“You attract security conscious customers. They push you and ask for more security focused features. You build those, you attract more of those companies.” That’s how Greg Neustaetter helped Egnyte find its niche, providing industrial-grade cloud file storage for compliance-focused clients. Greg has spent 11 years at Egnyte and as VP of Product, he’s helped define and refine their offerings in the face of giant competitors like Google and Microsoft.
On this episode, Greg explains how Egnyte identified and went all-in on developing their product for two key industries. And hear about how Egnyte fell in love with user-centric design techniques, and why it’s so important for developers to join that user-centric process. We’ll also revisit the 90’s. Greg and Crafted’s host Dan were college roommates who worked together in Silicon Valley just before the bubble burst, so we’ll take a walk through the Valley’s highs and lows.
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Full transcript below — but we recommend you listen for the best experience.
Greg Neustaetter: It’s a big opportunity cost to put teams on something that 90% of your current customers aren’t going to be able to use, right? But it’s a bet on the future.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Greg Neustaetter, VP of product at Ignite, which you can think of as an industrial grade version of Dropbox. And on this episode we’ll explore how Ignite found and has continued to find its niche in a market where big tech firms effectively give their cloud products away for free.
Greg Neustaetter: Would you want a solution that’s built for your industry or would you want something that’s built as a generic solution for any industry?
Dan Blumberg: Greg will tell us why Ignite recently chose to bet on two seemingly unrelated industries, life sciences and construction as it builds new products. We’ll also hear how Ignite fell in love with user-centric design techniques by working side by side with the Google Ventures team that would go on to write the bestselling book Design Sprint and why it’s so important for developers to join that user-centric process.
Greg Neustaetter: A developer who’s writing individual lines of code is going to have to make hundreds of decisions themselves and the better they know the context of the product, the customer, the user experience, the more likely they go left when they should go left, they go right when they should go right.
Dan Blumberg: Oh, and Greg and I will reminisce a bit. He and I were college roommates and both got our start in tech in 1999 in Silicon Valley just before the bubble burst. Welcome to Crafted, a show about great products and the people who make them. I’m your host, Dan Blumberg. I’m a product and engagement leader at Artium where my colleagues and I help companies build incredible products, recruit high performing teams, and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. All right, Greg, we go back a long way. Can we party like it’s 1999 for a moment? Do you want to tell our listeners about how we met in college, our summer in Silicon Valley, and sort of how that put you on your current path?
Greg Neustaetter: Yeah, sure. So back in, what, August of 1997, Dan and I roll into Wesleyan University, roommates along with two other folks. We ended up living together the next year at school together, even the next one after that, and in that summer did that long drive across the country, the pilgrimage across America to Silicon Valley just as things were at their near peak in ’99 and landed in the San Francisco Bay Area to show up at Selectica, a kind of hot startup at the time.
Dan Blumberg: You went right back to Silicon Valley after college. I took the much more traditional path to product management by way of being a radio producer for 10 years. What was it that drew you to it? What do you remember about that first summer?
Greg Neustaetter: Well, I mean the first thing I remember was just driving into the San Francisco Bay Area that first day that we were going to go into the office and then there we were stuck on 101 in an endless line of cars. Just the amount of activity, the number of people who had all recently moved to the Bay Area. It was just kind of astonishing. All companies were hiring so much, so much kind energy and excitement with new things happening kind of all around, IPOs happening everywhere. So it was definitely an interesting time. So pretty much straight out of school, I went back to that company that we interned at Selectica. I was what was called an assistant marketing engineer. I don’t exactly know what that means still, but someone on the product team left the company on short notice and they needed someone who could fill in as a product manager.
It was just around that time that the NASDAQ hit its peak and things were definitely in a downward trajectory and pretty quickly crashing. So what was supposed to be temporary ended up fairly permanent because there was no budget to hire anyone else. Not only was there no budget to hire anyone else, people were getting laid off kind of all around me on the product team I was working on. I was surely the lowest paid person on the team right out of school. Other people were losing their jobs and I was picking up their responsibility and kind of learning things as I went. That kind of back to back traffic on 101 and the other highways in Silicon Valley disappeared over the course of several months.
Dan Blumberg: You got this kind of incredible opportunity in a way to prove yourself as a PM. I don’t know how much you knew about product management then when you sort of stepped into this temporary role. What did you have to learn? How did you do so?
Greg Neustaetter: So I definitely knew nearly nothing about product management and I definitely didn’t learn on my own. Even though we had layoffs, we had a diminished team, we had some great folks on the team who I was able to learn from. But the bigger challenge that I had initially is this was a pretty technical product and I had to be able to communicate with the engineers that I was working with. I hadn’t studied computer science or anything in the technical field, liberal arts background, and so the first thing that was important to me was, hey, I need to have some kind of common understanding, some common language with the engineers I’m working on and I’m not going to go to multiple years of school to get there, but let me try to build something. Let me come up with a real project and try to create something, learn by doing.
So I said, okay, I like photography. I have a little website. Let me put together a little kind of electronic greeting card website. So I needed to build something to deal with uploading those images, resizing them, sending emails, storing it in the database. So very basic web application built with very minimal skill, but I had learned from lots of other tools and libraries in this kind of not exactly open source but freely available code kind of space and decided to upload what I had created to this site and big surprise, people started downloading it and using it. People were coming to me and saying, hey, can you add support for AIX or Unix or I want to run this, but I need this to be in French or in Polish or in Spanish.
And suddenly this kind of experiment for me to learn turned into something that ended up over a couple of years getting downloaded a hundred thousand times or so, being translated into 15 languages. It was just bizarre and crazy to see. I didn’t particularly care about electronic greeting cards, so eventually I let it fade into the distance, but it was the first of several steps of what turned me into a quite technical product manager who’s able to sit with engineers with almost any kind of problem to define a solution.
Dan Blumberg: I remember using the e-card, I believe you had one with a picture of your old golden retriever, Ralph. I’m pretty sure I sent that to someone.
Greg Neustaetter: Probably.
Dan Blumberg: Yeah. So fast-forward, you’ve been at Ignite now for 11 years, which is a very long time to be at one company, especially in Silicon Valley. What drew you to it? What keeps you engaged today?
Greg Neustaetter: I would say the first couple jobs that I have, and I’ve tended to stay at companies for quite a while, I’m careful about where I go, the first few companies were all very enterprise focused. They were products that were built for a very particular audience, and what I really wanted was to find something that had more broad usage and Ignite is really a content collaboration, security and governance platform. So at that time when I joined 11 years ago, it was basically acting as a file server in the cloud for businesses.
And so what was appealing to me was that yes, it was an enterprise solution, it was for businesses, but at the same time the everyday user of it was any person who works at one of our customers. So everyone from someone sitting at the front desk to the CEO and everyone in between. And so that was able to both draw on my enterprise experience, but give me that opportunity to work in an area where user experience was really key because that’s something I was super interested in. It’s why my very poorly written e-card solution was successful, not because of the great code behind it, but because it looked pretty good and it was easy to set up and easy to use, and so I saw the power that that could give.
Dan Blumberg: Tell us a bit more about Ignite and what it was when you first joined and what it is today and how you all differ from other providers.
Greg Neustaetter: When I joined, it was very early days for B2B SaaS. It wasn’t a super common thing. Companies for the most part were very worried about keeping their data in the cloud. So by the time I had joined Ignite, we had already gained some level of success, but it was really trying to store files for users, trying not to lose them, trying not to have downtime every day or every week and not doing much beyond storing files and providing them. Now, people weren’t comfortable with the cloud yet. We had to put together solutions that were more hybrid that took advantage of the technologies and the behavior and approaches that they had been using for a long time, just running file servers in their offices.
So just as an example, we had and still have a caching appliance, a virtual machine that a customer could set up in their office and to the users in their office and to the applications running on their network, it just looked like a Windows file server on the network. But behind the scenes it was actually storing, it was uploading and syncing that data to the Ignite Cloud. So that was one of the big things that we did early on that allowed us to differentiate and allowed some of these companies to really have peace of mind in moving to the cloud. The important thing for us was we were focused on businesses from day one, whereas many competitive solutions at the time, think Dropbox, those kind of companies initially started as consumer-centric solutions, right? Where we were focused more on the multi-user, which meant we had to do a lot more security kind of work.
And that work obviously attracted business customers, people who were security conscious, and as things go in product, you attract security conscious customers, they push you and ask for more security focused features. You build those, you attract more of those companies and you get more and more businesses who are willing to trust you. It eventually got to the point where these same companies said, this is great that you’re able to protect our data and provide productivity tools for our users, but in reality there is going to be data that we store in other services, whether they’re cloud-based services or on-premise. Like if you’re a big organization, you’re not going to say 100% of my data is going to go into Ignite.
Dan Blumberg: But customers loved Ignite’s security and started asking how those same capabilities could be applied to the other data services they use.
Greg Neustaetter: So we were able to take what we had done and say, what are the parts of that that would even be possible for us to apply that same governance capability, make it richer and apply it to other content sources? It could be a box or a Dropbox, it could be a Windows file server, it could be an Amazon S3 bucket, but other places where people keep their files. So that was hugely important and it came to us at a critical time. We started to get a lot more pressure from Microsoft and to a lesser extent from Google. And the real challenge was they had brought their solutions to the cloud and while we would win a technical battle every time, they were including these capabilities as part of their cloud-based offerings that people were buying because they needed email, they needed the Microsoft Office Suite. It’s hard when you have to compete with something that’s free or perceived as being free. The other thing that came around that time was really saying, are there certain industries where we’ve had success where we want to double down?
Dan Blumberg: Ignite had customers in almost every industry, but as behemoths like Microsoft and Google loomed, Ignite focused on its security and governance offerings and chose to invest heavily into seemingly unrelated industries, construction and life sciences.
Greg Neustaetter: Both of them are doing things like dealing with really large files, complex file types. They’re both organization types that are working with a huge number of external teams. So while there is still a huge amount of difference, there was enough that meant the capabilities that we already had were great matches for those industries. So then we just decided to go much deeper in both so that we could make it really a no-brainer for many of these companies to say, would you want a solution that’s built for your industry or would you want something that’s built as a generic solution for any industry?
Dan Blumberg: Construction and life sciences are industries where compliance and security are incredibly important, and this was Ignite’s specialty.
Greg Neustaetter: Not only can we do a good job of being a general purpose solution for life sciences, adding some more capabilities that make it friendlier as a platform to store content, but how can we solve some of the complex workflows that our customers have? Many of these biotechs are running their solutions, their treatments through clinical trials. These clinical trials go through a ton of scrutiny and there is so much data that’s generated as a result of that. So raw data, patient data that shows how successful a drug or treatment is, but then all the documents, all the policies, all the approaches of how these trials are executed, and we found that just giving a file system or a collaboration tool was not enough for these organizations. The risk is too high. We needed to set up guardrails and build very specific applications just for these use cases of analyzing and slicing and dicing clinical data and managing clinical documents.
The challenge then is saying, how do you get the right expertise? The big thing that we needed to do was bring that expertise in-house. We needed to find people who really know this industry well and take that kind of combination of industry knowledge and experience, plus kind of the deep product knowledge of what we have built and what we can build and combine those together to say what’s the best solution that we can put forth to solve very specific problems?
That means you suddenly have an application for managing the clinical documents for a clinical trial. A potential customer isn’t going to say, should I use an application specifically built for that or should I store it in OneDrive? So it’s where that specialization really comes into play, and it’s hard for a company that over multiple years was building solutions for the general purpose market. It’s a hard decision to make to say, let’s go really deep on something that’s very specific for an individual industry. We really had to prove that out by talking to a ton of customers, looking at the market opportunity for us because it’s a big opportunity cost to put teams on something that 90% of your current customers aren’t going to be able to use. But it’s a bet on the future.
Dan Blumberg: You said you chose Ignite. One of the things that was very appealing about joining Ignite was you wanted to work on more user experience problems. You mentioned speed and the low latency of I can save the file. I don’t even really realize that it’s in the cloud. It just feels like it’s local. I’m curious if there are other user experience unlocks that you came across and how you and the team worked on those together.
Greg Neustaetter: There is huge value in providing and opening up new opportunities that were available with web technologies or mobile technologies. There’s no doubting that. We built tons of features that relied on that, but a really big thing for us was can we take advantage of the workflows, of the experience that people have already working with their file servers? And in a way, it’s a scary thing to do because what we had to do was make our applications to some extent be transparent to the user.
We have to make it so that as you’re working on a Word document and you’re making edits to it or you’re editing a video and you’re saving, you shouldn’t have to be thinking, I’m saving this file to Ignite. I’m opening it from Ignite, I’m pulling it from the cloud. Performance is part of that. But the other part is if you’re rolling out a new technology to a thousand people at a company and you have to teach each and every one of them a new way to do something as basic as opening your files and saving them and sending them to another person, it’s going to be a real problem.
Dan Blumberg: You mentioned that you helped the Ignite team level up different design practices. I wonder if you could share more on how you did that and what you all did.
Greg Neustaetter: We were really lucky in the beginning. So if I look back at some of the previous companies I’ve worked at before Ignite, UX wasn’t a major part of the process. I had come from a background of having to do that for myself. As I was defining requirements, I would put together mockups. I came to Ignite and was happy to see that we actually had a design team at that point of one and it quickly grew. But one of the biggest things that ended up being really important to us, one of our early investors was Google Ventures, and we were incredibly lucky that they were literally in the building next to us. One of the great things about Google Ventures at that time, and I’m sure they’re still doing it today, is in addition to giving much needed capital, they had a set of teams. One of them was a design team. Their job was to say, hey, can we really institute a real culture of design and a process of design that the portfolio companies will be able to continue through? And so we got assigned kind of a lead designer.
Dan Blumberg: The lead designer they got was Jake Knapp, who along with his Google Ventures colleagues, would go on to write the bestselling book Design Sprint.
Greg Neustaetter: And we worked with a number of other designers and they really sat us down and said, okay, how are you doing things today and what is the area for improvement? And the biggest one for us was about really incorporating user testing as critical to the process. And that was kind of a fairly novel idea at the time. 11 years ago, people were just starting to do that, but it taught us so much and it meant that you have many fewer misfires or the misfires that you have you catch so early on in the process. That was incredibly important for us and we really made design an integral part of our product requirement process. Our best product managers have a great design sense, but our best designers have a great product sense as well. And I personally see that there’s a huge kind of gray area in the beginning and middle of feature design, product design process where that product manager, that designer are working hand in hand together to define what’s best for the customer.
Dan Blumberg: Yeah, a hundred percent. And with engineers as well I’m sure because especially with what you do is so technical, it all has to come together.
Greg Neustaetter: Yeah, for sure. I mean, having engineers who are product minded, who are design minded is super critical. Even if you write the most detailed user stories, acceptance criteria in excruciating detail, a developer who’s writing individual lines of code is going to have to make hundreds of decisions themselves. And the better they know the context of the product, the customer, the user experience, the more likely they go left when they should go left, they go right when they should go right, and it’s those details which add up to make a great experience for the customer.
Dan Blumberg: A hundred percent. So last question. If you and I, and I mean you and I from 1999 showed back up in Silicon Valley today, or someone young who’s looking to get into product, get into tech, what’s the advice that you give when you meet folks like that?
Greg Neustaetter: I mean, I would say, and especially if it’s you and I, right? Coming from that liberal arts background, I think there are a lot of people who come from a technical background and that’s great. There’s so many opportunities for folks who studied computer science or other technical fields to get into a tech career. I think what is so important for young people getting in this field is to understand that there are so many disciplines that combine together to form, let’s say the role of a product manager.
What I look at most when I’m looking to hire a new PM is that person who’s a lifelong learner, someone who is interested in learning for learning’s sake, kind of what liberal arts is all about, teaching you how to learn because the tech industry changes so much, it’s changed so much in the last 20 years. It’s changed so much in the last six months. And just learning a set of very particular skills is not necessarily going to help you five years down the line. What is going to really help you is setting yourself up to be constantly learning. And the great thing is there are just so many opportunities now to learn. That to me would be the biggest part of advice is to focus on that ongoing learning.
Dan Blumberg: Right on. That rings very true to me. Greg, this is so much fun, man. Thank you.
Greg Neustaetter: Yeah, thanks Dan.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Greg Neustaetter and this is Crafted from Artium. If you’re looking to find your niche or want to create more user-centric practices, let’s talk. We can help you build great software, recruit high performing teams, and achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. You can learn more about us at thisisartium.com and start a conversation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked today’s episode, please subscribe and spread the word because listening to Crafted is a solid investment of your time.
Greg Neustaetter: It’s a bet on the future.