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Chris Cardell

Interview with Zak Homuth (Upverter)

Upverter is a design and collaboration platform.

I interviewed Zak Homuth, Upverter founder to find out more. This is the hundred and thirty fourth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Zak!

Describe Upverter in under 50 words.

Upverter is a hardware design platform. We help you design your product and get it to market faster. Think Github for hardware / CAD in the web browser.

Describe yourself in one sentence.

I’m a hacker turned hustler, and my friends would probably say I’m a little bit crazy.

Tell us a bit about your background, from dropping out of high school to start a business, shutting down the business to go to University, taking various jobs overseas, to an electrical engineering job at Sandvine.

I grew up in a small town in rural Ontario called Exeter. My parents have this great big old house on the edge of a river valley, on the edge of town. There was this great big hill, a shallow river, a forest and if you went far enough eventually some farmer’s fields – and for me growing up meant leading my brothers on epic crusades and basically just running wild – think lord of the flies. And every summer the crusades became more outrageous, the creations got more elaborate, and we needed to find a way to fund it all.

I was too young to work so I began starting little businesses to fund our creations. Everything from landscaping to raising and selling chickens to cleaning golf clubs. Within a few years I hit my first big market – computer sales and service. I managed to grow the business to about 10 employees and even dropped out of high school to run it fulltime. In the end I decided there was more to life than a little computer business in a farm town and so I shut the business down, got my high school diploma and headed for the University of Waterloo to study Computer Engineering.

The program I was in was a co-op program where you alternate between school and work, and so I used it as an excuse to travel the world. I took jobs in India and Germany and made an effort to travel as much as I could.

A few years into University I got bored again. I really loved the work part and I really, really hated the school part. I wanted to do something bigger; Something different. And so I began working on my second startup. It ultimately failed but it taught me a lot about focus, margins and markets at scale.

Around the time my startup failed I had a co-op job at a company called Sandvine. I loved the work, the problems, and the hardware – and they were a startup. And so I eventually dropped out of University and began working at Sandvine fulltime. They taught me everything I know about hardware, and a whole ton about startups. All told, I spent 3 years working for them as a hardware engineer before I left to start Upverter.

What made you decide to leave Sandvine to start working on Upverter?

I had launched my second product at Sandvine, I had learned 95% of what I was ever going to learn, and I didn’t see the same potential there that I did when I started. I wanted to make the world a little bit better and startups are absolutely the best vehicle for that kind of large scale change – so I started one.

Introduce us to your co-founders. What roles do you each take?

My co-founders are Stephen Hamer and Michael Woodworth, two of my classmates and roommates from UWaterloo. Stephen and Michael are both incredibly talented engineers and architects and spend most of their time building product.

What appealed most about being your own boss?

For me it was getting to pick the problems that I spend my time solving. And I guess a little bit building the place I always wanted to work at.

Who uses Upverter?

Upverter is used across the spectrum – by hobbyists, academics and professional electrical engineers. Our goal is to be the best tool period. Not only the best tool for any one segment of users.

What technologies have you used to build Upverter?

Javascript, HTML5, Python, gEvent, Kyoto Tycoon, Flask, Protocol Buffers, nginx, node.js, ZMQ, Google Closure.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Upverter?

Pushing the limits of Javascript to do multi-editor, non-linear, graph editing in real-time through a web-browser.

How long did it take to put together Upverter?

We are 2 years old and still going strong! And the product has been under development for the whole time we’ve been going.

Where do you see Upverter in another 2 years time?

I see us crossing over from early adopters into the majority of the professional engineering market and growing hugely in employees, revenue and users. We will have finally proved that we really are the best way to design hardware and it will come down to an upgrade or die decision for our market.

Has Upverter got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Overwhelmingly yes. It’s been really great. Most importantly we learned where our product was broken and we’ve been working tirelessly ever since to patch the holes – you just can’t buy that kind of feedback!

Toronto has a great startup scene but you recently blogged that “Toronto is broken”. How can it be fixed?

I think there are a lot of problems with Toronto, but there are 3 really glaring problems that actually need to be fixed: the founder network is very weak, there are a ton of shitty small ideas, and there is a lack of experience at taking startups to scale.

I think the founders here need to celebrate each other’s successes here – we should be proud of what happens in our own backyard. There needs to be more trust, and more airing of dirty laundry. Right now there is just too much bragging and too much lying about everything being perfect all the time.

I think we need to do a better job of celebrating the big, transformative ideas and give a lot less credit to the clones. Yes, startups are hard. Yes, it’s still pretty impressive that you’re building one. But if you’re going to go through all the pain of starting a startup, please don’t build a clone of someone else’s business.

I think the last problem (scale) is the hardest. Fixing it, requires the first two problems getting a little bit fixed themselves. I think a stronger network and bigger ideas becoming bigger companies will help. I think we can incubate some great talent. And I think some of the small ideas will die and join forces with the bigger ones.

All told Toronto is a pretty awesome place to run a startup – we moved our business here from Mountain View for a reason – I just want to make it better.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Product, product, product. Nothing else matters unless the product is flawless. We have been killing ourselves to have the breadth and depth our users need to be firstly effective but secondly faster, than in any other suite of software. And I think we are finally almost there.

Who helped you get to where you are today?

YCombinator, our investors, and our mentors. Huge thanks to all of them.

Which entrepreneurs do you most admire?

Elon Musk: Big visions and a better world
Sir Richard Branson: Passion and hustle
Steve Jobs: Product and adversity

What one piece of advice would you give to soon to be startup founders?

Work for someone else’s startup first BUT make sure you quit and start your own! And don’t try and wait for the perfect moment either – it’s never easy, or comfortable – you just get used to it.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m super excited about our new product. It’s working great in trials and providing a ton of value to our alpha testers – I think its going to change the way people design hardware, again.

Finished reading? Check out Upverter!

This entry was posted on Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 9:32 am GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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