absolutely critical for everyone to have that shared vision because in tough times it’s this that holds the company together.

This ‘shared vision’, is that the most important piece on the road to success in your opinion?

Absolutely, I believe so. It also has to be achievable and that’s what makes a good entrepreneur. You have to have that ability to understand what it is that you can pull off and what is actually beyond your abilities.The rate of craziness is different for everybody. I would consider Tesla to be crazy. The rate of craziness of vision is different for everybody. I don’t think I would ever be able to pull off Tesla – I would consider that to be crazy. But somebody else can. And so it’s all about understanding as an entrepreneur what you are good at, what you can actually pull off. That’s what it takes: If it were easy, everybody would do it.

What is success for you? How do you define it?

Success is turned vision into reality. I have succeeded at that a couple of times. The biggest success is – and that’s not monetary – coming up with a vision and when you look at it a couple of years later it’s turned into reality even though nobody initially considered it possible.

What piece of advice can you offer first-time entrepreneurs?

The basic assumption for every entrepreneur should be ‘Your are not alone’! [aside]If you are not on top of the game somebody will eat your lunch.[/aside] Every time I meet an entrepreneur who tells me “My idea is completely unique and nobody else is working on it and I’m ahead of everybody else,” I get suspicious. Always assume that the idea you have is not unique.

There are a number of teams working on your idea, they are working harder, they may have more financing and more customers. You have to always assume that somebody is going after you and after your company. Only the paranoid survive. This is a global market and if you are not on top of the game, somebody will come and eat your lunch.

If you weren’t running your own company right now, what would you be doing?

Oh I know exactly what I’d be doing. I would be publishing my photography books! That’s my biggest hobby and it’s something that keeps me sane – the fact that I have a hobby I love and create stuff that people enjoy.

Our final question: Which pioneer would you like to bring back to life and why?

Christopher Columbus. I know he is a controversial person, but I really liked his bold vision that nobody believed in. He was the first VC-funded guy – he convinced the Spanish Queen to finance his voyage and just went for it.