Rick Farnell – Co-Founder of Think Big Analytics

I would take more pictures. Pictures tell a great story and we have a tradition in our offices where we hang up photos of good times that we’ve had inside and outside the office.

As co-founder of Think Big, Rick brings 20 years of management experience in scaling technology consulting organizations in North America, EMEA and APAC. He is responsible for Think Big’s sales and services business. Previously, Rick directed a global division within Sun Microsystems and in 2009, he led Sun’s cloud open source software go to market strategy with Amazon Web Services. Rick played a key role on Sun’s leadership team that integrated the acquisitions of SeeBeyond and mySQL. In the 1990’s, Rick was the first senior hire into C-Bridge, a leader in B2B internet applications where he helped develop the consulting methodology and led programs for many of the company’s largest clients. His leadership helped grow the firm to over 900 consultants and to a successful IPO in 1999. He has a B.A. from Wesleyan University.

Where did the idea for Think Big Analytics come from?

It is kind of a long story, but vital to our founding as it was stitched together as a result of a number of years and experiences by our Founders and key players. When we got rolling at what is now Think Big Analytics, it was Ron, Katie Bodkin, and myself. I have known Ron since our early twenties working together to startup C-bridge as an incubation newco out of Cambridge Technology Group.

I was working at CTG for a number of entrepreneurs and visionaries, who were responsible for incubating a number of amazing startups during the client server and Internet technology eras. Ron was at MIT and met up with some of the CTG team and joined the family as the founding CTO of a new incubation idea called C-bridge. I joined C-bridge as one of the first senior hires from CTG to help get it going, selling a number of its first client projects and moving on to leadership roles in both the services and sales groups. C-bridge was a successful new services startup that helped large companies build distributed solutions and interactive online applications utilizing this new thing called the “Internet”. New software languages, technologies, data integration designs and infrastructures were needed to make these Internet solutions and platforms a reality.

It was the perfect time to start an Internet company that focused on the new skills needed in these areas. 1996 was meaningful from a timing perspective surrounding the Internet wave of innovation, similar to what you’ll see with our Think Big Analytics timing in 2010 around the Big Data wave of technologies. We successfully launched, built and scaled C-bridge globally. Our growth led us to a successful IPO and ultimately to an acquisition. C-bridge is where we met Katie as she was hired into C-bridge and helped us on the operational scaling of the business. CTG and C-bridge is also where I met my wife Alix, where we met Scott Fleming, Daniel Eklund, Douglas Moore, Ben MacKenzie. They were all key players for us at Think Big. We also have a few Think Big investors from our CTG and C-bridge working days.

Ron, Katie and I stayed in touch throughout the 2000’s (post C-bridge) both personally and professionally. While I was working at Sun from 2005-2010, I saw first hand what a myriad of companies were doing with open source software. I championed and supported Sun’s move to monetize some of our software products on this new cloud infrastructure technology called Amazon Web Services in 2008. I played a key role in the acquisition integration of MySQL into Sun Software, which is one of the largest open source software acquisitions in the technology industry. I also saw first hand how services providers and systems integrators were building solutions on top of open source technology and taking them to market with value added services and applications.

Sun is also where I met and worked with Scott Rose (who would become another key player at Think Big) on a “1 step shy” of a global joint venture between Sun Software and Accenture. After the MySQL acquisition, Oracle bought Sun, which was the same time Ron finished four years working at Quantcast. Ron and I got together to talk about some ideas for a new company similar in business model to C-bridge, but focused on new open source software that emphasized the new wave of Hadoop and Big Data technologies. Ron had first hand experience working with MPP systems and Hadoop early on at Quantcast as their VP of Engineering.

I started a new company called Rapid Formation, which was a strategy services firm that set out to help entrepreneurs and early stage companies launch their businesses. Once the business model and design for the technology usage in the business was formed, we would help to secure funding for realizing the full potential of our client’s visions. I had a great entrepreneurial experience with Rapid Formation, but the more Ron and I kept in touch and researched, the clearer our vision became for a C-bridge-like company focused on Big Data, Hadoop.

Ron, Katie and I set up a brainstorming session in their house in Los Altos and flip-charted the company vision, financial structure, business plan, goals and general organization structure for the business. As we worked to determine a name for our company, we kicked around ideas related to Big Data. Finally, a friend of Katie’s came up with “Think Big Analytics” and that was it. We agreed that I would join the Bodkins as the 3rd founder and we made it happen. As Ron likes to say, we reached out to our friends from our past to “get the band back together”, calling Daniel Eklund and Scott Fleming to join us on the rocket.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I like to say there are three 8-hour days in a 24-hour period, so needless to say I try to pack a bunch in. It’s certainly different now as a “mature” entrepreneur with a family, wife and two children, but essentially it means lots of moving logistics. I very often take calls in the morning, during the school rush with my ear buds in, on my way to the office, walking into the office, walking through the airport, in the Delta SkyClub, on planes up until the last minute, on Skype or email during flights with wifi, and late at night once everyone is asleep when there is time to catch up on work. As an entrepreneur, there is way too much to do in a day, so you have to learn to prioritize. Not everything can be accomplished in one day, but the goal is to conquer the most important project first.

One thing I try to focus on each day is to connect with the people that I am currently working with. To me, if I have gone through the day and actually personally connected with a handful of people, then I call it a successful day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

There is one simple answer; I use a whiteboard and colored markers. As anyone who works with me can attest to, the use of a whiteboard has always been useful for me in business. I travel with my own whiteboard markers in my backpack so I’m ready anytime to brainstorm. Getting people in front of a whiteboard is the best way to engage with people, collaborate, and visualize a shared idea. It can accelerate and take form quite quickly as you continue to collaborate on the whiteboard. You can also bring other people into the conversation quickly. Throughout the years, some of the best ideas we’ve had started with a whiteboard sketch.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m amazing by how fast the technology market is moving. It’s astonishing to think that many companies, even the massively funded startups, can’t even keep up with the pace of innovation that is happening in the technology industry. This fact is also showing no sign of ever slowing down. In fact, I think it’s speeding up each and everyday. This means that innovative ideas by smart entrepreneurs will ALWAYS have an opportunity for incubation, launch, and growth.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I often talk about finding people’s “super powers” and using them effectively. I think that my super power is getting people revved up and excited to tackle a project, task, and beyond. Growing up, I’ve had the opportunity to lead people in sports, which has paid off in major ways for me as an entrepreneur and leader.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I was working in an entry-level private banking position in the back office. My duties included filing and processing routine transaction for Trusts and Estate Clients. I learned that instead of working at the bank for the customers that has trust accounts and estates, I wanted to be the one owning them. This motivated me to keep my eyes open for new opportunities

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would take more pictures. Pictures tell a great story and we have a tradition in our offices where we hang up photos of good times that we’ve had inside and outside the office. Every photo is a piece of our journey and our history.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I strive to step out of my comfort zone regularly. Engaging in discussion with smart people across all topics helps me expand my knowledgebase. I like to ask questions to people regardless of their expertise. This allows me to understand subjects more than I did prior to the conversation.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Focusing on rocket-shipping other people’s careers has played a major part in growing Think Big Analytics. Whether it’s for our own big thinkers or for our clients, we try to provide ways for the people with work with to become leaders, speak at events, get quotes in press releases, write books, and land covers of articles or magazines. If we do a great job of this on a daily basis with all the people that we interact with internally and externally, we are going to build a highly respected brand that more people will want to work for and with. I very often tell our new hires, both young and old, that they need to remember us when they go on to do great things in their careers and remember that guys like us gave them a shot. We are always trying to breed that entrepreneurial fire in everyone.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I’d have to say that one failure I’ve faced is Think Big’s geographic scalability. Starting out, we scaled the company in a geographically distributed way with many of our leader and key people in various states across the country. Unfortunately, this is not optimal for a fast moving and growing startup, but to overcome this hurdle, we work to connect daily though Google Hangouts, Skype, or Facetime. I also travel to be with as many of our leaders as possible.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

People of all ages love slush.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I’m bummed that my older brother passed away before he had a chance to meet my kids.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Gmail and all its integrated services (Google Dashboard). It’s super easy and highly productive.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Who Moved My Cheese?” would be the one book that I highly recommend. It’s a quick read and outlines some simple yet critical business and entrepreneur success traits: don’t settle or get comfortable, always take notice of everything going on around you, and be prepared to move and find the next innovative idea.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Unfortunately for the readers, not many bloggers or people with twitter handles have influenced my thinking. Many of the people that have influenced me in my journey are people that are my childhood friends, my family (my wife and kids, my Mom, Dad, Sister and Brother), people that I have played sports for and with, and people that I worked with and for. I’ve been fortunate in my life to learn from some amazing teachers, play for some amazing coaches, and work for some amazing business leaders.

Oddly, a unique influencer in some of my thinking and approach to life is actually the character Ty Webb whom Chevy Chase plays in the movie Caddie Shack. There is a scene where Ty is walking down the fairway with Danny Noonan, his caddie, right before the “Be the Ball” scene. He talks to Danny about his future and gives him some sound advice: “you have to make your future, Danny”. This is so true as an entrepreneur. If you wait for things to happen you will never get anywhere.

One “real person” to highlight that has influenced my thinking is my Dad. He taught me at a young age to make friends with everyone, whether they are the president of a company or the janitor of a company because there will be times when having a personal relationship with both of them will come in handy. Boy is he right on that one. Thanks, Dad.


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