Portfolio July 19, 2011

The Entrepreneur Questionnaire: David Ulevitch, Founder and CEO, OpenDNS


OpenDNS provides security and infrastructure services that make the Internet safer, including cloud-based Web content filtering and DNS-based malware and botnet protection. The service enables businesses to reduce costs, enforce Internet-use policies and secure their networks from online threats, and allows millions of consumers to have a safer, faster Internet experience.

Describe your business in 10 words or fewer.

OpenDNS is the safest way to navigate the Internet.

What is the big idea behind your business?

DNS (domain name system) is a protocol you use any time you use the Internet, whether you are casually surfing or reading, shopping or IM-ing your friends. No one has innovated in this area in 30 years. We are adding reliability, speed and safety to it.

How did you come up with the idea for OpenDNS?

Prior to OpenDNS I ran a company called EveryDNS. We provided a different type of management service to people who owned domain names. We became very good at getting rid of spammers and phishers, however we found that those scammers would just move onto another service after being kicked off mine. With my next company I wanted to have the biggest impact possible. We flipped the problem on its head and fixed it so that no matter who is hosting the website, people have control over their own safe Internet experience by using OpenDNS.

Why are you excited about the future for this company?

We serve 1% of the world’s Internet users and we see much larger opportunities in front of us. When you reach a milestone, your horizon of what’s possible grows.

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurs are always skeptical of the status quo. Whether in school, inside a large company or starting their own venture, entrepreneurs are never satisfied—they are always looking for ways to do things better, safer, faster, cheaper. In that way, I’ve always been an entrepreneur.

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

Building a successful team is one of the most important and most difficult things you can do as a founder. There are a lot of people who are capable or smart but they may not be great inside your company. It goes both ways. I was fired as the CEO and later rehired. That was a trying experience. I had everything I loved riding on this company. A lot of founders who find themselves in that situation get emotional because they feel like someone is trying to kill their baby. I learned to not be emotional and did everything I could to make it successful. Knowing people make decisions based on the best information they have at the time I remained unemotional and earned my job back. You never know when the tables will turn.

What has surprised you about being an entrepreneur?

It turns out that the difference between being very successful and being marginalized is very thin. If you do just a few things wrong you can be marginalized very quickly. In school you can get nine A’s, fail a test and still get an A in the class. In business you need to get it right every time. You can’t just work harder to make things better. You need to be flawless.

What five adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Positively disruptive, innovative, compassionate, a good listener, decisive.

What values are important to you as an entrepreneur?

Honesty. It is key to setting and meeting expectations and goals. That includes clarity in communication. When you screw up you need to tell people, whether it’s customers, employees or the public. Commitment is also critical. A startup is a marathon. You need to be in it for the long haul.

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

Be accountable.  Set goals and achieve them.

What is your motto?

Talk is cheap. 🙂

Which living person do you most admire?

Steve Jobs. He has disrupted a number of industries, including music, movies, phones, mobile and PCs. He is myopically focused on delivering the best customer experience possible.

What are you passionate about?

I like the idea of using technology to make the world a better place. In the last 50 years I don’t think anything has brought more wealth to the world or helped more people than technology.

What motivates you?

Guilt. 🙂 If I make an obligation to someone, I will do it. I don’t like the idea of letting customers, employees or shareholders down. I want to leave the world better than I found it.

What was your first paying job?

I worked at a small Internet service provider the summer after eighth grade doing tech support. I learned how to program and use UNIX servers.  I’ve had paying jobs ever since, even in college.

What do you like most about being an entrepreneur?

The opportunities are limitless and there are no constraints around you. You can make perception a reality. A dreamer just keeps it in their heads; an entrepreneur makes it happen.

What do you like least about being an entrepreneur?

If I had to pick a downside I guess I would say that being an entrepreneur is a lonely job. Not a lot of people know what you’re going through and can relate.

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

I’d like to be in better shape.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Building a sustainable business around a service people really like. I’m also proud of the fact that everything I’ve ever done has been innovative and disruptive. I avoid doing things others have done.

What is the last book you read?

I just started a book called Eat People by Andy Kessler. He is a phenomenal writer. The book is about the characteristics of entrepreneurship. One of my favorite books is Bread and Wine. It talks about following your convictions and beliefs versus simply following the law of the time.

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

There are lots of great ideas. What sets great companies apart is their ability to execute. Build the best team possible. Get rid of the ineffective people. Bad employees are like a cancer. Once you get rid of people who are a bad fit, everybody else bounces up 20 feet. Once you give up helping someone improve, it’s over. They won’t magically get better.

Make your team feel like they have ownership and are invested in the success of the company. If you can do that successfully all of the decisions they make will be in the best interest of the company.

As a leader you need to be good at compartmentalizing things. You can’t drag one issue into another.

“Building a successful team is one of the most important and most difficult things you can do as a founder.”