Interview with Deb Noller, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Switch Automation

Deb Noller is a dynamic leader who brings more than 20 years’ experience in technology, sustainability and commercial real estate to her role as CEO of the Switch Automation team. She helps large enterprises apply technology for more efficient business operations, resulting in millions of dollars in cost savings for Fortune 100 companies. Deb loves cycling, strong coffee and mentoring young women in the tech industry.

What does Switch bring to the marketplace?

We are the first enterprise-wide platform for digitizing buildings. Most products in the market tackle buildings on a building-by-building basis. Switch offers scalable technology that lets people take a holistic view of their buildings and get everything under a single pane of glass.

What was your motivation while building Switch?

Frankly, buildings are an incredibly wasteful resource on the planet. I grew up in New Zealand in the seventies, and I value and appreciate the environment I had when I was a child. Buildings use 40 percent of the world's energy. Half of that - 20 percent of the world's energy - is used for heating and cooling. We could easily save 30 percent of the energy used to heat and cool buildings. And we could save six percent of the world’s energy if we just paid attention.

I’m fascinated by bringing efficiency to the industry.

What do you think is the most challenging thing you're facing at Switch?

It’s definitely the market. We are in one of the biggest and oldest markets. Real estate is the largest industry on the planet, but it’s also one of the last industries to be transformed by technology. The people involved in real estate are not familiar with how to buy technology, so a lot of people are trying out pilots. This causes both start-ups and established proptech companies in the space to burn time and money.  

The biggest challenge is determining how we can make the market move faster. To do so, we have to educate the market.

Can you tell me a little more about your background before starting Switch?

I studied national park management in the eighties, then later did a bachelor of commerce with a major in computer science. I met my co-founder, John Darlington, when we were both programmers. We started our first business in the nineties which handled logistics and freight tracking for large mining companies and became incredibly successful.

John and I were later introduced to building products and building automation because somebody was bringing a product into Australia, and it couldn't control the Australian lighting systems.

Out of all of your experience, what do you think best prepared you for your current role?

The first business that John and I created was a labor-based model. From this experience I learned very quickly and very early on that a labor-based model is not scalable. Later on, I looked at all the real estate markets and I noticed that most of the services have labor-based models. 

I also learned early on that you can use technology to have a digital business model. This allows you to grow a scalable business and go global. With technology and a digital business model, you can deliver a better experience and provide a better service while also producing higher margins and achieving higher levels of engagement with your customers. I’m fascinated by the concept of growing a global business using technology. When I look at real estate, I see an enormous opportunity to do exactly that.

Going back to the first day of working on your startup, what advice would you give yourself?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient. Take good care of yourself. Take good care of your family and your friends. No matter how much work you do, it's your family and friends that we have backing us up, so make sure to look after them.

What entrepreneurial lesson took you the longest to learn?

Technical founders find it difficult to learn the rigor around the sale. Learning to accept that half of sales is a science and building a sales team is extremely challenging. I have built a sales team three times, and it’s been difficult every time - though  this may be a result of the market Switch in.

What constitutes success for you, personally?

Success to me means having an impact. When we get our technology into tens of thousands of buildings and it becomes the global standard for how people manage buildings, then I will consider Switch Automation successful.

Do you have any insights that you want to share with the next generation of Alchemist Accelerator founders?

Resilience is key. If you do not have resilience, give up now. You could get a nice job with good pay. There are many startups that will value your wisdom and skills.

Without resilience, you will not be successful.

Do you have any insights for the next generation of entrepreneurs who are specifically working in your space?

Give up now... or take the resilience that any typical entrepreneur should have, and multiply it by 100.

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.


Vinod Khosla: Building your Initial Team 2

Vinod Khosla is the founder of Khosla Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. His firm invests in experimental technologies such as biomedicine and robotics. Khosla co-founded computer hardware firm Sun Microsystems in 1982 with Andy Bechtolsheim, Bill Joy and Scott McNealy. He spent 18 years at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (now called Kleiner Perkins) before launching his own fund.

We have noticed that there is a really strong network effect when you adopt the strategy of only hiring really great people. What’s your take on this?

An incredible network effect that’s seldom recognized. I’ll give you an example. I was talking about this particular company, the first four people they've hired, and we are talking about a really great person. I said, I’m not going to send him to them, because I look dumb in front of him, because I sent him to these tactical people. You wouldn't want to be interviewed by those people.  

With that strong network effect, how do you bootstrap?

Initial hiring is way more important than you think because of its multiplicative effect. So it's worth taking a little longer when you hire those people. You may pay them more in equity. That might be fair.. When we hired Andy Bechtolsheim and Bill oy, they were magnets for all sorts of people.

What's your feelings about remote and distributed teams?

Remote teams are hard to manage, but I don't invest because people have distributed teams or remote teams. You have to be doubly committed to keep a uniform culture. What makes it really hard is if the remote team is all junior people. So if the leaders in the remote team don't have credibility in the main team, then you're going to have a very hard time making it work, or keep the best people in the remote team, because they won't be motivated, because they don't feel part of it.

What are some of the irrational behaviors of investors, and how do you decide if you're missing out?

Investors really aren’t rational. When you say, if you're missing out, that's an emotion, not rational. I always say, keep in mind, investors only have two emotions; fear and greed. You know it.  So confidence in the team that matters more than anything else in getting your money. A very important question I’ll ask is for the next three people or the three most important people you're hiring in the next year. It’s not who they’re hiring, it’s how they're thinking about what they need. What that will mean for years two, three and four in terms of the teams, is for me, a way more important question than your financial forecast. But you have to keep in mind that most investors are emotional. When they're taking longer and longer and ask you more due diligence questions, the due diligence doesn't matter, they’re just fearful. So you got to say, how do I get the confidence up, it's not just answering their questions, which you’ll have to do.  

Typically, how long do you think it takes for most people before they feel like they know whether they're in or out?

There really isn't an answer for that. It's the dynamic you create. For really great teams, you really decide within hours whether you're going to invest or not. The due diligence is largely irrelevant. If it’s really uncertain areas, there are many things. If Twitter was starting up today, how do you do diligence? How do you know what’s the market? You just say, what confidence do I have in this person, and how rich is this opportunity space. Those are the only questions you can answer. You're not going to research the answers, use your best judgment. 

Others actually take serious diligence. At the seed stage, most things don't take a lot of diligence. So it's mostly in between, for most good investors. The people who are not that great as investors actually think they can diligence and don't know what's diligence and what's not. On your side, when you're writing, you're doing your spreadsheets, you know you're making shit. You know the answer and you just put the assumptions to be answered. Great thing about spreadsheets is you can hide all your assumptions. 

What do you think about solo founders versus co-founders?

I actually don't have a view one way or another. What matters is not what percentage you own, but the probability of success. If your expected value is ownership percentage in terms of probability of success, the far bigger variable to get far less attention is the probability of success. I always say, if you look at the risks in your business, adding more talent can increase the probability of success, then don't worry about the ownership percentage. 

I’ll give you a very real example. When my son did his startup, I had him keep a 60% pool. Nobody heard about it. But then he called the VP of engineering of Quora, and said, do you want to be my co-founder?  He said, no. To give you a sense, he was a fresh graduate out of Stanford. But you’d never get somebody like that, as a co-founder, but because if he had this school, he was able to attract somebody and that guy Shavia, is a great guy. He was head of machine learning for Netflix, and then became VP of engineering of Quora. The first three people he hired were three really valuable people in AI, they were old men making seven-digit salaries, and left to join a startup at 150K or whatever the salary was. Why? Because they got enough confidence. My son was able to give them 3-4%.

So now they have. So they’re just battling for somebody, somebody who is a great machine learning guy from Apple. His other offers are like seven-digit offers. He was one of the co-authors on the GAN paper with Ian Goodfellow. The guy called him and said, I looked at your team and I want to talk to you. Now, the other people all are offering really high salaries, so I don't know whether he went with them. But you got a chance because people looked at who you have, and the best people want to join. You have to work harder to get it going, but that's how I would answer the co-founder question. By the way, even at Sun, Bill Joy didn't join initially. Six months later, we just called him a co-founder. Hey, you’re going to be an attractive enough magnet, let's just call you co-founder. It doesn't matter.  

This, I’m very proud of. Sun was very successful. But after the first 15 or 20 people that we hired, Eric Schmidt was in the first 15, became CEO of Google. Carol Bartz was in the first 15, she became CEO of Yahoo. At least a dozen companies worth more than a billion dollars were started by the first 15 people at Sun. I was 25 when we started. I only wanted to hire really smart people, who shouldn't normally want to work with me.  That's the way to do it. But it paid off.

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.

An Interview with Gabor Angeli, Co-Founder & CTO, Eloquent Labs


Gabor graduated from UC Berkeley with a BS (with honors) in EECS. He then went on to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford. During that time, he was the NLP Architect at Baarzo (acq by GOOG, 2014). He is also a core contributor to the popular Stanford CoreNLP toolkit. In 2016, he co-founded Eloquent Labs, a conversational AI company, with a fellow Stanford NLP researcher Keenon Werling. He Served as Eloquent Labs’ CTO until it was acquired by Square in 2019. He now leads the Conversations team at Square to bring cutting edge conversational AI to small businesses.

What did Eloquent labs bring to the marketplace, that wasn't already prevalent? What is the unique selling point of Eloquent labs as compared to other B2B NLP startups? 

One way to characterize our unique insight is that there are a bunch of ChatBots that either answer questions, like static question answering, or are otherwise integrated with a small set of APIs. From our experience, talking to customers and deploying our ChatBot, this was not how most query streams look. Take even something simple like a shipping company: tracking a package, everyone says, is the most common query that people have. But if you look through and figure out how a bot or human would solve all of these queries, it breaks down into 100 different smaller API endpoints or smaller things that you have to do. For example, questions such as “You’re stuck in customs, why do I have to pay duties?” “You delivered to the wrong address”, so on and so forth. They all show up in conversations that customer service categorizes as tracking the package. 

Eloquent Labs’ big contribution was a way to quickly incorporate new intents into the ChatBot in a way that didn't require manual effort to integrate with the associated APIs. The end result was a ChatBot that took less time to program for a new intent than it would have for an agent to perform the task themselves.

What was your motivation while building up Eloquent Labs? What was your drive that got you in the NLP space? What was pushing you forward?

What caused me to do a startup in the NLP space is straightforward. I did my PhD in NLP. That was the unique set of skills that I could offer to the world. 

Why Eloquent labs and why ChatBots? I had just graduated from my PhD, and my co-founder had done research in the lab that I was in as well. What we were good at was building high performance, accurate NLP systems. We looked around in the market for a place where that would be an actual advantage, a place where the technology was hard enough that we have a competitive edge, but not so hard that it's impossible. We created Eloquent out of that philosophy.

What made you transition from research to entrepreneurship? Did you have other entrepreneurial experiences before starting Eloquent labs, or was it the first time you really went into this space?

This was my first startup and first real experienced entrepreneurship. I worked as a fellow at XSeed capital, which was a wonderful experience and one that I'd recommend to anyone that has the time during their PhD. That gave me a bit of a sense of what the VC climate was like, what fundraising looks like, and how these people that have been involved in entrepreneurship and startups for decades look at the space and evaluate companies. 

How did you assign roles to each co-founder? How did you distribute the work amongst yourselves?

We fought over who would get to be CTO, and I won. We're both technical people. So in a sense, we’re both on the technical side. On the other hand, Keenon has much more of a talent for talking to people and communicating the vision for the company.

What is the most challenging thing you faced at Eloquent Labs?

There's a bunch of little, medium, and large challenges that are very specific to us or businesses like ours, but I’ll answer broadly. The most useful answer I can give to someone thinking about starting a startup is the most challenging bit was operating under uncertainty. There's a bunch of different types of uncertainty, but the one I’ll highlight is product uncertainty.

Everyone gives the advice that you should talk to a lot of people, hundreds of people. What they don't tell you is that you can talk to as many people as you want, you're still not going to get a clear picture of the world. You get little snippets of truth; you get little ideas of what might be, but it's very hard to run even just a single interview in a way that people give their honest impression, and aggregating on top of it is even harder.

That leads to this perpetual challenge. In a startup, it's never okay to sit still, because if you sit still, you're just going to die. The default state, if you don't do anything, you run out of money and collapse. So you have to go in some direction or another, and you just never know enough to be confident that that's the right or the wrong decision.

What constitutes success for you, personally? What drives you in the startup sense?

Keenon has a lot of family friends that are in business and successful in business. He was asking for advice from some of them, and retelling the woes of Silicon Valley and all the weird perverse incentives of fundraising and hiring and so forth. He recounted advice he got from one of his family friends, ‘Look, businesses aren't hard, you have one job, bring in more money than you spend.’’ That stuck with me throughout the remainder of the startup and even now, as very sensible criteria for a successful company. Success in the startup is you bring in more money than you spend.

There’s many other ways to have strange, perverse Silicon Valley success. One of them is getting acquired. You can go after users and go after mega growth. But these are all anomalies in a sense. The core truth remains that if you're looking at what makes a successful long term company either now or sometime in the future, you should be bringing in more money than you spend.

What was the most valuable thing you learned from the Alchemist experience?

At a high level, the role that Alchemist played in our particular startup venture was to get us exposed to the business side of things. We had very little experience about what the components of running the actual sales and marketing and business development side of the company is. Alchemist actually focuses a fair amount, in both their classes and their mentorship, on precisely this. It was useful to hear a bunch of different perspectives from the meetings and presentations that they gave. It was especially useful to get one on one mentoring from the various Alchemist mentors that they paired us up with. 

Do you have any advice for the next generation of Alchemist Accelerator founders?

Don't start a startup. It's very painful. Most people aren't going to listen to that and they're going to do it anyways. That's good. That shows some amount of determination. If there's doubt there, and I can dissuade you, then you shouldn't be doing a startup. I got the same advice once about getting a PhD. They told me, don't do a PhD, and tried to persuade me otherwise. The motivation is the same. If someone can be persuaded out of it, then it's not going to go well. It's a very painful experience and much more painful than its portrayed in the media and by VCs and in the general culture of Silicon Valley. 

Do you have any plans of getting back into the startup space in the future? Or, would you like to continue developing your technology at Square?

No, I’m not likely to return to the startup scene.

That’s because of what you said; because it's very painful? Or, is there some other reason?

Mostly that. There are more interesting places to do interesting work than at a startup. As a technologist, startups are -- contrary to my initial impression -- not the most impactful way to bring new technology into the world. It's a wonderful way to bring existing technology to a larger group of people. But if the interest is to build something new, to build something creative, to start something from scratch: startups, by virtue have all of these extra pressures being put on them, are not actually a particularly effective way to do this. 

If you had to do this entire startup journey once again, what would you do differently than you did the first time? What were the biggest mistakes you made while you were working on it?

A ton of mistakes were made. A few things I could have done differently. It's difficult to do a startup that is both developing new technology and trying to bring in substantial revenue. We tried to both develop something that was, in a sense, new to the world: conversational AI. At the same time, we were trying to monetize it and get actual customers and fulfill this criteria of success, of bringing in more money than you spend. Doing both at the same time at a high level is very difficult and adds extra burden to the startup.

In practice, there are plenty of successful companies that develop new technology, and then wait to get absorbed into a big company to productize it. There are also plenty of successful companies that take the technology that's new or underutilized or utilized in an adjacent field that can be applied to something else, productize it and become a self-sustaining company. Many of these actually go on to have research links or research and development engineering arms, that then develop new technology. However, to do both of these together was probably a high level strategic mistake in Eloquent.

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.