Note: Video available for this story
It’s an incredible honor to have the opportunity to speak to you on your commencement today.
It’s been an interesting decade since leaving here. Now, I warn you: I am not Bill Nye or Bill Clinton (Both past RIT Commencement speakers). In fact, when RIT first reached out asking if I would be willing to speak at commencement, when I told my friend, her first reaction after a pause was, “I wonder who canceled.” You’ll be surprised to hear that this is the first convocation I have ever attended. This kind of pomp and circumstance is rarely my kind of thing.
While writing this, I’ve tried to figure out how it must feel, to be armed with knowledge, experience, classmates, friends and an indiscernible future ahead of you.
Ten years ago is when I should have graduated with my Bachelor's of Science in bioinformatics. I was staring down a 2.2 GPA, no internships, and not enough credits. I began talking to my academic adviser about the idea of potentially starting a business, explaining that perhaps I could co-op for myself for the summer when in all honesty, I was worried no one would hire me.
When I told my adviser about my idea, he made it very clear it was not going to fly. The idea that someone could build what I wanted to do from scratch and sell it with no prior experience or funding was clearly not in the realm of possibility. If the goal of my adviser’s lecture was to get me to stubbornly pursue this idea anyways, then his advice could not have been more perfect.
Sometimes failure can be one of the most liberating places to be. Seeing as I was already struggling with my academics, I felt there was nothing to lose in attempting to see my idea through: I now had the motivation to prove someone wrong.
So, I left RIT and moved home to Connecticut. I drew up a one page business plan with the best possible case my company could someday be worth $100,000 and I would sell it to buy a sports car, an Audi R8.
When I tell the story of Datto, many people are surprised that I didn’t have some grand vision when I created the company. In life people always say you have to dream big, to achieve big things. For me, that isn’t the case. I have found it’s far better to dream often and just dream a little bit bigger than where you are today.
Venturing blindly into the void is often less scary than walking the path with clear eyes.
Success did not come quickly or easily. Early on I learned that pretty much every investor in the world shared my academic adviser's view that I was not working on a winning idea. I ended up initially funding the company with $80,000 in credit card debt and working a part-time job at a packaging company. The first product contained multiple pieces of Lego and hot glue. Our secure data center was made up of some servers in basement on a cable modem. I used a bunch of accents to create multiple fake employees for tech support. It truly was a fake it till you make it operation.
Even from the beginning, I made a point of trying to make the office as fun and ridiculous as possible. We drove around our early office in Power Wheels cars and there was beer pong many afternoons. While it was fun it also helped mask the fact that in those early years we were never more than a few weeks away from going out of business. We now continue to have fun across our offices; the Norwalk office has a Lego wall, the British office has a pub, I converted a coworker’s cube into a ball pit, and we’re even able to close Six Flags for an evening for our summer party. I guess the fun has just scaled along with us.
That’s the thing with overnight successes: they almost always take years. One of the first times I realized that we had actually made it came in early 2013 when things shifted permanently.
One of the pivotal points for Datto is something I didn’t do. In February of 2013 a major security firm made an offer to buy my company for $100 million dollars. This was 1,000 times greater than my original $100,000 goal. I remember clearly receiving the offer and being unable to keep straight face in the meeting. This was more money than I had ever dreamed of. After the meeting I called my lawyer and sent him a copy of the offer. His words of advice still ring in my head today. “Austin,” he said, “You could regret this decision for the rest of your life, from the beach of your own private island.” Naturally, I called my parents as well and they were unsure why I was even deliberating on what to do.
For some reason though, I just couldn’t say yes. Deep down I wasn’t ready to hand over the reigns to someone else. Much to the dismay of those around me, I turned the offer down. It was one of the most freeing days of my life. Lots of people say they love what they do, but rarely is it tested with a nine-digit price tag attached to it. If you can find one thing in life, find something you truly love. It’s funny because prior to this event I had never stopped to consider whether or not I loved what I was doing. It was this passion though, that made it possible for me run through walls, work 90-hour weeks, face insurmountable odds, and just keep going in the face of the impossible. While it certainly takes luck to be successful, I am not sure it’s possible without love and a passion for what you’re doing.
Building something great is never a solo endeavor. Getting you to where you are today has taken the effort and support of hundreds of people. From your parents, to the numerous teachers, mentors and professors that have given you the knowledge and inspiration to earn your degrees. No matter what your interests or personality, life is a social experience. It took me time to realize this, and the offer I walked away from helped make that clear to me. If I had taken the offer I would have walked away with an enormous check and those who had put their blood, sweat and tears in by my side would have gotten nothing. Afterwards, I made sure that everyone who works me had shares in the company, so that if an opportunity ever came again, everyone stands to benefit. Greed rarely builds greatness.
I have learned that taking time to recognize those that have helped you along the way is one of the most important and grounding things you can do. You can never be too thankful. No matter what great things you go on to do from today, don’t forget those that helped you get there, and don’t forget to help others in their journey. Recognition helps communicate appreciation and supporting others in their endeavors can also communicate that appreciation and value you place on that person.
One of the most valuable things you will have gained from RIT will be the people you have met. I’m sure you’ve heard this before but it’s worth repeating: the connections you have made here will last a lifetime. Even years forward you will find you can call on the people you know now, and they will be there for you. They will prove to be invaluable to you and stand to make more of a difference than anything you have learned in a classroom.
Since turning down the offer, this crazy idea I spoke to my adviser about has continued to grow. Incredibly in 2015, just over two years later, we made the decision to raise money and when the venture capital firm went to value the company, it came back at a billion dollars. As we’ve grown, I’ve kept it a priority to make the office as fun and ridiculous as possible. I am proud to say I work somewhere with a ball pit, pinball, Lego wall, and a hidden room full of whiskey.
Finding a balance has been hard. The world has this way of pushing you into tracks and paths. In a few years you’ll see; maybe some of your friends are buying a house, others are getting married, and/or having a kids. There is an expectation or pressure we’re all supposed to keep up. Just realize that it is an illusion. A sitcom family with a nice house and two and a half kids may be what your parents always dreamed of for you. This life is yours and there is no requirement that you follow anyone else’s path.
In looking back at all my experiences since leaving RIT, I feel Mark Twain said it best:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Thank you! And congratulations, Class of 2017!