Welcome to the C2M Beta Cohort Founder Interview Series. The goal of this 6-part blog series is to get a peek into the inner workings of startup founders and to learn about their experience, what they are up to now, and advice for future entrepreneurs.
Prime Labs' mission is to provide ultra-intuitive, user-friendly, sharable data processing & visualization for all mass spectrometry users. Their software advances the state of the art through interface, algorithms, and infrastructure. We sat down with Founder and CEO, Rob Smith, to learn more about Prime Labs.
Q: Hi, thanks for joining me. Let's start with your name, age, business name and location.
A: Rob Smith, I'm 36. The company's Prime Labs Incorporated, and we're in Missoula, Montana.
Q: If you could explain yourself in a couple of sentences, how would you do that?
A: I guess someone who likes to think divergently about all aspects of life. I'm very interested in solving problems and thinking about better ways to do things.
Q: Tell me about your business and your role specifically.
A: Prime Labs was founded in 2017 to try to address the throughput constraints for scientific data processing, and we're doing that through innovative software. We basically take an approach of innovative algorithms, interfaces, and cloud computing to try to address that.
Q: And then your role in Prime Labs?
A: I'm the founder and CEO, and since we're a small business currently I wear a few different hats.
Q: Tell me a little bit about those hats.
A: I'm the product manager, so I'm the primary point of contact with the customers. I try to develop and maintain a vision of where we need to go with our product, and interface between customer needs and our development work plan with the developers. And just try to keep everybody on the same page so that we're solving relevant problems in ways that make sense.
Q: A lot of hats, like you said. How did you get into this business and what was that moment that you decided to kind of do it?
A: So, I started with computational mass spectrometry in grad school. I was studying machine learning and artificial intelligence. I met a chemistry professor who needed some help on a problem he was working on. I had never heard of mass spectrometry before and shortly thereafter I was kind of smitten by the abundance of problems that seemed to have a lot of relevance, but also potential impact for artificial intelligence to be applied to them. It’s been a whirlwind since then. As a university professor in computer science, I was doing academic research in computational mass spec, and I was awarded a research grant to investigate commercialization prospects in the field.
I spent two months on the road interviewing mass spectrometry scientists, asking them about their unmet software needs. I was surprised to see just how unsatisfied people were with the state of the software. There was a lot more that could be done in terms of ease-of-use, dependability, and capability. No one had developed anything for the cloud. So we got to work! It's been very interesting and fulfilling.
Q: Wow. What was the first year of Prime Labs like?
A: It was painful. So, life can sometimes feel like falling out of a really tall tree and hitting every branch on the way down and when you think you've hit the bottom, you're not quite there yet. We had a lot of assumptions about what we were doing and what we needed to do that were kind of paradoxically, at the same time, they were both spot on and completely wrong.
Wrestling with that contradiction was how we spent the first year of Prime Labs; realizing that the problem was a lot bigger than we thought but realizing the solution was right. However, it needed a lot more work than we had anticipated to get it done. That's kind of a mixed blessing because on the one hand it takes some real scrambling for resources because your market launch date just keeps getting pushed back further and further. But on the other hand, as we started stacking up the solved problems, the confidence that we had that this was something meaningful continued to increase. When you start stacking up things that no one else has done it gets really exciting. That starts to make you feel good, like you are really going to make a difference.
Q: That's a tough and inspiring first year, like you said. Was there any one in particular that inspired you or encouraged you to become the business owner that you are?
A: I don't think so. I know, not a super exciting answer.
Q: No, that's totally fine. How about success? How do you define success for yourself, personally and then secondarily, professionally?
A: I'd like to make a difference, as cliche as it sounds. Leave the world a better place than I found it. I do that in a lot of different ways in my life. But specifically, professionally, I think if we can help people solve problems that they can't currently solve in less time than it takes them, then that would be a successful outcome.
Q: That kind of encapsulates professionally as well as personally, actually, now that I think about it, but if you want to go a step further and say for my Prime Labs perspective success, is that the same answer?
A: Oh, that was my Prime Labs answer for it.
Q: So then personally is leaving the world a better place? That's great then. I love it.
A: Yeah, that's right.
Q: What's been your most important skill that you've developed as a business owner? If you could identify just one, obviously.
A: Clairvoyance. At least I think that's what's needed, whether I'm there yet is a different question.
So, a serious answer would probably be the ability to effectively communicate a vision and inspire others to do what they can to fulfill it. I think that's one of the most important things. I think that as far as customer interactions go and interactions with other stakeholders, like potential funders, those interactions aren't too tough. If you believe in what you're doing, you can demonstrate that to other people, I think, quite readily. It's much more challenging to impart your unique view of the situation to your team, in ways that communicate enough information so that they're empowered to make their own decisions toward those ends, without overwhelming them and distracting them, because that can be kind of problematic. So, just finding the right balance and the right techniques to get them what they need essentially to do what only they can do in their space, that's a challenge.
Q: With that being said then, have you identified any resources that help you develop said skills or develop yourself in general?
A: There's a book called Principles by Ray Dalio. It is absolutely amazing. The book is written from a business perspective specifically, but it's amazingly rich and could be applied to many other things in life. Ray does a good job of talking about the vision and how to update it and how to share it and how to get feedback on it from your team. So, kind of all actors in that ecosystem and how they can intercommunicate to make that the best that it can be. I think that that book is probably required reading and it might be the only required reading on the topic.
Q: On to our next topic: Quitting. Have you ever thought about quitting? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
A: Maybe a better way of asking that is at what interval have I thought about it? Sometimes daily. So, this gets back to getting in over your head and then having a gradual, more expansive idea of what you're really trying to do. I'd be surprised if any entrepreneur knowing the end from the beginning could say, "Yeah, I would have done it if I knew what I was getting into." Because it's almost like you don't know what it takes to do what you're doing, at the beginning, but you also don't know what it will lead to--what you'll actually get out of it from the beginning. But if all you had was that side of the coin, the “what it’s going to take” side, without the “what will come from it” side, no one would sign up for this.
But of course you are glad you did it when you come out the other end. I'm officially glad I did it. I mean, we've crossed that threshold. But some days you really wonder because I think if you're in it for the money, there's no amount of money that's worth this. I think that's a conclusion that as an entrepreneur you have to come to. Maybe if you have a main street, small business, you can still stay in it for the money. But even then, the hours are grueling. I think at some point you have to have a transcendental purpose, whether that's the problem you're solving as a company or the team that you're building and the opportunities you're providing for people who otherwise wouldn't have them.
For me, it's a mix of both of those and that's what makes it worth it. But, yeah, you wonder if even that is worth it, all the time. I mean, you have days where you have a revelation that things haven't been going the way you thought they were. And it really causes you to question whether this is worth it, but I don't know. It's good. It's good to have doubts because as you recalibrate, it's kind of like a GPS rerouting. You get more information, you revisit the vision, rebuild a path to the goal. Then every time you do that you can ask yourself, is this still worth it to me? And there's nothing wrong with that. If anything, I think that's a very appropriate thing to ask.
Q: What was a struggle that made you feel like you maybe potentially needed extra support or something else in your business? Is there one that you could identify or is it a lot?
A: Zooming out a bit, I think in a general sense, there are many, many examples where I felt like I needed more help. And this is kind of like a weird meta example of entrepreneurship itself because I always feel like if someone else had solved this problem, I wouldn't have to. And I almost wished they would have, which is weird, since I am supposed to be a businessman chasing a monopoly. But I am a scientist first and foremost. I want the world to be a better place, and I’m surprised when someone else hasn’t done that in ways that I can before I get to it.
Order out of chaos is kind of fractal because as you start to do it and dive into some subset of the problem as a whole, you notice that that sub problem is the same way, that there are things that no one else has ever done. And it's shocking and you're like, "What? Really? No one's ever asked this question? No one's ever built this tool?" So eventually, it's kind of like in computer science, we call it depth first search. Eventually you get to the bottom and you can start to back out and go back down into the other things. But I think the approach always is, "Has anyone else thought about this? If not, well, we just need to find a way to do it."
And sometimes that's something that someone on the team can help with. It's been very important to communicate to them how to navigate these situations because it's scary and weird and unusual. Most normal people don't face complex problems. At least they don't recognize them. It's very unusual for normal people to have to come up with some solution to them, some working solution. And so getting the team members used to that, where every ounce of your being wants to avoid this thing somehow, this wave. But you have to learn how to dive into them because there is no other way.
You sit down with people and just say, "Look, here's the problem. We can draw a box around it. We can't proceed until you figure out a way to do this. And by the way, I'm busy. You have to figure out. And no one here can help you. And don't Google it because you're not going to find an answer. You just have to figure it out." That's the same voice that communicates to us the same thing. As leaders, we face the same thing all the time and a lot of these things you just have to find a way.
Q: I totally agree. Couple more questions, a little bit more focused on C2M now. What unexpected value did you gain from going through the C2M Accelerator program?
A: So, working with Jeremy on a lot of legal and funding type questions was massively valuable and I had no idea that that resource would be available. I think for most startups the legal question has a very high price tag for what you get in return. I think the actual needs are pretty basic, but the cost to fill those, it's sort of like having to buy an enterprise software platform when all you need is a copy paste kind of thing. So, that was massively valuable to get the basic, level one, guidance on things like stock options and license agreements and just the nuts and bolts of what a high tech company needs to know.
Q: What's one big accomplishment your company has had since going through the Accelerator?
A: I think it happened after we were awarded a phase two SBIR from NSF, and that has really been massive for us.
Q: Can you break down what that acronym is for our audience?
A: If I know, yes. Small business is the SB. IR, innovative research I believe. There are many federal agencies that fund research grants to nonprofits, but Congress created a law to earmark a certain share of those dollars specifically for small business research and development that would lead to commercial products that wouldn't otherwise exist. And so now SBIR is actually the main seed fund for companies in the United States and they fund, I don't know the exact number but I think it's three quarters of the dollars that are invested in small businesses. So, it's a really big deal though. It's a lot of money and it goes pretty far.
Q: Two more questions. First one, what is one piece of advice that you'd give to another business owner that's thinking about or is about to join an accelerator?
A: I think choosing the right one. My motto in life is anything Joe Fanguy is attached to is worth doing. But I spoke to a lot of advisers about accelerators because you do get invitations to join these, particularly if your company is on some public registry, which getting public funding will automatically get you on these lists. I think the consensus opinion is that the majority of them are not worth the time. So, most of them are used as a free filter system for venture capital folks to find and filter through companies to fund without having to commit to much in return. Finding something that really is mutually beneficial is a good thing to do. So, if you can't define the value ahead of time, you might be wrong about what you expect to get out of it. But if you can't define it ahead of time and it may not be worth doing.
Q: Yes, great answer. James, Founder and CEO of Docity, mentioned things that actually push the needle versus checking the box.
A: That's a great answer.
Q: And it echoed what you just said though as well, the return on investment. What are you actually getting out of it? So, it's great to hear founders kind of echoing similar sentiments. Last question, kind of broad one. Any last words on C2M, startup life or life in general?
A: Oh, gosh. Yes, that's pretty broad. Well, I mean, one thing is I think a lot of people shy away from entrepreneurship because of the risk aspect. But two things to remember about that, one risk is a two edged sword and you can't have a large benefit without a large risk. That's part of the definition of the term. Two, most of the lack of risk that we perceive in normal jobs is actually an illusion. When you have a more accurate view of what's at stake in your nine to five W2 job, then starting a business might seem like a better idea. The current situation is just case in point. So, a lot of people might think that a pandemic is a very unusual thing, and it may be in precise terms, but if you zoom out a bit and think, "Well, what's the set of all things that could radically change the way we do business?" That's an enormous set. What's the probability of at least one of those things happening in the next 10 years? It's really high. If you look through history, you see this again and again. So, everyone who worked at one tech company in town here thought they had the most solid job in the city a month ago. Now they are all unemployed.
Q: Explosive growth, biggest round of raise. All of those KPIs.
A: Yes, exactly. And now they're all unemployed, and they probably burned some bridges leaving where they were to get there. That is a reality that I think most people don't get. So, accurate perception of risk and reward makes entrepreneurship look a little better.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Rob!
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