By Steve Hamm
All Samar Birwadker and Subbu Balakrishnan had was the germ of an idea for a product when they attended a startup workshop in San Francisco in April of 2012. But they met Joshua Krammes there, and he helped them think through the intricacies of turning their idea into a company—Good.Co Inc., which is now in the later stages of creating a cloud service for matching the personalities of job candidates with the cultures of companies they’re interested in working for.
Krammes advised them to learn the ropes of entrepreneurship in the TechStars program, and, later, after they launched the company, he helped out with a host of business issues. But Krammes isn’t a startup consultant or venture capitalist, like you’d expect. He’s an evangelist at IBM SoftLayer who runs the Catalyst program for startups.
Like programs offered by other cloud infrastructure providers, Catalyst offers one year of free cloud computing services to promising young startups. But Krammes and his team often offer more personalized attention as well, say Birwadker and other entrepreneurs. “Josh and his colleagues were more mentors than sellers of a service,” Birwadker says. For the Good.co founders, they have provided advice on strategy, employee issues and raising money from investors. Even further, Krammes and his crew provide a model for how to approach business. “It’s not about selling stuff. It’s about adding value,” Birwadker says.
The Catalyst program was launched in 2011. Today it has about 800 participants and 500 graduates—the vast majority of them now paying SoftLayer customers. So Catalyst is both an incubator for born-on-the cloud companies and a feeder for Softlayer’s business. IBM bought SoftLayer last year and is now helping Krammes and his team to expand the program.
Krammes has a track record as an entrepreneur. He co-founded a startup of his own and later shifted to running a non-profit before joining SoftLayer in 2012. So, how does Catalyst differentiate itself from the competition? “We the only one that’s run on a mentorship model,” he says.
When companies come into the program, they get a technical expert assigned to them to help them take full advantage of SoftLayer’s cloud services. They receive that person’s email and cell phone number. If anything goes wrong, they get immediate help. In addition, Krammes and his colleagues provide the kind of general startup advice that Birwadker found so valuable.
Good.co has now graduated from the program and is in the final stages of preparing its service for market. The company had four employees when it entered the Catalyst program but has 12 now.
Kristina Kerr Berman, a principal at the venture capital firm Ignition Partners, agrees that the Catalyst program stands out. “They really help companies get up and running,” she says. “It’s not just the technology. They help them figure out where their second, third and fourth customer will come from.”
For Ben Rigby, one of the co-founders of Sparked.com, which helps companies reduce customer churn using big data and predictive analytics, it was about the technology. The Catalyst program offered a deep technical relationship that has helped Sparked run software that’s extremely demanding of hardware resources. Catalyst made it possible for Sparked’s engineers to experiment with different computing components selected off of the SoftLayer menu. “Shortly after we joined, we landed a major bank as a customer,” says Rigby. “All of a sudden we needed an enterprise-grade computing infrastructure. Because of the Catalyst sandbox, we were ready to roll out quickly.”
IBM became a major player in the public cloud market practically overnight when it bought SoftLayer. The acquisition seems to have been a good match. IBM brought SoftLayer to the enterprise and SoftLayer carries IBM into the realm of born-on-the-Web startups. Now, in tandem, they’re moving aggressively to expand IBM’s role as a technology platform for other businesses. Just last week, IBM announced that SoftLayer will offer its Watson cognitive computing technology as a cloud services that other companies can embed in their own services or build apps upon.
So SoftLayer isn’t just a catalyst for startups; it’s a catalyst for IBM to become, potentially, a major player in the startup realm for the first time in its 102-year history. Who says you can’t teach old tech companies new tricks?