How to go from writing ringtone apps to getting Series-A funded

3-minute read

“Confessions of CEOs” is a series on how business owners are changing the service landscape. Today, we’re chatting with Martin Mao, co-founder and CEO of Chronosphere, a big data monitoring solution targeting large enterprise. He’s taken time out to share how to get Series-A funded and then succeed as a VC-backed entrepreneur.

Martin Mao, CEO of Chronosphere. Photo Credit: Beaze, a B2B vendor procurement platform for service providers.
Martin Mao, CEO of Chronosphere. Photo Credit: Beaze

So, Why Chronosphere?

I was working with my co-founder Rob Skillington at Uber pre-IPO on M3, an open-source distributed metrics platform. We figured out that most platforms available on the market at the time were unable to scale cost-effectively nor reliably. So, we decided to build it ourselves piece-by-piece and we shared it with the world while doing so. From there, we realized that most enterprises are just as demanding as Uber when it comes to metrics and that they needed better monitoring and overall reliability. That was how Chronosphere was born. 

Wait, is that an Aussie accent we detect?

Yeah, I was born in Shanghai but I grew up in Sydney, Australia. Growing up in Australia was great. They have beautiful beaches and walking trails and everyone is so laid back over there. It’s also a very multicultural country, so growing up there teaches you to be accepting and to treat everyone equally.

How did you break into software?

My first foray into software was a high school programming competition. I had no idea how to write code, but my friend did and he needed someone to help him figure out some of the algorithms. He ended up teaching me how to code and we ended up winning a scholarship to study Software Engineering at the local university.

Then, back in 2008, near the end of my college studies, Apple finally launched the iPhone in Australia. It was a massive deal to me because I could write an app, publish it and then reach millions of people around the world. It was so different; I decided to write a bunch. One app that was memorable for me was the one I wrote to generate ringtones. It would take a song from iTunes and create a ringtone. Being a poor student, it seemed ridiculous to pay for a song twice (once for the song itself, the second time for a shortened ringtone version).

What was it like getting funded by a VC?

Exhilarating yet terrifying. Rob and I knew we had to do something because of the traction M3 was receiving in open source. The real question was, could we build a real business around open-source technology that didn’t just end up as enterprise support? We wanted to retain our ability to innovate and so wanted to focus on building the perfect product for the needs of many. It took four to five months to complete market research in order to see that there was a genuine gap in the market. We wanted to differentiate ourselves and ensure we delivered a product that enterprises would care about – one that was not only more scalable, performant and reliable, but also more cost-efficient than our competitors.

We ended up with a 60-80 page business plan (which in retrospect was probably overkill). I don’t think many VCs expect such extensive research for an early-stage company, but it was more to convince ourselves we were making a good bet rather than to convince them. We didn’t have the budget to purchase market research, so we were leveraging the research our competitors have published as well as public documentation such as S-1 filings.

We started by raising a small pre-seed round with a few independent angel investors, before raising a Series-A led by Greylock when we needed to expand the team.

How has it been pursuing enterprise customers?

Surprisingly good. Our customers have been quite supportive of the product and company we’re trying to build. They know we’re still early, but the differentiators are valuable enough that they decide to switch over from competitor products. The fact that we have solved the problem before at Uber definitely helps as the customers are not just buying a monitoring product, but also the experience and expertise of the team.

Any key lessons learned up until now?

1. Business plans change. Our original plan doesn’t even closely resemble what we’re doing now. Our financials and projections went out of the window after a month or so of starting. We don’t regret doing it though, it was good to go through the exercise and while we knew the plan would change, all the competitor and market research remains valid.

2. Only talk to VCs when you’re ready. When a few major VC firms first contacted us, we were not prepared and so came off as “rookies”. It’s better to hold off on those conversations until you are ready.

3. Use the time before competitors know about you wisely. Once they understand what you’re doing, they’re going to react, so it’s critical to figure out your differentiators and how your product is going to compete before you announce anything.

Have there been any partners to help you get to where you are today?

Yes, it’s been a very pleasant surprise to see how supportive the tech start-up industry has and continues to be. Some of our best partners have been our pre-seed investors: one has been our primary recruiting resource while others have given valuable insights and advice. 

They have also introduced us to other founders, who have been very helpful as well. Most of these folks are super busy but will take the time to help. Many of them view it as paying it forward for the help they received when they were getting started.

Tell us about how you give back and why that’s so important?

For the last ten years, I’ve been supporting ChildFund Australia. This organization works to reduce poverty for children in developing communities in countries including Uganda and Kenya. When you donate, they distribute those funds to support the whole community surrounding that child. I’ve been sponsoring a boy named Ashiraf since he was six years old. This organization is important because it gives people an opportunity to give back in such a direct way that isn’t as possible with many other organizations.

What words of wisdom can you share?

Fire yourself whenever possible. By this, I mean always prioritize; if any given task is taking up more than 20 hours of your time per week, it’s time to start looking for someone smarter and more suited to that task than you. As an entrepreneur, your to-do list is perpetually growing and you need to constantly shuffle things around knowing that many tasks won’t get the attention it requires. Find the right people to help you so that things don’t just get dropped on the ground. 

Also, make sure you have a great support network. For me, I’m most grateful for my wife, Wendi. I couldn’t possibly be doing a startup without a supportive partner like her. She’s taking care of 3 kids – our firstborn, our pup Pepper and me. 🙂 Because of her, I’m able to survive the entrepreneur life and co-lead the organization’s brilliant team with Rob. 

What’s it like being a working parent?

I’m more sleep-deprived than I’ve ever been before 🙂 It’s tough juggling a start-up and a newborn child because there is even less time and even more things to do, but it’s worth it. Again, it wouldn’t be possible without a great support network and when I’m at home, I prioritize time with my family above all else. 

Being in the internet age, everything we say or do can live on the internet forever as a record of us, a record that our children and grandchildren will use someday to learn more about us. This reminds me to set the best example I can for my son every day. I also want him to see that there are many paths and choices in one’s career and that you don’t have to follow the traditional 9-5 path taken by the majority of people.

When all is said and done, what do you hope for Chronosphere to achieve?

Chronosphere has so much potential – we’ve put together a fantastic team and we’re building game-changing software that has already been proven at the largest scales in the world. I hope we continue to execute and fulfill that potential by delivering products that make an impact on enterprises and help run with greater reliability as they scale up.

Chronosphere is a preferred partner on Beaze Beta.