Inside a 13th-floor boardroom in downtown San Francisco, the atmosphere was tense. It was November 2015, and Databricks, a two-year-old software company started by a group of seven Berkeley researchers, was long on buzz but short on revenue.
The directors awkwardly broached subjects that had been rehashed time and again. The startup had been trying to raise funds for five months, but venture capitalists were keeping it at arm’s length, wary of its paltry sales. Seeing no other option, NEA partner Pete Sonsini, an existing investor, raised his hand to save the company with an emergency $30 million injection.
The next order of business: a new boss. Founding CEO Ion Stoica had agreed to step aside and return to his professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. The obvious move was to bring in a seasoned Silicon Valley executive, which is exactly what Databricks’ chief competitor Snowflake did twice on its way to a software-record $33 billion IPO in September 2020. Instead, at the urging of Stoica and the other cofounders, they chose Ali Ghodsi, the cofounder who was then working as vice president of engineering.
“Some of the rest of the board was naturally like, ‘That doesn’t make any sense: Swap out one founder-professor for another?’ ” recalls Ben Horowitz, the company’s first VC backer and himself initially skeptical of entrusting the business to a career academic with no experience running a business. A compromise was reached: Give Ghodsi a one-year trial run.
By Horowitz’s own admission, Ghodsi, 42, bald and clean-shaven, has become the best CEO in Andreessen Horowitz’s portfolio, which spans hundreds of companies. Databricks is already shaping up to be the firm’s best software success thanks to a recent valuation of $28 billion, 110 times larger than when Ghodsi took over. Databricks now boasts more than 5,000 customers, and Forbes estimates that it’s on track to book more than $500 million in revenue in 2021, up from about $275 million last year. It features on Forbes’ latest edition of the AI 50, ranked fifth on last year’s Cloud 100 list and could soon be headed for an IPO that ranks among the most lucrative in the history of software. Already, Ghodsi’s magic act has minted at least three billionaire founders—himself, Stoica, 56, and chief technologist Matei Zaharia, 36—all of whom, by Forbes’ estimation, own stakes between 5% and 6%, worth $1.4 billion or more.
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