A colleague of mine, Alvin Cheung, recently interviewed Chris Schalick of GateRocket regarding his experiences in founding a high-tech startup company. That interview is reposted below by permission of both parties.
Chris Schalick is VP of Engineering, CTO, and Founder of GateRocket, Inc. After working in the ASIC and FPGA industry for more than 15 years, Chris founded the company to solve one of the fundamental problems with FPGA design, the ability to simulate hardware FPGA behavior within the design verification environment. GateRocket partners with the three major Electronic Design Automation (EDA) providers, Mentor Graphics, Cadence, and Synopsys, to be able to “plug-in” their hardware to the software simulation environment.
Alvin Cheung is currently a CAD Manager in the aerospace industry. Previously, Alvin worked at TI, Artisan Components and other companies doing ASIC and library development.
Alvin: Hi Chris. I want to start off by asking a couple of questions that are not necessarily related to FPGA technology but more towards a start-up company. I see that you founded the company in Oct. 2004. You were working for someone else before you decided to found your company. What made you want to start you own business?
Chris: Well, it is something that I always wanted to do as a kid. I love to build things. In the 15 years that I was an ASIC designer, I saw that when I went from ASIC to FPGA there were a lot of problems with debugging the FPGA. The parts that would work in simulation perfectly ended up not working in the lab at all. A lot of ASIC designers have the same issues going from ASIC to FPGA and there were not any tools out there to address this problem. I thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to do the debugging on the FPGAs.” That’s how I came up with the idea. I tested the idea with a couple of colleagues and founded the company. Our RocketDrive builds on the idea of using a logic analyzer in the lab and puts it at the finger tips of the designers doing functional verification with a simulator. You don’t have to reprogram the FPGA over and over again, troubleshoot, and recode your design.
Alvin: Did you find that you needed to adapt from your engineering skills to marketing or sales skills? Did you find that a challenge and a difficult transition?
Chris: In a small company you have to do a lot of things. In the beginning, I had to do everything from calling the customers, talking to the vendors, talking to partners and talking to investors. You’re right in that most engineers don’t have a lot of skills in those areas. I had to learn a lot by trial and error.
Alvin: Do you see a change in lifestyle since you started the company? Is it worthwhile?
Chris: I worked at several start-ups before starting GateRocket. I’m used to working long hours and with a small group of people. Over time, working focused hours with a small group can be more productive than larger groups with more resources. Our company has had its up and downs; keeping a positive attitude and going back to do the right thing is the most important thing.
Alvin: I see that you’ve secured your funding from venture and angel investors. Was it difficult to secure the Series A funding? Did the VC require you to change your plans? Were there a lot of obstacles?
Chris: Raising money is trial and error. The process is always lengthy but not necessarily an obstacle. There are always people who will say “No” and want you to address “one more” thing, but addressing it does not necessary mean that they’ll invest or that you will succeed. All you really need is the one “Yes” from the right guys and you can’t be concerned about the “No’s”. As far as the obstacles, they always want more data, analysis, financial projections and references. Those things are not unreasonable and you do your best to provide them with the information. When I put my own money on the line, I ask for the same things.
Alvin: How long did it take you to develop the “RocketDrive? Is it your first product?
Chris: Yes, the “RocketDrive” is our first product and our only product. It took me 18 months for the first prototype and since our first prototype we have dramatically enhanced the hardware. It took us 2 ½ years to ship our 1st production unit and we worked closely with our customers and partners to develop the product. We are in our 5th year and shipping units. We are constantly improving the product and continue development of RocketDrive as a platform and new software products that run on it. Stay tuned!
Alvin: What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
Chris: Hmm… I would say the ability to maintain focus. Things don’t always go the way you want. Many things that you don’t expect to happen will happen. You have to maintain focus and go back and look at problems from another angle. The second would be the ability to stay positive. You just keep your chin up and tell yourself you can do it. The third would be imagination. Sometimes the right answer is not obvious. There’s a saying that, “You have to think outside the box.” You really do to succeed. You need to see things from many different angles and sometimes the right answer is not the obvious one. Our first prototype was nothing like what we currently ship.
Alvin: What is your favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Chris: You know the saying that, “You have to play big to win big.”? Well that’s true. From the creative aspect, I’ve always liked to build things and starting a company provides a unique chance to build things that you might not otherwise be able to. Of course money is also a big factor. Although there’s no guarantee of financial success, it certainly is a motivator. I would say it is the combination of the two.
Alvin: Was there a lot of trial and error with your product? Do you find yourself in situations where there is already a competitor out there that has similar technology? If yes, how did you differentiate them from your product?
Chris: There was a huge amount of trial and error. Success is always a trial. Sometimes the answers are not obvious. You have to be persistent and look outside the box. You keep looking for the solution until your find the answers. Our current model looks nothing like our original prototype on the inside. On the outside with the simulator, it looks the same. But on the inside, everything has changed. We believe we are the first product in the market that does logic simulation directly with the FPGA. So, no, there is no direct competition. There are alternatives to develop FPGAs – build a prototype, program the FPGA, take it to the lab, connect it to the logic analyzer and hope everything works according to what you simulate with your RTL and testbench. What we are doing is changing the design flow and people’s concept of verifying the design. You can debug your design on actual silicon before you take it to the lab.
Alvin: How is your company adjusting to the current economic downturn? Did you have to downsize or change your priorities to adjust?
Chris: The environment looks bad on the surface, but people are still working on FPGAs. Some people have fewer dollars to spend, but we are still getting positive feedback with our product and we are selling more of them. We certainly have lots of activity lately with our product due to the growing size and number of FPGA designs.
Alvin: Actually in the current economic climate, would people choose FPGA over ASIC?
Chris: Yes, you are right. With the cost of the ASIC process, more and more people are looking to see how they can fit their designs in FPGAs instead of ASICs. With FPGAs getting larger and design technology getting smaller, more and more designers are choosing FPGA for their designs.
Alvin: I’m going to ask my last question of the interview and don’t want to take too much of your time. So I’m going to end with asking, what is your next step? Where do you see the company going from here?
Chris: Though our company is still growing, we are looking for ways to become the household name when it comes to FPGA development. We are demo’ing to customers and showing them the actual behavior of the simulator on silicon. We are working to craft the message and to expand our presence in the market. We are developing our online presence. We are going to DVCon, FPGA summit, and DAC, and really our best marketing is from “word of mouth”. We want our customers to be successful and in turn we can become successful.
Alvin: Do you think you would IPO or get the company to be on a merger/acquisition deal anytime soon?
Chris: In this environment, I don’t think it is the right time for an IPO. We are focusing on our customers, enhancing the product and expanding our market presence.
Alvin: Ok. Well, thank you for letting me take a big chunk of your time from your busy schedule. Thank you so much for the interview.