Diane Greene's Advice for Founders

by Y Combinator8/8/2017

Diane Greene is SVP of Google Cloud and she was also the CEO and cofounder of VMware.

This is her talk from the 2017 Female Founders Conference.


Jessica Livingston – I’m here to introduce our next speaker, who’s one of my just favorite people, Diane Greene. I’m sure you know her so she needs no introduction but she’s the chief of Google’s cloud businesses. And prior to that, amongst many of the things she did, she was the Founder and CEO of VMware. She’s going to come out and say a few word then I’m going to come out and join her and do some Q&A for her talk. So please welcome Diane.

Diane Greene – Hi. I was trying to figure out what to do, because I like to read my notes, and the lectern was too high for my five-foot-one self. It’s just such a total pleasure for me to be here with more than 800 female founders from all over the world.

Some of you are probably starting your careers and many of you are in the early stages of developing your companies, and I think it’s incredibly exciting. There’s so much possibility sitting in this room, this one auditorium. Imagine all the interesting challenges that you’re going to surmount and all that you’re going to be required to navigate.

A little bit about myself. I’ve been a co-founder and CEO of three startups. And the first was Vxtreme in 1995, where we developed a low bandwidth streaming, video technology. We could stream sort of postage-sized videos across the internet. We sold this to Microsoft in 1997 for 75 million, and that became the basis of Microsoft’s Movie Player.

My second startup was VMware. With that we launched the virtualization revolution. And we founded that in 1998, and we took it public in 2007, and the market cap closed that day at $19.1 billion.

My last startup to date was Bebop which was founded in 2013, and then we sold it to Google in 2015 for 380 million. And I committed my portion of the proceeds to a non-profit through a donor advice fund.

Before these startups I built inside of larger companies. At Sybase, the first tech company I worked at, before that I was a naval architect, I developed asynchronous input/output software to make the database run faster and actually we were able to beat Oracle and Ingres and all the other database companies at the benchmarks. That was cool. And then I went to Tandem. They actually fired my boss, who was a woman and it was a mistake. She was running engineering and I went to Tandem with her. There I helped create a hybrid architecture to run an open UNIX-spaced world, where Tandem had the best transaction processing system in the world, but it was proprietary.

Then at SGI, I developed streaming video solutions. That was part of the Time Warner interactive television project, which was actually a precursor to the the World Wide Web, and a lot of people in that group went out to start companies. Netscape was one of the companies. Lot of companies started out of that.

Then as a tech investor, I’ve advised and put seed money into a lot of startups. That includes two companies that are now public: Cloudera and Pure Storage. And also Unity Technologies, which is the gaming developer platform and several others. Unfortunately, my schedule’s now such that I no longer have the time to provide seed money or advice to startups. Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, and I’m going to now look back and attempt to identify and share them with you.

My first lessons were at a very young age. My mother was the latest in a pretty strong, principled, Midwestern school-teacher lineage. My father was a brilliant, hard driving engineer, and entrepreneur. I was the second youngest in my family, a little girl in a crowd of very competitive and dominating brothers. We lived on a creek that fed into the Chesapeake Bay.

My father conveyed his love of the water to me and I soon found myself taking off on long sails in my little sailing dinghy and this was formative. I suddenly was in charge of a boat and on my own facing, overcoming the challenges that the sea would present to me.

Later on, I would race bigger boats and windsurfers. I won the women’s national dinghy sailing championships. I raced long distance to Bermuda and down both of America’s coasts, and I windsurfed across the open ocean from Maui to Molokai, and back. It’s actually an amazing story, but I’m not going to go into it.

More than anything, I think my connection to the sea has really helped me develop my independence and a sense of importance and value of my own vision. And to sail successfully, you need to observe with great care. You need to identify what the wind and the water are telling you and then find a way to execute, to reach whatever goal you’ve set, be that simply making it home or winning a race.

Building a company is so much like racing a sailboat. You need a plan and then the ability to reevaluate the plan in real time as new information is acquired. Suddenly, the wind changes or competitors are stronger than you thought they’d be. Each mark in the race is a milestone where you need to look up and evaluate what you’re doing, how you’re doing. When you campaign a sailboat, you need to be in the moment. You need to let go of your self-doubt, and yet you can’t lose the ability to question your decisions. Most of all, when it’s time to make a decision, a competitor’s come upon you or the wind shifted, you make it. The race won’t wait for you. And finally when you race a sailboat, the selection of your crew is just completely paramount. It’s impossible to be an effective skipper if you don’t have the right people working harmoniously in the right roles.

So what does this all mean in terms when founding or running your company? At Vextreme, I learned that the founders need to be solidly aligned and that a startup maybe has a better chance of success when the number of founders is limited. Too many cooks can spoil the broth. Most of all, I learned that no one is indispensable, and it’s essential to get the right mix of people, talents, and personalities.

VMware was really the beginning of an industry revolution. From that I learned what it takes to induce the market to accept a profound innovation. It’s essential to design and market a major innovation in a way that makes its adoption non-disruptive. That makes it easy to integrate with an established order, an established way of doing things, even if the innovation ultimately supplants that order. So, for example, one of the things that made our sales take off was we built a tool that would take a workload running in a physical machine and just magically put it in a virtual machine and everything just ran the same. And that was a phenomenal sales tool for us.

At VMware, I also was reminded not to let the setbacks make you stop thinking. If a puzzle can’t be solved one way, there’s always another. It’s just a matter of navigation. We were really disappointed when we learned that VMware would not be able to sell through IBM due to IP issues. But then we turned it into advantage where we were able to work with IBM to enlist all of their star re-sellers to take us to market. Finally, at VMware, I learned how essential it is to create the right corporate culture. We worked hard to foster a sense of the importance of each and every person and also what their role was in the furtherance of the company’s objectives, and to create an open culture that would make it easy for people to communicate, collaborate and share ideas. And indeed, we designed our corporate campus with exactly these goals in mind.

Bebop also provided an interesting set of lessons. I think it may be my last startup, but you really learn every time. My original cofounder didn’t stay with the company, and I was, at first, sort of a bit out of my element. We were attempting to reinvent how enterprise applications are built so they’d be simple to use and more effective in attaining their objectives. But the basic look and feel, the design of our first attempts, was just off. We persevered, and Bebop became a powerhouse for design thinking and for tools to build enterprise applications. Tenaciousness really pays off.

And now, finally, as Head of Google Cloud, I’m learning that it’s possible to build an enterprise startup inside a mega company. Once again, the cultures of both the parent and the in-house startup are crucial. We’re a pretty big startup. Yeah, we serve seven apps at whatever billion active users. We’re big but once again, it is all about having the right people in the right roles. And finally, it’s about never taking your eye off creating value for customers and partners.

The bottom line in sailing a boat or building a company is that you give it your all. You give it your all, not because you’re supposed to, not because that’s what makes you win, but because you have respect for your goal and you enjoy the process. As a company founder, enjoy building things. Enjoy creating value. And the commitment that comes from loving what you do is what will nourish you. It will satisfy you and will make you unafraid of failure. You may lose this race, or that one, but sailing ahead with everything you have will still be a pleasure. You may make a fortune, but the fortune will be incidental. If your goals are worthy, it’s the process that will count, and that understanding will be your greatest source of strength no matter what the adversity.


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