I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down this week with Omer Har. Omer is the CTO of Explorium which he co-founded in 2018 with Maor Shlomo as CEO and Or Tamir as COO. These three Israeli tech entrepreneurs saw the struggle enterprises were experiencing acquiring and onboarding the right external datasets to make key business decisions. They founded Explorium to solve this problem by automatically discovering, connecting, and matching internal data with thousands of relevant external data signals so that enterprises can quickly find and access the right external data.
I asked Omer whether he always intended to found a company and how it happened.
“It was definitely something I wanted to do. I actually worked at Microsoft for a number of years including five years as a researcher in Cambridge in the UK which were some of the best years of my life. After that I joined the team that became ironSource which is a fascinating company. They have 11 founders because the company bought a bunch of startups and created an extremely strong C-level team of all those founders.
I learned a lot from all those guys and when the time came to leave ironSource I was really looking for partners and good ideas to get something started. It was definitely more luck than brains at this point and the stars aligned around me way more than me calculating my way into a successful idea and then a successful startup.”
I feel like Omer is being modest here. My experience of successful startups suggests that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I wanted to hear more about how he “lucked” into the successful idea that became Explorium.
“The idea that struck me as a brilliant concept was something that my CEO, Maor, suggested and then we looked at from different angles. It was the idea that most data practitioners are not using external data in the way they should. We asked the question why companies that are investing heavily in their data science practice are not using external data in the ways they should, even relatively simple things like demographic data.
The answer we found was that the barrier for entry, buying and selling data and using it in production was a problem for these companies. That’s where everything started for Explorium. This problem felt like a big enough challenge for the three of us to try to tackle and so we decided to take it on.
Once we started, we had a hectic couple of years. We started when other data science companies were talking about the AI revolution. That was the dominant idea so we tried to follow a similar pattern but adding data on top. It was like ML or AutoML plus data.
After working on that idea and building it with many customers, we began to understand that what the customers were really interested in was not ML or even the advanced AutoML capabilities, but rather the data. We saw that if you can deliver good external data in a way that makes it easy for them to use in production, that is more valuable to the enterprise than very complicated algorithms to create machine learning models.
This was a real turning point for us as we pivoted from a data science platform with data, to an external data platform with some data science.”
It seems every successful startup has a great pivot story and clearly Explorium is no exception. Smart companies listen to their customers and pay attention to what their users are doing. If that demands a change of focus or another kind of product course correction, then you need to be humble enough and nimble enough to make the necessary changes.
One of the biggest challenges for any startup, especially one based in a highly competitive startup ecosystem like Israel is hiring. I asked Omer what it was like building out the team at Explorium.
“By far the most important job any founders have is to find the right people. We have built an incredible team at Explorium but we also had our share of difficulties and even missed opportunities.
You have to trust your gut. In many cases you don’t have a lot of time to invest in any specific role. As founder and CTO, I probably hired a couple of hundred people across different positions in the past five years.
There is a saying that you should hire fast and fire faster, and that’s something I try to follow. It’s important to keep a functioning team intact as much as possible, but if something is not working, you have to let it go with all the respect and the elegance you can muster. Today we have around 180 employees in Explorium and this fantastic team that we’ve built is one of the things I’m most proud of.”
I really admire the thoughtfulness Omer brings to the challenges of hiring and determining whether each new hire is the right fit for his company. I wondered if he could drill down further and talk about whether there were differences at each stage of a company’s journey.
“I know that a lot of podcast and entrepreneur interviews attempt to break down the different growth stages for a startup, but I haven’t experienced it as a discrete process. It’s more like a continuous process where you are always evolving. That doesn’t mean all the organizations within the company evolve together. For example, sales may be at the forefront because they are customer facing, so it’s not uniform, but the change is continuous, and you have to be willing to adapt even while you keep one eye always on your North Star.
One thing I want to emphasize is how important it is to be kind to yourself. You will make plenty of mistakes and you mustn’t punish yourself when you do.”
That’s sound advice for all founders and something I’m hearing more and more from people who are living and breathing the startup world every day. I’m glad people are talking about the personal strain of building a company and managing a large number of people as well as the professional challenges.
I wondered how that had played out for Omer and how his role in the company as CTO had evolved over time.
“When we started, I spent most of my day writing code. Then I moved over to managing the team so that the more we grew, the less hands on I was. Then we brought in a VP R&D to handle that, and I began to wonder if I was adding any value at all to the interactions between the VP R&D and the CEO.
Today I find myself handling strategic accounts and working mainly with the sales team on presales and sales engineering. I would never have expected that four or five years ago, but I find now that there are so many aspects of the business that I can learn from and contribute to beyond the technology itself, even though I started as a technology person.”
It’s a familiar feeling that I can relate to going back to my own days as an entrepreneur. As you move over to managing a business your perspective broadens and you become cognizant of factors you had never considered that contribute to every business decision.
I think it’s one of the reasons that we meet serial entrepreneurs. Once you start to view a business in dimensions that you hadn’t appreciated, you want to come back and keep applying what you’ve learned in new situations.
“I have a good friend that founded his company roughly the same time that we started Explorium. He’s taking this journey by himself, and he talks about the profound impact it is having on him. He now defines his profession as entrepreneur because this has become his learned skillset – how to build a company. This is something that you can become an expert in.”
It’s been just 12 months since Explorium announced a Series C funding round of $75M, so Omer knows a thing or two about growing a successful startup. I believe we’ll be hearing more about the team at Explorium as they continue to deliver value to their impressive pool of enterprise customers.
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