(From the Spring 2011 Oregon Stater)
By Gregg Kleiner
Alex Polvi hails from a long line of Beavers.
“My dad and all four of his brothers have engineering degrees from OSU, and both my siblings are Beavers,” says Polvi, ’07, who grew up on a Christmas Tree farm outside tiny Amity, west of Salem. “There have been 11 of us total so far, including me, so the family joke is that the next one should be free.”
Maybe so, but given Polvi’s recent success as a technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, he could probably afford to pick up the tuition tab for the next dozen Beavers in his family.
Polvi, 25, teamed up with two fellow Beavs – Dan Di Spaltro, ’07, from Bend and Logan Welliver, ’06, from McMinnville – to conceive, cofound and ultimately sell their Silicon Valley startup called Cloudkick, a company that develops software tools used in cloud computing.
Polvi’s career trajectory – from his first job running a chainsaw on his family’s tree farm, through various student positions in computer science at Oregon State, to being CEO of the recently acquired startup – has been nothing short of stratospheric.
Stratospheric seems a fitting term, because Cloudkick deals with the stratosphere of cyberspace (cloud computing), and the company was acquired last December for an undisclosed but substantial amount – just two years after the Beaver trio launched it (moving from launch to acquisition in under two years is fast even in fast-paced Silicon Valley).
Cloud computing lets customers use the Internet to tap server space, software tools and other resources on demand, instead of tying up capital to own computing power, servers and software that are needed only at certain times. Cloudkick’s product is a set of highly visual and easy-to-use tools that enables system administrators to better monitor, analyze and manage the resources they use in their cloud, which might be scattered across the Internet.
Polvi traces his entrepreneurial success back to his time at Oregon State, where he met fellow computer science major Di Spaltro and graphic designer Welliver (whose family counts a half-dozen OSU alumni in its ranks), who would later become his Cloudkick cofounders, collaborators and ultimately cohabiters.
“The roots of Cloudkick are really at OSU and the Oregon State Open Source Lab,” says Polvi, who credits Welliver and Di Spaltro for their incredible teamwork and talent while all three of them built the company.
As a freshman, Polvi talked his way into a student system administrator position at the Open Source Lab after first being passed over because – he thinks – he showed up for the interview sporting tie-dyed socks.
Scott Kveton, ’97, then Open Source Lab director, took Polvi under his wing and served as a mentor, leading him to an internship at Google in New York, and then to a real job at Mozilla in the Bay Area after graduation.
It was at OSU where Polvi worked with professor Tim Budd to establish the Open Source Education Lab. “Tim taught me a whole bunch,” Polvi says. “He was very influential and a great mentor.”
Polvi also pulled off some interesting antics on campus, demonstrating both creativity and audaciousness. One summer, he worked with a small team of “fellow geeks who were crazy about Mozilla” to help create a massive crop circle in a field of oats north of Corvallis that depicted the web browser’s logo (watch video: bit.ly/YITGZ). Also, as part of a women’s studies class project at OSU, he and two female students briefly displayed above a sidewalk on engineering row a well-forged banner featuring Sara Jean Underwood – an OSU student who had been selected Playmate of the Year by Playboy Magazine – among a collection of banners highlighting outstanding OSU alumni and their achievements.
Polvi’s thirst for new experiences meant that after a year with Mozilla, he left to launch his own company. In December 2008, Polvi, Di Spaltro, and Welliver launched Cloudkick, another of a seeming gazillion startups that seem to sprout and wither each year in the rich, high-tech compost that fills Silicon Valley. But Cloudkick had a solid product, and three smart cofounders who, as Polvi admits, got lucky.
In February of 2009, the company was one of 16 selected by a unique startup incubator called Y Combinator, which gave the starving trio $20,000 in cash, plus access to weekly mentoring sessions with some of Silicon Valley’s finest minds in exchange for a small percentage interest in the company.
“Y Combinator is the brainchild of Paul Graham, a luminary in the hacker world,” Polvi says. “It’s a very different approach to venture funding, which usually involves much larger funds focused on far fewer startups.”
The Y Combinator seed funding and mentoring connections give a select handful of fledgling startups operating cash for three months, at the end of which they give a six-minute pitch about their company to a roomful of venture capitalists and Silicon Valley brass.
Polvi, Welliver and Di Spaltro stretched the cash to last eight months while they scoured the Valley for funding and further developed their product.
“It was 2009, a horrible time to be trying to raise money,” Polvi says. “And we were a very inexperienced team with no business background.”
But in August 2009, as the trio was running on financial fumes, they landed a $750,000 investment from Avalon Ventures. They all moved into a house in San Francisco that served as both home and office, where the Beaver flag was proudly flown, and they hired their first employee, Paul Querna, who had worked with the Oregon State Open Source Lab when he was vice president of infrastructure at the Apache Software Foundation.
Six months later, in February 2010, Avalon Ventures came forward with another infusion of cash for Cloudkick – $2 million this time – a clear indication that the OSU grads were on to something big. Less than a year later, Cloudkick had grown to 12 employees – six of whom were fellow OSU alumni – plus an intern working remotely from the OSU campus.
Part of Cloudkick’s edge is that its products are highly visual and simple to use. The visual sophistication is thanks to Welliver’s OSU education in graphic design and the time he spent working as creative director for a Portland web design firm before moving to the Bay Area to join Polvi and Di Spaltro.
Di Spaltro and Polvi shared general management duties. “Dan was responsible for writing a lot of the software, managing the engineering team, working with big customers, dealing with investors and helping out partners,” Polvi says.
On Dec. 15, 2010, exactly two years to the day from when they founded Cloudkick, Polvi, Di Spaltro and Welliver closed the acquisition deal with Rackspace, the nation’s no. 2 player in cloud computing (second only to Amazon) for an undisclosed but substantial amount.
Although they can now all afford to buy their own homes, Polvi doesn’t own a car and the three cofounders still live together in the San Francisco house, which served as the Cloudkick office until the company outgrew it and rented space at The Farm, a former community center and organic farm that has a reputation for hosting punk rock recording sessions.
What’s next for Polvi? For the near future, he’ll be working for Rackspace, yet another new experience he’s pumped about jumping into.
“Part of the deal with Rackspace was that they wanted a Bay Area presence, so I’ll be managing the opening of their San Francisco office,” Polvi says, noting that it will be nice to have access to the resources at San Antonio, Texas-based Rackspace, which employs 3,500 people and is valued at
approximately $4 billion.
“Rackspace will be working to secure its spot as a world leader in cloud computing,” says Polvi. “And I’m excited about helping them get there.”
Beyond that, who knows? “I love new experiences that ultimately help people,” he says. “At the end of the day, I think that’s what it’s all about, helping people. That’s what we did at Cloudkick, created a tool that helps people do their job better. And that’s what I’ll be doing at Rackspace.”
One of the immediate ways Polvi hopes to help others is by hiring more OSU alumni and interns at Rackspace’s new San Francisco digs. “We’re hiring interns all the time, so if you want to work with a bunch of other Beavers, get in touch,” he says, acknowledging that the Beaver flag will definitely be flying at the new office space.
“If you enjoy what you’re doing, work is life,” he says.
Gregg Kleiner is a freelance writer based in Corvallis.