Portfolio February 6, 2012

The Entrepreneur Questionnaire: John Hayes, Co-Founder and Chief Architect of Pure Storage

John Hayes


John Hayes is the Co-Founder and Chief Architect of Pure Storage, a Greylock-backed start-up based in Mountain View, CA. Pure Storage has a simple mission: to enable the widespread adoption of flash in the enterprise data center.

In a nutshell, what is the big idea behind Pure Storage?

Enable efficient deployment of solid-state storage in the datacenter.

What about the future of Pure Storage excites you the most?

Solid-state storage changes the fundamental data structures and IO patterns business software has been built on for decades; purpose building for solid-state storage yields benefits that are unachievable by repurposing software built for spinning disks or hybrid solutions. Within a decade business infrastructures will realize a 10x-100x performance improvement and we aim to be at the center of that change.

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

An entrepreneur is someone who asks for capital instead of asking for permission. I’ve never enjoyed asking for permission, but I’ve also been lucky enough to know people who have offered a great deal of support.

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

Every once in a while I notice that something isn’t happening. When I think back to previous jobs, I realize that there was some source of initiative making that thing happen… now that’s now my job. The whole cloth of a new company doesn’t seem so intimidating until you realize you’ve been looking at it through a microscope.

What has surprised you about being an entrepreneur?

It’s often thought that an entrepreneur’s goal is to make a great product. In reality it’s to build a great company that makes a great product. It feels strange to plan your own obsolescence, but it’s an amazing practice for pushing everyone in the company beyond the limits of comfort.

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

It’s not quite advice, but Mike Speiser has said that Pure Storage is ‘making the world safe for flash storage.’ This idea can be applied to almost anything and I think every business should strive for the simple characterization that they are making the world safer.

Mark Leslie – it’s the dream of every entrepreneur to be hauled in front of congress on antitrust charges because they so thoroughly destroyed their competitors.

What is your motto?

Certainty is usually just a lack of creativity.

What are you passionate about?

I love engineering, building new products and working with new technologies. Every technology has a secret  language and the key to great engineering is learning that language.

What was your first paying job?

I was an administrative assistant thanks to my mastery of WordPerfect 5.1.

What do you like most about being an entrepreneur?

It’s almost the purest form of meritocracy. How else can you be the least educated, least accomplished person at a company and still be Chief Architect?

What do you like least about being an entrepreneur?

Being uncomfortable with getting attention while at the same time being restless with the status quo, which often means drawing attention in order to enact change. As an entrepreneur I’m well outside of my comfort zone.

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

I would like to be able to focus on two things at a time.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I hope I’m still working on it; achievement is a product of a lifetime, not a single event.

What is the last book you read?

“Packing for Mars” – it’s evidence that if you call someone an astronaut, you can do anything to them including testing the world’s most expensive disposable vehicle.

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

Every great business initially does something so deceptively difficult that the challenges of success go almost unnoticed.

What led you to found a company?

I wanted to build something substantial and difficult. It would take time to build, but it would make a big difference in the world.  I want to create “perfect storage” where “perfect” is always fungible and always fast.

I want the storage problem to go away. Few companies spend as much time on the 99th percentile of performance.  This focus has driven us to a deep understanding of our medium.  Then, we used that knowledge to create something that doesn’t require users to understand how our product works because it just does.

How did you come up with the idea for Pure Storage?

I have to credit John Colgrove, the senior co-founder with coming up with the idea. I can only be credited with a plausible approach for implementation. When he didn’t panic, it seemed like a good match.

What advice would you give to someone starting a new enterprise? (read: if you could go back in time 2 years and give yourself a piece of advice, what would that be)

It’s hard to tell the difference between a good idea and a merely clever one.  No one ever built a significant business on a clever idea.

Make sure you find founding partners who cover all the gaps.  All the things you don’t know how to do… you should be really impressed by them.  They should be so good at what they do that it seems like magic to you.

What’s the best way to attract talent to a new organization?

Show them the real company: openness, pride, ambition.  Be critical, challenging and purposeful.

What do you like about being at Pure?

The feedback we’ve gotten from the market and customers gives me great confidence that people really need what we are building and the real challenge is to prove why we are the ones to do it.

Entrepreneurs do things that haven’t been done yet. What are you doing at Pure that breaks the mold?

It may come as a surprise, but I had never worked on a storage product before Pure. We work from the user, or application, down not from the hardware up.

What’s the biggest challenge you personally face in pioneering the unknown?

It’s easy to become enamored with the beauty and simplicity of something even if it’s totally unworkable. I don’t mind backtracking on myself; but having a conversation with someone else while proposing rolling back their last few months of work feels terrible.

For technical inspiration, what has been the most effective well?

My past mistakes.

For you, what’s the biggest difference between working in a small start up company and a large established organization?

Large organizations get distracted by the desire to defend the old business.  They can’t invest whole-heartedly in a new direction without considering how it might harm their existing cash flow. At a startup, decisions can be driven in accordance with what’s logical and right for the market.

What principles define Pure’s engineering culture? How do you encourage their exercise?

We are very selective about who we hire and when someone joins our team we inherently trust them. As an example, we share pretty much everything about what’s happening in the company with every employee.

“I wanted to build something substantial and difficult. It would take time to build, but it would make a big difference in the world.”