Part 1 of an 8 episode series with the CEO and founder of Strangeworks, a company accelerating the evolution of quantum computing by democratising access to it. Whurley, otherwise known as Will Hurley, deconstructs himself and his perception of the world over 8 episodes. He founded Honest Dollar and sold it to Goldman Sachs, as well as founding and selling Chaotic Moon to Accenture. In this episode, he takes us through his story before becoming a serial entrepreneur – his love of skateboarding and music, how a near death experience was the biggest influence on his life, and working his way up from tech support to becoming a Master inventor in IBM.
“I learned the power of channel. IBM has the Blue Channel. At IBM I could write shit technology on a brick of crap and throw it through the blue channel and I’ve probably sold 4 million dollars of technology shit bricks. There’s the marketing of a big company like that and the channel, there’s a salesforce, there’s an ecosystem, you’re much smaller part of a very large ecosystem.”
And so our 1st series for 14 Minutes of SaaS begins. A near fatal car crash inspires the first step along a serpentine path to becoming an arch inventor, technologist and market strategist. Whurley describes himself as someone who didn’t follow the rules in school and as being someone far outside of the box. This resonated a lot with me. What I didn’t tell whurley was that when I was 4 and 5 in a primary school called Scoil Bhride in Ranelagh, in Dublin, I was considered so disruptive and far from the theoretical box, the teacher used to put me into a cardboard box that was reserved only for me. Actually I thinks that the only box I’ve ever felt happy in, theoretical or physical.
Had a great time in TOA – he was amazed at the size with 20K people overall and 9K in the main event. Loves that it’s by the river with food trucks – felt like a SXSW vibe.
Grew up in Nuremberg in Germany – military brat – grew up in the US mostly in San Antonio and Temple. Lots of military influence on him. His Dad was a real do-it-yourself person and very inventive. And the mother was a really hard worker. So lots of discipline and working stuff out on one’s own. Lots of structure and discipline. His biggest influence in the end was a little more rebellious and unstructured – skateboards and music. He wanted to be a professional musician, but had a freak accident which the band didn’t exist after. He spent a lot of time in the hospital and knew he had survived a near death experience. He had a lot of time to think about life and understand that every moment is precious and that we need to do something valuable with our time. He used the insurance money to build a studio in an extra room in the house. He learned how to program. His computer instructor told his parents that in the future everything people work on would be a computer – even the cash register in McDonalds. But he felt that the young whurley would not ever be able to work even there because he was always experimenting and fooling around with possibilities – whereas the instructor was a very structured inside the box PhD. It turns out now that his experimental, curious, questioning, creative, scientific approach were the ingredients for an talented inventor and an arch entrepreneur. One could sense a little bit of pleasure in whurley’s voice as he remembered how wrong that instructor had been : )
His first real job was in the tech industry Apple. He was on the support lines initially. He had been using a scripting language to score soundtracks for CDs and using all sorts of tricks using programs like Macromind – Apple found him that way. He got the support with a friend with Graham Jones. 6 or 7 months later in 1993 a couple of guys who were to become friends – Sebastien Hassenger and Mike Irwin (his new investor). They were in the DRC with the UNIX gods and Pearl devs. He had really wanted to work there. He applied for a job in training. He created an Apple training system where you could convert 48 CDs into 1 non-perishable CD. He got the job in training and these 2 guys were constantly trying not to hang out with whurley, but they are great friends now.
He wrote his first book – a guide to Shockwave. He was making some money speaking and on books. He was ging to quit but got a chance to work in R&D in Apple. He has no formal academic education. So he started on the telephone lines and went from there to training and a bit of a leadership to R&D where he was the ‘test bitch’ (testing and verification) … all of this was really formative for his career.
After that he became a master inventor in IBM working with Tivoli systems because he had experience as a principal engineer. Those years drove his career incredibly fast. He has fond memory of his older, “smarter” colleagues slagging him.
In IBM he was helping develop system management tools for the internet – and this was pre-SaaS days – old enterprise days on 97. He did some patents – and IBM has patent plateaus and some had made money … and with that he was given a Master Inventor title. This is very prestigious inside IBM and carries some weight outside, but it basically meant that he had made IBM a lot of money. And that last point was the thing that led to him leaving in 2000. He wanted to make some of that money for himself.
The entrepreneur was born. He wasn’t quite know as whurley yet – that would come in 2002 – but he had building companies and getting paid for his inventiveness in his sights now. He was so “young and dumb” that he felt he could do whatever he wanted. He started a company called Hirestorm which did not work out – but he learned a massive lesson – the power of channel from that. IBM has the blue channel. At Apple he had worked at all these incredibly technologies – some of which were never going to see the light of day because they didn’t have a huge channel then, but at IBM he could create any shit and it would sell because the channel was so huge. They have a big salesforce and marketing machine and a giant ecosystem – there was a ready-made go to market system to play in. So this was the first big learning from this failure. He was the CTO of a few other companies after that but in 2006 he landed a senior role in Qlusters in Tel-Aviv which led to some interesting open source work and that led to Tom Bishop who had been a CTO at Tivoli Systems and then at BMC hiring whurley to do open source strategy for BMC. He had worked with Tom at Tivoli and for and with him in Symbiot (a startup Mike and whurley had done in the security space) and now he was working for Tom in BMC in the strategy space. And finally Tom was a CTO working for whurley in a startup – so they go a long way back. These were all great CTO and senior roles but none of them had prepared him for what he really should be – an entrepreneur and a CEO. He’s good with tech and can build it and market it – he doesn’t like the terms innovator, but he embraces the word ‘entrepreneur’ to describe himself.
Transcription of whurley part 1
Power of channel. IBM has the Blue channel. At IBM I could write, you know, shit on a … you know, technology on a brick of crap … throw it through the Blue channel and I probably sold 4M dollars in you know, technology shitbricks. And so when I got to this company and I thought, oh, it was so easy because I’ve done all this success with IBM. I’ve done all these things. I very quickly … it was a very humbling many experience .. learned ‘you know, well you didn’t really’. I mean there’s the marketing of a big company like that … and a channel .. there’s a sales force and there there’s an ecosystem … and you’re a small part of a much larger ecosystem.
Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS, the show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS ScaleUps.
1:02 Proud to present part 1 of an 8-part series with with Will Hurley, better known as Whurley today. His incredible life story is a series of quantum leaps culminating in his present vision to accelerate the evolution of quantum computing. He’s building a layer or an interface in the cloud with the startup, Strangeworks, which permits coders in our presence world of classical or standard computers to access these machines stored at temperatures below that of outer space. And the real space race in this world ladies and gentleman is indeed quantum computing. He’s an ABM master inventor, an Eisenhower fellow, and has founded and sold 2 successful startups – Chaotic Moon to Accenture and Honest Dollar to Goldman Sachs where he was Managing Director for a time.
1:53 Hi whurley. Really wonderful to have you with us.
It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.
Cool. So we’re here on 14 Minutes of SaaS and we’re in Tech Open Air or TOA Berlin. Has it been a valuable and a fun experience for you.
Oh, yeah, it’s been great. It’s my first time here at TOA. And I was impressed with a lot of things, but one of the things that got me most was the size. You know, over all of the events there’s 20,000 people and, I don’t think I expected it to be that big. I think there you said like 9,000 or so in the main event where we met and, I was a little bit taken aback by the line. I showed up at my normal showing up right close to when I go on the stage time. And I was like I’m not going to be able to get in here. I had a little bit of a moment of panic there because I couldn’t believe how many people there were. Really impressive.
I liked that it’s by the river. I’m a big fan, being from Austin, of the food trucks. So those are, you know, super popular where I’m from. So you no, it felt kind of like a South by South West [SXSW] vibe. So I felt very at home in the environment and in the community and had a lot of great conversations.
Me too. I really loved it. Can you tell us about your life, up to I suppose you entering the working world and maybe some of the formative influences.
Yeah, I grew up actually in Nuremburg here in Germany. I was a military brat. And my brother was born here. And so we moved from here to the States and I grew up pretty much in Texas. We lived in San Antonio, and then we lived in Temple, which is a little bit outside of Fort Hood, which is again a big military base. So, you know, influences on me … I grew up in a military family. So there’s a lot of military influence. I grew up with the very inventive father. So there was a lot of do it yourself, figure it out yourself kind of mentality which is amazing. You know, a very hardworking mother. So there was a lot of structure, and a lot of, you know, kind of like figuring problems out on your own without any references. And then a great work ethic.
But the biggest influence became, you know, skateboarding and music, which was is the ‘anti’ of all of that. You know, and I was very big into skateboarding and longboarding. I was very big into music and my goal was, I was going to be a professional musician. And that was… that was what I had decided. And, I was in a bad car accident in 1991. And the band didn’t make it through the accent. They didn’t die, but the band … that sounds horrible way to just raised. Nobody died, but I was in a freak accident. Then I spent a lot of time in the hospital recovering and, that was very influential …. the biggest influence in my life because… having a new death experience gives you a new outlook on life. It gives you a new perspective which is that, you know, you have no idea, you know, when you could die. So you want to make the most of every day that you can. And I used the insurance money from the settlement to build a studio in my grandmother’s extra room – a bedroom that I stayed in. And learned how to program around that. I had done some computing in school. My computer teacher in sixth grade told my parents that even in the future, there’d be a cash register at McDonalds, there would be a computer. And your son will probably not be able to get a job at McDonalds.
5:43 Because I was always experimenting and playing around. Dnd he has a PhD and was very structured. So you do the lessons. And I was always very far outside of the box which turns out nowadays is what we encourage kids to be .. right? The irony there. But, you know, that was kind of it up until you know, I went to work at apple.
Apple is kinda my first real job in the tech industry … and I had been scoring these soundtracks for different CDs and things and Mastertracks and Macromedia and all of these old programs using the scripting language called lingo. And there were all these tricks you could have.
And I used to use Lingo.
That landed me in a in a support role with a friend of mine Graham Jones in, you know, Apple. Answering the phones. ‘Thanks for calling Apple. This is William. How can I help you?’ So that was a very abridged version up into entering the workforce at Apple there.
And, after R&D in apple, you became a master inventor in IBM. How important was that in your development as a professional? And what did you invent?
So I’m still not, ehh you know … that’s a great question. I’m still not quite the professional. But … I had worked at apple answering the phones. But 6 months later a really good friend of mine – now – not necessarily then – he’ll probably listen to this and hate that. Sebastian Hassinger and Mike Irwin, who is my current investment partner. We have a new, you know, my new fund Ecliptic Capital is Mike and I. So we’ve worked together since 1993 or so. But they were in the DRC which was a direct response center, which is on the second floor of the building. And that was where all the UNIX gods and the Pearl developers … it was amazing. And I really wanted to work there and Sebastian got the job that I had applied for. And then Sebastian and Mike were kind of meh [towards me]. So I worked at the phone centre on the third floor for six or seven months. And then I applied for a job and training and created a thing called the Apple Interactive Training System, which was using lingo and the internet, I would build non-perishable cities. So this support tool information library that was 48 CDs. And then you could replace them with one, right? So I got the job and training and those guys were … constantly not wanting to hang out with me at the time. But we’re great friends now.
And then, I wrote my first book while I was in training on Shockwave. If you remember that ….
Yeah, yeah, I do yeah … I did get a masters in multimedia systems.
This is so the internet world, the macromedia, you know, ‘Internet worlds’ 60 minute guide the Shockwave’. And, I decided I was making some money speaking and making some money on books and, you know, now I was a big shit …. because when we’re young we all go through that phase …. and if you mature, you grow out of it very quickly. And you realize you’re never that important in the grand scheme of things. And so, I was going to quit … but I got the chance to apply for a job in R&D. And so the biggest part … to answer your question about the master inventor thing … is the actual time right before that … which is I have a high school education, I’ve no formal college, I’ve no formal computer training. So, starting at answering the phones at apple and going into training … and kind of more of a little bit of a leadership role … and then going into R&D which I was basically, the test pitch right? I did testing and verification … and you know, they were all far too smart to deal with me.
But that was really formative for my career. And because it was R&D, then I had the opportunity to work at IBM when they bought a company called Tivoli systems. So I actually entered into IBM because of the experience I had at that point as a Principal Engineer … which is not something you do with a high school education, right? So those years really drove by career incredibly far, incredibly fast. And were some of the best years of my career. I mean … I’ve very fond memories of, you know, all my R&D teammate getting on to me about everything … and you learn very quickly working with much older, much smarter people. And so when I was a principal engineer I joined what was called the internet business unit. And we were developing system management tools for the internet. Okay.
And this is pre-SaaS days and things and, you know, old enterprise days. In 97’ … and so then I had done some patents. And IBM has patent plateaus. And so I did four patent plateaus I believe… 4 patents in each plateau if I remember correctly. So 12 patents that were … some of them had made money … meaning they had been licensed or integrated … and so with all of that and a few other things, then you can be given this Master Inventor title … which inside IBM is an honour. I’m sure still today. And it was great and I am honoured … I don’t mean to belittle that with what I’m about to say … but, you know, outside it means, you know, I built some IP and I protected it. And I made IBM a lot of money .. which is also what led to me leaving IBM in 2000 – because I was like ‘Wait a second! Why should I make them all this money?’ You know, like I’m so again, you know, young and dumb … and so smart … and I’ll go make the money myself.
And you became a CTO of a bunch of companies after that. What were your highlights amongst all of that?
WHURLEYWell, the highlights, you know … the first company was called HireStorm. It did not work out. But I learned a lesson because I learned the power of channel … IBM has the Blue channel. So at Apple, I wanted to work with these technologies, you know … worked on the set top box project and the firewire standard and things that… there were these technologies that you know, that may never see the light of day – even though they were far more advanced over anything anybody had. I mean it was a TiVo .. you know, way before there was a TiVo … you know, the thing is at IBM I could write shit you know, technology on a brick of crap … throw it through the Blue channel and I probably sold 4M dollars in you know, technology shitbricks. And so when I got to this company and I thought, oh, it was so easy because I’ve done all this success with IBM. I’ve done all these things. I very quickly … it was a very humbling experience .. I learned ‘you know, well you didn’t really’. I mean there’s the marketing of a big company like that … and a channel .. there’s a sales force and there there’s an ecosystem … and you’re a small part of a much larger ecosystem. And so that was a very tough lesson.
And then I was, you know, the CTO of a few other things … and then in 2006, I went to work for a company in Tel-Aviv called Qlusters .. although everybody in the US called it Q-lusters constantly. And that led to me doing some pretty interesting open source work which led to Tom Bishop, who was the CTO at Tivoli Systems. He’s an old Bell labs guy, and he was CTO at BMC …. hiring me to do open source strategy for BMC. And that was not a CTO role … but that was a really, really important career development overall. And I’d worked with Tom at Tivoli. And with/for Tom at Symbiot which was a startup Mike and I had done in the security space. And then now I was working for Tom at BMC. And then eventually in my last company before this, Honest Dollar … Tom was the CTO and working for me. So there’s quite a lot of experience together. He’s an amazing guy and is one of the greatest minds. I think in tech he’s a very brilliant guy and amazing friend and mentor.
But, you know, I had all these different CTO roles. None of them prepared me for what ……
For jumping out the window …
Yeah … for what I really am … for what I really should be doing …. and that is actually being what I am … which is not a CTO. I’m good with technology. I’m very quick to adapt it. I can build it myself. I can market it. I can do a bunch of stuff in the tech space. But I, you know, and I don’t like the terms like innovator .. or… or, you know… I mean everybody’s creative. Some people don’t embrace it, some people don’t explorer it …but we all are innovators right … in my view of the world.
But I’m an entrepreneur.
14:55 In part two Whurley’s whirlwind career as a serial entrepreneur really takes off as he loses the fear and gains financial independence … But then he goes through a psychological slump … before emerging to invent Retirement-as-a-Service.
You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills and to Ketsu for the music. This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating.