Maana CEO Babur Ozden on building companies and learning to love the chaos

Maana founder and Chief Executive Babur Ozden knows first-hand that running a startup can be like trying to harness the energy and chaos inside a newly forming star. In his career, he has experienced tremendous success, as well as failure, as a founder of startups in both the United States and Turkey.

This “Founder Q&A” with Ozden was originally published by Intel Capital on the firm’s website. It is republished here with the permission of Intel Capital.

Q: You’re a serial entrepreneur having managed successful startups and exits in the U.S. and Turkey. Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit?

A: My first exposure to making a living was as an intern and an employee of what would become a very successful startup company. The chaos that exists within a startup, I fell in love with it. Then I noticed it’s a controlled and ordered chaos. It’s the birth of a star. It’s a massive chaos. There’s heat, there’s energy, there’s explosions, but something big is being born.

And then I had an opportunity to start a company which would become the largest ISP in Turkey, and still today the most recognized internet brand in the country. That was my first entrepreneurship experience. It ended extremely well, but irrelevant of how it ended, I just thought it was neat and that it was the environment I wanted to be in – one where you could make something happen where the previous day it didn’t exist.

Q: Growing up did you always want to be an entrepreneur or something else, and how did that shape what you became?

A: Like any kid, I wanted to be the first person on Mars. That drove me to science, and I have developed a great appreciation for the contribution of science to humanity. I wanted to go to the U.S. and find myself in the space industry or in astronomy or astrophysics, but my grades were not good enough and I couldn’t get into any of those fields. But I always had an ambition that involved science, and science was the driving path.

Today’s Maana is a reflection of that. Although we are not building anything that’s going to Mars, at Maana we are doing something remarkable for our global economy and it’s through science. We are at a cutting edge using science through math, science of data, science of artificial intelligence.

Q: Maana is unique in that its investors are primarily all strategic investors. Can you describe how this came about?

A: Firstly, I’m blessed to have a truly great co-founder in Donald Thompson, who’s the company president and COO right now. He is brighter than I am, he takes responsibility for product and technology innovation and invention, while I go out and find the market, the customers, and help with positioning.

In early 2013, Donald and I were the only two employees. We were (and are) equal partners, and at that time he was the CTO and I was the CEO. We had a vision for the company and we were thinking about taking the traditional route of walking up and down Sand Hill and presenting our business plan to traditional financial venture investors. Prior to doing so, we approached some of my previous customers and business network contacts with our ideas, including General Electric and Intel. Following a very stringent vetting, both investors invested in us. That was really a turning point for Maana, and not only who would we seek as investors but also who would we go after as customers.

You see, in my previous companies I had the pleasure to work with very savvy financial investors and pure venture investors, but working with Intel’s and GE’s venture arms, these people were almost like on my payroll. It was not just from board meeting to board meeting, they were there with me literally every day. I very quickly learned that this was the kind of money I wanted to take. We were getting internal business use cases, internal subject matter expertise, opportunities to test out and run our stuff with real industrial data. It was priceless. Really, you couldn’t have asked for any better place to build industrial enterprise facing mission critical software. That was the turning point for us and we were determined to only raise strategic money in our upcoming rounds.

Q: What other benefits has Maana recognized from its relationship with Intel Capital?

A: Intel Capital has been instrumental in introducing Maana to some of our first customers. Fifty percent to 60 percent of our customers and prospects in our pipeline have come through Intel Capital. This is what makes Intel Capital, probably from this angle, the world’s single greatest corporate strategic investor.

Q: Were there any significant challenges the business had to overcome to get where it is today?

A: We are an intellectual property company, meaning we only produce software, and that means our only assets are people. Finding the right people at the right time – those software engineers, data scientists, sales reps – has been one of our top challenges from day one.

The market is so competitive, but this competition translates itself differently in the U.S. versus internationally. In the U.S., particularly in technology hubs, people love to work for startups, especially the well-known, flashy, big ones. So all of us startups compete with one another for talent.

Internationally, the challenge is different because the culture to work for a startup doesn’t exist. People want to work for big established brands and companies. If you show up in Saudi Arabia, or in Denmark, or in Amsterdam, the challenge of opening an office and hiring people there is different. Why should someone come work for this nascent American startup company with a short history that just opened a little presence in the country? Why would you be the first person to quit a high paying job in a well-established company to come work for us?

Q: So how does a startup win that battle for talent?

A: The key, and I learned this in a beautifully hard way, is that the founders and the CEO have to be salespeople. You have to sell it to your investors, your customers, the press so that they can write about you. You need to sell it to attract people to come work for you. Your every-day life is selling, nonstop in one form or another. You sell a promise, you sell a vision, you sell a commitment for doing good for the planet and for humankind, and you sell how our clients, which are the world’s largest companies, are benefitting from our technology. It is an ability to sell, that’s how it works.

Q: What difficult lessons have you learned that you wish you knew prior to launching some of your companies?

A: Although you can learn important lessons from failure, having to shut down a company is a terrible thing, and I did it twice. It is a terrible thing. What makes it really terrible is that you have to say goodbye to people who believed in you, and quit working somewhere else to come work for your company, and you shut down and they’ve got to go. That pain is probably as close as it gets to receiving news that a family member is sick with cancer or has died.

Q: What has been your biggest career challenge and how were you able to overcome it?

A: Two challenges stand out in my mind. First, transitioning from being an engineer to a business manager was a big challenge because I know both sides. Engineers want to make the best decisions for the product, while managers have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the business. And they don’t always see eye to eye. Finding that harmonious middle point has always been the biggest challenge at every single company I’ve been involved. The companies and business leaders that manage it best are usually very successful.

The other challenge is that my native tongue is Turkish, and although my English is fairly decent now, the command of the language was a challenge in my early years in America. And this is really important because as a founder you need to sell your vision, and speaking fluent English is an important part of connecting with the team.

Q: Do you have a founder role model? If you could meet any entrepreneur or business leader from history, who would it be and why?

A: There are two people I am most intrigued by. The first is Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. He learned to fly a small plane so he could have daily fresh supplies for his father-in-law’s dollar store, and while he was flying he was seeing where the cities and towns were growing. He realized that while other mass retailers may have had stores in existing population centers, he saw opportunity and understood where the cities would grow to. He built his stores in the outer flanks and the cities and businesses grew his way. He turned impossibilities in possibilities through his vision.

The second person is Elon Musk. I find him remarkable because he was one of the co-founders of PayPal and his expertise was in payment systems. After PayPal, he didn’t go back to payment systems. He didn’t become a venture capitalist and use his exit money from PayPal to fund other companies. He had the boldness and vision and acumen to go build a new car. Not only is he building a car, but he’s building an electrical car company. He’s sending stuff into orbit. He’s taking humanity to a different place. He’s becoming an inspirational source to people around the world, like Steve Jobs was.

Q: You’ve been known to read about the cosmos and follow NASA’s website. Has keeping your head in the stars contributed to your business success in any way?

A: It does. Science is all about getting to understand something otherwise unexplainable to humanity. And applying a scientific rigor, and scientific methodology have become personal drivers of my life.

My business partner Donald and I are a phenomenal fit because we both respect these principles. When we have a problem, even if it’s not a technology problem, I look at it and get rid of the emotion, get away from the “who said what.” I try to tackle it like an engineer by asking what happened, why did it happen, how can we remedy it, what are our alternatives and trade-offs. It allows me to think methodically and factually, and to consume data. That’s what science does, it creates data, consumes it and gets better. And that’s what we’re doing at Maana and why I’m so excited about the business and our prospects for the future.

Babur Ozden, co-founder and CEO of Maana. He holds an M.B.A. from Rice University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin.


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