Note to Reader: Rubikloud Technologies Inc. was acquired by Kinaxis Inc. in July 2020 for $60M USD. I was part of the founding team being there (almost) from the beginning where I led all our AI efforts as the Chief Data Scientist. This post is an adaption of a retrospective memo I sent out before the acquisition closed.
Six years ago I decided to take a leap of faith and join a diverse group of intellectually curious individuals on their journey to building the future of enterprise AI. Of course none of us knew that at the time, we were just a bunch of wide eyed dreamers hoping for the best, desperately trying to find a product-market fit. It seems like a lifetime ago when I was sitting in that cold, poorly lit room surrounded by cheap Ikea desks, stained carpets, and a large refrigerator box-turned-cubicle at 95 King Street. The contrast to where we ended up could not be more stark: being acquired by one of the fastest growing supply chain management companies in the world for our technology, people and products. The combination of these three reasons is a testament to everything that we built here.
While Rubikloud’s success might look modest, underneath it hides a mountain of mistakes, miscalculations, and misfortune. Those who have not been through the entire lifecycle of a venture backed startup may not understand the seemingly insurmountable odds that a young company faces. The stars really aligned for us to get to this point. I can probably name at least a dozen things that, if it didn’t go just right, we would have easily failed. If that one key hire didn’t join, if that one key customer didn’t take a leap of faith, or if that one key technology wasn’t available, then we would have been dead in the water. There’s a reason why most startups fail.
And that’s why it’s so interesting to look back and see what made us successful. There will always be a component of luck in any venture but luck isn’t just a (fair) coin flip. There are some key things that tilted the balance in our favor and gave us the best chance of “taking off”. In this retrospective, I want to reflect upon the most important things that made us successful.
It’s probably the biggest cliche but people are really what made Rubikloud special. Coming to work and getting to work alongside bright, hard working and dedicated folks who are all working towards an audacious goal — against all odds — has been one of the highlights of my career. Regardless of anything else, one thing I can guarantee is that current and former Rubikrew will all agree that the people are what made Rubikloud special.
The interesting thing about working so closely on these, sometimes insurmountable, challenges is that you build a special kind of shared experience with your colleagues. This experience is more than just “that’s some person I work with” and extends to a “brother/sister in arms”-like relationship. These experiences and connections that I’ve built with so many of the Rubikrew I will treasure forever, many of which have already translated into lifelong friendships filled with admiration and respect.
Learning (and Failing)
The other cliche about startups, if there ever was one, is the amount of learning that you can do. There were so many things from product market fit to technology to leadership that we were learning how to do on the fly (and regrettably, sometimes to the detriment of our people and customers). This is part and parcel of the startup game. The one constant that accompanies learning is failing. Failing to predict where the market is going, failing to predict what architecture would suit us in the future, and failing to anticipate all of the thousands of other bumps along the way. The interesting part about failing though is that it leads to learning.
I’ve made an order of magnitude more mistakes at Rubikloud than at any other job in my career, and by the same token, I’ve grown many orders of magnitude more than anywhere else I could have gone. Startups are not for the faint of heart. But somehow at Rubikloud, we’ve accumulated the right people, culture and ethos to keep persisting, surviving and enduring through the constant onslaught of unknowns while climbing towards that audacious goal. This is not normal. Most people don’t react well to failure, most people don’t have that drive to learn, and most people don’t push themselves to become more than they were yesterday. Somehow at Rubikloud we’ve managed to do that. And I know, at least for me and I hope for everyone else, that it has shaped you in some significant way that will pay dividends in whatever future jobs you have in your career.
Timing and Compressed Timelines
As you might already expect, the last point I want to discuss is another cliche: timing. Timing is everything in a startup. Too early, and no customers are there; too late, and other players have already saturated the market. By some stroke of luck, we were at the right place at the right time with the convergence of cloud and ML technologies, retailers transitioning to those technologies, and a generous funding environment for startups. Of course, this just sets the stage for success but the above two points (people and learning) are equally important to run a successful show.
Although timing is key, there is another strange phenomenon that happens in startups: time dilation. It’s almost as if a lifetime’s worth of experiences gets compressed into a tiny slice of time. In this tiny slice of time, you get to experience so many things that would take years to achieve: accelerated professional growth, meaningful lifelong friendships, and an emotional roller coaster of ups and downs. We’re fortunate to have gone through this experience for this long along with a positive outcome; most startups fail and most outcomes are poor. To have gotten all the benefits of this startup time dilation phenomenon, and to continue to be able to build out the amazing technology that we have, I’m counting my blessings that I got to participate in this awesome journey.
Looking To The Future
The acquisition by Kinaxis brings a new chapter for all of us at Rubikloud. We’ll still be focusing on the same goal of “Intelligent Decision Automation” but with a new company, new context, and new customers. I’m truly excited about fulfilling our mission of bringing AI to the enterprise and fulfilling the promise of AI. It’s not every job where you can work on leading-edge tech that has a meaningful impact on a critical component of the global economy. The industry we’re in may not be saving lives but it is definitely saving waste (a less often considered virtue but an important one nonetheless).
What made Rubikloud special is going to be different than what is going to make Kinaxis so special. The people will still be here, just with more of them (i.e. 800 vs. 80). The learning will be there, just with different problems (i.e. scaling up instead of product market fit). The timing is one thing that will feel very different though. Things might start to feel slower compared to Rubikloud (no startup time dilation effect) with more communication overhead and more processes, but that comes with some benefits too. There will be significantly fewer “heroic overtime” hours needed, more space to build out thoughtfully designed systems, and more time to focus on our respective areas instead of just trying to plug the latest hole in our leaky boat. Most importantly, it will allow us to have more time outside of work instead of being all-consumed by it.
I truly believe that there is a bright future for all the Rubikrew at Kinaxis. While I’m under no impression that everyone is going to stay here forever (just like no one expected to retire at Rubikloud), I do hope that everyone will find a place at Kinaxis where they feel they can grow their career alongside amazing people with work that they find meaningful. And while things may seem a bit uncertain now with many questions still to be answered, I would suggest slowing down and taking stock of the massive achievement we’ve made as a startup. Only a small fraction of startups get to where we did, and even fewer get acquired to continue on their original mission. Pause and enjoy this moment because moments like this are few and far between. As a wise turtle once said: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called a present.