Sok-Kheng Taing and Bernd Greifeneder
Dynatrace is the pioneer among startups in Linz. Eighteen years old, with more than 4,200 employees based in Linz, Vienna, Boston and more than sixty other locations around the globe, the deeptech company has long outgrown the status of new kid on the block. Still, talking to founders Sok-Kheng Taing and Bernd Greifeneder, one gets the sense that startup vibes are still an essential part of the company culture. Today, Dynatrace sees their role in turning Linz into the prolific tech hub it is already on the way to becoming.
Tell me a little bit about where you’re from and what’s your background.
Sok-Kheng: I came to Austria and Linz from Cambodia as a six year-old with my family. My parents had entrepreneurial experience but that didn’t count for much in Austria. They had to start at the very bottom, doing assembly-line work, and slowly climbing their way back up again. It was tough. I learned from the very beginning that education is everything. My dad told me it’s the only thing no one can ever take away from you. So I went through the whole Austrian education system and ended up studying economics here in Linz. Back then, Amazon had just entered the stock market, internet and ecommerce were all very new and exciting. I worked for some time at a company building up their ecommerce business. It was around that time I met Bernd Greifeneder.
Bernd: . The Austrian school system is geared towards specialization from early on and I majored in mechanical engineering and industrial engineering. After that, I decided to go to university, got a stipend and studied mechatronics and graduated in computer science. There is no family background of entrepreneurship. During school education I was quite anxious about my social skills, the idea of leading a team frightened me (laughs). That changed soon. I cofounded a startup in Linz and became CTO of a NASDAQ company when I was twenty-seven. We were very involved with the beginnings of ecommerce and faced the same scenarios over and over again: companies had a problem with their online store, the system had crashed and now they didn’t know what to do.
Back in 2005, few people realized how essential the kind of deep-technology would become that we were building.
How did the two of you meet and decide to join forces?
Bernd: We came from the same university and had known each other already for some time. I was working as a software architect and had an idea for a product. In essence I wanted to understand how you can trace any given click on a website through all the systems – browser, first server, second server to database – and know what is happening on the way. That was my research question. With whatever digital company I worked for, they always struggled with putting out fires and fixing systems that were too big to be understood by humans alone. So I wanted to build software that could do that. Success, however, is always a matter of good marketing and distribution, it’s not enough to have a good product. Sok-Kheng was great at sales, so one day I told her about my idea to create a software intelligence platform that monitored other’s software and IT systems and made sure they ran smoothly. And she said, that’s exactly what we need!
Sok-Kheng: Founding Dynatrace was really a best-case scenario. Our skills are the dream combination. Plus, we had a similar amount of experience in our respective fields at the time we started collaborating. At some point, our investors recommended us to get a third person on board with a financial background. We met up with Hubert Gerstmayr, and it was again a perfect match. Back in 2005, few people realized how essential the kind of deep-technology would become that we were building. He was one of them.
What is it exactly that your company builds?
Bernd: We are still working on the same product as in the beginning. Imagine a company with 20,000 or 40,000 or 200,000 servers, like Bank of America, Porsche, H&M or SAP. They all have a vast, global IT cloud landscape and need to make sure every element in the system communicates properly with all the others. When you have 200,000 servers – and some of these companies will soon have one million servers – humans simply cannot monitor the situation anymore. Our product, also called Dynatrace, is a software that can detect, analyze and repair security flaws and errors in other software systems, often before they even occur or cause any trouble. Deeptech means that we are the technology behind a company's technology, systemically relevant without most people knowing about it.
Given your ground-breaking success over the last 18 years, what is it that keeps you in Linz?
Sok-Kheng: From the beginning, we wanted to be part of a community. It is crucial in the early days to have a good support network and people who believe in what you do. This is something we found in Linz, and for which we are so grateful. These days we try to give back to the next generation of startups, supporting others on their journey, hosting events, opening doors as business angels. We want Linz to become an internationally renowned tech hub and are doing our part to achieve that goal. Plus, Linz is simply a city with a very livable culture. Our employees who come from abroad love Linz for its laid back vibe, the surrounding nature, the culture and restaurant scene.
Bernd: Almost all of the first one hundred employees we ever hired are still working for us. Sure, there are many other cool cities in Europe. But often there’s a tendency for employees to move on quickly after a couple of years. What we need and want is to build a culture of long-term commitment. Only when personal circumstances are secured in a holistic and stable manner – for example, work-life balance or the compatibility of family and career – will people be able to develop their full individual strengths on the job. This hugely benefits a company's innovative power. That is one of the reasons why many of our colleagues stay with the company for the long term, and that’s why we invest a lot in inhouse culture and employee experience. By now word has gotten out about that. Another thing I really value about Linz are the great universities. A new one is supposed to be founded in the future and we were on the initial advisory board. We like to keep an eye on new talents.
What kind of stumbling stones did you encounter on the way?
Sok-Kheng: In the beginning we burned a lot of money in sales because we hired the wrong people. Our product was new and so was the market we were entering and its distribution ways. The people we hired were experienced in the old ways to do sales, but what we needed were new sales and distribution models. So we had to hire new, younger people who were not stuck in the old ways. Only later did we get experienced people back on board.
Bernd: We always underestimated how much money we needed. We had €1 million seed financing and some of our own savings we invested. That should do it, we thought. How naïve we were. Sales and distribution are expensive and so is product development. Fortune 100 companies were deliberately defined as the target group for our B2B product. These customers have high expectations, which require appropriate investments and professionalism. That costs money.
From the beginning, our goal was to expand internationally and to be part of a global community.
Are you willing to share some advice for younger entrepreneurs on how to steer clear of some mistakes?
Bernd: One of the most important skills is to keep your ego in check. I see it with younger founders all the time, the great difficulty of letting go, handing over responsibility. Ask yourself often, “Where is my area of expertise and where do I need other people?” You are only as good as your team. When I was CEO of one hundred employees I realized it’s time to change things, step into being CTO and hand over the CEO post to someone else. You can only grow if you’re able to redistribute responsibility. Try to think ahead in your decisions. For example: What talent do you need to hire now in order to grow X amount within the next two years?
Sok-Kheng: I will say that founding a company is not a lifestyle. It’s a lot of hard work. We don’t have a lot of ego around here. We are makers, want to build and learn. To be replaceable is not something to be afraid of but to thrive for. Diversity in a team is very important, that’s something I pass on to others. I don’t want to be a one-woman show. Building a great team is everything. Another thing is to be very conscious about working across time zones. In the beginning of Dynatrace, I was getting up early to communicate with customers in Asia and staying up until late talking to people in the US. Soon enough we realized we need distribution and marketing teams in every major time zone.
Bernd: Our in-house barista!
Sok-Kheng: Same here, the barista!
The best advice someone gave you:
Sok-Kheng: Go as slim as you can, and upscale again when necessary.
Bernd: You can always focus more, it’s true.
What is your most valuable skill:
Bernd: I’m able to leave my ego at the door, hire people who can outsmart me.
Sok-Kheng: My curiosity.
Main Photo by: Antje Wolm