An Interview with Edith Harbaugh, CEO, LaunchDarkly, Alchemist Class 8 (Ocho)


CEO and co-founder of LaunchDarkly Edith Harbaugh has raised over $30M in funding from investors at Uncork, DFJ, and Redpoint. She has more than 10 years of experience in product, engineering and marketing with both consumer and enterprise startups. Edith was Product Director at TripIt, where she launched TripIt for Business and ExpenseIt. She holds two patents in deployment. Edith earned a BS, Engineering from Harvey Mudd College and a degree in Economics from Pomona College. She enjoys trail running distances up to 100 miles.

What exactly is your startup bringing to the marketplace?

I co-founded LaunchDarkly with John Kodumal to help businesses all over the world improve the way they build their own software.  Software turned out to be a much bigger market than we initially thought. We have your traditional SaaS companies, as well we have eCommerce, IoT companies, airlines, automobiles, and even cruise lines. Software is far more pervasive in running everyday life  than people realize.

What was the impetus behind creating your startup?

Both John and I have been in software our entire careers. John was a developer & manager at Atlassian Marketplace. I started off in engineering, was frustrated that smart people kept building products no one wanted, so became a product manager to build what people wanted. I then saw that you could build the right thing, but if no one knew about it, it didn’t exist. So I also got into marketing. We were both frustrated with a lot of processes that were happening about building products . We saw that the smarter companies had a framework like LaunchDarkly where they could control features, and manage without them. We wanted everybody to have that same power.

What is the most challenging matter you as a startup are currently facing?

Right now we are in the scale period. It's a good problem. We have a lot of customers. We serve twenty five billion features a day, so we're just getting bigger and growing the team.

Can you tell us a little about your background before you started your startup?

I was originally an engineer, and have several patents on deployment. Then I was product manager at consumer companies. While working at an Internet of Thing startup, I also did marketing and got them to $1M in units. Most recently before my own startup I started “TripIt for Business”, the business side of TripIt, which was one of the reasons Concur acquired TripIt for over $100M. have been at big enterprise companies. I’ve been at small consumer startups. And I’ve been at IoT hardware companies, so I have really seen the spectrum of how software is built.

What previous experience or situation do you feel best equipped you for your current role?

I think because I was an engineer, I was used to stuff always being fluid and changing. I looked at everything as an opportunity to learn more.

What was your first real job?

I was a programmer, programming Visual Basic for a defense contractor in Arlington, CA.

If you could go back to the first day of your startup, what advice would you give yourself?

To figure out sooner what I was uniquely good at and to hire other people for other things. Our investor Andy McLaughlin refers to this as “leverage” - how can I best spend my time?

What made you to apply to Alchemist? Why not others?

Alex Shartsis, a coworker at TripIt, had gone through a prior class and highly recommended it.

What was the most valuable thing you took from being a part of Alchemist?

I actually wrote a whole article for VentureBeat on why I found Alchemist so valuable. There are really three different things. We got our first customers, not just little startups, but we actually got Yammer as a customer because we were sitting in their office. That wouldn’t have happened without Alchemist. Second, we got this amazing network of mentors and coaches, in particular Sean Byrnes, co-founder of Flurry, who to this day is still our coach. He's not a coach with a Big C anymore, but I still look to him as somebody who I can ask for advice, guidance and mentorship. We had amazing mentorship and network of coaches and got fundraising advice. Third, we were a tiny struggling start up just a two of us. We got help and advice from people in the same situation. Like, we would all eat lunch together every day in Yammer, and dinner as well at Yammer because we didn’t have any money to eat out. It was really valuable to be with people who are going through the same thing.

If you were to do Alchemist again would you approach it differently?

I wish I had asked a couple of my mentors for angel investments. I think they would have put in and I would be closer with them now. I think they were waiting for me to ask and I never did.

What entrepreneurial lesson or skill took you the longest to learn or are still learning?

Something I’m learning is how to have a board. I think our board members are great, it's just on me to figure out how to get the most out of board meetings.

Has there been someone that has helped you along and that you don't think you'd be here if wasn't for them? How did they do it, how did you find them, how did you build that relationship?

I still think that I would be here. I have a lot of confidence in John my cofounder and myself. I do think our Alchemist coach, Sean Byrnes, has helped us every step of the way. So while I think we’d still be successful, I’m certainly grateful that he's helped us.

Do you have any inspiring or favorite movies, TV shows, podcast, books or media in general?

It’s kind of corny, but I like Bryce Courtenay’s book, “Power of One,” which is about a South African boxer. He talks about training and winning as an underdog.

What constitutes success for your startup in the next twelve months?

More happy customers, bigger happy team.

What constitutes success for you personally?

I really like coming back to Alchemist and teaching a class on fundraising. I like it because I have taught it for about three years now. And people that I've taught now have gone on to raise literally millions of dollars.

Are there any insights you have learned that you want to share with the next generation of entrepreneurs?

I think there's this Hollywood myth of entrepreneurship, where they think you show up in Silicon Valley, and you get the fancy office and all the money and all the VCs chasing you and you’re hounded for interviews about how it goes. I feel like LaunchDarkly is at the beginning of that stage right now. We have an office in Oakland, we have a large team. We can afford to go on trips to our customers, to get booths at conferences.

But the first two years were tough. I ate all our meals at Yammer because I didn't have any money. I & my cofounder didn’t take a salary, and It wasn’t to be cool, it was because there was no money to pay us with. I was literally living off my savings. The first round of T-shirts that we got, we only got enough for people that we were sure would wear it. If somebody wanted a shirt I was like, “Will you wear this? If not, we’ll save it for someone else!””

And I think, yes, you do get to the stage where stuff starts to work and you do have the fun startup thing. But there's so much work and a constant grind. It took us basically a year to build our product before it was sellable. This was a year for us grinding away, getting people into our beta product, getting their feedback, and continuing to build before we got a dime in revenue. Looking back I remember how stressed I was, or remember the times I was thinking “What am I doing”, but there was always this kernel that kept me going, always telling myself there’s something here, there’s something here. The perception you'll start your startup and get rich overnight - I’ve seen actually that, it does happen, there’s couple of people. I had a friend from a portfolio where they were in business for eight months, they had a good demo day and they got bought for a lot of money. But that’s like the one in hundred thousand.

But those are the things that people like to broadcast and consider the norm, instead of the diamond in the rough.

I have also seen other friends from my same batch still grinding it out and they're just getting their A now. That's the joy of startups, you're creating something and if you're in it for money, there are far easier ways to do that. If you're good engineer and get a product manager, surely, you can get a good job and make more money. I think people should do startups if they really care about building something, building a product and team, feel like there's that need, but you’ve got to be ready for the long haul. It's not an overnight thing.

Startups don't hear that enough. Which is the sad part, because if we look at that statistics, out of all the thousands of startups 90% die and 1% of them succeed. The rest of them are in this middle ground.

You asked us what got us through tough times. The thing that kept us going was we always really believed in what we were doing. It wasn't that we wanted to get rich. We believed this needed to exist. As soon as we got our first customers, we poured everything into making them successful. There were so many low points but we just really believed.

When you talk to a startup founder, you can quickly tell what reason they're doing it for. When the first question is, “We need money” and they don't like the response, “Well, you don't really need money. You have to figure out what customers want and we will ready to pay for it” and if their response keeps coming back, “I need money” to pay themselves, hire more people, find someone to sell for them, basically do everything to have the cushy job and build a company.

I mean John and I after not taking a salary for our first six months, only took a low salary after because we wanted to get healthcare for our first employee.

Any closing thoughts?

There was actually an advantage for us because we were older. We were in our thirties, so it wasn't a hobby for us. John gave up a very stable job. He had a wife and a kid. We had to run this like a business. There's a huge opportunity cost,  that you’re not at another job making mid-career salaries We were always very disciplined about, “Does this feature matter, what will people pay for it?” Sure, we had disagreements but they weren’t fundamental disagreements, they were more, “Does somebody want to buy what we’re selling?” So we ended up in a very good position to run a business like a startup.

About the Alchemist Accelerator

Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.