Reimagining Startup and Enterprise Innovation

Ellison Recounts Oracle Origins to Startup Founders

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Editor's Note: This piece originally published in eWeek by Michael Hickins on Oct. 30.

SAN FRANCISCO—Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison on Oct. 24 hosted the founders of 22 startups for a cocktail reception and engaged with them on topics ranging from how he navigated the difficult early days of the business computing giant he founded in 1977 to navigating the ever-changing technological landscape.

In what has become an annual event, Ellison welcomed to his San Francisco home the leaders of startups selected for the Oracle Global Startup Ecosystem, a startup enablement program that gives participants free access to Oracle cloud technology and expert mentoring. What makes the program unique is that it also provides participants access to Oracle customers as well as, in many cases, the opportunity to sell their technology jointly with Oracle sales reps, participants said. Oracle does not take an equity position in the startups it mentors--an unusual aspect of the program.

Before engaging with the new tech leaders assembled in his living room, Ellison offered a toast to Reggie Bradford, the visionary Oracle executive who passed away Oct. 22. Ellison called him a “unique spirit.” Bradford founded and spearheaded the Oracle Global Startup Ecosystem program. Prior to joining Oracle through an acquisition, Bradford founded several startups and “channeled his vision and optimism for the benefit of other startups,” said Amy Sorrells, who runs global communications for the program.

Decide on Monday, Change Your Mind on Thursday

Ellison warned the founders not to assume they will maintain technological superiority just because they are ahead today. “There are lots of very smart people out there” who are at any time capable of creating a significant new technological paradigm, he said.

“The old solution to customers’ problems may no longer be the best solution. When you see that, it’s an opportunity—or a threat,” Ellison said.

Companies—even startups—need to keep their eyes out for such changes and be willing to adapt accordingly, he said.

Ellison, asked how he has been able to imbue his organization with the ability to react to large shifts in technology, said founders must be willing to “make a decision on Monday and then change your mind on Thursday.”

“It’s our job as founders and developers to constantly change our companies based on technology available today that wasn’t available yesterday,” he added.

What ‘Eureka’ Looks Like

Ellison noted that the mathematical principles underlying the transaction processing database that launched Oracle had been developed by people at IBM.

But the IBM researchers thought the data processing and storage applications would take too long to be practicable. “They didn’t deem it commercially viable,” Ellison said.

Ellison disagreed and built a prototype to show that it could be at least as fast as contemporaneous database technology in the market.

Ellison described the evening he and his team completed a benchmark of their new database against IBM and DEC databases, and confirmed that the Oracle database was not only competitive with them, but was already 10 percent faster.

“I staggered out of the room, muttering: ‘We’re 10 percent faster! We’re 10 percent faster!’ over and over again,” he recounted.

Encountering another executive in the building lobby, Ellison told the man what the benchmarks had proven and asked, “Do you know what this means?” The man shook his head no.

“’It means ‘This company is worth at least $100 million,’ I told him. This from the guy who was still driving a used Mazda!” Ellison said. “The guy thought I had lost it,” he laughed. “But I knew I had come upon something important.”

Need to Do Whatever It Takes

Ellison laughed as he described his company’s early financial struggles, noting that it was more than three months between the time he struck a handshake agreement with the CIA—Oracle’s first database client—and the time the company actually got a check.

“We were about a week away from not being able to make payroll,” he said.

He also noted that while he and his engineers were busily building the first transaction processing database in history, Oracle generated revenue through consulting and technology development for various other technology companies in Silicon Valley. “I kept pulling people off those projects and putting them onto the database as it grew in size and complexity,” he said.

The lesson, he noted, was to balance different exigencies – doing work that paid the bills but also knowing when to double down on the company’s ultimate focus.

Making the World 'a Better Place'

Ellison shared an optimistic view of how technology can make the world a better place. This wasn’t not surprising, given his high-profile forays into environmental, health care and other issues around the world. Cloud computing “is the backbone to make the rest of the world smart,” he said.

Ellison described how his hydroponic greenhouses in Hawaii are making it possible to grow more organic food and make it cost effective while all but eliminating the carbon footprint associated with shipping food around the world.

The greenhouses are run remotely using sensors and machine learning to ensure that plants get the proper nutrition at the proper time, and harvests are done using robots to further eliminate inadvertent food contamination.

He used this as an example of how “everything that’s important is going to be improved by these huge compute utilities and technologies like ML.”

Oracle's Global Startup Ecosystem

This type of mentorship directly from Larry Ellison doesn’t happen every day, of course, but is emblematic of the Oracle Global Startup Ecosystem ethos, notes Diego Pantoja-Navajas, who runs operations for the program. The program is built to “help them achieve their goals,” but also helps Oracle through partnerships with—and feedback from—startups, which provide early access to emerging technologies and new perspectives on customers. “It’s another set of eyes to help us improve our products,” he said.

The ecosystem has hubs in Austin, Texas, as well as Sao Paolo, Brazil; Bristol in the UK; Paris, France; Tel Aviv; Singapore; Mumbai; Bangalore and New Delhi.

“But we don’t pick startups from just those nine areas. Oracle is present in 175 countries worldwide, and we welcome startups from any one of those countries,” he said.

The startups, for their part, are able to sell into Oracle’s customer base, either with Oracle’s guidance or in many cases by selling jointly alongside Oracle salespeople. “From that perspective, it’s been brilliant,” said Zara Nanu, CEO and founder of Gapsquare, which sells AI-driven technology that helps companies reduce the gender pay gap.

Gapsquare, launched in 2015, now has 150 customers, most of them large enterprises. Nanu said Oracle Cloud Infrastructure has the scale-up capabilities that allowed her company to quickly ramp up resources as needed, and to pay only for the resources it consumes. (While those resources are currently free, that flexibility will be valuable when Gapsource leaves the program and becomes a paying customer.)

The Oracle Global Startup Ecosystem is run by many former entrepreneurs—like Pantoja-Navajas—which helps explain why “they totally get us,” Nanu said.

Dan Metzger, co-founder of OppSource, noted that his startup first began speaking with Oracle in April, and now only six months later is not only part of the program, but has been able to integrate its AI- and machine learning-driven sales enablement application with Oracle’s, helping both companies close very large deals.

Other startups at the cocktail reception included Intelipost, a supply chain logistics provider based in Sao Paulo that uses Oracle Blockchain Service to complement its service.

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