Eva Schönleitner’s journey to becoming CEO of Crate.io was a long one. She’s held the position for over a year so far at an organization that, as she puts it, is “basically a deep tech software company.”
Crate was founded in Austria in 2013, operating in a sort of “stealth mode” for roughly four years before going fully public in 2018. Crate.io has grown greatly in that time: They are now headquartered in San Francisco, with multiple subsidiaries under them in Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Originally from Austria herself, Schönleitner spent some 25 years of her life working in the United States. A student of chemistry and mathematics with an MBA, she has worked for such tech giants as Microsoft, VMware and ABB. She says, “I started out in consulting [for] six years and then moved into the software side. I’ve been in the software side the rest of my life, pretty much.”
Schönleitner’s Start in Digitalization and Her Position with Crate.io
In 2014, Schönleitner began seeking positions outside of the usual companies she worked for, instead looking for a place with a start-up. She found two possible positions in Austin and Seattle, but it was the third offer that truly piqued her interest. A former superior of hers from her time working with Deloitte contacted her with an intriguing opportunity: He was working for a major industrial company in Europe that was in the early stages of a digitalization initiative.
Schönleitner says, “[They were] basically looking for technology people, software people, enterprise people to create and build digital solutions and start digitalization globally…I spoke to CDO or Digital Leadership team and realized my skillset from the software industry could bring great value to ABB as an industrial company.”
Schönleitner’s multinational and multilingual background would turn out to be an enormous boon for this particular position: The company was headquartered in Switzerland where German is the spoken language (albeit Swiss German). In her words, they told her “You really should be moving [from California] to Switzerland. It is the headquarters of the company, and you can connect the business leaders closely with the digital team even if the rest of that team is in San Jose.”
Though this conflicted with her intentions to join a start-up or begin one of her own, she was intrigued by the offer and felt that she could bring significant value to the team. While there, her team’s role was to build up the company’s technology partnerships.
For companies like ABB to accelerate digitalization, she says, “Either you buy technologies, or you align with technologies. Alignment is where my team came in to form these partnerships and ensure that the technologies get integrated into a technology stack that [the company] ABB could then, with the various divisions, build solutions on top of.”
One of the technology partners she worked with was Crate.io, who was offering a specialized database for her employer at the time. When it came time for Schönleitner to either move to another role in her current company or explore external opportunities, Crate.io presented a compelling offer. “One of the options that I was approached about was to take on the leadership at Crate, and after looking at it quite in detail, I found it was quite a match—not just the location, but it matched what I was looking for, my skillset and what I could bring to the company.”
The Digitalization of Manufacturing Companies and How CrateDB Factors In
According to Schönleitner, the key with any software system implemented into a manufacturing process is stability. “As soon as a solution gets applied in a live system, you need to have extremely high uptime. You can test some things prior, but once it goes into production, it needs to be super stable. It also needs to connect with a lot of different applications, including older systems.”
The key then becomes how to integrate hardware pieces that stay in for a long period of time with software that becomes obsolete, on average, within 5 years of its implementation. Schönleitner uses the following metaphor: “Think of elevators: You’re not going to change the elevator every year. The hardware stays in there for a long time, but the solutions on top of it you want to change, adapt and integrate and always make [them] better. You’re not going to swap the whole elevator frequently.”
Herein lies the value that CrateDB brings to manufacturers with digitalization initiatives, which necessitates adding software on top of the hardware companies already have. She says, “Crate is a database technology for digitalization. It’s basically a data hub, like the engine of a car that makes it run…I can say with confidence because our software has been commercial for almost four years, that what we have is super solid. And now we are just building out basically in terms of functionality, interoperability and making sure we have a broad partner ecosystem.”
Schönleitner’s Advice on SaaS Businesses and the Process of Scaling
Although she herself is not a SaaS founder, her experience and knowledge when it comes to business can’t be denied. Like her views on software implementation, Schönleitner believes that any successful business must start with a solid foundation.
She says, “What is the core value you’re bringing to the customers, to the market? In our case, the core value is technology. Everything else is prettying it up and making it easy to consume and to like…So by default, the strategy needs to be evolving around ensuring that we maintain the technical leadership around our core competencies. And I strongly believe this also helps in terms of recruiting and retention.”
In her opinion, it’s important for any business—especially a start-up—to make sure that what they offer is the best on the market in some regard. “You need to have something. If technology is the leading factor, it needs to be better than what everybody else has in that area. Either it is new, or it is better, or it is cheaper.” Early on, Schönleitner says that nailing down a unique product and the right people will help to cultivate a successful, scalable business.
As a business moves forward and expands, Schönleitner strongly believes that it should always hang on to its core and build around it. Beyond that, the next step is commercialization. “That’s why I was hired, to basically scale out the company. First, you need to have a core USP (unique selling proposition). If you are just bluffing, customers will see that very quickly, so you need to have a unique offer that is compelling.”
When it comes to scaling, Schönleitner recommends properly identifying who the buyer for your product is and developing the best strategy for targeting that ideal buyer.
“Really hone in on who your buyers are and [become] well known with that buyer. In our case, the buyer was two people: We have users, and we have buyers. The users are developers because it’s a database. And the buyer is, I would say, heads of analytics, heads of machine learning, digital officers, data officers. It is basically the managers, not the users themselves. So you need to know who [your buyer] is and how you’re going to address them.”
Creating a successful business that offers something unique and in demand is no easy feat, but it certainly isn’t impossible. As evidenced by Schönleitner’s success building out Crate.io, nearly any business can succeed with a solid, distinctive product, a strong core foundation and a splash of commercialization to help market and scale.