A Slice on Graham Neray, Co-Founder and CEO of Oso
Who knew that attending user conferences would springboard a business idea so amazing that there is a successful business built around it? That is exactly where and how the genesis of Oso happened. When Graham Neray, currently the Co-Founder and CEO of Oso, used to be the Chief of Staff to the CEO of MongoDB, one of his responsibilities was to attend developer/user conferences across North America. These conferences used to happen in relatively small cities and had about 50-100 attendees. What thrilled Neray was when people recognized the MongoDB logo on his t-shirt or backpack and called out to him just to say, “Hi!”. This drove home that fact, in Neray’s words, “There was no specific goal besides just to say hi, which I was totally floored by. It really stuck with me, and what I took away from it was if you take an area of friction for developers and you make it go away, then really special things can happen. So, I decided that I was going to start a company for developers.”
Of course, it wasn’t an easy path to tread. He chose to strike out on his own just about when MongoDB had gone public and stocks were rising. A lot of people cautioned him against leaving. Paired with the fact that they had additional family responsibility, his daughter was about a year old when he decided to resign. It was a risky move, one that must have required a lot of conviction, courage and spousal support, all of which Neray had in spades. So, he made the move, and the rest is an exciting story.
While thinking about starting up, one of the challenges Neray faced was finding a co-founder who resonated with him on important aspects like the vision, the culture and credo; and compatibility to work well on a day-to-day basis. After all, they were about to start a company that was going to take away areas of friction for developers, how would they do that if they had areas of friction between themselves? He found that in Sam Scott, his now co-founder. As most successful entrepreneurs would say, co-founders need to resonate with each other, and yet, complement each other. So, while Scott brings in the tech expertise (he has a Ph.D. in Cryptography and a background in security), Neray brings a strong marketing and commercial edge to the table. Over coffee, in Bryant Park, NY, the vision of putting security in the hands of developers was born.
A lot of times, life throws you a curveball, and this seems to happen more often than not in the case of startups. So, while they did start with a focus on DevOps and infra-security, they discovered that their customers had a much longer wish list. The customers wanted more, and they also wanted to understand how they could tweak Oso’s current line of offerings to suit their peculiar needs. When most of your customers say this to you, you know it is time to go back to the drawing board and rethink things. This is the moment entrepreneurs call “the pivot”. Both the co-founders chose to listen to what their customers were saying, were asking for, and decided to go with it. This, according to Neray, was one of their wisest decisions. To sum it up, Neray says, “The experience going through that happens over a period of many months. You come into it with a strong hypothesis, you’re at once both trying to prove your hypothesis and trying to listen for new feedback. It’s very, very hard to do those things at the same time and continue to stay motivated and continue to stay upbeat.” Of course, as important as it is to listen to people, it is equally important to know what to ignore. The challenge for most entrepreneurs is what to listen to and what to not, for that goes a long way in defining the success of the venture.
Building the right people equations is yet another factor that defines the success a business achieves whether between the founders, the team members or with the customers. At Oso, it started off with the founders. Since they did not know each other previously, what helped Neray and Scott was the time they spent together bonding. Equally important was the leap of faith that they took, which of course, built and strengthened their relationship along the way. It also helped that both could joke with each other.
Funding, an area fraught with difficulties for a lot of startups, didn’t prove to be one for Neray. He credits that to the investment climate right now. “I think it has to do with the capital environment right now. There’s so much money flowing around, it’s kind of like a founder’s market. I think in the seed round, we had a pretty compelling story to tell, around a co-founder pair, one of whom was technically-oriented, and the other was market-oriented with track records in their respective domains and a plan for what they wanted to go do. And, we were in!” By the time it came to round 2 of fundraising, the team had grown from two to eight, they had one successfully accepted product, a pivot that brought in a lot more success and a good and solid growth trajectory, all music for an investor’s soul.
A sage piece of wisdom Neray would like to leave with aspiring entrepreneurs is, to do what is necessary for all aspects of the business and to remember the key focus should be on customers. That’s the only thing that matters, happy and satisfied customers. His dream is to see people reaching out to him, recognizing Oso’s bear logo like they did when he used to wear a MongoDB t-shirt. He wants people to call out to him because of the value and ease they have been able to bring into the lives of their customers. For Neray, creating something out of nothing and having this level of positive recognition means everything. This, for him, is success and the reason he remains motivated.
Graham Neray received his B.A. in Political Science from Brown University. He started his career as a Business Analyst at Cartesian before joining MongoDB for six years. He co-founded Oso in 2018 and has mentored at places including Techstars and iMentor. Connect with Neray on LinkedIn.