Baron Schwartz, CEO & Cofounder at VividCortex
What are you innovating on right now?
Our product helps companies see and understand the work that their database servers do. Databases are highly sophisticated technology, and it’s a difficult challenge to capture, analyze, and present the bewildering complexity of their activity in ways that people can understand at a glance. In that sense, our user interface is innovative. We also have developed several patent-pending technologies that provide capabilities that aren’t otherwise available to customers, such as the ability to compute things about server behavior that cannot be measured.
I think there’s sometimes a popular misconception that iconic companies are bursting with innovative activity. The reality is that every innovative feature or capability is surrounded by lots of work that’s difficult, but not innovative, just as every great ice skater’s spinning and leaping is supported by precise but standardized footwork that all great skaters do well. We’re working hard on defining our culture, customer support, recruiting, learning, and many other ordinary things that build a platform for innovators to excel. I get lasting satisfaction from the unglamorous activities as well as those that capture the imagination.
What inspired you to follow an entrepreneurial path?
I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I was the person who saw what needed to be done but nobody was doing, and I just did it, even when I wasn’t qualified. In doing that, I became qualified, or I learned enough to find a qualified person to replace me, leaving my ego out of it. I also learned during my previous career leading a consulting team to focus on optimizing the customer’s business overall, not just working with blinders on (i.e. don’t spend a thousand dollars fixing a hundred-dollar problem). Instead of the perfect solution, I’d think about how to fix the real problem, which was rarely what I was asked to fix. I learned that a faster, cheaper, easier solution that gains the same outcome is better than the “right” fix in many cases. That focus on customer outcomes became my watchword and what I tried to cultivate in the rest of the consulting team. These practices together — initiative, customer focus, minimal viable product — might be a definition of entrepreneurship, but I didn’t think about that at the time.
Tell us what you learned from your biggest failure.
Do I have to pick just one? Once I was working on a customer’s systems during the peak of their traffic, when money was practically falling from the sky for them, and I broke their database and brought everything down like a ton of bricks. I called them as fast as my fingers would dial, and we dealt with it. When it was over, I promptly called the VP of Technology and told him exactly what I had done and what I’d caused, without using the passive voice. He just listened and then said calmly, “I don’t need anyone to yell at, so don’t worry. What can we do to prevent this in the future?” The lesson to learn from this is that when there’s bad news, pick up the phone and tell the truth directly and immediately. One of my most deeply-held beliefs is that facing truth and reality is always, always the best policy. Avoiding reality to avoid what M. Scott Peck calls “legitimate suffering” causes illegitimate suffering that’s much worse.
How does Charlottesville as a place support or fuel your innovations?
Please don’t tell anyone this, but Charlottesville is a secret advantage for a company like ours. There’s UVA, there’s a lot of capital if you know where to look, there’s a great quality of life and low cost of living, there’s Amtrak and an amazing airport that always makes me smile inside, there are so many things. One of the intangibles, I’d say, is the culture. We have a generous, friendly, nourishing culture here. And there’s so much happening, from Tom Tom Founder’s Festival to the presence of other companies that are raising the bar, and dozens and dozens of things more, too many to mention.
What would you change or keep the same in Charlottesville?
There’s a lot I wouldn’t change, but there are a few things that always need constant improvement. I’d like more out-of-the-box thinking in planning development and transportation. I’d like tax laws and other policies to explicitly encourage people to found and grow companies, and keep them here. All of these things exist already to some extent, and all of them require time and money, so I try to be patient and grateful for what we have, rather than finding shortcomings. It isn’t as if anyone’s holding us back. There’s more than enough good soil for a great company to take root; no need for a scarcity mentality. So the vast majority of what I know and love about Charlottesville is fine just the way it is.
What is your biggest need right now to advance your innovation?
Can you arrange for the government to increase the number of hours in a day? I’d also like a crystal ball that works. Mine is broken. Thanks. Do I get three wishes?
What is the view from your office like on a typical day?
When I look out my office window, I see the only statue of a Native American woman in the city: Sacagawea, who guided and interpreted for the Lewis and Clark expedition. She’s crouching, hidden behind the two celebrities whose names we all associate with that expedition, and she’s not even named in the statue’s official title. But she was vital to the expedition. It’s a reminder that those hardworking, dedicated, largely unrecognized people who give selflessly of themselves in service to others are often the most deserving of our respect and gratitude.