Had life gone differently, Brian probably would’ve gone on tour with Metallica as a sound engineer, but, luckily for OpenContext, his day job at a startup was engaging enough to propel him through 25 years in tech instead. As our CEO, Brian is leading the OpenContext team to create a tool with the power of what he once tried to do with about a billion spreadsheets, while building a company we all want to come to work for every day.
I sat down with Brian to learn more about what it’s been like being a co-founder and CEO at OpenContext. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
Astoria, Oregon. On the Columbia River, on the Washington side, above the bridge in what's called the Blind Channel, up by an old shipwreck. It’s my favorite fishing spot in the world. I’ve fished there for 3 weeks every year for the last 16 years.
I’m hooked on Apple Notes. I’ve tried all the rest but I can't get over the simplicity of notes.
I really hate it when people leave used k-cups in the coffee maker. And surprises—I hate surprises.
The last time I karaoked was probably 18+ years ago and I sang “She Hates Me” by Puddle of Mudd. An embarrassingly good time was had by all, but nobody will ever let me do it again, thankfully.
The Anarchist's Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz.
It’s about 100+ year old hand tools and woodworking. The author’s whole principle is that all modern tools and everything in a Home Depot are simply a “tool-shaped object” that doesn't work. Basically, if it wasn't built 100 years ago, it's no good.
Once you get startup in your blood, it never leaves.
Maybe that I got my start in tech working at a grocery store. When the Safeway I was working for in the 90s needed extra help rolling out tech to new stores they were building, I volunteered to help. The next thing I knew I was integrating new checkstand technology to every Safeway store in Arizona and California.
After that, I got a job at a startup in Portland, and then another one, and then another. Once you get startup in your blood, it never leaves.
I've probably spent 25 years in tech. I’ve been at a whole bunch of different companies, but my most recent company was called iovation.
I started there in 2007 and the company had been around a couple of years. We were the world's largest online device reputation authority for fraud prevention. We cataloged reputations for 4 or 5 billion devices on the internet for online merchants and anybody with online fraud concerns. We would answer questions like, “Have you seen this device before? Has it had a negative experience with any of your customers?” “How likely is this transaction to end badly?”
Every big bank in the world uses the platform and we sold it to TransUnion in 2018. I stuck around after that for a couple of years and then I left and took the summer off and said, “what am I doing next?” And here we are.
if I wanted to work in a certain type of company, I was probably going to have to build it from the ground up.
I started at iovation very early and through the whole process of building that company, we made it the company that we wanted to work for. Looking back at the fact that so many of us on the team had been there for 10+ years when we sold, we knew we were onto something from a culture and team dynamic perspective. Through the acquisition experience, where the new company culture could not be more different than what we had built, it dawned on me that if I wanted to work in a certain type of company, I was probably going to have to build it from the ground up. So I set out to build another one.
To me, it comes down to the people who I am working with. Do they all have a sense of unity around the vision? Can we deliver on it? Can we solve a problem that we've all experienced? Is there joy in what we’re doing here? Can we find a common purpose through our diversity?
I bought into what we were doing at iovation from a purpose perspective. We called ourselves Virtual Crime Fighters. We were stopping hundreds of thousands of fraud attempts a day at the start and it eventually was up in the millions a day and it felt really good. Having worked for internet businesses that had fraud problems in the past, it really struck a chord with me to be able to do something about it.
Today, what OpenContext is solving is a deeply-rooted problem in technology product companies. No matter what tech company you come from, this idea strikes home and there’s an aha moment.
When I look back at my history before this and before iovation, the two companies that I enjoyed most were other startups. I think startups are what I do and I don't do big companies.
I like setting my own destiny. I like seeing things come to light from nothing. There's something about coming together to build this thing. Once we’ve solved the problem, people are enjoying using it and once we can do five, we can do 500.
And I think about what Paul Graham said, “some people, perhaps most people, don’t mind being told what to do. But I’ve never met a successful startup CEO I’d say that of.”
The thing I love about this team most is that none of us are remotely the same. We have very different perspectives on how to do things and how a company should look. I may not be super deep on CI/CD pipelines or Terraform and managing the nuances of AWS and Google APIs, but, Alice is, I don't know much about modern front-end web development, but my team does. What we come up with here is going to cover all the bases. We trust each other to cover their areas of the business.
It's funny because it's not who I thought I would start a company with. All of the advice out there says to start a company with somebody you've known forever. I'm coming up on my one-year anniversary of meeting Beth and Alice. So while we haven’t known each other forever, what we’ve done to get this far as a company feels like forever. Getting a company built from the ground up is no small thing. I feel like I struck gold starting this business with them.
From a product perspective, developing software has never been easier than it is right now, but it's also never been harder. The expectations are so much more complicated now than ever before and what you need to deliver to be competitive is so much more involved now than it was 10 years ago. Getting all of the things you need in your product is harder. Security is harder. Compliance is harder. So anything OpenContext can do to make that whole life cycle easier is a good thing.
We’re also currently in very strange times. Covid, remote work, the great resignation, political changes, and general unrest in the world. All of these factors are playing a part in businesses in uncharted ways. If we can bring relevant context, I feel we’ll make a positive dent in the universe and help companies deal with the never-ending change through shared context.
I’ve seen firsthand just how painful it can be when everybody leaves a company, or even the other end of the spectrum when you’re going through massive growth and the team is exploding. You start shuffling and going into panic mode about who's going to own each thing. How's that team going to be structured? And we didn't have a tool like OpenContext. We had my spreadsheets.
As everybody's moving around they’ll need context about the environment they're going into. Our tool is going to help them significantly. They're also going to need to do more with fewer people, which means they need to understand everything they have available.
Right now, nobody even knows where to go to get answers at most companies. We're going to bring clarity to that. I think that's exciting.
Getting all of the things you need in your product is harder. Security is harder. Compliance is harder. So anything OpenContext can do to make that whole life cycle easier is a good thing.
Looking back at how it changed over the last five years and the five years before that, you see everybody picking up and moving everything to the cloud. That’s really changed the roles in tech a lot.
I come from a deep background in Unix Systems and Storage administration and general IT. I don't want to say those jobs are going away, but they’ve changed a lot for folks who couldn't become DevOps-oriented. We're going to start to see more tooling around DevOps and SRE to the point where developers are going to be able to do more on their own.
It's easier now for you to build a prototype than it ever was. And I don't even mean prototype. I mean, something that could evolve into a full-blown product. We're going to start to see people with a product idea able to go use off-the-shelf technology to build it without having a whole lot of support. There are already codeless app building tools. Lots of them.
It's so easy for somebody to go stand up a service on their own, but it might need to interact with dozens of other services. That's not going away.
Connectivity is going to be everything to all of these cloud services because without properly mapping the network of tools and people and services, the future of the already messy state of the cloud is going to be a disaster. Context—and OpenContext, of course—is going to clean that up and change the way tech organizations work together for the better.
Starting a company is no easy thing, it takes a lot of long hours and more stress than anyone can imagine. I couldn't do this without the support of my amazing wife Erica, and my family who’ve been putting up with a ton of changes and helping me out along the way.