Paul Ford, vice-president of ecosystem development at SoftLayer Technologies, which was recently taken over by technology giant IBM, speaks about his entrepreneurial journey so far and the experience he has gained as co-founder of SoftLayer’s Catalyst global startup incubator program. Among the startups admitted into the program, a few are Romanian. Ford was a speaker at How to Web regional technology event.
By Otilia Haraga
You are currently VP of ecosystem development at SoftLayer. What exactly do you do?
What I did over the last three years was create our startup program, Catalyst. We built our business on early-stage developers, very scalable early stage companies like Tumblr and Dropbox. Firstly, we give startups credit on our infrastructure for a year. Secondly, we help them with the technology. Thirdly, we help them with some marketing. We do all three things at the same time; we take a very holistic approach. We have helped about 1,000 companies from across Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Australia. We even have several startups from Romania in the program. Part of our team is based in Amsterdam so they are down here all the time.
What are the most important entrepreneurial hubs in Europe right now?
Well, it’s an evolutionary process. When people think of Europe, startups and the tech scene, they think of London. But the London tech scene took five years to get to where it is and it’s still a year and a half or so behind what’s going on in the US. And in Germany, in Berlin, what’s happening is really cool now, but it’s pretty recent as well. The French startup scene is just really coming into its own. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the Nordic cities such as Helsinki, in Tallinn (Estonia), and parts of Russia.
The next wave, I think, is this part of the world – Romania and Southern and Eastern Europe have been such a hub for outsourcing for a long time. There are great coders here, and have been for a long time. But what we have seen happening over time is that the same coders think, “Hey, why do I need to work for an outsourcing company? I can make my own technology and create something here, whether it’s for the Romanian economy or globally.” It can be anywhere these days. We really started looking at this area around this time last year, and we’ve just seen it grow and evolve. Romania particularly has gotten to the point, over the past six months, where we are investing time and money to really be part of the scene. Early on, I saw a lot of cool stuff in the gaming space in Romania. But now we’re seeing more application-type of things happening, gateway systems, a security-type environment. All of the same stuff that is happening everywhere else is really starting to come into its own here in Romania.
What has changed at SoftLayer since it was sold to IBM?
Strangely, not much. You never know what’s going to happen when an acquisition like this takes place, but the transition team from IBM has been amazing to work with. It’s still early; we officially become part of the IBM family in January.
Would you consider doing something else?
I’m happy doing what I’m doing right now because IBM puts us in another league.
At SoftLayer, we have 13 data centers, 11 in the US, one in Amsterdam and one in Singapore. I believe we have up to 23,000 customer companies and we are hosting something like 200,000 domains.
SoftLayer has no contracts. We have companies on SoftLayer that spend millions of dollars a month with us and we have no contract. We believe we have to earn their business every single day, because early on we had to bootstrap SoftLayer.
No one believed we could do what we said we would do, and it was very difficult to get funding. So the ten founders bootstrapped the company, because they believed in what they were doing. Because of that, we had to be very focused on customers, investing every dollar back into what we were trying to build. Early on, when they decided to form the company, they could not get the investments, so we used friends and family’s money, credit cards, family’s mortgaged houses, just to get this thing going. I don’t think the founders got a paycheck for over a year. Failure was never an option for us.