Christian Beedgen, Sumo Logic — Founder Story

I didn’t choose to be an entrepreneur. As far as my personal life goes, I didn’t have a master plan. I wasn’t even planning on becoming a computer guy. On some level, maybe it was a combination of luck, intuition, and a willingness to take the next step when it presented itself without thinking it through too much.

For a guy who prides himself in having no master plan in life, Christian Beedgen seems to have been born with a knack for making all the right moves.

After teaching himself how to program as a teenager, Beedgen went from driving a cab in Germany to landing an internship at Amazon in the late 1990s, and in 2010, co-founding the data analytics firm Sumo Logic, where he works as the company’s CTO.

“I don’t know what it is, but I always thought it was fascinating that working with computers always felt like a recreational thing to me,” he recalled.

So much so that Beedgen now complains that he’s running out of things to do recreationally. That’s what happens when you wind up working at something that you also love doing — perhaps a Silicon Valley cliché, but Beedgen is living out the reality of that American Dream each day.

Q: Where are you from in Germany?

A place called Karlsruhe, which is relatively close to Heidelberg. It was a solid middle class background and probably one of the best places to grow up. A very solid upbringing, really.

Q: What did your parents do?

My mom worked in banking, but she stopped when I came around. My dad was a school principal who also ended up being the mayor of our village for eight years.

Q: You wound up studying Latin in school for seven years when you were a boy. What did you like about it?

Nothing, though I did learn Latin before English for what it’s worth. I was pretty much of an A student. I’m the only son and so putting time into school was a family focus.

Q: How did you wind up leaving Karlsruhe?

After finishing high school, you had to either do military service or civil service. So, I chose civil service and then I worked as a cab driver for a while. I was sort of floating around when, on a whim, I moved to Berlin with a few buddies. Next thing — and without much planning — I was at Humboldt University trying to figure out what to study. All the fancy stuff I couldn’t get into because I had completely destroyed my GPA in high school, having spent the last two years there doing anything but worrying about grades. So, I ended up studying sociology and political science.

Q: How did you get into computers?

I taught myself programming from books as a kid and later on wound up spending a lot more time during college on my Mac than doing papers about social science.

Q: And it also led you to a fateful decision. Can you talk about that?

I was enrolled to study digital media and computer science and that led to a couple jobs where I showed that I had some capability when it comes to this stuff. That helped me get an internship with a German company in the summer of 1996 — then Amazon bought the company and basically turned it into Amazon.de.

Q: And you did most of your internship in Seattle. But flying in for the first time to the US in 1998 you had a strange reaction.

I really didn’t want to land. I don’t do very well in places that I don’t know, and I had this classic social anxiety thing going on. When we flew into Seattle it was like, `Hey, this is real. And you somehow have got to figure this out.’

Q: Did you take the internship knowing — or wanting — to remain in the US?

Certainly not. I still had a half a year to go in school and my life was back in Germany.

Q: You wound up coming back to the US in March 2000 after you finished your exams. Was it hard to leave Germany?

It did hit me when my girlfriend — who today is my wife — drove me from our place in Berlin to the train station. Even though I didn’t have a forward-looking master plan, it seemed that something was on the way. She could clearly tell, and that’s when it went from no big deal to pretty heavy.

Q: Fast-forward to how you wound up in Silicon Valley.

I was involved with a startup in Miami, Florida that essentially was very similar to what Dropbox is doing today. But it was obviously way too early and then the bubble burst. We had tried raising money on one of our trips to the valley and pitched some VCs who were involved with ArcSight. Technical people are always in short supply and my resume was handed to folks over there and they called me one day. That led to an interview, and I joined ArcSight in 2001.

Q: After nine years at ArcSight, how did you know it was time to try something new?

There were a lot of things about ArcSight that were good and the work was challenging. But what always struck me was the delivery model. We basically gave customers the software and then left them hanging when it came to installing, administering, and dealing with those types of things. So, some poor soul at a company gets this code dropped on them and they were supposed to run it. It really wasn’t great for customers or for us as developers either. When things didn’t work, we would have to somehow remotely figure out why it didn’t work — debug by telepathy. So, it just became very time-consuming, very frustrating, and a not very efficient way to get people to use the system that we built.

Q: Thus, the idea came about to improve on the process. What was the basic idea behind what became Sumo Logic?

It was clear that this wasn’t very efficient and that the next wave would definitely be more of a service model. The people who built the code would run the code and you wouldn’t have a giant gap between developers and the users. Customers could simply use the product and not have to worry about how to administer and scale it. Nothing particularly brilliant — just observation and a bit of projection into where the space would go and how to solve the problem in order to be competitive. We were sure that the next big company in the space would work that way. So we decided, why not take a stab at it ourselves?

Q: Did you have an idea that you would one day start a company or was the 9 to 5 thing in your plans?

I didn’t choose to be an entrepreneur. As far as my personal life goes, I didn’t have a master plan. I wasn’t even planning on becoming a computer guy. On some level, maybe it was a combination of luck, intuition, and a willingness to take the next step when it presented itself without thinking it through too much.

Q: Could you have turned the idea for Sumo Logic into reality if you had remained in Germany?

I spent six years in Berlin before coming to the US and the city has lots of entrepreneurial talent and web businesses and now, even a bit of a VC crowd. But it would have been very, very, very hard for this to happen in Germany. When it comes to infrastructure for doing something like this, Silicon Valley is pretty outstanding. It’s where folks with ideas can meet people with money. That part is pretty magical, I have to say. The willingness for the investor to take a risky bet on a bunch of random dudes — that is something I have not really experienced in Germany.

Q: Does the experience of being an immigrant from Germany factor into your success here?

I’m clearly an immigrant, but I seem to always end up in situations where most everyone else in my core group is an immigrant as well. We were joking for years that there’s barely anyone with an American passport. But I never really felt different because of that. It’s a quintessentially Silicon Valley experience.

Q: You also wound up working at doing something that you’re passionate about.

I do realize that I have achieved quite a bit professionally and that’s not lost on me. I really love working with computers. It always felt like a recreational thing. I just love doing this. Not everyone gets to be in the position where their personal interests can be monetized in that way.

Q: Do do you still feel like a visitor?

I definitely feel that the US is my home. I love this place, and I love California. Flying into San Francisco International Airport, it feels like home, and I have no plans to go back to Germany. I’m still here on a green card, but I’m never really worried about that, though certain things have been going on recently that make me think some folks in this country want to view me as a visitor.

Q: What do you still miss about Germany?

I go back to see my parents once or twice a year. We used to live in the middle of Berlin, and it is just a wild place. It’s multicultural and something is always going on — bands and art and drinking — at all hours of the day. Downtown living — that’s one of the things that comes to mind.

Q: Are you a movie buff?

I like movies quite a bit. Fun fact: When I was still in high school, I worked as a projectionist in a theater in my home town. It had a huge screen and when “Terminator 2” came out, we were playing a 70-millimeter copy of it, and it was glorious. I remember seeing that every day for a week or so. Also, Lars von Trier’s “Dancing in the Dark” is still one of my favorite films of all time. That and “Lion King.”

Q: Do you have a favorite quote you live by?

I really love slogans, trust me, but life is really more complicated than that. I don’t run around quoting Roosevelt or something. But I’ll give you one that I find myself referring to — it’s attributed to Henry Ford, though it’s not entirely clear whether he said it. “If you ask people what they want, they’ll tell you they want faster horses but really what you need is a car.” As someone who basically has built products throughout my career, that always struck me as being quite insightful.

Q: Who do you most admire?

I’m quite fascinated by my dad. He came from a working-class background. His dad was a butcher. So, when he was 13, my dad started as an apprentice in the butcher shop. He ended up putting himself through night school. He somehow found a way to go to university, and he became a school principal. At the same time, he was politically active and ended up becoming mayor of our village. It was a voluntary position, so he worked a second job because he was driven. My mom deserves props as well. Here was this hyperactive husband, basically spending more time at school or the local political clubs, and she had me, a kid who was weird and rebellious. And I’m an only child. So, my parents really had their hands full.

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