UPDATED 14:38 EDT / DECEMBER 10 2021


From synthesizers to hot cloud storage: Wasabi CEO says simplicity is key

Toward the end of the 1970s, entrepreneur David Friend (pictured) was meeting with a venture capitalist seeking money to grow a new synthesizer company, based on a leaner, meaner synthesizer he had created at the time. 

Forty years ago, synthesizers used by recording studios were enormous, designed with a lot of knobs and other intricacies that made them difficult to learn how to use. Friend developed a smaller, simpler synthesizer model he envisioned would be marketed to high school rock bands. He formed his first company, ARP Instruments. The company produced synthesizers ultimately used by Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, and even helped Steven Spielberg communicate with aliens providing the legendary five-note communication in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Friend knew that endorsements from rock stars would help sell the product, but getting actual endorsements was a challenging chase game and ultimately very expensive. He created a system called Trendspotter that, with algorithms he developed, captured data from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and other sources that analyzed which musicians were on the rise and, therefore, more approachable for getting endorsements — a method that proved to be successful.

A venture capitalist Friend had met with, it turns out, wasn’t interested in investing in the synthesizer business but was fascinated by the Trendspotter software product he had developed to garner endorsements. 

“He said, ‘You gotta get out of the synthesizer business and commercialize that piece of software.’” The VC offered $2 million for Friend to run the new company, Computer Pictures Corp., and Friend ended up selling ARP Instruments to a bigger music company.

Friend said he was happy to transition to the software business because while the music industry was fun when he was in his twenties, it is an “insane business.” 

Today, Friend is chief executive officer and co-founder of hot cloud storage company Wasabi Technologies Inc., his most recent successful startup. In addition to Wasabi and Computer Pictures, other tech companies Friend has founded or co-founded include Pilot Software, a company that pioneered multidimensional databases for crunching large amounts of customer data; Faxnet, which became the world’s largest provider of fax-to-email services; Sonexis, a VoIP conferencing company; and immediately prior to Wasabi, Carbonite, now one of the world’s leading cloud backup companies.

Keys to success

When asked what he attributes his string of successful companies to, Friend explained that his credo is to keep things simple, starting with his first company, ARP Instruments. 

“I figured that if I could make synthesizers that were simpler, cheaper and smaller, we could sell them to high school rock bands through music stores,” he said. “And now, moving forward five companies later to Wasabi, the biggest difference between Wasabi and Amazon, Google and Microsoft is that we have an extremely simple product.”

Friend and Wasabi co-founder, Jeff Flowers, were sitting around a dining room table in 2015, sketching out what they would do on a piece of paper. The two Carbonite co-founders and cloud storage pioneers started asking how they might cut the cost of cloud data storage by 80% while at the same time make it faster and simpler. Today, the Boston-based, four-year-old company has a $700-million valuation, 35,000 customers, 175 employees, and secured nearly $275 million in funding.

Simplicity, it seems, pays off — as does successful brand-building, Friend added. 

“People have to know and understand who you are and what you stand for — we say we want to be the world’s best provider of cloud storage, period, and we try to make that message very clear and very simple in our advertising,” he said. “We compare ourselves to Amazon all the time, because everybody already knows what Amazon S3 is. We do the exact same thing, only Wasabi is more affordable and faster, and it’s easier to explain what we do.”

Competing with the big guns

When Friend pitched Wasabi to his VC pals, telling them that he was going to compete with Amazon, Google and Microsoft, they pretty much replied, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” 

But Friend remained steadfast in his quest, knowing that Amazon’s business has evolved and its cloud storage product is aging. 

“People buy Amazon to build software, not for storage,” he stated. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years and decided to focus 100% of our attention on being absolutely the best at cloud storage.” 

Ten of those 15 years were spent running three large-scale databases at Carbonite, where they were up against Hewlett-Packard, Iron Mountain and EMC when first coming to market. 

“They were all selling backup by the gigabyte, and customers never really knew how big their bill was going to be and how much data they had on their computers,” Friend explained. “We came in and said, ‘OK, we’re going to offer a $49 a month unlimited storage plan,’ like an all you can eat buffet. We may have lost a little money on half a percent of folks who ate $40 worth of food but paid $19.95, but it was a small price to pay for making it easy and predictable for everybody else.”

HP, Iron Mountain and EMC have since left the market, and by the time Friend departed Carbonite, the company was backing up 600 million files every night, which required a huge amount of storage. Simplicity wins again.

A bottomless cloud

Business models increasingly depend on analyzing data. From drug discovery to unveiling new exoplanets, and from defeating ransomware to storing cryptocurrency, it all depends on storing large amounts of data, cheaply. Wasabi’s Hot Cloud Storage is a one-size-fits-all cloud storage technology that is one-fifth the price and faster than the competition with no egress fees, API call charges, or additional hidden fees — a “bottomless cloud” that grows as the business grows, according to the company.

The company is focused entirely on cloud storage with the intent of making it a simple utility, like electricity. Customers pay for what they need, when they need it, and it’s always on and always available. Wasabi’s customer base is “all over the map,” with some very small and some very huge users, according to Friend.

“Some are paying us five bucks a month to backup one computer, and others are paying $100,000 a month to store things like town surveillance videos, movies from entertainment studios (one known for the Batman films), hospital X-rays and other patient records, and telescope pictures from Chile that show the night sky along with satellite data,” he said. 

“You know, the beauty of our product is that it’s just storage. It’s similar to if you’ve got old furniture and some boxes to store, you can call a storage company to come pick them up and keep them for you. That’s how we operate. It doesn’t matter what you have; we’ll store it for you.”

Words of wisdom

With 40+ years of experience under his belt, there is one thing Friend said he would have done differently, and that is to seek out mentorship. 

“It would have been really nice early on in my career to have had some good mentorship,” he explained. “I had to learn out of necessity and probably wasted a lot of time and a lot of investor money by not knowing what I was doing. I would have benefited from having good mentors along the way.” 

Now a mentor himself, Friend continues to hammer away at the importance of simplicity with young entrepreneurs. 

“Most people couldn’t care less whether you succeed or fail, so it’s really incumbent on you to know how to explain your product in a way that’s so simple and easy to understand that people don’t get bored and lose interest,” Friend said. “I read so many business plans that start out with three pages of industry background, and by the time I’ve reached page seven, I still won’t have a clue what the company does. If you look at one of my investor pitches, you’re on slide one and you already know what we do and why we’re here.”  

Having started out as a composer and then engineer, Friend does not have a business background. But he believes the most important aspect of being an entrepreneur is learning how to sell. 

“You have to learn how to sell people on coming to join the company, you have to sell to potential investors, and you have to sell to potential customers,” he stated. “Once you have a vision, then you have to sell everybody on it, because you can’t bring in good people without the money, you can’t bring in the money without good people, and you can’t bring in either of those if you don’t have a good product.”

It’s like spinning a web, according to Friend, where all of these elements come together at the same time. 

“It’s a tricky skill to acquire, but that’s what you have to do,” he said. “A lot of companies are run by introverted engineers who don’t really like selling, but if you don’t get into it, if you don’t get excited about selling your vision, it’s very hard to be successful.”

Photo: Wasabi

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