This post is part of Accel’s Secrets to Scaling series, where leaders from across our portfolio share their learnings and advice with the next generation of European and Israeli entrepreneurs building global winners.
When Adrian and I started digging into Humio’s technology and business with co-founders Geeta, Christian, and Kresten back in 2018, we were blown away. Not only by the deep understanding the team had of the problem they were solving - the fact that existing mechanisms for categorizing and querying data were showing the strain - and the product they’d created, but also the exceptional hygge culture they’d built for the Humio team in Aarhus. The team, culture and fact that Humio’s platform was a phenomenal example of engineering excellence, were key reasons why we led the company’s Series A back in January 2019. These reasons, along with the huge volume and velocity requirements in the security space, are also what made Humio the ideal company to join forces with CrowdStrike earlier this year.
I sat down with CEO and co-founder Geeta to discuss the importance of passion, understanding your strengths, ensuring customers are in your DNA, why she’s built a support network and more....
You’ve had more than 20 years’ software industry experience, working at USS Robotics and Sun Microsystems in the US, before moving to Denmark, where you met your co-founders Christian and Kresten. What made you take the leap and become an entrepreneur?
I’d had management roles in large companies before moving to a very small company, Trifork. This was probably when I got my first taste of entrepreneurship. I got to see what it was like to be in the driver’s seat and run a business from an executive level.
I learned that experience is important. I took a long route to becoming an entrepreneur, but when I got here, I realised that a lot of the things I’d learned on the way were valuable. I could bring my network, thoughts, experience and the people I’ve met over time on my entrepreneurial journey. Your team is important too. That was a big force behind becoming an entrepreneur for me. The flow of ideas that came out when we were founding our team was great. It’s the kind of passion and magic that drives an entrepreneur.
If you and your team are passionate about your vision, you’ll attract more people that want to share that vision.
There are trade-offs, of course – there’s no safety net, so there’s a feeling you’re trying to build a big company with just a handful of people. So it was useful to bring that previous experience and background to the entrepreneurial mindset we had at Humio.
Your commercial experience, marketing background, and lessons you learned at Sun Microsystems and Trifork complimented Christian and Kresten’s technical backgrounds. Can you give some examples of how you complemented each other, and how you operated together?
Everyone is better at some things than others. As a founding team, we figured out early on what really drove us as individuals – what made us excited to wake up every day and work at Humio. We learned what each person was good at, what they were passionate about, and combined those strengths.
We also learned where we had gaping holes - no one on the founding team had sales experience, for example. We were very honest and open from the start about the things we didn’t like or want to do, and we found someone else who was better at these things, and who we could trust to fill the gaps. We set up a strong trust structure from the offset. Many entrepreneurs want to take on all the responsibility themselves, but it’s hard to do it all and do it well - you can drive yourself toward burnout. It’s impossible to be good at everything and there’s only 24 hours in a day! It’s important to identify the skills that people bring to the table – it’s a team effort.
Given that you had a different background to Christian and Kresten, how do you feel your business and marketing background helped you become a successful CEO?
An instinctive understanding of what the IT and DevOps market wanted and who we were selling too was really important. And I think my marketing and sales experience complemented their technical background. An appreciation of the effort needed to get something to market has affected our approach to developing our products. As Steve Jobs once said, “build something you’d want to use yourself”. We’ve always done that, from a developer point of view.
I’d say my background influenced the company’s engineering organisation, too. It focused their thinking on certain milestones, such as defining the product and its market fit, bringing in a proper sales effort, and getting our first paying customers. Then it moves on to scaling. These things are hard if you specialise in engineering – it’s not easy to build a product one moment and develop a go-to-market strategy the next.
We talk about customers being in our DNA and effectively being part of the development cycle.
It’s a concept most of our engineers weren’t used to. But, from a marketing perspective, I’ve seen the way the they support our customers has created a wonderful level of trust. That’s vital in the early days when you’re trying to convince someone to use your product over your competitors’. We had a lot of “David versus Goliath” moments early on and the advantages of being smaller include the fact you can be nimble, show more empathy for the customer, and provide better service. These are all ways the commercial-side of the business has influenced the engineering organisation.
Again, you also need to get the right people on the team at the right time. I’m always looking for gaps we need to fill.
You touched on early conversations with customers. I was impressed with how you were punching above your weight in terms of the calibre of customers you had in the early stages, the kind of business you were generating, and your product’s technical superiority. What do you think you did really well in that early stage?
We listened a lot to our customers, which is very common in product development when you’re trying to find a fit. We were more attractive to large data volume customers, who wanted things we hadn’t built into our product at the time. We still had work to do in this area – we couldn’t just walk in the door like we can now. There were things they wanted to help us bring to the table, and that was a scary proposition. We were putting some of our product development roadmap in their hands, although we didn’t want to become a consulting shop - that creates way too many problems and lots of forks of your product. We didn’t want different versions of our product for every customer.
We had to set expectations, and that requires careful thought and the confidence to push back. You need to consider whether your product’s going in the right direction. We had to decide whether we wanted a cloud-only or an on-prem business. We chose to do both, as there was a market and market need, validated by customers like Bloomberg.
We’ve said no on occasion – some customers wanted things for which we didn’t have the functionality or bandwidth. You need to be honest and say how much you can take on, and consider whether there’s a big enough market opportunity.
I’d say, though, don’t let your customers drive your roadmap early on. You’ll get confused and end up tying your revenue to certain customers rather than making something for a market.
Very good point. Let’s move on to the importance of culture and values. I know Humio has a culture of happiness. Can you describe where this comes from?
It comes from building an inclusive environment, which goes back to the idea of the founding team being honest about everything from the start. The founding and leadership teams, as well as the first employees, are hugely influential in building a company’s culture. You need to think about how everyone works together and how easy it is to work together, for example. There are always too few people in a startup, so each of them is incredibly important. It’s crucial that everyone understands how they fit in, although you also have to be clear about what the company believes in and set expectations around that. These need to be clear when people come into the company.
Early on, we weren’t very good at defining our culture or roles, as we were still building out who we were and how we worked. But we’ve always been open and honest, with a strong interest in building trust within the team, and with our partners and customers.
Much of this comes from our Scandinavian background. But you have to respect cultural differences when you start hiring in other countries. What’s happening in the US may not be relatable when you’re in Denmark, so you need to think more about who you work with, and the differences between you. We wanted our employees to be more open to talking about this. Startups can be very KPI-driven, and it’s easy to forget about the human side of things.
Humio is based on humans and IO. There are people behind the company. When you look at hiring, it’s important not only to consider whether someone has the right skillset, but whether they’ll fit into the culture. If you don’t have that alignment, it can be hard for new people to join and be successful.
Culture’s a good segue into the next question. How would you describe your personal leadership style?
Everything moves fast in startup life - a month can seem like years. It’s important to make decisions quickly so the team can execute. So decision-making is something I’ve strived for with the team. A solution orientation is vital in a startup when everything can be seen as an insurmountable stack of challenges you need to get through. Making a decision and overcoming an obstacle creates confidence in the team.
I think I’m very empathetic towards the team’s needs, and I believe in celebrating milestones. Opening a bottle of Champagne to mark our first customer was almost as important to me as the acquisition of Humio. It’s important to feel we’re all part of building the company, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to build a purpose-driven organisation.
Of course, many people in startups are driven by some financial interest, but they’re mainly driven by something bigger. They’re interested in changing the world somehow, so there has to be purpose, vision, and a reason why people work so hard. Rewards like a small gift, or sharing a cake and each other’s company help people feel they’ve reached a milestone and are ready to tackle the next one.
The author Daniel Pink writes about aligning organisations around purpose. I’d definitely recommend that. Everyone in a startup has to be a little more creative or innovative than in a bigger organisation. As a leader, it’s important to share ideas on what inspires teams.
The bigger vision and some of the things you do to keep the team together, engaged, and motivated require you to ensure you’re in a good place yourself. What are some of the things you’ve implemented to help you deal with the demands of the job?
You need a good support network. I worked hard to build one and would recommend any CEO or founder does the same.
Being a founder is a lonely place – there are very few people who have done the same things as you or faced the same challenges.
I couldn’t have gotten through some of the challenging times without conversations and support from you and the team. The board’s been wonderful in terms of looking at things in a different light, or giving new feedback. Accel has created a lot of connections that have been tremendously helpful and valuable for us. It makes me realise it’s very doable and that, in general, people do want to help.
You build friendships through this as well – Amit’s been an amazing advisor, for example. He and others in my circle of friends and CEOs I’ve met along the way are what I call my “personal board”. Sometimes you need someone to talk to about a challenge you’re facing. It may be other founders, or people from other disciplines that really understand a particular market, or something you’re researching. It’s not like mentoring, where there’s a hierarchy. This is more of an exchange of ideas. It’s a two-way relationship. Someone on the personal board might ask for my thoughts on areas they’re interested in.
It’s the job of the founder or CEO to actively look for someone to exchange ideas with. I’m constantly thinking about the next two or three years, about ideas that will eventually turn into something. If you sit on your laurels, someone will quickly overtake you. You need to experiment and discuss your thoughts.
There’s a lot of advice out there about the entrepreneurial journey. Do you feel there are any topics that should be discussed more openly? Anything you wish you’d known sooner?
At the start, a lot of people asked me what I thought I was doing starting Humio, how I set up my goals, if I was going to exit, whether we’d IPO, where we were taking the company. We didn’t focus on these things. We just had this idea and, perhaps naively, wanted to get everyone to use Humio that could get value from it.
But I’m glad we had that naïve mentality. Instead of thinking “I have five years to get an IPO”, it allowed us to explore different paths. So don’t lose sight of the original spark, and don’t look too far ahead. Just make sure that what you’re doing right now is important. Value that and get to the next day, and the next, and the one after that. Yes, you have to do a lot of forecasting, but there’s something about taking things as they come – it’s part of the fun of being a startup.
I’d say I probably didn’t appreciate that there’s a really personal side to starting a company. You’re embedded in the startup – it becomes a part of you, and part of your life – it’s most of what you do, it’s what keeps you awake at night. There’s a lot to think about in terms of what it means for you and your family.
There’s a lot of talk about women in leadership positions and CEO roles and how family situations can make it possible for women to run organisations. It’s all possible, you just have to be really aware that it will come up as an issue at some point - balancing everything. I’ve seen this, as a CEO, and it can be a deterrent – it may seem overwhelming for a woman, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. And I think there’s tremendous support in the industry for women CEOs right now. We should be doing more to help women feel that it’s definitely possible – there are ways to make it work.
Read our Secrets to Scaling interviews with:
- Zepz' (formerly World Remit Group) Ismail Ahmed here
- Snyk's Guy Podjarny here
- Personio's Hanno Renner here
- Chainalysis' Michael Gronager here
- BlaBlaCar's Nicolas Brusson here
- Supercell's Ilkka Paananen here
- Miro's Andrey Khusid here
- Trade Republic’s Christian Hecker here