Sep 16, 2020 - Economy

Early Snowflake investors talk about the beginning of the business

Illustration of a box that is emitting binary numbers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Enterprise tech company Snowflake went public Wednesday morning, opening its trading at an eye-popping $245 a share.

Yes, but: Long before its blockbuster IPO and prior to catching Warren Buffett’s eye (and dollars), it was a quietly ambitious startup whose founders hailed from old-school companies like Oracle, and wanted to take on Amazon Web Services.

The big picture: Founded in 2012 by Benoit Dageville, Thierry Cruanes and Marcin Zukowski, the San Mateo, Calif.-based company set out to build data warehousing and analytics services for other businesses.

  • "They were very soft-spoken, kind, middle-aged engineers out of Oracle," says Peter Wagner, a venture capitalist and one of Snowflake’s earliest investors.
  • “This was when Hadoop was all the rage ... They were going to compete with Amazon … the conventional wisdom at the time was that you should not try to compete with Amazon."

Between the lines: Sutter Hill Ventures’ Mike Speiser was not only one of the earliest backers of Snowflake, but he was also its first CEO, helping shape the company's original trajectory. (Speiser, who is still on the board, declined to comment.)

  • Among Speiser’s early contributions was to hire a head of product, early investor Ken Hausman tells Axios. “It’s not common to have, from my experience, that kind of attention and focus on the customer so early.”
  • “When you come to market, if you’re missing one key function, there aren’t going to be any early adopters,” he adds. Hausman’s first task after backing the company was to interview a wide range of potential customers about their product needs.
  • Since, the company has had a couple more CEOs, including current chief executive Frank Slootman, who joined last year after leaving ServiceNow in 2017.

1 fun thing: During an annual event hosted by Wagner's Wing Ventures, then-Snowflake CEO Bob Muglia took some jabs at Hadoop and ended up in a friendly debate with Amr Awadallah, co-founder of Hadoop company Cloudera, who happened to be in the audience.

  • “It was a great opportunity to have two of the prime movers of modern data analytics discussing this," Wagner says.

The bottom line: Investors are hard-pressed to admit they didn’t predict a portfolio company would be a massive success — it is, after all, why they invest.

  • “But it’s certainly unfolded more dramatically than expected,” says Wagner.
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