Stanford Q&A with Filip Kaliszan on Building Successful Startups
Our CEO Filip Kaliszan returned to his alma mater to speak at TreeHacks, Stanford University’s premier and largest hackathon, which brings together over 1000 students every year to build products for the future.
Filip was a Computer Science student at Stanford when he built his first company, CourseRank, alongside co-founders James Ren and Benjamin Bercovitz.
Today, the three Stanford graduates – alongside former Meraki COO Hans Robertson – lead a global team of nearly 1000 employees to protect over 10,000 organizations around the world with Verkada's integrated approach to cloud-managed building security.
I wanted to kick things off by zooming back and diving into your time at Stanford. You studied Computer Science with a focus on Systems for your Bachelors, and a focus on Human Computer Interaction for your Masters. What parts of your education do you think were particularly formative in your development as a technologist?
FK: When I came to Stanford I was like many of the students, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had some ideas about wanting to go into business, because a lot of my family members are engineers who ended up doing business. I've always liked computers, I’ve always liked technology and gadgets, but I didn’t know that I was going to do Computer Science as a major. By complete coincidence, one of my friends from my freshman dorm (Benjamin, who is actually one of my co-founders today) was very into Computer Science and dragged me into it, so I owe him.
I remember taking one of the first CS classes; it was hard and my thought process was, ‘If I'm going to Stanford and paying all this money, it's good to take things that are hard because I'm learning something new.’ So that was the beginning of my journey in computer science. What I quickly learned — what made me fall in love with the domain — was that it allowed me to build things seemingly out of nothing. After taking a couple of classes, I realized that I could leverage these skills that I now have and build things that my friends can use. That’s actually what led to the beginning of CourseRank.
A couple of my friends (whom I met through the Computer Science program) and I were excited about taking our new skills and building products. During our sophomore year, we took the senior software project class because we really wanted to build something real. That’s what gave birth to CourseRank, and everything on my journey followed from that.
You also touched on another aspect, which is my undergrad focus was in Systems and my Masters was in Human Computer Interaction. When I was doing my undergrad, there were initially no tracks. By the time I was a senior, I'd already taken all the hard Systems classes, so I figured I’d better get the Systems track; that's how I ended up deciding that.
Then through the work I was doing with CourseRank, I realized that in addition to my passion for Computer Science, I was really intrigued by Design. I started taking all these classes — some of them in the D school, some of them in the CS department — and that's what prompted me to get my Masters in Human Computer Interaction. All of this became very, very useful down the line in building different products and ultimately, Verkada.
You mentioned that you spent time in college building CourseRank, which is inherently “hackathon-y” since you were bootstrapping this idea from a dorm room. At what point did you start thinking, ‘CourseRank is more than a side project’ and how should students decide when they hit that threshold?
FK: That's probably the hardest question to answer with a startup is, “Do you make it into something real, or was it just a weekend project?” If you do commit to starting a startup, you're working on it, spending hours and hours, and putting maximum effort. Then it becomes, “At what point do you know that it's working, or that you should give up and do something else?”
That is an insanely difficult question to answer for anyone starting a company. I would say to look for those early signs of success. Take Verkada as an example. We started the company in 2016, we built a plan, we had an idea about building security cameras for the enterprise world. We had no idea how the journey would go, so we gave ourselves some milestones.
One of the first milestones was to launch a product within a year. So we gave ourselves 12 months: from zero to shipping a real camera in a real box. We did that, which was exciting. Then after that, we had some milestones around how much volume and how many cameras we would be able to sell. I remember to this moment, we built our first camera and we ordered 500 units. There was the initial order, which cost us about $200,000.
The two-car garage in my home was filled with cameras. I looked at him and I was like, “Holy crap. I will never park the car, I'm out 200 grand, and how the hell are we going to sell these cameras?” So that was our moment of, ‘It really needs to come together. It really needs to happen.’ Honestly, the first few months of sales were very tricky, very challenging — “Who is Verkada? Why should I buy your product?” That's what we kept hearing. Fortunately, the MVP first product we built resonated really well with that market.
The gate opening gave us the signal to keep going. It's a long-winded answer, but with any startup or project, I would also always look for those key milestones and reinforcement that what you're working on is making sense and resonating. Talk to the users, talk to the customers, make milestones around deliverables — like an MVP — then use them as the fuel that you and your team need to keep going because it takes a ton of effort and it's tremendously hard to build something from nothing. Ultimately, the key advantage of any startup team is the effort they put in.T
That's really amazing advice, especially instructive for this crowd. Moving onto more recent events, in 2016 you co-founded Verkada; I read your Medium article where you discuss the inception of Verkada and how you realize that AI could transform the enterprise video security industry. Could you talk about how you came across this industry in the first place, and more generally how you approach it?
FK: The way I would describe it — particularly Verkada’s case — my co-founders and I took a meaningful amount of time to explore the concrete idea that we wanted to work on. I always describe CourseRank, my first project, as an “incidental startup.” We were students at school, we were literally using a printed book to select courses, and that was awful. So we said, “Hey, we're going to make it better!” But we never really thought about it as a business or, “How does it make sense?” “How will it scale?” And so on and so forth.
With Verkada, we were much more deliberate and thoughtful about that approach. For a year pre-dating the founding of Verkada, some of my co-founders and I started exploring different ideas and talking to customers, talking to investors, observing reactions, studying the different markets.
Ultimately, you have to find something that's a mix of: a product category that you're naturally passionate about that makes sense and resonates, and something that provides a meaningful impact in the world. That is what's going to allow the business to grow and expand.
For me with Verkada, I had some prior exposure to video security — just completely coincidentally. I’m definitely a nerd, I definitely like technology, I definitely buy all the gadgets that someone can buy for their house. So back in 2012, many years pre-dating Verkada, I was remodeling my home and put in video security cameras — this was before Nest and Arlo and older, cool consumer companies.
I put in enterprise cameras, thinking they would be the best. Well, it turned out they were not the best. So that was my first experience just seeing that enterprise video security is not quite at the level that a modern, computer science person would have perspective on.
That was that one inkling, and then the other is kind of random, but I bring it up because it links back to the piece about being passionate and excited about what you're building. I've done photography for years and years, and I love photography. Through that, I learned a lot about cameras and lenses and how sensors work — and that really tied it together. I could take that knowledge from photography and apply it to solve interesting computer science problems. We can solve this big issue, which is delivering security at scale to businesses. That combination was really exciting to me and my co-founders, and that's really what, what got us going.
Awesome. I'm sure this will be really useful to folks as they decide what to work on this weekend for Treehacks, as well as beyond. I just wanted to end by asking you about the challenges you've faced and the lessons you've learned while running Verkada, and also some parting words of advice for the participants, if you could.
FK: Sure, the key lesson I've learned with my various journeys is that the only constant is change. Everything changes every day: in my job at the company, the way we approach solving the problems. Going into a startup, you have to expect that things won't go your way and that everything will change.
If you're okay with that, it's very exciting. It's one of the best learning opportunities in the world. One of the best aspects of my job is I get to do something different every day, I feel like I'm always learning. That gives me the energy required to keep the business going.
That’s how I think about the journey. To give you an example of a concrete challenge that relates both to a two-person team, and to us now with a thousand-person team: getting to know your team, communicating effectively with your team.
Then you're going to have to reinvent that at different points in scale. I remember when we first built CourseRank with Benjamin, Henry, and James at Stanford, we had to figure out who was good at what.
Initially, we were all CS students. We all had pretty good grades and thought we knew everything. I'd be designing the database and the architecture, Benjamin would be drawing UI. But eventually, we figured out that, ‘Okay, Benjamin is better at the backend architecture, I'm better at the UI,’ and so on and so forth. That division of roles is really, really important to figure out.
At the same time, in the early days, the way you will figure it out is through a lot of debate and conflict and arguing — and that's good. That's healthy, because it leads to the best possible results — ultimately for your customers.
Those are some of the challenges that change a lot as the team grows. I distinctly remember when Verkada was only 35, maybe 40 employees. This was a year and a half into our company's lifecycle. That's when I had this moment of, “Crap, I have to do an All Hands meeting. Not everybody knows everything anymore.”
When you're just four or five people, everybody knows everything. Then around that size (35 - 40 employees), we started formalizing communications. Around 200 employees it’s starting to be a little difficult for me to remember everyone's name, and maybe a new employee finds me intimidating. I have to really work on making sure that I'm approachable and that aspect is figured out.
So those were some of the growth challenges. If you zoom out, the hardest thing to scale up a business is always finding the smart, motivated people to work with you. I actually think that's one of the key advantages that probably every team in this Hackathon has: you're all surrounded by super-smart people.
Thinking back to my own days at Stanford, I really undervalued that. You can literally walk down the hall or go to any CS class, and you can figure out who's smart and work with them. That's very special, and you should capitalize on that, get your ideas going and get them off the ground.
The other piece of advice that I will leave you with is: build a lot of stuff and spend a lot of time building stuff. It will be good experience regardless of the outcomes. In the best case scenario — or maybe just one scenario — you end up taking whatever you built, gain traction, and it becomes a company. That's an awesome outcome. But even if that doesn't happen, you just learned so much through building. I remember applying for internships before and after CourseRank. Before CourseRank, I was sending my resume and fighting really hard to apply for internships and caught in this race of asking and doing coding challenges. After CourseRank — or after whatever you build — you get to talk about what you build, and it turns out that not that many people in the world do that. You immediately stand out to the employers and your opportunities open up.
So build a lot of stuff, spend a lot of time building stuff — that’s my parting advice! I'm super excited to see what projects come out of the Hackathon.
Amazing. That’s truly inspiring and undoubtedly valuable to the students here including me as we move forward in our educational and professional lives. Thank you once again, Filip, for your time today. This was really such an honor.
FK: Thank you. Good luck!
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