Cloudflare TV

Founder Focus

Presented by Jade Wang, Geoff Schmidt
Originally aired on 

Geoff Schmidt is founder and CEO of Apollo GraphQL. He raised his first venture capital round at 20, and outside of Apollo, is the proprietor of Monument, a 24-unit live/work community.


Transcript (Beta)

All right, and we're live. Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus.

I am your host, Jade Wang, and thank you for coming on our show. Today, we have Geoff Schmidt from Apollo GraphQL.

Welcome to the show, Geoff. Thank you so much for having me.

This is a real treat. Thanks. Let's see. First of all, folks in the audience, if you have questions, feel free to email them in or call them in to this number here.

And this information is also down below in the description box.

So first of all, very briefly for anyone in the audience who might not already be familiar with Apollo, can you just very briefly describe everything that you guys do?

Sure. So a lot of people are really excited about GraphQL these days.

It's a query language, kind of like SQL, that especially front -end app developers can use to pull together all the different stuff that exists in the backend into your app.

A typical screen in an app might have data from 20 different services or databases or backends on that screen.

And in the days before GraphQL, what we had to do is we had to build all these custom REST endpoints for every screen in an app just to pull that data and those services together.

And that really ends up being a really big burden when you're trying to build great apps quickly.

You're trying to ship them not just web, mobile, but also IoT and put it on the dashboard of your Tesla, all the places we want to put apps today.

GraphQL solves that problem by just letting you write a little query. You can query all your services.

You can join data cross services. And it's been growing super fast.

I think something like 83% of app developers in a survey say that it's either something they already use or their top technology that they want to learn.

And Apollo now has over 2 million downloads a week of our GraphQL implementation.

So it's a pretty cool technology if your cloud situation is getting more and more complicated, more and more services, more and more APIs, and your apps are getting more and more complicated and you want to build more and more apps and you want things to get easier and more fun rather than harder and more of a mess.

Awesome. So before we continue with the episode, I should let everybody know that I am also a shareholder because I used to work at what was Meteor.

And so this is like a two -parter question. One is you've made some recently exciting announcements.

And two, how has this company evolved over time since I was last there?

Oh, a lot. So it's a two-parter question, a big two-parter. Well, I mean, Jade's really modest.

She did amazing work at Meteor. So before we built Apollo, we built Meteor.js, which itself at the peak of its kind of GitHub stardom was one of the top 10 most starred projects on GitHub, thanks to our whole user community.

But I also think a lot to Jade for the great program you built. So we've had a long road as a team.

We built Meteor because we wanted to help app developers help the world.

We wanted to make app development easier, faster, and more accessible.

And Meteor, it's a great solution if you're building an app from scratch.

But more and more, in Meteor, there's a lot of things all put together, like it's a view layer, it's a data system, it's a package system.

When you put all those things together, you can get a lot of great results.

But Apollo is a way that we took all the lessons from Meteor, and we said that you can bring into any app.

So one of the big learnings is, let's make our technology really easy to adopt.

And let's really focus on building a broad-based coalition across the industry, understand everybody that wants a better way to get data to move from servers to clients, and just try to build a broad coalition to make that happen.

I think those are some of the philosophy changes or just evolution of our strategy and our market positioning.

But yeah, and that's led to, we recently announced, I think what you're referring to is our $130 million fundraising round we just raised, a little bit north of $1.5 billion valuation.

So I see that as a validation that GraphQL is really going somewhere.

You can count on this in your app, not just if you're building a small app from scratch, but people are putting it at the absolute center of the architecture of some of the world's highest traffic websites, some of the world's largest companies.

This is becoming the stuff that runs the whole world.

So look at it as a validation point that we have the resources to continue to invest in open source.

Look at it as a validation point that open source businesses can be very successful.

Look at it as a validation point that open source business models have evolved and matured.

So you can give away large amounts of stuff open source, make the community super happy, stay very close to the community, and you can still find ways to monetize in the enterprise.

So you can have very scalable, viable businesses.

So now that you have this funding round, what's on the roadmap for the next six months to a year and also in the far future?

Sure. So we have very clear guidance from the community, I would say, about where to go next.

And we're just going to keep on investing in building everything that the community needs to take the graph to larger and larger scales.

Like I said, our mission is to help app developers help the world. We think there's so much unrealized possibility and potential for what computers can do.

And it's a really exciting time because we spent decades and trillions of dollars as a species, like first just getting transistors to work and then turning them to CPUs and building the Internet and operating systems, mobile devices, the cloud, all this stuff.

Now we've gotten to the good part where this whole platform is in place, and you can build an app and you can deliver it all over the world to a billion people overnight.

You can scale that very efficiently.

So the platform's all there. Now the question is, how do we make it really easy for lots of different people to build all the apps they need, get through their feature backlog?

So some of the things that go into that are we're going to keep investing in open source.

We're just going to double down on the investments we're making in Apollo Client, Apollo Server.

We're going to bring Apollo Client deeper and deeper to more and more platforms.

We're making big investments in iOS and Android to go next to the JavaScript version of Apollo Client.

And then on the server side, our big focus is, so there's a really cool technology called Apollo Federation, which lets you build, it's really cool the idea that we'd have all of our different data and services on one unified graph.

So no matter which service I'm talking to, I have one place I can go to browse my whole schema across a graph that's being maintained by potentially thousands of backend developers, many, many services.

That idea of a unified graph where you have one view of your graph, or you can send a query to one place.

You've got a central query execution engine, query planner that can join data across all the sources.

That's what Apollo Federation can bring you.

Currently, it's something that often people use only in larger scale graphs.

And there's, depending on the data sources, it might be something you can get up and running very quickly.

You might have to write a little code.

Another big focus is Federation Everywhere. So we're going to make sure there's really great Federation support, really great database connectors for every possible data source and service that you'd want to put on your graph.

So I talked about the demand side, the client. I talked about the supply side, Federation Everywhere.

And then the third piece of the triangle is the management side.

We're going to continue to make it easier and easier to navigate enormous graphs, to coordinate the release process across many, many teams like, you know, REST API, you might update your REST API every two years.

And even then it's a big dramatic thing.

Like, you know, you're sending out emails to your mailing list. You're saying, everybody stop using the old version.

You hope the people that need to see that email aren't on vacation.

Data graphs, you know, the graph is something that can change, you know, a hundred times a day.

The tooling is so good around fitting into your continuous integration process and fitting into your editor and doing all the cross-checks between different teams that have foreign key references.

You really want a very agile perspective on your graph where it's constantly evolving.

And so we're just going to continue to soup up all the tooling around that.

We're going to offer better and better security controls. So you can like have really fine grained understanding in a central place, not distributed across every service in the most sophisticated, most demanding enterprise environments.

So that's kind of a high level roadmap. We're going to make it easier to use the graph.

We're going to make it easier to put stuff on the graph. We're going to make it easy to navigate and manage the graph.

Nice. That was a very well encapsulated.

So as you know, the viewership of the show and the channel and Kloppler TV in general is pretty similar to the Kloppler blog.

And so in terms of, you know, I assume you are probably going to go on, going to make some additional hires in the not too distant future after this funding round.

Is there anything you want to let the audience know about what, one, what it's like to work at Apollo and two, what you're currently hiring for?

Sure. I mean, I think a good way to get a flavor of Apollo is to talk about our four values.

Value number one, empowering others.

We set those up to do their best work. We want to do that inside and outside of the company.

Our mission is to help app developers help the world.

We see incredible promise and potential in technology.

You know, Apollo is a good place to come if you're really energized about the idea of building the tools that everybody uses to build apps or helping our enterprise champions get promoted.

You get great results when you bring in Apollo.

It's transformative for how your enterprise builds, you know, builds apps. We find people that can shift three years of their backlog in one year thanks to this technology.

So if you really get excited about opening doors for other people, creating new possibilities for them, you know, whether that's our customers, whether that's our open source users.

And if you want to have a culture that also brings that value into the company, where one of the things that I find most rewarding about my job is when people get great career outcomes at Apollo.

That culture of empowering each other is a really core part of what Apollo is.

Second, stewardship. We don't waste time, money, or opportunity. We have a limited number of days on this planet.

We have a big chance to help people. We have a big opportunity.

And we want to really put all of our resources at their highest and best use.

So, you know, I'd say it's not a fast-paced environment versus a low versus a money-efficient environment versus a whatever.

It's an environment that tries to capture every opportunity, make the best use of what we have because we feel that, you know, that urgency or even that competitiveness.

You know, it's like we want to, you know, create the most value, right, that we can.

Caring. Care for human well-being should be evident in everything that we do.

From our parental leave policies all the way through to our user interfaces, like, you know, the technology business has to be a human business, first and foremost.

We build all this technology to help people.

We don't build in a vacuum. And we want to be a company that leads the way in understanding how can we take tech beyond, hey, I got the box working, great, the black box works, I'm done, to what's the actual impact it has on people, on families, on, you know, us every day as human beings?

That's an important part of who we are. And finally, growth mindset. And by growth, I don't mean up and to the right, though things are up and to the right.

I mean, we have direct conversations. We're honest about problems.

You know, we name and face, you know, the things we need to fix. And we try to be a little bit better every day.

You know, our security should come not from, you know, being perfect today, but how we're growing every day.

And if that sounds appealing, like, I think this is going to be a really incredible opportunity for someone that fits any of our open roles.

And there's a lot of opportunities, like whether you want to do front-end engineering and back-end engineering, you know, in that case, you get to build technology that, you know, a very large fraction of developers are already using.

And, you know, it's going to be a standard thing that's taught in schools, really make your mark on the industry and solve some really interesting problems with a good team.

We're hiring for everything on the go-to-market side, you know, whether you are on the account executive side and you really help people, you love, you know, seeing your champions get promoted and everything that comes with that, or whether you're on the solution side and you love seeing how we can go into all these customer environments and really and really make it work on the ground.

There's some great opportunities there.

And then just about any business role you can think of, this is a great place to build a career in the business of tech because, you know, across roles, you know, from marketing to GNA to BD, you know, there's just a lot that needs to be done.

There's a huge opportunity. All of the Global 2000 are going to be on the graph.

It is a fundamental layer that's just gotten inserted in the stack, basically between the apps and the cloud on the back end.

That's a chance to be really at the center where the action is, where interesting business challenges are coming up every day.

And, you know, you can build a pretty cool career.

Awesome. That's a great pitch to our viewers. Of course, some of them are also in the aspiring entrepreneurs or current entrepreneurs group.

And something that I remember from one of the media retreats was you saying that that charting a course is this combination of intellectual debt reckoning and also knowing when to make course corrections.

And, you know, so to the viewers who are entrepreneurial, what advice would you give them on how do you know when to make a pivot or a course correction?

Yeah, I would say that everybody has their own style.

And a lot of this you learn from experience. I think that a lot of this is about, I think, finding a balance.

And I'm going to give you an answer that might be a little different from what you're expecting.

So I'm going to loop around to it in a second.

Maybe some of those are some of the best questions. You know, there's one side where you can be I think there's a lot of people that really just focus on executing on the next thing that's ahead of you.

And that can be a great way to make a lot of money, honestly, to create a company that, you know, you can get a good exit for.

And if you just focus on how do I solve customer, you know, today's customer problems today, take the next step ahead.

If you if you're very diligent about doing your market research, if you find the right people to work with, there's so many opportunities in tech that that's a that's a good way to get paid and build something that's valuable to people.

What you lose with that is if you do if you do do something that's like really transformative that like changes the course of history, it's going to be kind of by luck, right?

Because, you know, the vision piece, you know, is it can be easily get lost if you're just thinking about what comes next.

On the other hand, there's only thinking faster horses.

Yeah, exactly. You know, you can build a faster and faster and faster horse.

And, you know, that's that's important. Like we need the horses to be faster.

But at some point, what we need is an airplane. You know, it's like then there's also then there's people who kind of shoot for the moon and say, I have big vision and I see the way the world could be.

And that can be even more perilous because the vision approach is the harder way, because, you know, there's a reason the world isn't that way.

Like you're often 10 years too early or 100 years too early.

It's really striking the number of things that are, you know, the the top companies today, the biggest startup success stories that were tried in the 90s.

Oh, you mean like Webvan? For example, yeah. Who would ever want their groceries delivered?

And and we had a good like five, 10 years in there where everybody mocked those people for their obviously stupid idea.

No one ever want groceries delivered. What a proof point of the intellectual dishonesty and crazy excesses of the Internet era, which is now a closed book in the history section of the library.

The people that thought groceries would be delivered using apps, actually, I'm not even sure they had the app idea.

Probably a Web page at the time had the last laugh, but only too late to matter.

So it's really about being able to kind of merge the two things. You want to be able to have the perspective on the vision, but you also want to be paying attention to like the, you know, the ground underneath your feet.

And there's no single formula for that.

But I can tell you that in my experience, having met a lot of entrepreneurs and having walked this path myself, the number one thing that screws you up on that is really your own psychology, your own emotions, your own attachments.

So I think it starts, you know, this is the circling back to maybe a counterintuitive answer.

It starts with emotional self-awareness because the reason why people gravitate toward one of those other extremes, in my experience, having met a lot of people on these paths, is emotional.

Like it comes back to where you find your security.

It comes back to the times in your life that you've been validated and got a big win versus the, you know, things that kind of stressed you out that still kind of get your blood pressure up whenever you think about them.

It comes back to your associations about what you think you're good at, where you think you're going to find security, what's worked for you in the past.

So if you can do the work on yourself, which I think just starts with being, realizing that, you know, being aware of your emotions, being aware of, you know, your communication style with other people, being aware of the, you know, dynamics that you drive as a team, as a leader, then what you can do is you can both mentally prepare yourself to find that balance in a dynamic way in the moment.

And you can also build a team that will cover your blind spots, which brings me to my other point, which is building a diverse team.

Diverse across any number of axes, you know, demographically diverse, like we could talk about ethnicity and gender and, you know, demographic keys, but also just in terms of, you know, the functions, the backgrounds.

If you can really build that team dynamic, and if you can, you know, approach situations with prepared mind, you know, you don't become a great tennis player by reading a bunch of books about tennis.

I mean, that's probably one of the ingredients.

I'm not a great tennis player, so I don't actually know.

I think there's a certain amount of, you know, preparation you have to do for the, you know, the moments that arise.

And I think the balance is really found in those moments.

Speaking of team building, could you tell us the story of how you met your co-founders?

Oh my gosh. Now we're going way back into the archives. Let's see.

I think I moved into Matt's basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was 20.

We started Meteor and then Apollo, what, when I was 31.

So I, you know, I think the one, and we met through a mutual friend.

I dropped out of MIT after a term. I raised, you know, what today we'd call a seed round and started my first company.

And it was through, you know, somebody who joined my team at that company that I met Matt.

And I guess he just, he had graduated from MIT.

He got a job at a startup and they had to exit very quickly and he'd been able to buy a house with that money and he needed somebody to live with him.

And I think the thing that I did in that case, you know, my side of the story is I optimized for meeting people that were outside of my friend group.

Like it's, you know, I look back at it now and I can't really say that I made it too far out, you know, okay.

And another, like, you know, systems engineer at MIT, right.

But at the time, you know, having just dropped out of college and then, you know, feeling like a very small pixel in a much wider world, getting away from my LARPer friends and like moving in with the frat boy, I mean, MIT frat boy, I feel like a big step.

And I've just tried to always, you know, make that push to, you know, broaden my horizons.

I don't know how Matt would tell the story.

I think he, I don't know, I don't know why he chose me to be his housemate, but we worked on many things together.

He ran for Cambridge city council.

I was his campaign manager. We had many adventures and you know, he's a big, you know, big fintech, nonprofit fintech platform.

And then that got to the scale that, you know, he was able to put a management team in place there that was, you know, doing a great job.

And I was able to persuade him to come out to San Francisco with me and, you know, do this thing.

Yeah. So, you know, I think back to some of the advice that I've remember from both you and Matt, and I want to share some of that with the audience.

Well, like one that I frequently heard you say is like, make both kinds of mistakes, right?

Like both where you have too much of something and not enough of something.

And so, you know, where the line, where the other side of the line is.

And it, as a corollary of that, like Matt always said, when, you know, when you have a choice of two things that seem fairly similar in expected outcome or expected ROI, make the choice that gives you more information, right?

Can you, part one is like, can you elaborate on what that means? And part two is, you know, as PV said, like all advice is personal experience over generalized.

Is there a story that led to learning to that piece of advice?

I think, or I have a version of it, which is when in doubt, maximize learning.

And I, I actually said that.

That is good and succinct. Yes. I actually said that to Paul Graham at one point in time, and he looked at me thoughtfully and said that he wasn't quite sure that he agreed with that.

I think that maybe you should try it. No, I think, I think companies have a couple of different stages and there are stages where I I'll expand a little bit.

Yeah. I mean, I think many of the processes in the universe are about the interplay of divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Like divergent thinking is when you go try a bunch of stuff, have a lot of ideas and you're brainstorming, you're exploring you're, you're finding all the ramifications of ideas, many paths, many new ideas.

And that's absolutely essential to explore a wider field. And then convergent thinking is like, oh my gosh, like there's so many things scattered everywhere.

We have to turn it into a plan that we can execute on tomorrow, bring this back to what's really important, what we can execute on.

And I think, you know, if you're, I think you find, I think you need both of those things.

Typically the divergence before the convergence, I don't know if it would work the other way around.

And I think if you look around us in the world, you see so many places in nature where you see that same pattern of divergence followed by convergence.

Like it happens at both time and space.

Like if you think about how we grow up as people, you know, when we're, you know, kids will believe anything, like they'll, they'll try anything out.

And then over time we kind of focus in on, okay, what are the things we need to do every day to like build a successful career and support our family?

So I think in our lifetimes, there's a divergent period and a convergent period.

And you can choose to have more divergence, more convergence. I just think that's the shape of a lot of people's trajectories.

Or in our society, like academia is this super divergent environment.

We can do basic research. We don't need to create like results.

We deploy in society for many, many years, try lots of stuff, take a long time to do it.

That all fosters the divergent creative process.

And then startups, it's kind of more of a mix where it's like, we need to get results in a certain period of time, but we can explore things that wouldn't be explored inside the other structures in society.

And then you see these, you know, large optimized enterprises where it's about delivering efficiency at scale to the whole human race.

Everybody wakes up in the morning, they need their coffee and getting coffee to a billion people is a big job.

And, you know, we've, we've, we're sort of seeing the ultimate of convergence in how the super optimized structures that some enterprises have built to like really build the, you know, backbone of our society.

And you even see this process in nature.

Like if you're a blacksmith and you're trying to make a, like forge a sword, you manage the temperature of the metal, you know, you heat it up and that's the, that's the divergence where all the atoms are bouncing around.

And then, and then you cool it at the right time in the right way.

That's the convergence where cooling at the right speed, you know, creates this process called annealing where, you know, the, you can get a regular crystalline structure because the atoms get frozen in the right configuration.

You get like, you know, hard steel chocolate.

Yeah, there you go.

That's, that's a good Jade Jade comparison point. It's yeah. So I think in your company, you need to, as an entrepreneur, you need to manage those forces.

So there's the time that you need the divergence and there's the time we needed the convergence.

If you're stuck, you might need a little bit more divergence, but don't forget the convergence too.

I think if I think about our journey with Meteor and Apollo, we had a pretty big divergent phase.

Like we explored a lot of stuff and you know, we went big with the vision of what app development could be.

And now we are very much in the convergent stage for a while because so many people are on the platform.

They have so many needs. It's about optimizing like every single little piece.

And I think sometimes like the, try a little bit more of something, try a little bit less of something is one way to do that optimization.

Other times talk to your users, really listen. Uh, that's, uh, that's another way I would probably, you know, these days is my thinking has evolved.

I would probably say that the number one thing I would go to isn't when in doubt, maximize learning.

I think that's, I would say, you know, balanced divergence and convergence.

I'd say, um, the technology business is really a people business, uh, emotions and a sense of purpose.

Uh, and, and more things kind of in the heart plane, not just the head plane are at the heart of so much of what we do.

Um, so I think, um, you know, really, um, my number one piece of advice would probably be around really good, good at listening to people and empathizing with them.

If you can combine that with, uh, some technical ability and some system thinking ability, you will go far in this world because we have so many problems we need to solve in this world.

We have so many opportunities to solve them. Um, when you can see the system and all the pieces fit together and you have the hard skills with the technology, but you can also see the people and relate to them, uh, and understand their human needs that interface.

You know, if you think about those two circles, there's not as much overlap in between those circles as there needs to be in this world.

And, you know, so if you can get into that space, you're going to find a lot of opportunities to create a lot of value and have a pretty stupendous career, whatever direction you want to go.

And really contribute to making the society and the world function better.

Exactly. And that's where our industry has to go now because, um, you know, it's, it's, uh, this whole STEM thing, you know, science, math, technology, it's like the number of miracles that you can work is incredible.

You can walk on the moon, you can heal the sick, you can make the blind to see, you can fly through the air and metal twos powered by the blood of ancient dinosaurs.

I thought you might appreciate that one. Um, you know, all of our technology is bringing us, um, these miracles.

Like if you're a great technologist, you're like this wizard.

What's the first question that non-wizards have about wiz have about wizards.

They meet it's, are you a good witch or a bad witch?

That's going to determine how society treats you. And at some point there are enough wizards and they're powerful enough that it starts to become a major societal issue.

That's the stage of the magic hype cycle that we're at right now.

So I think every leader in technology needs to be thinking about your impact on society.

The have a great time. The people that try to push ahead, deploying technology into the world without thinking about, without empathizing, without caring, without understanding larger societal dynamics, they're going to face more and more headwinds from society.

So even more so in the past, that skillset is, is the number one thing that, uh, I would encourage every entrepreneur to develop.

And I do think it's something you can develop. Um, if you're smart enough to program a computer, you're smart enough to, you know, be a great listener and find, you know, um, really wonderful ways to relate to the people around you on both an intellectual and an emotional level.

And what a great note to end on.

Um, we're in our last 30 seconds. Thank you so much for joining us.

This has been a great episode. Awesome.

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Founder Focus
Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
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