Shipping Up to Boston: AtScale CEO Chris Lynch Talks Investors, Tech Scene
There are more than a couple reasons why former Accomplice partner Chris Lynch is relocating the headquarters of his big data company AtScale from San Mateo, CA, to Boston.
He rattled them off last week, sitting in the newly wired-up but still empty first-floor office on Atlantic Avenue that Lynch plans to fill with sales, marketing, customer support, and machine learning teams. His thinking behind the move kept returning to the fact that he’s just been let down by the West Coast.
The sky-high cost of living. The lack of patience to build a large company. The hyper-transitory, near fleeting nature of tech work.
“What I say is, ‘You hire people here, you rent people out there,’” Lynch said.
“You just can’t build an enterprise company in San Mateo,” he added. “The people that work at AtScale out there, I don’t feel the same ‘Hey, we’re going to get this done or die trying.’ They think it’s a job, a good job. They think that the company’s doing well, so they’re there. But if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be any heartburn to move on to the next company, and that’s what it is. I think people are different here, their connection to the work.”
AtScale‘s presence in Boston currently amounts to about two dozen workers in a WeWork near South Station—nearly a block from the location of the new office that Lynch plans to add another 75 workers to by the end of the year. The startup will keep its core engineering team of 50 people in San Mateo and also expand its engineering office in Sofia, Bulgaria, where another 10 AtScale employees work. In Boston, Lynch’s plan is to fill the 4,000 square-foot space this year and then use an option to lease out adjacent space in the building.
The company’s big data platform creates a virtual warehouse for the isolated “lakes” of data across enterprises data centers and cloud storage services. It then makes all the data available for analysis tools like Tableau without having to switch between different tools for each data source or move the data to a single location. The platform, Lynch says, makes it easier for enterprises to move to the cloud by letting them move their data without having to rewrite all the business applications connected to the data. In December, the company closed a $50 million Series D funding round led by Morgan Stanley.
In an interview, Lynch laid out why he’s bullish on Boston (“the work ethic is different”), riffed on what the tech scene needs (“10 multibillion-dollar companies”), and gave his appraisal for the current state of venture capital (“it’s fast food”).
Lynch put in his early years at Digital Equipment and Wellfleet, then moved on to a string of tech businesses gobbled up by larger enterprises: ArrowPoint (by Cisco), Acopia (by F5 Networks), and Vertica Systems (by Hewlett-Packard). He left HP in 2012 and joined early-stage venture capital firm Atlas Venture, which spun off its tech investing business into Accomplice in 2014. He left Accomplice in 2017 (more on that later) and took the helm for AtScale as CEO and executive chairman.
Lynch saw in Boston the right mix of data science and enterprise business DNA that’s right for AtScale. The time zone is better for working with AtScale’s development office in Bulgaria. It’s more cost-effective to hire workers in Boston, with the salary for a principal engineer coming in about 70 percent less than San Mateo, Lynch said.
“The muscle memory of building an enterprise company is just totally different,” Lynch said. “When it doesn’t work, it’s not like when the Uber [driver] cancels. … When that happens, you’re frustrated, you’re pissed off, and you move on. When you sell enterprise software, someone’s job is on the line. You’re not spending $20 for an Uber ride; you’re spending $200,000, $2 million on something that they’re putting their name on the line is going to work.”
He said Boston is well-stocked with people who get those stakes, who understand sales, customer service, and enterprise infrastructure—and also have the right patience to stick with a project like AtScale for the years it takes to get the platform to the market and see where the company goes from there. Lynch said he had trouble finding that last part in San Mateo.
“The downside of Boston is you don’t have a lot of those Ubers or social media or payments companies. These, let’s call them ‘new world companies.’ What you have is lots of common enterprise infrastructure companies, such an important point. Carbon Black, Turbonomic, DataRobot,” said Lynch, who’s invested himself in Carbon Black and DataRobot. “They’re building real companies and people have been there for five, six years. If you want to build something, I’ve never seen a real company built in less than seven to 10 years.”
For all the venture capital funding flowing into the Boston startup ecosystem, the local scene is missing the type of giant tech corporations that foster the next generation of talent in ways that accelerators and incubators cannot, Lynch said, much like his early years in sales at Digital.
The idea is those big companies—a category Lynch said General Electric fits and Amazon would have—stay independent and grow; they attract and develop talent. Then for whatever reason, some workers leave to test out their own idea or break off because the company is too big or too political, Lynch said.
“We need 10 multibillion-dollar companies,” he said.
“One of the things that will ultimately drive the next generation of companies and entrepreneurs is we need to build some big companies. We fall short there. We built some great companies, but then they’ve been absorbed before they really created that. You need companies of that girth to create that next generation. That’s what keeps you here. The challenge, I think, is that these companies have been absorbed, … and the investors haven’t been aggressive enough to go along on them.”
The result, Lynch said, is a crop of startups not knowing much about “business.”
“People come out of MIT, and they’re getting $5 million to go do something, and they don’t know the f— all what they’re doing. … I mean, the mistakes people were making—basic stuff. When I was in venture, basically I had to do all the business work for them, and I’m paying them. When I raise money it’s like OK, here’s the cash. Here’s your gun, here are your bullets, there’s the hill. Go take that hill or get shot. Call me when you’re done.”
Lynch also thinks the quality of venture capital has slipped, to put it lightly.
“When I started out there were 50 sources of capital in the country. You would go to VC mountain, kiss the ring, and get your money. There was a constraint of supply and demand. Now there’s no constrained supply and demand. The analog I give you is … Uber, let’s call it, in its prime. No UberX, you just called an Uber, and boom, you’re getting in a black car with a guy. It’s clean. It doesn’t smell and he knows where he’s going. And it costs less than a cab. Think about what it is today. Venture is very similar.”
Lynch continued: “There was a time when there were a few venture capitalists, there were fewer entrepreneurs, and there were more good ideas. Now what you have is fast food. Every a—— on every street corner, every f—— kid that went to an Ivy League school thinks he’s a venture capitalist. He gets 50 million bucks from somebody, and then he runs around buying lottery tickets, and doesn’t know how to teach them how to build a company. He’s just writing checks.”
Lynch couched his biting criticism with the caveat that not all VCs “don’t work hard” but many of the firms are putting money into companies “they have no business investing in” and wouldn’t if there was any constraint on capital.
He relayed the outlines of a story about a seed investment he made into a startup, which he declined to identify. He gave the founder $500,000. Six months later, three-quarters of it was spent, and the founder said Amazon offered him $300,000 to work there. He handed Lynch the keys, saying, “I got to do what’s right for me.”
“What about the people you recruited out of gainful employment? What about the money you took?” Lynch said. “No embarrassment, no remorse. Like I don’t think he thought he was doing anything wrong.”
Lynch said he left Accomplice in part because of that lack of responsibility and loyalty to the business they had pitched.
“I just got sick of dealing with entrepreneurs that basically watch too many reruns of ‘The Social Network.’ It was a glamour project. They wanted to walk around and have business cards to say that they were an entrepreneur, but they didn’t want to make the commitments.”
In his jeremiad about today’s crop of venture capitalists, Lynch said partners are “living in a bubble” and need to practice the penny-pinching wisdom they often preach to startup founders.
“Guys just don’t do it. … It’s like OK, you’re flying first class. You stay at the Four Seasons for eight hundred bucks a night in Palo Alto,” he said. “The time I was in venture I wanted my entrepreneurs to know that I worked as hard or harder than they did, because I think that’s the only way you’re in the right to tell them to work hard or tell them to be frugal. But if you’re walking around living a different life, I just don’t know how you do that with credibility.”
“The best thing for venture capitalists, after they get out of Harvard Business School, is to just go take a job, a real job, not a hedge fund. … But that suggestion will fall on deaf ears.”