What happens when a hipster, a hustler, and a hacker come together to build a better way to process and serve up geospatial data? Ellipsis Drive has the answer, as we learn in this week’s Founder to Founder episode. Teja sits down with Rosalie van der Maas, CEO and Co-founder of the company, to talk about building a business, working around the globe, and how sometimes you need to take a bad idea and iterate enough to find the good in it.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
Yo, what’s up y’all? Today we have a cool podcast with CEO of Ellipsis Drive, Rosalie van der Maas, and she’s calling in from the Netherlands. We have a fun conversation just about what running a company is like in Europe, about what it’s like running a business, basically, with her brother and another co-founder of hers, and we get into her customers, how she deals with investors, how she scaled the team. Very interesting conversation with a fantastic CEO. Learned a lot and confident you guys will too. Alright. See you guys on the other side. (THE FRONTIER THEME ENDS)
There’s a big kickboxing tradition in the Netherlands. Is that how you view it?
No, definitely not. I mean, I lived abroad for a while, and, as you do, you get the chance to get to know your own culture, because sometimes people feel like they “don’t have one”, quote/unquote. It’s not true at all. It’s usually when you’re outside of your own context, you start to notice that the culture is usually like, very, very much ingrained into who you are and, yeah, who you are as a nation. But yeah, no, in general, I look at the Netherlands, and I see like, a small country with way too many people having like, nitty gritty rules for everything, but that do manage to live together very nicely, regardless. So it’s like, you know, with the Norwegians and the Swedes that are like, sort of historically known for being Vikings, but are now just all Goodie Two-shoes, I think the Netherlands is somewhat similar.
That’s an insane marketing coup by the Nordic peoples. Like, how did they like, rebrand themselves as Vikings? I feel like that’s a recent thing, right? In the last 30 years, I don’t know if like, two generations ago, people thought of them as Vikings? I mean, I dunno, what’s your impression of that?
I think it’s Hollywood <laugh> (Teja: <Laugh>. Yeah.) that just projected that onto them. Like, I know that like, whenever you visit Denmark or Norway, you’ll stumble across like, a Viking museum within five minutes of exiting the airport. So it’s very much like, you know, ingrained into their minds. And for the Netherlands, you’ll run into museums that, you know, tell the history of, you know, shipping mostly. (Teja: <Laugh>.) Yeah <laugh>. Well, there’s been a lot of, you know, like, colonizing back in the like, what we used to call the “golden age”, like in the 1900s. So yeah, it’s just part of history. You stumble on it as soon as you enter a country.
Yeah, I mean, every dominant civilization and culture colonizes. I mean, that’s a human tradition, right? You wanna expand the empire. I mean, okay, so, the Netherlands’ people are seafaring people? I mean, you mentioned sailing (Rosalie: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and a tradition of shipping. Is that the case? I had never, I didn’t put two and two together there.
Yeah, very much so. It’s definitely a seafaring country. Like if you look at history, you sort of see that, you know, in terms of colonization and like, it’s part of history, so you might as well talk about it. But in terms of colonization, you see that, (Teja: Yeah.) you know, the Spanish used to be first. They sailed to the Indies and started like, creating colonies there. Then the Dutch basically took over, because we were very pragmatic. Like, the Spanish wants to take these lands by force, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) and the Dutch were like, “Well, you know, just do whatever as long as you trade with us,” and that was like, you know, a better way of going about it. And then the British came, and they again overtook the Netherlands, or the Dutch more like, ’cause the Netherlands didn’t really exist in the 16th century.
It was more of like, you know, city states and the like. (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) And then the Netherlands or the Dutch basically held onto Indonesia and the number of their colonies for a good while and then actually way too long. And yeah, so that’s sort of the history of it. But yeah, definitely a lot of seafaring going on, you know, it ages, or it goes back to like, the age where Dutch painters are known for like, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. They’re all from that same, you know, 16th century, 17th century era.
Is the Dutch national identity strong? Like, is there a strong sort of like, Dutch identity, or do people identify as mostly European?
Hmm, good question. I feel like if you ask Dutch people on the street, they’ll find that they don’t have a strong identity, but as I mentioned before, like, as soon as you move outside of your own country, you notice that you very much do. So I think it’s more ignorance and some level of not really reflecting on who you are and how you relate to the people around you. I definitely do know that looking at yourself as a European is a Dutch thing, so people always consider themselves Dutch and European or an EU citizen, (Teja: Ah.) as a small country. Yeah, it is very important to have those like, international relationships, and we’re very much Europe-focused.
Yeah, no, I mean, it’s a really like, strong point, ’cause I remember, I used to live in China. I lived in China for like, a couple years and, coming back from China, I felt more American, because like, when I lived there, I realized like, how much of the other I was, you know, and how foreign like, the culture was to me, personally. Yeah, that’s interesting. I think travel does like, it just creates like, a nice contrast.
I think it’s funny, ’cause I’ve lived in the U.S. for a while. I have American colleagues, and I have a bunch of American friends, and for them, it’s a very common thing to say like, “Yeah, America, we lack a culture. Like, there’s a bit of everything, but we don’t really have an American culture.” And it’s like, that’s so not true. (Teja: <Laugh>.) The American culture is so strong, (Teja: Yeah.) and it may not have like, centuries of history behind it, or millennia of history I should say, ‘cause it definitely has centuries of history behind it, but like, it is very strong, and it’s very visible to anyone who’s been out of that context for a while. But it’s also a privilege to get to be (Teja: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) out of that context. So it’s not me judging, it’s just observing. I think it’s funny.
No, it is true. Why do you think Americans do that?
I think actually one of the reasons that I think that happens is because there is a strong, you know, history of migration. (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) So there’s always this feel of like, “Yeah, where are my roots? Where did I originally come from? What’s my migration background?” That makes people curious, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) and that makes them start to dig in and see, well, where they came from and who their people are. And that may also make them long for something that is like, this consumable bit of culture based on, you know, (Teja: Yes.) where their family hails from, and that may also make ’em feel (Teja: Yes.) like they don’t currently have one, whilst that’s not true at all. And like, the funny thing is that I don’t even know the name of my great-grandfather. I have no clue <laugh> where my family is from, but I’ve never had this sort of identity crisis, that I wonder like, yeah, where am I from? It’s like, doesn’t really matter, does it? But if your country has such a strong migration history in which this narrative is very much carried by the current populations and still the migration stories that are going on, I feel it’s much more present, and you may sort of long for something that you think you’re missing, or else you’re actually not really missing it. But yeah, it’s again, a perception thing.
The U.S. is a country that’s like, built on immigration, you know, and it’s interesting. Like, in the early days, you could trace like, all the English folks. They stayed in, I guess what’s now called New England, and then all Scotch-Irish went down to the south of the U.S., where we’re headquartered, and you, I mean you see it in the sort of whiskey making tradition down here, right, which is just interesting. So yeah, it’s also wild being like, a first-generation, non-Anglo immigrant (Rosalie: Mmm <affirmative>.) and still considering yourself American. You know, that, I think, maybe not so much, but has been like, a uniquely American thing, you know, maybe for 50 years or so. So cool. Ok, let’s get to business, ‘cause I wanna know about your company and maybe a little bit about yourself for the audience. The audience is mostly technical.
Yeah. So then I’m going to start off disappointing, ’cause I’m actually the least technical person out of our group of co-founders. I’m the CEO and is such the least technical person there, so apologies for that. But luckily (Teja: Nah, it’s all good.) I have two co-founders <laugh>, and I’ll talk about them for a bit as well, (Teja: <Laugh>.) but my own academic background is actually within environmental sciences and earth sciences. I set out to basically try and understand system Earth. I was interested in everything from the soil, to the waters, to the skies, and like, the biome that’s in and all between, but then I realized that in order to understand system Earth, you actually also really need to understand people. We have a huge impact on the earth, as we all know. So I started to divulge into more social sciences, like international politics, innovation studies, international development, et cetera, and it’s been a great eye-opener for me, actually. This was during my masters, and with that, I felt like, okay, I sort of achieved the goal that I had at the start of my study, is to better understand like, the world we live in, both the physical part of it and then the social part of it.
But the moment I actually fell in love with the idea of entrepreneurship was when I lived in Chicago. I worked for the Dutch Consulate there, and I was tasked with mapping out the startup ecosystem there, which is pretty great. It’s a really good spot to be a startup in. So I needed to map that out, needed to understand it, see how we could build bridges between the U.S. and the Netherlands, and that’s where I realized that I didn’t want to work for government, whatsoever, and will never again. Even though, you know <laugh>, they’re all great people. I wanted to be one of those startups. I thought, “Yeah, this is what I want to do. This is great.” but I didn’t really do a techy study, did I? So I phoned up my brother, who [is] a mathematical physicist, from his academic background, and turned that into, as many other people do, like, data science and data engineering skills in his early career.
And we also called in an old school friend of ours, Minghai, who’s our third co-founder, and he has done computer science and has been working as a developer for a while. So I figured, between the three of us, we had like, the hipster, and the hustler, and the hacker, (Teja: <Laugh>.) and we had like, you know what you need for a startup. And we got started basically going through a whole bunch of very bad ideas, and then they became increasingly less bad, and at some point we were like, “Yeah, this is good enough. This is something that we can kick off with, so let’s incorporate a company and try to make this happen.” And that’s when we just got started with the three of us, back in 2018, under the name Ellipses Earth Intelligence, which wasn’t Ellipses Drive, but the name’s already in there, so we’re somewhat close. And yeah, we went from there. But that’s how we got started.
Is that a Paul Graham reference? “Hipster, hacker and hustler”?
Yeah, it’s from somewhere. I definitely didn’t make that up myself, but it came to me in the moment.
Yeah, ’cause I feel like I remember reading that in like, [an] essay by the dude who founded Y Combinator, but that’s a cool designation.
It’s entirely possible that it came from him, yeah. Credit where credit’s due.
Yeah. It’s cool. I love the framing. So, okay, so who’s the…you’re the hustler, I presume? (Rosalie: Yeah.) Is that accurate? (Rosalie: Yeah, yes.) Okay, nice.
Yes, it is, and I guess between my brother Daniel and Minghai, it’s mostly Daniel who’s the hipster, and he’s basically (Teja: <Laugh>.) the thought-father of the product that we’ve built. Like, it primarily came out of his brain. And then Minghai is the hacker, as the guy who actually built it, without whom it would’ve all just like, you know, tumbled like a card house. So yeah, it’s been a ride.
That’s cool. Okay. What’s the Dutch conception of a hipster? ‘Cause there’s like, we have the Brooklyn hipster. You know, is that the same like, in your mind?
I mean, yeah, you’ve been to Amsterdam, so as soon as you start (Teja: <Laugh>.) walking the streets here, you know, it’s pretty in your face, you know, in the dress, the music that they listen to, the coffee houses that are frequented. But I mean, in startup terms, it’s of course mostly about, at least in the way that I understand it, mostly about like, being right there on the edge of what’s trending like, trend-watching, knowing where things are going. And I’m definitely not that hip, but when it comes to technology, we’re better at it <laugh>. Like, we all come to work in our company t-shirts and try not to worry too much about the way we look, but, when in the tech industry, we’re doing well.
I had a guy once a long time ago like, tell me that I needed to wear a suit to be taken seriously. Like, this is the very early days of the company, and you can see also how I dress. I don’t really have suits, and so yeah. It’s interesting. Like, I really do appreciate the performance-oriented culture of our industry, where you can kind of just dress for comfort and execute. That’s cool. (Rosalie: Yeah.) Cool, okay, how’s it like working with your brother, leading him? You know, is that…?
Yeah, so it’s been great actually. We’ve been asked this question from very early on, (Teja: I bet.) and in the very early days, people always saw it as like, a liability. But by now we’ve been working together so long that people realize it’s actually a very stable thing, and it is, and we knew that when we got started. Like, my brother and I, we differ like, two, three years in age, but we’ve basically done like, any project in our childhood together. Like, we were very good as kids. So we know that we can rely on each other. We know we’re both like, smart people, and I know that, you know, if I ask him to do something, he’ll do whatever. And for me, it’s the same, same goes from Minghai, by the way. Like, he’s an incredibly like, great teammate, very reliable guy that I trust with my life.
So that makes it easy. And well, in terms of like, leading him, we all have our own corner in which we make decisions. Like, I don’t make like, highly technically oriented decisions. Like, I need to understand like, why is this decision being made, or what are our business interests, or what are our commercial interests? And then we talk about it, and then we find out what the best solution is. So there’s hardly any like, command that overrides someone else’s opinion. (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) Like, that doesn’t make any sense either. You very much consider everyone to have their own space, in which they’re the most knowledgeable person, so you’ll always defer to their opinion in those spaces. And oftentimes there is this interaction that allows you two to land on the right answer, and I think seeing as in the early days, but still to a degree right now, my brother and I basically had a joined product management role in which they’re like, okay, so which direction should the product develop into?
I had the most direct feedback from the market. He’s always been directly involved in supporting clients. He obviously knows every in and out of the product, so he knows what’s technically possible. He can set some boundaries like, “Yeah, I know that this would make it bloated,” so there’s always like, this string we’re pulling to the left and to the right, and because there’s so much trust, we know that it will end up, you know, in a happy middle. So yeah, no, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m very thankful that I get to do this with people I inherently trust. So yeah, it’s all good, I would say.
That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. And so how do your parents feel about you guys working together? I’m sure they’re stoked. Like, that’s such a cool story for them.
Yeah, they are. They’re very proud parents, very supportive parents too. But yeah, no, they quite love it, and when we got started, they as opposed to, you know, investors and then people who were around us, didn’t have any doubts that this would go (Teja: Yeah.) well, because they had so much experience with us doing like, arts and crafts projects and then that kind of stuff when we were kids, that they were perfectly comfortable.
That’s sweet. You seem like super knowledgeable about leadership and management. Like, how long have you guys been operating this business? Couple years?
A little longer, actually. I think we’re at about five years. (Teja: Wow.) But we started out as Ellipses Earth Intelligence, and we’ve done that for two years, and then we realized that we needed a strong pivot, because the concept that we had at the time like, didn’t cut it for like, a proper, highly-scalable startup. So we went to Ellipses Drive a couple years in, with almost a different business really. So yeah, Ellipses Drive has been around for three years.
That’s cool. I mean, similar to our story, we started basically as like, you know, we built our whole business on Google Sheets and like, you know, off the shelf SaaS products, and then we basically built our own platform a couple years in. And so similar story, really. What did you do before starting this company? You mentioned you used to work in government?
Yeah, so I held a couple of jobs. I basically started out like, we founded the company when I was still doing my master’s, which was a two year program that in the end took me three years, because I was doing this full-time, and I was just doing my master’s like, in the late evening hours and the weekends. But I always work next to my studies, so I did the job in government in Chicago for a while. I also organized like, live programs and panels and such in this very hipster place in Amsterdam that basically discusses like, all sorts of social affairs. I like to focus on tech and big data in society.
So those were like, the live like, sort of live journalism programs that I built back there. That was a lot of fun. I did that during my bachelor’s, and it held some other more startup related jobs in the meantime, mostly, you know, focusing on building ecosystem and such. But yeah, that’s when I realized I didn’t want to do the facilitating bid. I very much wanted to do it myself. But yeah, (Teja: Yeah, totally.) all in all, I’d say I started the business with, in aggregate like, two, three years of work experience. So, you know, not that much. Pretty green.
No, that’s so cool. Okay. So like, do you have like, advisors and mentors and all that? Like, how did you learn? Did you just learn by doing like, ‘cause I think it’s like, a non-intuitive position to be like, “Hey, I’m not gonna come in and control. I’m gonna just let people execute who are experts.” Like, it took me a long time to come to that realization. So I’m just curious (Rosalie: Hmm.) how you got there so quickly <laugh>.
When I found out I wanted to start the business, I was about to go into my masters, so during that time, you know, we cycled through all those ideas that with time became better and better. At the time, I also just took a bunch of like, entrepreneurial classes, which were great, because it basically meant that I could build my business while getting credits. And we enrolled ourselves into like, the university startup hub and accelerator program, which in some ways, that those can be kind of lame, but also, they’re also very, very helpful, because they give you a lot of tools and sometimes they’re a bit of open doors, but at the same time, sometimes you just need to hear those things and then it sticks somewhere in your head. You get to meet peers, you get to meet mentors, as you mentioned, and you have access to investor networks, which is very valuable, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) ‘cause actually every fundraising, every funding round that we did was off the back of closing out some sort of accelerator program.
So we got like, an early pre-seed round when I was still in university from that accelerator program that we did from a local angel here in the Netherlands, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) and then when we went through Techstars with the Ellipses Drive concept, we raised with Promise Ventures. It’s a U.S. based fund that has an office in Luxembourg as well. (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) And that was thanks to like, the acceleration, and the network, and the mentorship that you get there. So that was very helpful. That was like a helpful, you know, bit of direction. But in the end, it is definitely all about learning by doing. Just getting out there (Teja: Yeah.) and try things like, “feel fast” as they say. (Teja: Yeah.) But it’s nice to have like, the structure of you know, a program or the kindness of a peer network that is sort of there with you, even though, in the end, you gotta do it with your own team, and there’s no way around it. Like, no one’s gonna put in the work except for you. That’s also definitely something I’ve learned.
<Laugh>. Yeah. What have been some lessons that have taught you that?
I think whenever you talk to mentors, and board members, and advisory board members, and investors, and this is not to discredit them, but in the end, like, they can give you advice, they can give you intros, they can give you some templates, but in the end, like, you have to do the stuff that actually makes mountains move, and that’s, I think, important to realize. Like, if you come across an investor that says like, “Yeah, we’re highly active investors, and we’re gonna help you do all sorts of stuff, then I do believe that they think they mean it, but at the end of the day, you know, these things are also just up to the teams themselves. That’s just something you notice, and I noticed that, as I talk to other founders, they very much recognize this. Like, yeah, there can be an intent to be very active, and to some degree this can be true, but like, don’t ever think that anyone’s gonna pull as hard to make your business a success than yourself. Like, you always need to be in the driver’s seat.
That’s so true. I always feel like, that after an accelerator or like, a startup program, or even after like, a round, value has like, a J-curve. Like, it actually drops like, during and immediately after, ‘cause you just spend all your time raising, and talking, and now managing these relationships. And then like, a year or two later you’re like, “Ah, I’m actually really glad I did that, ‘cause now we’re seeing like, yield on the investment, you know? So yeah, it’s so true about their viewpoints too and their ability to help. How big is your team now, by the way?
We’re with 15 people, plus some people that are like, working remotely, spending like, part of their week working with us. So it’s a good crew of people.
Distributed all over the world, I assume?
We started out that way, because we were like, basically accelerating our growth during Covid. So I think we started out having like, a small, like, in-person, like, core of the team here in the Netherlands, so with the three co-founders and some very early employees were all on site, and then we started hiring pretty remote in that first like, year of Covid. But then we definitely did intend for them to slowly move towards the Netherlands, as well. At this point in time, there’s actually 12 of us here in the Netherlands, so the majority has become in person, as opposed to remote. So it’s been sort of an organic movement during Covid. Like, at some point, you know, you find yourself with more space to move your person, and you have more commitment from the people that are joining the team. You have more funds, you can move people over, you can arrange for visas, et cetera, et cetera. That’s a huge headache, by the way, but in the end it works out, (Teja: <Laugh>.) and yeah, now we have most of our people like, right here.
I think I already know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask anyway. What’s your take on like, Zoom meeting, versus an in-person meeting? What’s better for you?
I mean, I think, actually the answer very much depends on who you’re talking to. Like, I found (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) most of my seed investors, I haven’t met in person ever, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) and I don’t mind it. Like, it’s fine. Like, we are perfectly able to connect for our board meetings over calls. We have Slack, we have WhatsApp, we can call each other. However, when you’re working with your team, like internally, we find that you definitely do benefit from an in-person situation, because you become more creative with that. Like, we currently have like, a 50/50 in-office policy. (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) Like, everyone likes to be flexible, and a lot of people like working from home, but at the same time, you notice that it’s good to have a change of scenery, that it’s good to sort of be in office together and let things happen organically.
So I do find that important for like, our own internal team. Also, those who work remote, they have work that, you know, doesn’t quite like, it doesn’t really hurt if you do that remote, but at the same time, we still fly them in to join us for a week or so every once in a while. So for in-team internal dynamics, I do highly value, you know, face-to-face contact with clients. I love the fact that like, Covid was a thing, and we can just have calls, because it’s so much faster. You can just spend a ridiculous amount trying to see people in face-to-face (Teja: Yes.) and find that it’s not that useful. The exception being like, some industries are so archaic that face-to-face conversation is important for them, but then you can also like, I don’t know, is this really the space that we should focus on as a startup, if it’s that much behind? So yeah, with investors, I find it perfectly fine to primarily see people via Zoom, for example, or whatever calling mechanism you use. For the team, I highly value direct conversations in person, also because you can get to know each other, you can have dinner, you know, have fun. And then with clients, I really like that it’s becoming, has become commonplace to just, you know, work together via Zoom or whatever. Much more time efficient.
What’s more taxing for you? Like, a full day of in-person meetings or a full day of virtual meetings? Or are you an extrovert and find neither taxing?
I’m not that much of an extrovert. I can pretend to be <laugh>, (Teja: <Laugh>.) but I think I’m more of an introvert.
CEO’s curse <laugh>.
Yeah. I’m an undercover introvert. I like in-person meetings. I find in-person meetings less taxing, I think, but mostly because the virtual meetings are much more to the point. Like, I like to have my meetings for half an hour, because then you’re like, “Okay, we’re here to do this thing. Let’s get this thing done,” and seeing as we’re the startup, we’re usually the ones that are pushing for an agenda, (Teja: Yeah.) so you try to get something done within that half hour. Like, you’re in the spotlight, (Teja: Yeah.) you need to make sure shit happens, (Teja: Yeah.) so that’s intense. So then you sign off that call, and if you have another one in which you’re basically doing the same thing, it’s all very high-energy. Whereas, when you’re in person, there tends to be like, a bit of a slower pace to it.
Which, for that reason, I also don’t quite like. Like, it’s good to just, you know, focus on task, especially with clients, because then you’re there to reach a certain goal, you’re there to deliver, you know, some value. Whereas, with in-team meetings, I’m not always all about like, “Yeah guys, let’s have a very efficient meeting,” ’cause it’s not always about that, even though I’m also known to sort of be like, “Okay, guys, what exactly are we talking about here? Let’s get back to the point,” (Teja: <Laugh>.) but that’s not a hard rule. When it comes to, you know, team dynamics, it’s a bit different.
I love the like, fifteen or five minute like, Zoom call like, “Hey, what are we doing? Let’s do this. Cool. See ya,” type of thing. I’m a huge fan of that, and that’s why I love virtual. But yeah, if you have like, 30 minute increments for six hours in a day, that’s…It’s just an observation that I have, and I’m curious if you’ve seen this too, I think actually sometimes running a less efficient meeting and like, spending more time on like, the stuff that is actually like, functionally irrelevant to the task at hand, is the thing that like, lubricates the social relationship to ultimately make the agenda like, be executed easier. Do you feel like that? So, specifically, you’d be like, you spent thirty minutes talking about something, five minutes talking about the thing that you want, but the thirty minutes is what allows you to get the thing done in five minutes. (Rosalie: Hmm.) I dunno if you’ve had that same experience.
I’ve had that experience in some cases, yeah. So that you just noticed that a potential client, which is currently just a relation, is just happy to talk about like, some random stuff. (Teja: <Laugh>.) I usually find that this is the case with somewhat older people, (Teja: Yeah <laugh>.) that they’re just like, “Oh, you know, this and that,” and you’re like, “Oh, interesting. I’ve had this experience.” They just sort of go back and forth like that, and then there is like, (Teja: Yeah.) relationship being built and trust being built, and then it’s like, “Okay, well, we need to have an agreement on this or that. Can we move forward on this?” “Okay, yeah. Let’s pick that up.” So yeah, I’ve seen that happen. At the same time, I’ve seen those same times as types of meetings sort of just derail <laugh>, being like, (Teja: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Yes.) “This didn’t go too well.”
Yeah, so it can go either way. But in general, like, when I have a 30 minute meeting or a 20 minute meeting, like, I have an agenda. The way I push that agenda doesn’t always come apparent in like, a highly managed meeting. Sometimes indeed, like, just chatting and then getting to the point at the very end can be the point of that agenda. So like, yeah, just because I’m there with a purpose doesn’t mean that like, a relationship needs to feel rushed. (Teja: Yeah.) I think it’s the same for like, when startups visit events, like, in-person events, which I sometimes really don’t like, and in some cases they can be effective, but it can also be a huge waste of time. But startups tend to make it not a waste of time, because they go there and they’re like, “Okay, these are the people I want to talk to.”
“These are the investors I want to talk to. These are the points I want to make. This is my message during this panel, and then I’m out of there.” Whereas, a lot of like, audience just goes there and sees like, “Okay, I’m gonna go here and let myself be immersed in whatever I’m gonna see,” but every touchpoint that they’ll have with a startup is very much, you know, according to the agenda of that startup. So I think that’s also just the difference between, you know, corporates and startups (Teja: <Laugh>.) in meetings and in sort of their take on these in-person events. That can be a giant waste of time if you don’t make yourself, you know, have some sort of agenda or plan.
Yeah. That’s super interesting. How do you stay on task during like, a conference or like…there’s a funnel. The conference has an incentive to make you do certain things. How do you stay like, on point for your specific company’s agenda?
I have quite a strong opinion on all the events that we have these days, and one of the things that I’m always highly aware of is that you’re the product of the events, as in, the events are basically like, “preying on you”, I’m making air quotes for those who listen in Spotify, are basically preying on you to be there to spend money to, you know, fill their rooms. So I’m always like, hyper aware that, you know, they always want to create this feeling of like, FOMO, that if you’re not there, you’re gonna miss out on something, and I just think that’s a bunch of B.S. So I just care about who is there and how efficiently you can speak to people you’re looking to meet. And in the case that you have like, a strong event strategy within your sales. Like, for example, there are a number of companies who need to have a huge presence in these events, because they know that they’re well attended by their market, and they need to be very eye-catching.
Then it makes sense, and then it’s money well spent, but like, as soon as you forget that, you know, the event itself wants to make you feel like your time has been usefully spent, that’s when you start making mistakes, because they want you to feel that way. They want you to feel like you’re missing out if you’re (Teja: Oh yeah.) not actually there. It’s just so important to realize why you’re going, what your goal is, because just hanging around at an event like that is just pretty pointless, and that’s where they get you <laugh>.
I find it so disruptive to my rhythm. Like, you go there, you eat shitty food, drink, and like, you don’t sleep on time or work out. Like, I hate events and like, our fund keeps pushing me like, “You should go to more events,” and I’m like, “Please, I’ll do it if you think it’s a good idea,” but I tend to not think so. (Rosalie: Yeah.) But I’m always impressed when people go to events and get value. I’m like, how the fuck is that possible <laugh>?
Yeah. I think I’m there with you. And the experiences I had is like, yeah, if I look critically at what’s been achieved, and how this time could have been spent better to achieve something very similar, if not more, then it’s just mostly disruptive. Now you get back, and your email’s overflowing, and you need to get back into your sleep rhythm, and like, nobody likes to work on an airplane. It’s like, ugh.
I don’t know. I have to think more about it, ‘cause like, certainly, a lot of executives spend their time like, traveling and going to events and stuff, and I’m like, these people are successful, so there has to be something I’m not seeing, you know? I don’t know. Maybe it’s like, ultimately, if you can set up a way, where the operations are running without your input, then it is actually very leveraged to go and build long-term relationships, that you can enhance to like, you know, a potential sales team or revenue team to actually work.
Yeah. I feel like it’s useful after a certain point in scaling. Like, I think you would have to be well within like, your series funding rounds, before something like this isn’t a waste of money and time, or time and money, in that particular order, I would say. And once, as a CEO, for example, you know, like, 10% of the people that you’ll be seeing at that event. Like I’ve been to events, because I’ve been invited as a speaker, where I see other people who are just like, “Oh, there you are. Like, when do we see each other again?” They’ve just been sort of conversing at these types of events for 10 years, and then that’s valuable, (Teja: <Laugh>.) but it’s something that you need to grow into as a person, but also as a company. So I think it’s (Teja: Yeah.) highly dependent on where you are, and as such as a relatively early stage startup that hasn’t reached like, Series B, for example, yet, I think it’s very easy to get caught up in thinking it’s valuable, whereas you’re just wasting your time and money. And that doesn’t mean that everyone there is wasting their time and money; they’re just not you.
So I guess most of your business is done then, I guess, talking to the clients remotely, right? You guys are able to generate pipe and all that stuff totally remotely? That’s cool. So who are some of your customers?
So we have…
Not by name. You don’t have to name them. Just…by archetype.
By archetype, (Teja: Okay, yeah <laugh>.) which is more interesting anyway, because you just need to happen to know these businesses, and it’s likely that most listeners don’t happen to know them. But yeah, so we started out within the new space and earth observation space. So in that corner, we have a lot of spatial data analytics companies that take in raw spatial data like, a point cloud, or a satellite image, or a drone image, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) or building footprint information, you name it. Take all that information, push it through an analytics pipeline, and push out certain information products. That’s a good chunk of our user base, and we have good synergy with them, because we’re a spatial data management solution. So yeah, you can make it really simple. Like, we all know that a data scientist spends about 80% of their time wrangling data into shape and then 20% of their time making value.
The same goes with spatial data. So if you can help spatial data analytics companies automate their data ingestion management and integration process, which is all overhead so that they can focus their time and money on, or rather time and expertise, on creating good analytics, and you have a good, you know, cooperation running there. So there’s a bunch in that corner. We also have some government users, and these government users also need to match spatial data. And their primary use case is exposing spatial data sets to the public. I’ll name like, the U.S. Geological Survey, who’s not a client of ours yet, but it’s a good example that most of the listeners will probably know. But where the U.S. has the U.S. Geological survey, you also have the Ordinance Survey in the UK, who is a client of ours, (Teja: Yeah.) or PDOK, within the Netherlands, who is also a client of ours.
They’re all like, they all own these national data sets that they need to expose to citizens to universities, to businesses to do their jobs with, and that’s also what we’re doing, because Ellipses Drive basically makes it very easy to dump like, ridiculously sized files into a data layer and have that properly exposed in a very interoperable way to end users. So it basically unburdens them from all the headache that comes along with, you know, properly exposing data sets to a large audience, So there’s government use cases. We also have use cases within the insurance space. Those are also related to the analytics space, because insurance, especially P&C insurance, so property and casualty insurance, needs a lot of data about, for example, climate risk, portfolio exposure, et cetera, et cetera.
So they’re always interested in like, fire hazards, earthquake hazards, climate hazards, like, all sorts of things that they need to use for modeling purposes. So there’s also a higher reliance on spatial data that needs to be managed somehow, and again, needs to feed into the processes of data scientists, and modelers, and underwriters, and claims specialists. So that’s another one. Then you also have the world of asset management. Obviously, when you manage assets that are distributed through space, you also need to manage the data about those. There’s some use cases in mobility,(Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) some in agriculture. Like, in the end, spatial data is huge, and it touches on a lot of different businesses. Civil engineering is another very important one that’s inherently spatial. But yeah, what they all have in common is that they use spatial data, either internally or for their clients, and that spatial data requires a spatial data management solution, and it’s really as simple as that.
So like, these are several different customer archetypes, and I bet that their needs at the product level are like, slightly different. Like, not so different, but slightly, you know? How do you think about like, you know, what cohort to prioritize, what to go after?
So you are right and wrong in saying like, they’ll all have like, a slightly different need. The biggest one we’ve noticed is that like, bigger enterprises, especially in insurance and real estate and finance, they need to have a solution deployed within their own network for security reasons. So we have now like, if you go to the website and like, get registered for an account with Ellipsis Drive to test things out, you’ll always end up with a public version in a cloud that we manage, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) but if you are an end user that prefers to use that system within their own network, we launch a private version on like, a single tenant. So that’s one of the differences that actually exists, and we’ve been recently prioritizing (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) making those private deployments easier, and easier, and easier, because monetization is a lot stronger.
Like, if you sell someone a private deployment, it’s quite easy to ask six figures on a yearly basis for that, whereas, if you basically give someone a few hundred gigabytes in storage like, the Dropbox way, the fee for that is usually like $300 to $500 per month, so more like $3k, so like, four figures a year. So there’s a huge difference there. Of course, the cycle for an enterprise deal is also much longer, but we found that at this point in our development, the inflection towards building towards like, a multimillion dollar revenue on a yearly basis will definitely be helped by these larger tickets that these enterprise deals bring in. So that’s how we’ve been prioritizing that, and within these enterprise deals we’ve been prioritizing insurance and real estate, because it is something that is relatively adjacent to the analytics customers that we’ve been servicing for a long time.
So we understand (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) the customer use case, and they’re good markets to be focusing on. The way in which you’re wrong though is, aside from that public and private difference, that is stark, so I’ll give you that, the way in which you are wrong about like, different clients needing different things, is that, the point of Ellipses Drive, its interoperability. So the idea is that we, as opposed to a lot of other companies out there, very much anticipate and respect the fact that spatial data users all have different preferences, and that we serve as all of them, because that’s the whole point. Being able to say like, “Hey, I’m this and that persona, and I like to use my spatial data via these endpoints.” Then we’re like, “Okay, great. So go ahead, use the endpoint, and your colleague, who’s a different persona, or your client who’s, again, a different persona, can use the data via the endpoints that make sense for them.”
So because the interoperability is so baked into the value proposition, we don’t have much problem sort of pivoting or servicing very different markets at the same time. (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) It’s a different story though, when you look at a sales funnel, and marketing, and your messaging, et cetera, because you know, you’re obviously talking to an entirely different, like, if you’re talking to mobility sector, you’re saying different things than when you’re talking to insurance or when you’re talking to government. But technology-wise, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) under the hood, it is exactly the same, and that’s wonderful, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) and that’s because it’s so baked in like, the interoperability principle. But yeah, I mean, (Teja: That’s cool.) marketing, sales wise, you still need to tell a different story. So it’s not to make it sound easy but there’s one benefit.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s awesome. And so like, do you guys have like, a fully fledged sales team right now? With different focuses, or more so just focused on the large enterprises, full stop?
Yeah, so we have like, a pretty integrated sales and marketing team. Like, in the end, it goes very much hand-in-hand in my view. Like, whenever you reach out to a new market, it will always be multi-channel. Like, there’ll be cold emailing, there (Teja: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) will be touchpoints, events, there will be LinkedIn, there will be campaigns running warm intros if we can get them, and all of that sort of exists next to each other, and we found that that also very much strengthens each other. If you do all of it at the same time, then people are like, faced with this wall of Ellipsis Drive that’s coming at them, all of sudden you’re hard to ignore, and that’s 100% team effort. It’s one of the most satisfying things I find is that, you know, the sales and marketing team, that’s about eight people in total, just works well together in, you know, supporting that, first, brand awareness, then building of the problem, then reaching out and sort of stacking one stone on a onto another until you get to that initial meeting, and you get the client to test, you can, you know, work towards conversion.
So yeah, we have a team that is specialized along those tasks that can also focus more on the public version of Ellipsis Drive, more on the enterprise version, and there’s a certain vertical focus, and then there’s a certain like, marketing focus and where on the funnel do you sit? But in the end, it’s a very interconnected team play, and I find it always very satisfying to see it happening.
Oh yeah. It’s cool to see the team run plays and execute. Yeah. That’s so fun. What’s the part of the business that like, you personally like, find the most intellectually gratifying? Is it the sort of rev-gen side, is it the product development side, or just running the whole ship?
It differs honestly from quarter to quarter, I would say, because the way that I see my role is, yeah, I mean, I run the company, but what that means every month is something else, so I focus on whatever is necessary. I focus on the things that tend to not go well. So I feel like I need to understand the problem better, see if we can get like, pieces in place. That’s like, problem solving is what I find most gratifying, and then, once the problem is solved, seeing the team pick it up and, you know, really create an oiled machine for something that was previously a problem. I like that a lot, and that can be something, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) or that is something different every quarter, really. But that’s part of like, (Teja: Mmm <affirmative>.) the startup business. Everyone wears a lot of different hats. You problem solve, you fix things in order to scale, and then you look back and go like, “Well, we did that quite nicely,” and then you tackle the next problem that’s, of course, there right around the corner.
So 10 years ago, maybe 15 years ago, did you anticipate that you’d be like, running a tech company?
No, no. Actually, 15 years ago, I thought I would work for the United Nations or something like that <laugh>. I really thought, for most of my youth, I thought I would work for government, and then like, quite some government at that, and then I realized I’m too young for that, as in you need to be a pretty old soul to survive there, and I’m not yet. So I’ll be happy (Teja: <Laugh>.) living in the startup world for at least 20, 25 years.
Yeah. It’s funny. I sort of had the same thought, and funny enough, when I used to live in Shanghai, we did a deal with the Indian consulate in Shanghai for some automotive manufacturers that they were bringing into China. And I wanted to also work in government. I was like, “Dude, this is just boring and slow, and I’d rather start a business,” and I feel like, also, if you have business impact, you can actually have more influence in policy than like, working your way up the administrative chain, (Rosalie: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) you know? Yeah, I think you quickly realize that within like, a couple internships <laugh>.
Yeah, exactly. I think I’ve had very much the same revelation and experience there. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) It’s…yeah, here we are.
Alright, Rosalie. Well, where can people find you on the interwebs and find your company?
<Laugh>. EllipsesDrive.com is where you can find the company, but if you type out “Ellipses Drive” in Google, you’ll find a whole bunch of resources about the company, about me. We’re all over socials and are always happy to hear from people, and I’m always happy to dispense advice if someone feels like they can use it. So yeah, feel free to reach out and have a look.
Faith, via previous recording (47:08):
Thanks for listening to The Frontier Podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week.
(THE FRONTIER THEME ENDS)