What drives you? That’s a question every entrepreneur must grapple with, and while aspiring to be an entrepreneur for its own sake can work for some, for most, their journey is rooted in two experiences: Precedent and pain.
The precedent is having growing up in proximity to other entrepreneurs and formational experiences that teach them to solve problems for themselves. There’s a reason immigrants account for 30% of all entrepreneurs and 50% of all unicorn founders, and why the strongest determinant of entrepreneurship is to have entrepreneur parents.
The pain part is experiencing incurable problems they desperately want to solve. As we heard at Cloud 100, all three CEOs and founders featured below were united in their desire to fix issues in their workplaces. Founding a company, then, was the means, not the end. And often, once successful, they move on to solve something else.
At Cloud 100, we heard the founding stories of Baron Davis, former NBA player and CEO of Baron Davis Enterprises, Elizabeth Zalman, CEO of StrongDM, and Yonas Beshawred, CEO of Stackshare.
Baron Davis on building the world he wants to see
In 2012, a documentary rattled the NBA. Titled “Broke,” it followed the lives of famous basketball players and left audiences with the firm impression that nearly all of them mismanage their money and eventually lose it. Baron Davis, then a point guard for the New York Knicks, was offended.
“There are so many athletes that have successful lives after basketball,” says Baron. “I realized then that those stories aren’t being told and those people don’t really have an opportunity to come back.” So Baron, like so many up-and-coming founders today, set out to build the world he wanted to see.
“I like to say I used the NBA to get my MBA,” says Baron. He founded his own management company, Business Inside the Game, or “BIG” for short, to manage himself. The goal: Form a network of top athletes and c-suite executives to bring the right stories about the right athletes to the right networks. “We fill a void in the market to get NBA players, influencers, and their managers together—like a management accelerator. If we don’t do this then we’re just perpetuating the stories you see in Broke.”
For Baron, one venture was not enough. “I always knew I’d be a serial entrepreneur—I have ADD,” he says, laughing. When he left the Knicks, he became his own agent. He had to manage himself, find his marketing deals, and build a foundation, and that was his training for entrepreneurship. Now that BIG manages other athletes, he can afford to think on an even grander scale to help them solve problems they can’t yet see.
“We’re not just managing their brand. It’s also the content and their data—all those things that have traditionally been mismanaged,” says Baron. “We apply different partners and technologies to help players guide their own public stories. It’s a sports platform where players own their data—and their future.”
Elizabeth Zalman on creating startups to solve her own problems
“We were practically made for this,” CEO Liz Zalman says of the pandemic and how it has affected StrongDM. “We offer remote access to infrastructure and our team was uniquely positioned for this influx of business. Others are just catching up but were distributed from the start.” However, Elizabeth is also first to admit that 2020 has been anything but a breeze.
“This year is one they’ll teach about in history books. The virus hit and I thought, ‘Oh, this is nothing.’ Then two or three weeks in, I was sitting on my couch and just broke down crying. My boyfriend asked why and I didn’t even know.” World events began to weigh her team down, too. Participation waned. Some asked for time off. Then the protests began and finally, a fire was lit—suddenly they all started working even more. “It was as if work had become a beautiful escape from what was happening outside,” she says.
For Elizabeth, being a female CEO in hardcore security and infrastructure is a tremenous responsibility, but she doesn’t let it make her feel ‘other.’ The daughter of immigrants, entrepreneurship was in the family and she arrived in software infrastructure naturally. “I started my first company because I thought I could do better. I was working in display advertising and thought, ‘Why can’t we do this for the mobile web?’ So I built it.” Once she sold that company, she got into big data where she saw a company on the forefront of its space nevertheless get breached. That experience led her to build StrongDM.
“We started StrongDM from the ground up. We asked, ‘How do we actually protect ourselves?,’” she says. “Sure, sometimes I hear the challenges women face in interviews with other women and I’m always struck by it because sure, I see it. But don’t see myself that way. I’m human. We’re just all human.”
For Elizabeth, entrepreneurship today is growing more collaborative. Yet at the same time, it’s just as competitive as ever. “If I’m going to fundraise at the same time as my two competitors, I mean, my god. It’s going to be a fight to the end,” she says. “On the other hand, there is certainly such collaboration [amongst entrepreneurs] without shame, without ego, without pride, and it is beautiful to see how the collective helps us lift each other up. That is unique and didn’t exist seven years ago.”
Yonas Beshawred on democratizing knowledge and opportunity
Yonas’ journey began with a book: Founders at Work. “Those stories of founders who made a name for themselves inspired me to begin,” says CEO Yonas Beshawred, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia and started several businesses. Out of college Yonas entered management consulting but found it limiting. “I saw how these big Fortune 500 companies were making big technology decisions based solely on Gartner PDF reports and I hated how simplistic and abstracted it was.”
Yonas wanted to help businesses get good advice—or at least, better advice than big, expensive management consultancies could provide. The model was outdated, he felt. Surely there was a better way to connect developers building things with those who’d already built them that didn’t require a middleman to write a long report. And though he didn’t act on it immediately, the idea kept presenting itself.
“I was working for an early stage startup that had just gone through an incubator and I saw how the founders would email other founders and ask, ‘Hey, which cloud service should we use?’’ he says. “It was all over email. I thought, ‘This is messy, there should be a solution for this.’” He became more and more excited about the idea and started building it.
Today over half a million software developers use StackShare to make technology decisions, but Yonas feels it has much further to go. It can also expand, based on what’s happening right now. “This time has caused me to reflect and process,” he says. “With everyone at home, we all have a greater appreciation for all the things that play into our daily life, and I want to continue to give back.”
In particular, Yonas wants to help other black entrepreneurs find their way. “It’s going to take another 100 years for us to really see black founders flourish,” he says. “I try to help wherever I can. Sometimes, that helping hand relieves just enough pressure to help you climb to the next level. I want to help others keep climbing.”
Alex Konrad (00:06):I’m Alex Konrad, the senior editor at Forbes.
Yonas Beshawred, (00:08):Hi, I’m Yonas Beshawred, founder and CEO at StackShare.
Elizabeth Zalman (00:13):Hi, I’m Liz Zalman, the co-founder and CEO of strongDM.
Baron Davis (00:17):Hi, I’m Baron Davis, founder of Baron Davis Enterprises.
Alex Konrad (00:21):So Baron, Liz, Yonas, thank you so much for joining this conversation. It’s exciting to be with three up and coming entrepreneurs from different backgrounds and very different endeavors. I’d love if we could just hear a little bit about what you’re working on in terms of mission and what your company is doing. Why don’t we start with Baron. If you could tell us a little bit about what you’re doing since being an all star in the NBA and well known, I’d say, to a lot of folks for your athletic career.
Baron Davis (00:54): Thanks, Alex. It’s been fun. Life after basketball, I say I use the NBA to get my MBA. So I founded and created a company, a management factory, called Business Inside The Game. The goal is to create media events, to curate athletes, investors, and c-suites and bring about the right cohesive network, very similar to a management factory or a management accelerator.
Alex Konrad (01:25): That’s awesome. Liz, if you don’t mind telling us a little bit about strongDM and what your goal is there.
Elizabeth Zalman (01:31): Yeah, I would love to. Thank you. StrongDM manages and audits access to infrastructure, servers, databases, firewalled web apps, Kubernetes clusters. StrongDM provides a way for you to connect remote employees to infrastructure no matter where it is, and then audit what they’re doing once they’re in those systems.
Alex Konrad (01:48): Awesome. And Yonas, tell us a little bit about StackShare, hopefully.
Yonas Beshawred, (01:53): Sure. So we’re building the world’s first technology decision collaboration platform for software developers. So today over half a million software developers use StackShare to make technology decisions. We show you what the big companies are actually using and help you decide what you should use. So for example, you can actually see what Forbes is using to power forbes.com because the VP of engineering at Forbes actually share the technology profile. We help you make better decisions by showing you what other people are using. Then, we actually help you get a hand on what’s happening internally.
Alex Konrad (02:30): That’s awesome. Well, hopefully the Forbes tech stack measures up to our peers. To get into the fun stuff, all three of you are doing something pretty different, but what would you say is driving you to have been gone down the entrepreneurial path in the first place?
Baron Davis (02:46): I guess I’ll go first. I would say I saw a huge boy in the market as far as NBA players. I realized that there are so many more athletes that are successful and have been successful life after basketball. So at that point, just set out to figure out where there are holes between the NBA, the players, influencers, their managers and really trying to bridge gaps and fill those holes with solutions.
Alex Konrad (03:21): So Liz and Yonas, I know your companies are probably a little less NBA-focused, but was there a similarly a gap that was inspiring you or what was driving each of you to do your own thing?
Elizabeth Zalman (03:34): Oh, I don’t know, Alex. We actually have one of the major sports leagues as a customer, although it is not the NBA.
Baron Davis (03:40): Well, we got to get the NBA. We got to get the NBA now.
Elizabeth Zalman (03:42): No, Baron, they shouldn’t be. I got to tell you, man, I can’t even imagine when you’re playing, you secretly tweak your ankle in practice and you don’t want somebody knowing about it and that exam goes into a player database. You want to know who has access to it and what they’re doing with it when they get it. No, but Alex, to answer your question, I started my first company because I thought I could do better. I was working for a company that did display advertising on the web and mobile was just starting HTML5 had just become a thing. I said, “Well, why can’t we do that on smartphones?” So I started a company and raised money and sold it. Then the company that acquired my company was in big data. They were processing hundreds of millions of Mac addresses a day. Which is essentially personally identifiable information. They had a data breach. So strongDM was actually just started to sit there and think from the ground up what could we actually do to protect ourselves. Ourselves could be employees. Ourselves could be companies. Ourselves could be player data in a way that sort of moves us forward as technology is progressing.
Alex Konrad (04:47): And Yonas, what about StackShare? What’s striving you?
Yonas Beshawred, (04:51): My parents were born and raised in Ethiopia. So they immigrated maybe 40 years ago. My dad is an entrepreneur, started a bunch of different businesses. So I had that in me.
Yonas Beshawred, (05:02): My first job out of college was actually in management consulting in IT strategy. So I saw how these big Fortune 500 companies were making technology decisions using Gartner PDF reports. I hated it. I got into startups. I came out here to the Bay Area, started working for an early stage startup that had just gone through YCombinator. They were based in Mountain View. I saw how the founders would email other founders in their batch and say, “Hey, we have free credits with this cloud service and that cloud service, which one should we use?” They did this over email. So I thought this is pretty messy. There should be a solution for this. I also wanted to get a hand on all the different cloud technologies and developer tools out there. So for me, it’s always been just being passionate about the problem space and then wanting to finally solve this problem.
Alex Konrad (05:53): So all three of you saw a problem or saw the need for something that wasn’t existing and thought, okay, I can be the one to build that. So I’m curious if you guys started with the idea and then committed to being the entrepreneur, or if you were already sure that you wanted to be an entrepreneur and then the idea presented itself? Yonas, I see you nodding. So you want to start, maybe?
Yonas Beshawred, (06:15): Sure. Yeah. I think I definitely decided that I wanted to start a company and I had no idea what that was going to be or when that was going to be. So that was the beginning of it. But then, the problem presented itself and I just fell in love with the entire space. So that’s why I always say you fall in love with the problem, not the solution. So you can pivot on how you solve it but if you stick with the problem itself, then you’ll never get tired of it. You’ll keep thinking of new things. So that’s how it happened for me.
Elizabeth Zalman (06:47):Look. I cared deeply about the fact that you’ve got legacy companies that are now moving into the cloud. You’ve got multiple data centers you have to manage access to in a fractured workforce and you need to rethink the security paradigm from the ground up certainly. I care deeply about protecting Baron’s data from bad people or good people, right?
Baron Davis (07:08): Right.
Elizabeth Zalman (07:08): Sometimes people just have accidents when they’re at work. I love my product. I almost don’t care what it’s going to take in order to get it to where it needs to be provided that my employees love coming to work and we’re honoring the principles that we start with and we get the result we need. So I’m fond of saying I don’t care how we sell the product. If my sales team said to me, “Liz, you could stand in the middle of times square and wave a flag and if you wave that flag for 24 hours a day, everybody in the world’s going to buy your product.”, I would wave that flag until I fell over with exhaustion. So I think it’s a combination. I agree with Yonas. I think you just know that you want to start a company. You know that it’s what you want to do deep in your heart. You get excited about the fact that you have no idea what the day is going to bring. No matter how well planned your day is, when you get up in the morning, you have no idea how it’s going to end. And that’s what I love most about my job.
Baron Davis (08:01): Yeah. I would agree with both. I would say I knew I was a serial entrepreneur because of my ADD from basketball. When I left and became my own agent, I really had to manage myself. So I had to get the marketing deals, build a foundation, set up my basketball AAU. That just led me to learn a bunch of stuff, but already be in the entrepreneurial spirit. So for me, it was build this management company to manage myself and then build a sports platform where we can allow athletes to have data transparency, but also to own the content that they have and own the content that they would generate.
Alex Konrad (08:52): How does that ownership affects all three of you in terms of your motivation? When it’s your baby or when it’s your company, does that just give you an extra gear to kick into that you can just keep on going and stay motivated? Because I’m sure the grind is considerable.
Elizabeth Zalman (09:10): Alex, my CTO said to me a year and a half ago, there was a horrible moment, and he said to me, “Liz, you have peaks and valleys and there is no rule in life that says that every peak or every valley must be followed by a peak. You can have 17 valleys in a row.” It’s like dating. You think about going out on dates, sorry, I’m going to give it personal for a second. And you date and you date and you date and you date and you have no idea when it’s going to hit. It could take a hundred years for it to hit. Then you go on that first day and you’re like, “Damn, I like that person. Wow.” So you have to have faith in that process. I think certainly being a founder means that it’s not about what you make. It’s not about your equity on the cap table. You are literally putting your life in dollar for dollar next to your employees. The only thing you care about is actualizing that and making it come to be. I don’t know if anybody else has a dating story like that, but that’s my experience.
Baron Davis (10:05): I was going to say I agree. My founder, dating, finding the right people, I’m terrible at hiring. So I’m dating and dating and dating and dating and dating. So it’s like, “Okay, I figured it out. I might as well be independent and let someone else come in and do the dating process.” So I totally agree. I totally agree with that metaphor.
Yonas Beshawred, (10:33): I think when it is your baby, you do tend to put a little more into it. But also, there’s the other side of it where a lot of these decisions and a lot of the things that happen are ultimately on you. So you do feel that responsibility for your employees, for your investors, for everyone that’s looking up to you and following your story. At the same time, that holds you up because you know that it’s not just about you doing your job. There’s all these dependencies. All these people that are depending on you. So it gives you that extra energy as well to keep going, even when you don’t want to because it’s not about you anymore.
Baron Davis (11:14): No, I totally agree, I would say, for our platform, SLiC, Sports Lifestyle and Culture, we started in the content business and it was like, well, all the money’s gone. All right. Where are we going next? We’ll go into the publishing business. Oh, all the money is gone. Constantly, you learn to listen. You learn to be able to be nimble and to pivot. I say such a vision, super duper high, because you can always reinvent yourself to get there. When you get there, it’s a great opportunity to reinvent yourself again. So it’s continuing that motivation. Continue to listen, but don’t be afraid to get knocked down. We’ve had two years of losing streaks and now all of a sudden we’re on the up and up. So it’s really just when you’re losing, understand why you are losing and how close you were to wedding. You know what I mean?
Alex Konrad (12:16): So in today’s world with so much going on, what is it like for you to be entrepreneurs and people with responsibility in a very difficult year, but also a year with a lot of introspection and a lot of important discussions happening?
Elizabeth Zalman (12:32): Alex, that’s a great question. The year has been, I think it’s been fascinating personally and professionally. So professionally, businesses up. This business was designed for COVID. We do remote access to infrastructure. So as a leader, the way that I think about it is that the team comes from diverse backgrounds, diverse skin colors, different religions, very different politics, different genders across the whole range of the gender spectrum now. At the end of the day, what we want to honor is that work has to be a safe space. So work is whatever the employee needs it to be in that moment. That’s how I think about honoring 2020 as a leader.
Baron Davis (13:14): I would say for us, 2020 has definitely been challenging. I think for me, as a leader, listening to the people you work with, treating them as human beings, having business conversations, but set aside Zoom time to have open conversations. So we’ve been seeing great success in our business because a lot of corporate companies, Fortune 100 to startup companies have been raising their hands and saying how can we be more responsible? How can we support black and brown and women and LGBTQ? How can we be a part of a better ecosystem? Because when you start looking at our country, you start looking at America, it’s a melting pot. For so long, we’ve been segregated. For so long we’ve been in our own silos as people until the recent pandemic. What’s forced us all to go inside and do some reflection. Then with the George Floyd and everything else that’s been happening since, everyone has not only does a self reflection, but it’s been a time of motivation where people want to rally. People are raising their hands. They want to do right. Entrepreneurs are stepping forth and saying, “You know what? I was timid about going out and raising money, we need help.” Right. To be in a position where I would say we are the middle manager and we’re the bridge has been a great position, but a lot of responsibility. I think for that, it’s important to just make sure we all know that even though we’re behind these Zooms, we can laugh, we can joke and there’s still a human side to the work that we’re going to put forward.
Yonas Beshawred, (15:20): Yeah. I guess I’ll just start on the business side. When COVID-19 hit, for us fortunately, we were already used to having some of our team members remote. So we were using Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, all of that. For our actual business, it actually ended up being pretty positive because everyone is now distributed and has a greater need for collaboration particularly engineering teams. The fact that we brought this product to market that maps out your tech stack internally and helps new developers talk about these decisions that are being made. Just that ended up being really good timing for us.
Yonas Beshawred, (15:59): So it was funny, actually, at the time when I think this was March or April, if you had Googled Zoom versus Google Meet, you’d see StackShare as the top results. So we saw the business go up into the right. Hen it felt like there was a second pandemic that hit with George Floyd being murdered and Brianna Taylor. So it really felt like this second wave. Particularly for myself, as a black founder, I definitely felt it with my peers, with family, with friends. So I think that what it made me realize was that everyone is going through something. Business is one aspect of it, but there’s also, as Baron was saying, there’s the human aspect of it where you have to give people time to actually deal with what’s going on in not only the world, but their own lives. So it just caused some reflection and us saying like, “Hey, it’s okay to step back for a little bit.” Even I told my team. I was like, “Hey, I need some time to process all this and I wanted to do some things to help.” So I think we all realized that it’s okay to do that.
Baron Davis (17:11): How have you handled pressure? Being a black founder in this social justice position, also being a female founder in a time where females are fighting for their rights and their power. Talk about the pressure from peers and family to be that leader especially with the companies that you guys are building.
Elizabeth Zalman (17:37): Baron, you’re right. It is being a female in hardcore security and infrastructure, it’s a tremendous responsibility. I hear it sometimes in interviews with other women. I’m always struck when I hear it because I don’t expect it because I don’t see myself that way. I’m a human. I can tell you the way that I’ve been managing it is I’ve started seeing a therapist because I need somebody to talk to about the pressures. Yeah, Yonas, what you said about I need time as a leader to step back and reflect on what’s happening. I think that’s it. The only way to process is by being open and honest and talking about the struggles that you are having as a human, as a member of the human race, as a leader.
Yonas Beshawred, (18:20): Yeah. It’s a great question because I think there is a lot of pressure. But at the same time, because of everything that’s happening now, I feel like there’s just a lot of support particularly for black founders. Now, I think there’s a lot of folks that want to help. There’s a lot of new initiatives. The way that I’ve always looked at it is that yeah, there’s pressure on me but also at the same time, I’ve always felt like whatever stage I get to, I’m not going to be successful in my own view unless I’m bringing other people with me, other black founders. So for me, that’s been the driving force is helping other black founders get to the same stage or get past me has always been the goal. To me, it wouldn’t be a win if Stack Share gets to where it wants to go and IPOs, and then that’s it. It’s going to take another hundred years for us to really see black founders flourish. So I just try to make sure that I do what I can to help other black entrepreneurs. I’m sure it’s the same for you, Baron, where through all of your endeavors, you’ve probably done countless things for other black entrepreneurs. I think that’s part of what helps relieve some of that pressure.
Baron Davis (19:39): Absolutely. Thank you. Thanks for sharing.
Alex Konrad (19:42): Along those lines, guys. I know we’re almost out of time, but I think it’s really interesting. For awhile, it was the cult of the startup founder was you took no prisoners, you were a college dropout, you were out to just conquer the world and it was very combative, very aggressive. I don’t know if it’s current events or it’s just people being more intentional, but it feels like the current wave of rising entrepreneurs are a bit different that maybe they’re more collaborative. Is that something that resonates with any, or all of you, or what would be your thoughts on that current vibe among your peers?
Baron Davis (20:15): I would say now more than ever, I would say my generation or our generation, we’re looking to support. We’re looking at a movement. We’re thinking differently about government. We’re thinking differently about institutions. We’re thinking differently about media and security and things like that. I would say the generation or a couple of generations before that were renegades and bullish and just disruptive. I think our disruption comes with a feeling of responsibility. So how can you disrupt the current system and then build a better ecosystem to where you’re actually giving to the world. So the collaboration amongst peers, even for us in the case of raising money and partnering, it’s been an incredible opportunity for us and something that I feel good about. I think that it will continue to be embedded in the DNA of these entrepreneurs.
Yonas Beshawred, (21:24): The founders that are coming up now, especially the younger ones, are much more collaborative and much more willing to support each other and open. We’re just not going to make it if everyone’s going to be out for themselves. There’s so much opportunity out there that it’s like, why not support each other?
Elizabeth Zalman (21:42): I do think that there are things that are cutthroat and will remain cutthroat. So if I’m going out for a fundraise at the same time as my two competitors, my God, it’s going to be a fight to the end. But certainly I think there’s such a collaboration without shame, without ego, without pride. It is beautiful to see how the collective helps us all uplift in whatever way we need in that moment. That is unique and that didn’t exist seven years ago when I was at my last company, for sure.
Alex Konrad (22:13): Well, it’s really cool to see this group of rising star entrepreneurs, obviously the ones on our list, but also countless others pulling together and coming up with cool ideas. I think tackling markets where I think, as you said, Liz, you all are still very competitive. You’re still Type A people. But maybe just a little more mindful about how to build a sustainable business. I think that’s really exciting to see. So from Forbes’s position and for I think all of us with Cloud 100, it’s really great to see how you all are building your businesses and how you think about entrepreneurship right now, a very important time. So thank you so much.
Yonas Beshawred, (22:55): Thanks for having us.
Elizabeth Zalman (22:56): Thank you, Alex.
Baron Davis (22:57): Thank you, Alex.See Less