Meet Ian Rae – Founder and CEO of CloudOps – a cloud computing engineering firm that provides software and services to manage “the cloud”– and a member of the Board Directors at Genome Canada and Air Transat. We spoke to Ian about his journey from genetics to cloud computing and why people are the key to unlocking business success.
The Failed Scientist
It all started with my interest in genetics – which if you connect to the modern world was really an interest in the information of technology. I was fascinated by the diversity and complexity of living things. But when I finally got to working with organisms in a lab, I realized I wasn’t very good at it. So I found myself in the mid to late nineties with a biology degree from McGill as a bit of a failed scientist. I was wondering what on earth I could do with my life.
Luckily, I had always been fascinated by the internet. When I started my biology degree, the way I put myself through university was by building networks. When I graduated, the most valuable experience I had received from school was building IP networks and wiring science labs to the internet.
This hobby turned out to be a knowledge and skill set that by 1997 was in enormous demand. I became convinced in 1999 that I absolutely had to work for a tech company. That’s when I met Alistair Croll. He had gone to the Valley to work for a tech company and was bringing that world back to Montreal. That’s how I ended up on his Networkshop team. It opened the door for me to become part of the tech industry – immediately working with companies like Cisco and Nortel. The company was renamed Coradiant in 1999 and in late 2000 Alistair raised US$20M Series A financing – the biggest Series A in Canadian tech industry at the time. It was a very intense learning experience for me during the four years I worked with the company. We learned a lot about how raising money presents a whole new set of challenges and risks. It was the first indication of how important it is to have product market fit.
Entrepreneurial lessons and the value of people
Shortly after Network Shop I started what is now my core business – CloudOps. CloudOps was really about making a bet on an emerging market – cloud operations management – that seemed like it was going to be an infinite game kind of market. I got involved early, and it’s been fantastic. But figuring out the business part took time. When you start as a business, you usually don’t have a lot of customers. You don’t have a lot of things to occupy yourself and you’re sitting there and checking your email, waiting for someone to care about what you do. And in the early days of cloud, nobody cared.
In 2008, I was introduced to Eric Ries’s Lean Startup by Alistair who had received an advanced copy. This was sort of the missing insight for me. The book basically says before you build something, you might have a hypothesis about what the market wants and what the market needs, but it’s a good idea to test that out. Maybe you want to iterate in advance around the destination you’re building towards before you start really racing down that road and getting good at building towards it. That learning stuck with all us and sort of led to Year One Labs, an accelerator where we tested and iterated ideas with founders a lot.
Year One Labs taught me one of the most valuable lessons in my career: that if you want to succeed, it’s a combination of people, process and technology. You can have the tech and you can even have the process, but if you don’t also have the people ingredient figured out, you won’t succeed. I realized far too late in my career the value of people. I think that’s because it’s the part that has always been the most uncomfortable for me. I found it much easier to work with technology. But really the way you unlock the potential of your technology to have great outcomes for society is through people. I’ve really embraced this in my approach to my businesses now.
The Infinite Game
My investment strategy is about building capabilities that are differentiated and that support a value chain that I believe in. I also think the time horizon is important. When you look at building anything sustainable, you’re taking a longer term viewpoint and an understanding that things are going to change in this crazy startup environment that we live in.
In evolutionary biology, time is unbelievably important. If we look at how different species adopt strategies to deal with the environment, what you generally see is that time is a critical component of the selective force that leads to innovation in the biological world. I would argue it’s the same in technology. CloudOps is kind of a vast and infinite game, it has longevity. I’ve now been building cloud companies for 15 years and have my hands on three very interesting cloud startups. We know the problems we’re tackling won’t go away, they’re just going to get bigger and deeper.
I feel like 50 years from now, corporations and tech investors are going to look back and we’re going to be like Highline Beta was at the genesis of a very powerful way of doing things..”Ian Rae
I really appreciate Highline’s co-creation model – and I only invest in projects that I see being worthwhile in the long-term. I feel like 50 years from now, we’re going to look back and we’re going to be like Highline Beta was at the genesis of a very powerful way of doing things. I think the most incredible scientific developments are typically at the intersection of multiple fields and the same with the tech world. They’re rarely coming out of a straight line. A bank on its own cannot unlock and achieve the kind of innovation it could when harnessing the agility of a startup. With the co-creation model, you combine strengths to unlock that full power.
About Ian Rae
Ian Rae is the Founder and CEO of CloudOps, a cloud computing services and software firm that provides multi-cloud solutions for SaaS and e-commerce companies, large enterprises and telecommunications providers. He is also the Founder of cloud.ca, a Canadian cloud infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) focused on data residency, privacy and security requirements. Prior to CloudOps, he was Head of Engineering at Coradiant, a leader in web application performance management.
Ian Rae is currently a member of the board of directors for Genome Canada and Air Transat. He is also a member of the Digital Industries Table for the Government of Canada and a member of the Canadian Council of Innovators.
Ian Rae holds a B.Sc. Hon. in Biology from McGill University in evolutionary genetics and is involved both as an advisor and an angel investor in Canada’s startup community.