Q&A: Stewart Townsend – Sun Startup Essentials EMEA manager

By Dave Bailey
22 Jun 2009 View Comments
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Sun EMEA manager Startup Essentials
Townsend : "We're passing down 27-plus years of experience with open source applications."

There is an argument that suggests the current economic uncertainty makes it an ideal time to start up a business. It may be tough to raise the capital necessary to fund a new venture, but there is a huge pool of available talent that could add substantial experience to any startup.

But where money is so tight as to preclude hiring, there are other mechanisms to tap into expertise that may prove invaluable for startups.

Further reading

Systems vendor Sun established its Startup Essentials programme three years ago, offering to help firms in their quest to be the next Google. Computing recently caught up with Stewart Townsend, who runs Sun's Startup Essentials group in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Computing: What type of IT expertise is the most important for startups?
Stewart Townsend (ST): I can never answer this question properly; I tend to turn it around and say "What can I do to help you? What's beneficial for your business?". What Sun has is the enterprise-class servers that we can discount to start-up prices - similarly with our enterprise software.

How can we use the Sun global brand to grow your business or maybe give you some engineering or technical support, or by the people network that we've grown, introduce you to investors. It's about being a partner – we're trying to set up long-term relationships here, and most companies are more receptive to that and understand that model, rather than Sun just trying to sell them hardware.

Computing: How can you help startups to establish a credible web presence?
(ST): We have hosting partners in the programme and, again, it's a chicken and egg situation. With firms that want to test the market, we talk to our partners in the UK. Currently that's EveryCity and NTT Europe Online.

The conversation with those companies would be along the lines of: "How can we provide a sandbox environment, maybe for no cost for a period of time?" This is necessary first to test the concept in the market while you're growing traffic and revenues, but also in the background to look at the scaling and technology aspects behind it.

When it gets to the point of hard launch and the business has some revenue opportunities that could sustain it, we would move the startup to a cost model, which we'd normally calculate in the initial phase. So when the company got to a certain size, it would cost a certain amount. We would also support the hosting companies in that effort with discounted hardware and marketing support.

Computing: What kind of hardware, storage and application support could you offer that would fit with, say, firms launching a website dependent on credit card transactions?
(ST): In that sort of space, we tend to aim for hardware such as low-end Intel servers, just a bunch of disks (JBOD) or our new Open Storage range. We can support a startup's software stack with our middleware packages and MySQL. We can then talk them through how such applications would scale and how it would affect their licensing costs.

Again, if a firm wants application transactional capabilities, we would also talk to them about the security aspect and see how we could lock it down within Solaris. In that case, we would need to assign an engineer to them, who would look at their business needs and requirements.

Computing: How do the initial conversations with these startups take place–is it a face-to-face meeting?
(ST): A lot of these conversations tend to take place at networking events or conferences. We also have these conversations remotely over Skype or using videoconferencing, because most of these businesses are time-constrained or travel-constrained. I can also get my engineers to contribute online, because a lot of their developers are outsourced and in Eastern European countries or in the Far East. With firms that have grown significantly - for example LastFM – we sit around a table and say, "Right, what do you need right now?".

Computing: When does a startup become a mature business?
(ST): The guidelines in the programme specify that a startup is any company which has been trading six years or fewer and has fewer than 150 employees. Although we also support more mature companies that are changing their business model and need some support. When they get to the end of that six-year time-frame, we tend to look on them as a mature company which could be assigned channel partners.

Computing: How do you profile which open-source packages would fit with startups?
(ST): It depends when we engage with the companies, because a lot of times they have already chosen which route to go down. But again, we get an engineer online to give them an idea of what they can do around open source about reducing licence costs and development time. It's taking the experience of our engineers who have been working with top-end enterprises and passing that down the chain to the startups who might have been badly advised by friends or by looking at online forums. We're passing down 27-plus years of experience with open-source applications – with no costs involved.

Computing: What about the technical advice, how does that work?
(ST): What we have is an email helpline – so if you're stuck or need some technical help, then all you have to do is email a message to a specific alias. This gets forwarded on to all of Sun's engineers globally and they'll pick messages up from the queue. Startups would then be assigned a Sun engineer to work with you and try and come to a solution.

Obviously, we'll concentrate on our own software stack, but where we have specific knowledge related to other non-Sun software, we'll also try and help.

Computing: What type of training can startups sign up for? Are there specific courses for application transaction packages, for example?
(ST): We have web-based, free training, and we've opened up our web-based e-library, and once you sign up you can go and access that. There are different modules in there; for example, there's Java application development, information on Solaris, OpenSolaris, and datacentre management.

What you'll be seeing in the next few quarters is a series of masterclasses coming out. These will be focused on some of the non-IT aspects for startups, such as PR, marketing and sales, how to set up a company, basic stuff like that. We're seeing a lot more people trying to start up businesses because of this the recession. Lots of people have been made redundant and have decided to go after their dreams. They may have worked in a corporate environment, but often lack the skills I mention above.

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