In support of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2015, we are featuring conversations with authors, founders, leaders, and visionaries. We hope their insights and experience inspire you to propel your own ideas into action.
Frederic Kerrest is the Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Okta. He is responsible for Okta’s day-to-day operations, working with employees, partners and customers to deliver on the company’s mission of leveraging the cloud to make people more productive and IT more secure. As a key member of management, Frederic helps set corporate priorities to drive success for the company and its customers.
Frederic shared valuable insights on building a business, understanding customers, and maintaining a constant dialogue with them.
Can you tell us how you have built and grown Okta?
Since my co-founder (and Okta CEO) Todd McKinnon and I founded Okta in 2009, we knew we wanted to build a long-term, independent software company. For the first few years, that meant investing time and money into building the infrastructure. We strongly believed the most successful technology companies thrive because, in their earliest days, they focused on keenly identifying market challenges, creating a superior product and delighting their customers in new, innovative ways. We started out focusing on one product and one customer pain point with web single sign-on, but we also saw the opportunity to do much more with the identity foundation we were building. Now, we have a full suite of identity and mobility management products, and some of the world’s biggest businesses use Okta as the identity layer for their consumer-facing portals.
What is the best information an entrepreneur needs when they first start out?
If you’re building an enterprise company — especially if you want to be a long-term, foundational one — you need to gather information on the market and customer needs. Even before we started Okta, Todd and I were out meeting with potential customers to understand their needs and challenges, and what would make their businesses more efficient and productive. As we’ve grown and our products have evolved, our customer feedback loop has informed and even driven direction in the products. My advice to young entrepreneurs? Know your customers and their businesses, and keep a constant, open dialogue with them.
What’s your process for taking an early idea and evolving it into something more?
You’re going to start noticing a theme here… For me, this process involves early and constant customer feedback. When developing something new, we iterate with customers and prospects throughout the process to ensure we’re building something truly useful — not just something you thought up for fun in your ivory tower (aka your office).
When we were building Okta early on, we were constantly putting our ideas in front of prospective customers. We shared drawings, mockups, HTML, then code, then a little more code — asking for feedback every step along the way. That’s how to evolve an idea into something more: get your customers on board.
If you were starting a new venture today, what would be the first item on your to-do list?
Purchase an expensive espresso machine and a lot of tasty, strong coffee beans!
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I’m inspired by what’s going on in technology today. Thanks to the digital revolution, every business is using technology to reinvent itself.
The biggest companies in the world and so many you wouldn’t expect — like GE and Domino’s Pizza — are becoming software companies.
Not only that, but an entrepreneur with a great idea can build much of what he or she needs to get to market just using cloud apps and services. A few years ago that would have been unimaginable.
What is the best advice/lesson you got from a mentor or leader?
I’m not going to attempt to single out one piece of advice because I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a lot of advice and audience from industry leaders and personal mentors. I’ll share a few:
Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan (and managing director at Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship) has a sign in his office that says “Keep the main thing the main thing.” When you’re an entrepreneur just starting out, you have to focus on getting from 0 to 1 because that momentum is the hardest to achieve.
Thanks to Okta’s Chief Product Officer Eric Berg, I now have a poster on the wall next to my desk with a quote from Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, that reads, “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.”
Obviously strategy is key to building a company, but it’s the day-to-day execution that will create real value over the long term.
And I don’t have a poster with this piece of advice from Ben Horowitz’s recent Commencement speech at Columbia, but maybe I should: “Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow.” His message — don’t just “follow your passions,” because what you’re passionate about at 21 will likely change by the time you’re 40 — is an important one for young professionals in the early stage of their careers.
Last but not least, I have to give my parents credit for the simple lessons that have made the most impact: work hard, behave with integrity, enjoy your family time and have fun.
What drives you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Our customers. We work with thousands of companies — big and small, in every industry and region — looking to bring on new, exciting technology. Hearing about the opportunities and challenges they face moving to the cloud or implementing mobile initiatives is what drives me. Our promise is to help companies fulfill their missions by making it easy and secure for them to use the technologies they need to do their most important work, and it’s what drives everyone at Okta. That’s why customer success is a core company value. Okta’s an essential component in how some of the world’s biggest companies do their work each day and we know that if our customers are successful, so are we.
Who are you following right now that is inspiring to you — authors, advisors, businesses or brands? Share some of the people doing exciting work that inspires you.
I’m currently reading Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future and although, like most entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, I’ve always been inspired by Elon Musk, now he’s even more top of mind. He brings a “think big” approach to everything he does — at Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity — that’s off the charts. And not only does he think big, but he does big. So big that he truly believes he can change the world.
What’s in your toolkit? What are the resources you can’t do without?
Since we’re on the Evernote blog right now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I can’t live or work without my Evernote — and the small physical notebook I carry around. I recently shared with Inc. how I end every Friday by organizing my weekly meeting notes in Evernote. That might sound like a relatively quick task for the average note taker, but I am not the average note taker.
I have over 700 Evernote notes and I take aggressive shorthand notes in my notebook during every meeting. One page of chicken scratch in my notebook usually translates to multiple pages within Evernote, and I spend a solid hour at the end of every week typing up all my handwritten notes and organizing them as actions and to-dos in Evernote. It helps me keep organized and as long as I transfer everything to Evernote, I know I’ll always have the notes I need to reference easily accessible.
What was the last book you read?
I recently finished Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary by Arnold Thackray, David Brock and Rachel Jones, which focuses on how Gordon Moore co-founded Intel, emphasizing the challenges and opportunities he and his team faced. The enduring nature of the innovative business they built — when you think about the days of enormous, clunky computers to today, when everyone has a tiny, slick computer in their pockets or on their wrists — is inspiring.
Any parting advice for entrepreneurs that are just starting out?
Something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently — especially in our frothy market — is that there’s never really a “right” or “wrong” time to start a business. I built my first startup in Argentina during the economic crisis-turned-revolution in 2001, and Todd and I started Okta in the depths of the US recession in 2009.
I’ve written about this in the past: starting a business is hard under any set of circumstances. It’s true — if you’re building a business for the long-term, at some point, you’ll likely have to deal with a difficult economy, a hard funding climate or other financial circumstances out of your control. But there’s also some positives to come out of difficult circumstances: it might be more difficult to raise money, but it’s easier to hire talent in a downturn. Learning to lead during hard times will help set up you and your company for the future — and the sooner you learn, the better.