In this series, we’re putting the spotlight on founders who leverage software beyond the screen to build exciting startups. Each founder has their own nerdy background (we define nerdiness as having a deep obsession) that led them to launch their startup. Meet Yadhu Gopalan, Founder and CEO of Esper, an Android DevOps startup that helps organizations remotely scale and manage their mission-critical edge devices. Ubiquity Ventures first backed in their June 2018 seed round.
Can you sum up what your company does in just one sentence?
Esper is DevOps for Devices. Specifically, Esper offers an Android DevOps SaaS platform that provides a mature cloud infrastructure for customers across industries who are building app solutions for mission-critical devices.
What is the story behind co-founding Esper?
After failing with my first startup right after graduate school, I learned that I needed a partner who wasn’t another engineer. My former Microsoft colleague Shiv Sundar was the ideal co-founder. It turned out that Shiv was already thinking of doing a startup, so we connected at the exact right time. We had both spent decades of our careers at the intersection of hardware and software and wanted to build something in that space. We began seed fundraising and started Esper in June 2018. (Editor’s note: Huge thanks to Avidan at Root for inviting Ubiquity to co-lead this inception-stage seed round).
Esper’s original focus was securely managing devices, but after talking with customers we realized the industry needed solutions for application and OS deployment. While security is very important, security doesn’t matter if you can’t actually deploy or update Android. Keeping devices up-to-date is 99% of security hygiene for dedicated devices, assuming you’re not putting random applications and content on the device.
I also knew that before any real engineering project can begin, you have to have infrastructure. I built the underlying infrastructure multiple times at Microsoft and Amazon and thought, why can’t I just build this once and let everyone use it? Esper was created because our customers needed a great platform for Android DevOps that they could innovate on top of.
When did you first get into this area of software infrastructure for devices?
During my time at Microsoft and Amazon, I built a mature infrastructure for deployment and management multiple times. I got a front row seat to the evolution of DevOps. In my earliest days at Microsoft we didn’t have DevOps, but we had test labs where we figured out how to evolve to rapid iteration. I saw DevOps for devices come to fruition at Amazon Go after spending a few years doing telemetry on AWS data centers. I learned how useful the DevOps mindset can be, and that idea is really at the core of what Esper is trying to do: achieve the maturity I built at Microsoft and Amazon for all companies who want to scale device fleets.
DevOps principles are only about a decade old, but they’re the product of many years of lessons learned. My vision was to build out Esper’s mature DevOps infrastructure once for everyone to use.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something. What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
I’m obsessed with building systems and how systems come together. Operating systems have many different components that are beautifully placed to make a usable product. If you peel those layers back like an onion, you’ll discover a file system, a kernel, and a graphic layer. All these layers come together to create an operating system that’s not obvious to the end user, rather they just knows it’s usable.
Lately, the trend has been toward cloud services, which is a part of what we do at Esper. But, I get lost in the beauty of the microcode and architecture of operating systems. Before I know it, three hours have passed.
I’ll install new languages and play around with them if I see buzz about something new. I also love the hardware layer. My house is full of electronics, hardware, and gizmos for hobby projects. I have thousands of different resistors and capacitors and maybe someday I’ll even have time to touch them. I got my son started with Lego robots and building desktops at a young age. Today, he shares my belief that complete and working systems are a thing of beauty.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet jumped off to launch their new company?
- An MVP is Not Enough: I wish I knew how much it takes to build something the customer really wants — not something customers can use in a hobby sort of way, but a product that customers can put into production when their livelihoods depend on it. For infrastructure products like Esper, a minimum viable product (MVP) is not enough. It actually has to do more.
- Be Customer-Obsessed from Day #1: Don’t take your first customers for granted, even if they’ll never be a huge customer. In the beginning, your customers are taking a bet on you as a startup, and you need to make sure that you’re delivering a product that’s solid and does what it’s supposed to do. Treat them really well and go above and beyond for them.
- Surround Yourself with Diverse, Challenging Perspectives: I’m very careful to surround myself with people who are not like me, especially folks who are willing to provide guidance on how a different aspect of the business should be done. I want people to contribute to decisions, so I strive really hard to be the last person to share my opinion in discussions. I don’t steer conversations because I want other voices to be heard loud and clear.
Are you a founder in the smart hardware or machine learning sector? Let’s talk!
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm managing close to $100 million with a focus on startups transforming real-world physical problems into problems solved with “software beyond the screen”. Ubiquity’s portfolio includes B2B technology companies that utilize smart hardware or machine learning to solve business problems outside the reach of computers and smartphones.
Originally published at https://ubiquityvc.substack.com.