In Palo Alto, we interviewed entrepreneur Amr Awadallah from Cloudera. Amr shares his learnings and very important advice for young entrepreneurs.

In the first part of the interview, Amr explains the business model and corporate strategy of Cloudera.

The transcription of the interview is included below.


Martin: So this time we are in Palo Alto in the Cloudera office. Amr, who are you and what do you do?

Amr: So I am one of the founders of Cloudera and I serve as the chief technology officer for the company.

Martin: Great.


Martin: Amr, imagine your son comes to you and says, ‘Amr or Daddy, I would like to start a company’. What advice would you give him? What are the do’s and don’ts, maybe some mistakes you did that you shouldn’t do?

Amr: So thanks for that question. And I came prepared for that question. So I actually have a list. I have a list of advice I usually give. Because this is something I frequently get answered, so if you don’t mind I’m going to just use this to remind myself of the different advice I’d like to give.


So the number one advice I give is make sure whatever idea you’re going to work on, make sure that you are extremely passionate about that idea. Meaning that you believe in it yourself and that, I don’t want to say, okay I’ll say it; you are in love with that idea, you really love that idea. And the reason why that’s important is starting a company is actually very, very hard. And it’s very important to remind people that it’s a very risky business to start a company. If you look at statistics here in the Silicon Valley and that is one of the most successful areas of starting companies. But even if you look at the Silicon Valley:

  • only one out of every ten companies will continue to be a one billion dollar company, only one out of ten.
  • And then, two out of ten will do well, they will sell their company and they will do well. They will make some good money.
  • Seven out of ten will almost be a wash, meaning they will either not make money, at least return the money back to the investors or they will shut down.

So, what would make you take such a risk other than you being truly in love with the idea that you are trying to implement? So that’s why I say the biggest thing that you need to be sure of is that idea that you have, that thing you’re going to be working on is something that you feel very, very passionate about. Otherwise, you will run out of energy and be unable to continue to do it. So that’s number one, very key advice.


Number two key advice, I would say as well the key reason why Silicon Valley has been successful in this, is hire great people. Make sure— especially in the very early days, that you’re hiring the best of the best. And the corollary to that is to fire people quickly, as well. Which people from sometimes outside the Bay Area even in the U.S., not even mentioning Europe, find that very hard. But that’s very, very important because you don’t have time to make mistakes. When you’re in a start-up in a high growth business, competition will come after you just like this. As soon as they smell money, five other companies will start doing the same thing. So you don’t have time to be slow and if you hired bad people, these bad people will make you slow. And bad people doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent or not smart, sometimes they’re just not good culture fit. Like, they don’t fit with the culture of how the rest of the team operates. They could be great people just— they’re not a good culture fit. Once you recognize something like that, then you need to let them go. And you do it in a good way, and you take good care of them. You give them a severance package but you do it because it’s very important, otherwise it will slow you down.


The number three, and you frequently hear this lesson from other companies in the Silicon Valley, is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. What does that mean is that you cannot be innovative, you cannot build a new solution without trying to do that in a new way. And by definition, if you try to do something in a new way, you will end up making a mistake. What’s important is, once you make that mistake, you recognize that mistake and you correct for it very quickly. So that’s what’s important. So what makes a great company, what makes a successful startup versus a failing startup, is that the successful startup will very quickly recognize when they made a mistake and we by the way make so many mistakes in Cloudera’s history but then we recognize that and we correct for it very quickly as opposed to we don’t know a mistake has taken place and that we keep doing the same thing over and over in the wrong way and then that becomes failure, and you cannot recover from that. So that’s very important.


You have to have a continuous sense of urgency. Even at the beginning, when you don’t have competition, nobody else is coming after you, you still have to have a sense of urgency. Like, ‘I have to move quick, I have to get things done, I have to get customers mind my product, I have to start making money’. Like, you always have to have that sense of urgency and it has to come from inside of you. You cannot wait for the investors to tell you because they’re not going to tell you. They’re too busy themselves. It has to come from inside you that, ‘I have to move quickly to get things done. I can’t just wait until business comes to me, I’m going to go hunt my business down, I’m going to find the right product and get it done’. So a sense of urgency is very important. The corollary to that as well is don’t spend a year planning what you’re going to do, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, and then this is my business plan looks like’. No, no, at the beginning, you don’t have time for that. At the beginning, you start doing. You start doing and as you are doing, you build your plan and you change your plan. As opposed to build a plan for a year, like what big companies do and then go execute that plan. Next, and I have three more.


So next, and this is one of the most important advice for engineers because they fall in a trap but the next one is listen to your customers. Listen to your customers. So sometimes engineers specifically, they get obsessed with building products because they are cool, because they have a new technology idea that was really smart, as opposed to this is something that solves a real customer problem. So I always like to stress that if this is not solving a customer problem, it doesn’t matter if it’s the coolest thing in the world. It’s not going to make a difference. And I frequently use a nice quote form Henry Ford. Henry Ford is the guy that invented the car. Because some of my engineers would tell me, so that means that I cannot be innovative. I cannot go innovate. I have to always listen to the customers. And no, actually, that’s my point, because Henry Ford, if you look at what he said, he said, ‘When I asked my customers what do you want? They said we want faster horses’. And you cannot get faster horses. So what the engineer do, the engineer goes to customers and ask them what is your problem? And then they would say, ‘Our problem is we want to get from point A to point B really quickly’. And then now, you as an engineer, will go and innovate, and you build the car. So the innovation is in the solution, not in the problem. You don’t innovate on the problem. The problem has to come from the customer, that’s the key point.


And then one of the most important advice also is, you have to have the faith in success. Meaning that you have to believe you’re going to succeed. Even me, I just said earlier, only one out of ten will succeed. But you’re chances of success will be much higher if inside of your company you have this very positive energy of; I am going to succeed, I am going to make this happen. You need to have that, and that energy will spread from you to your team and you will have this culture of success going on in your company, where you’re planning and all the actions you’re taking are being taken with the assumption that we will succeed. As opposed to taking actions with the assumption of we want to be careful in case we fail, then you will fail if you do that. You always want to have this success kind of fountain going in inside of your company. That helps a lot and that will increase your probability of success.


And then, my last piece of advice I give is a big part of this, and this advice differs when I’m talking to somebody who is religious versus not religious but I will say is that a big part of this is you praying all the time for success because a big part of this is timing. Or, if you’re not religious, I’ll say wish for luck, Ask for luck. Because I would say, I will admit this, at Cloudera, we were so lucky. So lucky, there were so many points across the road where we could have failed and something happened, not because of us doing it differently but because we were lucky and we succeeded. So asking for luck, and wishing for luck, is a part of success.

Martin: Good. Amr, thank you very much for the time. And next time when you start a company maybe you should consider the ten learnings of Amr. Thank you very much.

Amr: You’re very welcome.

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