Portfolio March 11, 2011

The Entrepreneur Questionnaire: Brian Biles, Co-Founder of Data Domain




Brian Biles co-founded Data Domain in 2001. Data Domain deduplication storage systems dramatically reduce the amount of disk storage needed to retain and protect enterprise data. The company went public in 2007 and was acquired by EMC in a bidding war in 2009 for $2.1 Billion. Biles is now Vice President of Product Management for EMC Backup Recovery Systems. He is one of the industry’s leading experts on data deduplication storage and its application in enterprise environments.

Describe your business in 10 words or fewer.

Optimized storage arrays for backup and archival data.

What is the big idea behind your business?

Economically, backup data is low value. People don’t want to spend money on it. It’s like insurance—you look for the cheapest good-quality storage that gets the job done. Historically, the winner has been tape, but that has been problematic. You can easily lose it. Backups can fail. It’s manual. You have to ship it in trucks. Data compression technologies on disk make data small so that you don’t need as much hardware, and this can let it approach as tape automation capital price points. Compression theory had been around for a long time. But compression at this large scale tends to be slow, and the simple way to speed it up is with lots of hardware. Data Domain’s initial innovation was to make it fast enough for the workload, but cheap enough to compete.

Why are you excited about the future for this company?

Various reasons. Direct competition is still very weak. There’s no better sales channel in the world for enterprise storage than EMC. Tape automation—basically cassette tapes on steroids where robots pull cartridges and stick them into drives, then write to it and stick it into another slot—peaked in 2006, three years after we started selling. EMC’s backup system sales will be bigger than the entire tape automation sector this year. That is satisfying: We are now bigger than the category we aimed to kill. And penetration of deduplication in enterprise IT is still considered to be less than 20%.

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

I needed a job. It was 2001 during the last big downturn. I co-founded Data Domain a month after 9/11. The alternatives were not great. I figured I could join some big company with the possibility of getting laid off or join a start-up. The risk was the same. We got lucky. We built a great team, landed great VCs and kept maniacal focus on execution; I got to have a front row seat in how to build a great business.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned as an entrepreneur?

Data Domain’s main product was a file system, a software layer to organize files and compress them. We could have gone different ways in packaging that to customers. In those days Veritas had a file system software product that was very popular, but they were heading into a bad period. The packaging alternative, NetApp, looked like they had more control of their destiny because you bought their hardware and software as a unit. Our board was ambivalent about which way we should go. Aneel Bhusri from Greylock said the only way you’ll know the right answer is to ask your prospects which they would prefer to buy. It was a great axiom for how to keep your head on straight as an entrepreneur. The customers told us they wanted an appliance. We followed that and it was the best decision we ever made.

What has surprised you about being an entrepreneur?

Data Domain was not my first small VC-backed company, so this wasn’t a complete surprise, but it is just like work. It’s just a great job. It’s not Hollywood. (I literally grew up in Hollywood, so I’m not just making this up.) It’s totally fun in exactly the same way that a great job is totally fun. The tension is higher at some level, because you’ve borrowed someone else’s money, and you might not feel that part quite as plainly in a normal job.

What five adjectives would you use to describe yourself?


What is the best business advice you’ve ever heard?

For entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs’ Think Different. If you head into a crowded space you have to work harder and spend more money just to keep up. If you don’t have enough differentiation as a startup, a big player can add a few features and crush you.

What is your motto?


Which living person do you most admire?

I think more about accomplishments and focus than people to admire; no one is perfect. I’m hugely impressed with the service ethic of Brian Juri, a retired math teacher who has gotten more boys through our local Boy Scout troop achievement process over the last 10 years than you can imagine. Truly remarkable. Thanks, Brian.

What are you passionate about?

My family.

What motivates you?

It’s really fun to come up with an ambitious product plan that succeeds, especially if it has enough advanced technology involved to seem like magic.

What was your first paying  job?

I was a salesman at a retail clothing store in Southern California in the mid-70s called Ants-n-Pants that specialized in bell bottoms. It had a logo image of ants “truckin’” like R Crumb’s Mr. Natural. Shockingly, it’s no longer in business.

What do you like most about being an entrepreneur?

I’ll contrast big companies with small companies. At a big company each employee doesn’t need to make as many decisions or play as much of a role in growing the business. It’s about scale versus innovation. In a small company, you only have time to do critical things, and you see all dimensions of the outcomes. I love that level of feedback.

What do you like least about being an entrepreneur?

The odd challenge is that investors are forced to make big decisions with very little data. They can sometimes be persuaded to invest or not invest, or go thumbs up or thumbs down on the fit of a particular candidate as a Board member, for reasons that are shallow by necessity. I’m not sure I can dislike it — it just is what it is — but good relationships here only happen when communication is both transparent and well directed.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’d get younger!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

It would be hard to argue with founding Data Domain and its business success. Also I’m very proud of my kids.

What is the last book you read?

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

What values are important to you as an entrepreneur?

Frank Slootman canonized the culture at Data Domain with an acronym I liked, RECIPE. Respect, Execution, Customer-focus, Integrity, Performance, Excellence. I’d add sense of humor, but it would screw up the spelling.

What advice would you give on how to build a great business?

In the type of business we had there are a few things that I think we did well early. The first was choice of focus. It was a downturn and budgets were all pulled back. We were very conscious to work on building anantibiotic versus a vitamin. Second, you should find something that is easy to sell but hard to build. You need time to evolve the product and idea and if you are making something easy, someone else will come after it. Third, when Frank Slootman joined Data Domain as CEO he said we were a “blue collar company.” What he meant was that everyone would roll up their sleeves and work hard to serve customers. Leave entitlement and attitude at the door. Big companies have been built other ways, but I wouldn’t want to join them.

“You should find something that is easy to sell but hard to build. You need time to evolve the product and idea and if you are making something easy, someone else will come after it.”